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The origins of the livery companies go back much further than their actual official beginnings. There were guilds, sometimes known as ”mysteries”, all over Europe before the Normans invaded England. The word “mystery” comes from the Latin “misterium”, which meant “professional skill”. There are active guilds all over Great Britain but the City of London must have the oldest and most ceremonial assortment of all the cities.
In the City of London centuries ago, the traders and craftsmen tended to stick together, working and living in close proximity to each other. The names of some of the streets off Cheapside give credibility to this. Milk Street, Ironmonger Lane, Bread Street and many more show us that certain places dealt with certain commodities and for this reason they had to come to some arrangement that would ensure fair trade for all.
There were no official rules or societies, they just got together and agreed to regulate prices and keep to certain standards of their wares. This mutual agreement ensured they could all earn a decent living without worrying about the man on the next corner selling goods at cut down price or supplying sub standard goods, giving the trade a bad name.
As time passed, these guilds became larger and more official, eventually being granted a Royal Charter. The first recorded charter was in 1155, granted to the Weavers’ Company and there were many active guilds by that time. The word “guild” comes from the Saxon word “gilder”, meaning “to pay”, and the craftsmen and traders had to pay to be a part of these professional bodies.
The word “livery” originally meant the items supplied to you that you needed to live whilst in the employment in a rich household or official residence. Clothing, food and drink were included. As time went on the use of the term was associated with more uniform like, and distinctive dress and badges. As the members of these guilds were required to wear ceremonial robes and insignia they became known for their livery, which led to the term “livery company” being adopted when referring to them. The regalia is still worn today at ceremonies and functions.
The emergence of these early guilds would help members and consumers both, by being able to control to a certain extent the trading practices of their members. It prevented there being too much competition within the City, thereby allowing members to make a fair living, and it ensured the work was not inferior and goods not sub standard, protecting the consumer. Anyone found providing below standard services or selling underweight goods could be fined or worse, expelled from the guild, losing their livelihood. This is how the “baker’s dozen” became 13 instead of 12. They did not wish to be found underweight and face a penalty. Disputes were also arbitrated at the relevant guild’s meeting hall
There are 108 livery companies today (March 2013) and this number will increase as more trades are recognised and qualify. Their origins probably existed before the Norman invasion of 1066. In 1515 there were 48 in existence. Some guilds merged with others, while some split into different branches. All this caused fierce disputes about the order of importance of the guilds. The Lord Mayor of the time settled this once and for all by creating an order of precedence in order of receiving the livery. The first twelve places have since been known as “The Great Twelve (shown below) *An earlier dispute between the Merchant Taylors and Skinners had resulted in the exchanging positions 6 and 7 each year, and this still remains today.
The dates given in the table below are the first known official records of the guilds. Many were formed long before these dates.
The Worshipful Company Grocers
Originally importers of spices, they developed into wholesaler merchant traders dealing “in gross”. They eventually became known as “Grossers”
The Worshipful Company of Mercers
Originally exporters of woollen cloth and importers of expensive fabrics. The name is derived from the French word for merchants.
The Worshipful Company of Fishmongers
The company has strong links with the fish trade, fishing, fisheries and regulations.
The Worshipful Company of Drapers
Originally merchants in woollen cloth.
The Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors
Craft association of taylors and linen armourers.
The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths
Still tests and marks gold, silver and platinum in the assay office.
The Worshipful Company of Haberdashers
Originally cloth worn beneath armour, haberdashery developed into general clothing.
The Worshipful Company of Skinners
Traders in pelts and treated animal skins. Controlled the English fur trade until the 18th. century.
The Worshipful Company of Ironmongers
Originally iron merchants.
The Worshipful Company of Salters
Originally dealing in salt and the dry salting of fish.
The Worshipful Company of Cloth workers
Originally involved in the finishing of woven woollen cloth.
The Worshipful Company of Vintners
For those in the wine trade.
*The Skinners and Merchant Taylors exchange places each year.
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