City of Ely: Guilds

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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'City of Ely: Guilds', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds, (London, 2002) pp. 86. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]


Ely was a great centre for guilds, of which eleven existed at the time of the 1389 inquiry, and another (St. Anne) by 1458. (fn. 1) Two others, of St. Withburga and St. Sexburga, are mentioned in 1516-17. (fn. 2)

The earliest foundation was that of St. Etheldreda, which was said to have been founded 'a hundred years and more' before 1389. It was thus the oldest guild in the county except perhaps that of St. Mary at Cambridge. (fn. 3) It also seems to have always been the most important of the Ely guilds. In 1389 it possessed £5 worth of goods, (fn. 4) and at the Dissolution was the only guild in the city known to have had any real estate. This consisted of an inn called the Crown, with houses, shops, cellars, solars, stables, and garden. It was in the tenure of Richard Mey, and was granted in 1549 to John Harford of Bosbury (d. 1559) (fn. 5) and Richard Willison of Ledbury (Herefs.). The value of this property is not known, but from the Crown Inn 12d. rent was payable to the bishop. From the remainder of the premises 6d. was payable to the bishop, 5s. 8d. to the dean and chapter, and 8s. to Sir Edmund Knyvett. (fn. 6) A messuage called the 'Guyldhall in Ely', perhaps the former hall of this guild, was held by Robert Warden in 1609. (fn. 7)

The guild of St. Peter had been founded eighty or more years before 1389, and that of All Saints in St. Mary's church in 1331; otherwise the dates of foundation, where stated in the certificates of 1389, are late in the reign of Edward III or in that of Richard II. The guild of Corpus Christi is interesting as having had a monk, Robert Aylesham, as its co-founder.

Most of the guilds served the usual objects of such institutions-saying masses for deceased members, maintaining lights before certain altars, and, in a few cases, distributing small sums to the poor. Three of them (All Saints in St. Peter's church, Corpus Christi, and St. Peter) made allowances to indigent members according to their means. Most of the Ely guilds admitted women to their membership.

The guilds already existing in 1389 were: in St. Mary's Church, those of the Assumption (in the 'new chapel' of the Blessed Virgin), All Saints, St. John Baptist; in Holy Trinity, those of Holy Trinity, Holy Cross, St. Peter, St. Etheldreda, St. Katherine; in St. Etheldreda or St. Peter, those of All Saints, Corpus Christi, St. John Baptist. It is noteworthy that the oldest guilds, those of St. Peter and St. Etheldreda, were in Trinity, whereas others, including the Guild of Corpus Christi, were allowed to remain in the nave of the cathedral where the parishioners of Holy Trinity had formerly worshipped. (fn. 8) It is not known to which church the later guilds of St. Anne, St. Withburga, and St. Sexburga were attached. (fn. 9)


  • 1. Mentioned in a will of that date (Fenland N. & Q. v, 112).
  • 2. Sacrist R., 8 Hen. VIII (infm. Archd. S. J. A. Evans, F.S.A.).
  • 3. Camb. Gild Rec., viii.
  • 4. C 47/38/23. In 1389 St. John Baptist Guild in St. Mary's Church had £5 'in hand' (not necessarily goods to this value). None of the other guilds had more than £3 0s. 6d. of goods.
  • 5. His monument, one of the remarkable series by John Guldo of Hereford, still exists in Bosbury Church.
  • 6. Cal. Pat. 1549-51, 27, 29, 30.
  • 7. C 142/323/51.
  • 8. See above-Churches.
  • 9. C 47/38/17 to 23; Palmer, Village Gilds of Cambs., esp. 374-6.