HELMSLEY, William (d.1404), of York.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
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Family and Education

m. (1) 1s.; (2) by Mich. 1370, Alice (d.1401), at least 4s. (at least 2 d.v.p.).1

Offices Held

Chamberlain, York Mich. 1373-4; bailiff 3 Feb. 1375-6; member of the council of 24 by Feb. 1378; mayor 3 Feb. 1394-5.2

Surveyor of a tax, York Dec. 1380.


A draper by trade, Helmsley is first mentioned in the autumn of 1370, when he and his second wife, Alice, agreed to lease a messuage in York at an annual rent of 20s. As the evidence of her will (made, unusually, in her husband’s lifetime, and naming him as sole executor) shows, Alice was a woman of considerable means, for she was not only able to bequeath over £26 in cash to various members of her family, but also possessed an impressive collection of plate and jewellery. Her legacy of ‘a circlet of silver gilt with three stars in it set with gems and one star of pearls’ and 20s. to the image of the Virgin in the chapel of St. Mary of Butterwick on the Isle of Axholme suggests that she came from this part of Lincolnshire; and although her ancestry remains unknown, it looks as if she was connected with the Driffield family. Helmsley’s background is even harder to trace: his tenancy of land in Heslington, near York, came to an end on the death of one Agnes Gevelade, in about 1377, but besides this and the fact that he had a son, Robert, by a previous marriage, his early life is otherwise undocumented. Yet he quickly rose to occupy a prominent position among the mercantile elite which dominated the government of York, serving successively as chamberlain and bailiff within less than two years, and joining the council of 24 not long afterwards. Election to Parliament followed in 1393, by which time Robert Helmsley, too, had been admitted to the freedom of the city. Our Member’s career reached its peak, in 1394, on his assumption of the mayoralty; and, although his term of office passed without serious incident, he deemed it expedient to sue out a royal pardon in his capacity as ‘former mayor of York’ some four years later, when Richard II’s extreme policies were giving cause for concern, even to his loyal subjects in the city. Perhaps he feared that he, like Thomas Gare* and other local merchants, might be expected to seal one of the notorious ‘blank charters’ whereby they bound themselves to pay the King unspecified amounts of money. Helmsley was certainly among the more affluent members of the community, since besides owning a number of properties in York he had dealings with Archbishop Scrope, to whom he, William Frost* and Thomas Graa* advanced substantial securities in July 1404.3

Helmsley’s second wife had been buried next to at least two of their sons in the church of St. Sampson, York; and he was eventually interred beside them, having made provision in his will for the endowment of a chantry there. This document, drawn up on 5 Aug. 1404 and proved a fortnight later, contained numerous bequests to friends and members of his family, including his younger son, John, to whom the task of setting up the chantry fell. In May 1405, John paid 25 marks for a royal licence to alienate four of his late father’s messuages and 14s. annual rent in York to the new foundation, although part of the proceeds was to be spent each year on a payment to the town crier ‘for ringing a bell through the city ... to pray for the souls of William and Alice’. It is worth noting that the first chantry chaplain was named George Helmsley, who may, perhaps, have been a brother of John. The latter took up residence at Guisborough in Cleveland, and married his only child, Joan, to a member of the local gentry.4

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: C.R.


  • 1. Borthwick Inst. York, York registry wills, iii. ff. 64, 215-15v; Surtees Soc. xcvi. 85; Yorks. Arch. Soc. Rec. Ser. lii. 150.
  • 2. Surtees Soc. xcvi. 70, 93; cxx. 30; clxxxvi. 10.
  • 3. Yorks, Arch. Soc. Rec. Ser. lii. 150; York registry wills, iii. f. 64v; Surtees Soc. xcvi. 85; cxxv. 37; C67/30 m. 28; CP25(1)278/142/22; CCR, 1402-5, p. 378.
  • 4. York registry wills, iii. ff. 64v, 215-15v; CPR, 1405-8, p. 47; Surtees Soc. cxxv. 37; clxxxvi. 78, 163.