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Guilds and the Guildhall in Civic Life

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The beginnings of English guilds (or gilds), as the fourteenth century guildsmen quaintly expressed it, date from a time "whereunto the memory of man runneth not," but very little is known about them until after the Norman Conquest, when we find them divided into two broad classes. On the one hand--and these were by far the oldest of the guilds- were the religious and charitable brotherhoods, which existed side by side with the trade guilds right down to the Reformation, but had far less influence upon city politics. On the other hand were the trade guilds, which appearing first in the form of the guild-merchant and later on of craft guilds, became intimately connected with the working of many aspects of town life.

The guild-merchant first arose towards the end of the eleventh century and during the next two hundred years spread rapidly from town to town, although it never seems to have established itself in London. Its business was the control of trade. Those who belonged to it had special privileges. They were freed from paying toll, protected from outside competition and alone had the right of keeping shops. Soon the possession of a guild-merchant became one of the town's most important privileges, and practically everyone in trade at first belonged to it, not only merchants and craftsmen, but even apprentices, women and strangers. At Leicester men of forty different occupations were enrolled in it, and the powerful guild at Coventry boasted of even Henry IV and Henry VI among its famous members.

The guild-merchant played an important part in developing the constitution of the town, for as we might expect in a society which included all the best business brains in the community, the guild was very well organized. It drew up rules for itself called ordinances, elected its yearly officers, headed by a master and wardens, held regular meetings called "mornspeeches," exacted entrance fees and yearly subscriptions from its members, and kept careful accounts. When it grew rich a charter was obtained from the king that the guild might be recognized as a property-owner, a guildhall was built, and money was lent to the town. Gradually the same men began to control both guild and town affairs, through their organization.

At Bristol and Coventry the mayor was often Master of the Guild-Merchant, and the guildhall, which had at first been lent to the town officials on rare occasions, ended by being used as the town-hall. By the end of the fourteenth century the guild-merchant had practically ceased to exist as a separate body, and out of the combination of its officers with those of the town there arose in course of time our modern town council.

Meanwhile, the control of trade had been gradually taken over by the guilds of crafts, or "misteries" as they were called, which appeared in England about fifty years after the guild-merchant and reached the zenith of their power during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In many respects they were cast in the same mould as the older guild. They, too, held regular meetings and feasts, supervised their own trade, elected their own officers, and in course of time obtained their charters from the Crown; but they differed in that they never became part of the town government, and the members of each guild, whether they were master craftsmen, journeymen or apprentices, all followed the same occupation.

Owing to the great expansion of trade during the reign of Edward III the misteries developed rapidly, a n d weavers, fullers, bakers, saddlers, shoemakers and g o 1 d-smiths became important guilds in nearly every town. As each grew rich it built its own hall, wore its own livery and supported its own charities, besides acting as a substantial benefit club to its members. At York, where there were sixty trade guilds in the fifteenth century, they even elected the mayor, and in London the usual road to citizenship lay through the crafts.

It was in London that they reached the summit of power. Not only was the Lord Mayor chosen from among their officers, but, what was a far more important privilege, they had their own special court which could fine an unjust master or punish an unruly apprentice without any appeal to the ordinary courts. In 1423 there were as many as a hundred and eleven trade guilds in London, but after that time, perhaps owing to the burden of keeping up so many separate organizations, they began to combine both with one another and with the religious guilds, and out of the process arose the famous Livery Companies which exist to-day. These companies became far more wealthy and powerful than the crafts had been. They shared the rule of the City with the Lord Mayor and the Sheriffs, chose its Members of Parliament, and made generous loans to the sovereigns, as well as entertaining them with gargantuan feasts.

Commercially the guilds were very important, and their control of trade not only brought prosperity to the town, but protected it from dishonest tradesmen and bad workmanship. To guard against these evils each guild had the right of searching for bad goods "wherebie the Kyngs people in eny wyse myght be hurt or dysseyved." Weights and measures had to be brought once a year to the guildhall to be tested; and cloth, leather and other manufactured goods, as well as meat, bread and fish, were carefully inspected, a practice still continued by the Fishmongers' Company in London.

Good workmanship wras ensured by making every would-be artisan serve a seven-years' apprenticeship in his master's house, and strict rules limiting the number of apprentices each craftsman might train prevented unemployment. Nor might one guild-brother take advantage of another by enticing away his servant or cornering the market, thereby raising prices, but all were to have a means of livelihood. And since no one might carry on retail trade in the town without belonging to a craft guild, it stands to reason that there were very few tradesmen to whom these excellent rules did not apply.

Quarrels with the town and with one another naturally broke out here and there, and sometimes even blood was shed, but as a rule the guilds stood on the side of law and order and settled their own quarrels as far as possible among themselves. Indeed, there wrere few useful projects in which they did not take an active part. At Bodmin we hear of five trade guilds helping to build the parish church. At Coventry the crafts helped to pay the recorder's salary and it was from the guild-merchant that the town schoolmaster received his modest yearly salary of 6 13s. 4d. The Reading guilds subscribed to the clockhouse and set up a bell for the townsfolk, and the Barber-Surgeons of Chester gave money for the ringing of the curfew and regularly paraded the ancient city boundaries.

The London trade guilds were particularly generous. It was from them that Edward III raised money for the long wars in France and that later sovereigns extorted enormous loans, few of which were ever repaid. The Mercers' Company alone supplied Queen Elizabeth with 4,000 after the battle of the Armada, and the Goldsmiths' Company, besides acting as bankers and pawnbrokers, performed a valuable service to the state by assaying gold and silver plate. To this day the yearly trial of gold and silver coins in the Pyx of the Mint takes place at the Guildhall under their auspices, a duty which has been fulfilled first by their guild and then by their company for nearly six hundred and fifty years.

But the most impressive monuments to the part played by the trade guilds in civic affairs were and still are the guildhalls, once the property of powerful guilds-merchant or religious brotherhoods, and for centuries since, the centre of the commercial and political life of the towns. To the architect and historian they are packed with interest, and to everyone with imagination their venerable walls and Gothic windows, filled with the jewels of medieval glass, conjure up many an intimate scene and tragic drama out of the past.

London had a guildhall where the aldermen kept their court even in Norman times, but by 1411 it had apparently become too small, for it was then "begun to be new edified and of an old and little cottage made into a fair and goodly house as it now appeareth." And in spite of the damage inflicted by the Great Fire, which completely gutted the oak roof, and the ravages of later architects, the walls and vaulted crypts of this" fair and goodly house" still survive. The ancient Court of Hustings still sits there to elect the Lord Mayor and the Sheriffs, and the Lord Mayor's banquet continues to be held in the Great Hall just as when it was first instituted more than four hundred years ago.

Bristol's famous hall was unfortunately pulled down about eighty years ago, but those at York and Coventry remain to-day, and are of great interest. S. Mary's Hall at Coventry, dating from the end of the fourteenth century, with kitchens that are part of a still earlier guild-house, is one of the few medieval halls in which municipal business is still carried on; and the fifteenth-century hall at York is the finest in the kingdom, with its magnificent open-timbered roof and its Great Hall divided by two rows of wooden pillars into a nave and side aisles.

When we add to these the smaller halls belonging to the various craft guilds, upon each of which was lavished the care and skill of the medieval craftsman, and the company halls of the London Livery Companies, most of them rebuilt since the Great Fire, but now counted among the historic buildings of the City, we get some idea of the wealth of architecture the guilds bequeathed to the towns, and the treasures of tapestries, pictures and plate, of carved oak and stained glass, they handed down to posterity.

Considering the wide range of the guilds' commercial activities, it is all the more remarkable to find them engaging in an immense amount of religious and charitable work, due partly, perhaps, to the influence of the religious fraternities and partly to the simple piety of the age with which the whole guild system was permeated.

Many a chapel in parish churches bore witness to the religious devotion of the crafts. The Goldsmiths' Company had a chapel in S. Paul's Cathedral dedicated to their patron S. Dunstan, and on both sides of the nave of the present Cathedral Church of Coventry are grouped the six chapels once maintained, each with its altar lights and guild priest, by six different guilds, the Smiths, Girdlers, Drapers, Dyers, Cappers and Mercers.

The trade guilds built almshouses and hospitals for aged and ailing brothers, and supported schools for the guildsmen's children. There was "the Bedehouse of Cordyners" at York, as the Shoemakers' Hospital was called, the S. Bartholomew's Hospital at Bristol, where a society of merchants supported poor sailors, and other almshouses at Tiverton, Stamford, and Coventry. The drapers of Shrewsbury kept a school as well as an almshouse, and in Worcester the guild school provided teaching for a hundred scholars.

Nor were guild charities confined merely to members. At Coventry the guild-merchant kept a lodging-house " with thirteen beds to lodge poor folks coming through the land on pilgrimage or any other work of charity," and no guild festival was allowed to pass without a lavish outpouring of ale among the poor. Wealthy London merchants also founded schools in different parts of the country, and in the sixteenth century at least two important schools were founded by the City Companies in London. One was the Mercers' School, which started in the buildings of S. Thomas of Aeon's Hospital, and the other was the Merchant Taylors' School, which was established in Suffolk Lane.

But, above all, what the town demanded from its trade guilds were the pageants and processions it was their duty to provide on certain great festivals such as the Feast of Corpus Christi and of their patron saints, and also on Midsummer's Eve and S. Peter's Eve, two days celebrated in every important town by the procession of the armed watch.

To add to the splendour of the Midsummer Procession in London the City Companies provided "marvaillous cunnying pageantes" drawn along the streets on carts-pageants which in later days were absorbed by the Lord Mayor's Show, There was Vulcan working at his forge, shown by the Ironmongers; a castle with wine flowing from it provided by the Goldsmiths; "the Golden Flees"! of the Drapers; and, most magnificent of all, the Maiden Chariot of the Mercers, with its bevy of fair maidens drawn by nine white horses and escorted by eight pages in cloth of silver.

Other pageants were given on the Thames, when the companies went in procession in their barges to escort a new Lord Mayor to Westminster or give a civic welcome to a sovereign. The barges were decorated with banners and streamers, emblazoned with the arms of the companies, and upon them were staged elaborate tableaux, one of the most ingenious being the great red dragon spouting flames of fire into the river, which graced the procession when Henry VII's Queen was crowned.

Equally magnificent were the processions held on Corpus Christi Day, when every trade guild, clad in its livery, carried banners and lights in honour of the Blessed Sacrament and afterwards helped to set forth the Miracle Plays, which consisted of scenes taken from the Bible or the life of a saint. Famous cycles of these plays grew up at Coventry, Chester, Wake-field, and at York, where in the year 1415 we hear of over eighty trade guilds taking part.

Nor was London outdone by other towns in its processions and plays on this day, and the Skinners' Company in particular celebrated the feast with great pomp. After going in solemn procession to the church of S. Laurence in the Poultry with the lights of a hundred waxen torches "costly garnished" borne before them, they acted a play in their hall, "to heere which," says John Stow, "most of the greatest estates of England were present." This prodigious drama, which started with the creation of the world, took no less than eight days to perform. The Miracle Plays reached the height of their popularity in the fifteenth century, but the burden of expense they cast upon the guilds was heavy, and they had already begun to decline when the Reformation swept them away, among the other "vain superstitions" with which the trade guilds were connected. Bereft of their revenues and property by the Crown, and unable to adapt themselves to new conditions of trade, many guilds vanished; others amalgamated and continued as companies of capitalists, but the guilds as such ceased to have influence upon the towns. Only in London, where they were too powerful to be destroyed, did they survive in the City Companies.

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