The history of York as a seat of power as House of Lords move is mooted

Could the House of Lords move to York? Photo: PA/Kirsty Wigglesworth
Could the House of Lords move to York? Photo: PA/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Boris Johnson and his Government reportedly want to relocate the House of Lords to a development in York. And if it goes ahead, it would not be the first time in York’s history that it has been a seat of power.

Indeed, devolving political functions to the north is not a new idea - and can be traced back to at least 1472 when the Council of the North was established.

The York Central site, close to the city's railway station is reportedly being considered for the peers.

The York Central site, close to the city's railway station is reportedly being considered for the peers.

Set up by King Edward IV, it was intended as an administrative body. Its first president was the monarch’s brother Richard, who later took the throne himself as King Richard III.

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The council had no dedicated base during its early years, operating from both Sheriff Hutton Castle in North Yorkshire and Sandal Castle in Wakefield, and its primary function was to administer Crown justice in the days when the monarch’s rule was absolute.

“It only exists sporadically at that time and the important moment is actually when it is re-established by Henry VIII in the 1530s,” explains Laura Stewart, a Professor in Early Modern History at the University of York.

“There are two principle reasons why he did that. One is the amount of disorder in the north in response to the King’s religious policies, notably the dissolution of the monasteries. There’s a big rising that spreads from Yorkshire into adjacent counties called the Pilgrimage of Grace. In the wake of that, Henry decides that he needs a council in the north to try and reimpose royal authority...

“The other thing Henry has to take into account is that the early 16th century is one of those intermittent periods where England and Scotland are not getting on very well and even at the best of times, there’s a lot of disorder in the border regions. So Henry needs to have powerful people in the north in order to keep the Scots at bay.

“He actually ends up empowering these big families, like the Percys who become the Earls of Northumberland. As these families become powerful they don’t like doing what the Crown tells them to do so the Council of the North becomes a way of Henry saying just to be clear I’m the King and my authority runs in the north.”

After its peripatetic early years, convened in various places across the north, in 1539, the council was awarded permanent headquarters in the house that belonged to the Abbot of St Mary’s Abbey, today known as King’s Manor.

With the dissolution of the monasteries, the abbey had fallen into the Crown’s hands and Henry decided it would become the seat of the Council of the North. York, Prof Stewart explains, was an “obvious centre” to place royal governance. Its medieval walls made it a defensible city, it was prosperous and it was an ecclesiastical centre of great importance, with its Archbishop.

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“Particularly because of Henry’s religious policies, it’s very important for the crown to ally itself with ecclesiastical authority,” she says.

By the 1600s, the Council of the North’s power had waned. It was no longer seen as a body which would loyally support royal decree - instead it was considered a potential hive of rebellion. And in 1641 it was formally abolished.

“The City of York is very upset about this,” Prof Stewart explains, “because they know their own prosperity and significance is going to be undermined when they lose a powerful organ of government.”

Still, York remained of importance during the English Civil War period, a series of conflicts over the manner of England’s governance, fought between Royalists, who supported monarchist rule and Parliamentarians, who favoured the rights and privileges of Parliament.

As a Royalist stronghold, York was a strategic location and centre of operations. “King Charles I comes to York in the early part of the civil wars. He travels up and stays there for about four months,” Prof Stewart says.

But after the Royalists suffered a defeat at Marston Moor in North Yorkshire in 1644, Parliamentarians took hold of the city. “From the Battle of Marston Moor, the north goes Parliamentarian,” Prof Stewart continues. “With the Parliamentarians in control of the north, attention turns away from York.

“In the longer term, we see into the Restoration period and the early 18th century, that York turns itself from a centre of royal authority into what we might call a county town.

“It retains economic, political and increasingly social significance. Into the 18th century, we see York as a place where people come to shop, come to socialise and local courts are still being held in York so the gentry come in to have cases heard and sit on the benches.

"But increasingly York is a commercial centre. And from that period onwards, York ceases to be a powerhouse in the north.”

That is bound up, she says, with an increasing pull and dominance of London. “This brings us back to the proposal, not just to send the Lords to York but to think about taking Government agencies out of London.

“One way of looking at that is that it is a response to very deeply entrenched historic developments. England is unusual in comparison to some European countries in just how dominant its capital is.

“One way of addressing that might be to move not just Government representative institutions to other areas of England but also to think about economic power and what other ways we might create a better balance between the North and South.”

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It is believed that York’s historic status as a seat of power - as well as its transport links - is one reason why the city could host the House of Lords, as the Government looks to “reconnect” politics with voters outside of London.

At the weekend, The Sunday Times reported that Mr Johnson’s Government is considering the move to York permanently and that the Prime Minister had ordered work to begin on the practicalities of such a relocation.

Naming the prestigious York Central regeneration land next to the city’s railway station as a site, it said the location would be determined by a constitutional review due to be launched in the Spring. The 800 peers who sit in the Lords would face a three-hour train journey from London to attend sessions.

“Our Prime Minister claims to be someone that knows his English history,” Prof Stewart says, “and he will know that in the late medieval and early modern period York is the second city of England. One proposal is to move the House of Lords to York to boost the north but actually you could argue the House of Lords will take some historic status and prestige from being sited in what was the second city of England.”

Is it time for York to be a seat of power once again? Yes, she says, and the move would present an opportunity to showcase the north’s vibrancy and Yorkshire’s historical identity.

“The more attention that York receives, the better. It’s a wonderful place... And we can be proud of the historic legacies of our Northern cities.”