What’s all the fuss about? I made a search of York University Library’s collection of histories of York and failed to turn up a single mention of the 1212 charter. Most historians obviously don’t think it was all that significant. There are plenty of charters mentioned, but not that one, and several similar interventions by Bad King John, desperate to keep York on his side in troubled times. If anything, the charter at the end of the 14th century that made York a City and County was much more important.
In the end I tracked it down on the internet and found out the truth. King John was over-stretching himself with excessive luxury and wars. The York charter was one of several schemes to refill his pockets. Does that sound familiar? For the sum of £200 and three horses, he ‘sold’ to the ‘city’ the dubious right to collect taxes from its own mercantile activities and give him the proceeds. In return the ‘city’ could hold its own courts and elect a mayor. For the ‘city’ read ‘the most wealthy merchants’, such as the Selby family who went on to dominate the post of mayor for three generations.
This charter had nothing to do with freedom, democracy or ‘self-government’. It would be the equivalent today of George Osborne giving a self-appointed, self-regulated City Council the right to collect taxes on his behalf and hand them over so that the State could spend the money on bailing out the bankers, keeping themselves in luxury and prosecuting illegal and unjustifiable wars. Wow! How great would that be?
I would prefer to support a celebration of generations of ordinary York citizens who have worked tirelessly for peace, civil liberty and the common good of the majority, for which reason my contribution to York 800 will be to get working with the York Alternative History project.