The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 2003.
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V THE STRUCTURE OF THE LONDON INDUSTRY
The manufacture of furs, as it developed in London in the later Middle Ages, offered many opportunities to those ready to take advantage of them. London itself was far and away England's greatest city; her craftsmen were capable of work of the highest standard and were outstanding in the variety of their specialist skills. Industries which catered for the luxury market in the capital responded to the demands made upon them, and a more complex structure grew up therein than would often have been encountered in a provincial town. Thus the name 'skinner', applied to all who were connected in any way with skins and furs, conceals the extraordinary variety of economic activity and social class within the industry. The richest skinners were sometimes as rich as anyone in the City, as was Robert Persone, one of the three wealthiest men in London in 1319; (fn. 1) the most outstanding, like Thomas Legge, who served London twice as mayor and three times as M.P., took their place among the most eminent citizens of their day. (fn. 2) But others were drawn from the City's underworld, men who lived meanly in rented rooms, struggling to keep body and soul together by sewing seams, men with few or no possessions, like Alan de York, hanged for theft in 1343. (fn. 3)
The richest skinners and their less successful friends, including not only merchants dealing in skins and furs but also the more prosperous shopkeepers, formed the Fraternity of Corpus Christi in the fourteenth century, and what was known as the 'livery' of the Skinners' Company in the fifteenth century. But the members were relatively few in number: during the period 1330 to 1350 there were only about 48 of them, whereas 147 skinners are known to have been working in London at that time, as well, presumably, as others who did not attract the attention of the authorities. (fn. 4) Dr. Thrupp's study of the merchant class of medieval London shows the merchant skinners against their background, and provides an exhaustive account of their standards of living, conduct of life, and social origins. Resplendent in their extravagant robes, their fingers sparkling with jewels, they lived in comfortable houses ablaze with colour, equipped with all the conveniences of the day. Many were of country origin, drawn from almost every social group, and while some invested in City property, others kept up their connexion with their home counties. Some bought manors within easy reach of the City which not only provided them with pleasant country homes but added in a variety of ways to their resources. Socially ambitious, hospitable, public-spirited, with a code of behaviour which set a high value on dignity and prudence, many were able to survive in the insecure conditions of the business world of the time. Others lived to see a fortune dissipated by some chance blow of fate, or their heirs wiped out by plague or disease. (fn. 5)
But while there were always skinners in the circles which dominated city society, the majority were more humble folk. At least 30 of the 60 skinners assessed for the subsidy levied in 1332, presumably all freemen, paid at the lowest rates, less than 5s., as against the £4 or more paid by the wealthiest citizens. (fn. 6) Many more must have come into the category of those with less than 6s. worth of goods, who were considered too poor to pay. (fn. 7) Not all were in a position to take up the privileges of citizenship, particularly the right to set up shop in the city. Nicholas Cotun, finding in 1309 the payment of 8s. murage too great a drain on his resources, left the city and went to Ireland. (fn. 8) William de Bonenfaunt, assessed at only 10d. for the subsidy of 1319, was later involved in a tavern brawl, and, drunk and naked, came to a bad end. (fn. 9)
There were, too, many skinners among the great numbers of unenfranchised men in the City. Recent estimates of London's population suggest that possibly only one in four of the male inhabitants held the rights of citizenship; the remainder were called foreigns and certain industries drew heavily on them for the cheap labour they needed. (fn. 10) Often to be found in the taverns or noisily parading the streets at night, some had not even the dignity of a surname or took that of their masters. (fn. 11) Others lived in lodgings, like William de Wygemelle, who was dragged from his bed at midnight and killed in the street. (fn. 12)
To the small craftsman, whether enfranchised or not, a variety of ways of earning his living was offered by the fur trade. Many can never have bothered to open a shop, even though entitled to do so; like the tailors they worked on their customers' materials in their own or their customers' homes. In Paris, where they sometimes wandered the streets offering to repair furs, the pelletiers-fourreurs formed a group quite distinct from those who sold furs, who were known as marchands-pelletiers. (fn. 13) The rather different outlook of the pelletiers-fourreurs is clearly illustrated by the fact that they were expected to accompany their seigneur on his shopping expeditions so that he should not be deceived into buying poor quality skins. (fn. 14) Many examples of a similar division of labour may be found among the London skinners. William Jenyns, c. 1520, for instance, had a customer, Thomas Fouler of Essex, who wanted him to make a lining from black budge skins he brought with him and set it into a gown. But unfortunately there were not enough skins to finish the job. Fouler therefore purchased an extra 40s. worth of skins from one Thomas Spencer, 'a man of great substance and reputation within the city', who happened to be at Jenyns's house that day. William then finished the gown, delivered it to Fouler, but was later sued by Spencer for the 40s. which Fouler had failed to pay. (fn. 15)
Others preferred to work in their customers' homes, some even securing a regular appointment as skinner to one of the big households. Henry of Derby had a skinner working in his household; (fn. 16) the Earl of Suffolk had Adam Bray, a member of the London skinners' fraternity. (fn. 17) Margaret Tudor in 1503 took a London skinner with her to Scotland on her marriage, a man known there as 'the Inglis Furrour'. (fn. 18) In the greatest household of all, the King's, there was, as we have seen, the position of the King's Skinner. Shortly after 1405, when this appointment was first made, presumably in accordance with what was usual in the Lancastrian household, we can see Henry Barton, citizen and skinner, in his livery furred with white budge, hard at work on the King's behalf. One day he would be arranging for the dressing of squirrel and marten skins, another day collecting furs for the King's own use; at another time he would arrange for the packing of furs in a 'clothsak' and their transport from Tutbury to London, or for two men on horseback to escort three carts laden with the royal furs from Leicester to London. (fn. 19)
Few households, however, could keep a skinner fully occupied. More often his services would be required for only a few days at a time. The Black Prince's tailor was allowed to hire skinners as and when he wanted them; (fn. 20) the Duke of Buckingham kept a tailor, but two skinners with an embroiderer were noted as being among the strangers present at dinner one day in 1507. (fn. 21) Probably many household officials appreciated the wisdom of the advice given by the Ménagier de Paris to his young wife to choose for such work 'gens paisibles', to bargain with them beforehand, and to pay them promptly. (fn. 22) The work in the Great Wardrobe of the King, which was perhaps the most sought-after work of this nature, was always spread among a considerable number of men: 92 men worked on the furs for the coronation of Richard III, and the 281 days' work done by skinners during 1485 was divided between 15 men. (fn. 23)
But to the ambitious craftsman who was not content to live on a daily wage the fur trade offered plenty of scope. Since little equipment was necessary, if he could contrive to acquire some scraps discarded by a wealthier shopkeeper, or some secondhand furs, he could soon launch forth into the business of buying and selling. He could cry his wares in the street or in the evening markets held on feast days on Cornhill. (fn. 24) Or he might follow the example of one Robert Clement, c. 1480, who, 'not being able nor of power to keep a shop of skinner's craft, . . . goeth about to Gentlemen and provideth for them such furs as be necessary to them for reasonable price, better than they should buy in a skinner's shop'. (fn. 25) Ultimately those who prospered set up as shopkeepers, and, provided that fortune continued to smile upon them, skill and application opened the way to further advancement.
Thomas Betele, a freeman by 1397, was such a one. He began in a very small way and six years later had only 22s. 6d. worth of stock, mostly in second-hand skins. He obviously spent much of his time sitting on his three-legged stool at a trestle table, cutting and sewing up skins, many of which were probably provided by his customers. His richest gown at that time was lined with rabbit skins and only worth 3s. 4d., and his children doubtless slept on the bedbordes he owned, valued at 1d. each. (fn. 26) Yet, although he never reached the merchants' fraternity, he had his pewter vessels, pillows and cushions, painted hangings for his rooms, and a vinc for his garden as the merchants did, and was prepared to chance some of his capital on buying cloth, although this got him into difficulties. Twenty years later he was flourishing: he was selling furs of minever to the Great Wardrobe, and even had customers from Wiltshire and Lincolnshire. (fn. 27)
Skilled craftsmen and small shopkeepers like Betele may have predominated among London skinners, as they did in many medieval industries. They were able to build up a highly respected fraternity of their own towards the close of the fourteenth century and get it recognized by the merchant skinners. One gets the impression that they were particularly prosperous during the first half of the fifteenth century, although lack of evidence makes it difficult to substantiate this. Some were no doubt able to retain their economic independence: quite humble men, for instance, bought raw skins direct from Hanseatic merchants instead of from merchant skinners. (fn. 28) But the industry, like others in the expanding economy of thirteenth-century London, had grown far beyond the stage where it was dominated by small craftsmen. Even at the opening of the thirteenth century London burellers, prosperous traders, employed weavers and fullers, men of much humbler status, to work at piece-work rates on their yarn and cloth. (fn. 29) In the same way, some skinners forged ahead in the late thirteenth century, took advantage of the opportunities provided by the heavy demand for furs, built up flourishing businesses, and cornered the royal market. Acquisition of the expensive imported skins called for a big financial outlay; large quantities had to be bought and stocks maintained so that sufficient numbers of matching skins could be secured. Nor could quick returns be expected. The hours of work, by both tawyers and skinners, that went into the production of a fur lining of squirrel meant that the labour of many pairs of hands had to be paid for. Inevitably only men with some capital, who could concentrate their energies on buying and selling and the extension of their circle of customers, paying other craftsmen to work for them, could aspire to big profits. Thus some merchant skinners became organizers, controlling their trade from the purchase of raw materials to the sale of the finished product, in the same way, for instance, that cloth manufacturers like Henry Houhil of Leicester and William Haynes of Castle Combe controlled the production of the cloth they sold. (fn. 30)
None of the merchant skinners built up enterprises on the scale of those which were found in the cloth industry in the Middle Ages. Their businesses remained small. Nor were family businesses built up which outlasted two generations. Only one example has been traced among the London merchant skinners of a family, the Selys, in which four successive generations maintained both their interest in the fur trade and their social standing in London. (fn. 31) Only in the bigger centres on the Continent does a higher degree of specialization suggest that there the industry was developed on a larger scale. In Paris, Florence, and Lübeck, for instance, while one group of craftsmen concentrated on dressing the raw skins, the work on the dressed skins was subdivided according to the different kinds of skins. In Paris the vairiers, in Florence the vaiai, in Lübeck the buntmaker, worked with squirrel skins or vair and other valuable skins; the pelletiers, pellicciai, and kortzener worked on other skins, particularly lambskins. (fn. 32) In Bruges, where were probably to be found the biggest businesses in the medieval fur trade, catering for an export trade in dressed skins and manufactured furs, there were more specialist craftsmen. (fn. 33) Not only were there vairiers or grauwerker and pelletiers or lamwerker, but there were also wiltwerker, who presumably worked on skins of wild animals other than squirrel, such as otter, fox, coney, and cat. (fn. 34) The London merchants were very much less specialized than this.
A wealthier shopkeeper like William Horscroft may have been a typical representative of the middle-class tradesmen whom we have described as merchant skinners. He had a successful career in the 1370's and 1380's: he served as surveyor to the mistery and was one of the two skinners chosen to be responsible for the safe custody of the Skinners' Charter when it had to be produced in Chancery in 1389. (fn. 35) He represented Walbrook ward on the Common Council in 1384 and 1385, having already served it as tax collector in 1369. (fn. 36) He was friendly with the other leading skinners—men like William Olyver, alderman, William Framlyngham, and William Wiltshire, the latter a merchant from whom Richard II bought his furs—and mingled freely in the society of the less prominent merchants of the day. (fn. 37) His mercantile interests are indicated by purchases such as one of wool worth £117, or one of iron worth £67. 12s. 0d., from Gilbert Maghfeld, through whom he also bought other goods in partnership with another skinner. (fn. 38) Presumably, however, either his commercial or his political connexions proved unwise, and in 1400 he was unable to pay the £400 he owed to William Framlyngham, skinner. (fn. 39) He then forfeited his shop and city property, left the City, and settled in Westminster. (fn. 40)
Horscroft's possessions, listed in 1400, permit us to picture him at home and in his shop. (fn. 41) His house does not appear to have been large—possibly the shop on the ground floor, above it a hall and kitchen, and on the second floor two chambers. (fn. 42) Other skinners had a warehouse attached to the shop, (fn. 43) and a century later, when living conditions had become generally more comfortable, one wealthy skinner, John Draper, had a much more palatial mansion as his 'hed place', with a hall big enough for the meetings and dinners of the Company of Wiredrawers, and a great parlour hung with buckram, the glass windows of which overlooked the street. His business premises included not only a shop with its own entrance but two counting-houses and a warehouse. (fn. 44) Horscroft, however, lived comfortably enough, with his sets of bed-hangings of tapestry-work, worth 40s. and 33s. 4d., his feather bed, mattresses, sheets, blankets, and quilts. He had red and black hangings and six cushions in his hall; bowls, pots, candelabra, spits, and frying pan in his kitchen. (fn. 45) His best robe was a gown of scarlet furred with squirrel valued at 46s. 8d., and he or his wife, Maud, owned others, four of which were furred, valued at sums ranging from 6s. 8d. to 33s. 4d. The total value of his household possessions was only £29. 5s. 1d., and the only other property he owned in the City, in the parish of St. Mildred in the Poultry, was valued at £2. 16s. 8d.
What is, however, of particular interest to us is the fact that Horscroft had a capital of almost £70 tied up in furs in his shop. Dr. Thrupp has emphasized the modest sums of money at the disposal of many merchants in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. (fn. 46) It was considered desirable to have a stock of goods worth £40 to £50 before setting up in business in one of the greater trades. But many managed with comparatively little capital. In 1474 as many as one-third of the mercers in the livery had goods worth between £66. 13s. 4d. and £100. (fn. 47) In the fur trade, however, a smaller sum sufficed for those who wished to set up shop for themselves. As we have already seen, Thomas Betele held stock worth only 22s. 6d.
£70 was therefore no mean sum. Moreover it represented a stock made up entirely of skins and furs. Both Horscroft and Betele, the only two skinners of whose stocks we have any details, apparently sold only skins and furs in their shops, a fact which indicates a much higher degree of specialization than was common in the retail trade of merchant importers like grocers. (fn. 48) Horscroft had small quantities of valuable skins such as marten and ermine, and some squirrel skins, but the greater part of his stores was of fur linings already made up, particularly of squirrel, ranging in value from 13s. 4d. to 65s., and of lamb at 14d. Betele had a greater variety of odd skins, mostly secondhand, of cheaper kinds like rabbit, cat, and lamb, and of scraps like lambs' legs. He had only three furs and two half-furs, the most valuable of which was one of rabbit skins worth 3s. 4d.
A further interesting, although not unexpected, contrast is brought out by the lists of possessions of the two men. Horscroft was primarily a retailer: the equipment in his shop was limited to the seven barrels and two smaller casks in which raw skins were usually packed, and the two chests in which furs were stored. Betele was primarily a craftsman: listed with his skins were the silk thread with which he stitched them, the knives, scissors, trestle tables, and the three-legged stool on which he worked, as well as the tubs and poles which he may have used if he ever tawed any skins for himself. Here in a nutshell we have the contrast between the merchant and the small master. Little work on furs was done in Horscroft's shop; those who had tawed the skins and made up the furs he had put up for sale had done the work elsewhere.
Relatively little is known of the way in which men like Horscroft organized the manufacture of the furs they sold. The cordwainers were allowed to employ up to eight men in their own workrooms in 1271 in London, and it is known that small workshops were run by goldsmiths, mercers, and London merchants interested in the metal trades, foundries, and soapmaking. (fn. 49) But there is no evidence to suggest that skinners ever kept large staffs directly under their own supervision. The very fact that the merchants drew together so early to draft and enforce certain standards of work on the dressed skins implies that the furs were rarely made under their own eyes. In 1378 the skinners were included among the London trades who were permitted, like the blacksmith who turned his kitchen into a forge and ruined his neighbour's ale, 'to arrange their houses as is most convenient for their craft'. (fn. 50) This did not mean that furs were sewn in special workrooms. It meant that, where tawing was done, the accommodation could be arranged so as to make room for the equipment and the space needed for drying skins. (fn. 51)
However, by the late thirteenth century, if not earlier, the tawing of skins was being carried out by men who specialized in this process, the tawyers or greytawyers. They were craftsmen of some independence who resisted the growing authority of the skinners, and thus something is known of the relationship between the two crafts. (fn. 52) Then, as today, the skinners owned the raw skins and the tawyers carried out the work on them at agreed piece-work rates. Yet while economically dependent on the merchant skinners, some tawyers were able to build up prosperous little businesses of their own. Some ran workrooms of considerable size: in 1365 Adam Wenlock employed nine men, William Querdelyng seven, Walter Garlek three. (fn. 53) If, as is probable, Adam had several apprentices as well, his staff compares not unfavourably with the seven servants and eleven apprentices who served Thomas Dounton, mercer and pewterer, the largest staff mentioned in medieval London records. (fn. 54) Wenlock's social standing is clearly revealed by his admission to the merchant skinners' fraternity. Often relations between tawyers and skinners were friendly: other tawyers joined the yeomanry fraternity, and one skinner mentioned the tawyer to whom he presumably gave his work in his will. (fn. 55) But disputes over payments and the frauds which the tawyers could so easily practise often led to bitterness between them. (fn. 56)
The relationship between the merchants and those who made up the furs they sold remains obscure. No doubt the work was organized in a number of ways. Some may have kept two or three skilled men occupied on their own premises, others may have sent out most of the dressed skins to other skinners to be made up, just as they sent out raw skins to the tawyers. Others did both. The execution of a big order, for instance, might draw in a number of other skinners. There is a hint of sub-contracting in an incident of 1365: one skinner paid a tawyer's fine on work being carried out for another skinner, John Devenysshe, who received orders from the Great Wardrobe. (fn. 57) Many shopkeepers may have been glad to have work supplied to them occasionally in this way, as they often had difficulty in raising the money required for the purchase of good quality skins. Thomas Rose, who bought calabre worth £17. 6s. 8d. from Gilbert Maghfeld, paid him back in money, dressed skins, and two furs, in what looks like at least a dozen instalments, (fn. 58) and others borrowed the money they needed, Thomas Story paying part of it back by permitting his benefactor to lodge with him and giving him 'gret chere in dyners and sopers'. (fn. 59) Poorer craftsmen, who could never have hoped to open a shop or buy skins for themselves, no doubt appreciated more regular work. Like those tailors who made clothes in 'chambers secretly in alleys and upon stairs and houses in corners', they stitched up furs at home. (fn. 60) The Bristol skinners, who excluded all but trained freemen from the craft, tried to stop those stitching up the valuable furs from working 'en privee chambre'. (fn. 61) But no attempt was made to do this in London. Sometimes skinners working in their rooms were repairing furs, sometimes working on their customers' skins, but more often they must have lived, as did poor girdlers in 1435, 'by the work that they made other men of the same craft'. (fn. 62)
Some merchant skinners may have specialized in the trade in raw and dressed skins, while others were more interested in organizing the manufacture of furs for their shops, but there seems little doubt that merchant skinners concentrated mainly upon some activity involving skins and furs. The industry was a highly specialized one, demanding expert knowledge both of skins and technical processes, and skinners naturally took advantage of this and invested much of their capital in directions where their skill could most profitably be employed. This was not, however, the way to make a fortune in the Middle Ages. The majority of London merchant skinners were tradesmen of the middle class, and became common councillors rather than aldermen; they were property owners on a modest scale, concentrating on their trade in skins and furs within the British Isles, with just an occasional adventure into wine, cloth, or wool.
Yet there were powerful and wealthy men among the London merchant skinners. None was equal to the great merchant princes of fourteenth-century London, but two were to serve twice as mayor, seventeen as aldermen, compared with the 45 aldermen drawn from among the grocers. (fn. 63) Thomas Leggy, for instance, was one of the wealthiest skinners of his generation, although assessed to pay only £41. 16s. 8d. for a loan to Edward III in 1346, compared with the £100 contributed by each of the four richest citizens; he was alderman from 1343 to 1357, mayor in 1347–8 and 1354–5, and three times M.P. (fn. 64) His sales of furs to the King were on a large scale: during the eighteen months from February 1350 to September 1351 their value totalled £868. 7s. 5d. (fn. 65) Surviving evidence indicates no other interests but one in the trade handled by upholders, and he may even have made all his money out of new and secondhand furs. (fn. 66) He remains a shadowy figure, possibly the merchant industrialist whose business papers, had they survived, might have shed a revealing light on the industry.
While it is possible that the manufacture and sale of new and second-hand furs was the basis of Leggy's fortune, this does not appear to be true of other rich skinners. Like most London merchants, skinners never ignored any opportunity of turning an honest penny by buying and selling goods quite unconnected with their own craft, and most prominent fourteenth-century skinners certainly had some other interests. Robert Persone, whose activities as purveyor of skins and furs for the King we have already noted, sold corn to a man from Hertfordshire, exported wool to Flanders, bought wax from Hanseatic merchants, and was presumably one of the group of London skinners who are known to have been involved in the import of Hanseatic goods from the Low Countries in the early fourteenth century. (fn. 67)
Adam de Bury, whose mercantile interests were more varied than most and who came to grief along with others attacked in 1376 by the Good Parliament, was one of the more prominent citizens of the later fourteenth century. (fn. 68) He was variously M.P., mayor, sheriff, and alderman of London, alderman and mayor of Calais, and Captain of the Castle of Balyngham, Collector of the Customs, and J.P. for Kent. (fn. 69) His services were frequently made use of by the Black Prince, whose gold crown and star he stored, and on whose behalf he travelled to Paris and Cornwall, and bought velvet cloths, jewellery, and samples of 'swans with ladies' heads broidered'. (fn. 70) He was a prosperous wool merchant with property in Calais and a large estate in East Greenwich, Kent, able to provide the vast sum of £100 to be spent on his funeral. (fn. 71)
John de Bedford also became a prominent wool merchant. (fn. 72) Although caught smuggling wool into Flanders in 1342, he was in 1348 himself made collector of the wool subsidy, as a result of which he was to spend some time in the Fleet prison for being over £1,000 short in his accounting. (fn. 73) Such incidents suggest membership of one of the syndicates helping Edward III to finance his campaigns in France. But what is also of particular interest is the nature and extent of the debts for which he sued. They lead one to suspect a highly successful trade as a moneylender. (fn. 74) This was not an unusual occupation in the Middle Ages, but skinners were singularly well placed to exercise it, as their interest sprang naturally from the ease with which furs could be pawned, or the frequency with which goods were entrusted to them for safe keeping. The device known as 'chevisance' provided a simple means whereby the interest to be paid on money lent was concealed in the difference between the value of goods given, in lieu of money, to the borrower, and the sum which he agreed to pay on the specified date. Thus one loan of £16 was covered by an agreement that the borrower should pay £4 for two gold rings worth not more than 26s. 8d.; (fn. 75) another debtor agreed to pay £8 for what proved to be 'old furrys and old mougtheton coverletts and certeyn roten and naughthy stokfysshe', (fn. 76) and another, £20 for furs worth £17. (fn. 77) In 1385 the mayor and aldermen were asked by the skinners to check this practice among their less reputable fellows. (fn. 78) But it was never stamped out among them. In 1502, for instance, Thomas Myrfyn, one of the most eminent of the merchants and a future mayor, delivered wire, which later proved to be worth only £10. 15s., to a credulous priest who agreed to pay £15. 15s. for it. (fn. 79) No doubt many skinners, including almost certainly John de Bedford, added to their resources in this way.
Yet in spite of their many other activities, these men were all shopkeepers supplying the court and nobility with furs. Robert had his shop in Walbrook, as well as other property in Dowgate, from which he sold furs and bed-coverings of minever and gris: (fn. 80) John represented the mistery on several occasions, sold furs to Edward III, paid a debt of his own in furs, and, judging from money owed to him by a Lynn skinner, was also involved in the wholesale trade in skins. (fn. 81) Adam may have grown less interested in his craft as the years went by, but for some time he was one of the influential group of merchants who on behalf of their fellow skinners elected the broker, through whom skins were bought from aliens. (fn. 82) He also traded in Ireland, and not only did he sell furs to Edward III but he was responsible for the furring of gowns and repair of furs for John II of France, while the King was in London awaiting the payment of his ransom. (fn. 83) His Walbrook property probably, like Robert Persone's, included a shop. (fn. 84)
However varied their interests, whether those of merchant or of small master, supervision of the technical training of the next generation of masters was always an important part of the work of skinners. Some men, having learned the craft as apprentices, were directly employed by the skinners and they would usually expect to be able to set up as masters in their turn. Other less skilled hands were needed to sew up skins, and it does not seem likely that for such work fully trained men would be employed. (fn. 85) Apprentices, of course, while learning the trade, could quickly be put on to sewing up furs. Some were at work on the furs for the coronation of Henry VIII within two or three years of the enrolment of their indentures, and on that occasion they were paid 6d. a day, the full wage of a skilled man. (fn. 86) The skinners of Strasbourg were by the fifteenth century claiming the right to use boy labour, and all skinners must have found their apprentices very useful, virtually unpaid labour for the duration of their contract. (fn. 87) Another trade in which similar conditions may have prevailed was that of those mercers who specialized in the making of ecclesiastical vestments, who relied to some extent on apprentices in a central workshop to sew different parts of a design to a vestment. This was recognized officially by their Company: apprentices could be enrolled at the age of 13, younger than was usual, to serve a term of fourteen years. (fn. 88) Long periods of apprenticeship were also common among the skinners: the very few details surviving from the early fourteenth century show that two boys served twelve-year apprenticeships from 1311 and 1316, and of the 63 apprenticed in 1496 and 1497 two were to serve for fourteen years, five for twelve, and nine for ten years, only eleven serving the more orthodox seven-year period. (fn. 89)
Nothing but the strength of city custom, by which apprenticeship had been regulated since early in the thirteenth century, can have prevented this from degenerating into child labour. (fn. 90) To the city authorities apprenticeship was one of the three passports to the freedom of the City, and ordinances regulated the relations between masters and apprentices for the protection of both. (fn. 91) The master had to provide reasonable living conditions and train his apprentice in his craft in return for a premium from the boy's family, presenting him for the freedom at the end of his period of service. The apprentice had to work hard and behave himself. Supervision of the system was put into the hands of the organized trades, although direct appeal to the city authorities and to the law courts was still possible. Many companies formulated additional rules, varying in their approach according to the needs of their craft. Some were particularly concerned to maintain technical standards among workmen. Others kept an eye on the numbers of future masters and shopkeepers, and therefore limited the numbers of apprentices to be taken, or imposed heavy premiums, such as the £6. 13s. 4d. the goldsmiths required for a seven-year apprenticeship in 1393. (fn. 92)
It is a remarkable fact that although the London skinners formed a particularly well-organized group none of their early ordinances of 1288 and 1365 regulated the system of apprenticeship in the fur trade. (fn. 93) No restrictions on the taking of apprentices were imposed, and neither length of service nor size of premium was ever defined. (fn. 94) Nor was there any attempt to suggest that only those who had been properly trained could be employed. This is in itself a striking indication of the attitude of prosperous merchants, reluctant to hamper in any way their supplies of labour, but it cannot be followed up by an investigation into the actual working of the system in the fourteenth century.
For the closing years of the fifteenth century, however, a detailed analysis is made possible by the survival of the Skinners' Company's records, in particular the valuable enrolments of indentures of apprentices, which begin in 1496, giving the name, trade, and home of each boy's father; accounts which date from 1491; membership lists of the two fraternities; and a short list of those admitted to the freedom from 1501 to 1514. Developments revealed by this analysis may have been accentuated by the difficulties which, as will be seen later, the industry was then experiencing, so that they do not necessarily reflect fourteenth-century practice. But they do provide an illuminating commentary on the relations between masters and their workmen in the fur trade towards the close of the Middle Ages.
|Freemen Skinners (fn. 95)|
|(apprenticed to skinners, 1496–1515)|
|Occupations of the fathers of 132 freemen|
|Counties, etc., from which 142 freemen had come|
|East Anglia (20)|
|South-West and West (11)|
Of the total, 27.4 per cent. came from the northern counties.
Of the apprentices themselves we learn a great deal, both as to their varied social background and the extent to which country immigration was constantly revitalizing the population of the City. All this is summarized in the accompanying tables. At first sight the wardens of the Company appear to have taken their work very seriously. Indentures were carefully copied into a register, fees collected and noted in the accounts. The apprentice who 'woll be a preste', or who was dismissed for the 'fallyng sekenes', and transfers to new masters, sometimes from masters who could not or did not provide them with adequate 'mete, drynk and lerning', were all carefully noted. (fn. 96) But a comparison of the names of apprentices in the register with those in the Company's accounts reveals that the register was not always kept up to date and there were many omissions. Forty-nine apprentices were freed between 1501 and 1514 of whose enrolment there is no trace at all in either the register or accounts, and transfers took place of which no record was kept. Administrative inefficiency may account for this, but it is more probable that much went on without the Company's knowledge. Edward Lytell complained that the master to whom he had been bound had sold the remaining years of his service without either his consent or the approval of the Chamberlain of the City or the wardens of the Skinners' Company. When later arrested for having left his new master, the apprentice stated that he was ready to be bound by the decision of the wardens, but his master utterly refused to agree, saying 'that he wold have his purpose . . . according to his owne mynde, orells it shuld cost hym an £100'. (fn. 97) Thus it seems probable that the apprentice could not always look to his Company for protection, although he might appeal to the City authorities, as Henry Ger did when his master refused to present him for the freedom after his seven years' service. (fn. 98) Men determined enough to seek the remedy of the law may well have been rare.
Certain restrictions had by this time been imposed on the taking of apprentices, possibly to bring the fur trade more into line with other London trades: a boy had to be of free status, not lame or disabled, and during seven years a master could take only two, or three if he had held office in the Company. (fn. 99) In spite of this, however, there is no doubt that the skinners still keenly valued their apprentice labour. Many regularly paid the fine of 6s. 8d. which enabled them to take additional apprentices, paying the Company the fee of 20s. for the registration of each one. Richard Swan named five in his will, and John Rynge, who did a lot of work on the royal furs, took fifteen apprentices between 1491 and 1515. (fn. 100) Some men went to surprising lengths to keep their apprentices, presumably where a young man showed promise. Edward Lytell of Leicester, having transferred after three years' service to another master, whom he found 'so regoras and testy . . . that he cowde not contynue no lenger with him', left London and fled to Wells, Somerset. His master, hearing that he was there, had him arrested, and although the apprentice maintained that he had then paid 40s. for his freedom, again had him arrested when he set foot once more in London. (fn. 101) As well as being valuable enough to be bequeathed in wills, apprentices were frequently 'sold'. William Stephens, son of a Berkhamsted yeoman, was apprenticed for a period of ten years in 1501. His master's widow sold him to one skinner, and then in 1507 he was again sold, this time to William Danyell, who was prepared to pay not only the 20s. fee for his original registration, but also 26s. 8d. to his second master in order to secure the remaining years of his service. (fn. 102)
Yet in the end, William Stephens was never freed. Nor did two-thirds of those apprentices whose indentures were enrolled between 1491 and 1516 ever complete their training and take up the freedom of the City. Even among those who were freed, only about one-half became sufficiently prosperous to set up as masters and take apprentices for themselves. Unfortunately we have no means of knowing if this state of affairs was equally true of the skinners in the fourteenth century, or to what extent it was general among the London trades except in the case of the grocers, where barely half of those apprenticed were freed. (fn. 103)
Such a high proportion of casualties demands some explanation. Some no doubt died, some left to take up other work; some went home or wandered off to settle elsewhere, or found the lengthy term of service too onerous or the expense of taking up the freedom too great. Some masters were reluctant to accept the end of an apprenticeship and the necessity of paying wages, and it was by no means unheard of for a master to make it difficult for a poor and unlettered apprentice to achieve the freedom, particularly if the supervision of the Company was not very close. Roger Lylly, 'furiously and uncharitably without cause', not only refused to present his apprentice two years after his eight years' service had been completed, but began to sue him for 200 marks and had him sent to prison, although no evidence could later be brought against him. (fn. 104) A similar fate overtook another apprentice, who, having served his term, asked for wages. (fn. 105) Jerome Hurell, 'havyng fewe frendys to labour for hym, was feyn to aggre to serve the seid John three quarters of a yere over, takyng of hym no wages therefor. . . . Beyng a simple persone and not lettred and glad to be out of prisone', Jerome sealed an obligation for £3, for which he was later sued when he left his master's service. (fn. 106) Yet the conclusion is inescapable. Many apprentices drifted off to swell the ranks of foreigns working in the City, often perhaps forced by circumstances to fall back on the least skilled but most easily available work, that of sewing seams.
An industry like that of the skinners, which drew heavily on the labour reserves of the City, always needed the services of both skilled and semi-skilled men. Some boys, though a relatively small proportion, were no doubt of sufficient wealth and social standing for apprenticeship to be for them merely the essential step towards citizenship. When their training was over, they took up the freedom of the City, served a master for a few years, and then set up shop for themselves. We know nothing of the wages paid, but often relations between them and their masters were close and friendly. Robert Stirop remembered his master with such affection that he wished to be buried next to him. (fn. 107) Thomas Bradmere, bribed with an additional £40, married into his master's family, as did others who were to become illustrious citizens. (fn. 108)
But boys coming from families able to pay an adequate premium can never have been available in sufficient numbers for the skinners to insist, as some crafts did, that all workers in the trade had to have been apprenticed. Even grocers were allowed to take apprentices whose families could pay no premium. (fn. 109) One wealthy merchant skinner, who was as well a merchant adventurer and a wool stapler and therefore presumably in a position to demand a high premium, was summoned in 1496 for taking an apprentice from a Hertfordshire family with less than 20s. worth of land. (fn. 110) Dr. Thrupp suggests that those apprenticed to grocers who were not able to afford to pay for their board and instruction may have been expected to serve longer or in a more humble capacity, or were destined to be an inferior class of servants below the rank of citizen. (fn. 111) It seems most probable that this was also the case with the skinners, and that only the more able and industrious apprentices, or those whose parents had paid a sufficient premium, were ever freed after the completion of their term of service. The rest may have formed the pool of semi-skilled labour, either while still apprenticed or later as foreigns working as serving men for a daily wage or on piece-work rates, on which the skinners depended for the most laborious part of their work. The distinction drawn in the yeomanry fraternities of the skinners of both Strasbourg and Freiburg between the knecht and the knabe may perhaps be similarly explained, as the latter received smaller wages, and therefore paid a smaller subscription. (fn. 112)
It may seem surprising that so little use was made of the labour of women in the industry in the Middle Ages. Some widows carried on their husbands' businesses as skinners, Mathilda Penne inheriting as well an apprentice from another skinner, to whom she agreed to teach the craft. (fn. 113) A few women traded as femes soles as skinners. (fn. 114) Such few examples, however, do not suggest that they learned the craft in any numbers. One prominent merchant skinner, indeed, Thomas Myrfyn, left a bequest to a female apprentice and to 'six poor women free of the craft of skinners in London if any such be found'. (fn. 115)