Trade in the Medieval City

Glazed medieval jug


Not just anyone could trade in York in the middle ages - if you wanted to sell goods in the city you had to be a freemanYou could buy the privilege, inherit it, or work for it through an apprenticeship.

The Freeman’s Register gives us an insight into the most prominent trades.  It is the first record of the men – and occasionally women – who were merchants and had gained the Freedom of the City.

Household service was the most common occupation for women in York. Only a handful of women were granted the Freedom of the City, often seamstresses and landladies.

The first register, in 1272, reveals the occupations of 452 men, as follows:

  • leather trade – 30 per cent;
  • provisions – 29 per cent
  • metal crafts – 17 per cent
  • commerce and shipping – 10 per cent
  • textile crafts, mainly tailors – 7 per cent
  • building crafts – 2 per cent
  • miscellaneous others – 5 per cent.

By the 15th century the city was thriving and Freeman’s Register alongside other documents, including taxation records and wills, gives a revealing picture of York’s economy.  The city’s workers belonged to six broad groups:

  • woollen textile industry – almost a quarter of the male taxpayers in the town were involved in the cloth industry in one way or another.  There were 128 master tailors alone in York in 1386.  The city's dependence on this industry was to prove a weakness.
  • leather industry – ten per cent worked as skinners, tanners, saddlers, or cordwainers making shoes.  York became the main centre for the production of high-quality leather goods in the country.  Tanning was a very smelly business and those involved were usually required to work across the river in what is still known as Tanner’s Row.
  • provisions – another ten per cent worked in providing food and drink.  As well as the bakers, butchers and fishmongers you would find in any medieval town, there were also many grocers, spicers, salters and saucemakers in York, thanks to the number of visitors it attracted.  The city’s regional importance is also reflected in the many taverners and inn-keepers.
  • metal crafts – another near-tenth of freeman worked in the metal industry.  Most were at a fairly basic level – smiths, cutlers, pin-makers and the like.  But York also had an unusually high number of goldsmiths.  People would turn to York for the latest in pewter tableware, for well-made cutlery and armour, and to cast bells, the most demanding skill of all.
  • building work – includes the stone masons and carpenters who made such a contribution to the look of the medieval town, and many more workers lost to obscurity.
  • specialised craftsmen – most notably the master glaziers who designed the windows in the Minster and the many parish churches.


Those who didn't have the Freedom of the City, or came from beyond York’s boundaries, were called ‘aliens’, or foreigners.

As York was a port and market place for imported and exported goods, foreigners were a small but visible group.  The largest contingent were recorded as Deutsch, a term which included people from Holland to Austria.

Overseas traders sometimes settled in York.  German goldsmith John Colan did so in the 1460s.  Dutchman Fredericus Freez was admitted to the freedom in 1497: he established a printing firm in York within a generation of the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press.

International trade

Whilst traditional crafts prospered, even more money was being made by the merchants who imported and exported, sending ships overseas via the port of Hull, from where smaller boats came upriver to York.

Major local exports included grain and wool.  The key overseas markets were the Low Countries, Germany, France and the Baltic.

Wine was imported, first from France, and then from further afield.  French jugs, German cups and Dutch cooking vessels dating from this period have been found.

In around 1155 Henry II confirmed the city merchants’ trading rights in England and Normandy with a charter, attested by Thomas Becket, which is the oldest document in the City of York Archives.

Later Richard I ('the Lionheart'), needing funds for a crusade, granted York valuable trading privileges in return for £133 – a handsome sum.

York as a port

In 1203-4 York was ranked seventh in importance among ports of the south and east coast.

Throughout the Middle Ages docks and stores were maintained on the riverside.  Excavations have shown how retaining walls of timber and stone were built out from the river’s edge and in-filled with rubbish.

However, the tides worked against York: a boat could be stranded for a fortnight in the city if a tide was missed at certain times in the year.  This saw Hull grow in importance as a main port in the 13th century.  York retained its shipbuilding industry, and had more shipwrights – 69 – than anywhere else in the country in 1294.

Economic Decline

The cloth industry which was the mainstay of the city's economy in the 14th century gradually moved to other parts of Yorkshire.  York was expensive and highly regulated compared with smaller towns such as Halifax, Wakefield and Leeds.  By the late 15th century the industry had all but gone and had not been replaced.

The population was falling, rents were low and many houses were derelict.

To cap it all York had backed the losing side in the War of the Roses.  The city entered the Tudor age in its weakest state for centuries.

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