The city of Cambridge: Religious guilds

Pages 133-135

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

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The 11th-century guild of thegns was a society of county gentlemen centred in Cambridge, though worshipping on occasion at Ely; its purposes were not purely religious, for besides serving as a burial club, it provided for protection against wrongs and helped in securing damages. Nothing is known of it except its rules. (fn. 38) Nor is anything known of the fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre of the 12th century, save that it sought to build a church. (fn. 39) By the 13th century, however, many parish guilds were in existence in Cambridge, and before their destruction in 1546–7 as many as 31 are known to have existed. Their objects were devotional and social; they provided small but adequate pensions for any of their members who were in need, masses and burial rites for their dead brothers and sisters, and lights and other accessories for worship in their parish church. It was the diversion of guild 'candle-rents' to the endowment of Corpus Christi College that led to its unpopularity in the town and the special attacks upon it in 1381. The constitution of the guilds provided for government by a master, a warden or wardens, an alderman or aldermen, with a small group of the brethren as his council. The following list, which is probably not exhaustive, gives the names of the Cambridge guilds, as far as is known, in chronological order:

THE GUILD OF ST. MARY, in the church of St. Mary in the Market Place, first mentioned 1282–5; its minutes are extant for 1298–1319, and also its Bede Roll for 1349. (fn. 40) Besides many leading townsmen it had as members the Justice John of Cambridge, its alderman in 1311, Archbishop Walter Reynolds and Richard of Bury, Bishop of Durham. Women were admitted as members. It probably took an active part in the rebuilding of the church after the fire of 1290. It is once referred to as 'the Guild of Merchants of the blessed Virgin of Cambridge', and it augmented its funds by small-scale trading, (fn. 41) but it cannot be regarded as a Guild Merchant of the chartered type. By 1337 it had five chaplains. (fn. 42) In 1352 by royal grant it was allowed to coalesce with the Guild of Corpus Christi to found a college, (fn. 43) and Henry of Lancaster, the cousin of Edward III, was chosen alderman of the joint guild.

OF THE GUILD OF ST. EDWARD AND ST. THOMAS THE MARTYR, in St. Edward's Church, nothing is known except the application in 1291 of 'the men of Cambridge' to have confirmation of a guild established in honour of St. Edward the King and St. Thomas of Canterbury, with licence to establish two chaplains. (fn. 44)

THE GUILD OF CORPUS CHRISTI, in St. Bene't's Church, was in a thriving condition in 1349 when it is first mentioned. Its minutes for 1350–61 are preserved, (fn. 45) but give no details of the union with St. Mary's Guild, or of the foundation of the college. They allude to the performance of a play, The Children of Israel, in 1353. (fn. 46) There is no evidence of its existence later than 1371 and it is not named in the Chancery certificates of 1389. Miss Bateson suggested that its extinction might be associated with the rising of 1381. (fn. 47)

THE GUILD OR FRATERNITY OF ST. MARY, in St. Botolph's Church, recorded its ordinances in 1378. (fn. 48) The wives of brethren could be members, but not apparently other women. An allowance of 7d. a week to solitary poor members, or 4d. each if two lived together, was provided for. The annual subscription was 1s. 4d.

THE GUILD OF THE HOLY TRINITY, in Holy Trinity Church, received an indulgence on 26 June 1378, and another in 1384 when its rules were confirmed. (fn. 49) It was a wealthy guild, exacting an entrance fee of 13s. 4d. and an annual subscription of 2s. Its officers included, besides the usual aldermen, two 'skyvins' as treasurers, a 'dean' as clerk, and, so long as funds permitted, a chaplain. Its members were not all Cambridge residents, and women were not admitted. There was a special provision against seditious and profane talk at meetings.

THE GUILD OF THE ANNUNCIATION, in Great St. Mary's Church, recorded its ordinances in 1379. (fn. 50) Women were admitted, but chaplains, bakers, and married women whose husbands were not already members were excluded. The guild owned four great torches, each of 40 lb. weight of wax, which were used for wakes and requiems, and every member contributed 13d. a year for the lights set before the image of the Virgin in the Lady Chapel at her five feasts.

THE GUILD OF ST. KATHERINE, in St. Bene't's Church, whose ordinances are dated 1380, (fn. 51) was founded by ten Cambridge skinners. Membership was not confined to skinners, and women were admitted. There was a common badge or livery, an entrance fee of 3s. 4d., and an annual subscription of 1s. 4d.

THE GUILD OF THE ASSUMPTION, in the church of the Holy Trinity, drew up its ordinances in 1384. (fn. 52) The yearly subscription was 10d., the lowest recorded. One of the two rectors, or chief officers, ought to be a parishioner. Brethren who haunted the streets by night or went in for playing chess, dicing, or other misconduct might be expelled if they refused to reform.

THE GUILD OF ST. KATHERINE, in Great St. Andrew's Church, recorded its ordinances in 1385. (fn. 53) It was still in existence in 1500. (fn. 54) Women, both married and unmarried, were admitted, and poor members were allowed 7d. a week.

THE GUILD OF THE PURIFICATION, in Great St. Mary's Church, exhibited their ordinances in 1386, completing a work begun by others, as they said. (fn. 55) The annual subscription of 2s. was to maintain a chaplain to celebrate at the altar 'over the great solar'. A procession, if possible in the guild livery, was to be held within the octave of Candlemas. There was special provision for a chest to keep the guild's valuables. Persons living outside the liberty of the Borough were members, but not women. The usual 7d. pension was promised, unless there were too many poor brethren for the guild to afford it.

THE GUILD OF THE HOLY TRINITY, in Great St. Mary's Church, made its return in 1389. (fn. 56) It included women, and the annual subscription for man and wife together was 1s. 2d. It aimed at maintaining a chaplain. It had the usual provisions for pensions and funeral rites. It is mentioned in a will of 1493. (fn. 57)

THE GUILD OF ST. CLEMENT, in St. Clement's Church, recorded its ordinances, in English, in 1431. (fn. 58) Women were admitted as members. The pension for the poor was fixed at 4d. a week, and there was a provision that the brethren should not go to law with each other without first seeking the mediation of the Alderman of the Guild. The guild was still in existence in 1483. (fn. 59)

THE GUILD OF ST. PETER AND ST. PAUL, in the church of St. Peter by the Castle, had ordinances almost identical with those of St. Clement. (fn. 60) They are dated 1448.

THE GUILD OF ALL SAINTS, in the church of All Saints in the Jewry, copied the same rules in 1473. (fn. 61) It was still in existence in 1503. (fn. 62)

No ordinances exist for the following guilds: (fn. 63) ST. ANDREW, in Great St. Mary, recorded in 1459; ST. URSULA, in Holy Trinity, (fn. 64) recorded in 1492 and 1504; ST. PETER MILLEYNE, ST. THOMAS and ST. URSULA, all in Great St. Mary, and all recorded in 1503 and 1526; ST. AUGUSTINE, in St. Bene't, recorded in 1504 and still in existence in 1526; ST. KATHERINE and ST. GEORGE, both in Holy Trinity, and both recorded in 1504; ST. KATHERINE, existing in 1473, ST. MARY and ST. NICHOLAS, all in St. Andrew the Less; JESUS in St. Clement; ST. GILES in St. Giles; ST. KATHERINE and STS. CHRISTOPHER AND JAMES, both in Great St. Mary; ST. MARY in Little St. Mary, ST. ETHELREDA in the Holy Sepulchre, and ST. CLEMENT in Holy Trinity, all recorded without date.


  • 38. Cooper, Annals, i. 15.
  • 39. See above, p. 124.
  • 40. M. Bateson, Cambridge Gild Records (C.A.S. Publ. 1903), 1–25, 131 seqq.
  • 41. M. Bateson, Cambridge Gild Records (C.A.S. Publ. 1903), pp. xii–xvi.
  • 42. Ibid., p. xviii.
  • 43. Ibid. 139–40; see p. 371.
  • 44. Inq. ad quod damnum, lix/21. Atkinson, Cambridge Described, 58, lists this as two distinct guilds.
  • 45. M. Bateson, Camb. Gild Records, pp. xx, 26–59.
  • 46. Ibid. 51.
  • 47. Ibid., pp. xxvi–xxvii.
  • 48. Ibid. 92–95.
  • 49. Ibid. 108–23.
  • 50. Ibid. 63–67.
  • 51. Ibid. 82–91.
  • 52. Ibid. 68–76.
  • 53. Ibid. 77–78.
  • 54. Cooper, Memorials, iii. 207, 226.
  • 55. 'Per quosdam alios ville Cantebrigie primitus inchoatam': M. Bateson, Camb. Gild Records, 97.
  • 56. Ibid. 124–8.
  • 57. Ibid., p. xxxvi.
  • 58. Toulmin Smith, English Gilds (E.E.T.S.), 274–82.
  • 59. Atkinson, Cambridge Described, 58.
  • 60. Toulmin Smith, English Gilds, 274–82.
  • 61. Toulmin Smith, English Gilds, 274–82.
  • 62. Atkinson, Cambridge Described, 58.
  • 63. Ibid. 58–59.
  • 64. Gibbons, Ely Episcopal Records, 415.