A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 6, the Borough and Liberties of Beverley. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.
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The Guilds and their Plays
The medieval guilds of Beverley are particularly well documented. The keepers claimed a supervisory role in the internal affairs of the crafts and one consequence was that guild ordinances were inspected by them and enrolled among the town's own records. (fn. 1) One feature which emerges forcefully from the records is the wide range of craft structure that was possible. In the 15th century, for which the records are fullest, the crafts displayed three levels of organization, although the different levels shaded into one another. At the lowest level some crafts apparently had no formal structure of their own, although the men concerned might combine on an ad hoc basis, for example to present a play on Corpus Christi Day. The furbishers, or armourers, were a case in point. They seem never to have constituted an independent guild but had their own play in 1390. (fn. 2) The absence of a guild structure in such cases helps to explain changes in the list of plays, as small crafts decided to contribute, dropped out, or amalgamated with others. By 1425 the furbishers were part of a consortium which presented the Crucifixion (fn. 3) and do not appear in their own right in the late 15th-century list of plays and their presenters. (fn. 4) The porters and creelers did not have a play in 1390, but in 1452 they agreed to play the 'newly made' pageant of the Annunciation on the next feast day, although they were still apparently without a formal structure. (fn. 5) By 1476 they were constituted as a guild, with their own alderman, but by then they had taken on a different pageant, 'the graving and spinning of Adam and Eve'. (fn. 6) They were still performing it at the end of the century, when the mustard makers and chandlers had taken over the Annunciation. The fluidity of arrangements made by nonguilds is shown particularly well by the hairers. When they undertook to present Paradise, in 1391 the agreement was made by one of their number, who promised to meet the costs during his lifetime. (fn. 7) His fellow craftsmen consented, but the craft as such was not the contracting party. By 1452 the ropers had taken over the play with a single hairer contributing to its costs. (fn. 8) The ropers were still performing it at the end of the century, when it was identified as 'the breaking of the commandments of God'.
At the other organizational extreme were those crafts the corporate identity of which was manifested in the annual election of aldermen and stewards to act for the craft and regulate its affairs. The 1452 agreement concerning the performance of Paradise makes the distinction plain. An individual hairer, John Chaplain, made his payment to the officers of the ropers' art, in other words to a guild. In between those extremes were crafts which regulated their own affairs but were too small for the annual election of alderman and steward to be practicable. The goldsmiths are an example. In 1365 four goldsmiths, probably all those then active in the town, swore before the keepers to use only silver of more than a given quality and to ensure that work leaving their hands was properly hallmarked. They appointed one of their number as searcher to enforce the regulations. In 1409 four goldsmiths petitioned the keepers that the number of searchers be increased to two. By then the craft's corporate identity was expressed in the maintenance of a light in honour of St. Dunstan, to which newcomers to the craft were to contribute. (fn. 9) The collection of money implies a further degree of internal organization, but the goldsmiths still had no formal structure. The 1409 orders make no mention of elected officials or regular meetings, both of which were characteristics of more highly organized crafts.
At the beginning of the 15th century only about half the identifiable crafts had their own elected officials. In 1390 as many as 38 crafts had plays, but in 1431 only 19 had aldermen. In the latter year it was ordered that only stewards of the crafts should carry torches in the Corpus Christi Day procession. The ensuing list accordingly omits not only crafts like the furbishers, which had no officials, but also the goldsmiths, who had only searchers. (fn. 10) That was in spite of the goldsmiths' orders of 1409 which had stated that they should carry a torch in the procession for ever. (fn. 11) The exclusion of all but stewards from the procession helps to explain why more crafts reconstituted themselves with elected officers. The brasiers, for example, acquired an alderman and steward within two years of the procession's regulation. (fn. 12) A more powerful motive for the acquisition of recognized officials, however, was the tendency, manifest by the 1460s, for the aldermen of the crafts to take the place of the commonalty in any discussion with the keepers. (fn. 13) The period from 1433 to 1493 saw at least 10 crafts acquire aldermen for the first time. In several cases the election of officials was made viable by the banding together of several small crafts. In 1488 the painters, goldsmiths, masons, and glaziers joined forces as one brotherhood with an alderman and steward. Together they were responsible for the play of the three kings of Cologne and maintained a light before St. Christopher in the nave of the minster. (fn. 14) Such agreements might entail compromises. Both the goldsmiths and the masons had had their own plays in 1390. Presumably it was the masons who lost theirs, since it is likely that the goldsmiths had always presented the three kings, for which they were the obvious choice. The goldsmiths, on the other hand, apparently abandoned their corporate devotion to their patron St. Dunstan.
Some of the guilds which already had their own officials in 1431 had been formed by a similar process. The coopers' guild of the 1431 list was in fact the guild of the bowyers, fletchers, coopers, patten-makers, boilers, (fn. 15) box-makers, turners, carvers, and joiners, to which other smaller crafts, such as staff-makers, were affiliated. (fn. 16) It had been formed in 1416 by the amalgamation of two existing craft groups: the bowyers and fletchers, and the coopers. The former already had an alderman and steward, while the coopers had only searchers, and the agreement was couched as the coopers joining the bowyers, severing themselves from the carpenters to do so, rather than vice versa. The bowyers' existing religious observances were adopted by the enlarged guild, which kept a light before the Easter sepulchre in St. Mary's church from Good Friday to Easter Sunday and on all principal feasts. The coopers appear, however, to have become the dominant partner, to judge by the fact that the guild was usually described as theirs. (fn. 17) Both crafts kept their own plays: Abraham and Isaac for the bowyers and the flight into Egypt for the coopers. (fn. 18) Some of the lesser crafts, however, lost their plays by the amalgamation. The boilers and turners had both had their own plays in 1390.
The amalgamation of small crafts into a single guild was the usual pattern in the late Middle Ages, but exceptions can be found. Some established guilds were also merged. The fullers and shearmen, who each enjoyed separate liveries in the 1390s and their own officials in 1431, had agreed to share an alderman by 1469. (fn. 19) It is not clear whether this was an initiative of the guilds themselves or an attempt by the keepers to limit the growing number of aldermen entitled to some say in government. The two crafts were already closely identified. In 1441 it had been ordered that every shearman who was also a fuller should contribute to that art, and vice versa. (fn. 20) Each craft kept its own play, and at the end of the century the fullers played the creation of Adam and Eve and the shearmen Adam and Seth, which was presumably the death of Adam. Two other guilds, the shipmen and tilers, also agreed to share an alderman. (fn. 21) In that case two lesser occupations, the freshwater fishermen and the fowlers, also joined the guild, the common denominator being that all four groups kept boats on the beck. The two formerly independent guilds again kept their own plays: the shipmen, appropriately, played Noah's ark and the tilers the fall of Lucifer. In contrast, there is only one firm example of an established guild being divided. In 1493 the drapers left the mercers to become a fraternity with their own play, the judgement of Pilate, and their own officers. (fn. 22) The move was not welcomed by the existing tailors' guild and by the end of the following year the keepers had to intervene to impose an agreement. (fn. 23)
The late 15th-century list of plays also includes a few crafts which do not appear to have been members of formally constituted guilds, the scriveners and vintners, for example. By that date, however, most crafts had formed guilds, either singly or in co-operation. Lesser trades had been affiliated to the guilds, with the cooks, for instance, receiving contributions from pie-, pastry-, and flan-bakers, cheesecakemakers, oatmealmakers, and dinner-makers. (fn. 24) Formal guilds were evidently perceived to have advantages over those with more ad hoc arrangements, although the possibility cannot be discounted that the formulation and enrolment of guild ordinances was partly due to a liking of order for order's sake. The keepers may also have seen the proliferation of guild orders as a reflection of their own authority as much as that of the crafts, particularly as half the fine for any breach of the orders went to the town. From the point of view of the crafts, the guild structure made self-regulation easier, if only by putting responsibility into the hands of designated officers, the alderman and stewards who, in the words of the bowyers' ordinances, were to superintend and rule the craft. (fn. 25) Most of the combined guilds brought together crafts with interests in common, like the bowyers' and coopers' guild, which was basically a woodworkers' guild, or the metal-working amalgamation of cutlers, plumbers, brasiers, pewterers, pinners, and armourers. (fn. 26) That was not always the case, however, which suggests that craft regulation was not the primary motive involved. The masons, glaziers, goldsmiths, and painters had relatively little in common and their extant ordinances made no attempt to regulate craft practices. (fn. 27) That was presumably done by the individual crafts, if at all.
To judge by their ordinances guilds were valued primarily as an expression of corporate identity. That had a political dimension, since the guild aldermen were regularly consulted by the keepers, but it also had a religious and ceremonial aspect. The latter was not confined to the formally constituted guilds. Loose associations of craftsmen could put on a play or maintain a light. The greater resources of an established guild, however, gave them an advantage in that respect, apart from the fact that some ceremonial roles were restricted to them. Virtually all the guilds maintained a light in one of the churches, and it is indicative of the commercial balance of power within the town that the majority took St. Mary's as their religious focus. Among those which did not, the tilers maintained a light before the crucifix inside the north door of the minster, (fn. 28) as did the dyers. (fn. 29) The porters and creelers were, like the goldsmiths and their associates, identified with the altar of St. Christopher in the nave of the minster, (fn. 30) while the cooks were associated with the chapel of St. Catherine there and the tailors with the altar of St. Andrew. (fn. 31) The millers kept a light before the image of Christ in the sepulchre in St. Nicholas's church. (fn. 32) Most unusually of all, the butchers were associated with the church of the Franciscan friars, where they had an annual mass for the souls of past members. (fn. 33) Such masses were probably standard practice among the other guilds, although they are not always mentioned in their ordinances. The tailors had their mass on the feast of the decollation of the Baptist. (fn. 34) The weavers, whose guild was dedicated to the Assumption, held their mass on that feast. (fn. 35) Similarly all guilds probably provided funeral masses for members. That it was normal practice is implied by the number of ordinances which explained what should be done in special cases, as when the wife of a member died, without needing to define the usual situation. (fn. 36) The wealthiest of the craft guilds, the mercers', even had its own salaried chaplain, who said mass daily before the light of Holy Trinity in the charnel of St. Mary's, where the guild also maintained three lights. (fn. 37) The priest was recorded from 1411 (fn. 38) and he received regular benefactions in the later 15th century. (fn. 39)
The ceremonial high points of the guilds' year were Cross Monday, that is the Monday in Rogationtide, and the feast of Corpus Christi. On the first the relics of St. John were carried in procession to St. Mary's church in the morning, watched by the brethren of the guilds sitting in their 'castles'. Only recognized guilds had these structures, and their position was carefully specified in the guild ordinances. The bowyers and fletchers, for instance, had their castle at the bull ring, opposite the castle of the butchers. (fn. 40) The basic framework of the castles was of wood but it was to be 'honestly covered'. (fn. 41) The bowyers and fletchers achieved that by insisting that every brother should bring a suitable bedspread, to be hung on the castle. (fn. 42) The appearance of those inside the castle was equally carefully regulated. The glovers merely expected their brothers to wear new clothes if possible, (fn. 43) but most guilds ordered that their livery should be worn. (fn. 44) That was the most visible expression of a guild's corporate identity. It was usually replaced every two or three years and guild members were forbidden to sell or give away the current outfit. (fn. 45) It was also worn on feast days, (fn. 46) when the guild would attend mass together, at guild dinners, (fn. 47) and when the guilds rode to greet an eminent visitor. (fn. 48) The guilds took their appearance on such occasions extremely seriously, the weavers going so far as to deny a place in the castle or processions to any master who was too poor to buy the current livery. (fn. 49)
The Cross Monday castles seem to have been regarded as the ultimate symbols of guild status and prestige. Crafts which were not formally organized did not have them. Since they absorbed a significant share of the guilds' revenue it is possible that some of the poorer guilds did not have them either. There is no reference, for example, to the labourers' castle, although their guild supported a play and a light. (fn. 50) When the drapers split away from the mercers their new ordinances put the castle in first place. The drapers were to be 'a brotherhood to maintain a wooden castle annually on Rogation Mondays'. (fn. 51) The clause regulating the building of the castle and the demeanour of its occupants is also the longest of the orders. In general the castles bulk more largely in guild ordinances than other aspects of the Rogationtide celebrations, which continued with the guilds riding in procession to accompany the shrine and culminated with a mass in the minster on Ascension Day. (fn. 52) The celebrations are one of the very few aspects of guild life to be mentioned in wills, with several mercers bequeathing wine to be drunk by their fellows during Rogationtide. (fn. 53)
The Corpus Christi Day festivities seem to have aroused less enthusiasm. The guilds valued the right of their stewards to carry torches in the procession, but, that apart, the celebrations offered less scope for a demonstration of the guilds' status. They were, rather, a civic occasion. The keepers walked at the head of the crafts in the procession (fn. 54) and the only castle on that occasion was one erected at North bar, from which the keepers watched the play cycle. (fn. 55) The plays themselves were not a specifically guild occasion. Some of them were presented by crafts which did not have full guild status, such as the vintners, who rather inappropriately played the annunciation to the shepherds. (fn. 56) Plays were also performed by groups which can hardly be considered crafts at all. The gentlemen of the town presented the castle of Emmaus, after requesting their own play in 1411. (fn. 57) The priests performed the coronation of the Virgin and the husbandmen took 'Bedleem' or the Nativity. The cycle was essentially an expression of urban solidarity or, as the keepers put it in 1411, of 'the peaceful union of the worthier and lesser commons of Beverley'. (fn. 58) A badly presented play was thus an insult to the honour of the town and an offending guild might be fined. (fn. 59) The keepers' desire for a good show may also explain the 45. given in alms to the skinners for their pageant in 1450-1. (fn. 60)
The plays were mentioned in 1377, (fn. 61) and in 1390 were described as an ancient custom. (fn. 62) There were then apparently 38 plays in the cycle. The late 15th-century list gives only 36, but it omits the metal-workers' play of the Crucifixion, mentioned in 1424 and 1475. (fn. 63) Even if the metal-workers had given it up, it is difficult to believe that so crucial an episode had been dropped from the cycle altogether. The cycle was initially performed annually, and that still seems to have been the case in 1411. (fn. 64) By the 1430s performances had become less frequent, and on St. Mark's Day 1436 the keepers ordered that the plays should be prepared for 1437. (fn. 65) In 1457 the burgesses asked that the plays should be performed annually as they used to be. (fn. 66) That may have been agreed, and there were recorded performances in 1459 and 1460-1, (fn. 67) but it is likely that they again became less frequent. Some 15th-century guild ordinances, including the butchers' of 1467 and the tanners' of 1494, (fn. 68) give two scales of annual charges depending on whether the play was performed or not. The plays were presented at six stations, five of them along the high street, the central spine of the town. They were North bar; the bull ring, at the north end of Saturday Market; Cross bridge; Fish Market; and near the minster, probably at the end of Highgate. The sixth station was at the beck. (fn. 69) The texts of the plays do not survive, and there is only one extant properties list, for the hairers' play of Paradise. (fn. 70) In 1423-4 a Dominican friar, Thomas Bynham, composed the banns which were proclaimed by the town waits on the eve of Ascension Day to publicize the forthcoming cycle. (fn. 71)
The craft guilds were not the only fraternities in medieval Beverley. In 1431 eight other guilds walked in the Corpus Christi Day procession. (fn. 72) They were led by the clergy of the Corpus Christi guild, which was responsible for organizing the procession, although not the plays. (fn. 73) It was primarily a fraternity for the numerous lesser clergy of Beverley. One of its members in 1460, for instance, was John Smith, the first incumbent of the Rolleston chantry. (fn. 74) Laymen of honest conversation and employment were, however, also admitted. The brothers who were chaplains were required to say mass daily for their fellow members, and lay brothers were to recite five Pater nosters, or three and an Ave, after the elevation of the Host. The guild was in existence by 1352, when it was associated with a chantry founded by John Wilton in honour of Corpus Christi. (fn. 75) For the rest of the Middle Ages the guild's chaplains were much in demand at funerals, (fn. 76) and it provided obits for testators who did not feel able, or did not wish, to endow their own chaplain. In 1400, for example, Nicholas and Margaret Fleschewer gave the guild a tenement in Minster Moorgate in return for an annual obit in St. Mary's church. (fn. 77) The guild held other land, granted with the same intention, out of which it also maintained a light in the minster and offered relief to members who fell into poverty.
Although the guild of Corpus Christi took precedence on its own feast day, the senior guild was the great guild of St. John of Beverley de Hanshus. (fn. 78) This was the guild merchant, the existence of which was recognized by Archbishop Thurstan in the early 12th century. (fn. 79) In the 15th century it was still regularly described as the merchant guild of St. John, (fn. 80) but it is likely that it had already lost any specific craft associations which it may once have had; there would otherwise have been little need for the Trinity guild to develop as the craft guild for the merchants, mercers, and drapers of the town. (fn. 81) Instead St. John's probably served as the guild of the urban elite. Of its known officials virtually all were keepers at some point in their career, while at least one, the schoolmaster William Harding, was not a merchant. (fn. 82) This is not to say that the guild governed the town in any literal sense, (fn. 83) although office-holding within it may have been part of a civic cursus honorum. In practice there was considerable overlap between its membership and that of the Trinity guild. In 1446 the merchant John Middleton was steward of the Trinity guild and two years later held the same office in the guild of St. John. (fn. 84) He made bequests to both in his will. (fn. 85)
The best documented of the non-craft guilds is that of St. Mary. Originally it was the fraternity of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, founded in 1355 by nine married couples, two women, and the vicar of St. Mary's church. The most striking aspect of its ordinances is the detailed provision for the procession with which the guild marked its feast day. The brothers and sisters then gathered away from the church. One of the guild took the role of the Virgin, nobly dressed and adorned and 'as if with her son in her arms'. Two more portrayed Simeon and Joseph, and a further two represented angels, carrying a candle holder in the shape of a bowl with 24 great tapers. They processed to the church with melody and rejoicing, led by the two angels, Mary, and Joseph and Simeon. The guild members walked behind at a moderate pace, two by two, the sisters first and then the brothers, each holding a candle. After the mass the guild held its annual dinner in an honest place and elected an alderman and stewards. The officers were responsible for visiting members who were poor or infirm and relieving them with guild funds at their discretion. (fn. 86)
The guild was apparently refounded, in a somewhat different form, late in the 14th century. There is a testamentary reference of 1398 to the guild of St. Mary (fn. 87) and in 1400, when the king licensed it to acquire land, it was described as the fraternity of St. Mary of Beverley and was said to maintain a chaplain in St. Mary's church. (fn. 88) The chaplain celebrated in the charnel and was mentioned again in 1471. (fn. 89) By then the guild's energies were also directed elsewhere. By 1433-4 it had built an almshouse on town land beside North bar, and there were regular bequests to the hospital from 1434 onwards. (fn. 90) By 1463 the hospital had its own chapel, (fn. 91) and a chaplain was endowed for four years by John Holme in 1465. (fn. 92) His widow Denise in 1471 left money for prayers to be said there, but that was apparently the last time that the chapel was mentioned. (fn. 93)
The guild of the Purification was not alone in staging a dramatic procession each year. The guild of St. Helen held a similar procession on the saint's feast day, in which the most beautiful youth who could be found represented the saint. (fn. 94) He was preceded in the procession by two old men, one carrying a cross and the other a spade, to signify the discovery of the Cross. The sisters and brothers followed, two by two, with the greatest melody. The guild, the ordinances of which date from 1378, was identified with a chapel in the church of the Franciscan friars, and it was at the altar of St. Helen there that they celebrated mass after their procession. The chapel of St. Helen apparently predated the friary. (fn. 95) After mass the members adjourned to eat bread and cheese and drink sufficient ale, a menu which implies a relatively humble membership. So, perhaps, does the fact that nothing else is known of the guild, which is not mentioned in any extant wills.
Even less is known of the remaining four guilds mentioned in 1431. The Pater Noster guild was responsible for the town's second play cycle, which consisted of eight plays, one for each of the seven deadly sins and another for viciouse (fn. 96) Various trades were assigned to each play. Thus in 1441 scriveners, tanners, barbers, and labourers played Wrath, and coopers, carpenters, goldsmiths, masons, vintners, husbandmen, saucemakers, chandlers, and bakers played Gluttony. Different lists exist for 1467. The trades were broadly those which had plays in the Corpus Christi cycle but there is no evidence that the craft organizations were directly involved. No surviving guild ordinances mention the cycle and it may have been played only by craftsmen who were also Pater Noster guild members. It is unknown precisely when and how often the cycle was performed. No performance date is known for 1441. In 1467 it was performed on Sunday, the morrow of St. Peter in chains (2 Aug.), and an announcement to that effect was made on the day after Corpus Christi. (fn. 97) The timing of the 1467 performance would have made it possible for both cycles to be played in the same year, but there is no evidence as to whether that was the case. (fn. 98)
The other three guilds are little more than names. The guild of St. John in May perhaps organized the Rogationtide procession. (fn. 99) The guild of St. Peter of Milan ('Melon') is likely to have had some connexion with the preaching friars, for the saint was a Dominican and otherwise it was a rather strange dedication for an English guild. The guild of St. John the Baptist may have been responsible for the hospital of the same name which existed by 1440 and is mentioned in wills of 1489-97. (fn. 100) The barbers' and tailors' guilds were both dedicated to the Baptist, but since they had their own entries in the 1431 list the guild was probably a separate fraternity. (fn. 101)