THE POWER OF LONDON
GUILDS & MISTERIES
by Tony Storey
This article was originally published in the August 2008 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
The United Kingdom covers an area of nearly 100,000 square miles, yet a vastly disproportionate amount of its wealth and power derives from one particular square mile, the City of London.
Why is it that such a small area, often referred to as simply ‘the square mile’ has had such an influence? Within its boundaries, the Lord Mayor of London has precedence over everyone other than the reigning monarch. There is no royal palace within the City. There is no seat of national government. The Houses of Parliament and the corridors of political power are in the adjoining City of Westminster. Yet even today the City of London remains the powerhouse of the nation’s prosperity and to understand the reasons we have to go back almost to the time of William the Conqueror.
From the twelfth century onwards various craft guilds were established in the City of London. Many were associated with religious fraternities and were formed to ensure a decent burial and the saying of Mass for the souls of their deceased members. On a practical level, the guilds or ‘misteries’, from the Latin word for craft, skill or trade, regulated their respective trades, deciding who could work, their wages, working conditions and welfare, and the quality of work and the prices charged. In return for guaranteeing good workmanship and fair prices, a guild was granted a monopoly over its profession and its members wore a distinctive uniform or livery.
The liverymen are the most senior members of a guild. They are able to take an oath and pay a fee to receive the freedom of the City. (Note that this is not the same as Honorary Freedom of the City, which is given to prominent citizens for outstanding service to the nation.) From the ranks of liverymen come the Master and wardens who with a Court of Assistants manage the guild. The liverymen tend to be senior tradesmen who employ the freemen, craft workers who have served an apprenticeship. Most freemen aspire to become liverymen in due course. Even today, only liverymen are entitled to vote in the election of the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs of the City of London.
Until the sixteenth century the guilds vied with each other for power and influence, often resulting in violent clashes and even deaths. However, since 1515 the Companies have observed a strict order of precedence, the top twelve being known as the Great Companies. The ranking of each is shown in brackets after the name.
Mercers’ Company (1)
The premier City livery company once specialised in textiles, exporting woollen cloth and importing linen, silk and velvet. The Mercers’ Company occupies the site at the junction of Cheapside and Ironmonger Lane where Thomas a Becket was born in 1118. Famous Mercers include William Caxton, Sir Thomas More, Dick Whittington, Sir Thomas Gresham, Sir Rowland Hill and Lord Baden Powell.
Grocers’ Company (2)
Originally the Pepperers based in Soper Lane and trading in drugs and in spices like saffron and ginger, they had strong connections with Italian merchants who arrived in London with the Lombard bankers. They became wholesale merchants dealing in bulk and consequently became known as Grossers. They lost the drugs trade when the Apothecaries broke away in 1617. The first Grocers’ Hall on the present site in Princes Street opened in 1428. When the Bank of England was founded in 1694, the bank rented space in Grocers’ Hall until 1734 when it moved to its current site across the street. In 1876 the Grocers opened a ‘Middle-Class School’ at Hackney Downs to serve ‘that class who desire to educate their children up to the age of 14 or thereabouts’. The school closed in the 1990s.
Drapers’ Company (3)
The Drapers controlled the wool trade in the Middle Ages when it was of vital importance to the nation’s economy.
Fishmongers’ Company (4)
The Fishmongers obtained their first charter in 1272 and the trade was originally concentrated in Old Fish Street, south of St Paul’s Cathedral. A dispute with the Skinners in 1339 resulted in bloodshed. The Company still has close connections with the fish trade. Former Masters include Sir William Walworth who, as Lord Mayor of London, ended the Peasants Revolt of 1381 by stabbing the leader of the rebels, Wat Tyler, at Smithfield.
Goldsmiths’ Company (5)
The Goldsmiths’ Company was granted absolute responsibility for the quality of gold and silver articles, and in modern times articles of platinum also. It still operates the London Assay Office. From 1478 such articles had to be marked in Goldsmiths’ Hall, hence the term ‘hallmark’. In the seventeenth century Goldsmiths used promissory notes in their transactions and so effectively invented modern banking practice. To quote Edward, Earl of Clarendon, in 1759, the Goldsmiths are ‘men known to be so rich and of such good reputation that all the money of the kingdom would be trusted or deposited in their hands’. Nowadays the Company uses its immense wealth to support more than 300 charities.
Merchant Taylors’ Company (6 or 7)
The Company became wealthy in the Middle Ages from making tents and the padded linen tunics worn by knights under their armour. Members fought a pitched battle with the Goldsmiths in 1267 resulting in many deaths. Sheriffs had to use armed force to stop the fighting and arrest the ringleaders, of whom 13 were subsequently executed. The Merchant Taylors’ Company acquired its site in what is now Threadneedle Street in 1404, and the street may have taken its name from the Company’s coat of arms. In 1440 apprentices from the Merchant Taylors and the Drapers clashed over the election of the mayor. A dispute with the Skinners in 1484 about which Company should take precedence was settled by a compromise, whereby sixth place in the ranking is occupied by each Company in alternate years.
Merchant Taylors’ School was founded in Suffolk Lane in 1561 and the Company built almshouses at Tower Hill in 1593. Sir Christopher Wren was a Merchant Taylor, as was the City historian, John Stow.
Skinners’ Company (6 or 7)
The Company obtained its charter in 1327 and once controlled the lucrative trade in furs. In 1339 a violent dispute with the fishmongers resulted in several deaths. Two rioters were subsequently tried and beheaded in Cheapside. The Skinners opened their first almshouses in Wood Street in 1416. The liverymen still choose their Master by trying on a hat! Perhaps that’s where JK Rowling got the idea of the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter books.
Haberdashers’ Company (8)
Originally an offshoot of the Mercers, the Hurrers or Cappers made hats. They were joined by the Milliners, so-called because they imported goods from Milan, and the Pinners. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I the Pinners imported pins, which were more convenient to use than thorns and so became very popular. As pins were expensive it became the custom for gentlemen to allow their spouses ‘pin money’. In common with many livery companies their livery hall was lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and its replacement destroyed by enemy action in the Second World War. Haberdashers’ Aske’s School was founded in 1690 by an endowment by a silk merchant, Robert Aske. The school moved to Elstree, Hertfordshire in 1961.
Salters’ Company (9)
The Company came to deal in hemp, flax and chemicals, including potash, but began by importing salt for the preservation of meat and fish. The salt came from the west coast of France to the dock at Queenhithe, Upper Thames Street. Salters’ Hall was destroyed by enemy bombing in 1941, the previous building having been lost in the Great Fire of 1666.
From the following extract from the Calendar of Wills, the Court of Husting, London it is evident that the great wealth of the City Livery Companies came not only from their trading monopolies, but also from the bequests of their grateful members.
A.D.1594-95 – Monday next after the Feast of St Valentine (14 Feb)
ROBERT SOLE, SALTER
All his children, except his son Myles or Miles, having been fully advanced of their shares of his goods in manner as set out, they are desired to be therewith content. To his son Myles he leaves certain messuages in Breadstreete and Knyhtryderstreete, commonly called Trinitie lane, in the parish of St Mildred in Breadstreete. To George his son ten pounds. To Walter his son a portion of his household stuff. Bequests also to Jane Critofte and Mary Ayre his daughters, and others. Solemnly charges William his son to be content with the liberal portion and gift of the parsonage of Great Massingham, county of Norfolk, with which the said William had been advanced, and to suffer Myles his son to enjoy the lands and tenements devised. Guardians appointed for Thomas his son. His aforesaid sons George and Walter, and his daughters Jane and Mary and their respective husbands, to forfeit all benefits under his will if they attempt to bring any suit directly or indirectly affecting the interest of the aforesaid Myles.
To the Keepers or Wardens and Commonalty of the Art or Mistery of Salters certain tenements etcetera in the parish of St Giles without Creplegate, and certain others formerly known by the name of ‘the Bolte and the Tonne’, situate in Fridaiestreete in the parish of St John Evangelist, in Watlingstreete, as well as other tenements, rents etcetera formerly bequeathed or assigned to superstitious uses, to have and to hold the same to them and their successors to their own proper use and behoof for ever.
Dated 18 July, A.D.1593
Ironmongers’ Company (10)
Originally known as ferroners, ironmongers made horseshoes and iron tyres for cartwheels. The Company obtained its charter in 1463. Its almshouses, built in Shoreditch in 1715, are now the Geffrye Museum, named after Sir Robert Geffrye, ironmonger and Lord Mayor of London. Ironmongers’ Hall in Fenchurch Street was destroyed by bombs from a German aircraft in 1917, the only livery hall casualty of the First World War. Its replacement was built in Aldersgate in 1925 and still stands between the Barbican development and the Museum of London.
Amongst their apprenticeship records can be found Samuel Sewell, son of John Sewell of Colchester, Essex, grocer (deceased), who was apprenticed to Thomas Harper on 28 July 1674. Also, Thomas Soley, son of John Soley of Bewdley, Worcestershire, gentleman, was apprenticed to Thomas Hunt on 26 June 1684.
Vintners’ Company (11)
Along with the Dyers Company (13), the Vintners share with the Crown the ownership of all the swans on the River Thames and take part in the annual ceremony of ‘swan-upping’, when notches are made in the cygnets’ beaks to denote ownership. Geoffrey Chaucer, the son of a wine merchant, was born in 1340 in Upper Thames Street, an area of the City known as the Vintry. In 1446 the Vintners built almshouses in Thames Street. The word ‘vintners’ is a corruption of ‘wine-tunners’, a reference to the barrels or tuns used to transport the wine, originally from France.
Clothworkers’ Company (12)
The Company was formed by a merger of the Fullers and the Shearmen. Clothworkers’ Hall was built in 1958 to replace one destroyed in an air raid in 1941. Samuel Pepys was a Master of the Clothworkers’ Company.
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