The City of London's Livery Companies and Conspiracy Theorists

The City of London and it's Livery Companies have long been the target of all manner of far-fetched imaginings and conjured up outrages regarding their wealth, connections, influence and activities.

Kings, Parliament and the press have all, at various times, taken an interest in their assets, powers or the perceived opaqueness of their inner workings. Such enquiries are now a matter of historical record, but fascination with the City and especially its Livery Companies continues in some of the stranger and more excitable corners of the web.

Even the mainstream press has been known to venture into the realm of nonsensical assertions from time-to-time, such as this article in the Guardian which asserts the City is outside the control of parliament, worse still - the City exercises control over parliament - all utter bunkum and nonsense unworthy of professional journalism.

This brief blog explores some of the reasons why I believe the Livery Companies in particular have been, and continue to be, a subject for the over-active imagination of the conspiracy theorist who dreams in technicolor®.

A word of caution...

The advent of the World Wide Web, particularly Social Media, provides a free and unregulated public forum for peddling all manner of weird and wonderful theories about the Livery Companies and much else. This blog posting will not grace any them with the oxygen of publicity, especially since many among them many be easily discovered with a search engine and several step boldly into the territory of scandalous defamation. If you are looking for the systematic debunking of nonsense - look elsewhere,  moreover the basis of conspiracy theories is that they are not falsifiable and hence all facts and evidence to the contrary of the conspiracist's theory are in fact further evidence of yet more conspiracy.

Note: This short video explains the scientific fallacy of conspiracy theories although it's misleading to describe the phenomenon of the conspiracy theory as a 'theory', since theories are falsifiable and based upon observation of verifiable facts. A better term to describe the phenomenon is spurious conspiracy guessing.

Before the conspiracy came the enquiry

Why has the City and its Livery Companies been so long been subject to external enquiry?

In centuries past monarchs, parliaments and political forces have all looked at the City and its Livery Companies with a mix of barely concealed envy and distrust. King Charles II rescinded the Royal Charters of many Livery Companies as a means to raise funds which parliament would not grant through taxation, the Livery Companies secured the regranting of their charters in exchange for lining the king's coffers. In Victorian times the matter of the wealth of the Livery Companies reached parliament and eventually the Lord Chancellor confirmed they are private bodies, as entitled to their own privacy and assets as any other legal person.

Many academic studies have been published, and no shortage of learned books, about the numerous public enquiries that have been made over several centuries regarding the wealth and privileges of the City and its Livery Companies. Occasionally an article in the press will warm up one of these long deceased enquiries with a new 'discovery' to draw in their readership, much in the manner that a new theory about Jack the Ripper coincides with some anniversary or book launch.

This is hardly surprising when one considers the antiquity of the Livery Companies, their relationship with institutions such as the City of London's government, the Church, private education, Freemasonry, the Armed Forces, the Crown, colonial expansion, international trade and many other aspects of our society and history. There is no denying that the Livery Companies are exceptionally well connected in the corridors of power, but then again - so are the forces that have from time-to-time peered into the City with green eyes. 

Where did it all start?

The very earliest Royal Writ held by to this very day by the City is dated April 1067. In that writ the newly crowned William I (Duke of Normandy) confirmed the City's unique status and privileges. He also guaranteed that he would suffer nobody to do the City harm - thus setting the City upon a legal pedestal somewhat apart from the rest of his realm. It was no administrative oversight that the City of London did not appear in the Domesday Book and hence its wealth was not assessed for taxation. Perhaps this is why some claim the City is like the Vatican - a state apart from the enveloping metropolis. Even today some media outlets describe the City as a 'tax-haven', however untrue that assertion may be (the City is fully part of the UK and subject to the laws of parliament). While the City certainly has wide ranging powers, it is a partner with the Crown and Parliament - subject to their authority.

Critical objective enquiry, relying on verifiable facts and first-hand testimony, reveals a simple truth about the Livery Companies: They are legal corporations who are just as entitled to their own assets and privacy in their internal arrangements as any household in the land. Their activities span charity (or more accurately philanthropy in the broadest sense); education; support to their trade, craft or profession and fellowship. They have strong affiliations with the Armed Forces, the Cadets, the Church and many trade associations, universities, apprenticeship programmes and charitable partners.

The earliest Livery Companies grew out of religious guilds, took on an occupational bias in early medieval London and established the earliest democratic government institutions in the UK. While they are especially numerous and strong in the City, the idea of a Guild or Merchant Company being at the heart of City government is far from unusual in British and European history - in fact it was quite the norm for many centuries until the early Victorian era.

However, serious and critical objective enquiry is not the only instrument for peering into the City and its Livery Companies....

What serious enquiry cannot discover, the conspiracy theorist shall expose

There are many conspiracy theories linking the City of London, its Livery Companies and other institutions with wild assertions about their aims and goings on. The Livery are not unique in this regard and everything from mysterious 'bloodlines' to alien lizards and ancient orders of chivalry can be connected with the Livery as they can with Freemasonry, banking, the Royal Family and the Church. A curious characteristic of these theories is the way in which many of them can only fully be revealed to the reader by subscribing to a paid website, buying a book, a DVD or a ticket to attend a conference.

Why are conspiracy theorists attracted to Livery Companies? 

Several themes are prevalent in the various conspiracy theories that I have read. There is some overlap among these themes and they are entirely my own broad and flexible definitions. 

1. The arcane nature of the Livery

The Livery Companies are unique creatures that are custodians of a veritable treasure trove of customs, ceremonies, treasures, traditions, robes and insignia - all steeped in centuries of history and topped off with medieval titles and a predilection for heraldry. The Livery makes Freemasonry look like an underdressed Johnny come lately.

2. Their connection to major events

They are linked to many events of national and global importance from Magna Carta to the Battle of Agincourt, from the English Civil War to the early settlement of the North America. The Livery Companies backed the East India Company, the Husdon's Bay Company, the plantation of Ulster and the formation of the Bank of England. Then again, the Crown was also intimate to all those events.

3. Their connection to a bewildering array of institutions

The Livery Companies maintain tangible links with greater than 150 schools, 200 military units, 170 universities, 100 professional bodies and trade associations, 40 churches, countless charitable beneficiaries and many senior members of the Royal Family. About 1/6th of the Livery Companies have closed or insular Masonic Lodges, and all companies find their roots in trade, craft or profession.

4. The prominence of their members

They count among their past and current membership many national figures from monarchs to prime ministers, generals to captains of industry. About half the post second World War Prime Ministers of the UK have been Liverymen. Generally the Livery attracts senior leaders from among the trades, crafts and professions and allied institutions which in turn means those leaders tend to have a public profile in either business, law, government, the Church, academia, the military and so.

5. Their wealth and powers

Some of the Livery Companies have extensive property and investment portfolios, most manage one or more charitable trusts, all have treasures of widely varying antiquity and value. The most privileged among the companies own halls that are on par with the greatest stately homes in the British Isles. In past centuries the Livery Companies benefited from extensive monopolies and powers of regulations and enforcement that made them exceptionally wealthy. That wealth also became a target for punitive taxation from many monarchs. In return for funding the foreign and domestic adventures of kings and queens over almost 1,000 years, the Livery Companies have won  (or bought) a bewildering array of monopolistic trading rights, powers of inspection, regulation and enforcement - all now mostly defunct or in abeyance. No Livery Company has a monopoly on its trade, although a still have a measure of control (e.g., Goldsmiths run the Assay Office).

Some historians have described the Livery Companies as pro-trade unions, acting to secure better conditions of employment for members and protecting jobs and wages. While it is certainly true to say that membership of a Livery Company was a condition for trading in the City until the early Victorian era, the reality was that the Companies controlled standards of production, offered a measure of consumer protection and enforced monopolistic trading rights, moreover their membership comprised the proprietors of businesses operating in the City.

6. The essential nature of Liverymen

By and large Liverymen (imports both genders) are joiners. Liverymen are often active in a number of connected organisations whether they be commercial, public sector, charitable, social or voluntary in nature. Liverymen tend to be the sort of people who stand for election as a school governor or a charity trustee, seek appointment as a magistrate, serve in the military reserves, or volunteer as a church warden - indeed they are often these things as well. Liverymen tend to have wide social circles and will be what Dr Johnson might describe as 'clubbable'. Liverymen are social insiders, often turning up on different nights of the week, dressed in different robes and insignia and participating in different arcane ceremonies - usually with a glass of wine in hand. 

In conclusion

The combined efforts of the Apothecaries, Brewers, Distillers and Vintners' Companies could not concoct a headier tincture for the over-creative minds of the conspiracy theorist who dreams in technicolor. The Livery Companies have it all: antiquity, coats of arms, wealth, quasi-religious ceremonies, strange titles, tangible links with an immense range of world events, a membership comprised of notable figures in history, a predilection for heraldry and its mythical beasts, linkage to some of Britain's most ancient schools, influence in all the major institutions of state and a predilection for dressing up in funny costumes and engaging in drinking and feasting. It's a cross between the works of Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis - a fantasy story to rule them all!

There is no organisation quite like a Livery Company, and no city quite like the City of London - they are unique creatures that have existed from before time immemorial. That doesn't make them secretive, opaque or up to no good - it just means they are rather special and something Britain can be very proud of.

So are there any conspiracies in the Livery Companies?

The only conspiracy the author has stumbled upon in his years as a Liveryman is that of his waistline conspiring to expand as his bank balance reduces in the furtherance of a unique and very special City invention: The Livery Company.

Nothing further about that conspiracy will be revealed to anyone other than the author's wife!






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