Life in Elizabethan York

Elizabeth I sixpence, Yorkshire Museum, York

In many respects the Elizabethan period was good for York and features of life in the Elizabethan city are still recognisable today.

Establishing the Council in the North permanently at King’s Manor provided an important boost to York’s long-ailing economy, which had been dealt such a blow by the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  The council generated a stream of visitors who spent money at city bakers, butchers, brewers, tailors, shoemakers and the rest.

By 1596, more than 60 inns were providing accommodation in the city, making hospitality an important part of the city's economy.  Makers of luxury items like gold and silver jewellery were also expanding.

There was also a constant demand for parchment, made from sheepskin, for the records of York’s administrators.

The national economy stabilised and by the end of Elizabeth’s reign York corporation had cleared its debts.

Although textile manufacture had emigrated west, York merchants were making a good living buying and selling Yorkshire cloth.  Trade in food and drink thrived and the city imported luxury goods from London to sell to the northern nobility.  The owner of Harewood House, James Ryther, was not impressed:  in a report to one of the queen’s ministers, he accused traders of charging extortionate rates for cheap London products.

The merchants guild was renamed the Merchant Adventurers Company in 1581 and imported iron, hemp and other items from northern Germany and the Baltic states.  Increased trade boosted York’s money lenders too.

This renewed prosperity eventually had an effect on the city population.  Virulent outbreaks of plague and sweating sickness had counteracted the migration into York during the first half of the 16th century.
For four decades after 1560 the city was free of major epidemics and began to prosper.  Many new houses were built and the population rose again to about 12,000 by the turn of the century.


The migration into York caused its own problems as poverty-stricken people moved to the city from the countryside.  York corporation took action, it regulated begging. 

It took a census of the poor and issued begging licences.  From 1515 legal beggars had to wear tokens on their shoulders.  In 1528 a hierarchy of beggars was established with a ‘Master Beggar’ appointed for each ward who kept a check on the rest. Any without a token was required to leave.

Later the unemployed were expected to weave and spin in York’s new workhouse, while those who would not work were sent to a house of correction.  By the end of the century the problem had not abated, and the corporation took to dispatching immigrant paupers back to their previous place of residence.

Sports and pastimes

Cock-fighting, bear-baiting and bull-baiting were all recorded in York during Tudor times.  The popularity of dice, cards, and backgammon was in 1573 blamed for the scandalous neglect of archery, the civic records reveal.

In 1566 two boys were flogged by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for kicking a football in the Minster itself.  William Mallory and Oswald Wolsthrope contested the first recorded horse race in York in 1530.

The city alehouses thrived. In 1530 poor labourers were indulging in such riotous evenings that the corporation imposed a curfew on them.

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