The twelfth and thirteenth centuries: The aspect of the city

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

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'The twelfth and thirteenth centuries: The aspect of the city', in A History of the County of York: the City of York, (London, 1961) pp. 51-54. British History Online [accessed 15 April 2024]

The Aspect of the City

In the 12th and 13th centuries several new religious houses were founded. (fn. 1) Their part in the religious life of the city is difficult to assess and perhaps hard to exaggerate. The open-air preaching of the Franciscans was assumed in 1268 to be a regular event; (fn. 2) and one of the earliest surviving wills of a York citizen, that of William of Durham made in 1311, contains the bequests to the friars which are so familiar in later wills and which testify to their reputation. (fn. 3) Then again their buildings and walled enclosures were altering the face of the city; nor were these the only building enterprises undertaken during this period. The great fire of 1137 (fn. 4) may have necessitated some rebuilding at St. Mary's and the minster, although this stimulus alone may be inadequate to explain Archbishop Roger Pont L'Evêque's determination to leave his memorial in stone. Whatever his motives, this 'powerful and magnificent prelate' reconstructed the minster choir and built the archbishop's palace and the chapel of St. Mary and All Angels. (fn. 5) The building activities of the 13th century were not less notable. Abbot Simon began to build a new church for St. Mary's in 1271; and in the minster Archbishop Gray's new south transept was probably completed by 1251, although the north transept was not finished until after his death. Then, in 1291, Archbishop Romeyn laid the foundation stone of the new nave which was finished eventually in the time of Archbishop Melton. (fn. 6) Meantime, there had been much building and rebuilding of parish churches, like the work surviving in the chancel of St. Mary's, Bishophill, Junior; and walls had risen to enclose St. Mary's Abbey in the 1260's, St. Andrew's Priory by 1292, and St. Leonard's Hospital by the end of the century. (fn. 7) In 1285, too, the chapter had been authorized to surround the minster and its precinct with a wall 12 feet high, and in 1302 the dean was allowed to crenellate his deanery. (fn. 8)

Secular building activity kept pace with that upon the churches. In the 13th century much progress was made in rebuilding the castle in stone as well as wood; and the old fortifications of the city were replaced by a wall of stone except around the Walmgate area. (fn. 9) Of the two bridges over the Foss and Ouse, moreover, the latter at least had been rebuilt in stone, possibly before the end of the 12th century; (fn. 10) by the early 13th century Ouse Bridge was beginning to be encrusted with buildings, including St. William's Chapel and the Tollbooth in which courts were sometimes held. (fn. 11) Some citizens, too, had houses built of stone even in the 12th century, like Alan son of Romund's in Ousegate or Hugh son of Lefwin's in Coney Street; the remains of one such dwelling are still to be seen in Stonegate. (fn. 12) In the following century stone houses appear to be still more numerous, and some have distinctive names: the Verdennel house in 'Ketmangergate' (probably part of St. Andrewgate) was called Wyndsour, and John Selby's in Micklegate, Munsorel. (fn. 13)

York was becoming, then, to a greater extent than before, a city of stone, although in its domestic—by contrast with its public—architecture, stone buildings were doubtless still rare exceptions. It was this fact which made fire an ever-present fear. In 1202, for example, the chapter bought land before the west door of the minster to prevent it from being built upon and so to lessen danger from fire; and a 13th-century agreement about a house in 'Little Bretgate' (possibly off Walmgate), included a clause obliging the grantee to rebuild it if it were burnt down. (fn. 14) Nor were these fears quite groundless. A great fire swept the city in June 1137, and attacked the minster, St. Mary's Abbey, and St. Leonard's Hospital; but the suspiciously precise statement that 39 parishchurches were also destroyed rests only upon the authority of a remote Kentish source. (fn. 15)

Houses in York, then, though some might be of stone, were most likely to be primitive wooden structures; and the streets they faced were often unsavoury. The lane of Patrick Pool in 1249 was so deep in mire that no one could pass along it; (fn. 16) in Bootham in 1298 the paving of the streets was in utter disrepair; the air was corrupted by pigsties and dunghills in the streets and lanes; and some houses were in such bad condition that it was positively dangerous to walk past them. (fn. 17) Ousegate might be referred to in a late-12th-century charter as magna placea que dicitur Usegata, (fn. 18) but generally speaking any spaciousness there was about the streets of York at this time was apt to suffer subtraction because men encroached upon it to build shops (fn. 19) and because booths infested even Petergate and Coney Street. (fn. 20) The architectural achievements of these centuries were set in a context of squalor and congestion.

One reason for congestion was probably a growing population, reflected in new housing development both within and without the walls. There was a good deal of scope for this, even within the walls: in a tenement in St. Andrewgate, for example, which measured 88 feet by 112 feet; (fn. 21) or in vacant spaces like Toft Green, part of which was appropriated by the Friars Preachers, though much of it remained undeveloped to provide a mustering place for the citizens in war, a market-place, a place for waging judicial duels, and for erecting engines of war. (fn. 22) There was no less scope outside the walls on the grazing and agricultural land and gardens which came close to the city. There was a new field, gardens, and orchards outside Walmgate Bar in 1252, and St. Nicholas's Hospital pastured 100 sheep there in 1295; and there were gardens in the possession of Canon John Romeyn in 'Barkergate' (now St. Maurice's Road) and of the Abbot of St. Mary's in Bootham. (fn. 23)

These open spaces, however, seem to have been subject to progressive encroachments in the 12th and 13th centuries, and there appears to have been a growing congestion in city tenements. The Prior of Guisborough, early in the 13th century, built upon the earth wall between his and his neighbour's tenements in Aldwark; and in 1246 an assize of novel disseisin was stretched to cover a case in which a man had built a solar extending over his neighbour's house. (fn. 24) No less significant are the indications of development in the peripheral and suburban areas of the city. There are 12th-century notices of dealings in property in 'Little Bretgate' and in The Marsh east of St. Saviour's Church; and St. Leonard's Hospital was proposing to build on its garden land in Gillygate. (fn. 25) A number of new churches also probably date from this century, including All Saints', Peaseholme, St. John's, Hungate, St. Margaret's, and St. Mary's, Walmgate. The last two particularly were significantly adjacent to the area of new housing development in 'Little Bretgate'. (fn. 26)

Some of the suburban churches were of scarcely later foundation. St. Lawrence's is mentioned in 1194, St. Edward's in 1213, and both St. Giles's and St. Mary's, Layerthorpe, in the course of the 13th century. (fn. 27) In this same century, there are references to house property in Layerthorpe, (fn. 28) in Monkgate and nearby in 'Newbiggin', (fn. 29) outside Walmgate Bar, (fn. 30) and outside Micklegate Bar, where we hear of the vicus suburbii de Mikelgate in 1250 and vicus qui dicitur Ployhsuaingate (i.e. Blossom Street) c. 1280. (fn. 31) There is no way of measuring the expansion of the built-up area or of establishing a close chronology for it; but the evidence seems to tell of a city which was beginning to burst its bounds as its prosperity and the number of its citizens grew.

It is difficult to obtain any sort of impression of the way of life in the city. It can be inferred that some men were public-spirited enough to assume office in city or guild and many showed generosity, if only in a small way, to monks and friars. There are other indications, too, of at least a conventional piety. How far this explains why sons of citizens went into the church (fn. 32) may be doubtful; but at least it is true that Hugh Selby's younger son, Nicholas, became a canon of York and Archdeacon of Wiltshire, and was claimed as kinsman by William of York, the distinguished judge who became Bishop of Salisbury in 1247. (fn. 33) The lay piety of the time, however, is more likely to be exemplified by the lorimer's widow who went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, (fn. 34) and by the first notices of the foundation of chantries in parish churches. (fn. 35) Equally characteristic was William of Durham's provision that 2 marks were to be spent on candles on the day of his funeral and 25 marks on five chaplains celebrating mass for his soul during the year after his death. (fn. 36)

Against this we hear in 1286 of vagabonds committing homicide and other crimes so that law-abiding men did not dare leave their homes without armed escort; and in the previous year the streets and lanes near the minster were described as haunts of thieves and night-wanderers who committed homicides, fornications, and other evils. (fn. 37) Others than nameless vagabonds enjoyed a far from unsullied reputation. Adam le Cerf, twice mayor, bought land from an idiot and quickly sold it again before the validity of the transaction could be questioned; and his son appropriated property the tenant of which was absent on pilgrimage. (fn. 38) There was at least a suspicion in 1293 that John Graham, a prominent citizen and merchant, had been a receiver of stolen pigs; (fn. 39) and the two sons of Nicholas Clarevaux (M.P. for the city in 1297) were found guilty of assault in 1304 and spent some time in gaol. (fn. 40) Another prominent man, John Warthill, was accused of having carnal knowledge of Sister Ellen of St. Nicholas's Hospital, and his brother, Thomas, was in gaol in 1293 for poaching in the king's Fishpond of the Foss. In 1278, moreover, an even more serious charge had been levelled against both of them, that of being involved in the death of Hamon le Graunt. They were not the actual murderers, for the man responsible had taken refuge in the Dominican friary and abjured the realm. In so far as the Warthills were involved, however, they were in good company. Another charged with them was Gilbert Louth, more than once mayor of the city and elevated to knighthood before the end of his life. (fn. 41)


  • 1. See generally V.C.H. Yorks. iii.
  • 2. Cal. Pat. 1266-72, 260-1.
  • 3. Yorks. Deeds, i, no. 503.
  • 4. See p. 52.
  • 5. T. S. R. Boase, Eng. Art 1100-1216, 234 sqq.
  • 6. P. Brieger, Eng. Art 1216-1307, 43 sqq., 239-42.
  • 7. Close R. 1259-61, 315; Chron. St. Mary's, 8; Cal. Pat. 1281–92, 507; 1292–1301, 402.
  • 8. Ibid. 1281–92, 164; 1301–7, 19; Y.A.J. xiii. 555–6.
  • 9. See p. 511.
  • 10. See pp. 515, 518.
  • 11. Hist. Ch. York, iii. 116.
  • 12. E.Y.C. i. 185, 200; Y.A. and Y.A.S. Proc. 1951–2.
  • 13. Yorks. Deeds, i, no. 594; vii, nos. 533–4; Fountains Charty. i. 277; B.M. Cott. MS. Claud. B. iii, f. 28; Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, ff. 188–188d; D. & C. York, Vicars' Charty. ff. 8–9.
  • 14. Dugd. Mon. vi. 962; Fountains Charty. i. 270–1.
  • 15. Florence of Worcester, Chron. ii. 98; Gervase of Canterbury, Opera (Rolls Ser.), i. 100; J. Stowe, Annales (ed. of 1631), 144.
  • 16. Yorks. Inq. i. 18–19.
  • 17. Cal. Close, 1296–1302, 218.
  • 18. John Rylands Libr. Latin MS. 220, f. 101d.
  • 19. J.I. 1/1057, m. 55d.
  • 20. B.M. Cott. MS. Claud. B. iii, f. 65d; Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, f. 75.
  • 21. B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, f. 78.
  • 22. Cal. Chanc. Wts. i. 94; Cal. Pat. 1272-81, 405; Y.A.J. vi. 400–1.
  • 23. D. & C. York, Lib. Alb. i, ff. 26d-27 and Vicars' Charty. f. 49; Yorks. Mon. Notes, i. (Y.A.S. Rec. Ser. 17), 251–2; John Rylands Libr. Latin MS. 220, f. 69d.
  • 24. E.Y.C. i. 226; J.I. 1/1045, m. 38.
  • 25. Yorks. Deeds, ii, no. 534; E.Y.C. i. 215–16, 229–30, 231–2.
  • 26. E.Y.C. i. 230–1, 248–9; Hist. Ch. York, iii. 94 sqq.
  • 27. Hist. Ch. York, iii. 94 sqq.; Rot. Litt. Pat. (Rec. Com.), 104; B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, ff. 117–18; D. & C. York, Vicars' Charty. f. 55.
  • 28. D. & C. York, Vicars' Charty. f. 38; Cal. Pat. 1301-7, 150–1.
  • 29. D. & C. York, Vicars' Charty. f. 53; B.M. Cott. MS. Claud. B. iii, f. 26; John Rylands Libr. Latin MS. 220, ff. 82d, 84d, 86.
  • 30. B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, f. 199d.
  • 31. Ibid. f. 186; J.I. 1/1047, m. 17; Sallay Charty. ii (Y.A.S. Rec. Ser. 90), nos. 550–2.
  • 32. e.g. Reg. Romeyn, ii, no. 1296; Reg. Greenfield, i, no. 327.
  • 33. D. & C. York, Lib. Alb. iii, ff. 95-96; V.C.H. Wilts. iii. 13.
  • 34. J.I. 1/1050, m. 82.
  • 35. See pp. 391, 393, 401–2.
  • 36. Yorks. Deeds, i, no. 503.
  • 37. Cal. Pat. 1281–92, 164, 256.
  • 38. J.I. 1/1050, m. 82; /1055, m. 18.
  • 39. Ibid. /1098, m. 90.
  • 40. Ibid. /1107, m. 21d.
  • 41. Ibid. /1057, m. 55d; Yorks. Inq. ii. 129; Cal. Pat. 1272–81, 284; 1292–1301, 20.