The Council of the North

Amid questions of Scottish devolution and the power of Westminster over a divided Britain, Ashley Cooper & Stephen Cooper revisit the Council of the North

Stephen Cooper | Published in 29 Apr 2015

King's Manor, York – seat of the Council of the North after it was reinstated until 1641. Photo by by Rept0n1x - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsWriting in the Spectator last January, Alex Massie noted that, by some economic measures, Yorkshire was bigger than Scotland, so if devolution was right for Scotland, why not for Yorkshire? He added that there were other candidates for devolution but that it was ‘perhaps … time to revive the Council of the North’, which last met in the 17th century. He may have been joking but in the Observer on August 31st, 2014, Robert Yates commented on the continuing North-South divide in England and quoted Jim O’Neill as suggesting ‘a new regional structure – a Council of the North for instance’. 

The problem of the over-concentration of power in London has been discussed for a long time and it is always interesting to see if an old idea can be put to a new use. But if we look at the original Council of the North, which functioned between the late 15th century and 1641, we must conclude that a new version of it would not provide a remedy for our current ills.

The North-South divide was recognised as early as the 12th century and in the 14th, Ranulf Higden (c.1280-1364), a monk in Chester who wrote a history of the world entitled Polychronicon or ‘Universal Chronicle’ said:

All the language of the men of Northumberland, and especially of Yorkshire, soundeth so that the men of the South country may scarcely understand the language of them, which thing may be caused by the proximity of their language to that spoken by barbarians, and also by the great distance of the kings of England from [the North], since those kings mostly frequent the South, and only enter the North when accompanied by a large number of their retainers. There is also another cause, which is that the South is more abundant in fertility than the North, has more people, and more convenient harbours. 

So, here we have a description of the problems which have always beset the North – apart (perhaps) from a few decades during the Industrial Revolution: relative poverty; commercial backwardness; distance from the seats of power; and the inability of the Southerner to understand what the Northerner is talking about.

During the 15th century the far north was subject to border raids by the Scots but the larger problem, experienced throughout the whole of England north of the Trent, was the lack of law and order and, in particular, the lack of impartial justice despite the existence of a large number of competing authorities: manorial courts, Justices of the Peace, sheriffs, town corporations and palatinates (as in Durham, Chester and Lancaster). It was undoubtedly this which led to the establishment of the Council of the North by Edward IV and to its revamping by Richard III and Henry VIII, though the early years of the institution are exceptionally obscure. 

The Council was primarily – and, after 1537, almost exclusively – a court rather than an administrative or governmental body. No medieval government had much interest in increasing GDP, tackling poverty or social and economic policy (though international trade was a different matter). Such matters were generally left to private enterprise, town corporations and guilds, county-based authorities and the church, although Elizabethan governments conferred wide powers in many areas on J.P.s.

Indeed it became known as ‘the Court at York’ for this reason. It exercised criminal and civil jurisdiction, in addition to existing judicial authorities, but it dispensed a uniform and centralised kind of justice using streamlined procedures and prerogative powers rather than the common law, in the same way as the Court of Star Chamber. In civil cases it was more akin to the chancery courts. It was in no sense a democratic or even representative body and it was concerned to devolving power to the regions: it was in fact an extension of royal power. 

The Council, or Court at York, was popular with litigants, especially as a court of equity in civil cases, because it provided local but impartial justice similar to the county courts which were eventually established in 1846. It was also very effective, especially during the Tudor period, in reducing levels of lawlessness and curbing the ability of powerful men to pervert the course of justice. On the other hand, it was unpopular with common lawyers and existing magistrates who were eventually able to have it abolished, along with the Star Chamber, because of the perceived abuses committed by the king’s government during the so-called Eleven Years’ Tyranny of 1629-40. Attempts to re-establish it in the 1660s all failed because of their entrenched opposition.

The problem which the Council was set up to solve no longer exists. Impartial justice can now be had all over the country, from the county and crown courts in every district. Moreover, there is no obvious place where a modern Council of the North could be established. The medieval and early modern Council operated from Sheriff Hutton and Sandal and then from King’s Manor York, but York is no longer the most important city in the North (except for ecclesiastical purposes, and even that is only true for Anglicans). It might be thought that one of the big cities, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds or Newcastle might be more suitable but no obvious frontrunner emerges.

The old Council had jurisdiction over the six northern counties (and so excluded Cheshire) but that area has – as a result of the Industrial Revolution, population growth and urbanisation – changed out of all recognition, socially, economically and politically. The North now comprises several distinct regions and 13 administrative counties or metropolitan authorities with problems of their own and democratically elected representatives whose opinions matter. It is hard to see where a line, or lines, could be drawn which would not displease more people than it would please. The more or less friendly rivalry on the football pitch has created a modern version of the campanilismo which has always divided Italy.

An example from late Tudor times may illustrate the kind of dispute which could arise if the old Council of the North were to be recreated. When Henry VIII remodelled the Council the plan was that it should hold meetings in York, Newcastle, Hull and Durham, all places to the east of the Pennines. These four places – with the addition perhaps of Carlisle – were the only sizeable towns in the North, of which York was much the largest. By 1556, meetings at Hull had ceased and Carlisle had taken the place of Durham. By 1561 Carlisle and Newcastle shared their role. After 1582 all meetings were held in York. 

Of course, the Council could in theory move from one place to another, periodically. But F.W. Brooks commented that ‘to move a body of this size with its registers, rolls and other paraphernalia was no easy matter’, even in the 16th century. Indeed, modern citizens of the European Union might have adverse things to say about the practice of the European Parliament, which moves between Brussels and Strasbourg but has its secretariat in Luxembourg. 

Stephen Cooper is a retired solicitor and historian; Ashley Cooper resumed his interest in history after retirement from business.