Power and Influence in Tudor York

This blog is about power and influence in Tudor York during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It’s written for anyone interested in the Tudor period, the city of York, or history in general.

Whilst researching my latest novel The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot, I wanted to get an understanding for how the city of York was governed in Tudor times, who wielded power and how. I discovered a lot of time can be saved by knowing where to look. Thankfully, a history academic at the University of York pointed me towards D M Palliser’s 1979 work Tudor York. After a quick search through a few second-hand book shops, I was so glad he did. The book became a constant companion. I even bought a second copy (when I discovered twenty pages were missing from the first!).

There were a lot of questions I wanted to ask, and many of them were answered in this book. The story begins before the Tudors in 1396, when York was granted the status of an English corporate borough. This made the city a county in its own right, with the mayor of York and his fellow aldermen responsible for managing taxes, justice and administrative matters at a local level, answerable only to the crown.

This new governing structure was known as the corporation of York or York corporation, with the mayor at the pinnacle of its hierarchy. Although his appointment lasted only twelve months, the role was a powerful one. The mayor was given the casting vote on council matters and he had the ability to direct proceedings in his own favour. He answered only to the king or queen and had the power to order arrests. For example, it’s believed the newly elected mayor, Henry Maye, ordered the arrest of his own stepdaughter Margaret Clitherow in 1586, for harbouring Catholic priests.

In his dual role as clerk of the markets, the mayor also affected the lives of every citizen in the city by sometimes setting the price of goods sold to them. In 1555, Mayor William Beckwith ordered the butchers to reduce the price of meat to make it more “reasonable for the poor”. Can you imagine York city council’s leader being able to do that today?

Apart from the wrath of the crown, there was one other thing the mayor had to concern himself with – what would happen when his term ended? If he pushed his weight about too much, without gaining the support of other aldermen, he might face retribution.

In 1572-73, the Lord Mayor was a man called William Alleyn. Alleyn fell out with two of his fellow aldermen, Christopher Harbert and William Beckett. He used his mayoral powers to fine and imprison both. Unfortunately for Alleyn, less than a year later, Christopher Harbert succeeded him as mayor. Within a month, Alleyn found himself being prosecuted for irregularities regarding the sale of cloth. Mayor Harbert’s revenge must have been very sweet!

The mayor was one of thirteen aldermen. Each year they selected another from their ranks to replace the current mayor. A grand inauguration ceremony was held every February in the city’s Common Hall (now the Guildhall). The building was the corporation’s head office, and still exists today, just off Coney Street, overlooking the waters of the river Ouse.

Once appointed by their peers, most aldermen remained in the role for life. Most took at least one turn, and some two, as the city’s mayor. A small number were discharged after particularly bad behaviour or resigned due to age or ill health. Longevity in the role lengthened in the second half of the 16th Century during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, as York was less ravaged by disease and began to prosper once again.

Between 1500 and 1600, there were 106 aldermen in the city. Whilst it’s easy to imagine these would primarily have been noblemen or landed gentry, they weren’t. York’s aldermen were largely businessmen. Of the 106, 60 were merchants of some kind. Most of the others were craftsmen, with occupations including haberdasher, draper and goldsmith. Only six men described themselves as lawyers or gentlemen.

Aldermen were expected to live within York’s city walls. In fact, most resided in a small cluster of streets – Micklegate, Ousegate, Pavement, Coney Street, Stonegate and Petergate. This would make a nice, if short, walk through the city centre these days. Living outside York was frowned upon. Perhaps, unimpressed with the retaliatory actions taken against him, ex-mayor William Alleyn moved twenty miles south to Gateforth. In response, he was told to return or resign his role as an alderman. He didn’t serve a second mayoral term.

Each year, two Sheriffs of York were nominated for an annual term of office. The pair would be chosen from the next level of merchants and craftsmen in the city, usually having served their times in junior roles such as bridge-master or chamberlain and perhaps on the wider common council. The role of the sheriffs was to assist the mayor in governing the city. They had the power to arrest and managed their own prisons. When trials were held by jury, worryingly they were also responsible for selecting the jury!

When their period in office was complete, the majority of sheriffs were invited to join the Twenty-Four. Thus, a pipeline was in place, strictly controlled by those already in power, for men to enter and eventually progress (or not progress) into the corporation’s higher echelons.

At any one time, the city also had two Members of Parliament. During Elizabeth’s reign, both were elected directly by corporation members and a small number of selected commoners. Out of 46 MP’s in Tudor times, 40 were aldermen, confirming the corporation’s influence on the position.

With a small group of men controlling key roles, sometimes the governance of York could become almost a family affair. York merchant Robert Hall was made sheriff in 1533. He became a member of the Twenty-Four and eventually an alderman. In 1541 and 1557, he served as mayor, and in 1545 and 1553 as MP.

Other members of the Hall family followed; Robert’s nephew Ralph Hall was made sheriff in 1553. In 1558, he succeeded his uncle as mayor, before serving as an MP in 1563 and 1571. Cousin George Hall was made sheriff in 1558 and joined the Twenty-Four, whilst another family member, Henry Hall, became sheriff in 1586, mayor in 1600 and 1610 and MP for York in 1601. Despite this, more families were involved in the governance of York than in many other cities.

Two other important bodies used York as a power base – the Church of England and the queen’s Council of the North. Naturally, there was some friction between these bodies. Between 1561 and 1578, the Council of the North wrote at least twenty-one formal letters of complaint to the corporation requesting stricter law enforcement.

One notable area of friction was the punishment of “recusants” (like Margaret Clitherow) who refused to attend Church of England services. From their complaints, the Council of the North considered the corporation was too lenient on them. This may well have been an important factor in the arrest of Margaret, with corporation mayor Henry Maye yielding to Council demands to take a stricter line.

There are many other fascinating details about the conflict between these bodies, making the topic more than worthy of a separate blog.

I hope you’ve found the details about York corporation interesting. For those interested, I’ve included a few additional links below. I appreciate the details, apart from mention of Margaret Clitherow, were about men. The reason, of course, is at the time unfortunately society and virtually all senior positions (Queen Elizabeth’s excepted) were dominated and controlled by them.

I’d like to finish by mentioning my new novel, The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot. This is the story of a brave local woman, Margaret Clitherow, told through the eyes of her near neighbour, a youthful Guy Fawkes. The reviews so far have been all been excellent. If you’re interested in learning more about Tudor times, York, or history in general, this book is for you. It has won a Coffee Book Club “Recommended Reading” award and been described as “Historical fiction at its most exquisite.”

Lastly, all book profits in 2020 are being donated to St Leonard’s Hospice in York, who need the funds now more than ever, so if you buy a book you’ll help a great cause too.

Thank you. Tony Morgan.

Links to additional information:

The Pearl of York – Amazon UK

The Pearl of York – Amazon US

The Pearl of York – Reviews on Goodreads

D M Palliser – Tudor York (you can find much cheaper second hand copies!)

List of Lord Mayors of York

List of Sheriffs of York

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