Medieval Beverley: The townspeople

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.

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A P Baggs. L M Brown. G C F Forster. I Hall. R E Horrox. G H R Kent. D Neave, 'Medieval Beverley: The townspeople', A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989), pp. 57-62. British History Online [accessed 18 June 2024].

A P Baggs. L M Brown. G C F Forster. I Hall. R E Horrox. G H R Kent. D Neave. "Medieval Beverley: The townspeople", in A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989) 57-62. British History Online, accessed June 18, 2024,

Baggs, A P. Brown, L M. Forster, G C F. Hall, I. Horrox, R E. Kent, G H R. Neave, D. "Medieval Beverley: The townspeople", A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989). 57-62. British History Online. Web. 18 June 2024,

The Townspeople

The inhabitants of Beverley, as of any medieval town, did not form a selfcontained or static community. Their numbers were maintained by constant recruitment from outside. The lay subsidy return of 1297 includes townsmen with surnames deriving from Holderness, such as Catwick, Hedon, Hornsea, Rise, and Withernsea, and from the wolds, including Grindale, Kilham, Wetwang, and Wintringham. (fn. 1) Lincolnshire was another important source of new blood, with Gainsborough, Lindsey, and Spalding among the surnames. Beverley also drew men from further afield and the 1297 list includes the surnames Bristol, Carlisle, Westmorland, and Winchester. The town continued to attract immigrants in the later Middle Ages. Many were no doubt drawn by the status of Beverley as a major regional market, but for others the explanation lies in the town's role as an ecclesiastical and administrative centre. Among the lawyers who chose to settle in Beverley in the 15th century was Edmund Portington, a younger son of a wealthy Howdenshire family. (fn. 2) Edward Gower of Stittenham (Yorks. N.R.), whose family had traditional connexions with the Nevilles, arrived in Beverley in the 1460s as a servant of George Neville, archbishop of York. (fn. 3) Trade and administration may have worked together in the case of the Frosts of Hull. Walter Frost was the archbishop's steward in 1375. (fn. 4) He remained Hull based but his brother Thomas moved to Beverley and so did his second son, another Thomas. The latter married Catherine, daughter of William Kelk, and took up residence in the house in Newbegin which had belonged to his father-in-law. (fn. 5) Beverley also attracted some new settlers as the headquarters of the northern minstrels' guild. (fn. 6) In the 1340s John Harper of Stansfield (Suff.) acquired property in Minster Moorgate and became known as John de Stansfield of Beverley, harper. (fn. 7)

This steady influx of immigrants meant that many Beverley residents had ties of blood with families elsewhere. The 15th-century merchant John Brompton, for instance, made bequests to humble kinsmen in Langtoft and West Heslerton. (fn. 8) In 1455 the Beverley carpenter John Barrett was party to a bond together with Richard Barrett, husbandman, of Bentley, in Rowley, and Thomas Barrett, shipman, of North Somercotes (Lines.), both of whom were presumably kinsmen. (fn. 9) Such ties were, however, only one element in a complex network of relationships which linked Beverley townspeople with the outside world. Many families made marriage alliances beyond the town. In 1275 there was still resentment in Lincoln because a former mayor had granted trading privileges to Beverley merchants after the marriage of one of his daughters to Robert Ingleberd of Beverley. (fn. 10) Less controversial connexions with other trading centres were commonplace, and there were particularly close links between Beverley, Hull, and York. Avice, the daughter and heiress of Thomas Gervays of Beverley, married John Willimot of York, (fn. 11) and the daughter of Ralph Langton of Hull married John Middleton of Beverley. (fn. 12) More distant connexions were not unknown. In the 14th century Margery Coppandale settled in Bristol after her marriage to Thomas of Cobham. (fn. 13) The upper levels of Beverley society also married into the county gentry. Agnes Creyke, the daughter and widow of Beverley merchants, married as her second husband Robert Hildyard of Winestead. (fn. 14) One of the daughters of John Holme married into the St. Quintins of Holderness, (fn. 15) and a daughter of Thomas Frost (d. 1496) married John Roos of Routh. (fn. 16)

Alongside such family links many townsmen had professional interests beyond Beverley. The merchants among them had trading connexions which are sometimes reflected in their wills. Thomas Lumbard invested in land near Bordeaux (fn. 17) and William Kelk had interests in Calais. (fn. 18) They might also act as moneylenders and acquire a wide clientele. John Brompton, for example, was owed money by the earl of Northumberland and the Hull merchant John Bedford when he died in 1444, as well as by unidentified debtors listed in his 'little red book'. (fn. 19) Several townsmen were associated with local lords, whether ecclesiastical or lay. Henry Holme was within the circle of the earl of Northumberland and at his death in 1471 two of the earl's retainers, Robert Constable of Flamborough and Ralph Hotham, were among his executors; the earl himself was named supervisor of the will. (fn. 20) There were also royal servants among the townsmen. John Holme ended his career as a baron of the Exchequer, which helps to explain why his children made strikingly good marriages. (fn. 21) Robert Rolleston was clerk of the wardrobe during Henry VI's minority, and became a royal councillor and keeper of the great wardrobe after Henry had assumed power. (fn. 22) The royal connexion probably did much to enhance the family's standing within Beverley, as did Robert's appointment as provost. Robert's brother Roger was regularly chosen keeper in the 1430s and 1440s, invariably heading the list of the twelve. (fn. 23) It was Roger also who greeted Henry VI on his visit to Beverley in 1448 with the words 'most gracious Christian prince our sovereign lord, you be welcome to your people and town of Beverley'. (fn. 24)

The leading Beverley families did not only look outwards. An equally elaborate network of relationships linked them with each other. They intermarried extensively, and most of them were related. (fn. 25) They acted as godparents to each other's children, and as executors. They also witnessed each other's deeds and stood surety in business transactions. Local clergy were part of the same network. Many were indeed members of local families, like the 13th-century vicar choral Peter of Willerby, whose father John was a glover and burgess of Beverley. (fn. 26) The possible range of such local connexions can be seen in the wills of several townspeople. Henry Holme, who made his will in 1471, made bequests to, among others, Coppandales, Creykes, Elands, Middletons, and Tones. (fn. 27) Many of the bequests were of keepsakes rather than substantial property. Thomas Tone was given a pen and gilt inkhorn and Alison Tone a small white girdle. Several beneficiaries received purses, rosaries, or rings. Alice St. Quintin, the testator's sister, received, among other things, a needle case of red velvet. Less wealthy testators showed a similar desire to be remembered by their circle of acquaintance. In 1398 Agnes, the wife of William Bird, shipman, bequeathed her clothes to her friends and relations; the wife of Thomas Manby was given a green hood, for example, and Ellen the kinswoman of Robert Burton, litster, various items including a hood, a veil, and a fur of lambskins. In all, eight women received gifts of cloth or clothing under Agnes's will. (fn. 28)

The social spectrum within Beverley was wide. At one extreme the poor are almost completely invisible, except as the generalized recipients of personal charity. In 1407 John Kelk, merchant, bequeathed £100 to poor farmers and husbandmen in and around Beverley. (fn. 29) Many testators left doles for the poor who attended their funerals. Giles of Hornsea, a vicar choral at the minster, left 15s. for that purpose in 1342. (fn. 30) In the following century John Holme preferred to spend £10 on linen and woollen clothing for the poor. (fn. 31) One of the most elaborate bequests was that of John Brompton, who stipulated that 13 poor men should carry candles at his obsequies and be clothed at his expense in russet. A further 60 poor of both sexes were to be clothed in cheaper cloth. He also left £18 to be distributed among the poor, as well as money for a meal for the poor and his friends. (fn. 32) Several townsmen preferred their charity to be longer lasting and devised property to be used as poorhouses. In 1428 the tanner John Torre requested that one of his two tenements in Flemingate be used for the free inhabitation of poor people by way of charity. (fn. 33) Such foundations were usually small. In the 1430s two God's love houses in Walkergate each housed only two people. (fn. 34) Many such private initiatives were also short lived, presumably for lack of proper endowment. In 1444 John Brompton's will mentioned three almshouses at the back of Hellgarth which he had founded, and which he wanted to be reserved for the poor for ever; (fn. 35) the houses received a bequest from John Sleaford four years later but that was the last known reference to them. (fn. 36) In some cases the bequest may have been designed primarily to benefit dependents of the testator. Many Beverley men left houses to named servants for their lifetimes and it was a small step from that to assigning the house to the poor in general. In 1477, for example, John Coppandale gave his servant Alice Sands the right to live in one of the four houses which he had built next to St. Mary's churchyard. (fn. 37) Later in the century Agnes Hildyard's bequest to the poor in a house in Wood Lane singled out Cecily, once in the service of Agnes's mother. (fn. 38)

At the other extreme were the great merchants, men like John Brompton whose will details an enormous collection of plate and other luxury goods. (fn. 39) Brompton's style of life is suggested by such possessions as a standing piece of silver gilt ornamented with St. Michael and the dragon, a bed of arras worked with the picture of the Virgin Mary and the three kings, a great chair of Flanders work, and a chest carved with St. George and other scenes. His house was evidently of comparable grandeur. His will mentions a hall, parlour, great chamber, forechamber, withdrawing chamber, 'menychaumbre' or servants' quarters, and the waterhouse chamber, besides the domestic offices. If Brompton's possessions were unusual in both quantity and quality, many other Beverley merchants and craftsmen probably lived in not much less comfort. Ellen Johnson, whose husband Robert had been a dyer, made her will in 1489. Her house had a hall, parlour, summer hall, and high chamber. Her furnishings were modest compared with Brompton's but included, for instance, a flat piece of plate with a white rose in the bottom and various soft furnishings including six cushions worked with yales and a flowered green bed. (fn. 40)

The standard of living revealed by Ellen Johnson's will is not much more lavish than that enjoyed by the mason John Cadeby earlier in the century. To judge by the incomplete inventory Cadeby's house was somewhat smaller than Ellen's, with a hall, parlour, and chamber, as well as the usual domestic offices. (fn. 41) The long list of household utensils again includes elaborate soft furnishings, among them green bed hangings powdered with red and white roses, and various items of plate. A rather more modest life style is suggested by the will of Maud, widow of Alan of Wharram, drawn up in 1330. (fn. 42) An Alan of Wharram, perhaps Maud's husband or his father, had paid 1s. 6d. in the lay subsidy of 1297, which places the family in the middle rank of town society. (fn. 43) Maud bequeathed a feather bed and its coverings, an old robe, and four silver spoons. When her executors sold her remaining goods they realized almost exactly £2. The most valuable items were an old chest, or its contents, sold for 16s. and a gown of blue cloth sold for 15s. A mazer fetched 4s. 9d. She also had 12s. in cash at the time of her death.

Wills cast only partial light on other, less material, aspects of urban life. Their image of personal piety, for instance, is almost entirely conventional. Virtually all testators of substance left money for prayers for their souls and those of their immediate families. Most made bequests as a matter of course to their parish church, the established almshouses, and the two houses of friars. Of those only the parish churches were likely to generate much more than conventional regard. Most townspeople still worshipped there and their attachment to a particular part of the church can often be seen in their wills. In 1494 William Rudd, tanner, requested burial in the north aisle of St. Mary's near the stall in which he was accustomed to sit. (fn. 44) Even those townsmen who had private altars in their homes, a privilege which was becoming increasingly common in the 15th century, (fn. 45) shared the loyalty to their parish church. Most were regular attenders as members of confraternities and all probably had family graves there.

Much less enthusiasm was generated by the two friaries, although a handful of testators sought burial there, usually within the conventual church (fn. 46) but occasionally within the cloister. (fn. 47) John Sleaford chose to be buried in the minster but endowed a mass at the Holme altar within the Dominican friary church. (fn. 48) John Kelk was unusually generous with his contribution of 95 marks to the Franciscan friars for repairing their church and dormitory. He was also one of the few testators to remember religious houses outside Beverley, giving money to each house of poor nuns within 40 leagues of the town. (fn. 49) John Brompton was another testator who spread his religious bequests widely, remembering a number of East Riding houses in the body of his will and then adding a codicil which listed grants to the fabric of numerous parish churches. (fn. 50)

Many Beverley testators remembered the various recluses living in the town. Such bequests were less stereotyped than those to the religious houses, and their frequent appearance therefore suggests genuine respect. Many of the recluses appear to have been women. The most frequently mentioned was the anchoress enclosed in the churchyard of the church of St. Giles's hospital. (fn. 51) Although most bequests refer to only one recluse there were evidently more on occasion, for in 1424 the archbishop arranged for two anchoresses to be enclosed there. (fn. 52) Another anchoress was enclosed at St. Nicholas's hospital. (fn. 53) There, too, there were sometimes two enclosed women, and a will of 1471 refers to Joan, the woman at the hospital, and Gillian, the old woman there. (fn. 54) In the 14th and 15th centuries there was also a hermitage outside North bar on the Bishop Burton road, with a chapel dedicated to St. Theobald, (fn. 55) although the hermit himself is never mentioned. There was also apparently a hermit based at St. Thomas's chapel outside Keldgate bar in the mid 14th century; in 1366-7 the keepers accounted for 2s. given to John Lyly, hermit, by way of charity for the repair of the lane near the chapel. (fn. 56) A later hermit, Robert Riell, who was enclosed at St. Giles's, (fn. 57) was famous beyond the town. He received an annuity from John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, in the 1390s (fn. 58) and was remembered in the will of Sir Stephen le Scrope in 1406. (fn. 59)

Few conclusions can be drawn about the more personal manifestations of piety. One of the few Beverley testators whose will has a distinctively personal preamble is John Brompton, who expressed his hope for redemption through the passion of Christ and the merits and suffrage of the Virgin Mary, angels and archangels, patriarchs, apostles, saints, martyrs, confessors, matrons, virgins, and all the court of heaven. The saints named within each category look like a personal selection. Thus the preferred confessors are Edward, Remigius, Nicholas, John of Beverley, and John of Bridlington. (fn. 60) Provost Robert Rolleston's patron saint was evidently St. Catherine. He founded a chantry at her altar in the minster, and sought burial in her chapel, to which he bequeathed a new window illustrating the saint's life and the miracles of Mary. (fn. 61) Mary herself was the patron of many testators. One of the most sought-after burial places in the minster was before the statue of the Virgin above the red chest. (fn. 62) Offerings made before that statue at feast days came second only to offerings made at the shrine of St. John itself. (fn. 63) In 1444 Thomas Wilton expressed his devotion to the Virgin by endowing the singing of an antiphon before her statue in the minster for 10 years and in 1458 Thomas Mayne endowed a perpetual antiphon. (fn. 64) The statue of the Virgin in the middle of the nave of St. Mary's was almost equally popular, with several testators bequeathing girdles or other precious objects for its adornment. (fn. 65)

The liturgical year dictated the cycle of popular festivities in the medieval town. The high points of the civic calendar were the Corpus Christi Day procession and plays, and the procession of the shrine of St. John around the town at Rogationtide. The latter celebrations culminated on Ascension Day, when the shrine was returned to the minster and one of Beverley's fairs began. That was also the day when the minstrels' guild met in Beverley to elect its officials for the coming year, so ensuring that the Cross days were well attended by entertainers. (fn. 66) There were evidently also public festivities at other times of the year, although the exact form they took is unknown. Beverley, in common with many towns, seems to have marked St. John's Eve, the night before Midsummer Day. In 1494 the keepers' accounts included expenses sustained by them in the guildhall on that evening, and also the cost of bread and ale consumed at High bridge at the beck. (fn. 67) In 1423 the keepers had paid for paper, red wax, and red ink to make 'signs' for the feasts of Rogationtide and St. John the Baptist. (fn. 68) Shrove Tuesday is also likely to have been celebrated each year, although its only appearance in the surviving accounts is in 1386-7, when a payment was made to pipers. (fn. 69) At Christmas the town seems to have had a share in festivities originating at the minster. In his reforming statutes of 1391 Archbishop Arundel ordered the provost to abolish the 'ancient and corrupt custom' of the King of Fools, both within the church and without, although another custom, that of 'the fools', was allowed to continue. (fn. 70) The town perhaps maintained a lord of fools on its own account, for in 1502-3 the keepers paid the expenses of the Lord of Misrule at the house of Edward Dugmanton; the context suggests, however, that the Lord in question may have been a member of the earl of Northumberland's household at Leconfield. (fn. 71) The minster clergy, meanwhile, may have compromised with Arundel's demands by electing, during the Christmas season, a boy bishop, to whom there were references in the 16th century. (fn. 72)

Personal pastimes are less easily documented. Fifteenth-century townsmen, however, played tennis: in a matrimonial case of 1467 John Cuke remembered watching Alexander Jackson and Robert Kirkby, butcher, playing ad tenesias near the beck. (fn. 73) Archery is likely to have been a general sport, and the inventory of John Cadeby includes a bow and 27 arrows with iron heads. (fn. 74) Medieval kings encouraged their subjects to practise the skill and most towns had their own butts. Those of Beverley were not mentioned explicitly in the Middle Ages but may have been in Bradwell, where the name Bradwell butts occurred in the 15th century (fn. 75) and to which led the later Butt Lane. (fn. 76) Townsmen's bows and arrows may also have been used for more or less legal hunting. The archbishop's park was evidently a standing temptation, and there was probably also some hunting on Westwood, where there was a cockshoot in the 15th century. (fn. 77) More dangerous game is suggested by Ellen Johnson's bequest of a boar spear. (fn. 78)

More intellectual pursuits are revealed by John Cadeby's possession of a pair of writing tables and six English books, though they were not specified. (fn. 79) Few wills mention books, other than liturgical texts among the fittings of a private chapel. (fn. 80) Among those which do are Henry Holme's bequest of a primer which had belonged to his father (fn. 81) and Stephen Coppandale's casual reference to all the books in his chamber in London. (fn. 82) Beverley evidently had its booksellers, however, for Henry le Scrope, Lord Scrope (d. 1415), possessed a book of the Revelations of St. Bridget which he had bought in the town. (fn. 83)


  • 1. Yorks. Lay Subsidy, 25 Edw. I, 150-1.
  • 2. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 2, f. 595; Test. Ebor. ii, pp. 21113; iii, p. 179 n.
  • 3. B.I.H.R., Reg. 22, f. 40 and v.
  • 4. Ibid. 12, f. 100v.
  • 5. Ibid. 18, ff. 384v.-385; Prob. Reg. 3, f. 263V.; Test. Ebor. iii, p. 237 n.
  • 6. H.R.O., BC/II/3, f. 41v.; J. C. Holt, Robin Hood, 1378.
  • 7. B.L. Lansd. Ch. 293-4.
  • 8. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 2, ff. 88v.-89.
  • 9. B.L. Lansd. Ch. 373.
  • 10. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), i. 309.
  • 11. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 3, f. 62v.
  • 12. Profession, Vocation, and Culture in Later Med. Eng. ed. C. H. Clough, 18.
  • 13. B.L. Lansd. Ch. 324.
  • 14. Test. Ebor. iv, pp. 12 n., 132-4.
  • 15. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 4, f. 82.
  • 16. Test. Ebor. iii, p. 238 n.
  • 17. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 3, f. 60.
  • 18. Ibid. f. 263v.; Reg. 18, f. 15.
  • 19. Ibid. Prob. Reg. 2, f. 86v.
  • 20. Ibid. 4, f. 81v.
  • 21. Cal. Fine R. 1461-71, 21.
  • 22. Griffiths, Henry VI, 65, 278, 311.
  • 23. H.R.O., BC/II/6/9-12; BC/II/7/1, f. 40.
  • 24. Ibid. BC/II/7/1, f. 89v.
  • 25. e.g. Profession, Vocation, and Culture, ed. Clough, 17.
  • 26. Bodl. MS. Univ. Coll. 82, pp. 37, 75.
  • 27. Test. Ebor. iii, pp. 192-5.
  • 28. Ibid, i, pp. 240-1.
  • 29. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 3, f. 263v.
  • 30. B.L. Lansd. Ch. 305.
  • 31. Test. Ebor. iii, p. 182 n.
  • 32. Ibid, ii, p. 97.
  • 33. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 2, f. 631v.
  • 34. H.R.O., BC/II/3, f. 23.
  • 35. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 2, f. 89v.
  • 36. Ibid. f. 184v.
  • 37. Ibid. 5, f. 21v.
  • 38. Test. Ebor. iv, p. 133.
  • 39. Ibid. ii, pp. 96-105.
  • 40. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 5, ff. 361v.-362. The meaning of 'somerhall' is uncertain.
  • 41. Test. Ebor. iii, pp. 97-101.
  • 42. B.L. Lansd. Ch. 268-9.
  • 43. Yorks. Lay Subsidy, 25 Edw. I, 150.
  • 44. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 5, f. 448v.
  • 45. e.g. ibid. f. 361v.; Test. Ebor. ii, p. 101; iii, pp. 237 n., 238.
  • 46. e.g. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 2, f. 172v.; 5, f. 198.
  • 47. B.L. Lansd. Ch. 304.
  • 48. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 2, f. 184v.
  • 49. Ibid. 3, f. 263 and v.
  • 50. Ibid. 2, ff. 86 and v., 89v.-90 (partially print. Test. Ebor. ii, pp. 97, 104-5).
  • 51. e.g. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 1, f. 73v.; 2, ff. 86v., 368.
  • 52. Ibid. Reg. 5A, f. 378v.
  • 53. Ibid. 18, ff. 360, 375; Prob. Reg. 2, f. 86v.
  • 54. Ibid. Prob. Reg. 4, f. 31v.
  • 55. H.R.O., BC/II/7/1, ff. 104, 182; Town Doc. 45.
  • 56. H.R.O., BC/II/6/6.
  • 57. N. Country Wills (Sur. Soc. cxvi), 20.
  • 58. B.L. Stowe Ch. 432.
  • 59. Test. Ebor. iii, p. 32.
  • 60. Ibid, ii, pp. 96-7.
  • 61. Ibid. ii, p. 139; Rolleston Cart. f. 1v.
  • 62. e.g. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 2, ff. 368, 370; 4, f. 97.
  • 63. B.L. Lansd. Ch. 381.
  • 64. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 2, ff. 309v., 368.
  • 65. Ibid. 4, ff. 31, 81; Test. Ebor. iii, pp. 182, 192 n.; iv, p. 133.
  • 66. H.R.O., BC/II/3, f. 41v.
  • 67. Ibid. BC/II/6/15.
  • 68. Ibid. BC/II/6/8.
  • 69. Ibid. BC/II/6/3.
  • 70. Chapter Act Bk. ii. 274.
  • 71. H.R.O., BC/II/6/16.
  • 72. Below, Beverley in 16th Cent. (Political Affairs before 1542).
  • 73. B.I.H.R., CP. F. 241.
  • 74. Test. Ebor. iii, p. 99.
  • 75. H.R.O., BC/II/7/1, f. 79.
  • 76. Below, Street Names.
  • 77. Below, Common Lands.
  • 78. B.I.H.R., Prob. Reg. 5, f. 361v.
  • 79. Test. Ebor. iii, pp. 98-9.
  • 80. e.g. ibid, ii, p. 101.
  • 81. Ibid. iii, p. 194.
  • 82. Ibid. iv, p. 8.
  • 83. Ibid. iii, p. 33 n.