York: Capital of the North, stronghold against the Scots and Richard III’s retinue

Capital of the North

When we think about the North of England, in contrast with the south, most of us imagine beautiful landscapes, the stunning countryside, industrial cities, and regional accents. However, the vast English North is far more complex and intricate than that. It is filled with culture, political disputes, intrigue, and a spirit of community attached to displays of loyalty for its people. Moreover, it was even more so during the late Middle Ages, which is the focus of this article. The great cities of the North were the centre of the social, political and economic life of the region, and none more so than York. Made prosperous by its production of wool, trade and pilgrimage[1], York and the county of Yorkshire were at the very centre of Richard III’s government and support in the North.

Figure 1: The most famous and fayre Citie Yorke described, John Speed, 1610.
© University of Cambridge Digital Library

            The city of York, a stronghold in the North surrounded by a 4km wall[2], whose foundation was built by the Romans around the 71 A.D. and reinforced from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries with limestone to defend the city, with the addition of four gatehouses or “bars”, as well as three-metre deep ditches surrounding the wall itself. The gates controlled the influx of people, the taxation of goods and tolls, as well as serving as defensive positions in times of war and conflicts, such as was the case in the Wars of the Roses. Like many European cities of the medieval period and more than fifty English ones, the fortress-like construction serves as both a protection and a prison.

            The Micklegate Bar, the most important gateway in the city during the Middle Ages, served as both a commemorative display for kings — since it was traditional for the ruling monarch to enter the city through it — and a warning to rebels and traitors. Their heads were put on pikes and displayed above the gate. Such were the case of Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy and Richard III’s own father, Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York. Not to mention, York being the centre of the county and one of the military powers of the North was one of the defense line against the Scots. As pointed out by Palliser, “York’s geographical position continued to give it military significance during the intermittent Scottish Wars”.[3]

Figure 2: The southern entrance to York, Micklegate Bar. Photograph taken on 11 April 2006.

Richard III and the City

During the same conflict that killed his father in 1460, the then nine-year-old Richard, who was made Duke of Gloucester in 1461 when his brother Edward ascended the throne as Edward IV, rose to greatness a decade later. Between 1471 and 1483 due to his military prowess against the Scots, his political mind and intellect — chiefly in his administration of the northern territory where he spearheaded the Council of the North as Lord President and de facto Lord of the North — Richard commanded power and authority that no other nobleman in England possessed. His relationship with the city is well documented in the York Civic Records. Volumes of books dedicated to the record of Council meeting, transactions, letters, appointments and events. And in it, precious accounts of Richard’s character and allegiance. As stated by the editor of the first volume, Revered Angelo Raine,

To retain the good will of the City of York was of importance to the rulers of England. Richard III was able to do this, not merely because he was a strong character and a clever man, but also because of his knowledge of the North.[4]

            It was his knowledge of the North, having lived there for most of his life and being a Yorkshireman both in name[5] and birth, Richard was schooled by none other than the Kingmaker himself — the Earl of Warwick — on how to handle and retain the people and the councilmen’s trust and loyalty. That is reflected on the respect the city bestowed upon him as well as the way they remained loyal to him after his death in 1485. In 1480, in one of the Scottish Expeditions, Richard sent a letter to the Councilmen of the city requesting[6] that men of the York be called to arms to aid him against the Scots. In another letter, a month after the battle, Edward IV congratulates the city for its collaboration during the conflict, based on a report given by the Duke of Gloucester. A few years later, once again, the city’s men were called to arms against the Scots and once again, Richard sent a letter on 14 May 1482 thanking the Councilmen for “bearing the change of 80 able men well arrayed and horsed.”[7]

            Therefore, it seems that the Duke’s power and knowledge of the North earned him the respect and obedience of the Councilmen of York as well as some of its citizens. For as Raine also notes on his introduction, “ there is evidence to show that a considerable section distrusted Richard”.[8] Nevertheless, in April 1483 when his brother died and a power vacuum was installed, and during those troubled time, Richard in his capacity as both Duke of Gloucester and the Lord Protector of the Realm, requested the Councilmen for “ as many men as you can make, defensibly arrayed”[9] to come to London in order to aid him against the Queenmother — Elizabeth Woodville — and her family. It was no surprise when the Council readily replied not only in paper, but also in action: two hundred horsemen, properly armed for combat if necessary, joined other northern troops and together marched to London, where they remained for Richard’s accession to kingship and coronation. 

            However, during the event of the Battle of Bosworth, the eighty men who were dispatched to aid Richard against Henry Tudor never made it to the battlefield. It is never explained in the civic records why that happened. To this, Paul Murray Kendall[10] states that the delay was caused by a plague[11] that was prevalent in the City. Nevertheless, the city mourned its king and benefactor — at least on the councilmen’s part — when news of his death reached York on the 23rd of August 1485. So much that even Edward Hall[12], Tudor historian and writer, noted how loved and esteemed Richard had been by the men of the North.

Cite this article as: Beatriz Breviglieri, "York: Capital of the North, stronghold against the Scots and Richard III’s retinue," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 07/05/2021, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1271.

Referenced Bibliography:
Edward Hall, Hall’s Chronicle, Containing the History of England During the Reign of Henry IV and the Succeeding Monarchs to the End of the Reign of Henry VIII, ed. by Sir Henry Ellis (London: , 1809).

P.M. Kendall, Richard III (London: Allen & Unwin, 1955).

John M. Theilmann, ‘Sweating Sickness’, in Encyclopedia of pestilence, pandemics and plagues, ed. by Joseph P. Byrne (London: Greenwood Press, 2008).

A History of the County of York: The City of York, ed. by P. M. Tillott (London: Victoria County History, 1961), in , <https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york> [accessed 7 February 2021].

‘The West Ridinge of Yorkeshyre with The most famous and fayre Citie Yorke described. 1610’, in The theatre of the empire of Great Britaine presenting an exact geography of the kingdomes of England, Scotland, Ireland, and the iles adioyning: with the shires, hundreds, cities and shire-townes, within ye kingdome of England, divided and described by Iohn Speed.by John Speed,  (London, 1611.). <http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/PR-ATLAS-00002-00061-00001/66> [accessed 7 February 2021].

The Southern Entrance to York, Micklegate Bar, by Darren Wortley, 2006.<https:

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Micklegate_Bar.jpg> [ accessed in 7 February 2021].

York Civic Record Volume I, ed. by Angelo Raine (Wakefield: The West Yorkshire Printing Co., 1939).


[1]‘The later middle ages: Communications, markets and merchants’. In: P. M Tillot (Ed.) A History of the County of York: the City of York. London,Victoria County History, (1961), 97-106. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york/pp97-106 [accessed 2 February 2021].

[2] What currently remains of the medieval limestone masonry.

[3] D.M. Palliser. “Medieval York. 600-1540.”, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 244.

[4] Angelo Raine, York Civic Records, Vol I. (Wakefield: The West Yorkshire Printing Co. Limited, 1939), p. vi.

[5] Alluding to the House of York’s heritage through the title of Richard’s father, Duke of York.

[6] Angelo Raine, York Civic Records, Vol I. (Wakefield: The West Yorkshire Printing Co. Limited, 1939), p. 34-35.

[7] Ibid, p. 55.

[8] Ibid, p. vii.

[9] Ibid, p. 73.

[10] P.M. Kendall, “Richard III”, London, Allen & Unwin, 1955, p. 347-349.

[11] Sweating Sickness as reported by John M. Theilmann, ‘Sweating Sickness’, in Joseph P. Byrne (ed.)

“Encyclopedia of pestilence, pandemics and plagues”, London, Greenwood Press, 2008, p. 686.

[12] Edward Hall, “ Hall’s Chronicle, Containing the History of England During the Reign of Henry IV and the Succeeding Monarchs to the End of the Reign of Henry VIII”, London, 1809, p. 426.


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