House of Commons 1422-1504: MP of the Month

In our Medieval MP of the Month series we’ll be exploring some of the characters who feature in our Commons 1422-1504 volumes, which were published in April 2020. Today we hear from Senior Research Fellow, Dr Hannes Kleineke about William Holbeck, MP for York in the Parliament of 1450-1…

THE HISTORY OF PARLIAMENT: THE HOUSE OF COMMONS 1422-1461, edited by Linda Clark, is out now. For further details about the volumes, including purchasing information,  visit the Cambridge University Press website, here.

William Holbeck, who represented his city in Parliament in the troubled year 1450-1, came from a long-established family of York merchants. He himself was admitted to the freedom of the city by redemption in 1425, and began to trade as a mercer. His standing in the local community was unquestionably enhanced by his marriage to Agnes, the daughter of the former mayor John Aldstaynmore, a staple merchant and one of the wealthiest men in the city. Agnes was Aldstaynmore’s only child, but when his father-in-law died in 1435, Holbeck did not leave anything to chance: for a number of years there were persistent rumours that he had abused his position as executor of the man’s will to enrich himself, procuring forged deeds to prove his title, and colluding with his fellow mercer William Stocton who had been ‘present with þe forsaid John day & nyght lang afore his diyng and atte his diyng & atte all tymes was moste priue in knawelege in the premysses & all other thynges pertenyng to the said John’ to exclude Aldstaynmore’s relatives from any share of the deceased man’s fortune.

Such allegations did not prevent Holbeck from taking the first steps in the civic career ladder. He was elected one of the city chamberlains in February 1437, held the shrievalty of York in 1439-40, and subsequently took his place on the city’s lower council in 1442. At the end of the decade, his career began to take off. In January 1447 Holbeck was elected an alderman, the essential qualification for the mayoralty to which he was chosen two years later. Indeed, he was evidently held in high regard among the citizens, for – highly usually in York – in 1458 he was re-elected for a second term as mayor. Throughout the fifteenth century, the mayoral franchise was a source of repeated unrest in York, as the lesser inhabitants sought to break the monopoly of the ruling elite, and in 1462 King Edward IV himself had to intervene to settle a contested mayoral election.

By the end of the decade, internal concerns were overtaken by wider events: much of northern England was in uproar as Richard Neville, the ‘Kingmaker’ earl of Warwick and his son in law, George, duke of Clarence, orchestrated popular uprisings against King Edward’s rule. It was against the backdrop of the political crisis that in February 1470 the citizens of York elected the experienced Holbeck to an unprecedented third term as mayor. What followed was even more extraordinary. A central issue in the ongoing quarrel over the mayoral franchise was a demand that mayors should not be immediately re-elected, and should be limited to no more than two terms of office. Yet, following fresh problems at the elections of 1471, Holbeck was re-appointed by royal letters for another year, and even more extraordinarily, in 1472 he secured a third successive term, thus serving a total of five mayoralties.

Political power came at a price: Holbeck made enemies. It was common practice in the cities and towns of medieval England to sanction those who spoke ill of their chief officers, and York routinely did so. Yet, Holbeck’s imprisonment of a man who had declared him to have been elected ‘by sowters, knaves, taillouris and suche harlottis’ unusually met with the opposition of many of the city’s aldermen. Holbeck’s eventually relinquishing of the mayoralty left him vulnerable, and when fresh disorder broke out in York in the summer of 1476, he sought refuge in the city’s Domincan friary’s franchise at Friars’ Toft, where he was subsequently joined by his household and family. His consequent inability to attend the meetings of the council of aldermen gave his fellows grounds to move against him. On 14 Sept. 1476 two sergeants at mace were dispatched to summon Holbeck to attend the election of the new sheriffs at the guildhall a week later, threatening him with the loss of his aldermanry, should he refuse. Holbeck evidently suspected a trap, and replied that he would not attend at the guildhall until he had seen the King, as he could not be sure that he might come and go safely. Informed of this, the council agreed to strip him of his place on the council, and to elect a replacement.

Holbeck evidently refused to accept this decision, as he continued to style himself an aldermen. He nevertheless remained in sanctuary, and probably died there in the summer or early autumn of 1477, survived by his second wife and an under-age son, who went on to become a wealthy staple merchant in his own right.


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