Memorials of the Guild of Merchant Taylors of the Fraternity of St. John the Baptist in the City of London. Originally published by Harrison, London, 1875.
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The expediency of collecting into one volume all the information which in several volumes had, from time to time, been laid before Parliament, often suggested itself to me, and upon my accession to the Mastership of the Company, the Court of Assistants very readily sanctioned an expenditure, and gave authority for such a work.
During the investigation incident to its execution, I had frequent occasion to examine into the old Records of the Fraternity, and in doing so I came to the conclusion that some of these would, if printed, be a valuable contribution to civic if not to general history. Hence, therefore, I selected such as would in my judgment be read with interest by the Members of the Company.
These alone did not, however, appear to be all that was needed to make the work complete. It was essential that many facts, to be gleaned from other sources of information, should be compiled or brought together under such headings as I have adopted in these pages. Accordingly, I devoted such leisure as was available to me in prosecuting this undertaking, of which the present volume is the result.
It has been a self-imposed labour, which was entered upon without any anticipation that the materials would be so abundant as they have proved to be; and if in the progress of the work I have felt regret, it has arisen from the wish that an Author rather than an Editor had engaged himself in the task, and that his knowledge had enabled him to blend the History of Guilds with that of the City, in which they have occupied so conspicuous a part for many centuries.
The Government of London, under its Chief Magistrate, was developed in a two-fold aspect,—territorial in regard to commorancy and personal in regard to art or employment. The first was the Ward, presided over by the Alderman, the other the Guild, presided over by the Master. Each of these subordinate authorities owed his allegiance to the Chief Magistrate; they were members of a larger corporation of which he was the Head, and the latter swore before him to govern "the art or mysterie" for his year of office according "to the rules and ordinances approved here," (fn. 1) —that is in the supreme Civic Court. As, therefore, every citizen, as a security to society, had to enter into frank-pledge for his good behaviour as a resident, so had he to enter a Guild for his honesty and competency as a trader or craftsman.
The ambition of these Guilds, aided by the wise policy of the Crown to increase its own influence over the citizens, led in time to their incorporation under Royal Charter. Yet, in these instances, it will be noticed that care was taken not to destroy the authority of the Lord Mayor, but in subordination to the higher sanction of the Crown to preserve his controlling power, by giving him a veto upon the rules and ordinances made and upon the judgments pronounced by the Master for the government of the Mysterie.
Starting with the impetus of a defined constitutional existence the City Guilds gradually increased both in number and in importance. Each member thereof individually, though it may be imperceptibly, realised the truth of Lord Bacon's aphorism, "that if the force of custom, simple and separate, be great, the force of custom, copulate and conjoined, is far greater, for there example teacheth, company comforteth, emulation quickeneth, glory raiseth"; so that in these associations, and by their influence, the industrious and honest craftsman passed through the gradations of employer, trader, merchant, Sheriff and Lord Mayor, until these Guilds, as seed plots for fame, reared men like Whittington and Gresham, who, by their commercial adventure throughout the world, spread the renown of London and upheld the character of its citizens for integrity and benevolence.
But these were results slowly attained, and the Guild is to be traced through many stages of development. Taking our own as an illustration of others, we may notice that it came into existence adopting as its emblem the highest type of humanity, "St. John the Baptist." No text or precept of divine truth is to be found anywhere scattered throughout its records, but this great ideal was ever before the Guild, for the incidents of the Prophet's life and death were pictured on the surrounding walls of their place of assembly, and were woven upon their vestments and burial clothes.
Adopting Religion therefore as the basis of Union, the Guild was constituted upon the principle of a common sympathy between capital and labour, between the master and the artificer, for while the Master and Wardens, as representative men, governed the Craft or Mysterie, they exercised their authority under the solemn sanction of an oath to act "without favour or partiality" to either of the litigants before them, the capitalist on the one side and the workman on the other. The Court so constituted was one of conciliation, and in that aspect supplied a want which a later civilization has hitherto sought for in vain.
It was not, however, only in regard to the prosperity of its Members that the Guild supplied an existing want. At that, as at other times, men fell into decay or adversity. Against this evil, when no Poor Law existed, a Provident fund or Benefit society was established, supported by the stipulated contributions of all the members paid into the Common Box, or Treasury, of the Fraternity. No doubt it was a taxation of the rich for the benefit of the poor, but it savoured of benevolence when the more prosperous men of the Craft provided almshouses when alive, and left a larger provision at death, for their poorer Brethren than their own quarterly payments could supply.
As to the discipline of the Guild, in those days the best security for good conduct was deemed to be attendance at the public services of the Church. Hence, at the Cathedral of St. Paul, and at their own Chapel at the Hall, the members of the Fraternity were summoned to worship upon anniversary occasions—as the day of their foundation, and on other days when death severed the connection of some Brother with the Guild, and they were attendant upon his funeral.
If, indeed, sterner measures were needed to protect society from any dishonesty in the members of the Mysterie, the powers of fine and imprisonment—which the Court of the Master and Wardens possessed—were freely exercised against the offenders. No one guilty of such practices would be permitted to trade, for as no shop could be opened without license, none could be obtained unless others of the Mysterie vouched for his integrity. By these methods trade was governed, and first becoming honest, in time it became honourable.
Viewed in its social and political aspect, the Guild was, if possible, of higher importance. At the time when the Sovereign ruled from, and resided in, the Tower of London,—when the houses of the nobles were scattered on the banks of the Thames and in ways or streets of the City—trade being a despised occupation—it was of no mean importance that a Taylor, then (though not now) an insignificant social atom, should, by association, be able to hail from such a place as Merchant Taylors' Hall, and if oppressed by noble or by stranger, invoke the aid of a Company which, soon after its establishment, had managed to enrol within its membership the Sovereign, and others of no mean rank in the kingdom.
". . . . where Civic Independence flings The gauntlet down to Senates, Courts and Kings," the custom of early times was to summon all the Members of the Guild, at least four times in each year, to a common banquet; and though a distinction of rank and table no doubt was recognised, yet the fact remained that high and low, rich and poor, did assemble together, sharing not only the name but (in matters common to them) the sympathy of a Brotherhood.
The growth of wealth and independence, fostered by these institutions, gave the middle class political importance. If the nobles could serve the crown in elective office with hereditary wealth, the citizens, by common contributions, raised their Civic Monarch and Sheriffs to something more than an equality of splendour. The yearly pageant in which they were proclaimed the supreme Governors for the civic year, brought into prominence many a man who by honest industry had reached this supremacy, while the experience gained in municipal government qualified them, as their example stimulated others, to serve the public interests of their fellow citizens in the wider arena of Parliament.
No doubt these Guilds have discharged their primary duty of protecting and fostering trade until trade no longer needs any such protection; but corporate as well as individual life has other purposes for its existence. As wealth increased, so did benevolence, and the founders of many Charities have selected as their future Almoners the Master and Wardens of the Fraternity. For centuries these trusts which the piety of their predecessors so confided to them have been fulfilled, while out of other funds strictly applicable thereto a liberal hospitality has been exercised in the City, where social absenteeism would otherwise prevail.
In the case of our own Fraternity, neither these nor other obligations have been ignored. As early as the year 1513 the necessity for education was recognised and provided for at Wolverhampton by a distinguished Member of the Guild, while in later years, at Bedford and elsewhere, Schools, and at Oxford (Sir Thomas White's and Lord Craven's) Scholarships, were founded by other Members. So again, after the Reformation had secularised the objects and increased the revenues of these Guilds, the men who then governed our affairs realised the noble purpose of establishing a School in the City, which opened wide its portals to those whose lot in life it was to toil within the walls. And that the present generation are not wholly unmindful of the traditions of the past, or unwilling to develop into greater usefulness the heritage that has descended to them, is evidenced in some degree by the new School that is being reared at the Charterhouse, and shortly to be opened by an Illustrious Prince, a member of our Guild.
Nor is it only in corporate action that the members of the Fraternity manifest benevolence, for in the present year "A loving Brother of the Mysterie" has given a sum of money, not inconsiderable in amount, to promote the spiritual welfare of the inmates of our Convalescent Home, while their material comforts are attended to by others of the Mysterie with a liberality of labour and sympathy which is its own reward.
Such are some of the benefits arising from Trade Guilds, and surely in the retrospect of European history for the period of six centuries their position is unique. All that the Crown ever conceded to the members of our Fraternity was the right of free assembly for the purposes of self-government, the liberty to hold in an honest manner their feast of meat and drink on St. John Baptist's Day, and to acquire real estate; and yet out of these elements what a fabric of social order have the citizens raised! How few institutions are now existent as they originated, for—during the period under notice— have not Kingdoms been annihilated, Thrones destroyed, Dynasties changed, and the elements of Religious strife let loose in Europe? And yet in each of these trials—so far as they have fallen upon England—the Fraternity of St. John Baptist has been found acting in dutiful allegiance to the rulers of Church and State. Surely no one can examine these Memorials and not be struck with the continuity of government and authority, which is wholly without a parallel in any other than the Civic Throne; while no better evidence can be furnished—unless the Corporation of London be such—that the citizens are averse to change, and cherish, with something akin to reverence, their early institutions.
I have in conclusion only to add that the assistance I have received from others has always been acknowledged in the text or in a footnote, and the reader will see that it has been considerable. In the Appendix much valuable information will be found which has been contributed by Mr. Martin, of the Public Record Office, by Major Newsome, R.E., a Warden of the Company, and by Mr. N. Stephens, for many years connected with it.
With his usual liberality, Mr. Gardner, on hearing of my undertaking, placed his valuable collection of prints and sketches connected with the City at my disposal, and some illustrations have been taken from it.