The Trinity College as a record of the Middle Ages

Survey of London Monograph 1, Trinity Hospital, Mile End. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1896.

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'The Trinity College as a record of the Middle Ages', in Survey of London Monograph 1, Trinity Hospital, Mile End, (London, 1896) pp. 8-12. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]


Mr. Barrett in his book on the Trinity House (fn. 1) has already written the history of the Corporation so carefully, that little or nothing remains to be said, but he has not, I think, done justice to the Hospital, nor has he sufficiently brought out the historical importance of what is left of the Corporation's old world records in brick and stone. What I wish to do here is to trace the connection between the historical idea underlying the institution of the Hospital, and the mediæval principles of the Mariners' Guild of Deptford, to which the Corporation owes its origin, and to discover in so doing what were the essentially mediæval principles in the spirit of which the Hospital was founded. To do this more satisfactorily, we may first of all compare the constitution and functions of the Deptford Guild with those of other Maritime Guilds in mediæval sea towns, notably those dedicated to the Trinity, and yet remaining to us under the name of Trinity Houses. We shall find that for the most part they possess certain features in common.

The Charter of Henry VIII.

It is not here necessary to go into the question of the remoter origin of the Guilds, or to consider whether they were or were not of Teutonic growth. Suffice it that, in the middle ages, they represented what we may term the Teutonic principle of voluntary Association, and different trades and occupations formed themselves into societies bearing distinct characteristics. The Tradition held since the beginning of the 17th century and confirmed by the memorial in Stepney Church as to the founding of the Deptford Guild by Sir Thomas Spert (fn. 2) appears to me to be quite compatible with the existence of an earlier Guild, and this the Charter of Henry VIII. (fn. 3) would seem to prove. "And further" says the act of Henry VIII. "we have granted to our said liege people and subjects (i.e., the existing Guild), that they may have and enjoy all and singular the Liberties, Franchises, and Privileges, which their Predecessors, the Shipmen or Mariners of this our Realm of England, ever had, used or enjoyed. And also that they may have and hold to them, and their successors, all the lands and tenements which they now have in Deptford Strond aforesaid, of the gift or grant of whatsoever person or persons."

A Re-Incorporation.

What took place in the reign of Henry VIII., then, was merely a re-modelling or re-incorporation, one of those periodical re-incorporations by which the Guilds adapted themselves to changing social conditions, and while not accepting altogether Mr. Barrett's view that "the Guild was incorporated as a consequence of the wise naval policy of Henry VIII.," I think it may be safely stated that Sir Thomas Spert, who, according to the inscription on the monument, was Controller of the Navy, was Master of the Guild at the time of its re-incorporation, and that in accordance with the general policy of Henry VIII. the existing Guild that controlled the mouth of the Thames, as the Hull Guild controlled the mouth of the Humber, and the Newcastle Guild the mouth of the Tyne, was re-modelled with slight variations in its mediæval constitution in 1514. It is much to be regretted that the Charters that might have established these facts have been destroyed by fire, but we may safely assume the existence of the earlier mediæval fraternity, and an inspection of the records left to us of the other Trinity Guilds devoted to naval purposes in other parts of the Kingdom, will give us a fairly complete picture of what the mediæval Guild down to the Stuart time must have been like.

Other Trinity Houses.

We find then that there were Associations of this nature, and of which we have records, in the principal sea-faring towns of mediæval England, in Newcastle, Boston, Hull, Lynn, Sleaford, Wisbeach and Wyngale, and their nature, purpose, and function is for the most part the same. They are voluntary associations of mariners, they fulfil the purpose of burial and benefit clubs, they are religious in character, and also social, they undertake in varying degrees the duties of the port, sea or fen water with which their members come in contact, and when need offers, they act as coast defence, in other words, they are Royal Marine and Navy.

The Newcastle Trinity.

To take first the Trinity Guild of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, we find that it purchases its present House in 1492, and pays a red rose yearly every mid-summer for ever as quit money, and throughout the Tudor period it exercises similar privileges to those allowed by Henry VIII. to the London Guild. In 1536 the King grants it a new Charter, gives it license to build and embattle two towers as lighthouses, and confirms its rights of pilotage and primage. In 1584, it becomes the Trinity House of Newcastle, and from successive Kings receives local privileges similar to those granted to the Trinity House in London.

The Boston and Hull Trinities.

In Boston we have another Trinity Guild who had their Hall and did duty towards "the better maintenance of the Bridge and Port of Boston." (fn. 4) In Hull was a very famous Trinity of whose founding we have a record in 1369. A group of some thirty worthy folk of Hull come together and form a fraternity, which, like those of Newcastle, and Boston, and Deptford, ultimately becomes the Corporation of Trinity House and legislates in matters of seamanship. There are brothers and sisters who form the benefit and burial club, they agree to meet regularly at the Church of the Holy Trinity, or submit to the wax fine, and they make regulations for the maintenance of any of their number in old age or infirmity, even to the tunic and the little cap at the feast of St. Martin.

The Lynn Trinity.

In Lynn, the great mediæval Merchants' City of the East, the Trinity Guild occupied a most important position. In the reign of John one of its members was mayor of the town, and at the time of the Reformation,— for we may estimate the wealth of Guilds by the number of Chaplains they supported and gave Henry VIII. the opportunity of suppressing—its wealth must have been very great, for it maintained thirteen.

The Wyngale Trinity.

The Guild of the Holy Trinity of Wyngale again gives us a record from 1387, and we find rules laid down for keeping up lights, and for the searching of the bodies of the drowned.

The Wisbeach Trinity.

The most interesting of all the records of Guilds dedicated to the Trinity, is that of Wisbeach, which appears to have been founded in the reign of Richard II. (1379), and which did many years of good work in keeping out the sea and saving the fen country from inundations. This Guild has left us a minute account of its receipts and expenditure for the first few years of its existence. The Christmas feast, the cost of the image of the Trinity, and the pay to the plasterers for putting it up; the removal of the Parclos; the beer for the workmen, the woollen cloths for the hoods that came all the way from London for the brethren, and the expenses of a certain grand Guild feast, at which it would seem that apparel for ten dancers had to be purchased—all are recorded, not to mention the cost of the many delightful things with which the hall was ornamented. As might have been expected, the expenditure exceeded the income, and so a levy had to be raised, which, says the chronicler, "ought to be paid by the sixty-seven brethren, viz., each of them 5d.; and thus there would remain 1s. 11¼d. (no mean sum !), which the said brothers expended in wine before they departed, and so, from the account, nothing remains. Amen."

There are also a variety of other entries from time to time, records of local government, the maintenance of the fen-dyke against inundations, judicial business, the institution of a school, matters of benefit, burial, and alms, and among them in 1477 "for the salvation of the soul of Thomas Blower" the entry of a bequest of "one new edifice called the Almshouse, built and situate in the New Market of Wisbeach." (fn. 5)

The Deptford Trinity.

From the character of these various Guilds, we may also judge the character of the Guild of Deptford, and in what exists of its customs and its duties at the present day the mediæval conditions are quite evident. In the lights and pilotage we have the origin of powers similiar to those of Boston, Hull and Newcastle, in the Mile End Hospital is traceable the old principle of Mediæval Charity, in the Chapel the religious intention, and in the suits of the old pensioners—the blue stuff and the brass buttons as we still see them—the "cloth for the hoods that came from London" for the brethren of Wisbeach, or the tunics and caps for the brethren of Hull.

It must be borne in mind, however, that these associations in the middle ages were not charities. The object was not to give doles or alms to the poor. They were voluntary associations, trade unions, in this instance trade unions of mariners, and clubs for mutual aid. They fulfilled divers and certain functions, and the character of corporate unity gave also a distinct character to the manner in which their benefits were bestowed. Even well into the 17th century there appears neither in the Deptford Guild, nor in such of the others as still continue, any change in the corporate conception; it is understood that help is given to the poorer members of the Guild; but it is not charity bestowed from outside or from above, it is internal—the real sort of charity, as one might call it —every brother of the fraternity has equal rights. One could wish that this mediæval conception of the limits and functions of charity were a little more regarded by the Charity Commissioners in their schemes of reconstruction.

The Hull Trinity In 1662.

In his "Very Merry Wherry-Ferry Voyage," Taylor, the poet, writing of Hull, in 1662, says of the Trinity House in that City:—

"Besides for every sea or marine cause
They have a house of Trinity, whose lawes
And orders doe confirm, or else reforme
That which is right, or that which wrongs deform;
It is a comely built, well ordered place,
But that which most of all the house doth grace
Are rooms for widowes, who are old and poore,
And have bin wives to Mariners before.
They are for house roome, food or lodging, or
For firing, Christianly provided for,
And as some dye, some doth their places win,
As one goes out another doth come in."

The communal life.; The status of the mediæval guild Brothers.

Just so it is in the Mile End Hospital to this day. From Taylor's poem, too, it would appear that the ladies of the Guild not only lived in the house itself, but that Government and Communal life were conducted under the same roof. I press this point of the Communal life, upon which all these houses of Trinity were founded, because in our often insufficiently considered re-modelling of Chairties now-a-days, we lose sight of the founders' intentions, even when they are quite realizable. (fn. 6) But there is a further point still to be noted, which applies to the Trinity Houses and their Charities:—the status of the recipients of the aid. I have said that these endowments were none of them in the nature of doles or alms to the poor, but insurance for house, home, life and limb to brothers and sisters of the Guild. How this was the case even in Evelyn's day is brought out very pointedly in the unintentional rebuke which he enters against the Trinity Corporation (fn. 7) in the building of their Hospital at Deptford. The Seamen's widows he apparently thought were well enough off, and though the work was a good one, the money would have been better spent on the poor of the parish. The distinction between the seamen's widows and the poor is one that it is well to bear in mind, and it brings with it the reflection that the contemplated destruction of the mediæval purpose,—the Communal life of the Mile End Hospital, must inevitably bring with it a lowering of status to the recipients of the Charity. Our Charity Commissioners have not yet abandoned the prevalent belief that the "out pension" is preferable to what is commonly and contemptuously called the "alms house," but that is because they have as yet made no attempt to re-cast one of these old Charities in the fuller Communal spirit of the middle ages. A knowledge of the way in which "out-pensions" work, and of the trend of modern industrial life into groups and communities, will show that not only might a re-modelling on the mediæval method prove a wise one, but that it may be inevitable in the near future. It is to be hoped that the Commissioners will be sufficiently far sighted to see that such of these institutions of Communal Charity as still remain, have yet a great purpose to fulfil in the newer industrial life that is springing up around them.

The Deptford Trinity as the Navy.; The Act of Elizabeth, 1566.

There is yet something to add as to the militant functions shared by the Deptford Guild with the other Maritime and Trade Guilds of England. Just as they were voluntary associations for life, limb and labour, so they were also associations for defence when called upon. The Guilds of Craft sent their levies to the City Watch, the Maritime Guilds served the purpose of coast defence or of sea power. The most important of these was inevitably the one that controlled the port of London. There was no navy, as we understand it, in the middle ages, and when fighting had to be done it was done by marine levies. It is a traditional memory of ours that when the Spanish Armada came, the English ships were so little that the great Spaniards shot away over their heads, but those little ships were guided and directed by the Guild of Mariners from Trinity House. We have records of the transference of rights that passed between the Lord High Admiral Howard of Effingham and the Trinity Brethren. In the stately preamble of the Act of Elizabeth in 1566 (fn. 8) "Touchinge Seamarkes and Maryners" the corporation of the Trinity House is described (note the significance of the words!) as being "charged with the conduction of the Queen's Majesties Nayve Royall." History has shown that this little impromptu navy answered its purpose and did its work very well; for us it only remains to observe that the memory of it in any practical form, and of the Guild of Mariners who manned it, is preserved only in the Mile End College.

Here then are some of the facts which a study of such of the mediæval Guilds as were distinctly maritime, and of the Deptford Guild in particular, brings home to us. From these facts we can reconstruct the history, nature, purpose and functions of the Trinity Guild in London, and we note how its mediæval traditions have found expression in the Hospital in Mile End, how, in short, it is an object lesson in mediæval history. But if it preserves for us the Guild traditions of the Middle Ages, and of the days when the navy was the maritime levy, it preserves for us in a still more vivid manner—as I shall show in the next chapter—a yet more sacred tradition, the birth of the British Navy itself, in the transition period between mediæval and modern times.


  • 1. Barrett's History of the Trinity House of Deptford Strond, London, 1893.
  • 2. Which memorial however was erected in 1622, 81 years after his death.
  • 3. The act of Henry VIII. exemplified by George III. See the Royal Charter granted to the Trinity House, 1763. 8vo. in the British Museum.
  • 4. Walford, "Guilds."
  • 5. Watson's "History of Wisbeach."
  • 6. See letters of Sir Robert Hunter, Miss Octavia Hill and Sir Walter Besant in Chapter VI. of this Monograph.
  • 7. Evelyn's Diary, May 25th, 1671.
  • 8. Royal Charter, 1763 (quoted above).