The sixteenth century: The achievement of self-government

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, 'The sixteenth century: The achievement of self-government', in A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989) pp. 63-65. 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. "The sixteenth century: The achievement of self-government", in A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989) 63-65. 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. "The sixteenth century: The achievement of self-government", A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989). 63-65. British History Online. Web. 24 May 2024,

In this section


The Achievement of Self-government

For much of the 16th century Beverley still enjoyed only a limited degree of self-government. (fn. 1) The town was administered by 12 governors, elected by the burgesses, but their powers were restricted by the lordship of the archbishop and by the rights and privileges exercised by his officers and those of St. John's college. The uneasy relationship which had existed between the town and the archbishop in the 15th century (fn. 2) was soon in evidence again. In or shortly before 1504 the archbishop caused a new town clerk to be sworn to the king and to 'my lord prince, steward of my said town', presumably a reference to Henry, prince of Wales. The governors, however, ordered the clerk to go to Leconfield and submit himself to the earl of Northumberland, whose father had in 1477 been appointed, presumably for life, as titular chief steward of Beverley; when he refused they discharged him. Threats were also made at that time to the provost's bailiff in the town, who was a companion of the clerk. (fn. 3) The town's chartered rights were confirmed by the Crown in 1511 (fn. 4) and 1526, (fn. 5) but Archbishop Wolsey evidently resisted attempts by the governors to increase their authority. In 1528 the town was obliged to renounce rights which were said to have been long usurped from the archbishop: the appointment of a clerk of the market, the amends of the assize of bread and ale, the searching of measures, victuals, fuel, and tanned leather and punishment of offenders, and exemption from presenting before justices of the peace any riots or unlawful assemblies that took place in the town. (fn. 6)

Dissatisfaction with the archbishop's rule came to a head in 1534, when a group of malcontents sought to gain control. The ringleader was Sir Ralph Ellerker of Risby, in Rowley, c. 3 miles south-west of Beverley, whose family were evidently followers of the earls of Northumberland (fn. 7) and who had himself already been in dispute with the archbishop, admitting in 1516 to poaching many times in his park. (fn. 8) Ellerker bought a house in the town to qualify him for election and on 25 April 1534 was chosen as a governor. (fn. 9) The archbishop, perhaps seeking to appease the discontented among the townsmen, restored some of the disputed privileges in December that year, in return for an acknowledgement of his right to keep a sheriff's tourn or court leet in the town, to appoint a clerk of the market, and to choose justices of the peace, taking the profits of all three. He conceded that offences attracting fines of 6d. or less might be presented in the town's courts and the fines kept by the crafts. Offenders against ordinances concerning victuals and leather were to be tried in the archbishop's court with the help of the governors, and the town was to take a third of the profits. The governors were also to send representatives to accompany the archbishop's clerk of the market on his business in the town, and their appointees as appraisers of fuel and victuals brought to Beverley by water were to have the archbishop's authority. (fn. 10)

In January 1535 the archbishop, asserting that the custom of choosing governors from existing councillors had lately lapsed and blaming certain inhabitants who had assumed sway in the town, no doubt meaning Ellerker and his friends, nominated 24 councillors from whom governors should be chosen at the next election. (fn. 11) The regulations for elections in fact allowed some burgesses who were not members of the council to be nominated by the outgoing governors; presumably non-members who had not been so nominated had also attained office. Ellerker was alleged to have then appealed to the members of 17 crafts, only two of which answered in his favour. Nevertheless on 25 April, by submitting a fraudulent list of nominees, Ellerker and seven others secured their re-election, also contravening the custom that none should serve in consecutive years. Ellerker's chief counsellors were named as Robert Grey and Christopher Sanderson. Complaints by the archbishop and by townsmen loyal to him (fn. 12) were answered by an order from the court of star chamber in November invalidating the election and appointing another on 20 December; governors were ordered not to serve in consecutive years, and those living outside the town were not to be governors or meddle in elections, even if they bought a house or land in Beverley. Ellerker and his son-in-law Oswin Ogle were disbarred from office; so too were Richard Brown and Robert Grey, although that part of the order was later rescinded. (fn. 13)

Although Ellerker himself had been defeated the dispute between the rival factions in the town continued at the elections on 20 December 1535 and 25 April 1536. (fn. 14) Later in 1536 the unrest spilled over into the town's involvement in the Pilgrimage of Grace. In November 1536, during a truce in the Pilgrimage when attempts were being made to reconcile differences among the insurgents, agreement was finally reached between the archbishop and the townsmen, who by then were apparently united. Of the four burgesses acting for the townsmen two, including Robert Grey, had been supporters of Ellerker and the others were followers of the archbishop. The archbishop reaffirmed his right to have a sheriff's tourn and to appoint a clerk of the market and justices of the peace, and the outgoing governors were no longer to have a part in the election of their successors. He conceded, however, that two of the governors should act as keepers of the market, and the town's share of the profits from offences concerning victuals and leather was raised to a half. The burgesses were to appraise all victuals and fuel brought to the town by water. (fn. 15) New oaths were promptly drawn up for governors and burgesses by which they undertook to observe the agreement. (fn. 16)

There was no obvious distinction between the factions in the dispute on social grounds, both sides including several of the more substantial townsmen. Of those who were named as supporters of Ellerker, two were craft aldermen and a dozen had already served or were later to serve as governors. (fn. 17)

The chartered rights of town and archbishop were confirmed by the Crown in 1539, (fn. 18) but in 1542 the Crown acquired Beverley from Archbishop Lee, in return for a grant of property elsewhere, (fn. 19) and the next year it confirmed the agreement of 1536. (fn. 20) Further confirmations of chartered rights, issued in 1548, 1554, and 1559, included the commission of the peace which had been briefly held in the early 15th century. (fn. 21) In the mean time the other ecclesiastical franchise endured by the townsmen, that of the provost, was removed with the suppression of the college in 1548.

After 1542 officers appointed by the Crown or its grantees replaced those of the archbishop, but there is little evidence of their part in the administration of the town. Richard, later Sir Richard, Page had in 1526 succeeded Sir Richard Rokeby in the receivership, bailiwick, stewardship, and other offices in Beverley. (fn. 22) He surrendered those offices in 1544; they were granted to Michael Stanhope the same year and after his attainder in 1552 to Sir Thomas Wharton. (fn. 23) In 1556 Wharton's servants were involved in affrays in Beverley with men of John Bellow, surveyor of Crown lands in the East Riding. (fn. 24) In 1565 Simon Musgrave, described as one of the lord's officers in Beverley, consented to an order made by the governors. (fn. 25) The lord's court leet continued to be held in the town, still with a share of the profits being enjoyed by the governors. (fn. 26)

The achievement of self-government was not long delayed. In 1573, in response to a request by the burgesses and at a cost to the town of £223, (fn. 27) Beverley was incorporated by royal charter under the title of the mayor, governors, and burgesses. The 12 governors were to constitute the common council and they were to hold office for life. The mayor and governors were to choose a recorder and annually elect a town clerk and other customary officers, and the town was to return two members to parliament. The town was to have a prison, a court of record, and view of frankpledge. The assize of bread, wine, ale, other victuals, fuel, and wood were to be enjoyed by the town, and the mayor was to be clerk of the market, escheator, and coroner, paying £5 11s. a year to the Crown for the profits of those offices. The mayor, recorder, and two governors were to have a separate commission of the peace for the town. (fn. 28)


  • 1. The sections on the Achievement of Self-govt., Town Govt., Economy, and Pop. and Topog. are by K. J. Allison, the rest by G. H. R. Kent.
  • 2. Above, Med. Beverley (Local Govt.).
  • 3. Yorks. Sta. Cha. Proc. iii (Y.A.S. Rec. Ser. li), pp. 96-9; Sel. Cases in Counc. of Hen. VII (Sel. Soc. lxxv), 42 n.
  • 4. H.R.O., BC/I/51; L. & P. Hen. VIII, i (1), p. 376.
  • 5. H.R.O., BC/I/52 (trans. Poulson, Beverlac, 282-4).
  • 6. L. &. P. Hen. VIII, iv (2), p. 2238.
  • 7. R. R. Reid, King's Council in North, 109 n., 116.
  • 8. Town Doc. 136-7.
  • 9. Yorks. Sta. Cha: Proc. i (Y.A.S. Rec. Ser. xli), pp. 34-6.
  • 10. H.R.O., BC/I/53.
  • 11. Ibid. BC/I/54 (trans. Poulson, Beverlac, 286-7).
  • 12. Yorks. Sta. Cha. Proc. i, pp. 36-9; ii (Y.A.S. Rec. Ser. xlv), pp. 99-104; L. & P. Hen. VIII, vii, pp. 269, 291.
  • 13. Town Doc. 64-5.
  • 14. Yorks. Sta. Cha. Proc. ii, pp. 105-14.
  • 15. H.R.O., BC/I/56; Town Doc. 66-72; Reid, King's Council in North, 140.
  • 16. Poulson, Beverlac, 288-9, corrected by Corp. MSS. 55.
  • 17. Below, Lists of Officers; inf. from Mr. D. J. Lamburn, who in 1988 was preparing a Ph.D. thesis on Beverley in the 16th cent. for the Univ. of York.
  • 18. H.R.O., BC/I/57 (trans. Poulson, Beverlac, 285).
  • 19. Below (Political Affairs after 1542); below, Manors.
  • 20. H.R.O., BC/I/58.
  • 21. Ibid. BC/I/59 (extract. Poulson, Beverlac, 296), 63, 67, 68 (trans. Poulson, op. cit., App. pp. 7-9).
  • 22. B.L. Add. Ch. 22632.
  • 23. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xix (1), pp. 43, 643; Cal. Pat. 15534, 393-4.
  • 24. P.R.O., STAC 4/2/42; STAC 4/9/10; Acts of P.C. 1554-6, 297.
  • 25. H.R.O., BC/II/3, f. 14; below, Manors.
  • 26. H.R.O., BC/II/7/2, ff. 8 and v., 88v.; BC/II/7/3, ff. 5, 8v.
  • 27. Ibid. BC/II/7/3, f. 58v.
  • 28. Ibid. BC/I/70 (trans. Poulson, Beverlac, App. pp. 1022).