If a county or a city anywhere has a claim to an early system of law, then it is has to be one that stretches back to Roman occupation. In that regard, given that Yorkshire and York in particular is an ancient capital not just of Britain but of the Northern Roman Empire (Constantine was even declared Emperor here) then it has to be a contender. York being a central garrison fort and major trading post must have had some form of legal administration and this, however, primitive, puts us ahead of our neighboring cities.
Ancient and Historic Capital of England
York already an established settlement before the Romans came. However, it is likely that the establishment of the Garrison at York probably also brought the first legal administrators or officials who doled out the law by some system now long forgotten. By the middle ages though, York was established as a center of the law through the rural Assizes or regional Court Sittings. By the time of the Elizabethan age York was a regional capital and York law was well established.
In many respects the Elizabethan period was good for York and features of life in the Elizabethan city are still recognisable today. 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 jewelry 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 to the crown (built up through centuries).
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.
York becomes the Capital Again!
April 1642: When the London mob made life too dangerous for King Charles I in the capital, he moved to York, bringing his family and court with him. Foreign ambassadors, members of the nobility and officers of the state were compelled to come to the city too. For six months York was, in effect, capital of the kingdom again. It is inevitable that such administrative importance carried with it a large York and Yorkshire based legal system and no doubt a plethora of York lawyers.
In response, to Yorks success, Parliament sent a committee to reside in the city, ostensibly to keep the lines of communication open with the king but also to keep a close eye on him. Charles lived in Sir Arthur Ingram’s house and royalist propaganda was issued from his printing press set up in St William’s College.
York council hoped for a peaceful settlement. It put the city's 600-strong militia at the king’s disposal but asked that it were not called away from the city to fight.
In July 1642 the authorities started strengthening York’s defenses. The walls were repaired and sentry boxes set up. After the king made an unsuccessful raid at Beverley, it was clear that war was on its way. Charles left York on August 16, six days before he raised his standard at Nottingham and hostilities officially began.
York's Legal Community has not been large since this short period before the civil war, however, it is a highly professional and well organised community and it harbors some of the best legal expertise in the County and the Country.
Today York has no valid claim to central government or administration, however, the history of the city is uniquely observable in its buildings and architecture, every period of British history is to be found here represented by our homes and public buildings. A history of York is a history of England and that means inevitably a history of yorkshire law and yorkshire legal life is a microcosm of that history.
York legal firms today cover practically every legal subject and practice area and harbor some of the greatest legal minds in the Country, many of which are former city lawyers forced north to find a kinder temperament and cleaner air.
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