The twelfth and thirteenth centuries: Occupations and distribution of wealth

Pages 41-47

A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.

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Occupations of the Citizens and the Distribution of Wealth

York's attraction for immigrants was related, of course, to the economic activities of which it was a focus. The very fact that it was an important centre of population made the city a market for consumption goods. Fishing in the local rivers was a means of livelihood, for one of St. William's miracles was to restore to life a fisherman's son who had been half a day in the Ouse after falling between two boats. (fn. 1) There were buyers for wine in the 12th century, for vintners were amerced for breaches of the assize; (fn. 2) the East Riding is mentioned as a source of grain supplies in 1106; (fn. 3) and the carrying services to York owed by the Templars' tenants at Allerthorpe (E.R.) in 1185 may well have served for the carriage of corn to the city. The very considerable quantities of grain needed to provision the city made mills in or near it a valuable form of real estate. William Espec owned one in the 13th century situated on The Mount near St. James's Chapel; but most is heard of the mills below the castle held by Niel Daubeney in Henry I's reign and later by the Templars. (fn. 4) The records of the 13th century fill out this picture of York as a market for foodstuffs. In 1226 the town defences were being built with the aid of a toll on horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats, some of which doubtless found their way to the butcher's stalls in The Shambles. The Lardiners drew some of their income from butchers, bakers, corn-merchants, and the Foss Bridge fishmongers—revenues later received by the city together with charges on wine sold in York; and in 1300 we actually catch a glimpse of pack-horses loaded with grain coming up Walmgate on their way to the city markets. (fn. 5)

York, however, was more than a centre of consumption. It was also a market for raw materials and a centre for collection and distribution. The archbishop's fair, and the two fairs held by the city in the 13th century, were doubtless particularly important in this connexion, (fn. 6) but the intermediary role of the city in trading activities extended beyond the fair-days. The men of The Ainsty sometimes bought corn and salt in York; (fn. 7) and York merchants sold in country places goods manufactured in the city or imported from abroad—cloth, swords, furs, and wine at Harewood, or Otley, or Malton. (fn. 8) Hides were in all likelihood sold in the city both to York leather-workers and to exporters; woad both to York and country dyers; and North-Riding lead was certainly being sold in York in the reign of Edward I. (fn. 9) The city, in brief, was playing the part of a regional entrepô.

By the end of the 13th century, at the latest, this was particularly the case in connexion with the wool trade. The most profitable source of revenue enjoyed by the city at that time was a toll of 1s. per sack on wool entering or leaving the city. Between Easter and Michaelmas 1292 this charge was levied on some 950 sacks, nearly half of which had actually been bought in York. At the same time, it is important to notice that the main purchasers paying this toll were Italians, though there were also some German, Flemish, Brabançon, and French merchants and a few Englishmen, including Adam Benet from Leicester. (fn. 10) Their presence in York may serve to remind us that it was a port as well as a regional market, and that it had far-reaching connexions. The narrative of the foundation of Selby Abbey (c. 1069) tells of a coastal vessel sailing to York from Lyme Regis, (fn. 11) and a miracle of St. John of Beverley implies that York men traded to Scotland in the 12th century. (fn. 12) William of Malmesbury, too, speaks of ships from Germany and Ireland in York harbour. (fn. 13) The connexion with Ireland may explain the presence of Alan, Joceline, and Randulf of York among the early settlers in Dublin, and the failure of a York man to appear before the king's justices in 1231 because he had gone to Ireland before a writ was sued out against him. (fn. 14) By that time, however, notices of foreign traders are becoming increasingly frequent: Flemish merchants are mentioned on a number of occasions, Bretons in 1232, Frenchmen in 1242, Italians as early as 1256 and frequently in the reign of Edward I. The Italians included the Riccardi, from whom Archbishop Romeyn, among others, borrowed money. (fn. 15) Perhaps alien competition was becoming a problem for local men, for in what appears to be a petition of the early 14th century, the citizens ask that foreign traders should not be allowed to stay more than 40 days during any one visit to York. (fn. 16)

The diversity of York's trade during this period should not, however, be overstressed. Most of it, whether in the hands of York or alien traders, was probably directed to the Low Countries. The corn exported by William Selby in 1166 most likely went to Flanders; (fn. 17) Hugh Selby and Adam Flur early in the 13th century certainly exported wool to the Low Countries, though they also imported wine from Anjou. (fn. 18) The same is true of the wool and hides York men were exporting through Hull at the end of the century. Their contribution to the trade of that port was not at this stage particularly notable. In 1275 only four York men were engaged in it, and they dealt in no more than thirteen sacks of wool and a last of hides. Even in the 1290's there seem to be only from six to a dozen York merchants involved, but more like 20 in 1303–4. At no time do they appear to have handled more than some 5 per cent. of the wool passing through Hull, although a few of them were in a fair way of business, including Ranulf Wyles who shipped 55 sacks in the summer of 1298, Thomas Aguiler, and John Graa who shipped 27 sacks in the summer of 1299 and 37 in the winter of 1303–4. (fn. 19)

This tentative participation in the wool trade did not, of course, exhaust the commercial ventures of York traders. York men are to be found at St. Ives and Boston fairs or at Lincoln market, just as Lincoln or Carlisle merchants are to be found in York. (fn. 20) So far as long-range commerce is concerned, however, two things are evident. First, York was becoming increasingly dependent upon port facilities at Hull, where the bailiffs were ordered in 1230 not to impede merchants of York loading or unloading their goods for purposes of trade in England or Flanders. (fn. 21) Indeed, in 1203–4 York ranked only seventh among the ports of the south and east coasts—already well behind Hull, which was intercepting much of the trade which might once have gone to Hedon, Selby, and York. (fn. 22) Secondly, it seems clear that, even at the end of the 13th century, long-range commerce did not dominate the preoccupations of the citizens of York. There were a few men in a considerable way of business, but their activities were dwarfed by those of foreign merchants. Most of the citizens had narrower horizons. They were concerned with the local or, at best, the regional market of the city and its hinterland. Even where they showed jealousy of the foreigner, they were not concerned with his role as an exporter, but with his competition on their own home ground.

There exists only one source which permits us to see with any degree of precision the place occupied by the trader in the city community: that is the entries for the 767 men admitted to the freedom of the city during the reign of Edward I. (fn. 23) The occupations of only 452 of these men are stated, but assuming that this information is omitted proportionately for all trades, craftsmen engaged in the leather trades were numerically the most important group in the city, representing 30 per cent. of the freemen. Men engaged in the provision trades were about equally numerous (29 per cent.), and the rest of the freemen fall into the following categories: metal crafts, 17 per cent.; commerce and shipping, 10 per cent.; textile crafts, mainly tailors, 7 per cent.; miscellaneous occupations, 5 per cent.; and building crafts, 2 per cent. These figures show, at least, that the average freeman was not a merchant, but a craftsman; and they are, moreover, broadly consonant with the impression left by the witness lists of 12th-century charters in which leather-workers again seem particularly prominent, and provision traders and metal-workers fairly numerous. There is, however, one point of contrast between the 12th- and late-13th-century evidence. At the earlier date textile workers—weavers, dyers, fullers, tailors, and felters—appear to be scarcely less numerous than members of the leather crafts. In the reign of Edward I, on the other hand, no weavers or dyers at all were admitted freemen; and the cloth industry was represented only by 2 chaloners, 2 drapers, 3 fullers, and 3 hosiers. It is true that other records do speak of weavers (fn. 24) and dyers (fn. 25) in 13th-century York, and of a shearman apprenticed there in about 1307; (fn. 26) but there is little doubt that the industry was in low water during this period.

This had not always been so. In 1163 Henry II had conceded to the weavers of York the right to have a guild and, together with the weavers of other demesne boroughs in Yorkshire, a monopoly in the county of making dyed and striped cloth. For this, they paid a farm of £10 yearly down to the end of the century. (fn. 27) In 1202, however, they failed to pay anything at all, paid only £5 in 1203, nothing again in 1204, and by 1214 had accumulated a deficit of £60. (fn. 28) It may be significant that in 1202 York, along with many other towns, fined with the king for exemption from the assize of cloth and for leave to buy and sell dyed cloth as they had done under Henry II. (fn. 29) Perhaps this licence covered the right of York merchants to purchase the products of an expanding country industry which, possibly along with the import of Flemish cloth, was undermining the prosperity of the city textile industry.

The weavers, at any rate, continued to find that times were lean; and their arrears at the Exchequer mounted from £80 in 1219 to £420 in 1273 and to £780 in 1309. (fn. 30) Yet their guild apparently continued to exist. In 1227 it procured a ban on the weaving of dyed cloth outside the city, and in 1304 on cloth manufacture in places other than those specified in Henry II's charter. (fn. 31) These orders, however, are themselves an indication of the difficulties faced by the city industry, and of the rural competition that was a major cause of them. Yet, curiously, it is in the 13th century that York cloth (if that is the correct translation of panni Jarrexe) is heard of in the markets of Genoa. (fn. 32) These notices, however, do not go beyond 1261; and the possibility that the reference is to cloth distributed by York merchants, rather than to cloth made in York, must not be overlooked.

There is much less information about the remaining York crafts at this period. A few other guilds are mentioned: in 1180 the glovers, saddlers, skinners, and hosiers had formed such associations without the king's blessing; and the butchers, and possibly the drapers and vintners, had guilds before the end of the 13th century. (fn. 33) In general, however, industrial organization in York is undocumented before the 14th century.

The juxtaposition of merchants trading on some scale and weavers too poor to become freemen indicates that there were considerable differences of fortune among the inhabitants of 13th-century York. No materials survive which permit a precise analysis of the distribution of wealth; but some pointers emerge from the records of a tallage levied in 1204. Out of a total of £373 the sheriff accounted for £161, perhaps made up of a fair number of small payments from small men. Thirty-two men, however, were listed individually as contributing a total of £212: of these 10 paid £10 or more, 4 from £5 to £10, 3 from £1 to £5, and 15 under £1. (fn. 34) This suggests that men with moderate substance were relatively few, and men with considerable wealth very few indeed. This again is what might be expected of a community in which most men were craftsmen working for a restricted market.

It is, however, the wealthy rather than the poor who emerge even in the slightest degree from anonymity at this time; and it is only possible to say anything of the sources of wealth of a comparatively limited circle of fairly wealthy men. It is clear in a number of cases that trading profits contributed to their substance. The voyages of such early 13th-century civic notables as Hugh Selby and Adam Flur have already been noticed; and earlier still William and Robert Selby (probably Hugh's grandfather and father) had traded in corn and wine. (fn. 35) Likewise Nicholas Langton, twice mayor, and founder of a great civic dynasty, and Robert Bromholme, at least four times mayor, exported wool to Flanders in 1272; (fn. 36) John Graa, who established another civic dynasty, was a wool exporter on some scale; (fn. 37) and Adam le Cerf, twice mayor at least, dealt in surplus royal wine. (fn. 38)

Considerable wealth and trading activities, then, are often associated; but even merchants did not place all their investments in trade. Peter of Appleby exported wool, bought wool in York for an alien merchant, and sold furs to Sir William Barton of Oswaldkirk (N.R.). (fn. 39) At his death, however, he was also found to be possessed of 4 messuages, 4 tofts, a shop and 46s. 8d. rent in York, and 2 messuages in Hull; and some, if not all, of this property had been acquired by Peter himself and not inherited. (fn. 40) Hugh Selby, likewise, had real property in St. Denys's parish, in Ousegate, Coney Street, Goodramgate, and Fossgate. He also owned jointly with another a stone house in Micklegate, which was let for 33s. 4d. yearly. (fn. 41) Still earlier, Hugh son of Lefwin, one of the larger contributors to the tallage of 1204, had a considerable amount of property in Coney Street, including the stone house in which he lived, and also in Ousegate, Marygate, North Street, and Hertergate (now, in part, Friargate). (fn. 42) These instances may suffice to show the importance of investment in property by the wealthier citizens, and of city rents as an element in their income.

Investment in property, however, did not stop at the city boundaries. Hugh son of Lefwin and another held Cornbrough (N.R.) in pledge while its holder was engaged in the Third Crusade; (fn. 43) and even earlier Hugh's father-in-law, William Tickhill, was enfeoffed in Askham Richard (W.R.), doubtless again in return for a crusading loan, by Roger Mowbray. (fn. 44) Hugh Selby, too, acquired holdings in High Hutton (N.R.), Escrick (E.R.), and Osgodby (E.R.); (fn. 45) and many others of his kind followed this example, sometimes with the consequence that a city family migrated to the countryside. William Fairfax, reeve of York early in the 13th century, established himself at Walton (W.R.), (fn. 46) and Robert Clarevaux planted his family at Croft (near Darlington) where Thomas his son throve to knighthood. (fn. 47) Gace de Chaumont (mayor 1255) similarly founded a county family seated at Colton (W.R.); (fn. 48) and both Gilbert Louth and John Sampson accumulated considerable country estates and were knighted in the reign of Edward I. (fn. 49)

In a number of instances this rural investment was initiated by loans to country landowners. It was in this way that Hugh son of Lefwin and William Tickhill obtained a lien on Cornbrough and Askham Richard; and money-lending seems almost a profession for Sir Gilbert Louth, mayor in 1278, 1282, and 1284. In 1276 he obtained the manor of Scoreby (in Gate Helmsley, N.R.) from Robert Percy for a yearly rent of £30 of which twelve years was to be paid in advance; in 1280 he and John le Specer (another mayor) held Percy's manor of Carnaby (E.R.) for six years as security for a loan of 250 marks; around 1284 he secured in like manner a hold on some of Ernal Percy's lands in Kilnwick Percy (E.R.); and at his death in 1288 he was holding in Ormsby and Cargo Fleet (both near Middlesbrough, N.R.) of William Percy of Kildale (N.R.), once again as security for a loan. (fn. 50) He seems to have acted, in short, as something like the private banker of the Percy family, an activity which helped to turn him into a country gentleman.

It would seem, therefore, from these glimpses of the ruling class of York, that we ought not to draw too sharp a boundary between the city and the surrounding countryside. At any given moment, in all probability, a considerable proportion of the rank-andfile inhabitants of the city would be recent immigrants with rural roots and rural kinsfolk; and the richer amongst them found country property an attractive investment which led some of them eventually to settle permanently in the countryside. Yet the conclusive character of such a break with the city can also be exaggerated. The first Sir Thomas Clarevaux of Croft married a daughter of Henry de Seizevaux, Mayor of York, and John his brother, who succeeded to the estate, the daughter of Adam le Cerf, another mayor. Thomas established a chantry in All Saints', Pavement, for the souls of his father and mother; John arranged in certain circumstances to be buried there; and both retained their father's stone house in St. Saviourgate. Yet another brother, William, lived out his life as a citizen of York in St. Martin's parish, Micklegate. (fn. 51)

Not all the wealthy, however, withdrew to the country; the history of the Selby family suggests another characteristic of the ruling class during this period. William, Robert, and Hugh, its early representatives, were all engaged in commerce, Hugh at least on a considerable scale. John and Nicholas, Hugh's son and grandson, were equally prominent, but as holders of civic office; there is nothing to associate them with any trade or craft. An argument from silence cannot be conclusive, because the evidence is scanty; but there seems ground for supposing that a fortune made initially in trade was invested in real property, and that this became the hereditary basis for the family's influence. Hugh's great-grandson, another Hugh, early in the 14th century, appears still to hold the property in Osgodby that his ancester had acquired a century before, as well as property in Youlthorpe (E.R.) obtained by John Selby in the mid 13th century. (fn. 52)

The tendency to acquire a permanent endowment of property in town and country may help to explain the relative stability of the ruling class in 12th- and 13th-century York. The Selby family is merely typical of a number of others. Hugh son of Lefwin's father was already a notable owner of property in the mid 12th century; (fn. 53) and Gilbert Louth was descended from a family, perhaps originally of goldsmiths, which had been associated with Henry II's mint at York and which had provided the city with a reeve, two bailiffs, and a coroner in the course of the 13th century. (fn. 54) Nor is it difficult to find similar dynasties, like the Bolingbrokes, Graunts, Bonvilles, and Verdennels of the Marsh. These leading families, moreover, tended to be connected by ties of marriage. Hugh son of Lefwin married first a daughter of William Tickhill and later a Bonville, and was also related to Henry of Fishergate, another leading citizen. (fn. 55) William Fairfax's marriages linked him with Adam Flur, merchant and mayor in 1222, and with Nicholas Bugthorpe, one of the highest contributors to the tallage of 1204; (fn. 56) and William's daughter married Robert Clarevaux. (fn. 57) In brief, it was a tight little group which ruled the city at this time. It was not a closed group, for men could thrive and enter it as the Langtons and Graas did at the end of the 13th century; but its core closely resembles the viri hereditarii who ruled the cities of 13th-century Flanders. Like them, too, the ruling circle in York seems to owe its stability to the fact that it invested its wealth in a substantial endowment of real property.


  • 1. Hist. Ch. York, ii. 291.
  • 2. Pipe R. 1183 (P.R.S. xxxii), 55 &c.
  • 3. Visitations of Southwell, 190 sqq.
  • 4. Records of the Templars, ed. B. A. Lees, 123, 132; Hist. Ch. York, iii. 56; Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), i. 119; see pp. 506–9.
  • 5. Pat. R. 1225–32, 32; J.I. 1/1046, m. 63; E 372/146, m. 7d; Sel. Cases in Exch. of Pleas (Selden Soc. 48), pl. 231.
  • 6. See pp. 484–91; E 372/146, m. 7d.
  • 7. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), i. 126.
  • 8. Cat. Anct. D. iv, A 6264; Cur. Reg. R. x. 67; Cal. Inq. Misc. i, p. 404; Rolls of Justices for Yorks. (Selden Soc. 56), pls. 719, 1047.
  • 9. S.C. 6/1088/13; E 373/146, m. 7d; V.C.H. Yorks. ii. 35.
  • 10. S.C. 6/1088/13.
  • 11. E.Y.C. i. 359–60.
  • 12. Hist. Ch. York, i. 287.
  • 13. Gesta Pontificum (Rolls Ser.), 208.
  • 14. Hist. and Mun. Docs. Ireland (Rolls Ser.), 12–20; J.I. 1/1043, m. 21.
  • 15. Close R. 1227–31, 49; 1231–4, 111; 1259–61, 59; Cal. Pat. 1272–81, 215; 1292–1301, 352; Reg. Romeyn, ii, no. 1450; Cal. Doc. Ireland, 1252–84, no. 485.
  • 16. S.C. 8/269/13435.
  • 17. Pipe R. 1166, 49.
  • 18. Pat. R. 1216–25, 451–2; 1225–32, 12, 32, 348; Close R. 1227–31, 355–6; 1234–7, 90–91.
  • 19. Gras, Early Eng. Customs, 225 sqq.; H. J. Smit, Bronnen tot de Geschiedenis van den Handel met Engeland, Schotland en Ierland, i. 46 sqq.; E 122/55/2, 3, 5, 6, 10.
  • 20. Close R. 1227–31, 173; 1259–61, 39–40; Cal. Close, 1272–9, 165; Cal. Pat. 1266–72, 299; Sel. Cases on the Law Merchant, i (Selden Soc. 23), 13, 33–35, 56.
  • 21. Close R. 1227–31, 370.
  • 22. Pipe R. 1204 (P.R.S. N.S. xviii), pp. xliii–xliv.
  • 23. York Freemen, i. 1–11.
  • 24. B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, ff. 82, 83, 96, 187d; D. & C. York, Vicars' Charty. ff. 4, 10, 18.
  • 25. B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, ff. 102d, 146, 172, 198.
  • 26. Cal. Inq. p.m. vii, p. 137.
  • 27. E.Y.C. i. 263.
  • 28. Pipe R. 1202 (P.R.S. N.S. xv), 49; 1206 (P.R.S. N.S. xviii), 194; E 372/60, m. 8.
  • 29. Pipe R. 1202, 65.
  • 30. E 372/63, m. 15; /117, m. 4; /154, m. 37.
  • 31. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), ii. 176; Cal. Close' 1302–7, 134.
  • 32. R. Doehaerd, Relations commerciales entre Gênes, la Belgique et l'Outremont, i. 65 n., 192; ii. 456, 579, 586; iii. 622.
  • 33. Pipe R. 1180, 71–72; E 372/126, m. 3d; J.I. 1/1057, m. 55d; Cal. Fine R. 1272–1307, 161.
  • 34. Pipe R. 1204, 207–8; 1205 (P.R.S. N.S. xix), 54.
  • 35. See p. 42; Pipe R. 1166 (P.R.S. ix), 49; 1185 (P.R.S. xxxiv), 67.
  • 36. Cal. Pat. 1266–72, 709.
  • 37. See p. 43.
  • 38. Close R. 1256–9, 420.
  • 39. E 122/55/1; S.C. 6/1088/13; Cat. Anct. D. iv, A6264.
  • 40. J.I. 1/1085, m. 74; Cal. Chart. R. 1257–1300, 222, 232; Yorks. Fines, 1272–1300, 42, 71.
  • 41. Rievaulx Charty. (Sur. Soc. 83), 298; E.Y.C. i. 245–6; Bracton's Note Bk. pl. 1889; Yorks. Fines, 1232– 46, 107; Yorks. Deeds, vii. 181–2; B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, f. 126d; D. & C. York, Vicars' Charty. ff. 8, 27.
  • 42. E.Y.C. i. 189, 193–4, 213; D. & C. York, St. Mary's Charty. f. 2d; John Rylands Libr. Latin MS. 220, ff. 63d, 107d.
  • 43. Pipe R. 1191 and 1192, 76.
  • 44. E.Y.C. i. 426–8.
  • 45. J.I. 1/1042, mm. 5, 9d; Yorks. Fines, 1232–46, 90, 121–2, 162.
  • 46. J.I. 1/1042, m. 7d; Widdrington, Analecta, 147 sqq.
  • 47. W. H. D. Longstaff, Hist. of Darlington (1909), 449 sqq.
  • 48. Kirkby's Inq. (Sur. Soc. 49), 217 n., 434.
  • 49. Parliamentary Rep. of Yorks. i (Y.A.S. Rec. Ser. 91), 23–25; Cal. Inq. p.m. ii, p. 409.
  • 50. Cal. Close, 1279–88, 14, 49; Cal. Inq. p.m. ii, p. 409; Linc. Archives Office, Anderson Deeds 1/1/6–8: the author is indebted to Mrs. Joan Varley for knowledge and transcripts of these last documents.
  • 51. Longstaff, Hist. Darlington (1909), 452–4; Yorks. Deeds, vi, no. 588; vii, nos. 534–5; J.I. 1/1046, m. 70d; 1055, m. 12.
  • 52. Yorks. Fines, 1327–47, 120; Year Bk. 1313–14 (Selden Soc. 39), 113–14.
  • 53. E.Y.C. i. 188, 191, 193–4, 198–9; E 135/25/1.
  • 54. Pipe R. 1171, 73; Kirkby's Inq. 65 n.; J.I. 1/105 m. 55.
  • 55. Pipe R. 1182, 46; B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, f. 103d; John Rylands Libr. Latin MS. 220, f. 63.
  • 56. J.I. 1/1042, m. 13; B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, f. 166d.
  • 57. Kirkby's Inq. 178 n.