Medieval Beverley: Town Finance

A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


A P Baggs. L M Brown. G C F Forster. I Hall. R E Horrox. G H R Kent. D Neave, 'Medieval Beverley: Town Finance', in A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989) pp. 30-34. British History Online [accessed 24 May 2024].

A P Baggs. L M Brown. G C F Forster. I Hall. R E Horrox. G H R Kent. D Neave. "Medieval Beverley: Town Finance", in A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989) 30-34. British History Online, accessed May 24, 2024,

Baggs, A P. Brown, L M. Forster, G C F. Hall, I. Horrox, R E. Kent, G H R. Neave, D. "Medieval Beverley: Town Finance", A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989). 30-34. British History Online. Web. 24 May 2024,

Town Finance

The internal economy of Beverley does not become visible until 1344-5, the date of the first surviving keepers' account. (fn. 1) Total receipts in that year were £45 17s. and charges exceeded them by just 2½d., although the books were balanced only at the expense of one of the town's legal advisers, who was not paid his fee of £2. By 1366-7, and the next account, receipts had risen to £165 17s. and expenses to £113 1s. Twenty years later receipts were £74 1s. and expenses £69 6s. In the first sixty years of the 15th century, for which eleven accounts survive, receipts fluctuated between £80 and £214, although the usual range was £90 to £135. Income seems to have been most buoyant in the first decade of the century, falling thereafter, but the accounts are too scattered for safe generalizations. What is clear is that despite the wide variation in gross receipts the keepers almost always managed to stay comfortably within their means. Even in 1437-8, with an income of a little over £80, the keepers were able to hand on £13 4s., over £4 more than they had inherited from their predecessors. The only exceptions among the extant 15th-century accounts are in 1423-4, when the keepers started with nothing in hand but managed to end the year quit, and 1460-1, when a surplus of £24 was turned into a shortfall of 17s. It is impossible to tell whether the difficulties in 1460-1 were part of a longer-term decline. The next surviving account, for 14945, shows income down to £82 16s. but gives no indication of financial strain as a result. The keepers had £20 4s. in hand at the beginning of the year and handed on £22 11s. to their successors.

On the whole the sources of the town's income remained constant throughout the period, although their relative contribution fluctuated considerably. The only major change was the apparent abandonment of a direct tax on the townsmen. The fullest account of the tax occurs in the 1359 rehearsal of the town's customs. (fn. 2) It states the keepers' right to levy by boxes (pixides) the established exactions and assessments, which are then set out. Burgesses were taxed on the value of their property, at the rate of 1d. for each £1 of rent. The other exactions constituted a sophisticated tax on local business. Raw materials and goods for resale, including wine and cloth, were taxed. Wholesale manufacturers paid a weekly levy based on their equipment. Thus a dyer was assessed on his vats and a shearman on his tables. Other craftsmen were assessed on their retail outlets: a farthing a week for each shop front (fenestra). Carriers were assessed on their transport, with a wagon or cart, for instance, rated at 1s. a year. In addition the keepers could levy poundage with the assent of the community, the level to be set by agreement. How it was levied was left to the keepers' discretion, but it is likely to have been a levy on goods sold.

The direct taxes occur only in the two earliest accounts. In 1344-5 the money was largely collected on a local basis. Eleven streets or areas are listed, under the heading pix' viarum, each with two named collectors. Their takings, which totalled £5 8s. 3d., ranged from 4s. 10d. in Lairgate to 18s. 10d. in Fish Market. Millers and merchants paid separately, contributing 4s. 4½d. and £6 7s. 7d. respectively. By 1366-7 the boxes were organized on a craft basis. Twelve named trades contributed and there was also a box collected on a monthly basis which yielded £12 5s. Of the identified trades the merchants were by far the largest contributors: 69 payments, some made by more than one trader jointly, totalled £10 13s. The other 11 trades together raised £6 8s.: the main contributors were the butchers, 13 of whom paid £1 4s., and the tanners, 30 of whom paid £1 2s. The brief details given in the account suggest that the 1359 assessments were still in force. One of the merchants paid 6d. for his wife's shop front for half a year. Bakers were assessed partly on their ovens and watermen on their vessels. Several entries include an element of poundage, presumably the additional rate which the keepers were allowed to levy. The reasons behind the ending of direct assessment remain unknown. No new source of income took its place. The yield of some existing sources subsequently rose, but in no case was the increase early or dramatic enough to explain the giving up of direct taxation. It is likely that the system was one of the casualties of the unrest of 1381. The keepers' exactions were a grievance then, and the malcontents singled out bustsilver and pundale for criticism. (fn. 3) The latter, which was a charge of ½d. on every pound's worth of merchandise sold in the market, was probably the additional rate mentioned in the 1359 customs. Bustsilver was defined as a charge of ½d. on every victualler's shop, which is more than the traditional assessment recorded in 1359 and is therefore likely to have been another additional levy which needed consent for its imposition. Both were apparently granted in 1356 or 1357 for seven years but, according to the rebels' complaint, had gone on being collected by the keepers for 20 years.

The medieval keepers derived income from three other main areas. One was pavage, collected at the bars, which seems to have constituted the only effective local tax on trade for most of the period covered by the extant accounts. First granted in 1249, (fn. 4) it was regularly renewed on a short-term basis until Edward IV made the grant permanent in 1483. (fn. 5) In theory the proceeds were meant to be devoted to the upkeep of the town's streets, and in 1388 one grant was revoked because the town 'has long been and now is sufficiently paved'. (fn. 6) In practice the accounts from 1386-7 onwards treat pavage as just one more source of income and make no attempt to strike a balance with the actual paving costs. For the next four decades the town made a significant profit. Pavage usually brought in between £20 and £30, of which only a third to a half was actually spent on paving. By the 1430s, however, the income had begun to fall, and by 1460 it was down to £5 3s. In 1494-5 pavage produced a mere 5s. 1d., with charitable gifts for the same purpose bringing in a further £2 6s. At first the decline did no more than reduce the town's profit, but by 1449-50 paving was regularly in deficit. In 1450-1 Beverley spent £27 7s. and collected £9 10s. The town's response to this decline seems to have been to try to farm the pavage. Keldgate bar, which had yielded just 3s. a year in 1449-51 and 1460-1, was farmed for 16s. in 1468 and for 14s. the following year. (fn. 7) The attempt had evidently been abandoned by 1494-5.

By the late Middle Ages pavage levied on incoming goods had evidently subsumed other tolls. In the early 12th century Beverley had farmed its tolls, except during fairs, from the archbishop for £12 a year. Only two of the extant keepers' accounts have a separate entry for toll and in both it is overshadowed by pavage. In 1405-6 it yielded £2 10s., compared with £26 15s. from pavage, and in 1445-6 it raised £4 18s. In the 1437-8 account toll was included in the pavage entry and yielded 8s. out of £11 15s. In none of the accounts is there any trace of the £12 farm due to the archbishop. On the two occasions when toll had its own entry in the accounts the debit side included a payment of £6 13s. 4d. to the archbishop for tolls, and in 1437-8 John Skipwith, who collected the toll, is said to have paid the farm out of his own pocket, although the sum is not given.

Some income came from the keepers' rights of jurisdiction. They offered the prospect of a steady income in fines and amercements, but in practice offenders often paid only a fraction of the specified penalty, with the remainder being treated as a bond for future good behaviour. (fn. 8) A payment of 4d. out of a fine of 3s. 4d. was not uncommon. Thus although forfeitures could run into pounds, the actual yield was usually in shillings. In 1450-1, for example, 32 forfeitures nominally yielding £8 4s. produced just £1 3s. 4d. More profitable were payments for admission to the freedom, presumably from those who had served an apprenticeship or were admitted by fine; in the 16th century, those admitted by patrimony paid nothing and were not mentioned in the accounts. (fn. 9) In 1344-5 the standard rate was apparently 3s. 4d. By 1366-7 it had risen to £1 10s., although that could be reduced in special circumstances, such as in reward for good service to the town. By 1407-8 it had settled at £1, which remained the rate for the rest of the century. By then it had become acceptable to pay in instalments, usually of 3s. 4d. or 6s. 8d., although smaller sums are recorded. In 1450-1 Robert Jackson, cartwright, paid 1s. 8d. and still owed 8s. 4d. Income from this source was at its highest in the first decade of the 15th century. The years 1407-8 and 1409-10 saw exceptionally high levels of admission, with 51 and 56 outright payments respectively. In 141617 there were 30, before numbers settled at between 12 and 25 for the rest of the century. When instalment payments are taken into account admission fines yielded an income of £65 6s. in 1407-8 and between £20 and £30 from the 1420s onwards.

From the keepers' point of view the advantage of payments for admissions was that they entailed no corresponding expenditure. The town lands, the third main source of income, made a substantial contribution to receipts, but much of the money had to be spent on maintenance. Relatively little of this income came from property rents. The town's only significant possession for most of the Middle Ages was the Dings, which consisted of a double row of shops, front and back. (fn. 10) In the first decades of the 15th century the shop rents were buoyant, rising to £14 17s., excluding arrears, in 1433-4. Decline then set in, with rents falling to around £10 in the 1440s and to £8 13s. in 1460-1 and 1494-5. In 1501 the town's acquisition of the guildhall site in the Cross garths brought further property into its possession. In 1502-3 eight tenements, three gardens, an orchard, and the gatehouse gave rents of £3 5s. (fn. 11) The keepers also controlled the properties which made up the endowments of the Kelk chantry and Aike's hospital, but they were administered separately, with their own collectors, (fn. 12) and made little contribution to town funds. Those blocks of property apart the town owned very few tenements. One, outside Keldgate bar, had been given to the town for a leper house in 1332 but had been replaced by another house outside North bar early in the 15th century and was subsequently leased out. (fn. 13) It had fallen waste by 1445-6. The town also leased out two tenements next to North bar and probably structurally part of it. Most of the town's rental was in fact made up of payments of a few pence for permission to build over common land or to inclose one of the lanes which originally gave access to land behind the street frontage. The income from these miscellaneous sources rose from about £1 at the beginning of the 15th century to above £4 in the 1430s, before stabilizing at a little under £3 for the rest of the century.

More important to the economy of Beverley were the open lands around the town. Payments by burgesses for their animals produced £2-£5 a year. The town also possessed several pieces of land which it leased out separately: the Tong, 'Aldbeck', and St. Giles's croft. The last named was acquired from the prior and convent of Warter, which supervised St. Giles's hospital, in 1412 in return for a lump sum of £60 and an annual rent of 7s. (fn. 14) It was the most valuable of the closes, yielding £3 6s. 8d. when first acquired and £2 13s. 4d. later in the century. The 'sea dikes' or flood banks on Figham and Swine Moor were also leased separately. Together, leases of herbage produced c. £6 in the 15th century.

The town lands made other contributions to the finances of Beverley. The acquisition of Westwood gave the town control of a valuable source of building materials: chalk rubble, sand, clay, and gravel. They were used extensively in the town's paving and building works but are not costed in the accounts. The only visible income from this source was a rent of £2 13s. 4d. for the common limekiln. The tenant undertook to provide the burgesses with well-burnt lime at 10d. a quarter. (fn. 15) Westwood, and to a lesser extent the other pastures, was also an important source of wood. In 1423-4 Westwood produced 4,680 faggots and in 1445-6 as many as 8,320. In the same years the other pastures produced 570 and 850 faggots respectively. The difference was not only one of quantity. Westwood was the town's main source of oak for building. Although some oaks grew in Grovehill the usual trees on the lower land to the east of the town were willows. They were intensively cultivated, and most accounts include references to planting willows, as well as to pollarding and pruning. The value set on them is suggested by an agreement of 1457 in which the keepers confirmed that willows and other trees growing in the boundary ditch of a close belonging to the Rolleston chantry were the property of the chantry priest and not of the town. (fn. 16) The yield from timber was worth while: in 1445-6 Westwood's faggots were worth £8 3s. net, although that was exceptional. Wood sales usually brought in between £3 and £9, and were one source of income which tended to rise in the 15th century. The outgoings, however, could be heavy. In a good year they consumed around a quarter of the income, but that could easily rise to half or more if major capital expenditure was called for. In 1433-4 pasture, herbage, limekiln, and wood sales together produced £19. Against that the keepers spent £4 on general maintenance of the pasture, which was normal, £4 5s. on the flood bank on Swine Moor, and £8 11s. on building a new house at the limekilns.

In general, public works of that kind accounted for a large part of the keepers' expenditure. As well as paving, they were responsible for the town bars or gateways and for scouring the various watercourses which flowed through the town. Their other outgoings were usually relatively modest. They paid £11 in rent for various properties, including Westwood. Fees and gifts accounted for between £7 and £8, (fn. 17) and between £4 and £6 was usually spent on minor items such as wine for eminent visitors or coal for heating the guildhall in winter. Those expenses could, however, be much higher. In 1416-17 the town spent heavily on its attempts to uphold Henry V's grant of the commission of the peace to the keepers. The unrest of Henry VI's reign also left its mark on town finances. In 1445-6 the town spent £27 4s. to 'resist the malice' of a group of retainers of the earl of Northumberland. Part of the money went on straightforward defensive measures. The gates were guarded at night, for example, and 30 archers were posted on Westwood on the Rogation Days, presumably to repel any attack on the shrine while it was being carried round the liberty. The rest of the money was spent on fighting an indictment of 71 townsmen by the earl's servants. The cause of the dispute is left unstated but it is likely to have been part of the ongoing feud between the Percys and Archbishop Kemp (fn. 18) rather than an exclusively civic quarrel. The outbreak of civil war brought more heavy expenditure. In 1460-1 common expenses totalled £36 5s. Some of the charges were routine, like the cost of mending the cushions in the guildhall, but the town also spent heavily on defence and on consulting noblemen, particularly Lord Neville, the heir of the earl of Westmorland. Twenty armed men were sent in 1460 to the battle of Northampton, probably on the Lancastrian side. The following year soldiers were sent to fight for the Yorkist king Edward IV at Towton. At least one of the Beverley contingent died there for in 1463 the keepers gave his widow letters under the common seal authorizing her to beg. (fn. 19) The largest expenses could not be met out of ordinary income and had to be covered by a levy. In 1448, for example, £102 17s. was raised as a gift for Henry VI, and in 1469 the town raised money for troops in the same way. (fn. 20) The relative ease with which the town could do this is a reminder that the money at the keepers' disposal each year should not be taken as an index of the wealth of the townsmen.


  • 1. Unless otherwise stated this section is based on the keepers' accts., H.R.O., BC/II/6. There are 3 for the 14th cent. and 12 for the 15th. Sums above £1 have generally been quoted to the nearest shilling.
  • 2. Town Doc. 1-3.
  • 3. Ibid. pp. xxxi-xxxii.
  • 4. Cal. Pat. 1247-58, 46.
  • 5. Cal. Chart. R. 1427-1516, 255-6.
  • 6. Cal. Pat. 1385-9, 292, 404.
  • 7. H.R.O., BC/II/7/1, ff. 208, 223v.
  • 8. e.g. ibid. BC/II/7/1, ff. 6-7, 47v.
  • 9. Below, Beverley in 16th Cent. (Economy).
  • 10. e.g. H.R.O., BC/II/6/13.
  • 11. Ibid. BC/II/6/16.
  • 12. Ibid. BC/II/7/1, ff. 54v., 134v.
  • 13. Below, Relig. Hos.
  • 14. B.I.H.R., Reg. 18, f. 180v.; Yorks. Deeds, vii, pp. 22-4.
  • 15. H.R.O., BC/II/7/1, f. 51.
  • 16. Rolleston Cart. f. 14 and v.
  • 17. Above (Local Govt.).
  • 18. R. A. Griffiths, Reign of Henry VI, 578-9.
  • 19. H.R.O., BC/II/7/1, f. 169AV.
  • 20. Ibid. ff. 90 and v., 224v-225.