The later middle ages: Courts, jurisdiction, City Council and Parliament

Pages 75-79

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

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Courts and Customs

Government, however, was as much a matter of jurisdiction as of administration. The courts of the city may be divided into two categories. First there were those held after 1396 by the sheriffs: (fn. 1) their tourn in The Ainsty; their county court, still held monthly in 1499–1500; (fn. 2) and their 'court of pleas'. The first two, new creations in 1396, do not seem of great importance, but the last is another matter. Its sessions in the 15th century were described as 'Domesdays'; it sat most Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and entertained pleas of debt especially, but also pleas of trespass, account and detinue, and investigated some infractions of the statutes of labourers. (fn. 3) It was clearly a court the sheriffs inherited from the bailiffs. Secondly, there were the courts over which the mayor presided. The court of recognizances of debts had been established in the 13th century. (fn. 4) More imporant was a court which sat every Monday in the Guildhall under the mayor and bailiffs (later the sheriffs), described in the 15th century as the court for 'common pleas' (i.e. pleas regarding wills, and of dower, services, waste, and so forth). (fn. 5) It had entertained similar business every Monday in the previous century. (fn. 6)

In addition, in 1343, the mayor and bailiffs also claimed a court competent to deal with such matters as assault; (fn. 7) and between 1351 and 1392 distinct commissions of the peace for York were issued to the mayor, a few prominent citizens, and one or two royal judges. (fn. 8) We catch a glimpse of them at work in 1387–9, investigating murders, thefts, burglaries, and armed assaults. (fn. 9) In 1392 Richard II conferred the commission of the peace ex officio upon the mayor and aldermen; and the powers they exercised in this capacity seem to have been fused with those of the older mayoral court to produce the court of the mayor and aldermen described in the city custumal. It met in the Guildhall from day to day at their discretion; and dealt with matters touching apprentices, offences against the customs and ordinances of the city, the faults of victuallers and craftsmen and civic officers, nuisances, rumour-mongers, disturbers of the peace, forgers of seals and charters, and made orders for governing the city and keeping the peace. (fn. 10)

These tribunals were the courts of common resort for the citizens, and this fact helped to preserve and develop a body of civic custom. The custumal copied into the city register in the 15th century carefully records details of the procedure which applied in cases in 'the court of common pleas in the Guildhall'; (fn. 11) and one feature seems to have been a frequent recourse to arbitration, not only in civil cases but even in a case of mayhem. (fn. 12) From the end of the 14th century, as in other towns, the city courts were using the assize of fresh force, without royal writ, in possessory actions, a procedure more expeditious than the assize of novel disseisin. (fn. 13) Burgage tenements continued to be freely alienable, even by word of mouth, (fn. 14) and freely devisable by will, provided such wills were enrolled in the court of the mayor and aldermen. (fn. 15) Although it was alleged in 1346 that devise of property by nuncupative will was not permitted by the custom of the city, Roger Swanne in 1349 left a tenement in this manner to his wife for life with reversion to St. Leonard's Hospital, and the hospital eventually secured possession. Perhaps the explanation is that this was a year of pestilence. (fn. 16)

As a footnote to this story of the courts of York, mention may be made of some of the things which went with them: the pillory on Pavement; the stocks set up in each ward in 1501; and the city gaols. (fn. 17) It will be remembered, too, that the severity of the law in those times was modified by a felon's right to abjure the realm if he succeeded in reaching the sanctuary of a church. York felons took advantage of this opportunity, and were often given Dover as the port from which they were to leave England. In one instance, a man was given the very brief span of 10 days to reach that port, though another was more generously allotted 24 days and another again 6 days to reach the port of Chester. (fn. 18)

The City's Jurisdiction

Much of the government of the city was conducted by the crafts (see below) and by the wardmote courts. The wards were territorial divisions of the city, and numbered six in 1380 and 1491, although there had been some modification of their boundaries in the interval. (fn. 19) Nor were they new in 1380. Constables arraying troops in the city are mentioned in the early 14th century, and in 1321 it is clear that these constables were each in charge of a ward and responsible for levying money in it for the repair of the walls. (fn. 20) These constables seem to correspond to the six serjeants in charge of the wards later in the century; (fn. 21) and in addition, in the 15th century, two aldermen and other wardens (three in the case of Walmgate Ward in 1491) were assigned to each ward. (fn. 22) The raising of troops, and money for their wages, and the inspection of the arms in the hands of citizens were all organized by wards; and in 1482 the ward serjeants were responsible for opening and closing the city gates, and the wardens for clearing the walls in their wards from rushes, nettles, and weeds. (fn. 23)

The jurisdiction of the wardmote court lay not only in the intramural area, but also in the city parishes which extended outside the walls. (fn. 24) The court of Walmgate Ward in 1491, for example, heard presentments of common nuisances perpetrated within the walls: a hosier had emptied urine in the street, a fuller had kept a dangerous dog tethered in the street, and causeways in Walgmate and Fossgate were broken down. In addition, however, it heard complaints of encroachments on the highway outside Fishergate Bar and at 'Crabtreelees', of a man who inclosed his commonable tenement three weeks before the due date, and of a fuller who overloaded the common lands by keeping 40 sheep there. (fn. 25) At the end of the Middle Ages the main importance of the wards seems to have been in the military organization of the city, the maintenance of its walls, and in the management of the common lands.

Even the wards were not the smallest units of local government: that part was played by the parishes. Each had a parish clerk (fn. 26) and two or three constables. The constables were chosen annually in the presence of the aldermen and wardens of each ward, presented to the mayor, and their names enrolled. They were sworn to see the peace was kept, malefactors brought to justice, and felons and fugitives pursued; or, according to another record, to report affrays and debates, make arrests and summonses, do all the mayor ordered them, keep the pavements repaired and their parish clear of dung, mire, and corruption of the air. (fn. 27) The parish constables also played an important part in raising troops and the money for their wages. (fn. 28) They were at once constables of the peace and general agents of the officers of the city and the wards.

There remains another local government area subject to the rulers of the city. In 1449 Henry VI confirmed York's control over The Ainsty. (fn. 29) At the end of the century rules were made for the government of this important asset. The sheriffs were told to appoint only freemen of the city as bailiffs of The Ainsty, not to let it at farm, and to appoint no bailiff who had served during the previous nine years. Almost at once they broke these rules, and were fined and expelled from the city council. The last penalty was remitted when they made courteous submission and gave wainscoting to repair the common hall and council chamber. (fn. 30)

The City Council

The government of York has so far been discussed in executive terms; but that it may have contained a representative element as early as 1301 is suggested by a decision per commune consilium to prove all the measures of the city. (fn. 31) Not until the end of the 14th century, however, does the nature of this element emerge into the light of day. At that date the mayor appears to be surrounded by concentric circles of counsel. The innermost ring was the council of twelve, beginning to be called aldermen by 1399. (fn. 32) Then there was a second circle of 24, described as probi homines in 1402 to distinguish them from the aldermen, although the aldermen themselves were sometimes so described. Finally, there was an outermost circle of 48, often called the communitas, the representative element proper. (fn. 33) It is likely that, even at this date, the role of the two inner circles was distinct from that of the outermost ring of counsellors. The latter was convened only occasionally for specific and, broadly speaking, political purposes, while the former constituted the administrative council of the city and the mayor's regular coadjutors in government. That, certainly, was the position in the 15th century.

Election to the ranks of the aldermen during that century was made by the mayor and remaining aldermen as vacancies occurred due to death, old age, or ill health. (fn. 34) It was an honour not easily refused, and when William Todd sought to do so in 1481 he was visited with a fine of £10. Some occupations, too, were apparently regarded as incompatible with it, for when John Petty was elected in 1504 he was told to 'leave his keeping of "hostery" and take down his sign'. (fn. 35) The qualification for membership of the 'twentyfour' was, if enough such men were available, previous service as sheriff; and election was presumably by the mayor, aldermen, and other councillors. Like the aldermen, the councillors served, unless promoted to the aldermanic bench, until removed by death or discharge. (fn. 36) Both aldermen and councillors were sworn to aid and obey the mayor in all matters; and were ordered in 1500 to accompany him, and not their crafts, in all processions. Both aldermen and councillors were to have robes of violet, murrey, and crimson, and aldermen also robes of scarlet which those who had served as mayor were to wear on all civic occasions. (fn. 37)

It was as the mayor's advisers that the aldermen and councillors figured most prominently. The city council assembled irregularly, but far from infrequently. In 1485, for example, there were at least fifteen meetings between the end of February and 8 October. The full council would have mustered up to 39—the mayor, aldermen, councillors, and the sheriffs and recorder. In fact, however, the normal attendance was much smaller. The average in 1485 was more like 20. Attempts were periodically made to remedy slackness in attending by imposing fines for absence or even by dismissal: Alderman Holbek was so dismissed in 1476. (fn. 38) The effect does not seem to have been great, but the minutes of council proceedings that have survived are testimony to the large volume of business transacted.

The personnel is much as might be expected. It is possible, for example, to construct a list of 11 of the aldermen and 21 of the councillors in the year 1420. (fn. 39) Of the aldermen, Thomas Gare was mayor, 7 others had already served in that capacity, and Richard Russell was to do so in the following year. John Penrith, on the other hand, was never mayor, though he represented the city in Parliament; nor was John Blackburn, but he died relatively young in 1426 after likewise sitting in Parliament. (fn. 40) Only two of the councillors had not held the office of sheriff (or bailiff prior to 1397), and one of these, John Gascoigne, had been chamberlain in 1418. A small, close-knit oligarchy filled civic offices and seats in the council chamber. More than that, these men were bound by ties of occupation. As early as 1378–9 the aldermen appear to have been drawn exclusively, and the councillors preponderantly, from the class of wealthy traders. (fn. 41) Of the 1420 council, 5 belonged to the manufacturing crafts, but 2 were drapers and 22 merchants. York was ruled, not merely by an oligarchy, but by a mercantile oligarchy.

Parliamentary Representation

Closely associated with the aldermanic class were the men who represented York in Parliament. Like other urban representatives, they left small mark upon its proceedings, although naturally the city made use of them to press for small advantages: to exact payment from a Dutch merchant who had taken wool to Holland instead of to the staple; to complain in 1382, together with the shire, about dearth of grain; to secure a ruling in 1391 that cloth taken to Berwick was not exported out of the realm; to obtain the cancellation of letters patent exempting men from civic office in 1451. (fn. 42) In addition, members might use their spare moments at Westminster prosecuting matters to the city's advantage at the Exchequer or other offices of government. In combination these services perhaps made the members' wages, which like those of the knights of the shire were 4s. daily, seem a justifiable expense. (fn. 43)

The men who went, however, are of greater interest than their recorded deeds. Throughout the 14th century most were familiar figures in the commercial annals of the city: (fn. 44) Thomas Aguiler, Thomas of Reedness, and John Graa at the beginning of the century; members of Edward III's wool syndicates like Henry Goldbeter and Walter Kelsterne in the mid-century; and later such eminent merchants as John Gisburne and Robert Savage. The parliamentary history of the second half of the century, however, is dominated by a single family. William Graa served at least fourteen times and Thomas his son at least twelve times; and if William's commercial activities are ill attested, Thomas was certainly engaged in trading, for he exported no less than 90 sacks of wool in 1378–9. (fn. 45)

There were significant changes in the 15th century. Of the 70 known members between 1399 and 1509, 52 sat once only, 13 twice, John Thirsk, William Ormshead, and John Northeby 3 times, and William Bowes the elder and Richard York 4 times. There was no one comparable to the Graas. All of them, however, continued to be drawn from the preponderantly mercantile group which ruled the city. Only 9 of the Members of Parliament did not at some time serve as mayor, and 56 of them were merchants. In part, this was a result of the method of electing members. Apparently as early as 1419 effective choice was vested in the city council, and even for this purpose full attendance does not seem to have been demanded. In ten instances between 1419 and 1503 the average number present was about 20. The election indentures, on the other hand, refer to election in 'full county court' by 'a body of citizens ranging in numbers from 10 to 48'. The probable explanation is that formal election in the county court followed effective election in the council chamber. (fn. 46) At times, however, the real and formal electors appear to have been identical: the electors named in the indenture of 1436 are 11 aldermen and 4 councillors. (fn. 47)


  • 1. Drake, Ebor. 189 sqq.
  • 2. York Corp. Rec. F/1. Giles, Cat. York Corp. Doc. incorrectly describes this as a quarter sessions minute book; in fact it is a sheriff's court book.
  • 3. York Corp. Rec. E/25, F/1, passim.
  • 4. e.g. York Mem. Bk. i. 12–13.
  • 5. York Mem. Bk. ii. 261 sqq.
  • 6. e.g. York Corp. Rec. D/1, ff, 314, 315d–16.
  • 7. J.I. 1/1128, m. 2d.
  • 8. Cal. Pat. passim.
  • 9. J.I. 1/1145, mm. 6–6d.
  • 10. York Mem. Bk. ii. 251–3.
  • 11. Ibid. 261 sqq.
  • 12. Ibid. 15, 25.
  • 13. Ibid. i. 140–1; ii. 11–13.
  • 14. York Civ. Rec. i. 18.
  • 15. e.g. Yorks. Deeds, vi. 170–1; B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, f. 152d; York Mem. Bk. ii. 253.
  • 16. Year Bk. 1346–7 (Rolls Ser.), ii. 115 sqq.; B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, f. 136.
  • 17. York Mem. Bk. i. 34; York Civ. Rec. ii. 165; see pp. 491–2.
  • 18. J.I. 2/219.
  • 19. See pp. 314-15; York Mem. Bk. i. 34-35; York Corp. Rec., Chamberlains' Bk. 1449: 4 folios inserted and lettered A-D after f. 135d.
  • 20. S.C. 1/21/93; S.C. 8/233/11645.
  • 21. York Mem. Bk. i. 18-20, 34-35, 43; ii. 33.
  • 22. Ibid. ii. 261; York Corp. Rec., Chamberlains' Bk. 1449 (including fragments of wardmote ct. bk.).
  • 23. York Civ. Rec. i. 45-46, 58-59, 63, 65, 74-75.
  • 24. See pp. 311–14.
  • 25. York Corp. Rec., Chamberlains' Bk. 1449 (wardmote ct. bk.); for the jurisdiction of the wardmote courts in disputes about the common lands see p. 502.
  • 26. York Civ. Rec. i. 77.
  • 27. York Mem. Bk. ii. 260; York Corp. Rec. D/1, f. 2d; E/25, f. 152.
  • 28. York Civ. Rec. i. 45–46, 74, 85.
  • 29. See p. 318.
  • 30. York Civ. Rec. ii. 134–6.
  • 31. J.I. 1/1107, m. 12.
  • 32. York Corp. Rec. D/1, f. 349d.
  • 33. York Mem. Bk. i, pp. iii–x, 18, 30, 33–35, 39, 119, 173.
  • 34. Ibid. ii. 258, 293; York Civ. Rec. i. 96, 155; ii. 141, 160, 176, 190; iii. 9.
  • 35. York Civ. Rec. i. 37; iii. 8–10.
  • 36. York Mem. Bk. ii. 75.
  • 37. Ibid. 256; York Civ. Rec. ii. 146–7.
  • 38. York Civ. Rec. i. 8, 11, 88 sqq., 142.
  • 39. York Mem. Bk. ii. 54–55, 74, 79, 84, 86, 90–91, 110, 159.
  • 40. For John Blackburn, see C.C. Guild, 15; Test. Ebor. ii. 19 n.
  • 41. York Mem. Bk. i, pp. ii–x.
  • 42. Rot. Parl. ii. 353; iii. 141, 294; v. 225.
  • 43. M. McKisack, Representation of Eng. Boroughs, 27–28, 136–8.
  • 44. Drake's list (Ebor. 355 sqq.) is corrected by Return of Members of Parliament (1878) with additions in McKisack, Rep. of Eng. Bor. 146 sqq.
  • 45. E 122/59/2.
  • 46. McKisack, Rep. of Eng. Bor. 52; York Mem. Bk. ii. 87; York Civ. Rec. i. 66, 85, 87, 127; ii. 31–32, 120, 128, 190.
  • 47. McKisack, Rep. of Eng. Bor. 158 (Nicholas Urpington should be Nicholas Wispington); for the aldermen and councillors at this date cf. York Mem. Bk. ii. 139, 142.