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 their 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 had a substantial number of Guilds modelled on their London brethren for which there is plenty of evidence in their respective Guildhalls.

Arms of the defunct Norwich Goldsmiths' Company, similar to those of the City of London Goldsmiths' Company. Norwich was once so important as a trading centre that it had its own Royal Mint. These arms are in display outside the Norwich Guildhall in Market Square.

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 Aberdeen, Chester, Dundee, 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 as and when discovered.

What exactly is a Guild?

Many modern limited companies or unincorporated associations styling themselves as a guild exist today as either trade bodies selling membership benefits or as amateur groups of craftspeople. These organisations are not guilds in the sense of being occupationally aligned organisations within a town or city that govern, regulate or uphold standards in their field, rather they are associations that have chosen a name that incorporates the word 'guild', rather than actually being a Guild proper.

The definition of a Guild (upper case G) that I work to is: An association of like minded practitioners who were historically or are today employed in a common occupation admitted by patrimony or servitude who are bound by a constitution and uphold the standards, customs and practices of their occupation in a specific town or city. The Guild exists for the benefit of wider society (not for the members) and will be recognised by the town or city government, historically it will have been involved in the governance of the town or city. A Guild will have a strong philanthropic bias, will have various grades of membership, elect officers, and may continue to govern, regulate, inspect, train and confer practitioner status within its occupation. A Guild will have the right to admit Freemen, and membership is hereditary right.

Standard measures in the Guildhall in Durham, evidence of the role of the guilds in consumer protection by setting and enforcing standards

A Guild is not a trade union or lobbying body, and never was. A Guild is not engaged in trading, and does not accrue economic rent in its area of occupational interest, neither does it sell membership benefits, although there may be social benefits to membership (e.g., dining rights in a hall).

Historically Guilds were formed by prescription, Royal Charter (or delegated authority to Bishops and Abbots) and by Act of Parliament. A Guild will invariably have been intimately involved in local government up to the Municipal Reform Act (1835) which notably did not extend to the City of London.

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 Freemen of the City of Durham comprise eight Guilds that are still active in that city and have the right to hold meetings in the City's Guildhall (also styled 'Town Hall'). The Freemen further have the right to a stall in the City's market without having to pay rent.

Durham Guildhall lies on the western side of the market square within the precinct of the City's medieval centre. Freemen of the City of Durham still have the right to meet in Guildhall.
The interior of Durham Guildhall contains the silverware of the several Durham Guilds and other artefacts associated with the history of the City's council. This is the venue in which newly admitted Freemen make their declaration.

The small matter of corporate arms

Most of the provincial guilds in England have chosen to adopt arms that are either identical to those of their equivalent City of London Livery Company, or impale the arms of two or more of the London companies where a provincial guild combines trades that are otherwise separately represented in London. Since arms are granted to a single person or corporation, these provincial guilds should petition for arms of their own, but it is entirely understandable that in times past they would have looked to the London guilds as the model, and liberal 'copying' of the arms of the Livery Companies is evident in Durham, Newcastle, York and elsewhere.

Several of the Durham guilds use arms based on those of the City of London Livery Companies
The Merchant Taylors' Company of York has arms that are similar to those of the Merchant Taylors' Company in London, but sufficiently different to satisfy the heraldic test of uniqueness

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.

Norwich was England's second City for many centuries, even warranting its own Royal Mint. There were many active Guilds in Norwich, now all sadly gone, but the City's collection of civic insignia in the Castle Museum mirrors that of the City of London, down to the inclusion of a crystal mace that is substantial larger than the Lord Mayor of London's crystal sceptre but clearly designed to ape the latter.

The crystal mace on display in the Castle Museum, Norwich

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).

Kirkcudbright and Stirling also have incorporated trades, and throughout Scotland there may be seen divisions between the Merchant companies and the craft guilds, and both have grouped into aggregate guilds of merchants or crafts such as the Seven Incorporates Trades of Aberdeen which meet in Trinity Hall within the City.

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 a third of them have a hall or operate from the hall of another Company. Outwith the City of London the number of halls occupied by guilds is less than fifteen.

The Livery is also far more visible than the provincial guilds. Each Livery Companies has a website, a journal or magazine and most have a social media presence. The Livery also retains strong and vibrant links with trade, education and the City's government especially through their role in electing the Sheriffs and the Lord Mayor. They also participate in the Lord Mayor's Show and the annual United Guilds' Service at St Pauls among many other civic and religious events.

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. He or she is also a spokesperson for the Livery and it is no coincidence that their first speech in office is to the massed Masters and Clerks of the City's Livery Companies.

The Lord Mayor of the City of London takes position place and precedence before all persons in the City except the Sovereign, and is the only local government officer permitted a military body-guard by the Crown, that said the Mayor of Durham also has a civic body-guard which is a self-regulating group.

Halberds carried by the Mayor of Durham's Body-Guard, on display in the Guildhall in Durham

Several of the provincial guilds are linked to their brethren in the City, such as the Cordwainers of York who are linked with the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers in London and the Drapers of Shrewsbury who are linked with the Worshipful Company of Drapers in London. Indeed so close is the connections between these respective companies that the London and provincial companies share the same coat of arms (a dubious practice the College of Arms might describe as heraldic impersonation).

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.

Want to learn more about the Livery Companies?

The City of London Freeman's Guide is the definitive concise guide to the City of London and its ancient and modern Livery Companies, their customs, traditions, officers, events and landmarks. Available in full colour hardback and eBook formats and now in its fourth or Masterpiece edition. The guide is available online from Apple (as an eBook), Amazon (in hardback or eBook) Payhip (in ePub format) or Etsy (in hardback or hardback with the author's seal attached). Also available from all major City of London tourist outlets and bookstores.

The City of London Freeman's Guide is available in all major City retail outlets and online

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