An Independent City

King John signing the Magna Carta (Goodrich 1844)

For most of the Norman period York, like the rest of Yorkshire, had been governed by the Sheriff.   He was based at York Castle, but had responsibility for the whole county and wasn't accountable to the citizens.  This all changed at the beginning of the 13th century.

The Sheriff of Nottingham may have had troubles with outlaws but at least he didn't have to face York's business community.  As York’s merchants grew richer, they resented the Sheriff of Yorkshire's dominance.  Leading citizens banded together and became an influential voice in the city’s affairs.

It was King John himself who gave them the chance of self-government.  Disastrous and expensive military campaigns left him sorely in need of funds, and one way to raise them was to allow a town’s citizens to buy the right to rule themselves.  The same pressures forced John in 1215 to sign the Magna Carta, the charter giving some fundamental rights to the nation.

York's own charter came three years earlier, in 1212, when King John allowed York’s citizens, rather than the Sheriff, to collect and pay the annual tax to the Crown, to hold their own courts and to appoint a mayor.  From then on, until local government reorganisation in 1974, York was a self-governing city under its own mayors.

Hugh Selby, who exported wool and imported wine, became York’s first known mayor in 1217.  His family made the role their own: he was appointed a further five times, his son John seven times and his grandson Nicholas four times.

The Sheriff’s remaining power was effectively stripped from him in 1256 by two charters from Henry III which handed over control of the law and justice to the people of York.

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