1414: John Neuton and the Re-Foundation of York Minster Library

More about John Neuton

Hannah Jeans (University of York)

John Neuton was born in the diocese of Norwich c.1350 and brought up in York (1). He was probably the son of a wealthy York mercer, John Neuton, who was part of St Mary's Guild (2). This is consistent with the usual family background for late medieval canons. They tended to come from landowning families, be they lesser aristocracy, small landholders, yeomen or the urban patriciate (3). Neuton studied at the University of Cambridge, becoming a Bachelor of Civil Law in 1375 and a Doctor of Civil Law in 1379. He was Master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge between 1382 and 1397, and worked in the Consistory Court of Ely. He became the treasurer of York Minster in 1393, a position which he held until the end of his life (4). The position of treasurer was one of the most important in late medieval cathedrals, and Neuton was by all accounts a very prominent cleric. He was certainly one of the wealthiest canons of his time: (5) he had a private barge on the Ouse, and alongside his income from the church he owned a large lead-smelting plant in nearby Poppleton (6). He was sent to Picardy with the Bishop of Durham in 1393 to negotiate peace with the French, demonstrating his involvement in contemporary politics and the Hundred Years' War (7).

Around Neuton's time treasurers began to take up residence in the cathedral close, and it is probable that late medieval treasurers lived on the site of the building to the north-east of the Minster known today as Treasurer's House (8). While at York Minster he made his mark in several ways. He ordered a strap to be added to the Horn of Ulph, the carved horn that had been given to the Minster as a land deed by a Viking nobleman in the eleventh century (9). He also held the position of treasurer during some of the most significant building work carried out at the Minster. The cathedral was coming to the end of several decades of renovation and development, and was probably a building site for much of his time there (10). The Great East Window was being constructed. As treasurer Neuton would have at least been in charge of finding the funds, although it is difficult to determine the level of influence he would have had on the project.

Neuton was significant for his intellectual and scholarly influence. Judging by the size of his library, he was a bibliophile, and he has been credited with being part of a circle of gentry and clerics who brought scholarly interests to York. It has been suggested that the development of York as a centre for scholarship coincided with Neuton's arrival as a canon residentiary in the 1390s (11). Neuton and his circle were very interested in the works of northern devotional writers, and were instrumental in spreading awareness of the works of mystics such as the hermit Richard Rolle (12). The size of Neuton's personal library indicates the broad range of his scholarly interests. Alongside the many theological and legal works that one might have expected a man in Neuton's position to have owned, there are several historical and classical works (13). The presence of several manuscripts produced in Italy testify to his education and international interests, and indicate that he may have travelled to Italy at some point during his career (14).

Neuton died in the summer of 1414, having completed his will earlier that year. His executors were his fellow canons Thomas Haxey, William Waltham and John Gylby (15). His book collection at this point may be estimated to have comprised about 100 books, sixteen of which he bequeathed to Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and around seventy to York Minster. Half of those left to the Minster were to be kept aside for the use of his nephews, should they want to study law, and were thereafter to pass to the Minster (16). This bequest was a catalyst for the creation of a new library building at the Minster.


(1) J. A. Brundage, 'Neuton, John,' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. by H. C. G. Matthew and B. Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 466.

(2) M. Deanesley, The Incendium Amoris of Richard Rolle of Hampole (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1915), p. 64.

(3) D. Lepine, Brotherhood of Canons Serving God: English Secular Cathedrals in the Later Middle Ages (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1995), p. 52.

(4) Brundage, 'Neuton, John,' p. 466.

(5) D. M. Palliser, Medieval York, 600-1540 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 227.

(6) P. M. King, 'The Treasurer's Cadaver in York Minster Reconsidered,' in The Church and Learning in Later Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of R. B. Dobson, ed. by C. M. Barron and J. Stratford (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2002), p. 208.

(7) A. Brotherston Emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A.D. 1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957-1959), p. 421.

(8) B. Dobson, 'The Later Middle Ages, 1215-1500,' in A History of York Minster, ed. by G. E. Aylmer and R. Cant (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977) , p. 74.

(9) T. D. Kendrick, 'The Horn of Ulph', Antiquity, 11 (1937), p. 280.

(10) C. Norton, 'Richard Scrope and York Minster,' in Richard Scrope: Archbishop, Rebel, Martyr, ed. P. J. P. Goldberg (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2007), p. 138.

(11) J. Hughes, Pastors and Visionaries: Religion and Secular Life in Late Medieval Yorkshire (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1988), p. 201.

(12) J. B. Friedman, Northern English Books, Owners, and Makers in the Late Middle Ages (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), p. 205.

(13) Hughes, Pastors and Visionaries, pp. 201-202.

(14) Friedman, Northern English Books, p. 207.

(15) Hughes, Pastors and Visionaries, p. 188.

(16) Emden, Biographical Register, p. 421.

How to cite

Hannah Jeans , 'More about John Neuton', in Hanna Vorholt and Peter Young (eds), 1414: John Neuton and the Re-Foundation of York Minster Library, June 2014, https://hoaportal.york.ac.uk/hoaportal/yml1414essay.jsp?id=5, accessed 25 September 2017