According to Francis Drake, York's great eighteenth century historian, the mayors of York date back to the reign of King Stephen, with a ‘Mayor Nigel’ being the first to bear this title in 1147. However, the first mention of a ‘mayor of York’ in the contemporary historical record dates to 1213, a year after King John granted the city the right to run its own affairs, and the first named mayor we know of was Hugh de Selby in 1217. By tradition, the title ‘Lord Mayor’ was first granted to Thomas Smith by Richard II in 1389, when the King presented a sword to the city. In reality, it is more likely to have evolved over a number of years, with references to ‘my lord the mayor’ becoming more frequent by the 1480s.
In theory, a mayor was supposed to hold office only once every twelve years, in order to prevent an individual who was in power for too long becoming corrupt and dominating the city. This didn't always happen in practice – for example, Nicholas de Langton became Mayor of York a total of 16 times over a 20 year period! However, the city did make attempts to enforce the 12 year rule when it suited them. During the English Civil War, when Charles I was pressing for ‘his' man to be elected mayor, the council rejected the nominee on the grounds that he had held office before, within the previous 12 years. The matter was resolved when the Earl of Newcastle entered the council chamber with armed soldiers, who ‘persuaded’ the council to approve the King’s choice!
The earliest portrait of a Lord Mayor in the York Mansion House collection is that of Sir John Lister Kaye, dated 1737. He would have been one of the first mayors to use the Mansion House for his public entertainments after its eventual completion in 1732. Sir John’s real lasting legacy was the restoration of Micklegate Bar, where his coat of arms can still be seen.
The Lord Mayor today
Earlier mayors held real political power and performed a wide range of duties, including presiding over certain courts of law. The role of today’s Lord Mayor is essentially ceremonial and includes attending local events, welcoming international guests and raising funds for chosen charities. However, he or she is still Chair of the City of York Council and is recognised as the first citizen of York, second only in precedence to the Lord Mayor of London.
The Lord Mayor is appointed by all members of the council at a special meeting held each year in May at the Guildhall. At the same meeting, a Sheriff is appointed. The Sheriff of York holds the oldest such office in England and Wales. It is traditional also to appoint a Lady Mayoress (or Lord Mayor’s Consort) and a Sheriff’s Lady (or Consort). Together, the four appointees make up the Civic Party, and each one plays a part in representing the city and attending the numerous local and community events to which the Lord Mayor is invited during his or her term of office.
A List of Mayors - 800 years of York history
Download the list below to see the names of all the Mayors and Lord Mayors of York from 1217 to 2016.