New Discoveries from Medieval York

Image
Dr John Jenkins in the Explore York archives.

Research on the Streetlife project has uncovered previously unstudied original charters from the 12th and 13th centuries relating to medieval York and Coney Street.

The earliest dates from the 1150s, while attached to others are the personal seals of the chief citizens of the city, both male and female. The 13 charters reveal much new information about the city of York at a formative time, particularly relating to the city’s Guildhall, and will form the basis for future work re-evaluating the early history of the city and its mayors.

The charters survive in the archives of Durham Cathedral, which held important property in York in the Middle Ages. In the last decade archivists have been preparing a new online catalogue of the Cathedrals collections of charters, giving researchers the ability to search and access the collections more easily and fully than ever before. Nine of the thirteen charters have not previously been seen by historians, while the other four were previously only known from printed editions of the early 20th century.

Lefwin and his sons

The earliest charter dates from around 1155, and as with many of the Durham charters relates to the plot of land where the Guildhall now stands. In it, the Bishop of Durham, Hugh le Puiset, grants the land to St Cuthbert (the patron saint of Durham Cathedral) and the monks of the cathedral. The bishop’s seal is still attached. This charter is notable as having the earliest written text of ‘Coney Street’, or ‘Cunegestrate’, still beautifully preserved in mid-12th century script.

Image
‘Cunegestrate in Eboraco’ (‘Coney Street in York’), the earliest known example of the name in writing from c.1155.
Image: Durham Cathedral Archives DCD 3.1 Pont. 1

A second, related, charter shows that this property was then immediately granted by Durham Cathedral to Lefwin, son of Thurwif. He was one of York’s most important and wealthiest citizens in the twelfth century. It is intriguing that he is known as the son of his mother, as Thurwif is a female name, rather than by his father’s name as was usual in this period. Perhaps his mother was the higher-status parent.

Image
Seal of Gerard, son of Lefwin, c. 1210. A peacock in the centre, with the inscription SIGILL GERARDI P[ER]SONE DE STOKESLE – ‘the seal of Gerard the parson of Stokesley’.
Image: Durham Cathedral Archives DCD 4.1 Sacr. 13

It is likely that Lefwin had organised the transfer of the land to St Cuthbert and then back to himself. The plot was in a key site in the city, near the old Roman river crossing and at the corner of Coney Street and Stonegate. It may have already been a meeting place for the chief citizens, and was probably the site of a large stone merchant’s hall. By granting it to St Cuthbert, Lefwin could ensure that the house would not fall into the hands of the King if anything happened to his descendants.

Between 1155 and around 1210 the house was the property of Lefwin and his sons, Hugh and Gerard, who between them were involved in the most important affairs of the York. Hugh was one of the richest merchants, while Gerard had the right to mint money in the city. Gerard’s seal from the early 13th century, when he had retired to become the parson of Stokesley church, survives on an original charter. It shows a peacock, perhaps representing his own fine clothes and lifestyle.

Adam Flur and the Guildhall

The rest of these newly-discovered charters reveal for the first time how and when the Guildhall came into the hands of the City of York. After Lefwin and his sons had died, the large stone house was rented by a series of other leading citizens. In around 1220 Durham Cathedral granted it to Adam Flur, who was to serve as mayor of York in 1222.

The charter he sealed was of a type called a ‘chirograph’. This was two copies of the charter written on one piece of parchment, with a word written in large script down the middle (in this case CARTA, ‘charter’) and a wavy line cut through the word. The charters could then be verified as they would fit together. Unusually, in the case of Adam Flur’s charter we have both sides as his widow had to return it to the Cathedral when she gave up the property.

The two halves of a cirograph, c. 1220, when put together the word CARTA (‘charter’) is formed.
Images: Durham Cathedral Archives DCD 4.1 Sacr. 14 and 14a

 

Between 1220 and 1231 Adam Flur heavily mortgaged the property to two of York’s wealthiest men: John le Romeyn, subdean of York Minster, and Aaron the Jew. It is possible that he was borrowing money in an official capacity to pay for civic improvements.

After Adam Flur’s death in 1231 his widow Sybilla had to deal with the debt on the property. Because of this, both Sybilla and Adam’s personal seals survive. His was an antique gem of a veiled woman, while hers was a fleur-de-lis.

Image
The seals of Adam Flur (left) and Sybilla Flur (right), c. 1230.
Image: Durham Cathedral Archives DCD 4.1 Sacr. 22 and 26

Clearly the house was very important to the mayor and chief citizens of York, as another of the newly-discovered charters shows that on 8 September 1231 they bought up nearly £100 of debt in order to purchase it for the city. While the house may have been used as a meeting-place for the city’s merchants and moneyers up to this point anyway, from 1231 onwards it was city property.