The City of York in the time of Henry VIII

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The City of York in the time of Henry VIII

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by Nadine Lewycky

Sixteenth-Century England: An Overview


The traditional thesis regarding demography was that towns experienced a decline in both wealth and population in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, for example, as was the case in York. However, other towns were prospering at their expense. Halifax and Wakefield in the West Riding were experiencing growth in the textile industry, while Newcastle and Hull were exporting cloth to the continent, again at the expense of York, which lost out on both manufacturing and mercantile activities. Scholars have now revised their interpretation of the condition of early modern towns to be regional phenomena – that is, economic prosperity or decline was experienced by a town and its surrounding countryside, rather than as a town versus rural divide.

The demography and social structure in England was also in flux in this period. Towns were either growing or shrinking in size depending on their location and their economic situation. By the Elizabethan period, even those towns that had been experiencing a decline in population under Henry VIII were beginning to recover, if not surpass their previous levels. The rise of mercantile activity in the towns also had an impact on the composition of the social structure – what historians have traditionally referred to as ‘the rise of the middle class’. Merchants and professionals, such as lawyers, became wealthier and more numerous and established themselves in the social hierarchy by purchasing land and estates, which remained the most important characteristic for determining social status and accessing political participation.

During this period, the role of the landed aristocracy was changing. With the creation of a professional standing army, in which soldiers were paid a wage, and the use of foreign mercenaries (think of the Swiss Guard), the traditional military function of the nobility receded. Under Henry VIII and his numerous forays into France, the nobility were still expected to provide military service both personally and by enlisting their tenants. During times of peace, the nobility continued to fulfil the role of the king’s natural councillors and were expected to attend the royal court for part of the year.

So instead of depicting the place of the nobility in the sixteenth century as declining steadily in absolute terms, we need to see it as fluctuating and relative to the political power and authority of the gentry, who were increasing in number. Mervyn James has also argued for an alteration in the ethos of the nobility – that is, with the re-introduction of humanist values in the Renaissance, ‘nobility’ was determined by education, erudition and virtue more so than blood lines and land. Some landed nobility were able to adjust to the new political and intellectual climate by attending the universities, which laymen did in increasing numbers in the sixteenth century, and by applying this education to the performance of administrative service to the crown.

Politics and administration:

Politically, England was one of the most centralised kingdoms in Europe, more so than France, although it lacked many of the features which we would recognise in a ‘modern nation state’. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century British historians have regarded the Reformation as the genesis of a polity which we would be recognise today. Controversially, Geoffrey Elton pinpointed this process to the 1530s as the work of Henry’s first minister and Royal Secretary Thomas Cromwell. In the 1960s, G.E. Aylmer studied seventeenth-century ‘civil servants’, but it is generally accepted that historians need to be more cautious about using modern terms, such as ‘bureaucratic’, ‘nation’ and ‘state’ when describing early modern polities and their administrators.

Centrally, the kingdom was governed from the royal court, a political institution which developed in all European kingdoms in the fifteenth century. The royal court and the royal household were attached and were essentially the same political body. The household was simultaneously the private, domestic establishment in which the servants provided for the material comforts of the lord, while also being his public, political body, where servants carried out political functions, such as acting as messengers; it was also his political venue, where he received diplomats, guests and colleagues, and conducted his business. Henry’s closest servants were also his advisers. We must remember that categories or terms, such as councillor or adviser, were used loosely – these were not official positions, but the men who were in daily contact with the king and were the most trustworthy normally provided the king with advice on how to govern.

The royal household and the court were the venues in which the king maintained contact with the realm. Both of these bodies – household and court – should be conceived of as changeable entities – they were collections of persons surrounding the king rather than physical locations. The membership of these bodies was fluid and the court and household were peripatetic – that is, they moved with the king on his progresses around the kingdom.

As I just mentioned, it was the court and household, which linked the king with the outlying areas of his kingdom. The household was the core of what scholars have called the ‘king’s’ or ‘royal affinity’. It was comprised of men who were in the king’s service, including those most intimately attached to the king: councillors, privy chamber servants, central officials and nobles residing at the court. But the royal affinity extended beyond the court and also comprised men who governed throughout the kingdom. They were connected to royal government in a variety of ways: some men were knights of the shire (that is, they sat in parliament); some men were county officials, such as escheators or sheriffs; others were justices of the peace or assize. This was the second degree of attachment to the king. They held regular offices and received regular payments. But not all held positions in which they were expected to undertake administrative duties. There were men from the provinces who were attached to the royal household on an irregular basis and were called the king’s knights or yeomen of the crown, depending on their social status. They may be called upon to act on ad hoc commissions when necessary, such as collecting taxes, and to serve the king militarily in war. These men were given ‘supernumerary’ offices – for example, knight of the household, although they were not expected to attend the court for lengthy periods of time nor did they actually hold an office.

Thus, while England was a centralised kingdom, it was not what we would recognise today as a modern nation-state, the type of polity which emerged in the nineteenth century. Rather, it was governed from the centre by socio-political networks in which men in the provinces provided the king with service, be it administrative, military or otherwise, in exchange for rewards, such as grants of land, office, cash or favours. The ability to lavishly reward his subjects was the lynchpin of this type of government; and Henry’s ability to reward his servants increased dramatically after the monastic dissolutions of the 1530s. It altered the power dynamics in the kingdom dramatically – not only between church and state, but also within the social hierarchy. England under Henry VIII was a personal monarchy – the personality of the king influenced the nature of government, and the strength of its government rested on the quality and ability of the gentlemen in the provinces, rather than on an institutionalised network of bureaucratic offices.


There were two strains of attack on the church in England and the traditional form of religious practice in the early sixteenth century: the first was Lollardy, a domestic heretical movement which had been present in England since the fourteenth century; and the second was evangelicalism, in particular, Lutheranism which was entering England through trading ports with Europe. (Evangelicalism stressed the primacy of scriptural and biblical doctrine, and is best known for the concept of salvation by faith, which downplayed the efficacy of good works and purgatory as promoted by the medieval church.) It may be surprising to learn that members of the church hierarchy considered Lollardy, rather than Lutheranism, the greatest threat to traditional religion in the 1520s. That is because bishops, deans and other officials believed that Lutheranism would re-ignite dormant Lollard sects. Historians generally agree that Lollardy had died out in England by the sixteenth century, but it was perceived to still be a problem. Thus, the campaign against heresy in the 1520s led by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Chancellor of England, which included public book burnings and trials of heretics, was spurred by the fear of Lollardy. Further, the campaign to squash heresy was directed at scholars at the universities, rather than at ordinary laypersons. The exception was the foreign merchant communities in London where the Lutheran-style evangelicalism was popular.

There has been a lot of scholarly debate about the state of the church and its ability to provide adequate spiritual guidance to people in the early sixteenth century. Formerly, historians argued that the church was crumbling and that its religious provisions were insufficient because they were provided by inadequately trained clergy. This view has largely been revised. Historians now believe that pre-Reformation religion satisfied the spiritual needs of the majority of English people. It was a multifarious and fluid type of spirituality, and it involved a large amount of lay participation, through religious guilds, passion plays and popular feast days, such as Corpus Christi.

Similarly, the monastic orders have not traditionally received favourable reviews from historians. The monasteries were interpreted as being in decline and in need of reform, thus justifying the dissolutions of smaller houses which began in the 1520s with Wolsey’s foundation of Cardinal College (now Christ Church) at Oxford and continuing in the large scale dissolutions of the mid to late 1530s. Revisionists, like Eamonn Duffy, have argued that monasteries were in much better spiritual and financial health than has previously been assumed.

While the church and the monasteries were by no means perfect, the state of them was not so deficient as to warrant full-scale dissolution. Instead, historians are arguing that what is significant about the early Tudor period, is the change in people’s expectations of their clergy and the monastic orders: the introduction of humanism along with an increasingly educated lay population who desired a greater involvement in religion, meant that the secular and regular clergy were under greater scrutiny than ever before.


The introduction of the intellectual movement of humanism, both from the Italian and Northern European Renaissance movements, was essential to determining the course of the Reformation in England. The central tenet of humanism was a stress on the humanity of Christ (the man) and ‘humanist’ scholars were those who advocated the study of scriptures in their original languages, Greek and Hebrew, a study of Greek authors, because of the emphasis on human society in their writings, as well as a focus on rhetoric and grammar. This would enable society to re-establish a ‘pure’ church, as well as being practically useful by preparing men to be eloquent diplomats.

Thus, the reformation in England was a mixture of political and dynastic events unique to England, but it was also part of a larger European-wide movement of reform directed at doctrine and religious practice.

York: An Introduction

York’s history as a city began in 1212/13 when King John granted it freedom from the financial control of the county sheriffs and the citizens elected a mayor. At several times between 1296 and 1336 during the reigns of Edward I and Edward II, York served as the kingdom’s capital, playing host to several central government bodies, including the courts of Exchequer, Chancery, King’s Bench and Common Pleas. The city achieved its widest level of freedoms in grants from Richard II by the end of the fourteenth century. They were permitted to elect their own Justices of the Peace in 1393, but the pivotal year was 1396 when Richard gave the city the status of a county: the mayor acted as escheator and the city elected its own sheriffs (2) in place of the High Sheriff of Yorkshire.

York and Richard III

The legacy of Richard III looms large in the history of the city of York. Created the Duke of Gloucester at the age of 8 by his older brother, Edward IV, Richard assumed his responsibilities as Duke at the age of 18 which involved governing the north of England virtually single-handedly. His royal blood, extensive estates and authority over powerful local individuals meant that Richard was a welcome and important ally to the city in the competition for royal privileges and favour. There is evidence that Richard’s influence was being felt in the city around 1475, and the relationship only became closer throughout the years, as the city sought the Duke’s intervention with the king and in local disputes; and in return Richard requested the city provide soldiers, which they did on numerous occasions. On Gloucester’s appointment as Protector to his young nephew Edward V, the corporation tried to take advantage of the duke’s position and asked for their rent paid to the king (the fee farm) to be reduced. Cities and towns which had been granted ‘county’ status were required to pay the king a fee, but because of the deterioration of the city’s economy, York found it increasingly difficult to meet its financial obligation. On this occasion, Richard refused to grant the city’s request.

Shortly after Richard succeeded his nephew to the throne, the city entertained the newly-crowned Richard III and his queen during which time he lavished the governors with gifts and founded a college of chaplains. At this time, Richard met with the mayor and commonalty in the chapter house at York Minster on 17 September 1483, the outcome of which may have been to alleviate the city from paying its rent to the crown. But the result of this meeting was ambiguous, and the city was never able to get confirmation of the grant in the exchequer. Nevertheless, the city continued to grant Richard’s requests, such as those to provide soldiers, and the city sent troops on Richard’s behalf to the fatal Battle of Bosworth in 1485 which was won by Henry Tudor (Henry VII).

York’s lingering affection for Richard III meant that the city did not welcome Henry VII with open arms, and the corporation clashed with the founder of the Tudor dynasty on several occasions, refusing Henry’s nominees for the offices of recorder and sword bearer numerous times. Henry visited the city in 1486 and 1487 with the intention of securing the loyalty of its leading citizens, and his journey to York in 1487 was the last by a monarch until his son’s progress in 1541.


The corporation which governed the city of York was directly responsible to the king, bypassing the authority of all other royal bodies, with the exception of the Council of the North. York was governed by a corporation made up of the mayor, 13 aldermen (including the mayor), 2 sheriffs, 3 chamberlains, a council of Twenty-Four, the city’s legal officer called the recorder, a common clerk, and a common council, also known as the commonalty or 48, although it rarely contained that number, which represented the city’s guilds. By the Tudor period, civic government had developed into a mercantile oligarchy in which the important offices were monopolized by members of the city’s wealthiest merchant and trade guilds.

The office of mayor was one of great dignity and authority: he was the embodiment of all the ancient rights and privileges belonging to the city, and it was his duty to defend these against outside interference. He was personally responsible to the king for maintaining order in the city and, with the aldermen, acted as Justices of the Peace dispensing royal justice. Annual elections were held on St. Blaise’s Day (February 3) from at least as early as 1343. From 1392, no mayor was permitted to be re-elected without all of his fellow aldermen having served first, and therefore in the Tudor period, it was unlikely that any alderman would serve as mayor more than once. The candidates for mayor were restricted to the serving aldermen, the majority of whom were merchants rather than craftsmen, and this meant that York was governed by a mercantile oligarchy. In 1365, the mayor was granted the right to a mace bearer, and in 1388 the city was granted a sword and bearer by Richard II.

A further symbol of his authority was the granting of the title Lord Mayor in the 1480s, a privilege shared only by their counterparts in London. The mayor earned a salary of £50 a year, but this amount was not enough to balance the personal outlay of the mayor, who was expected to entertain his fellow city councillors, and local nobles and dignitaries out of his own pocket at a level befitting an important local government official. He was also required to account for any short fall to the king in the city’s accounts. No wonder York’s citizens avoided holding this position, opting to pay the fine for refusing to take office, rather than being burdened with its responsibilities and expenses.

Shardlake and Barack first see York’s Lord Mayor, Robert Hall, as he is making preparations for the progress (for more on the city’s preparations, visit the York City Archives Exhibition, (title), in the York Central Library). The mayor was outside a candlemaker’s shop, ‘in a red robe and broad-brimmed red hat, a gold chain of office round his neck….Three black-robed officials stood by, one carrying a gold mace.’ (p. 47)

The Mansion House, which now dominates St. Helen’s Square, was not built until the mid eighteenth century, and thus, the Tudor Lord Mayors of York did not have an official residence. Proposals to build an official residence for the Lord Mayor were being considered in 1723, but the construction of the house was not complete until 1730 when the first Lord Mayor moved in, and even then, the decoration was not finished for another two years. In the mid eighteenth century, the Lord Mayor maintained a substantial household at the Mansion House consisting of a chaplain, a town clerk, the sword bearer, four mace bearers, as well as a collection of everyday household servants.

Disputes arising from mayoral elections were a common occurrence throughout York’s history and one particularly ‘riotous’ election in 1516 paved the way for permanent change to the city’s constitution. Following the death of Alderman John Shaw, two men, John Norman and William Cure, received an equal number of votes for the vacant office. The result sparked rioting in the city and Henry VIII issued a commission to local Justices of the Peace to inquire into the disturbances. Having determined that a division among the aldermen was likely to cause more trouble in the city, they commanded that the opposing sides choose representatives to appear before the king’s council in April. The council nullified the election and commanded that no man be elected to the office without their consent. The following January when a second aldermanic office became vacant, the corporation proceeded to elect both men to the two open positions, thereby solving their previous impasse. The corporation also voted in a new mayor, William Neleson, who was at the time incarcerated by the crown in Fleet prison for debt. Infuriated by this affront to royal authority, the king sent an angry letter to the corporation appointing a new mayor and ejecting Norman and Cure.

The whole affair prompted Henry VIII to issue York a new civic charter which regulated the election process and prevented crowds from gathering on the day for elections. Letters Patent issued by the king on 18 July 1517 established a common council to represent the city’s crafts, and although historians have depicted this as a step towards democratic government in York, the day-to-day administration of the city largely remained in the hands of the city’s executive offices.

Like the mayor, the city’s two sheriffs were elected annually and were only expected to hold the office once, the post being a stepping stone into election as an alderman. The sheriffs assisted the mayor in carrying out his duties and exercised a range of judicial functions; were responsible for regulating the city’s markets and rules governing the sale of ale and bread; and possessed their own prison and court which was separate from the prison of the High Sheriff of Yorkshire located at York Castle. Like the other chief civic executives, the sheriffs were expected to entertain the city dignitaries annually and to conduct themselves in a manner befitting important civic officials, meaning that the post carried great personal costs. The sheriffs also had to support an entourage of personal and official servants, including mace bearers and clerks, who assisted in performing the sheriffs’ duties.

The city finances were under the supervision of three chamberlains. When the city was experiencing economic decline in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the chamberlains found themselves continually short of money for day-to-day expenses, and had to meet these out of their own pockets.

The Recorder of York was the city’s official legal counsel. In 1385 an ordinance was issued providing for a recorder ‘with knowledge of the law and of good repute’. Unlike the other civic offices in the city, the recorder was usually a practising lawyer who lived in the nearby countryside. The appointment was for life and the officeholder received an annual salary of 20 marks. Many recorders went on to become royal judges. Shardlake first meets the city’s recorder, Master Tankard, on his way to the Guildhall to find the coroner (p. 88).

The other professional office in York was the common or city clerk. This position existed from at least the early fourteenth century. In the later middle ages, the clerk was frequently a churchman who had attended university but by the Tudor period, the clerk was usually a literate citizen, such as a lawyer or merchant. Normally, the office was occupied by a city freeman, however, Richard III pressured the corporation into appointing his nominee who did not reside within the city.

Other minor officials assisting in the government of the city included three coroners, muremasters (responsible for maintaining the city’s walls) and bridgemasters, who kept the city’s bridges and for collecting tolls.

Within the city, there were further administrative divisions. The city consisted of 6 wards under the supervision of sergeants. These sergeants were assisted in their duties by two aldermen and additional wardens. Within the wards, the officers carried out military duties, such as raising troops, arms and money; opened and closed the city gates; and kept the walls clear of rubbish.

The smallest administrative unit in the city was the parish, which was under the supervision of a clerk and two or three constables. The constables were chosen annually and performed a variety of functions including: keeping the peace and serving justice; carrying out orders from the mayor; cleaning the pavements and clearing the air of foul smells; and assisting in raising troops and money for war.

The City of York was represented by two Members of Parliament who sat in the House of Commons. The MPs were elected by members of the city council and were usually the incumbent mayor and one of the aldermen. In 1539, the MPs were John Hogeson and William Tancred. Representation in parliament was clearly valued by the corporation since they paid their MPs 4s per day, twice the amount required by statute.

The city council regularly met in the council chambers which were located on Ouse Bridge until they were demolished in 1810. From 1811, the council has met in the Inner Room of the Guildhall.

Having fiercely guarded its right to self-government throughout the later middle ages, the corporation and the Council of the North were often embroiled in jurisdictional disputes, once the council permanently sat at King’s Manor. In the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace, however, the Council’s authority was strengthened at the city’s expense. The relationship between the Council and York’s corporation was not always characterised by jurisdictional conflict. The corporation was well aware of the value of having such an important royal institution in the city – since it stimulated the economy by bringing dignitaries, litigants and trade to the city – and the governors commonly bestowed gifts upon the council members and their families. The city and the council were also able to act in cooperation on the city’s internal matters, such as removal of fishgarths from the river, or dealing with improper conduct by aldermen and freemen.

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