The sixteenth century: Town 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.

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, 'The sixteenth century: Town Government', in A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989) pp. 65-70. British History Online [accessed 28 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: Town Government", in A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989) 65-70. British History Online, accessed May 28, 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: Town Government", A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley, (London, 1989). 65-70. British History Online. Web. 28 May 2024,

Town Government

At the end of the 15th century the town was administered by 12 governors and 24 assistants, together forming a council of 36. The governors were elected from a field of 18, of whom 12 were chosen from the councillors by the outgoing governors with the help of certain burgesses and 6 were other townsmen chosen by the governors alone. The rule that governors must have been out of office for two years before re-election (fn. 1) had apparently been altered or broken for there were instances early in the 16th century of men serving for consecutive years. (fn. 2) By the agreement reached in 1536, after the disputed elections of the previous few years, the governors were chosen from the 24 by the aldermen and brethren of the guilds. (fn. 3) By 1561 the governors were evidently choosing two of their number to conduct day-to-day business on their behalf, and in 1570 it was the 'speaker' of the governors, or his deputy, who gave instructions to the common serjeant. (fn. 4)

There were probably few councillors who did not become governors. Of the councillors in office in 1571-2, for example, only four, two of whom had been sitting for 10 and 21 years respectively, failed to gain promotion and were presumably considered unworthy to be governors. (fn. 5) The method of choosing candidates ensured continuity of service, and many men served several times. Some families, moreover, like the Farrers, Sandersons, and Settringtons, provided more than one governor during the period up to 1573. (fn. 6) Of those whose occupations are known many were glovers, merchants, or tanners. Men were occasionally excused from the governorship or other offices. In 1522 Peter Craw, a former governor, because of ill health and on payment of 20 marks towards the rebuilding of St. Mary's church was excused from serving again as governor or churchwarden, and from duties at elections or courts. (fn. 7) In 1556 burgesses were ordered not to nominate governors and former governors for election as constables. (fn. 8)

The involvement of the 24 in town business was variable. Orders made by the governors sometimes had the consent of 'the council' or 'the commonalty', (fn. 9) sometimes that of the 24 councillors. (fn. 10) Once, in 1547, 15 members of the council were consulted (fn. 11) and twice, in 1556, 13 men, being the 'greater and most discreet' (maioris et sanioris) part of the council; (fn. 12) in 1566 the 24 were joined by the aldermen, stewards, and brethren of the crafts. (fn. 13) Absence from council meetings without good cause brought fines; (fn. 14) six men were fined in 1559-60 for attending a 'general meeting' without gowns and others for being absent on a 'general day'. (fn. 15)

Respect was demanded for the governors and assistants. A man was fined in 1569 for alleging that a governor encouraged two townsmen to trouble the town with lawsuits, contrary to his oath of office, (fn. 16) and fines for disobeying or slandering governors were frequent. (fn. 17) Eight burgesses were disfranchised for such offences in 1568-9 and nine in 1569-70, though faced with that threat to their livelihoods most of them later submitted and were restored. (fn. 18) The abuses of 1568-9 were evidently connected with the punishment of one Kitchen's wife, for unspecified reasons, which also caused dissension among the governors themselves. Two governors were fined in 1568-9 and the next year it was necessary to order the former governors to end the enmity between them. (fn. 19) In 1522 a man was taken to court for slandering Perceval Robson, a Northumberland man and one of the 36, by calling his son a Scot. (fn. 20) Burgesses were also sometimes guilty of misconduct in the guildhall, like the man who drew a dagger to support his ill chosen words in 1564-5. (fn. 21)

In the 1560s and early 1570s several offices were filled by the governors, without payment: 2 acted as masters of the maisons dieu, 2 as masters of the market and works, 6 as masters of the common pastures, 2 as appraisers of the beck, and up to 6 as keepers of the keys of the town chest. Paid officers included the town clerk, a common serjeant, a toll gatherer, a paver, 2 fish searchers, a market cleanser, a bellman, and waits. (fn. 22) Of the town clerks known to have served before 1573, three were apparently members of the same family, the Harrisons. (fn. 23) The clerk's fee was £2 13s. 4d. a year in the 1560s (fn. 24) but in 1570 it was set at £6 13s. 4d., together with the customary payment from each new burgess and 6s. 8d. for engrossing accounts. The clerk did not keep formal minutes of council meetings, though the so-called 'paper books' in which he recorded orders, court receipts, admissions of burgesses, and other business have come to be known as minute books. (fn. 25) The common serjeant's fee, which had been increased from £1 to £2 in the 1560s, was set at £2 13s. 4d. in 1570, besides the customary payment from new burgesses and money received for animals impounded in the common fold. (fn. 26) The town had no legal officer before 1573 but fees were paid to various lawyers for their advice. In the 1560s they included Christopher Estoft, custos rotulorum for the East Riding and a legal member of the Council in the North. (fn. 27) Between 1568 and 1570 gifts were made to William Paler, and when he was enfranchised in 1572 it was ordered that his counsel should be taken in all the town's weighty affairs; he was soon to become the first recorder of Beverley. (fn. 28)

The new system of government introduced by the charter of 1573 was more oligarchic than the one it replaced. Not only were the governors chosen for life, but also the vague association of 'the burgesses' with the mayor and governors gave less voice to the townsmen, who had earlier enjoyed additional representation by the 24. It was evidently not long, however, before the part played by the burgesses was more clearly defined; 'head' burgesses were mentioned in 1573-4, (fn. 29) and by 1592-3 a group of 13, sometimes called the 'selected', burgesses was chosen to form part of the common council. (fn. 30)

Detailed orders for the election and conduct of officers and for the government of the town were made in 1573-4 and confirmed and amended in 1576, 1592-3, and 1595-6. The mayor was elected on the Monday before Michaelmas and sworn a week later. He was chosen from the ranks of the governors by the outgoing mayor, the governors, and the burgesses. A former mayor was not allowed to serve again within five years, and none was to be forced to serve more than three times. The mayor's allowance was £30, besides 200 kids of firewood which he could buy at the town's price, replaced in 1596 by two chaldrons of coals. He had the services of a town cook. The mayor was expected to attend divine service each Sunday, and on special days he had to wear a gown trimmed with fur and with a velvet tippet. The governors were ordered to wear uniform gowns faced with budge. They were expected to be resident in the town, although that requirement was later withdrawn. Fines for refusal to serve were heavy: £10 for mayor in 1573-4 and £5 for governors, the latter increased to £20 in 1596. The selected burgesses were elected on the same day as the mayor, when the mayor and governors nominated 26 burgesses from whom the commonalty might choose 13. (fn. 31) Disobedience or abuse of the governors and selected burgesses was ordered, probably in 1576, to be punished with disfranchisement, (fn. 32) and in 1578 an offender was paroled under threat of that penalty. (fn. 33) When certain townsmen were said in 1588 to have shown contempt for the mayor and governors, by riotous behaviour and by staying in London for 12 weeks to prosecute suits, such transgressions were made liable to fines of £5 with disfranchisement for a second offence. (fn. 34)

The first mayor, nominated in the charter, was Edward Ellerker, great-grandson of the rebellious Sir Ralph. He had evidently been groomed for office: he moved into Beverley 'to inhabit' in 1569-70, was made a burgess gratis and joined the common council the next year, and in 1571-2 became a governor. (fn. 35) Most men served as mayor only once but before the end of the century William Farley, Robert Farrer, and Peter Harpham each served twice and John Truslove three times. (fn. 36) Of the governors nominated in the charter 10 were already experienced in office. Although appointed for life, governors were sometimes discharged for failure to live in the town, and others were allowed to resign. (fn. 37)

The town clerk in the year of incorporation was John Harrison, who thereupon ended a long term in office; three others served before the end of the century. (fn. 38) The clerk at first kept similar records of proceedings to those compiled before 1573, but by 1597 only orders were recorded. (fn. 39) The first recorder elected under the charter was William Paler, who had already been the town's legal adviser (fn. 40) and had been elected in 1571 as one of its M.P.s. He later served the Council in the North and was the queen's attorney for the north of England. His successor as recorder in 1597 William Gee also held office under the Council in the North. (fn. 41) The recorder's fee was £10 a year. (fn. 42)

The court of record was held on Mondays and dealt not only with debts and trespasses, as specified in the charter of 1573, but also with a variety of other business. In 1578 the clerk of the court paid the town £5, presumably for the profits of the office. Varied business was also transacted at the so-called Thursday sittings, which were perhaps regarded as extensions of those on Mondays. Sessions of the peace were held infrequently, usually on Tuesdays or Fridays, and a sheriffs tourn or view of frankpledge twice a year. (fn. 43) The governors chosen to serve as justices of the peace were occasionally relieved of the burden: in 1594, for example, Lancelot Alford was allowed to resign because of commitments in London. (fn. 44)

The keeping of the prison granted in 1573 belonged to the mayor; it was delegated to the macebearer and the profits of the prison were collected by an under-serjeant. (fn. 45) About 1590 Thomas Wakefield was appointed serjeant at mace and gaoler; the corporation was evidently dissatisfied with him, refused to pay his expenses, and dismissed him, but he was restored by order of the Privy Council in 1595. He was later dismissed again, and in 1598 the archbishop and the Council in the North were ordered to investigate his case. (fn. 46)

The town's accounts survive for only 25 years during the 16th century. (fn. 47) Four accounts from the first quarter of the century show monies due to the town totalling c. £90, with a balance of c. £30 in hand at the year's end. Receipts were much higher in the 1540s and 1550s, reaching £200 in 1545-6, but the balance twice fell to £10 or less. In 1562-3 income reached £297 and it twice exceeded £200 in the first years of the 1570s. Despite increased expenditure a healthy balance was still maintained, although the large sums of £67 and £66 in 1570-1 and 1572-3 respectively included debts of £18 and £32. In 1573 the start of the accounting year was changed to Michaelmas, when the first mayoral election took place, and from about that date two receivers were appointed to handle the town's finances. (fn. 48) Additional sources of income were found to meet heavy demands: in the five months up to Michaelmas 1573 and in the year 1573-4 together income reached £707, and at the end of that period the balance of £63 included pledges and debts of £45. In the four years in the later 1570s for which accounts survive receipts remained steady at c. £235, but twice the balance was modest and on the other two occasions there was a deficit. In 1584-5 receipts soared to £827, mainly because of the inclusion of an item not usually accounted for. (fn. 49) In 1586-7 income of £554 produced a substantial balance of £205, but in the years 1589-90, 1590-1, and 1595-6 receipts of just over £300 on the first two occasions and £666 on the third left a deficit of over £40 at each year's end, the highest shortfalls of the century.

In the early 16th century rents and other profits from town property made up the largest part of the receipts, some £35 all told. Rents included those of the Dings, the Cross garths, and chantry lands administered by the governors, and for the herbage of grounds belonging to the town. Other payments were made by the owners of closes for the suspension of average rights, and there was income from the common pastures. Payments by new burgesses, some of them admitted in previous years and allowed to pay in instalments, produced £10-£20. Small sums were received from nail sellers and from the owners of shod carts, to pay for paving, and from forfeitures, contributions to crafts, and fines. From the 1540s tolls and stallage regularly contributed to the income, at first c. £14 but rising to over £30 late in the century. The substantial sums of £30 and £40 received from the churchwardens of St. Mary's in the 1540s may have been loans. From the 1550s the rents of chantry lands were replaced by 'common rents' and from c. 1590 the various traditional rents were lumped together as 'town rents', sometimes producing over £40. The 'minster rents' deriving from the Crown grant for the upkeep of the minster were recorded from 1575-6, producing £60 and more. (fn. 50)

Several other sources of income made their appearance in the later 16th century. The sale of trees produced large sums from the 1560s and made it possible to meet unusually heavy demands on the town's coffers, as in 1573-4. (fn. 51) Other contributions came from the sessions, the profits of the gaol, and the attorneys, who paid for the right to keep their fees in the courts. The court of record often produced £25-£35, and bakers' and brewsters' fines c. £10. From the 1580s money was received from the Crown to pay the minster curates, and income of £195 from 'concealed lands' granted by the Crown to the corporation, partly for St. Mary's church, was accounted for in 1584-5. (fn. 52) The concealed lands produced only £37 in 1585-6, perhaps a better reflection of their real value. Comparatively large sums from other sources were occasionally recorded. Thus benevolences of £55 were collected in 1562-3 when the beck was cleansed, an assessment of £57 was levied in 1572-3 to pay the fifteenth and tenth to the Crown, £42 was raised in 1573-4 by letting the South parrock in Westwood, and special efforts were evidently sometimes made to collect old debts, £79 in 1584-5 and £50 in 1586-7, for example.

Among the regular items of expenditure was the payment of fee farm rents. In the first quarter of the century, when the largest sums were those to the archbishop for Westwood and the lord of the manor of Cottingham for passage along the river Hull, the total was only £10. By the third quarter the total had more than doubled, the chief additional sums being payments to the Crown for the tolls, the Trinity maison dieu, and the court of record, and a large rent was added for the lands granted in 1585. Fees and other payments to officers amounted to c. £12 until the 1570s, but with the addition of payments to the grammar school master, mayor, and recorder they exceeded £90 in 1575-6. A further rise to c. £150 in the 1580s was chiefly accounted for by the salaries of the minster curate and assistant. Throughout the century a wide range of 'common repairs' and 'common expenses' made up a large part of the expenditure; the total naturally varied greatly with the needs of the moment, but it increased from some £20 in the early years to over £100, occasionally even £200. Repairs to buildings, street paving, the maintenance of the common pastures, and other public works were sometimes expensive: nearly £80 was spent on the Dings in 1545-6, for example, and nearly £90 on the beck in 1562-3. The miscellaneous common expenses included gifts to influential men, the costs of legal proceedings in London and York, payments to soldiers, gifts to the poor, the expenses of the town's M.P.s, and the cost of the new charter in 1573. On four occasions, in 1572-3, 1589-90, 1590-1, and 1595-6, more than £50 was paid to the Crown for taxes; when in 1599 Beverley was discharged from paying tax it was at a cost to the town of 200 marks. (fn. 53) A few pounds were written off for decayed rents but debts of various kinds increased greatly towards the end of the century and reached over £160 in 1595-6.


  • 1. Above, Med. Beverley (Local Govt.).
  • 2. Below, Lists of Officers.
  • 3. Above (Achievement of Self-govt.).
  • 4. H.R.O., BC/II/3, f. 39v.; BC/II/7/2, f. 35.
  • 5. Ibid. BC/II/7/3, f 66v.
  • 6. Below, Lists of Officers.
  • 7. Town Doc. 63.
  • 8. Ibid. 73.
  • 9. H.R.O., BC/II/3, f. 39v.; Town Doc. 63.
  • 10. H.R.O., BC/II/3, ff. 10v., 12, 26v., 27, 33v., 39v.
  • 11. Ibid. f. 29.
  • 12. Town Doc. 73; Corp. MSS. 88.
  • 13. H.R.O., BC/II/3, f. 12.
  • 14. Ibid. BC/II/7/3, f. 44.
  • 15. Ibid. BC/II/7/2, f. 19.
  • 16. Ibid. BC/II/3, f. 33v.
  • 17. Ibid. BC/II/7/3, f. 5, etc.
  • 18. Ibid. BC/II/7/3, ff. 2v., 12v., 21v., 33, 43v.
  • 19. Ibid. BC/II/7/3, ff. 5, 10v.
  • 20. Corp. MSS. 55-6.
  • 21. H.R.O., BC/II/7/2, f. 64v.
  • 22. Ibid. ff. 2v., 40v., etc.; BC/II/7/3, ff. 1 and v., etc.
  • 23. Below, Lists of Officers.
  • 24. H.R.O., BC/II/7/2, f. 10, etc.
  • 25. They survive for 1558-73: ibid. BC/II/7/2-3.
  • 26. Ibid. BC/II/3, f. 39v.; BC/II/7/2, f. 10, etc.
  • 27. Ibid. BC/II/7/2, ff. 17v., 21v., 40v., 86v.; Reid, King's Council in North, 186, 284 n.
  • 28. H.R.O., BC/II/7/3, ff. 7 and v., 16 and v., 51v.; below (Parl. Representation).
  • 29. Poulson, Beverlac, 325.
  • 30. H.R.O., BC/II/5/1 (2nd), f. 3.
  • 31. Ibid. BC/II/3, ff. 35v.-37 (print. with errors Poulson, Beverlac, 324-7); Boro. Rec. 36-43, 96-8; Corp. MSS. 589. For the cook see H.R.O., BC/II/6, passim.
  • 32. H.R.O., BC/II/4, f. 37.
  • 33. Ibid. f. 143.
  • 34. Boro. Rec. 95-6; Acts of P.C. 1587-8, 394.
  • 35. H.R.G., BC/II/6/28; BC/II/7/3, ff. 16v., 21, 31; Visit. Yorks. 1584-5 and 1612, ed. J. Foster, 136-7.
  • 36. Below, Lists of Officers.
  • 37. Boro. Rec. 99-101; below, Lists of Officers.
  • 38. Below, Lists of Officers.
  • 39. They survive for 1575-83 (the so-called 'small order book') and 1597 onwards (the 'minute books').
  • 40. Above (this section).
  • 41. Hist. Parl., Commons, 1558-1603, iii. 166, where Paler was wrongly stated to have been M.P. for Hedon in 1571; V.C.H. Yorks. E.R. i. 125; below, Lists of Officers.
  • 42. H.R.O., BC/II/6, passim.
  • 43. Boro. Rec. 2-33. Sessions of the peace are not to be equated with Thurs. sittings, as in ibid. p. xi.
  • 44. Ibid. 96.
  • 45. H.R.O., BC/II/6/36, 39-42; Boro. Rec. 15.
  • 46. H.R.O., BC/II/6/42; Acts of P.C. 1595-6, 49-50, 1346; 1598-9, 307-8; Boro. Rec. 99.
  • 47. Unless otherwise stated this section is based on H.R.O., BC/II/6/16-42.
  • 48. Boro. Rec. 15.
  • 49. Below (this section). Totals are not given in 1584-5 for constituent items of expenditure and in 1585-6 for those of either income or expenditure.
  • 50. Below, Churches.
  • 51. Poulson, Beverlac, 328-9; below, Common Lands.
  • 52. Below, Churches.
  • 53. H.R.O., BC/II/7/4/1, f. 4; below (Economy).