Friday, 2 December 2016

Guild life beyond London, the Provincial Guilds of England and Scotland


Most Freemen or Liverymen (both terms import both genders) of a City of London Livery Company will have a good understanding of his or her own Company and perhaps a general awareness of the other Livery Companies operating in the City. The particularly motivated Liveryman might even be a member of more than one Livery Company and there are a small number of Liverymen who have connections with Guilds and Merchant Companies outside of London. However awareness of the provincial Guilds is at best vague and more typically a mystery to most among the City Livery Companies.

Awareness of the provincial Guilds is often no better in the cities where they exist, even less so when the Guilds have expired leaving only an association of Freemen such as is the case in Lincoln and Norwich, both cities that once had a substantial number of Guilds modelled on their London brethren.

This article explores just a few of the Guilds beyond London which number over two hundred and twenty with significant groups in the cities of Chester, Durham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle and York - to name but a few. A comprehensive list of the provincial Guilds may be explored on my website, albeit that I discover a previously unknown (to me) extant 'ancient' Guild about once every six months - they all get added to the list.

No less glorious

While London's Livery Companies tend to grab the limelight, their brethren in other cities around the UK are certainly more numerous and in several cases have grand halls that rival those in the City. One particular notable example is the oldest merchant hall still occupied and in use by a Guild: the hall of the Merchant Adventurers' Company of York. Merchant Adventurers' hall was built in the mid 14th century and remains the operating base for the Company as well as a leading venue for weddings and corporate events. Like the Mercers' hall in London, the Merchant Adventurers' hall has its own chapel. A tour of the hall provides a fascinating insight in to York's premier Guild although its best to check in advance as the hall is often closed for private functions.

The exterior of Merchant Adventurers' Hall in York
The Chapel in the Undercroft of Merchant Adventurers' Hall
Another Company with a magnificent hall is The Cutlers of Hallamshire (Sheffield). This Company was formed in 1624 and the first Cutlers' Hall was built in 1638 and the most recent in 1867. The Cutlers' Company are active in charity, education, fellowship and have military affiliations in addition to a strong connection with their City of London cousins. The Cutlers' Hall is on a scale comparable to the very largest of the London halls and the Company has among its membership many of the leading business people in Sheffield and beyond.
The interior of the main banqueting hall in Cutlers' Hall (Hallamshire)
Silverware on display in Cutlers' Hall (Hallamshire)
The Freedom outside of London

Every provincial Guild (sometimes 'Gild') admits Freemen, usually by patrimony, and some continue to indenture apprentices and later admit them by servitude. In some cases the Guild still has a link with civic government in that they either admit the Mayor as an honorary Freeman or participate in civic ceremonies. However it is only in the City of London where the Liverymen form a body politic with the right to elect civic officers and only in London where Freemen of the City may be admitted by redemption (payment).

In Chester there remain some twenty-three Guilds and while few of their members are still practicing in the professions they represent the Guilds continue to play a ceremonial role in the life of that City. The Lord Mayor of Chester presides over the annual admission of Freemen and the civic links continue through support that the Guilds give to promote the business life of the City.

In 2017 the Freemen of Norwich celebrate their 700th anniversary, and as recently as 2010 the City admitted (or more precisely recommenced admitting) women to the Freedom. Norwich now has circa 1,200 Freemen by right of patrimony or servitude. Whether any are admitted by the apprenticeship route is unknown.

Associations of Freemen in England and Wales

In England and Wales many, but not all, of the provincial Guilds are members of the Freemen of England and Wales, an association which provides support to Guilds and individual Freemen; it is recognised as an authority on matters related to the Freedom outwith London. Not every provincial Guild is a member of the Freemen of England and Wales, some even lack a website or written history - as such research on the subject is hampered by the often rather obscure nature of Guilds whose existence, history and activities are well known only to their membership.

The Guildries, Merchant Houses and Trades Houses of Scotland

In the Glasgow the Merchants House elect a Lord Dean of Guild and the Trades House elect a Deacon Convener who formerly had roles in the civic government of the City alongside the Lord Provost. Today the Dean of Guild and Deacon Convener are second and third citizens of Glasgow after the Lord Provost. The Merchants House retains powers to appoint members to various bodies including the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and the University of Strathclyde. The Glasgow Trades House now has a virtual museum on the web where visitors may explore their hall and many of the Company's treasures as well as studying various records, books and other resources.

In other towns and cities there may only be one Guild, or perhaps just an association of Freemen who are not members of a Guild. In other cases there are collective Guilds, such as the Nine Incorporated Trades of Dundee and the Seven Incorporated Trades of Aberdeen. Some, but not all, Scottish Guildries are represented by the Court of Deans of Guild of Scotland which is a cross-Guildry body that curiously considers the Guild of Freemen of Berwick-upon-Tweed to be in Scotland (check your constitutional boundaries).

How does this compare with London?

Comparisons with the Livery Companies are inevitable but rather unfair. While there are more Guild outside of London than within, the one hundred and ten Livery Companies are crammed in the small geographic area of the Square Mile and approximately one third of them have a hall. The Livery Companies all have a website, a journal and most have a social media presence. The Livery also retains strong and vibrant links with trade, education and the City's government. The Right Honourable The Lord Mayor of the City of London is an apolitical figurehead who comes from among the Livery and benefits from cabinet level authority, a grand palace in the City and an inauguration parade to rival any royal pageant.

The provincial Guilds are by their nature more dispersed and have lost their direct link to local government. Some retain a relationship with their trade, craft or profession and others are still sponsors of education, arts and heritage. They are no less fascinating and their histories no less illustrious than their City brethren, even if they are less visible.







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