The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 2003.
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IX THE LIVERY COMPANY IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY
'Soon London will be all England'—in this apophthegm James I summed up one of the most striking developments in the English economy of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. (fn. 1) London was the magnet which drew people of all classes, whether they came to make their fortunes or to enjoy the pleasures of London life, and the commerce and society of provincial towns suffered accordingly. The City provided the setting in which court and government functioned, and in its vital and spirited society the writers and artists flourished. It was the cradle of secular learning, and although it had no university in Elizabethan days, a student body a thousand strong worked in its schools and Inns of Court. (fn. 2) But above all London had become, by the fifteenth century, the base through which much of the export of woollen cloth, then increasingly the chief item of England's foreign trade, was channelled, resulting in the concentration of English trade and shipping on the Thames.
London's prosperity during the first half of the sixteenth century as a great financial, commercial, and industrial capital opened up seemingly unlimited opportunities to her citizens. Many of her traders found specialization in overseas trade a profitable business, and humbler men, hitherto content to concentrate on retail trade, branched out in other directions. Later in the century, after economic depression and political and religious difficulties in the Low Countries had forced merchants further afield in search of markets for their cloth, the range and variety of their interests was even more marked. (fn. 3) A great merchant like Richard Staper, citizen and clothworker, was importing raisins, almonds, and oil from Spain, linen, flax, and madder from Northern Europe, and trading with Genoa and Leghorn; but he was also keenly interested in the trade with the Levant, the East Indies, and Morocco. (fn. 4) Thomas Myddleton, citizen and grocer, building on the profits he had made in foreign trade, branched out, as did many others, into investment in privateering voyages, office-holding under the Crown, moneylending, and the acquisition of land. (fn. 5)
The increasing range and volume of this mercantile activity was to have important effects on the greater livery companies. Many of them lost their medieval identities as a greater share of foreign trade was drawn into English hands and the interests of their more successful members were drawn further afield. While the companies had grown up associated with the trade in one particular line of goods, London merchants had never specialized. On the whole most of them exported woollen cloth and imported a wide range of commodities. Some continued to include among their many interests an interest in the trade with which their company was associated, others did not. Inevitably the numbers of this second group varied in the different companies according to the goods concerned and changes in the direction of English trade. Thus merchants in companies like the Skinners, Fishmongers, and Goldsmiths were less likely to retain an interest in the wares associated with their companies since these did not play a significant part in international trade. In the case of the Skinners this was even less likely when London merchants became more and more concerned with trade to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean.
Yet these changes did not for some time work to the disadvantage of the livery companies. While membership of trading companies like the Merchant Adventurers or the Muscovy Company might more directly benefit his trade, membership of a livery company alone brought a merchant the freedom of the City. As merchants trading from London could not deal directly with men from the provinces unless they were free of the City, it was to the advantage of them all to join a livery company. It was not until the middle years of the seventeenth century that successful City merchants like Sir John Banks and Sir Josiah Child could afford to disregard the traditional route to the freedom. (fn. 6)
Such developments affected both the membership and government of the livery companies. The number of merchants in the Skinners' Company, for instance, who were largely concerned with foreign trade grew steadily. Some began to look beyond their original interest in furs; others were general merchants who joined the Company solely in order to secure the freedom of the City. But eventually, since the companies were controlled by their richer members, the merchants, a situation arose in which a primarily mercantile court was responsible for the regulation of activities in which its own members did not engage and with which they were not commercially concerned.
It is possible to date these developments with some precision in the case of the Skinners' Company. In the late fourteenth century there had been relatively few merchants with an interest in overseas trade among the skinners. The typical merchant skinner had then organized the manufacture of furs, retailed skins and furs in London, and served London and the provinces as a wholesale distributor of skins of foreign origin. This was still true of some of the most prosperous skinners of the mid fifteenth century. William Gregory, for instance, does not appear to have taken any particular interest in foreign trade, but he could count the King among the customers for his furs. (fn. 7) He and his family moved in the highest social circles in the City. He was an alderman, and Mayor of London from 1451 to 1452, and is thought to have written part of one of the few surviving chronicles of the period. (fn. 8) Some interesting sidelights are shed on them and their life from the letters and papers of the Stonor family, landed gentry of Oxfordshire, into which his granddaughter Elizabeth married. (fn. 9) William's daughter Margaret, a capable business woman herself, (fn. 10) married John Croke, citizen and skinner, whose impressive stone tomb, with its delightful brass showing their family, has survived successive disasters and is still to be seen in the Church of All Hallows, Barking. They owned a great deal of property in and around London, and lived in the City in some style and comfort. Plate and jewellery were plentiful; seven people, probably all servants, were mentioned in Margaret's will, each of whom, as well as money, was to receive a featherbed or mattress, blanket, sheets, and coverlet. (fn. 11) Occasionally venison and rabbits were sent up from the country for them, 'whech is gret deyntis to have here in London', or tench, 'very goode and sweet'. (fn. 12) Their children all married well, Elizabeth having first married the son of Richard Rich, mercer, and then Sir William Stonor, who was after her death to marry a niece of Warwick the kingmaker. (fn. 13) Dame Elizabeth, masterful, extravagant, shrewd, and affectionate, comes vividly to life in her letters, delighting in her acquaintance with the Duchess of Suffolk and her visit to court. (fn. 14)
John Croke, however, belonged to mercantile circles with few interests in the manufacture of furs. He was primarily a wool exporter; among his partners were the Chesters, another family of skinners who were also merchant staplers and who counted among their other interests one in the casting of bells. (fn. 15) From about 1480 onwards increasing numbers of skinners began to concern themselves with overseas trade. A small group, rarely bigger than half a dozen at any time, was particularly interested in exporting wool, usually general merchants showing little interest in furs. (fn. 16) A larger group, merchant adventurers, took cloth regularly to the Low Countries, bringing back skins and furs as well as other goods purchased there from German and Spanish merchants. (fn. 17) It seems probable that skinners became increasingly important at this time among the group of English merchants importing skins and furs. (fn. 18) Thomas Haymonde, for instance, apparently concentrated on foreign trade. He represented the Skinners among the Merchant Adventurers in 1522, and his apprentices were to be made free in Flanders. (fn. 19) His bequest in 1540 of goods 'as well on this side the sea as beyond the sea' and the truckle bed which he kept in Flanders indicate frequent visits and a regular trade. (fn. 20) He still maintained a close connexion with the fur trade; his imports, in, for instance, 1519– 20 and 1520–1, were almost entirely of skins and furs, but presumably he was acting in the capacity of wholesaler rather than retailer. (fn. 21) Others took a keen interest in the Mediterranean trade, and skinners were among the group of London merchants who began to import Mediterranean goods via Southampton. (fn. 22) Ambitious plans for trade with Iceland were made, although 'outerageous wynd and unkyndly wedres and tempestes' brought them to nothing. (fn. 23) Sometimes the skinners stayed at home and arranged with others to import goods on their behalf: a Hanseatic merchant would bring in skins, flax, and wax via Hull, or a merchant going to Spain was provided with the money to buy budge and arrange for its dispatch to London. (fn. 24) Skinners also showed a greater interest in the quilts, featherbeds, down bolsters, and pillows associated with the upholders' trade. This was particularly marked after 1489, when fifteen merchant upholders joined the Skinners' Company and were from thenceforth known as skinners although they preserved their separate identity within the Company. (fn. 25)
However, there were some merchant skinners in the early sixteenth century, as in the fourteenth, who showed little interest in foreign trade. The wealthiest of them appear to have been the very small group holding appointments at court, who were thereby well placed to attract affluent customers for their furs. (fn. 26) Others invested their spare capital in various ways, some in property, some in money-lending. (fn. 27) But the majority of skinners certainly seem to have preferred to invest in overseas trade, even though this often brought misfortune, and a merchant might end his days living on the charity of the Company at 14d. a week. (fn. 28)
Until about the third or fourth decade of the sixteenth century the interests of the merchant skinners were still closely bound up with furs. Some may have grown more interested in the import trade, and some in upholstery, or the wholesale trade in London, than in the retailing of furs. But most were directly concerned in some way or at some time with the mistery whose gild they had joined. (fn. 29) From its earliest days the Company had consisted of 'the brotherhood', those who were members of the fraternities but not skinners, and 'the art', those who were skinners by trade. But in the early sixteenth century the 'brethren' were comparatively few in number. Few sons of skinners were admitted without apprenticeship: only two of the nine admitted between 1500 and 1514 reached the livery. During the years 1490 to 1520 only thirteen men were admitted by redemption who cannot in any way be connected with the mistery, and only seven were honorary members. (fn. 30) Three skinners were waxchandlers by trade, two were innholders, and one a fletcher. (fn. 31) These men connected closely with another trade form a very small group in the total of 476 citizen skinners who have been traced during the period 1490 to 1520.
The following decades witnessed a striking change: none of the most prominent skinners of the middle years of the sixteenth century were skinners by trade, nor were they even merchants importing skins or more than casually interested in the export of rabbit skins. Thus in 1563 only one of the five who held office in the Company was a skinner by trade. (fn. 32) In 1606, among the forty who formed the Court, the merchants themselves could only trace fourteen who were either working skinners, sons or apprentices of skinners, or skilful in skins and furs; the artisan skinners, as the craftsmen were then describing themselves, claimed that there were only five. (fn. 33)
Merchants in the livery of the Skinners' Company had, by the middle years of the sixteenth century, become general merchants, indistinguishable from other London merchants in the variety and scope of their interests. Sir John Champneys, to be Master of the Company six times, alderman from 1527 to 1556, sheriff, mayor, and knight, was never apprenticed in the craft. Coming from a Somerset family, he took up his freedom of the City through the Skinners' Company in 1514 when he was Secondary of the Bread Street Counter, possibly because of his marriage to a daughter of Thomas Myrfyn, skinner, a wealthy grocer's widow. (fn. 34) He was a merchant adventurer importing commodities like oil, wine, iron, and alum, and, on one occasion, some sable skins. (fn. 35) Stow brings him to life for us, the successful and arrogant merchant, building a high tower of brick in his house 'to overlook his neighbours in this citie'. (fn. 36) Sir Andrew Judde, famous for his foundation of Tonbridge School, was, like Champneys, married to a daughter of Thomas Myrfyn, mayor, sheriff, alderman, and six times Master of the Company. (fn. 37) He had been apprenticed in 1509 to one of the very small group of merchants of the staple within the Company, and his earliest commercial activities were the export of wool and, later, cloth. (fn. 38) He took a prominent part in the foundation of the Muscovy Company and invested heavily in the early expeditions, but as has already been suggested, the import of furs seems never to have been of prior importance to the Muscovy Merchants. (fn. 39) Thomas Sexton died young and never achieved fame, but we know that he had factors working for him in Cadiz, Lisbon, and Danzig. (fn. 40) The fortunate survival of letters written to him by his two factors in Danzig permits definite conclusions to be drawn as to the nature of his trading interests there from 1555 until his death in 1559. (fn. 41) His aim was the purchase of naval stores, the cables, hawsers, pitch, hemp, and timber on which he could make a good profit in England. His only interest in furs seems to have been in English rabbit skins, which he found a useful addition to his cargoes of cloth for sale in Danzig. (fn. 42)
One of the most interesting of these merchants was Thomas Bannister. He was a worthy representative of that enterprising generation of London merchants who, finding their normal channels of trade periodically blocked by the disasters which befell Antwerp in the third quarter of the century, began to search for new outlets for their cloth. It seems possible that the ancient traditions in the Company linked with the name of Sir Andrew Judde sprang in fact from the career and adventurers of Bannister as he, rather than Judde, was the first skinner to visit Muscovy and Persia, and to take an interest in the Spanish and Guinea trade. (fn. 43) After entering the livery of the Company in 1550 he began to send cloth to Danzig, and to import goods in considerable quantity from Spain; in 1558 he was half-owner of one of the three ships which made the third English trading expedition to the Guinea coast. (fn. 44) He set out in 1568 on his most ambitious expedition as a representative of the Muscovy Company to reorganize the base in Moscow, and later went on to Persia, there selling English cloth to the Shah and buying raw silk and spices for the return journey. (fn. 45) The adventures of Bannister and his companions are vividly described in their letters home: their fight with Tatars at Astrakhan, when Bannister was twice wounded and only saved by his coat of mail; the impure air of Arrash; and, more sadly, Bannister's death from malaria on 29 July 1571. (fn. 46) His early death came when his career had not yet reached its height, and he made no name for himself in the City or Company, but it is small wonder that pride in his enterprise and courage was to live on in the Company even though attributed to a better-known benefactor. (fn. 47)
Many other skinners, whose commercial activities during the closing decades of the century have been traced, were general overseas merchants, rarely, if ever, interested in furs. Erasmus Harby was until his death in 1593 the partner of Thomas Myddleton, grocer, importing groceries, Italian mercery, flax, and dyestuffs, and concerned in the 'Suger Howse' in Mincing Lane. (fn. 48) Thomas Starkey, alderman and Sheriff and four times Master of the Skinners' Company, imported linen from Dieppe and Hamburg, and exported Welsh cottons to Rouen; he kept a factor in Spain and imported sugar, indigo, and gum arabic from Morocco, whither he sent linen and other goods. Although he later came to grief, his trade with Morocco in the 1580's was on a big enough scale to lead him to buy part of a house in Agadir. (fn. 49) A skinner with even more extended interests was Sir James Lancaster, a bold and resolute merchant and explorer, and a pioneer in the opening up of English trade with the East Indies. (fn. 50)
There was thus a great contrast between the merchant skinner of the late fifteenth century and the merchant skinner of the late sixteenth century. The increasing concentration on foreign trade at the expense of the manufacturer and trader in furs may be dated to the second quarter of the century, and as trade developed on less traditional lines during the second half of the century, fewer and fewer of the merchants in the livery of the Skinners' Company took any interest in furs. Presumably changing interests among the merchants were also influenced by changing conditions within the fur trade. It seems most probable that reduced opportunities of profit from the manufacture of furs helped to encourage merchants to invest their capital in other directions and to look elsewhere for their living. Fewer of the smaller shopkeepers may have prospered, and inevitably the gap between those skinners who were in a position to profit from other commercial ventures and those who had to live on the products of their craft steadily widened.
Those in control of the Livery Company were the merchants, the small merchant oligarchy which had for a century or more controlled decisions through the Court of Assistants. From this small circle the Master and four wardens were regularly drawn each year, eighty-six men holding office during the whole period from 1485 to 1541. (fn. 51) It was not, however, an hereditary caste. Members of this group came from as far afield as Cumberland, Yorkshire, and Shropshire. Their parentage was equally varied : husbandmen, yeomen, and tailors, as well as gentlemen. (fn. 52) Below them were the other merchants in the livery. But as time passed the livery was constantly being strengthened by new members, men who had little or no interest in the fur trade but who were wealthy enough to support the burdens of membership and the heavier burdens of office.
The livery companies continued to attract new members. The freedom of the City was still of vital importance to London merchants, not only as a safeguard for their position as traders, but as an essential preliminary to political and social advancement in the City. A key group of companies had long been recognized; eight were named in 1521, the 'twelve head companies' in 1538, and translations into one of these from the lesser companies then became an essential prerequisite for the holding of office in the City. (fn. 53) Others enjoyed the social activities which membership made possible and the prestige that office brought. Furthermore, the bigger companies had by this time been endowed with land or property which, with other resources, provided an income for which they were responsible and which made continuation of their activities possible. Thus the greater livery companies survived both religious changes that hit directly at some of their more cherished traditions, and economic changes that radically affected their membership and government.
Inevitably, however, the livery companies changed in character and therefore in function during the sixteenth century. They grew into institutions that satisfied the social needs of members of very varied interests and played a prominent part in City life. Their role as units of municipal administration continued to be important. They were then carrying out a variety of tasks such as enforcing sumptuary decrees, providing equipment for men and ships for the defence of the country, storing armour, handling wheat supplies, and helping to support such municipal enterprises as St. Bartholomew's Hospital. (fn. 54) They provided a convenient mechanism through which successive sovereigns could collect the money they so often needed to borrow from the citizens of London. (fn. 55) The companies were, in addition, the recipients not only of many gifts from their members and others in recognition of their skill and experience in promoting charitable and educational schemes, but were also frequently made responsible as trustees for the execution and supervision of such schemes. Recent research has indicated the extent to which the London merchants endowed the trusts they set up, and that the confidence they placed in the companies was fully justified. (fn. 56) Their philanthropic interests embraced a wide variety of schemes, directed towards increasingly secular ends as the century progressed, and ranging far outside London. The administrative work involved and the management of the property held by the companies drew heavily on the time and energies of their officers. (fn. 57)
Then, too, the outward show of splendour, important enough in the fourteenth century, was of even greater importance in the sixteenth century. The companies rivalled each other in the ingenuity of their pageants, the splendour of their halls and plate, and the extravagance of their feasts. The Skinners' Company had by this time been far out-distanced by companies which had a larger membership of very rich merchants. Whereas in 1360 the Skinners had been assessed for a loan to the King at the same figure as the Mercers and Drapers, in 1488 they were expected to produce only £150 towards a similar loan compared with the £740 expected from the Mercers and the £455 from the Grocers. (fn. 58) The Skinners had settled down into the position of sixth in rank among the 'Great Twelve' of the London livery companies, although after 1484, when their standing was challenged by the Merchant Taylors, they had to accept relegation to seventh place in alternate years. (fn. 59) But in spite of their diminished prestige, which may have reduced their chances of attracting new members from among the wealthiest City merchants, the Skinners played a full and active part in City life. Skinners' Hall was rebuilt in 1472 and frequently repaired; (fn. 60) gifts such as the Cockayne Loving Cups, five silver gilt cups 'of the forme and fashion of a cocke', added to the splendour of the feasts held at the Hall. (fn. 61) More money was spent on the Corpus Christi procession, until its suspension at the beginning of Edward VI's reign. (fn. 62) The 'pageant' mounted by the Company as its contribution to the Lord Mayor's Show, traditionally representing a forest full of wild beasts, was then led by a lynx and surrounded by wild men with clubs, dancing and singing and throwing squibs, and when skinners were themselves elected to the highest office in the City the Company nearly ruined itself to do them honour. (fn. 63) In 1518 they hired Cardinal Wolsey's barge so that Myrfyn could go to Westminster in fitting splendour, and lavishly entertained him at Skinners' Hall. The demands made on their purses when both in 1595 and 1597 skinners were elected to the mayoralty no doubt helped to alienate the poorer members of the yeomanry at a very critical time. (fn. 64)
The income from property was increased by various bequests, in spite of certain sums which had to be surrendered to the King in Edward VI's reign. (fn. 65) But while some of this income was spent on repairs to property, dinners, and pageantry, the Skinners can pride themselves on having contributed to the upkeep of poor scholars at Oxford and Cambridge, in particular to that of Richard Hakluyt himself, and of having successfully organized and maintained the school at Tonbridge founded by Sir Andrew Judde. (fn. 66) Six almsmen were supported in Judde's almshouses in the parish of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate; (fn. 67) weekly pensions were paid to all sorts of people: 'those being fallen into decay by divers accidents', the old woman in Bedlam, the prisoner in the Fleet prison, and the poor woman whose husband had been taken prisoner on the Barbary coast. (fn. 68) The Company even refused a suitor backed by Sir Francis Walsingham because they preferred to arrange for certain tenements to be leased to needy skinners so that none might 'withdraw their charitable minds from such good doings and maintenance of the poor of this Worshipful Company in time to come'. (fn. 69) From property bequeathed by Thomas Hunt in 1557 money was lent to young freemen skinners, and from the generous bequest of Laurence Atwell in 1588 the poor of the Company were to be set on work and relieved. (fn. 70) There is little doubt that the Court of the Skinners' Company was much occupied on such business, as well as on the more mundane tasks expected from all the livery companies, and that at times its resources were stretched to the utmost. In 1587–8, for instance, for Her Majesty's service 'in these most dangerous times against her and our most malicious and cruel enemies', not only had the Company to collect a loan of £3,500 from its members, but eleven men were provided and equipped for service in the Low Countries, contributions were made to the provision of ships, and the Company's store of armour and powder was surveyed and replenished. (fn. 71) Small wonder that the Court decided that the election dinner, at which in 1560 was served 'spice bread, cherries, strawberries, pippins, and marmalade, and sukett, comfits, and portyngalles and divers other dishes, hippocras, Rhenish, claret wine and beer and all great plenty', should that year be replaced by a sober 'drynkyng'. (fn. 72)
The developments outlined above mean that much of the history of the Skinners' Company in the sixteenth century is irrelevant to the history of the fur trade. Supervision of industry, however, still formed part of the work of the livery companies. But as the force of medieval economic concepts was weakened, as London's population grew and the range of her commercial and industrial interests was extended, the possibility that any local association could effectively supervise a whole industry was much diminished. Many companies by this time represented a diversity of economic interests which could scarcely be reconciled in one association, for in some industries growing complexity of organization widened the gulf between commercial and industrial capitalists, and in others developments drew merchants and craftsmen in different directions. Many small masters lost what economic independence they had had, sinking into the status of wage-earners, for whom illness, a bad harvest, the closing of a European market, or rising prices might be equally disastrous.
It was under these changing social and economic conditions that medieval forms of industrial organization revealed their inadequacies. (fn. 73) Some gilds, such as that of the Oxford skinners, disappeared altogether. (fn. 74) In other cases craftsmen were absorbed by the traders on whom they were dependent either for raw materials or for the distribution of goods, and it was at this time, 1564, that the London tawyers were formally joined to the Skinners' Company. (fn. 75) More often, different interests within a trade struggled for supremacy. Where commercial and industrial interests clashed, the powerful London merchants who drew their wealth from overseas trade were in the stronger position: when the working skinners and tawyers attempted to check the export of untawed skins they were faced by bitter and prolonged opposition. (fn. 76) When the different interests were in the same association, the merchants were usually in complete control through the Court of Assistants. Then the masters, represented largely in the yeomanry, tried in some cases to break away and form a new company, as did the feltmakers, who successfully broke away from the Haberdashers in 1604. (fn. 77) In other cases they challenged the authority of the oligarchy by trying to secure some control over the election of officers, as did the yeomanry of the Goldsmiths' Company in 1529. (fn. 78) Other craftsmen, realizing how inadequately supervision was carried out, did their best to make it more effective by trying to draw all craftsmen into the Company, by trying to work out improved systems of inspection, or even by accepting the protection of a monopolist to whom they were prepared to give the right to collect certain fees in return for certain services. (fn. 79)
The government added to this ferment in the field of industrial regulation by attempting to substitute national for local control. In 1503 company ordinances were to be supervised by the Lord Chancellor, not by local authorities; (fn. 80) in 1563 the Statute of Apprentices fixed the apprentice's term of service, forbade all but those who had served an apprenticeship to take up a craft, tried to ensure stability by insisting that all should be hired by the year, urged masters with three apprentices to employ journeymen, and arranged for the local assessment of wages. (fn. 81) The government tried, too, to protect craftsmen by making it easier for them to join and profit from membership of the companies: in 1531, and again in 1536, the entrance fee for shopholders was fixed at 3s. 4d., and the fee for presenting apprentices at 2s. 6d. (fn. 82)
However, urban labour problems in the sixteenth century were too complex to be readily solved. It was easy to condemn the mercantile oligarchies which controlled the older livery companies for failing to protect the small men in their industries whom the economic changes of a period of transition were driving to the wall. But neither they nor the government were in a position to do much, nor even really understood what was happening. Only with the emergence of associations of skilled wage-earners and the powerful welfare state have some of these problems been overcome, only to bring new difficulties in their wake. Sixteenth-century merchants tended to turn their attention increasingly to fields where their activities might be more fruitful and satisfying to them, while still trying, even if spasmodically and indirectly, to mitigate the evil effects of growing industrialization.
In the Skinners' Company these problems were brought out into the open by the declining prosperity of the fur trade. In the early years of the century most of the merchants were still taking an active interest in some aspect or other of the business of furs, and the Company was active in measures for its protection. Primarily their duty was to their own members. They showed a very real appreciation of difficulties within the trade as early as 1519, and acted on their own initiative in reducing the fee for presentation of apprentices from 20s. to 20d., a reduction which meant a striking drop in the income of the Company. (fn. 83) This must have been very welcome to the small masters, although it may of course merely reflect recognition by the Company of a falling membership and the evasion of the registration of apprentices. The number of apprentices taken rose as a result from twenty-eight in 1519 to forty-three in 1520. (fn. 84) The fee was raised to 2s. 6d. in accordance with the statute of 1531, and in that year the entrance fee for shopholders was reduced from 4s. to 3s. 4d. (fn. 85) The fee for admission to the livery remained at 20s., a moderate figure and the same as was paid in the Merchant Taylors' Company. (fn. 86)
Throughout the century the Company provided certain valuable services for the men in the fur trade. Disputes over the delivery or quality of skins were settled by the Court; servants sought protection against their masters when they were ill used, and apprentices when made to 'tuft' buttons instead of being taught the art of a skinner. When William Muddle objected to being called 'brabling knave' and Goodman Willis to the 'ribawdrous' words used of his wife, it was the Court which smoothed down ruffled feelings and urged members that they should 'live Christianly and brotherly as it becometh Christians and Brethren of so worshipful a company'. Masters sought redress for the misdeeds of their servants or the theft of their goods; others were allowed to arrange for the arrest of fellow members who owed them money, or the Court would make arrangements for the money to be paid in instalments. (fn. 87)
The Company was, too, still responsible for the inspection of skins and furs. Of the significance of this in the sixteenth century it is difficult to judge. Sufficient evidence survives to show that throughout the century the wardens, whether trained in the craft or not, considered it their duty to see that skins were properly dressed and not 'craftily packed' and 'craftily bounden'. (fn. 88) Searchers were appointed, skinners were fined for buying and selling 'lamb unserchyd' and for 'faulty squirrels', and a member of the Clothworkers' Company forced to submit to the search. (fn. 89) In 1562 the wardens, with the approval of the Court of Aldermen, arranged for 935 'naughty and evil furs' to be burnt in a great bonfire at Smithfield at a cost of 8s., and a further 4s. was spent for a similar purpose in 1570, although in 1593 it was decided that forfeited furs should go to the hospitals and prisons. (fn. 90) At one time faulty skins were marked with a red cross, which could apparently be scraped out by an enterprising workman, but in 1594 copper plates with the Company's coat of arms engraved on them were used for marking skins. (fn. 91) Elaborate arrangements for inspection are hinted at by a decree of 1566, whereby the officers at Skinners' Hall were to keep a register of 'lamb searched' and to receive one penny for every hundred searches they arranged; but some of the practical difficulties involved in efficient inspection are implied by a decree made two years later, that where buyer and seller could agree no search should be necessary. (fn. 92) It is obvious, however, from a lengthy dispute in 1580, that some skinners found it convenient to agree to buy bundles of skins as they stood, including both good skins and those marked as faulty. (fn. 93) The possible frauds which might then arise were so seriously regarded by the Company that on this occasion the Court used the rarely exercised threat of expulsion. Outside London the wardens visited Stourbridge Fair annually, where, as at other fairs such as Ely, Lichfield, and Braintree, skinners were selling and buying skins. (fn. 94) By the end of the century they were visiting Bristol Fair, and their claim to the right of search in all markets and fairs was at least being actively maintained, judging from a case in 1617, when an officer of the Company was arrested for having seized forty furs from an Oxford skinner. (fn. 95) It is, however, virtually impossible to judge from such evidence the regularity or the efficiency with which the inspection of skins was carried out; but presumably the existence of searchers at least helped to protect from fraud both the public and those buying and selling skins.
The Company also served the needs of those of its members who were skinners or tawyers by trying to regulate relations between the two crafts. This was no easier in the sixteenth century than it had been earlier. The terms on which the tawyers were made free of the Skinners' Company in 1564 were very similar to fourteenth-century agreements: skinners agreed not to put out work to non-freemen tawyers, tawyers were not to act as middlemen between other tawyers and skinners, and piece-work rates were fixed, payment to be made within thirteen days of delivery. In addition two tawyers were to assist in the search. (fn. 96) But at the end of the century there was constant friction between them. Skinners complained that the tawyers cut off parts of skins given to them, that they spoiled skins by dressing them badly, that they could not get work done when they wanted, and that the tawyers would not allow them to take up the craft. (fn. 97) The tawyers complained that 'the prices of tawing wares was so small and the stuff and victuals so dear that they cannot maintain their families'. (fn. 98) The Court refused in 1606 to allow searchers to be drawn from the tawyers as well as the skinners, but agreed that a committee of four skinners and four tawyers should fix rates for the dressing of skins. (fn. 99) By 1616 the tawyers were not only plotting to get higher rates but had secured the backing of a financier who was prepared, in return for a monopoly of the export of coneyskins, to see that these were tawed before export. (fn. 100) Such a serious threat to their supplies of dressed skins roused the skinners to action, and the Court backed them in their protests to the Privy Council, securing several months later the revocation of the Letters Patent. The Company agreed to 'have a special care for the future that the poor tawyers may be so set on work for their maintenance and relief as they may have no just cause of complaint'. The Court devoted much time to this dispute, summoning the leaders of both parties before them, 'purposing to reconcile all differences between each side', and contributing £200 towards the £637 incurred by the skinners in preventing the grant of the monopoly. (fn. 101)
But there can be little doubt that as the century passed the numbers of craftsmen in the industry who either wished or were able to join the Company diminished steadily. The livery had already in the late fifteenth century tightened up its control of the yeomanry, in which the industrial interest became concentrated in the sixteenth century. (fn. 102) Its members were described as 'shopholders'; in 1551 membership was declared essential before setting up shop, and this was made more difficult when the production of a masterpiece, such as a 'facing made from marten's tails', was made a preliminary requirement in 1558. (fn. 103) The yeomanry maintained their separate existence during the sixteenth century, electing their own wardens and handling their own property, but signs are not lacking to suggest that towards the end of the century their position was not a happy one. By 1563 the members of the yeomanry were no longer allowed the use of the best hearse cloth; (fn. 104) their stock of £120 was taken over by the Court in 1580 to help pay for the training of 130 soldiers, although half of it had to be given back in 1585 when the yeomanry were unable to meet the costs associated with the mayoralty of Sir Wolstan Dixie, skinner. (fn. 105) By 1600 the yeomanry were discussing whether or not they would continue with their own government. (fn. 106)
A Company so organized can have left little room for the small craftsman who worked in his chamber or for other people, whether free of the City or not. While there may always have been citizen skinners who were not members of either fraternity—they were specifically urged in 1470 to join the yeomanry— it is possible to discover the size of this group for one short period. (fn. 107) Of the 270 apprentices who completed their terms of service and were freed between 1491 and 1515, 72 did not join the yeomanry, and others joined only after several years had passed, paying their 4s. fee in instalments. (fn. 108) It seems likely that this group grew in size during the sixteenth century, and that these men were the journeymen the masters were urged by the Company to employ in a decree issued in 1564, in accordance with the statute of the previous year. (fn. 109)
Protection of the members of the Skinners' Company would of course be most easily achieved were all but those free of the Company prevented from exercising the craft, and considerable efforts were made to do this. To make a stranger 'privy to the secrets of the Art for buying and selling skins' was a most serious offence. (fn. 110) The wardens 'went about to see how many apprentices and foreigns were in everyman's house'. (fn. 111) Non-freemen caught working with skinners might be expected to pay as much as £4 for permission to work as journeymen skinners, and in other cases skinners employing such men or aliens were frequently fined. (fn. 112) Robert Worliche in 1518 was fined 'for setting a Breton a work openly at his stall without licence and had divers warning thereof and would not be ruled by the master and wardens', but he apparently persisted in his misdoing, was again fined and eventually both he and the two men working with him were arrested. (fn. 113) As already indicated, other alien skinners were taken to court and an attempt was made to secure legislation against them in 1509. (fn. 114) Ultimately in a statute passed in 1529 it was agreed that aliens should be expected to join the London Companies and pay quarterage regularly, and as a result thirty-nine strangers, some of whom were householders and others servants, paid sums of two or four shillings to join the Skinners' Company. Among them were eighteen Frenchmen, five Dutchmen, a Spaniard, a Breton, and a Scot. (fn. 115)
But the battle against non-freemen was a prolonged one and the evidence does not suggest that the Company was ever successful in excluding all but their members from the trade. (fn. 116) When in 1597 the Company was forced to find means to augment its income because of the election of a skinner to the mayoralty the Court ordered that those sons and servants of freemen who 'do defer their freedoms to save expenses' were to join the Company forthwith or pay heavy fines, and one Theodor Tomlinson voluntarily admitted that he had not been made free of the Company at the expiration of his years of service but had 'stayed out and paid not charges these seven years past'. (fn. 117) The Court found Edmund Wolverston far less amenable. (fn. 118) Complaints were levelled against him in 1600 for employing tawyers while not a member, but although he was prepared to join in 1602 and 1605 the Company would not admit him, and members did their best to stop him working in the trade, confiscating faulty skins and summoning before the Court members of the Company who worked for him. But in 1606 he was still hard at work as a skinner and no doubt continued to be so. It would not appear likely that such periodic drives were sufficient to prevent men from outside the Company from getting what work was available, and the economic advantages of membership may no longer have outweighed the costs. That these were considerable is implied in an agreement of 1575, when it was decided that new freemen need not entertain the Master and wardens to dinner, and complaints about high subscriptions in 1594 eventually led to the fixing of the annual quarterage at two shillings. (fn. 119) No doubt Rafe Maineley summed up the feelings of the working skinners in 1582: 'I get little by the Company and less I shall get by it, and that it were better for him if he were not free of the Company.' (fn. 120) By 1586 Richard Bradshawe had come out into the open with a forthright demand: 'What am I the better for the Company?' (fn. 121)
In the closing years of the century it was rare for officers of the Company to be men 'skilful in furs', and the working skinners grew increasingly critical of the leadership they were given. (fn. 122) Their bitterness was intensified by the distress within the industry, and having themselves made moves to improve matters, moves for which they were given some financial backing by the livery, (fn. 123) in 1606 they made a determined attempt to break away from the Skinners' Company and form a new company under their own control. (fn. 124) They complained that they were not represented in the government of their craft; and that pensions were given to merchants' factors and not those in real need. They foresaw the speedy collapse of their craft because the merchants 'have no compassionate feeling of the abuses in the trade' and were out of sympathy with them. A group of forty-six craftsmen, therefore, in December 1606 sought Letters Patent from James I granting them separate incorporation. Two of them were to be appointed Packers of Skins. The grant, however, was stayed after protests from the Company, and the Privy Council, having heard the complaints, referred the matter to the Mayor for investigation. The governing body of the Company was able to convince the Mayor of their good intentions, stating that they daily worked for the comfort of the tradesmen. 'They despise our love and say we can never love them; we ever have pitied their estate.' Craftsmen occupied the almshouses, and all except one of the pensions went to them, and so few were appointed to the Court of Assistants because so few could afford the expense. The Mayor and aldermen, deciding in March 1607 that the Company was well settled and governed, the elections discreet and orderly, and that most of the artisans' complaints were 'untrue and but clamarous', refused to recommend the granting of the Letters Patent. However they decreed that if any of the skinners were suitable, one of the wardenships should be held by them, and it should be made as easy as possible for them to enter the livery and Court of Assistants. The search was to be diligently done, four men being chosen by the craftsmen to assist in its performance. The resentment felt by the skinners at this decision led to the imprisonment of four of their number who were chosen to assist in the search but refused to do so. (fn. 125)
So ended, for the time being, the determined attempts of those who were still skinners by trade to establish some more satisfactory form of organization through which they might protect and develop their industry in its altered form. (fn. 126) The Skinners' Company of Elizabethan times depended no longer for its power on the fact that it represented the wealthy members of a prosperous trade. It drew its wealth and strength from its ancient traditions and heritage, from its pride in the past, and from a membership of successful merchants of varied interests. We can imagine some ageing skinner reminding John Stow of the glory of the Skinners' Corpus Christi Day procession and complaining, after the first edition of his Survey of London was published, that he had omitted to refer to it. Stow put this right in his next edition, but followed his famous description by the irritated comment which strikes to the heart of every historian: 'Thus much to stoppe the tongues of unthankful men, such as use to aske, why have yee not noted this or that? and give no thanks for what is done.' (fn. 127) That honourable art, the medieval fur trade, had by then completely changed its character. London's Budge Row saw the prosperous shops and homes of its wealthy merchants exchanged for the 'coneyskin woman' seen there by Ben Jonson. (fn. 128) Yet a furrier, one Robert Norris, had his shop in Walbrook about 1760 at the sign of 'The King's Arms and Three Rabbits', and even today the district still has its traders in furs. (fn. 129) Not far away is the headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company, through which the trade in skins was revived. But the old traditions and skills were so completely lost that the very word skinner disappeared from everyday speech, and a furrier in 1920 could describe the craft as a comparatively new one in England. (fn. 130)