A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8, the City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
CRAFT ORGANISATION TO THE 16TH CENTURY
The Coventry craft guilds received neither royal charters nor any municipal authorisation of which record has survived. It has not been possible to discover when individual guilds were founded, nor has their early organisation been established. All that can be said is that certain guilds were functioning by certain dates. During the 12th and 13th centuries deeds are almost the only evidence available, but for the next two centuries there are royal instruments, certain Trinity Guild records, and, for the 15th century, the leet book. Clues as to organisation cannot, therefore, be found before the late 14th century; but a comparison of this evidence with an interpretation of the evidence for Leicester in the 13th century (fn. 1) suggests that the organisation of the Coventry industries, as we know it to have been in the 15th century, may have been a more longstanding one than can be proved.
Apart from their economic significance the craft guilds played an important part in the public social life of Coventry particularly through their responsibility for the production of pageants. The history of the Coventry pageants at times reflects the relative prosperity of the different trades, and is dealt with in detail in another section. (fn. 2)
WOOL AND CLOTH TRADES.
As has been seen the wool and cloth trades were paramount in Coventry from at least the 13th century and were being practised there in the 12th. Detailed accounts of the cloth trade and cap-making in the city have been given in another volume of this History. (fn. 3)
The most important person, around whom the cloth industry revolved, was the merchant who bought large quantities of wool which he saw through the various cloth-making processes. He handed out wool for spinning and carding; (fn. 4) he distributed the yarn to weavers, to whom he paid wages; (fn. 5) if he was himself a dyer, as he quite often was in Coventry, he dyed the cloth, otherwise he put it out to be dyed; (fn. 6) he handed it out for fulling, teasling, and shearing; and then sold the finished article, either in the Drapery (fn. 7) to drapers or mercers for local and foreign markets, or himself exported it through Bristol, Southampton, (fn. 8) London, or Boston. (fn. 9) One might expect these central figures of the industry to be called clothiers, but in Coventry this designation is scarcely ever found; it is clear, however, that the clothiers of Coventry were the dyers, drapers, and 'merchants', who were apparently so numerous in the town.
There is little evidence during the 12th and 13th centuries for the practice of crafts concerned with the early stages of cloth-making, but a wool carder appears in 1208. (fn. 10) Carders and spinners, however, were frequently the wives and daughters of craftsmen. There is consequently no evidence of guild organisation among them, but their work and wages were regulated by the leet. In 1449, for example, it was ordered that wool should be handed out to spinners in quantities of not more than 2¼ lbs.; (fn. 11) in the following year all weights were ordered to be sealed, (fn. 12) and in 1452 it was laid down that if any spinner was given more than 2½ lbs. she was to take it to the sheriffs, who would ensure that she was paid the correct wage for the amount of work. (fn. 13) Similar examples of leet control are to be found in the 16th century. (fn. 14)
Weavers were comparatively numerous in Coventry in the 12th century and a guild organisation may have developed early, but there is no evidence until the 15th century of the regulations and controls associated with craft guilds. All the craft guilds known to have existed at this time were probably well established, for in 1406 the mayor and bailiffs obtained letters patent prohibiting the foundation of any more guilds; (fn. 15) this was confirmed in 1414 (fn. 16) and on the same day letters close addressed to the mayor and bailiffs drew attention to reports of unauthorised assemblies of apprentices and journeymen and required that a proclamation be issued against them. (fn. 17) In 1425 another mandate was issued in similar terms. (fn. 18) The reason given on each of the latter two occasions was that these adulterine guilds were to the prejudice of the Trinity Guild and the Corpus Christi Guild. Journeyman guilds presuppose well established craft guilds and certainly the commission appointed in 1378 to compel four of the chief men of every craft to give security for the good behaviour of all their members (fn. 19) suggests some form of organisation.
The presentation of a weaver in 1379 at the sessions of the peace for taking 1½d. a day more than the statutory wage (fn. 20) is an isolated instance of a weaver trying to raise wages contrary to the Statute of Labourers. An affray between weavers in 1397 (fn. 21) may have been a personal affair; it may, however, have been symptomatic of the opposition of locallyborn craftsmen to Irish workmen and, in this case, to an Irish craftsman with several apprentices; or it may have been the result of a dispute between weavers as such. A dispute of the kind did indeed arise in 1424 between masters and journeymen weavers: journeymen had complained about the excessive number of looms and the numerous apprentices employed by master weavers, the lack of machinery for getting compensation against masters, the employment of strangers instead of local journeymen, the unfair share of profits taken by masters, and their failure to pay debts. The masters, on their side, alleged that the journeymen did not pull their weight in the craft and were contumacious, preventing their fellows from working with their own masters. The chief points in the judgement of four arbitrators were that masters might have as many looms and as many apprentices as they wished; that those employing journeymen or strangers should pay 20s. to the master of the guild; that for every brother added to the journeymen's fraternity, their wardens should pay 12d. to the master of the guild; that masters should prefer local journeymen, who in turn were not to prevent other journeymen from working with their masters; and that journeymen should receive a third of the payment for weaving cloth. (fn. 22) Thus master weavers were compelled to recognise a journeyman organisation already in existence.
The leet drew up and enforced regulations for the control of the craft. In 1451, for example, weavers were ordered to use not less than 30 lbs. of yarn for a dozen of cloth. (fn. 23) In the early 16th century when the cloth industry was depressed the leet interfered continuously to regulate methods of production. (fn. 24) The monopoly of the weavers' guild was strengthened in 1539 when the leet ordered that no linen yarn was to be given to a weaver unless he was 'a brother admitted and associated with the weavers of the city'. (fn. 25) By 1544, however, the system was changing. Because of faulty work by weavers, clothiers were beginning to set up looms in their own houses, bringing in employees to work on them. Clothiers who did this were, however, to pay 3s. 4d. to the weavers' guild. (fn. 26)
The earliest guild among the finishing trades was perhaps that of the fullers, but the evidence is highly confusing. In 1384 the Guild of the Nativity of Christ was licensed to acquire property in mortmain to the value of 8 marks for the support of a chaplain, (fn. 27) but within three months commissioners were appointed to inquire into the purposes of the guild, for report went that it was being used as a medium for labourers and workmen to resist the mayor and bailiffs and the king's ministers. (fn. 28) It looks as if the Guild of the Nativity, founded before 1384, was sheltering a journeymen's guild or a rebellious faction of some kind. In 1439 the tailors and fullers were described as being brethren of the Guild of the Nativity of Christ and were licensed to acquire property to the value of 10 marks, as their licence of 1384 had never been fulfilled; (fn. 29) this was now an accepted craft guild. At the same time the tailors and fullers were allowed to choose four masters who were to govern the guild, and they were granted a common seal. (fn. 30) This is the nearest approach in Coventry to the foundation of a craft guild by royal licence, but the licence was issued long after the guild had become an organised body.
Hill Mill, Prior's Orchard Mill, Earl's Mill, and a horse-driven mill between the Radford Road and St. Nicholas Street were possibly fulling mills, as Baginton Mill certainly was. (fn. 31) In 1411 there were tenter grounds for stretching the fulled cloth near Cook Street and St. Agnes Lane and between the Radford Road and St. Nicholas Street, and at least two grounds lay north of Well Street. (fn. 32) Regulations for the stretching of cloth after fulling were issued by the leet in 1435 and 1437. (fn. 33) The tailors and fullers, joined in one fraternity at least since 1439, (fn. 34) were separated by order of the leet in 1448 at the desire of the fullers; (fn. 35) at the same time the tailors and shearmen acquired St. George's Chapel which the shearmen and fullers had been granted by the feoffees of Laurence Cook. (fn. 36) In 1468 every fuller was required to set his own mark on his cloth. (fn. 37) As with the weavers, the slump in trade led to stricter regulations: searchers were appointed in 1514 (fn. 38) and more stringent examination and oversight were introduced four years later. (fn. 39) For the protection of fullers, clothiers were ordered in 1524 to pay ready money for their work and not in truck. (fn. 40) Frequent regulations required fulling to be given to Coventry craftsmen and not to strangers. (fn. 41)
The earliest evidence for corporate action by Coventry dyers is in 1415 when the commonalty took a complaint to the House of Commons that the dyers had agreed among themselves to raise their prices but would not consent to improve their workmanship, and that they had a monopoly in madder and were great makers of cloth; it was requested that overseers - two drapers, a woader, and a dyer - might be appointed and that dyers should be prohibited from making cloth. (fn. 42) Experience had perhaps shown that the dyer-clothier used better dyes for his own cloth than for cloth put out to him for dyeing by other clothiers. Dyers had to be men of substance, for they were merchants buying imported raw materials for their trade; (fn. 43) woad and madder were imported through Southampton in large quantities from the late 1420s until about 1478 and more of it went to Coventry than to anywhere outside the southern towns; indeed between 1439 and 1493 only London and Salisbury bought more than did Coventry. (fn. 44) Since dyers were closely concerned with foreign trade, they were more likely at an early date to join the Guild Merchant than to form guilds of their own, (fn. 45) but they had their own guild by 1475. (fn. 46)
The leet issued regulations regarding dyers' use of the river, in order to prevent flooding or pollution, (fn. 47) and in 1475 it nullified ordinances which the dyers had made, but had not submitted to the mayor, on methods of dyeing agreed secretly among themselves. (fn. 48) In 1527 a guild of dyers' journeymen was forbidden, (fn. 49) but with the slump in cloth-making closer leet control was instituted and in 1529 the dyers' guild's monopoly was set aside. (fn. 50)
The drapers, many of whom were in fact clothiers as well as dealers in cloth, seem to have been organised early in Coventry; they appear as a group in 1247 (fn. 51) and the Old Drapery at the south end of Palmer Lane had been partly acquired by the priory before the Statute of Mortmain. (fn. 52) The new Drapery, near the site of the present Drapers' Hall, was given to the Guild of St. John the Baptist by William Walshman in the 1360s. (fn. 53) A system of apprenticeship was in being by 1317. (fn. 54) Early in the 15th century the Drapery was held by the Trinity Guild which leased portions of it to individual drapers (fn. 55) and in 1425 the leet ordered that on Fridays no cloth, except small amounts, was to be sold anywhere but in the Drapery. (fn. 56) Mercers, who sold linen drapery among other goods, were ordered in 1445 not to carry on their business outside the Drapery. (fn. 57) An order of 1474 decreed that all mercers and drapers were to use only measures sealed according to the king's standard. (fn. 58) In 1518 the drapers were charged with inspection of weavers' and fullers' cloth. (fn. 59) Thus by the early 16th century the whole cloth trade was highly organised and centralised and was governed with the aid of the leet.
The sale of cloth was subject to the payment of aulnage, and in 1385 part of the sum accruing to the king from the sealing of woollen cloth in the city was granted to the mayor and bailiffs towards their expenses in building the walls; (fn. 60) this sum of £24 was not received at the time and was re-granted in 1391. (fn. 61) Aulnagers had been appointed for Coventry from 1348 (fn. 62) and, in a few cases, they had been faced by avoidance of payment on a large scale; in 1363, for example, a draper was accused of selling over a long period cloth which had not been sealed for aulnage, of assaulting one of the collectors, and of tearing up his commission of office. (fn. 63) Thirteen years later the growth of action of this kind warranted a commission of enquiry. (fn. 64)
The tailors' guild was well established by 1387, when seven tailors assaulted two journeymen who refused to join a guild in opposition to the master tailors; the seven wished to wear their own livery, make their own regulations, and force all journeymen coming to Coventry to join their guild before obtaining employment. (fn. 65) It was tailors' journeymen who were chiefly responsible for the unlicensed fraternity of St. Anne which was prohibited in 1414. (fn. 66) By 1439 the tailors and fullers were joined in one company (fn. 67) but they separated, at the request of the fullers, in 1448, (fn. 68) when the latter released St. George's Chapel to the tailors and shearmen. (fn. 69) Tailors' goods were mostly for sale locally; there were consequently no strict leet regulations to insist on the quality necessary to maintain Coventry's good name in the country at large and no process for sealing and examining the wares.
Capping was an ancient trade in Coventry, but little evidence is available until the late 15th century when it was apparently flourishing. In 1496 the master and fellowship of the cappers, seemingly 24 in number, brought their book of ordinances to the leet for confirmation; masters were not to employ more than two apprentices and were to keep them for not less than seven years; journeymen were not to make caps on their own, but only for their masters, although they might repair old bonnets; wages were fixed and no strangers were to be employed as journeymen without licence of the masters; and no member of the craft was to teach any part of his trade except to his apprentices or to his wife. (fn. 70) In 1515 searchers were appointed by order of the leet. (fn. 71) Cappers resembled merchants in that they bought wool, had it spun, knitted, and fulled, and sold the finished article. (fn. 72) Other crafts connected with the cloth trade were declining during the early 16th century; the cappers, on the other hand, were flourishing, and in 1531 they asked for a chapel to be assigned to them. They were accordingly associated with the cardmakers and saddlers, who could not afford to keep up their chapel of St. Thomas in St. Michael's Church, (fn. 73) but within six years the cappers had entirely taken over the chapel. (fn. 74) Regulations on piece work were introduced and the ordinances were confirmed from time to time, while the government of the craft seems to have been in the hands of the masters and twelve senior members of the guild. (fn. 75)
Skinners, furriers, fellmongers, tanners, curriers, and whittawers were all concerned with the preparation of leather. One skinner had at least two apprentices in 1380, (fn. 76) and a century later the skinners had their own butts. (fn. 77) Evidence for their organisation is sparse but it is clear that the trade was of some importance in the town.
Tanners came rather more under the supervision of the leet; in 1381 a tanner was presented before the justices of the peace for selling five unfit skins, (fn. 78) but in 1494 the tanners asked the leet to regulate the sale of hides (fn. 79) and two years later it was the leet which dealt with offenders; (fn. 80) the order of 1494 forbade wholesale buying of hides by strangers from butchers outside the recognised market. As with other trades stricter regulations were imposed during the first half of the 16th century: in 1508 the mayor was to supervise the reformation of the tanners, (fn. 81) and in 1522 he was to appoint two searchers to examine all leather and to seal goods which passed the test. (fn. 82) Some idea of the standing of the tanners at this time may be gained from the fact that one of their members, John Boteler, was town clerk and steward; the guild wished to make him master in 1504 and it was with some difficulty that he managed with the help of the leet to obtain a discharge from the obligations of holding office in the company. (fn. 83)
The earliest indication of organisation among the corvisers or shoemakers is in 1380 when three corvisers were presented before the justices of the peace for taking wages above the rate allowed by the Statute of Labourers. (fn. 84) A quarrel between the weavers and the corvisers, submitted to the arbitration of the mayor in 1444, seems to have begun as a personal matter, but may well have been symptomatic of an attempt by the corvisers to emulate their more powerful rivals. (fn. 85) In 1508 the mayor and six or eight of his brethren were to regulate the price of boots and shoes. (fn. 86) When in 1522 searchers were appointed to examine all leather sold in the city and to seal leather which passed the test, the tanners and shoemakers were the two companies ordered to pay the costs of the searchers, (fn. 87) for they - apart from the merchant skinners - were apparently the most wealthy and powerful of the crafts concerned with leather.
Although various metalworking trades are known to have existed in Coventry from at least the 13th century, there is no evidence of organisation for most of them until the 15th century. As the result of a bill presented to the leet in 1435, journeymen of wiredrawers and girdlers were ordered to work in their own houses and journeymen of smiths and brakemen in their masters' houses. (fn. 88) It is, however, clear that the trades thus regulated were by this time wellestablished organisations. Smiths had been refusing to shoe strangers' horses on Sundays but they were now ordered to do so on any day of the week. (fn. 89) The wiredrawers had five years previously petitioned for the privilege of maintaining the canopy over the high altar of St. Michael's Church. (fn. 90) The cardmakers had acted corporately as early as 1356 when they were parties to an indenture made by licence of the mayor and bailiffs. (fn. 91) It is not clear whether the five Coventry girdlers who in 1329 were allowed to purchase tin from Devonshire stanneries for garnishing their girdles (fn. 92) were already organised as a guild, for the petition was brought by the men of the stanneries; but in 1391 the girdlers of Coventry were themselves petitioning for an exemplification of the licence which allowed them to work girdles garnished with white metal, (fn. 93) and in 1401 they obtained a second exemplification. (fn. 94) Coventry was one of seven places outside London allowed by Parliament in 1423 to have their own touches for goldsmiths' marks, and this may presuppose some craft organization. There is, however, no record of any action being taken in the city consequent on the statute of 1423 (fn. 95) and there is no evidence of a guild until 1523 by which time the goldsmiths, the smiths and others appear to have formed one guild. (fn. 96)
The wrights were particularly opposed to the regulation of wages by the Statute of Labourers and ten of them were presented in 1379 for taking excessive wages. (fn. 97) Their early history, however, is undocumented and, along with those of the millers and the tilers, their guild was dissolved in 1551. (fn. 98) Master carpenters had their wages fixed according to the Statute of Labourers by the justices of the peace, with the assent of the leet, in 1421. (fn. 99) By the middle of the century the carpenters were trying to establish a monopoly by imposing high fines on strangers coming to the city to practise their trade, but an order of the leet in 1455 regulated the fines imposed on those who had remained in the city and enjoyed the liberties for two years. (fn. 100) It is not known when and why the carpenters' guild was dissolved, but it was restored by an order of the leet in 1528 provided that they behaved themselves. (fn. 101) In 1553 they were apparently again seeking a monopoly, for they were allowed by the leet to take a penny a week from the wages of any country carpenter who was employed in the city. (fn. 102)
FOOD AND DRINK TRADES.
Regulations for the production and sale of food were numerous and strictly enforced. The leet frequently dealt with butchers: in 1421 they were ordered not to sell tainted meat, not to sell on Sunday meat remaining unsold on Thursday unless they had salted it, and not to prevent country butchers from coming in to sell their meat on any day of the week. (fn. 103) In the same year it was laid down that no regulations which had not first been submitted to the mayor and bailiffs were to be made by the butchers. (fn. 104) Orders of the leet regulated the places of slaughter and the disposal of waste, which was to be collected by the butchers' cart and dumped in a pit near the Poddy Croft. (fn. 105) By 1523 the monopoly of the butchers' company was, however, complete, for no one in the city was allowed to sell meat unless he belonged to the craft. (fn. 106) The butchers' company was apparently twice dissolved in the first half of the century for it was reformed in 1544 and again in 1552. (fn. 107)
Fishmongers were prominent during the 14th century on account of forestalling and regrating, (fn. 108) and in the following century they were as strictly regulated as the butchers. Orders against regrating were closely linked with a prohibition on the sale of bad fish. (fn. 109) In 1421 all sea fish brought in by strangers was to be examined before it was sold, (fn. 110) and strangers were to lodge only in inns where the landlord was sworn to the mayor to prevent regrating. (fn. 111) The leet saw to it that fishmongers' stalls made no obstruction in the highway, particularly in Cross Cheaping, (fn. 112) that waste was disposed of, (fn. 113) that fresh water fish was not sold wholesale but only directly to the consumer, (fn. 114) and that fishmongers did not retail other commodities such as butter. (fn. 115) The cutting of fish was restricted in 1512 to seven men, apart from the fishermen themselves. (fn. 116) The mayor had been accustomed to choose one of the masters of the fishmongers' guild before the same regulation was applied to the butchers in 1520. (fn. 117)
Regulations for the bakers mainly concerned the assize of bread. Public discontent at light-weight or poor-quality bread made itself felt in 1374 and again in 1387 when the commons hurled loaves of bread at the mayor in St. Mary's Hall. (fn. 118) The bakers had asked in 1379 for an exemplification of the ordinances of the assizes of bread and ale and of the composition of money and measures, (fn. 119) the implication being that it was the mayor who was at fault in setting the assize. John Leeder, mayor, in his detailed proclamation of 1421, listed the types of loaf which could be sold for a penny, instituted severe punishments for offenders, and allowed country bakers to sell in Coventry so long as their bread was of good weight and so long as they brought it first to the Gaol Hall door to be examined for weight and quality by the mayor himself. (fn. 120) As the bakers were forbidden to buy corn in the market on market days, they were allowed in 1445 to charge more for their bread and in 1473 to make lighter weight loaves; (fn. 121) in 1484 the extent of this privilege was made to vary with the price of wheat. (fn. 122) Later that year the bakers went on strike and departed to Baginton, leaving the city without bread. (fn. 123) Some forty years later there were as many as 43 bakers in Coventry, (fn. 124) so the exodus must have been considerable. They soon gave in, were fined £20, and promised to obey the mayor's regulations and never again to take such action. (fn. 125) By 1520 the mayor was choosing one of the masters of the bakers' guild. (fn. 126) Coventry was apparently a good market for bread, for bakers came from some distance, even from Warwick, on Wednesdays and Fridays to sell at the Gaol Hall door; but from 1534 they were not allowed to take unsold stock away with them and had to leave it at any of three specified houses for sale when asked. (fn. 127) Consequently Warwick bakers began bringing in bread more than twice a week, but the leet restricted them in 1551 to Wednesdays and Fridays. (fn. 128) By 1546 the mayor's control over the bakers was complete, for it was then ordained that the mayor, and not the master of the craft, was to punish offenders. (fn. 129)
Brewers frequently sold ale by unsealed measure during the latter part of the 14th century. (fn. 130) Their trade was apparently increasing during the next century for by 1492 former dwelling houses in Well Street had been taken over for malt making, (fn. 131) and in 1520 there were 68 brewers in the city. (fn. 132) The victuallers of Coventry were sufficiently strong in 1370 to threaten strike action unless letters patent licensing the collection of murage were withdrawn. (fn. 133) A hundred years later their independence led them to ignore the assizes of bread, ale, and wine, but the leet imposed severe penalties for such offences in 1473. (fn. 134) It was normal for the mayor to fix prices of staple foods, but in 1539 and 1550 when the mayor was himself a victualler officials were appointed to assist him. (fn. 135)
The first known instance of an apprenticeship in Coventry is to a merchant in 1317. (fn. 136) The system was, however, widespread during the reign of Richard II, and a number of apprenticeship indentures exists. (fn. 137) One apprentice was pardoned in 1387 for leaving the service of his mistress before his time, (fn. 138) and the numerous offenders, described as servants, who were presented at the sessions of the peace between 1377 and 1397 were almost certainly apprentices. (fn. 139) Before 1421 it was laid down that every apprentice was to be bound for at least seven years, that he was to be sworn before the steward of the court or his deputy, and that his name was to be entered in the register, his friends paying 12d. to the steward - 1d. for registration and 11d. for the use of the wardens. These orders were confirmed in 1494 (fn. 140) and, in the same year, admissions to apprenticeship were noted in the leet book, fourteen apprentices being sworn during the period 25 April 1494 to 12 January 1495. Twelve of these came from outside Coventry, one from as close as Stoneleigh, one from as far as Merioneth; four were apprenticed to cappers or hat makers, one to a weaver, one to a shearman, one to a draper, one to a mercer, three to grocers, one to a butcher, one to a baker, and one to a locksmith. (fn. 141) There seems to have been some opposition to the regulations: it was decreed in 1494 that no scrivener was to draw up an indenture until after the registration of the apprentice's oath; (fn. 142) and in the following year verses pinned to the door of St. Michael's Church condemned the payment demanded of every apprentice. (fn. 143)
At the same time, some of the crafts, for example the cappers, were allowing only two apprentices to one master, (fn. 144) but in 1524 an order of the leet made it legal for any craftsman to take as many apprentices as he wished. (fn. 145) The cappers appear to have paid especial attention to the welfare of apprentices, providing in 1520 for their protection against unjust masters (fn. 146) and requiring the master of the craft during his year of office to visit every apprentice. (fn. 147) At the end of the 15th century payments to apprentices varied: 12d. a year was the normal rate, with one or two exceptions, for cappers and hat makers, weavers, drapers, and grocers; a locksmith received 16d., a shearman 2s., and a butcher 4s.; and in each case a large sum ranging from 6s. 8d. to 33s. 4d. was paid to an apprentice during his last year. The butcher's apprentice who received 33s. 4d. had to learn how to use it, however, for he had to find his own food and clothing. (fn. 148)