The later middle ages: Craft organisation and the Guilds

A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.

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'The later middle ages: Craft organisation and the Guilds', in A History of the County of York: the City of York, ed. P M Tillott( London, 1961), British History Online [accessed 14 July 2024].

'The later middle ages: Craft organisation and the Guilds', in A History of the County of York: the City of York. Edited by P M Tillott( London, 1961), British History Online, accessed July 14, 2024,

"The later middle ages: Craft organisation and the Guilds". A History of the County of York: the City of York. Ed. P M Tillott(London, 1961), , British History Online. Web. 14 July 2024.

In this section

Craft Organization

The way in which craftsmen reacted to these industrial trends calls for some account of the forms of guild organization found in York. The guilds there, of course, did not develop in isolation: the York pewterers adopted the London ordinances of that craft, and the pinners what they claimed as an ancient custom of London that no stranger should be put to work except as an apprentice. (fn. 1) The effects of inter-city migration, too, should not be overlooked in this connexion, though similarity of circumstances rather than direct influence probably explains the kinship between guild rules and organization in York and in other towns. At the same time, rules and organization were not static; and some attempt needs to be made to show how they grew and changed in response to changing circumstances.

There was, to begin with, a far-reaching division of industrial functions. A list of Corpus Christi plays in 1415 names 57 crafts, and at times the total may have been as high as 80. (fn. 2) Statistics of this sort, however, mean little, for extreme division of labour bred infringement of craft boundaries. A barber might properly possess 'blood irons and lancets', but it was another matter for a girdler's stock-in-trade to include knives, daggers, and wire. (fn. 3) Conversely, girdler-craft attracted men belonging to related crafts, even, for example, the makers of dog-collars and book-clasps; plasterers and tilers easily found themselves doing each other's work; tailors trespassed into the province of skinners and fullers into that of shearmen. (fn. 4) These invasions, combined with a common interest in the same raw materials and the high cost of the Corpus Christi plays, often led to joint action between, or even to amalgamation of, crafts. Tanners, glovers, parchment makers, girdlers, curriers, and cordwainers acted together to see that skins brought into the city were of good quality; pinners and wiredrawers, spurriers and lorimers formed themselves into joint crafts; and there were several combinations and recombinations affecting the marshals, smiths, bladesmiths, and cutlers. (fn. 5)

The internal organization of the guilds is revealed mainly by their ordinances. These were normally drawn up by the consent of the masters of the craft concerned, but derived their force from endorsement and enactment by the city authorities. (fn. 6) In consequence, penalties imposed under such ordinances were normally divided between the city and the guild, and guild officers like the searchers were responsible as much to the city council as to their craft. Similarly, guild meetings could be summoned either to deal with matters concerning the guild or at the command of the mayor, and such meetings were valid only when summoned by the proper authorities of city or guild. In 1423 both the master tailors and their servants were firmly forbidden to hold illegal assemblies. (fn. 7) This responsibility of the city government for industrial organization meant that, when guilds were at odds over their respective provinces, the civic authorities sat in judgement upon them; and where guilds were not amenable to discipline they might in the last resort be dissolved. (fn. 8) The king, too, assumed that responsibility lay in this quarter: when the York skinners petitioned him about deceits in their craft, the mayor and bailiffs were ordered to provide a remedy. (fn. 9)

The guild officers through whom control was exercised varied in number and character from craft to craft. The carpenters, for example, chose annually 4 wardens or searchers and another man who acted as an 'employment officer' for the craft; the cordwainers had a master, 2 searchers, 4 pageant-masters, and 4 or 8 other men who assisted the searchers to assess penalties. (fn. 10) The searchers are common to all crafts and the most important of all the guild officers. The saddlers, for example, had 3 searchers who were nominated each year by their predecessors in office and who were subject to acceptance by the assembled masters of the craft; they were then sworn before the mayor and became answerable to the city authorities for the maintenance of standards of workmanship in their craft. They summoned guild meetings, managed its finances, 'searched' the articles made by guild members, approved the technical skill of new masters and of 'strangers' coming to the city, authorized the taking on of apprentices, and often inspected the quality of 'foreign' goods brought into the city. (fn. 11) The need for supervision in the industrial life of the city is attested by many examples, as when a mercer, John Lylling, was found guilty of having false osmunds made of low-grade English iron, of mixing tin, lead, and pewter and selling it as tin, and of diluting alum with plaster and lime. (fn. 12)

To see the guilds in the round, however, it is better to look in detail at a few not uncharacteristic sets of ordinances. The earliest surviving code is that of the girdlers in 1307. It was confirmed by the 'mayor and community', and forbade night work or work done outside a master's house. Leather might be bought only from city tanners, and other things a girdler needed from his fellow citizens. No master might have more than one apprentice, whose minimum term was to be four years. 'Stranger' journeymen had to produce evidence that they had served an apprenticeship to girdler-craft before they were given employment, and journeymen buckle-makers were to be common servants of all the girdlers in the city. Finally, while a girdler might sell girdles to whom he would, he could sell other things only to fellow citizens. (fn. 13)

The weavers' ordinances of 1400 are far more detailed. Their guild was dedicated to the Virgin and was ruled by an 'alderman', 'bailiffs', and certain other masters chosen annually in a general assembly of the craft. In 1473 the officers of the guild appear to be an alderman and four wardens. (fn. 14) Other assemblies were held at Easter and Michaelmas to hear the accounts of the officers, who collected from each master his contribution towards the farm owed by the guild to the king. The officers also approved entrants to the craft, ensured that 'foreigns' had satisfactory testimonials, and exacted the entry fee of 20s. Women were allowed to weave only after receiving specific permission causa pejoracionis pannorum venalium et prejudicii artificii nostri et deterioracionis firme regie. Maximum piece-rates were laid down for journeymen, who were obliged to remain in their masters' employment for a full year's term. (fn. 15)

Fifteenth-century amendments to the rules of the girdlers provide a final example. In 1417 the term of apprenticeship was extended to seven years. Journeymen were to work only in their masters' houses and if they had not been apprenticed in the city were to bind themselves for a full year's term. Within a radius of 32 miles around the city, girdlers, doubtless in the interest of distributive merchants, were to sell only at fairs; and at the same time they were forbidden to go out of the city to work at girdler-craft within the same area. Saddlers were forbidden to attract away a girdler's servant to do girdler's work, and the searchers of the craft were empowered to inspect all girdles which strangers brought into the city to sell retail. All work, finally, was to cease at midday on Saturday. A code of 1467 limited each master to one apprentice, though he might take on another beginner three years before his term expired; and in 1475 and 1485 rules were made to compel men of other crafts engaged in girdler-craft to contribute to the expenses of the girdlers' pageant. (fn. 16)

These codes well illustrate the regulation of industry in late medieval York. First there is the insistence by both guild and city on good workmanship. The principle was that a man was responsible to his customer. A physician, who had undertaken to cure a canon of Guisborough, was taken to law when his patient's leg turned putrid and corrupt; (fn. 17) and building workers were expected to complete their work according to specified standards and within the term prescribed in their contracts. (fn. 18) Technical rules laid down in the codes, the prohibition of nightwork, and the insistence that work must be done in a master's house had the same end in view. The interest of the customer, whether ordinary consumer or export merchant, was paramount. On the other hand, as between members of a craft, there was insistence on equal opportunity. To this end some crafts forbade their members to go hawking their wares around the city, and no tapiter or his wife or servant was to accompany a merchant buying goods and so influence him as to where he took his custom. (fn. 19)

Equally prominent is concern about the boundary lines between crafts and about external competition. The ideal of the girdlers in 1307 seems to be that girdler-craft was work for girdlers alone, but that the rights of other crafts should command comparable respect when a girdler was buying his raw materials or selling other things than articles of girdler-craft. In 1417 they apparently believed that the area within 32 miles of the city ought to be served exclusively by York girdlers; in like manner the 14th-century bowyers forbade their servants to teach their craft to country folk for money and the founders were prohibited from putting out work outside the franchise. (fn. 20) Similar ideas of guild monopoly appear in the 15th-century rule of the shearmen that no master or servant was to work elsewhere than in the house of a man free of the craft, and in that which empowered the searchers of the linen weavers to confiscate linen looms occupied by tapiters. (fn. 21) In the end, however, the girdlers had to accept the fact that both 'foreigns' and other city craftsmen would be occupied in girdler-craft, and the linen weavers that 'foreigners' would be working up materials sent out from the city. (fn. 22) The growth of country industry was an inescapable fact, and hard and fast lines between occupations in the city proved impracticable.

Labour organization was another matter prominent in the guild ordinances. Again, concern for good workmanship was an important principle. It was sought to make each craft the province of trained men, and the beginning of this endeavour was apprenticeship. Its character is illustrated by an apprentice's contract with a bowyer in 1371. He was to be obedient to his master and keep his secrets; he was not to play dice, or frequent taverns, gambling houses, or brothels; he was not to seduce his master's wife or daughter or his term would be doubled; he was not to marry without his master's consent. In turn, the master would teach him all aspects of the craft and keep him in bed, board, and shoes. (fn. 23) In the 15th century, some of the codes insisted that apprentices should be of English birth, (fn. 24) the bowyer also demanding that they be free-born, sound of limb, and known to be good and faithful. (fn. 25) The normal term was seven years, and many crafts allowed only one apprentice at a time, though often with a provision for taking on another two or three years before the completion of his term. (fn. 26) The pinners, spurriers, lorimers, and tapiters, on the other hand, might have two, and the parchment-makers as many as three after 1474; (fn. 27) late in the 15th century two weavers, William Robinson and William Wyndowes, took on two and three apprentices respectively in a single year; and we know also of a founder with three. (fn. 28) The system was important for the human ties it created, for many a master left an apprentice some of the tools he needed for a start in life. But above all apprenticeship was a period of technical education, a fact emphasized by Robert Preston, a glazier, who left to one of his apprentices 'all my books that is fit for one prentice of his craft to learn by'. (fn. 29)

There is no need to assume, however, that the industrial unit was commonly other than a small one. That a common norm was master, wife, and one apprentice is suggested by the fact that the founders allowed a bachelor, lacking a wife to help him, to take on two apprentices when others were restricted to one. (fn. 30) Where family and apprentices were not enough they were supplemented by journeymen or servants. The 14th-century ordinances give an impression of competition for this type of labour. The glovers and saddlers forbade servants to work on their own account as well as for their masters; a number of codes sought to prevent masters from stealing the servants of others; and some rules bound servants to their masters for some term like a year or half a year. The founders adopted another method of making a small body of labour go round: they treated it as a pool available to all masters for a period of hire not exceeding a week at a time. Most of the codes, too, welcomed immigrants provided they were of proved competence. (fn. 31)

The 15th-century ordinances provide more information about the nature of the labour force and suggest a gradual change of temper. Among the bowyers there were two sorts of labour: 'taskmen' with some skill who worked at piece-work rates; and journeymen with less skill who were hired to work under close supervision at fixed rates for periods of a fortnight or less. (fn. 32) Skilled workers might be either apprentices who had completed their term, 'strangers' whose competence had been approved, or guild masters who had fallen on evil days. This last category, perhaps significantly, makes its appearance in a late set of carpenters' ordinances in 1482. (fn. 33) Early in the century there may still have been a shortage of labour, for guilds still bind servants to their masters for some period like a year or operate the sort of pooling system the founders had adopted. In 1401 the searchers of the spurriers' guild allotted immigrant labour to the master whose need was greatest due to the lack, death, or illness of a servant. (fn. 34) Slump conditions later probably transformed this situation, and at the same time undermined the fortunes of qualified craftsmen. It became a serious offence to employ one who was not a citizen, and Thomas Coly in 1476 lost his freedom for keeping a London vestment-maker in his inn against the ordinances of the city and his craft. (fn. 35)

The wages of servants were no less a matter of concern than the terms of their engagements. Many of the codes fixed both piece- and time-rates, which varied considerably from craft to craft: £2 yearly for servants of pewterers, for example, as against 2 marks for bakers. (fn. 36) This was a matter giving rise to contention between cordwainers and their workmen about 1430. Immigrant labourers particularly had been stirring up trouble and holding illicit conventicles. The city authorities intervened and forbade servants to form their own organizations or to persuade other servants to leave their masters or the city. On the other hand, a master was to continue to pay a workman for whom temporarily he had no employment, and piece-rates were amended, generally in a slightly upward direction. (fn. 37) Troubles of this sort might arise both when labour was in short supply or when slump conditions made employment hard to find; but the relatively small scale of most crafts and units of manufacture prevented the formation of separate journeymen's organizations of the sort which the cordwainers' servants may have contemplated in 1430.

Slump conditions in the later 15th century, however, probably had the effect of making access to mastership more difficult for apprentice and journeyman alike. Early in the century the cardmakers insisted that 'strangers' should bring testimonials to their good repute, but added: 'it is not the intention of this ordinance that good and faithful men, who come to the city to dwell there in order to work at the said craft and to be enfranchised in due course, shall be prevented or restrained by virtue of the said ordinance'. (fn. 38) This is the watchword of an open society welcoming immigrants and offering the prospect both of citizenship and advancement in their chosen occupation. In the late 15th century an apprentice by no means always became a freeman. Out of 29 weavers' apprentices indentured during two years at this period only 4 can be traced in the register of freemen; and in 1482–3, out of 65 apprentices who completed their terms, only 38 became freemen forthwith. The rest paid a lower fee to pursue their callings in the city, presumably as journeymen, (fn. 39) though some of them became freemen in later years. (fn. 40) Similarly, access to mastership in a craft became more difficult, or at least more expensive, for an immigrant. Distinctions were drawn between sons of freemen, who were normally able to set up as a master without payment, men apprenticed in the city, who paid sums ranging from 1s. 8d. to 3s. 4d., and men who had learnt their trades elsewhere, who paid from 6s. 8d. to £1. Scots and other aliens might have to pay even higher sums. The days when the fletchers could lay down in their ordinances of c. 1388 the same entry fee for all, whether of the city or not, (fn. 41) were gone for ever. The opportunities which had attracted men to York were narrowing down.

The Guilds and Social Life

While it is proper to look first upon the economic activities of the guilds, they had a still wider significance. The guilds and their searchers were at the centre of the political troubles of York at the end of the Middle Ages. They were the agents of the city authorities in enforcing economic legislation. In addition, the guilds had a social cohesion sufficient to make them favourably disposed when, in 1501, Mayor Stockdale 'for the honour of this city moved divers crafts to be all in a clothing'. (fn. 42) They had charitable purposes, so that when a guild brother of the carpenters fell into poverty or could not work, or went blind, or lost his goods 'by the unhap of the world', his fellows gave him 4d. a week in alms for the rest of his days. (fn. 43) Many of these characteristics in turn derived from the religious life of the fraternities which were frequently associated with the guilds. As early as 1349 the pinners maintained a candle in some unnamed church, and before the end of the 14th century the glovers and cordwainers did so in the minster. (fn. 44) The cordwainers, too, had a bedehouse attached to St. Denys's Church; the weavers kept an annual obit in All Saints', North Street; (fn. 45) the carpenters held services in the Austin Friary and the marshals and smiths in St. William's Chapel, where they also maintained a light to St. Eloy. (fn. 46) Religious fraternity and craft guild, it is true, might not always quite coincide. No carpenter was compelled to join the brotherhood which saw to the religious rites of their association; and in 1453 the tailors established a separate guild of St. John the Baptist to maintain the chaplain and poor persons they said they had long supported. (fn. 47) Beneath the harsh realities of the workaday world, however, these less material ties helped to give cohesion to the craft guilds.

The most notable contribution of the crafts to the religious life of the city, of course, was their participation in the celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi. (fn. 48) The earliest detailed account of the plays which were performed by the crafts on this occasion was compiled by that indefatigable antiquary, Roger Burton, in 1415. (fn. 49) It lists 51 plays, though the surviving text of them, dating from c. 1430–40 with emendations reaching down to the 16th century, contains only 48. But the celebration of the feast with pageants was already well established in 1376, and the earliest elements in the plays may date from about 1350 or even earlier and utilize materials from still older plays which are known to have been performed in York in the 13th century. (fn. 50) In the course of time, naturally, there were many changes both in the plays and the celebration of the feast. The crafts found the burden a heavy one, and some plays were amalgamated and became a joint responsibility for more than one guild. (fn. 51) Basically, however, the cycle continued to constitute what Burton called it, 'a representation of the Old and New Testaments', (fn. 52) played at some dozen stations between Holy Trinity, Micklegate, and Pavement. (fn. 53) The pageants were at first associated with a procession of the civic dignitaries and some of the crafts to the minster and St. Leonard's Hospital. As a result of disputes between carpenters and cordwainers during the procession in 1419, however, and under the influence of Friar William Melton, verbi Dei famosissimus predicator, the city authorities ordained that in future the plays would take place on Corpus Christi Eve, so that the feast day could be kept free for the procession and church-going, undisturbed by carousing and junketing. (fn. 54) In the event the plays continued to be performed on Corpus Christi Day, the procession being postponed to its morrow; but there was still rioting in the course of it between weavers and cordwainers in 1490 and 1492. (fn. 55)

The Corpus Christi plays were not the only ones performed in the city. There was a paternoster play and a guild responsible for it which attracted the attention of Wyclif in 1384. (fn. 56) Responsibility for the paternoster play eventually passed to St. Anthony's guild; and when the latter was unable to perform it in 1495 it was replaced by a Creed play, the text of which had been bequeathed to the Corpus Christi guild in 1446 and which was performed by that guild in every tenth year about Lammastide. (fn. 57) Furthermore, improvised but none the less impressive pageants were devised for special occasions like Richard III's visit in 1483 or Henry VII's in 1486. (fn. 58)

The Corpus Christi plays indicate the broader context in which we have to set the guilds of later medieval York; but they were also burdensome to the craftsman, who had to pay pageant-silver to maintain them. They aggravated, therefore, those financial grievances of which much is heard at the end of the Middle Ages and which were the more serious because prosperity was deserting the city crafts. At the same time the guilds became more exclusive, more apt to shut out the immigrant they had once welcomed. If this attitude tended to make things worse, it may have been in origin less the cause of the craftsman's difficulties than an attempt to remedy them when they first became manifest. At the same time the very virtues of the guilds perhaps hastened industrial decline. Their insistence on good workmanship, in response to the craftsman's struggle against dilution, the consumer's demand 'that the people of the lord king should not be deceived by bad workmanship', (fn. 59) and the merchant's insistence upon a saleable article, in some ways weakened their position in the mass market as compared with that of their less-organized and less-supervised country competitors. From one point of view even the merchants conspired against the craftsmen. If they distributed the products of York crafts in distant places, from an early date they had also traded in cloth from elsewhere than York and brought to the city markets the industrial products of many parts and even of many lands. To complete the history of York's crafts it is necessary to look at the history of York's trade.


  • 1. York Mem. Bk. ii. 86, 211.
  • 2. Davies, York Rec. 233–6; V.C.H. Yorks. iii. 446; Heaton, Yorks. Wool. Ind. 31.
  • 3. Test. Ebor. iii, nos. 24, 30.
  • 4. York Mem. Bk. i. 59–60, 187; ii. 126, 159–60; York Civ. Rec. ii. 151.
  • 5. York Civ. Rec. ii. 35, 58–59, 103–4; York Mem. Bk. i. 82, 103; ii. 162–6, 179–82, 247–9, 296.
  • 6. e.g. York Mem. Bk. i. 29; York Civ. Rec. i. 65.
  • 7. York Mem. Bk. i. 101, 165.
  • 8. Ibid. 59-60; ii. 164-6.
  • 9. S.C. 8/153/7601.
  • 10. York Mem. Bk. i. 196; ii. 279 sqq.
  • 11. Ibid. passim.
  • 12. Eng. Miscellanies (Sur. Soc. 85), 1-10.
  • 13. York Mem. Bk. i. 180-1.
  • 14. York Corp. Rec. D/11, f. 8.
  • 15. York Mem. Bk. i. 238-44.
  • 16. Ibid. 181–7.
  • 17. Yorks. Mon. Notes, i. (Y.A.S. Rec. Ser. 17), 78.
  • 18. Ibid. 242; ii. (Y.A.S. Rec. Ser. 81), 69.
  • 19. York Mem. Bk. i. 85, 151.
  • 20. Ibid. 53, 94.
  • 21. Ibid. 107; York Civ. Rec. i. 6–7.
  • 22. York Civ. Rec. i. 6–7.
  • 23. York Mem. Bk. i. 54–55.
  • 24. Ibid. 69, 87, 103, 109; ii. 190.
  • 25. Ibid. i. 61-62.
  • 26. e.g. ibid. 89 (saddlers, 1459).
  • 27. Ibid. 87, 103; ii. 129, 196, 238.
  • 28. York Corp. Rec. D/11, ff. 4, 6; Test. Ebor. iv, no. 36.
  • 29. Test. Ebor. iv, no. 117.
  • 30. York Mem. Bk. i. 106.
  • 31. e.g. ibid. 48–49, 61, 72–73, 94.
  • 32. Ibid. 199–200.
  • 33. e.g. ibid. 69–70, 78–79, 86, 104; ii. 280 sqq.
  • 34. Ibid. i. 104.
  • 35. York Civ. Rec. i. 16.
  • 36. York Mem. Bk. i. 65, 107, 169, 213, &c.
  • 37. Ibid. 190 sqq.
  • 38. Ibid. 78–79.
  • 39. York Corp. Rec. D/11, ff. 4, 6; York Freemen, i. 204–6.
  • 40. Dr. J. N. Bartlett drew the author's attention to this fact.
  • 41. York Mem. Bk. i. 111.
  • 42. York Civ. Rec. ii. 165.
  • 43. York Mem. Bk. ii. 279–80.
  • 44. York Mem. Bk. i. 49, 74, 87.
  • 45. Yorks. Chantry Surv., 468, 469; An Old York Ch. ed. Shaw, 6.
  • 46. York Civ. Rec. ii. 35; York Mem. Bk. ii. 179–82, 278–9.
  • 47. York Mem. Bk. ii. 278; Cal. Pat. 1452–61, 105.
  • 48. See generally York Mystery Plays, ed. L. Toulmin Smith; R. Davies, York Rec. 227 sqq. There is a version of the plays in modern English by J. S. Purvis (York Cycle of Mystery Plays, 1957).
  • 49. Drake, Ebor. App. p. xxx.
  • 50. York Mem. Bk. i. 10; E. K. Chambers, Eng. Lit. at the Close of Middle Ages, 29; H. Craig, Eng. Religious Drama in Middle Ages, 199 sqq.
  • 51. York Mem. Bk. ii. 102–4, 171–3; York Civ. Rec. i. 115; ii. 152, 183–4.
  • 52. York Mem. Bk. ii. 156.
  • 53. For changes in the stations and the payments made by citizens to have the plays performed before their doors, see Y.A.J. xxxviii. 492 sqq.
  • 54. Drake, Ebor. App. pp. xxix, xxxii; York Mem. Bk. ii. 79, 156–8.
  • 55. York Civ. Rec. ii. 56 sqq., 70–71, 93, 96–100.
  • 56. Smith, York Mystery Plays, p. xxviii.
  • 57. Ibid. p. xxx; York Civ. Rec. ii. 118; Test. Ebor. ii, no. 95.
  • 58. For most of the guilds mentioned here see p. 111.
  • 59. York Mem. Bk. i. 187 (cordwainers, 1417).