Records of the Cordwainers and Glovers: Introduction

Pages 336-341

Cardiff Records: Volume 3. Originally published by Cardiff Records Committee, Cardiff, 1901.

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Records of the Cordwainers and Glovers.

IN the Middle Ages, Cardiff, like other towns, possessed Guilds of various kinds, of which the most important were those of the merchants and traders. The Guilds were associations by which men banded themselves together for the protection of common interests and the furtherance of common aims, and may be regarded as the benefit clubs and trade unions of mediæval times. They had a highly developed system of rules, to the observance of which the members were bound under definite penalties, and a complete governmental and administrative organisation centering in a Master and two or more Wardens. Besides its primary object of protecting a particular trade, the Guild partook largely of a religious character, having its chaplain and its chapel or, at least, its altar in the parish church. The Guild meetings were devoted in the first instance to religious exercises, next to business, and then to conviviality. It is held by competent authorities, that municipal corporations had their origin in merchant Guilds, and we are not without evidence that this was the case at Cardiff.

King Edward II., on the same day that he gave a Charter to Cardiff, namely 4 March 1323/4, granted rights and privileges "to the burgesses of the arts or crafts of Cordwainers and Glovers of the town of Cardiff and to their successors for ever." This grant was confirmed by Edward III. in the year 1359/60, and subsequently by various Lords of Glamorgan. A new confirmation was given by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, on 25 March 1444, ratified by Queen Elizabeth in 1589.

Hugh le Despenser's Charter of 1340 to the Town of Cardiff has these words: "Nor shall anyone keep an open stall of any merchandise, nor a shop, nor make a 'Corf' in Our aforesaid Vill, unless they lot and scot with Our aforesaid Burgesses and (he) be received in the Guild of their liberty." (Vol. I., p. 25.) The reader must not be confused by the faulty composition of the original Latin (ib., p. 21), here literally translated, which mixes the singular and plural terminations of the verbs. The meaning is clearly that the qualification for a retail trader in the town of Cardiff is his " lot and scot" and reception into the Guild Merchant. The Welsh word "Corf" (corff or corph, from Latin corpus) seems to imply a trade union of subordinate rank to the great Guild of the Burgesses, apparently referred to in the next sentence: "Also We have granted unto Our same Burgesses that they and their heirs may make a Guild among themselves, at what time and whenever they will, for their own profit."

After exercising, during the course of several centuries, an influence over the municipal life of our borough which partook of the nature of a benevolent despotism, the Guilds were suppressed by King Henry VIII. as institutions of a religious character, and their belongings swept into the Royal coffers. There can be no doubt that they owed their downfall to the wealth accumulated in the course of their long existence. A statement of the lands and possessions of the Cardiff Guilds will be found in Vol. II., p. 296, including their vestments and plate in the two parish churches. From my Abstract of Burgage Tenements, given in Vol. I., p. 226, may be seen the number of burgages held by the various Guilds. The two most important of these associations were the Guilds of Holy Trinity and Saint Mary, who held 16¼ and 16½ burgages respectively. Saint Mary's seems to have been the Cordwainers' Guild, and probably Holy Trinity was the Guild of Glovers. If the early history of these two could be discovered, it would doubtless prove of very great interest; but the older records probably disappeared at the Reformation, with the rest of the Guilds' portable property. The Cordwainers and Glovers were involved in some dispute with the law officers of King Edward VI. concerning their property at Cardiff, and this brings us to a very interesting bit of local history.

In 1550 six members of the Guild were indicted for forcibly taking possession of Saint Peryn's Chapel in the parish of Saint John, Cardiff, of right belonging to the King. By another Indictment the Bailiffs of Cardiff were charged with (inter alia) holding the King's said chapel, to the prejudice of his Crown and dignity. There is nothing to show the upshot of these proceedings; but, although it might have been supposed that in those days such a dispute could only terminate in favour of the Sovereign, it would seem that the result was otherwise, at all events so far as concerned the Guild's possession of the chapel—for it remained in their hands for 250 years afterwards.

Not the least valuable service rendered to history by the two documents which record these proceedings is that of enabling us to fix the exact site of the ancient Chapel of Saint Piran, referred to by Giraldus Cambrensis (fn. 1) as having been visited by King Henry II. on his way home from Ireland in 1172. This venerable sanctuary, we are now able to state, was identical with the Shoemakers' Hall, which stood in the lane called after it Shoemaker Street. It would seem that, at the Reformation, Saint Peryn's Chapel was transformed into the Guild Hall of the Cordwainers and Glovers. Probably they were accustomed to hold their religious meetings in it. It is clear that the Guild took over the chapel against the will of the Sovereign; and it is difficult to understand how this association of traders, powerful as it doubtless was, contrived to hold its own and prolong its existence under circumstances which wrought the almost complete destruction of such institutions throughout the country. It is indeed remarkable that, in a remote provincial town, any Guild should have survived the Reformation; yet the amalgamated associations of the Cordwainers and Glovers of Cardiff preserved their corporate existence down to the 19th century.

The charters constituting and confirming the privileges of this Guild (or these Guilds) are known by a translation made in the 17th century, which is now among the Fonmon Castle muniments, with the latest Minute Books and papers of the Masters and Brethren. In 1861 all these were in the possession of Thomas Dalton, esq., Clerk of the Peace for the County of Glamorgan; and in April of that year some extracts, incorrectly printed, appeared in the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian.

As above stated, the Guild was by Edward II. endued with the usual privileges of a chartered trades-guild, confirmed by subsequent Sovereigns and by various Lords. Those privileges may be briefly summarised as follows:—

A Guild Hall.
Two Masters and two Wardens.
Exclusive trade rights.
Power to impose fines.

Turning to the Registers or Minute Books of the Company (as in later times it was called) of Cordwainers and Glovers, we find a form of oaths for the Masters and Wardens, written about the year 1630, with a list of Journeymen of the same date; but the regular entries do not begin till 1663. The Minutes refer to such business as freedoms, fines, moneys spent in conviviality at meetings of the Brethren, and the costs of legal proceedings undertaken in defence of their trade rights. These documents form a most interesting record of the gradual decline and final extinction of what had been a rich and powerful Trades Guild.

In 1589, in 1664, and finally in 1783, there are signs of attempts to infuse new life into the venerable Guild, but the spirit of the age was increasingly unfavourable to its existence. In 1798 the Brethren granted their Hall to Mr. John Wood for ninety-nine years. From 1801 to 1806 there was no election of either Masters or Wardens; and the end came when, in the latter year, the last elected Masters, John Hussey and John Bird, shoemakers, with three other Brethren, sold the fee simple of the Shoemakers' Hall to Mr. Wood for the sum of £28 2s. 6d. With that record ends the history of the Guild of Cordwainers and Glovers of the Town of Cardiff, which had existed for five hundred years.

The reader should not overlook the deed defining the respective rights of the Cordwainers and the Glovers in the corporate property. The Glovers, like the Cordwainers, chose an annual Master, and each trade admitted distinct members into their common corporation. This accounts for the appointment of two Masters and two Wardens; the senior or first named being the head of the Cordwainers, and the other of the Glovers. The Glovers were allowed their share in the use of the Hall, for a yearly rent of five shillings every Michaelmas; while the profits of the Hall, and the quarterage money of the Journeymen Cordwainers, were to belong to the senior craft. All the other profits of the united Guilds were to belong to both in common.

Numerous allusions to the Shoemakers' Hall will be found in the course of the present work. Thus, the Survey of 1666 describes it as a "house called Shoemakers' Hall," and states that the burgage rent of the premises is unknown. Its situation is there given as in the thoroughfare which runs from "St John's Church to Shoemaker's Street End." (fn. 2) The actual spot was off the south side of Duke Street, towards the western end of the lastnamed thoroughfare. Its foundations were in 1861 covered by the office of the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian. At the present time (1901), a narrow passage still runs up for a short distance from Duke Street, between the shops of Mr. McLay (late Jones) and Mr. Colle, in a south-easterly direction. This is all that remains of what used to be the important thoroughfare known as Shoemaker Street, which formerly came out into Saint John's Square, between Mr. Solomon Andrews' fruit shop and Messrs. Fulton and Dunlop's premises. This lane was gradually rendered impassable, and was finally built across, not very many years ago.

Shoemakers' Hall was wholly or partly built of timber, with shops on the ground floor, and an upper storey overhanging the footway and supported upon posts. Before 1777 it had fallen into great decay, and was so neglected as to have become a receptacle for the ashes and filth of the neighbourhood. In this state it was in 1806 purchased of the expiring Company by Mr. Wood, whose descendants in 1861 still held the property. After the purchase, the ruins were demolished, the printing-house was built upon the site, and Saint Peryn's Chapel and Shoemakers' Hall alike passed into the realm of intangible history.

It may not be out of place here to remark upon so curious a dedication for a Cardiff chapel as this in the name of the patron saint of Cornwall. It is possible that Saint Piran, Peryn, or "Perran" (as he is called by Cornishmen) may have had some associations with Glamorgan that have long been forgotten. As Saint Ciaran, or Kieran, this early Celtic missionary is well known in Ireland; while in Cornwall Saint Piran has always been regarded not only as the patron of the Royal Duchy but also as the special protector of tinners. The reason for his commemoration by the dedication of a chapel in the town of Cardiff has yet to be explained.

In the Middle Ages, Spanish leather was called "cordovan," from Cordova. From this was derived the term "cordwain," meaning goat-skin tanned and dressed, and "cordwainer" or "cordiner" (corruptly "cordwinder"), a worker in cordwain, a shoemaker. The French cordonnier has the same origin. Cordinarius was the LawLatin equivalent. The use of the term "cordwainer" gradually died out in the first half of the 19th century.


  • 1. Rerum Brit. Script. ("De Principis Instructione.") Rolls Series. Also Iter Kambricum. Giraldus terms it "capella Sancti Pirani."
  • 2. Vol. II., p. 77.