The later middle ages: City government and the Commonalty

Pages 80-84

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

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The City Government and the Commonalty

In the Guildhall the officers and councillors of the city from time to time faced a more genuinely representative assembly. In the later 14th century, as we have seen, the 'commonalty' or 'community' was represented by the 48, few or none of whom—by contrast with the aldermen and councillors—had held municipal office, and most of whom were drawn from the manufacturing as distinct from the trading occupations. (fn. 1) It is perhaps premature at this stage to view the 48 as a body deliberately representative of the crafts; but in the course of the 15th century the commonalty did come to be represented by the searchers of the guilds, though other craftsmen might accompany them to the Guildhall. In 1494–5, for example, it was 'the most part of the searchers of every craft and occupation within this city, in the name of the whole body of the commons of the same', which accepted the mediation of the Earl of Surrey in a dispute over common lands. (fn. 2) The rooting of the representation of the commonalty in the crafts gave it an organized backing which augmented its political effectiveness.

The assembly of the commonalty had certain specific constitutional functions. It had a part, however limited, in choosing the mayor and approving the choice of other officers; in assenting to the imposition of financial burdens like that of 1378 for the repair of the city barge; and in consenting to ordinances for the common utility of the city. (fn. 3) It had a role, in other words, in constituting the city government and in legislating for the city. But it also became the political assembly of the city, where all the internal stresses and strains of the day were ventilated. By means of petitions presented to the mayor and council, a practice well developed at the latest by the 15th century, the demands and grievances of the commonalty were made manifest and pressure was applied to have them met. The assembly of the city in the Guildhall, in fact, focused the rising tensions within the city community as the Middle Ages drew to a close.

Disputes within the body politic of the city were nothing new. As early as 1301 the commonalty complained that it did not know what happened to the financial impositions laid upon it by the city magistrates; and in 1311 and 1316 there were allegations of fraud on the part of the collectors of taxes. (fn. 4) Meantime, in 1306, a number of citizens led by such prominent men as Andrew Bolingbroke and Robert Meek had formed themselves into an unlicensed guild. Their objects were ostensibly religious, but they were said to have used their association to avoid their due share of taxes. The guild was dissolved by the king's justices, and for a time its members were boycotted by their fellow citizens; (fn. 5) Andrew Bolingbroke, however, became mayor for a second time in 1309. This episode was associated with a certain amount of violence in city politics: when Bolingbroke had previously been mayor in 1305 he had been attacked with a drawn knife and trampled so that he scarcely escaped with his life. (fn. 6)

There, so far as the records go, the story of troubles ends for the moment; but in 1357 the mayor, John Langton, is found objecting to the nomination of John Gisburne as bailiff; in 1364 the mayoral election was disturbed for a day and a half by rioting; and in 1369 Roger Selby alleged that he was assaulted in the execution of his mayoral duties. In 1371 there was again strife between Langton and Gisburne, this time for the mayoral office. The king intervened by forbidding either to be made mayor and by proscribing all debates and unlawful assemblies, but Gisburne nevertheless did become mayor for that and the succeeding year. (fn. 7) These conflicts, in so far as they were not merely per sonal, may represent competition for the control of the city government between the old ruling group, represented by Langton, and the new class of rich merchants of which Gisburne, who traded extensively in wool, cloth, wine, and lead, was typical. (fn. 8) Within a few years, however, the spirit of dissension had spread more widely. Towards the end of 1380 'great and notorious rumour' came to Parliament of a 'horrible thing' done at York. On 25 November Gisburne, who was again mayor, had been chased out of the city by rioters. They had then broken into the Guildhall and sworn Simon Quixley mayor against his will; compelled the bones gentz of the city to swear obedience to Simon; and proclaimed that, whenever the bell on Ouse Bridge should ring 'aukeward', all the communes would rise to defend the new dispensation. (fn. 9)

The government was compelled to intervene. Quixley was expelled from the mayoralty and Gisburne restored, and both were ordered to appear before the king's council, though in the end Quixley was ordered to answer before Gisburne instead. (fn. 10) Meantime 24 of the most notorious rioters were brought to London and imprisoned in the Tower until January 1381, when they were released on bonds of good behaviour. A commission was appointed to investigate the outbreak, 40 leading citizens were ordered to appear before the council, and another commission, headed by John of Gaunt, was instructed to settle the dispute, which was described as one between the communitas of the city and Gisburne. Finally, in May 1381, the mayor was ordered to compel all rich men not of any craft, and six representatives of each craft, to enter into bonds of £40 to keep the peace. (fn. 11)

It was not kept for long. Simon Quixley had now been duly elected mayor and may have taken advantage of his position to pay off old scores. On receiving news of the 'devilish insurrection' in Kent and Essex, he arrested five of Gisburne's leading supporters and released them only after they had paid large fines to the city. Perhaps in retaliation, on 1 July, Gisburne and his partisans attacked Bootham Bar, broke into the city, and formed an association bound by an oath and clothed in a distinctive livery. (fn. 12) Once again government action was necessary. The leading supporters both of Quixley and Gisburne were compelled in February 1382 to enter into recognizances in Chancery to keep the peace with each other. The city had to pay 1,000 marks for a general pardon and to promise redress to the religious institutions—St. Leonard's Hospital, St. George's Chapel, and the Dominican and Franciscan friaries had all suffered—which had been attacked during the insurrection. (fn. 13) There this wave of troubles ended, but it perhaps leaves an echo in the excessive concern for organizing watch and ward in the city round this time. (fn. 14)

There seem to have been two roots of this series of incidents. The leading supporters of Gisburne and Quixley were men of the same sort, mostly merchants; and the issues between the factions probably arose out of personal ambitions and antipathies. On the other hand, the men responsible for the events of November 1380 included only one prominent member of Quixley's party and mostly belonged to the non-mercantile crafts. The same is true of the men who attacked St. Leonard's in 1381. (fn. 15) Moreover, even his enemies seem to have allowed that Quixley was forced against his will to become mayor in November 1380. In other words, in 1379–81, the strife of factions was complicated by a revolt of the commonalty. Quixley and his friends perhaps played with fire by trying to make use of this movement for their own ends, with the result that at times it got out of hand. This brought down the anger of the government upon the city, but in the end Quixley lost little. He was mayor from 1381 to 1383 and his leading supporter, William Selby, in 1385, 1387, and 1388. During this very period, moreover, both Selby and Quixley were importing woad and the latter also imported canvas, soap, and iron, and exported wool on a large scale. (fn. 16) Much as they might quarrel among themselves, the active merchants were consolidating their hold over the government of the city.

The control acquired by the mercantile oligarchy and a fair measure of general prosperity perhaps explain the relative quiet which descended upon the city from 1381 to the mid-15th century. Thenceforward, however, troubles accumulated. The regulations of 1464 and 1473 for the election of the mayor were designed to assuage 'the dissensions which arise between the citizens of York', dissensions serious enough in 1471 to prevent any election at all, so that the king had to step in and appoint William Holbek. (fn. 17) In 1475 the commonalty took the opportunity of the mayoral election to present a lengthy petition, and in particular to ask that 'able' men be appointed bridgemasters and chamberlains. More important, however, were the terms in which they justified their intervention: 'forasmuch as we be all one body corporate, we think that we be all in like privileged of the commonalty, which has borne none office in the city'. (fn. 18) Ordinary citizens were no longer willing to stand on the side-lines.

The tendency was for dissension to become more rather than less violent. In 1476 William Holbek was in sanctuary with the Friars Preachers in fear of his life, Duke Richard had to appear with an army to restore order, and there was some question of the city's liberties being forfeit. (fn. 19) In 1482 there was again trouble at the mayor's election. The main cause may have been rivalry between two notables, Richard York and Thomas Wrangwissh; but this apparently released popular clamour, for certain rioters rang the common bell on Ouse Bridge. (fn. 20) The question who should be mayor was clearly a matter for popular discussion at this time. Over ale in Goodramgate in 1483 one man suggested that they ought to have Thomas Wrangwissh, 'for he is the man that my lord of Gloucester will do for'. To this a cooper was alleged to have replied that, if this were so, 'the commons would not have him mayor'. Called to account, it was said that in fact his statement had been that 'the mayor must be chosen by the commonalty and not by no lord'; and others said that he had averred that the duke would not be displeased by anyone the commons chose. (fn. 21) Recollections, perhaps, were dim, though discretion crept in afterwards. At least it is clear that the mayoralty was a matter of common concern.

The next year the commonalty was again petitioning, and its lengthy bill was eventually enacted by consent of the whole council. The common seal was to be properly kept; the streets were to be cleaned; poultry was to be sold only in Thursday Market to prevent innkeepers forestalling victuals; the city's troops were to be commanded by the mayor's esquires—a blow aimed at Wrangwissh who was prominent as a soldier about this time; the esquires and common serjeants were not to buy their offices, but were to be appointed by the mayor and his brethren with the assent of the commons. (fn. 22) The commonalty was concerned about its consitutional rights as well as about the detailed conduct of city government.

Meantime, the question of the common rights claimed by the citizens after harvest over land around the city had begun to bedevil civic politics. (fn. 23) As early as 1479 there was trouble with Lord Lovell on this account which was settled in Lovell's favour in 1483 when he was Richard III's chamberlain. In 1480 a similar dispute with St. Mary's Abbey was settled by arbitration. (fn. 24) It was Richard III, however, who precipitated a more serious incident in 1484. He asked the city council to give up common rights in a close belonging to St. Nicholas's Hospital, and the council concurred 'if the commons will agree to the same'. The commons did not agree and there was a great riot at the beginning of October. Although the mayor promptly threw the ringleaders into gaol, the commons were impenitent, even in the face of the king's anger, and read a bill of protest in the common hall placing all the blame upon the mayor. (fn. 25)

During the next few years trouble was avoided by the city authorities seeking 'curtaswise' from the owners of lands recognition of the common rights claimed by the citizens. (fn. 26) After 1490, however, guerilla warfare continued, (fn. 27) and reached a climax in 1494. The point of debate was commonage in the Vicars Leas: the vicars choral, who owned the property, were willing to pay an annual rent to the city to extinguish the common rights; but when the mayor and council endeavoured to persuade the commonalty to accept this, there was outright revolt led by the weavers and rioting inside and outside the common hall. The same night, moreover, a mob cast down the hedges around the land. The mayor imprisoned the leading rioters, but he was called to London and told roundly by the king that, if he could not keep order, 'I must and will put in other rulers that will rule and govern the city according to my laws.' With this threat in the background, council and commonalty agreed to accept the mediation of the Earl of Surrey and in the end relinquished common rights in Vicars Leas. (fn. 28)

The issue of the common lands was not the only one in civic politics at the end of the Middle Ages. There was at least a fear that the mayoral election of 1489 would be marked by disorder, and in the same year the part of the commonalty in that event was reduced by royal order. (fn. 29) The commonalty riposted with a petition in 1490 dealing with the financial problems of the city. Its demand that the mayor's fee be reduced was refused; but it was agreed that the accounts of recent mayoralties ought to be scrutinized to reveal inordinate expenditure, that the recorder should be paid only 20d. yearly, and that no other lawyers should be retained by the city. (fn. 30) For the moment, however, things were relatively quiet even if, on occasion, the commonalty nominated 'insufficient' candidates for the mayoralty. (fn. 31) This quietness was rudely shattered by the riots about rights of common in 1494; ten year later there were serious election riots. On 15 January 1504 the commonalty refused to nominate anyone for mayor until a petition they put in had been granted, and kept the mayor and council in the Guildhall, outside which a crowd of 3,000 had gathered, until six in the evening before submitting nominations. Then, on 3 February, when the new mayor was installed, only a few of the commons present would take an oath of obedience to him; and they refused to allow him to leave the Guildhall until he had set his signet to the bill presented on 15 January. The king once more expressed his anger and ordered the mayor to see that the offenders were punished. The mayor was advised by the archbishop to display clemency, but this in no way won the hearts of the rebels. A group of them, summoned to be bound over, refused on the ground that they were so bound when they were enfranchised and that they would not and could not be bound further. On 27 April the commons presented a 'great long bill' to the city council and were similarly petitioning the chancellor and the king's council; and in August they approached the archbishop with a claim to a share in the election of the city's sheriffs. (fn. 32)

At this point the agitation petered out. It is clear, however, that as the Middle Ages drew to a close the rule of the city by a mercantile oligarchy was under heavy fire from a 'democratic' movement which drew its strength from the crafts. It found a political vantage point in the city assembly from which to claim, by means of petitions, a greater share in civic affairs. This claim was ultimately to receive a measure of satisfaction in Henry VIII's charter to the city.


  • 1. York Mem. Bk. i. pp. viii–ix.
  • 2. York Civ. Rec. ii. 117.
  • 3. York Mem. Bk. i. 12, 14, 30, 40, 42, 44; ii. 52.
  • 4. Cal. Pat. 1292-1301, 624; 1307-13, 418; Cal. Fine R. 1307–19, 300.
  • 5. E.H.R. lv. 83 sqq.; Rot. Parl. i. 202.
  • 6. Cal. Pat. 1301–7, 541; 1307–13, 39.
  • 7. Ibid. 1364–7, 208; Cal. Close, 1369–74, 59, 275; York Corp. Rec. D/1, f. 313d.
  • 8. E 122/59/1, 2, 8; Cal. Pat. 1381–5, 50.
  • 9. Rot. Parl. iii. 96–97; Cal. Pat. 1377–81, 580; and generally for what follows, see A. Reville, Soulèvement des travailleurs en Angleterre en 1381, pp. cv, 271–4.
  • 10. Cal. Close, 1377–81, 420, 489.
  • 11. Ibid. 421, 486, 524–5; Cal. Pat. 1377–81, 580, 621; 1381–5, 35; Rot. Parl. iii. 96–97.
  • 12. Cal. Close, 1381–4, 31; Reville, Soulèvement des travailleurs, 272–3.
  • 13. Cal. Close, 1381–4, 115; Cal. Pat. 1381–5, 137, 187, 201; Rot. Parl. iii. 135; York Mem. Bk. ii. 69–70.
  • 14. York Mem. Bk. i, pp. xiii–xiv.
  • 15. Cal. Close, 1377–81, 421, 486; 1381–4, 115; Cal. Pat. 1381–5, 137.
  • 16. E 122/59/2; Smit, Bronnen i. 351 sqq.
  • 17. Cal. Pat. 1467–77, 239.
  • 18. York Mem. Bk. ii. 245–7.
  • 19. See p. 61.
  • 20. York Civ. Rec. i. 48–52.
  • 21. Ibid. 68–69.
  • 22. Ibid. 112–13.
  • 23. For a fuller treatment of the common lands see pp. 498–506.
  • 24. York Civ. Rec. i. 30, 32–33, 47, 70–71, 81–82, 100.
  • 25. Ibid. 89, 102–5.
  • 26. Ibid. 171 sqq.; ii. 1–2, 37–38, 61.
  • 27. Ibid. 78, 83, 93–94.
  • 28. Ibid. 107–23.
  • 29. Ibid. 39–44, 49, 54.
  • 30. Ibid. 54–55.
  • 31. Ibid. 81–82.
  • 32. Ibid. 191-4; iii. 1–9.