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


1386Thomas Graa
 Robert Savage
1388 (Feb.)Thomas Holme
 John Howden
1388 (Sept.)John Ripon
 John Howden
1390 (Jan.)
1390 (Nov.)
1391William Selby
 John Howden
1393Thomas Graa
 William Helmsley
1394[Thomas] Graa
 John ...
1395Thomas Graa
 William Selby
1397 (Jan.)Thomas Graa
 William Selby
1397 (Sept.)
1399William Frost
 John Bolton
1402Robert Talkan
 Robert Ward
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1407Robert Talkan
 John Bolton
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)Thomas Santon
 William Alne
1414 (Apr.)
1414 (Nov.)Robert Holme I
 John Northby
1415John Morton II
 Richard Russell I 1
1416 (Mar.)William Bowes
 William Alne 2
1416 (Oct.)
1417Thomas Santon
 John Blackburn
1419Thomas Gare
 John Northby
1420John Penrith
 Henry Preston II
1421 (May)William Bowes
 John Morton II
1421 (Dec.)Thomas Gare
 William Ormshead

Main Article

From its days as the capital of Britannia Inferior in Roman times, York ranked as the second city of the kingdom, a position which its importance as an ecclesiastical, administrative, military and economic centre clearly justified. It commanded an impressive network of communications, some of which had been constructed by the Romans during their three centuries of occupation. Since roads from the city gave relatively easy access to both the east and the west marches of Scotland, it was frequently used as a base for warfare with the Scots, and royal armies often camped outside the walls. Against the heavy cost of these expeditions (the citizens were, for example, obliged to lend Henry IV 1,000 marks for his campaign of 1400), must be set the enormous benefit to the local economy of such a large influx of men with money to spend.3 Nor were all these visitors military men: during the reigns of Edward II and Edward III several Parliaments were held in the city, which offered a more convenient venue than Westminster while the King was fighting in the north. York also enjoyed the advantage of a direct connexion by water with markets in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire and, above all, with the port of Kingston-upon-Hull, which, in turn, supplied a link with northern Europe and, of course, all the other ports on the east and south coasts of England. To a large extent, the people of medieval York, and in particular the wealthy wool and cloth merchants who provided the city with its MPs in our period, depended for their continued prosperity upon the navigability of the river Ouse. It was, as they explained in a petition of 1394, the very life-blood of their economy:

The water of Ouse is a highway and the greatest of all the King’s rivers within the kingdom of England, and for the use of merchants in ships with diverse merchandise from the high sea to the city of York, and other places within the county, to the great increase of the kingdom’s and especially the King’s City of York, and the county of York and other counties, cities, boroughs and towns in the northern parts of England, to wit from the sea to the Humber, thence to the Trent, thence to the Ouse, and so to York.4

Such important geographical considerations clearly influenced Gregory the Great’s decision to choose York as the centre of the northern province of the English Church, in the eighth century, although it had long boasted a flourishing tradition of Romano-British Christianity. The Vikings, who also recognized York’s manifold advantages as a capital, were more interested in its commercial potential, but they, too, made a major contribution to its expansion. Certainly, by the time of the Norman Conquest, the city boasted a thriving population of between 8,000 and 9,000, whose strong sense of independence and established system of self-government led them, foolishly, to resist King William and his followers. An initial attempt at rebellion, in 1067-8, prompted the King to build and garrison a castle so that the inhabitants might be overawed into submission. The devastation caused as he cleared one of the seven ‘shires’ of the city to make available a site was as nothing compared with the atrocities following a more serious outbreak of unrest in 1069, after which the Normans laid waste to vast areas of the north, devastating the surrounding countryside and reducing the population of York itself by at least half. But despite this appalling set-back, which was accompanied by a punitive increase in the royal fee farm from £53 to £100, York was sufficiently resilient to make a rapid recovery. The foundation stone of the new Minster was laid by William Rufus in 1089, and from then on the economy began to prosper again.

Thanks in part to the boost to trade given by the Scottish wars of Edward I and Edward II, York continued to expand until the Black Death. Even then, and despite four further outbreaks of pestilence between 1369 and 1391, it staged a relatively speedy revival which many other English towns and cities had good reason to envy. Admissions to the freedom totalled some 659 men over the decade ending in 1341, but between 1361 and 1371 no fewer than 1,049 newcomers were enrolled, bringing the population up to about 11,000 at the close of the following decade. Nearly 1,200 additional names were recorded during the 1380s, which bears out the widely held belief that the number of inhabitants continued to rise until about 1400, when stagnation gradually set in.5 As a thriving commercial centre with no less than three annual fairs, York attracted a steady stream of immigrants from all over the north, many of whom joined the growing ranks of civic trade and craft guilds. A sigificant proportion of these guilds were involved in the manufacture of cloth made from locally produced wool, and by the second half of the 14th century textiles had become the mainstay of the city’s economy. Between a quarter and a third of all freemen were engaged in the industry, which was financed by heavy investment on the part of such notable figures as the MPs Robert Ward, Thomas Graa and Thomas Holme. But whatever their occupations, all the citizens were to a greater or lesser degree affected by changes in the organization and profitability of the English wool trade. By the late 13th century, York had become the most important centre for this commodity in the north of England, another principal source of revenue besides finished cloth being the toll of 1s. charged upon every sack of wool which passed through its gates or was unloaded on its wharves. Although the tidal waters of the river Ouse had made it possible for York to function as a port, Kingston-upon-Hull offered far better facilities, and during the later Middle Ages the great majority of York merchants operated from there, stepping into the shoes of the foreigners who had previously monopolized English overseas trade. They not only acquired the lion’s share of wool shipments through Hull (about two-thirds in the late 1370s, rising to half by the end of the century), but also assumed an increasingly active role in the affairs of the Calais Staple (well over half of the 2,700 sacks of wool sent there in 1378-9 had come from Hull). These encouraging trends are even more apparent with regard to York’s cloth exports, which grew almost five-fold between 1357 and 1397, while imports of wine also rose during the same period, accounting for about one third of the total quantity of tunnage recorded in the Hull customs accounts. By 1399, the various cargoes sent through Hull by York merchants were worth a minimum of £10,380 a year, a figure some ten times greater than that computed for the early 1300s.6

This boom was not destined to last indefinitely, though; and the leaders of the York economic community were badly hit by the decline in English wool exports, which began early in the next century. Fierce competition from weavers in the surrounding countryside (whom the York authorities had desperately tried to control) made it difficult for them to compensate for their losses by producing more cloth; the clothiers of the West Riding, who gradually began to corner the market, preferred to deal with London merchants rather than their rivals at York; and, as recession started to bite in the 1420s, the population began to fall. But York had been far more fortunate than many other English towns, and even at the close of our period the outlook did not yet seem too bleak.

As befitted the second city of the kingdom, the government of York was both complex and sophisticated, being based, like that of London, upon a hierarchy of command headed by the mayor and aldermen. From quite early on, the demands of commerce required that the wealthier citizens should organize themselves into associations: a charter accorded to the men of Beverley by Henry I refers to the liberties already enjoyed by their neighbours in York, which included the right to form a guild merchant and farm the tolls of the city. York’s first royal charter, granted in the 1150s, confirmed these privileges, while also allowing local merchants to set up ‘hanses in England and Normandy’ for the better conduct of trade. Further economic concessions were purchased from King Richard in 1189, and 11 years later the citizens paid King John 300 marks for the right to collect their own fee farm and navigate the Ouse free of tolls as far as Boroughbridge. This charter of 1200 contains the first mention of a mayor, who may already have been assisted by three bailiffs. By 1229 the city also had two coroners (later increased to three), and at some point towards the end of the century it was considered necessary to appoint first two and then three chamberlains as well, their principal duty being to account for various items of revenue. As the population as a whole grew in size so too did the bureaucracy: the need for professional expertise was filled by appointing a common clerk and, from 1386, a recorder, who had ‘to know the law and be of good repute’. By then the structure of civic government had further expanded to include a council. This met regularly in the mayor’s chamber on Ouse bridge and was composed of the richer and more prominent freemen. The most important and powerful were the 12 (known from 1399 as aldermen), who constituted a self-perpetuating oligarchy and could not easily be removed. A second tier of 24 probi homines joined them in most of their deliberations, but the third group, comprising 48 members of the communitas, met only rarely. At a lower level, much of the routine business of local administration was effected through the craft guilds and the wardmotes (assemblies held regularly in each of the six wards of the city). Even here, a strict sense of hierarchy prevailed, because only the freemen (who accounted for about 22% of the adult lay population) were qualified to play a full part in the proceedings.

Minor legal squabbles could be settled at wardmotes, but disputes of any consequence were heard either before the county court, which met every month, the bailiff’s court (a body summoned every week to settle causes of debt and trespass) or one of the two courts presided over by the mayor. The first of these dealt with recognizances for debt, while the second, known as ‘the common pleas’ was held every Monday at the guildhall to despatch business concerning wills, the assignment of dower and other matters involving real estate. Sweeping changes in the way York was governed followed the award of two charters by Richard II in February 1393 and May 1396. As we shall see, both were intended to serve as a warning to the disaffected Londoners, whom Richard hoped to cow into obedience with the threat of a new English capital in the north; and it was thanks to this personal vendetta that the rulers of York were able to secure for themselves valuable concessions from the Crown. The first charter allowed the mayor and aldermen to act ex officio as j.p.s (as was already the case in London), while also permitting them to acquire land worth £100 for the upkeep of public works. The second was even more generous, in so far that York was accorded the status of a county and thus freed from the unwelcome jurisdiction of the sheriff of Yorkshire. Henceforward, the mayoral office was combined with that of royal escheator, and the three bailiffs were replaced by two sheriffs to be chosen annually on 21 Sept. by the mayor, aldermen and other councillors, with the consent of the community.7

Although these new privileges added greatly to the mayor’s status and dignity, he had for many years already wielded a considerable amount of power. Mayoral elections were held annually on 3 Feb. (St. Blaise’s day), when members of the 12 and the 24 met together at the guildhall to choose one of their number, in theory, at least, with the full approval of the 48. The office made heavy demands upon the incumbent’s time as well as his money, and despite the allocation of generous expenses (rising from £20 to £40 in 1385, and reaching £50 in 1388), he often found himself heavily out of pocket. Financial considerations thus deterred all but the most affluent citizens from seeking election, and helped the leading families of York to monopolize the mayoralty during the 14th century. But even they sought to spread the burden: in 1372 it was established that nobody should serve more than one term within a period of eight years; and at the end of the century steps were taken to persuade all the probi homines to act in turn. Although they were sometimes ignored, these two regulations help to explain why comparatively few of the MPs considered here achieved the remarkable records of re-election claimed by their predecessors. It is also worth noting that from the early 1370s onwards the old landed families, which had hitherto dominated the ruling hierarchy, gave way to members of the mercantile elite, whose money came from trade rather than property. Once victorious, the latter were not always united among themselves: the most celebrated of their quarrels, which occurred early in the 1380s, provides an interesting illustration of the way in which what was little more than a struggle for power between two hostile factions within the council could deteriorate into mob violence once the chief protagonists sought to attract popular support.

At least eight of our MPs were involved in the dispute between John Gisburn and Simon Quixley, two rival mayors whose feud first came to the attention of the authorities at Westminster during the November Parliament of 1380. News of ‘un horrible chose ore tard faite par diverses malefesours de les Commones de la citee d’Everwyk, acrochant a eux Roiale poair, par fauxe confederacie et alliance’ recounted how Gisburn, the then mayor, had been chased out of the city, while an armed mob attacked the guildhall, forcing the terrified councillors to elect Quixley in his stead.8 A royal commission of inquiry was set up to examine the affair, and as a result 24 of Quixley’s supporters (including Thomas Santon) were temporarily consigned to the Tower of London, pending their release on bail. The royal council also deemed it prudent to take heavy securities of good behaviour from all the wealthier citizens of York as well as representatives of each of the guilds, but this did not prevent an even worse spell of rioting in the summer of 1381. On the contrary, Quixley’s men were now avid for revenge, an excuse being conveniently provided by the outbreak of the Peasants’ Revolt in the south. On the pretext that Gisburn’s adherents were somehow implicated in spreading disaffection, Thomas Graa and William Selby had several of them thrown into prison—an action which sparked off wholesale disorder among the inhabitants of York, and led to violent assaults on ecclesiastical property as the uprising got out of hand. The imposition by the government of a corporate fine of 1,000 marks upon the citizenry seems to have brought everyone to their senses, and the worst problems of factionalism were henceforth contained. Both parties were probably so frightened of the prospect of further mob violence that they wisely chose to settle their differences within the confines of the mayor’s chamber.9

Richard II was soon disposed to forget this incident, especially as increasingly strained relations with London led him to regard the people of York with greater favour. He stayed there on several occasions, presenting one of the mayors, William Selby (whose past indiscretions now lay well behind him), with a ceremonial sword to be carried before him and his successors in office; and, as we have seen, bestowing further privileges upon the city by royal charter. How far he seriously contemplated transferring his capital to the north rather than merely wishing to hold the implicit threat of financial ruin over the heads of the Londoners we shall never know, although he was serious enough to order the removal of the central lawcourts to York in the spring of 1392 before the crisis with London really broke. He also showed particular generosity towards the Minster, not only in the way of money (a single donation of 100 marks was, for example, made by him at Christmas 1395) but also through his gift of the relics of one of the Holy Innocents, which attracted large numbers of pilgrims. On the other hand, the King’s visits were extremely expensive: major works were carried out on the Minster and a special performance of the Corpus Christi plays was laid on when he spent some time in York in the summer of 1396; and two years later £250 had to be diverted from civic funds to pay for his reception. Wealthy individuals may also have been obliged to contribute, as well as facing demands from Richard himself for personal loans. That he attempted to raise at least £2,000 from the leaders of the mercantile community (among whom were at least five MPs) under rather dubious circumstances seems beyond question: it looks very much as if these ill-considered demands undid much of the goodwill generated by him during the early 1390s. The citizens’ readiness to lend 500 marks to Henry of Derby ‘in his necessity’ as he marched south to challenge, and eventually depose, King Richard certainly speaks volumes for their disillusionment with their royal patron.10

Many of them soon came to regret their change of allegiance, even so, for although relations between the city of York and the new regime remained cordial enough for a while, Henry IV’s desperate need for money in the aftermath of the first Percy rebellion of 1403 provoked a reaction. The most eloquent critic of Henry’s fiscal and judicial abuses was Archbishop Scrope, whose sermons, preached before packed crowds in the Minster, inflamed the populace to such a degree that most able-bodied men took up arms against the house of Lancaster. Scrope’s attack on the iniquities of forced loans and heavy customs duties, and his spirited defence of the mercantile classes, clearly produced the desired effect upon a congregation which depended for its survival upon trade. Unfortunately, the peasants and townsmen who marched with him as far as Shipton Moor were not equipped to face the professional forces of the earl of Westmorland: after his surrender they fled in disarray back to their fields and shops. Yet, as in the years after the Conquest, this initial act of defiance was enough to bring a royal army to the walls of York; and, mindful of the events of 1069, King Henry threatened to destroy the city if it did not immediately surrender. Having taken it into his own hands, he then demanded a fine of 500 marks in return for a royal pardon, and further intimidated the residents by having the heads of Archbishop Scrope and the other ringleaders prominently displayed upon the city gates. For the next year York was governed by the King through his nominee, William Frost, a former mayor whose brother-in-law, Sir William Plumpton, was among those who had gone to the block, but who managed, none the less, to remain in favour. Not surprisingly, ‘Saint Richard Scrope, the Glory of York’ was elevated locally into a martyr, and his burial place at the Minster attracted hordes of pilgrims. In other respects, however, the citizens were too cowed to risk any further displays of resistance, and normal life was quickly resumed.11

Because of its importance York was regularly represented in Parliament from an early date: it had been required to send delegates to the assembly of 1265, but no actual returns survive until the end of the 13th century. Unfortunately, a considerable number have also been lost for the period here under review, with the result that any analysis of the parliamentary experience of the 23 Members whose names are known is at best extremely impressionistic. Well over a third of the returns (12) are, in fact, missing, and although Prynne supplies evidence for the Parliament of March 1416 we are still left with insufficient information, particularly for the reign of Henry IV, on which to base any firm conclusions. Bearing in mind that some MPs probably sat far more often, and that many apparent newcomers to the House of Commons may well have been quite seasoned parliamentarians, the figures as they stand still suggest a fairly brisk competition for seats, notably towards the end of our period. At all events, seven men had one appearance in the Commons to their credit, eight served at least twice and four were elected three times, if not more. Of the rest, John Howden took his seat for York in four Parliaments, while his contemporary, William Selby, was returned on five occasions between 1383 and 1397. Nobody came anywhere near to rivalling the record of 12 Parliaments scored by Thomas Graa, whose noteworthy period of service spanned exactly two decades from 1377 to 1397. Even so, he fell short of the even more remarkable total of 14 returns previously reached by his father, William, at a time when the government of York was more firmly controlled by a narrow clique of wealthy oligarchs. Lack of evidence makes it difficult to pinpoint precisely any further changes in the pattern of representation between 1386 and 1421, but it seems that the monopolization of parliamentary seats by a new mercantile elite was gradually giving way to an even more open system, whereby persons such as John Blackburn and John Penrith (neither of whom ever rose to occupy the more important civic offices) were considered worthy of choice. Certainly, no cases of representative continuity are known after 1397 (Jan.), although before then the practice was quite common: not only did Thomas Graa get re-elected in 1379, 1386, 1394, 1395 and 1397 (Jan.), but his colleague, William Selby, was likewise returned with him on the two last (consecutive) occasions, and John Howden served in both of the 1388 Parliaments. There is, of course, now no means of telling if York was, indeed, represented by two complete newcomers to the Lower House in the Parliaments of 1399, 1402, 1413 (May), 1414 (Nov.), 1415 and 1420, since any of these men could well have been elected on earlier occasions for which no returns are now available, but it looks as if the opening years of the 15th century saw an increase in the turnover of successful parliamentary candidates.

Whereas the electors of York chose two experienced Members to represent them in five of the eight Parliaments for which information survives before 1399, they apparently opted for a combination of novices and seasoned parliamentarians after this date, since only twice, in 1407 and 1421 (May), had both men evidently sat before. Even after the onset of real economic recession later in the century the civic authorities continued to pay their MPs quite generous expenses as a mark of their important status, so we may assume that this tendency in favour of new men resulted more from an increased competition for seats than a feeling of indifference or reluctance to shoulder the burden of service at Westminster. Such a view is certainly borne out by the generally very high calibre of the York Members, who were almost all rich, powerful and extremely well versed in the business of local government. Every single one of them was, moreover, resident in York not only at the time of his election but for most, if not all, of his adult life; and none ever sat for any other constituency.

Like the citizens of London, the freemen of York invariably chose their MPs from the upper ranks of the mercantile class, with the predictable result that all of them were prosperous and some, like Richard Russell I, Thomas Gare, Robert Holme I and his uncle, Thomas Holme, ranked among the richest men in the north of England. All owned fairly extensive property in the city, some being rentiers on a grand scale with numerous shops, tenements and messuages in their possession. Many had either inherited the bulk of their holdings or else had acquired them through marriage, for at least half (12) of their number were either the sons or close kinsmen of York merchants, and a bare minimum of ten married the daughters of local men. (Since the pedigrees of the majority of Members’ wives remain unknown this figure may well have been far higher.) The third quarter of the 14th century had seen a remarkable change in the composition of the aldermanic class, which had gradually ceased to be dominated by men from the great property-owning families. These old dynasties gave way to a new breed of dynamic, entrepreneurial woolmen and cloth merchants, whose money came from trade, and whose interest in the land market was largely confined to the city and its immediate environs. Thus, although 11 of the MPs returned in our period did possess holdings in more distant parts of Yorkshire or in other counties, none of them appears actually to have invested his own capital in the land in question, having come by it rather via his parents or his wife.

As we have seen, immigrants flocked to York, hoping to make their fortunes through trade, and the successful among them were rapidly absorbed into the ruling hierarchy. Thomas Holme followed in the footsteps of his ambitious elder brother, Robert (the father of Robert I), who, like him, had spent his youth in the village of Holm-in-the-Wolds; Richard Russell I left Durham priory, where he had been raised by the monks, to become one of the leading woolmen of the region; and Henry Preston II seems to have grown up in the Yorkshire village from which he derived his surname. William Frost’s transition from the ranks of the minor gentry of Beverley to the upper echelons of the York mercantile community was effected through marriage, and it is clear that although the city fathers placed high premium on ability, family connexions (however new) still helped to ensure a smooth and easy passage to the top. Even the most cursory study of the lives of these MPs reveals a complicated network of familial relationships which, along with a strong sense of civic pride, shared involvement in commercial ventures and years of experience of working together in local government, made the York representatives such a close-knit group.

The eclipse of a small clique of prominent rentier families by a larger and more fluid group of merchants naturally affected the parliamentary representation of York, since it became less easy for seats to be handed down, like heirlooms, from father to son. But Members were, nevertheless, still often bound to each other by ties of blood, albeit at a more distant remove. For example, John Blackburn, John Bolton, William Bowes and William Ormshead were all kinsmen: Ormshead was Blackburn’s uncle; Bowes was his father-in-law; and one of Bolton’s sons had married Blackburn’s sister, another almost certainly becoming the husband of Bowes’s younger daughter, Alice. Through his marriage to a daughter and coheir of the celebrated John Gisburn, William Frost established a relationship with John Morton II, being already connected with Thomas Holme, whose wife belonged to the Frost family. Thomas, in turn, was Robert Holme I’s uncle, although he did not live to see the latter’s son marry Henry Preston II’s daughter. Robert Savage owed a good deal to his second wife, Emma, the daughter of William Vescy of York and widow of Hugh Hanby of Hull, upon whom he settled a substantial share of his own possessions. Soon after his death, in 1399, she married John Northby, who thus became the direct beneficiary of his generosity. It is most unlikely that Northby was the only one of our men to advance himself by marrying another MP’s widow, but no further evidence of this has come to light (unless we include Thomas Graa, whose third wife, Alice, was the relict of John Colthorpe of Hull).

Of course, the York Members had far more in common than similar and interconnected pedigrees, for however important these may have been, business interests clearly took priority; and it was as staunch defenders of the English wool and cloth trades that they made the journey to Westminster. Only one of their number, the cordwainer, John Penrith, was not apparently involved at some time in one or other of these two lucrative activities, although the loss of so many customs accounts for the port of Hull in our period makes it impossible to be sure. Lack of evidence also prevent us from estimating the relative scale of each MP’s imports and exports, but even allowing for this shortage of information there can be no doubt that men of the stamp of John Bolton, William Bowes, Thomas Gare, Thomas Graa, Robert Holme I and his uncle Thomas, John Howden, Henry Preston II, William Selby and Robert Ward each handled impressive quantities of both wool and cloth; and that many were actually engaged in the manufacture of the local product as well. Prominent among the York woolmen were Richard Rusell I and Robert Savage, since they both held office as mayor of the Calais Staple, an organization to which most of the city’s parliamentary representatives belonged, and whose monopolistic practices they were naturally anxious to defend. Apart from William Frost, who clung to his status as a gentleman, and was, indeed, sometimes addressed as ‘esquire’, and the abovementioned John Penrith, the Members here under review were all merchants, six describing themselves more specifically as mercers and two (William Helmsley and Thomas Santon) as drapers, while Robert Talkan derived substantial profits from his trade as a vintner. In practice, however, they, like most other medieval entrepreneurs, were happy to invest in anything which made a profit, and their imports included commodities as diverse as dyestuffs, iron, canvas, herring, coal, luxury goods and various kinds of wood from the Baltic. No satisfactory estimate can now be made of their incomes, although the bequests set out by them in their wills, and the large amounts of money spent by them in their lifetimes on such pious works as the foundation of chantries together present a picture of considerable affluence. At least a third (eight) of our MPs were sufficiently well off to embark upon the costly (and time-consuming) business of founding chantries for the benefit of their own souls, while Thomas Gare felt able to donate 100 marks to the Austin friars of York for the construction of a new dormitory, and Richard Russell I provided large sums of money for extensive building works at the church of St. John the Baptist, Hungate. Russell (whose legacies exceeded £610) also endowed a chantry, but it is unlikely to have been as magnificent as that upon which Thomas Holme lavished his great wealth, since the contents alone were valued at almost £100. The Holmes family certainly ranked among the richest in late medieval York, for Thomas’s brother and trading-partner, Robert, bequeathed 1,000 marks to his own son, Robert I, over and above other legacies of at least £1,450 in cash; and Robert I, in turn, made the remarkably generous gift of 500 marks to the community of York, on the condition that anniversary masses would be performed for various of his kinsfolk.

Even if they could not compete at this level, other York MPs enjoyed an extremely high standard of living: John Northby’s will, for instance, made provision for the expenditure of £100 on funerary masses, £266 on legacies to his children and £40 as a gift to a servant named Emma, who lived rent-free in some style in one of his houses; William Ormshead set aside £60 for his own funeral; Robert Savage left the best part of £100 to his three sons; and John Morton II instructed his executors to deliver 100 marks and some pearls to his younger daughter. Showing more concern for his immediate reputation on earth than for the speedy passage of his immortal soul through purgatory, Robert Talkan devoted some of his sizeable income to the building of a large new hall (‘Talkan’s hall’) next to his home in Coney Street. Here, in 1401, he and his cronies dined on six shoulders of mutton, eight pullets and nine gallons of wine, the last of which he had probably imported himself from France. Unfortunately for him, John Blackburn predeceased his father, Nicholas, one of the most successful merchants in early 15th-century York, whose bequests to the poor alone exceeded £260. Thomas Santon, on the other hand, inherited £160 from his parents, and it seems likely that many other MPs came into similar sums, which could be invested in commercial ventures. Not surprisingly, men of such wealth were often approached by the Crown for loans, almost half (ten) of the York Members being involved at some time or another in the provision of credit, often on the strength of a forthcoming wool subsidy. Thomas Holme, Robert Ward and Robert Savage advanced money on these terms in 1377; John Bolton, William Bowes, Richard Russell I and Robert Talkan extended similar facilities to Henry IV; and Russell was also party to an arrangement of 1433 whereby the Calais Staple made over £2,900 available to finance the war with France. But rather different circumstances led Thomas Gare, Thomas Holme, John Howden, Thomas Santon and Robert Savage to enter bonds in 1398, promising to pay various sums of money to Richard II: they were victims of the extortionate practice whereby the King forced his wealthier subjects to enter ‘blank charters’, thus effectively undertaking to hand over whatever he thought they could afford. Indeed, the prospect of having to raise a half-share of the £280 which he and another merchant were then required to pay, under threat of immediate arrest, may well have hastened Robert Savage’s death. As we have seen, this particular brand of fiscal intimidation clearly played a significant part in determining how the citizens of York were to act in 1399, when Henry of Bolingbroke seized the throne.

Another characteristic shared to a greater or lesser extent by each of the 23 individuals here under review is their involvement in civic government. Even though the membership of the council of 12 can sometimes be hard to establish, and it is even more difficult to discover exactly who belonged to the lesser group of 24 at any given time, we know that with the notable exception of William Frost all our men were delegated to one or other of the two bodies at some point in their careers. Every single one of the 14 MPs who joined the council of 24 did so well before his first return to the House of Commons, and at least ten of them went on to become aldermen. A further eight individuals appear to have been elevated to the ranks of the 12 without having previously taken part in the deliberations of the subsidiary body, but we cannot be certain on this point. No evidence survives of Frost’s election as an alderman, notwithstanding his remarkable record of seven mayoralties and his appointment as keeper of York during the troubled aftermath of Archbishop Scrope’s rebellion. Perhaps he chose to remain aloof from the minutiae of civic life, for unlike the other mayors of our period he never worked his way up the official hierarchy by serving first as chamberlain and then as bailiff or sheriff. Yet aldermanic status clearly bestowed considerable social cachet, on a par with, if not slightly above, that of parliamentary representative. At all events, only one-third of our 18 aldermen had any experience of the office by the time of their first Parliaments, being perhaps then still expected to prove themselves worthy of selection.

On the other hand, of the 13 York MPs to hold the relatively junior post of city chamberlain, Thomas Graa was alone in so doing after election to the Commons; and in view of the fact that he had also by then served twice as mayor we may, perhaps, be justified in assuming either that his appointment, in February 1397, was made in highly unusual circumstances or else that an otherwise obscure namesake of his actually served. The office of bailiff or sheriff (the change of nomenclature followed York’s incorporation as a shire in May 1396) was likewise invariably discharged at a fairly early stage in the average civic career, often, but not always, after the incumbent had spent a year as chamberlain. Certainly, none of the 18 MPs who took on the bailiffship or shrievalty (in which capacity they were required to officiate at parliamentary elections) had yet to be chosen to represent the city themselves, and it is worth noting that, apart from William Frost, only three people, John Blackburn, John Ripon and John Penrith, never occupied one of these relatively junior posts. Blackburn, who was, as we have seen, the son of one of the richest and most powerful merchants in York, evidently died quite young after a long illness, while Penrith, a cordwainer, is the only one of the 23 MPs whose adult life cannot be satisfactorily documented from start to finish. Ripon, on the other hand, played a significant part in local government as a j.p. and royal commissioner, and was one of the five Members who helped to police the defences of the city in 1380, so he clearly passed as a figure of consequence, none the less.

As the most pretigious and important of all the civic offices, the mayoralty of York was, naturally enough, reserved for men of mature years with a wide range of administrative experience. A period of parliamentary service may well have been regarded as an additional qualification, because of the 19 men who were chosen as mayors all but three had already attended at least one Parliament, and five had taken part in their very last. Whereas nobody was ever expected to serve twice as chamberlain, bailiff or sheriff, re-election to the mayoralty did occur from time to time, although only the wealthiest and most ambitious citizens were prepared to take on this burdensome office more than once. Indeed, in our period just seven men agreed to do so, and of these four contented themselves with a second mayoralty. Both William Selby and Robert Savage were elected three times, and William Frost seven: his monopoly of the post from 1400 to 1404 and his brief re-appointment in 1406 were, however, influenced by external political events, since he so obviously enjoyed Henry IV’s good graces. Frost was prominent among the 17 MPs whose administrative experience was harnessed by the Crown. His record of participation in 16 royal commissions, his two periods of work as a tax collector and his tenure of the escheatorship of Yorkshire (an office which he and Thomas Graa were the only two York MPs to occupy during our period) mark him out as being extremely influential in the county as a whole, although Graa was, if anything, even more active, with no less than 22 commissions to his credit, as well as a period of service on the parliamentary committee of March 1380 for the reform of the royal household and a spell overseas eight years later on a commercial embassy to Prussia. In keeping with the terms of the 1393 charter, the mayor and aldermen then assumed the role of j.p.s, so no crown appointments to the local bench were made after that date. But before then at least five of our men were singled out by the authorities at Westminster, with the result that York was represented by two commissioners of the peace in the Merciless Parliament of 1388 and by one in the Parliaments of 1388 (Sept.) and 1391. Whereas most of the 15 MPs who were called upon to serve on ad hoc royal commissions of various kinds usually performed their duties in and around York (where the government required a constant stream of reliable men to inquire into abuses, deliver York castle of prisoners, examine fisheries in the river Ouse and investigate local crime), a few travelled further afield, often as a result of their commercial expertise, which made them useful as arbitrators in mercantile cases.

All this evidence proves, without doubt, that the citizens of York opted for parliamentary candidates of proven aptitude and maturity, who had already established themselves as leading members of the community, and who were, moreover, generally expected to become mayors and aldermen if they had not already done so. It is now impossible to establish the precise age of any of our MPs at the time of their first appearance in the Commons, but, since most must have entered the freedom of York after serving a fairly long apprenticeship and then have gone on after a few years to become chamberlains, bailiffs and sheriffs, we can be sure that the great majority, if not all, were well over 30, and that several were much older. The demands of running a successful business, which in many cases necessitated extensive travel, both at home and abroad, meant that those who wanted the prestige of representing their city in the Commons were generally quite happy to wait until they were well established or even approaching retirement before they offered themselves for election. It is certainly worth noting that about three-quarters (17) of our men first stood for Parliament a decade or more after assuming civic office; and that of these no less than ten allowed an interval of between 15 and 26 years to elapse. As a result, York sometimes returned quite elderly men of the stamp of Thomas Graa, Robert Talkan and Robert Ward, each of whom could look back on a lifetime of involvement in international commerce and city politics.

Prior to 1396, when York became a shire-incorporate, the writs of summons had ordered the sheriff of Yorkshire to ensure that the citizens elected their parliamentary representatives; and he had duly made the return of Members to Chancery, along with those for the boroughs of Kingston-upon-Hull and Scarborough. But from this date onwards the two sheriffs of York undertook the task, and after the introduction of legislation for the better regulation of county elections, in 1406, their returns took the form of an indenture, attested, as the writ required, by a small group of leading residents. An analysis of the 19 returns to survive between 1407 and 1435 shows that the mayor invariably headed a list of witnesses drawn from the ranks of the 12 and the 24, although the numbers fluctuated somewhat from ten in 1407 to 19 in 1433.12 The remarkably long list of 39 individuals submitted in 1435 was quite exceptional and may well have been the result of a contested election.13 A handful of our MPs were generally called upon to act as witnesses, but it was unusual for as many as eight to be named as was the case in 1415.14 The fortunate survival of an entry in the York Memorandum Book, describing in some detail the election held on 21 Sept. 1419 for the October Parliament of that year, provides us with an interesting insight into the procedures adopted. The two Members were chosen at a business meeting at the guildhall attended by the mayor, the two sheriffs and 23 councillors, including Thomas Gare, who was one of the men returned. Given that the election constituted the last item on the agenda (following the promulgation of bye-laws limiting the freedom of Scots living in York, and the appointment of two new sheriffs), it looks as if the ruling elite was not particularly exercised about its choice of representatives.15 But the missing councillors (especially the aldermen) may well have made their views felt in advance, because when the return itself was drawn up, four days later (on Monday 25 Sept.), seven of them acted as witnesses, along with eight colleagues who had actually been present at the election. We may assume, therefore, that one way or another the MPs chosen in our period had been selected by most, if not all, of the 12 and 24, in their capacity as spokesmen for the citizenry as a whole.

As even the most superficial study of the careers of our men reveals, this impressive group of wealthy, experienced and successful individuals, united by a common sense of civic pride, attended the Lower House as true representatives of York and its mercantile interests, and were rarely, if ever, the clients or placemen of outsiders. On the contrary, incidents such as Henry Preston II’s stand against the demands of the sheriff of Yorkshire, Sir Halnath Mauleverer*, to exercise certain judicial rights within the city walls, marked the rulers of York as men of staunch independence. William Frost’s evident attachment to the house of Lancaster may, perhaps, help to explain why he was returned for the one and only time in 1399, although the affiliations of two of his colleagues, John Morton II (who was a feoffee-to-uses and eventually an executor of Ralph, earl of Westmorland) and William Bowes (a friend of Bishop Skirlaw of Durham) clearly had nothing to do with their election to Parliament. Conversely, however, the antipathy shown by John Ripon towards Alexander Neville, the unpopular archbishop of York, made him a particularly acceptable choice so far as the Lords Appellant were concerned, and he evidently took his seat in the second Parliament of 1388 as one of their supporters.

Author: C.R.


  • 1. C219/11/7.
  • 2. W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 974.
  • 3. VCH City of York, 87-88.
  • 4. Pub. Works in Med. Law (Selden Soc. xl), 253, 258-9.
  • 5. VCH City of York, 17-24.
  • 6. Econ. HR, ser. 2, xii. 25-27.
  • 7. CChR, v. 336-7, 358-60.
  • 8. RP, iii, 96-97.
  • 9. Ibid. 135-6; VCH City of York, 80-82; CCR, 1381-4, p.31.
  • 10. Reign Ric. II ed. Du Boulay and Barron, 202-11; CCR, 1389-92, p. 565; VCH City of York, 84-85.
  • 11. VCH City of York, 57-58; P. McNiven, ‘Betrayal Abp. Scrope’, Bull. John Rylands Lib. liv. 173-213.
  • 12. C219/10/4, 11/2, 5, 7, 12/2-6, 13/1-5, 14/1-4.
  • 13. C219/14/5.
  • 14. C219/11/7.
  • 15. Surtees Soc. cxxv. 87.