The tailors of London and their guild, c.1300-1500

Medieval tailors

Medieval tailors

The tailors of London and their guild, c.1300-1500

Matthew P. Davies

University of Oxford: PhD Dissertation, Doctor of Philosophy, Corpus Christi College (1994)


The study of the towns and cities of medieval Europe has benefitted from a resurgence of scholarly interest over the last thirty years which has sought to bring new approaches to bear on hitherto dormant areas of historical study. The heterogeneous nature of urban society in the middle ages is no better evidenced than in the diversity of urban production, and the myriad associations or ‘guilds’ established by artisans and merchants. This thesis seeks to reassess the nature and limits of the authority which pertained to these associations in towns in the light of the relationships between artisans and the guilds, and between the guilds and civic authorities in the middle ages. The unusually full medieval records of the guild of London tailors, known from 1503 as the Merchant Taylors’ Company, provides a rare opportunity to assess the variety of roles which these organisations played in late-medieval London, both for the artisans themselves and for the wider urban community; other sources too enable greater light to be shed upon the diversity of economic activities in which artisans were involved and the nature of the ‘workshop economy’ in the middle ages. This diversity, it is argued, could never be reflected in the ordinances promulgated by guilds which merely sought to establish a normative framework for the organisation of urban industry. The enforcement of these ordinances was not uniform and often reflected the preoccupations, not only of the guild authorities, but also of the majority of artisans who were not members of these elite institutions. Guilds it is argued, possessed representative capabilities which often had a positive impact upon economic development and innovation in the medieval town.

Chapter One of this thesis examines the origins and development of the guild of London tailors, known from at least 1300 as the Fraternity of St. John the Baptist. Older studies of craft organisations have, on the whole, failed to appreciate the similarities which existed between ‘craft guilds’ and other guilds and fraternities, notably those which were attached to parish churches. More recently, however, the origins and functions of many craft organisations have been re-appraised by historians who have emphasised the common origins of these seemingly distinct associations and the continued importance of the social and religious functions and mutual obligations which underpinned their very existence. The Tailors’ fraternity was unusual in the range and scope of these functions which, it is argued, owed much to their social and political aspirations in the capital. This chapter examines first of all the evidence for the early development of the fraternity, the acquisition of a hall in present-day Threadneedle Street and of prominent benefactors and patrons. The physical and spiritual assets acquired by the Tailors during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are then considered in more detail. Papal privileges were granted on two occasions and the fraternity acquired the use of two chapels, one at their hall, and the other in St. Paul’s Cathedral. In addition, the fraternity received letters of confraternity from nine religious houses in and around London at the end of the fourteenth century. As well as being an association for the wealthiest practitioners of the craft, the fraternity admitted over 1,200 men and women from other walks of life, ranging from members of other London craft and merchant guilds to prominent churchmen, gentry and the nobility. The composition of the non-tailor membership is examined in detail and an assessment is made of the variety of impulses which led many of them to join the fraternity. This feature of the development of the Tailors’ fraternity is particularly notable and affords an unusual insight into the religious and social aspirations of wealthy Londoners, and the manner in which certain of the London guilds were viewed by prominent non-citizens, many of whom established business relationships with merchants and craftsmen in the capital.

Despite the surprisingly large non-tailor membership, the fraternity of St. John the Baptist was, like the other craft fraternities of London, a vehicle for the expression of craft identity. Chapter Two looks at two important ways in which the principles offraternitas were exploited for the benefit of the tailor membership. First, the administration of post obit arrangements on behalf on benefactors is examined. By 1548 when the chantries were finally dissolved, the Tailors were administering thirteen chantries and twenty-seven obits in nine parish churches and religious houses in and around London, founded, in most cases out of the income from lands and tenements left to the fraternity by prominent tailors. Wealthy London citizens in general, it is argued, often saw their craft fraternities as ideal administrators of such arrangements, despite their allegiances to their parishes churches or local fraternities. These foundations, moreover, yielded a ‘profit’ over and above the cost of the services specified by the benefactors. This income was ploughed back into the ‘common box’ of the fraternity and used for a variety of purposes whether connected with the supervision of the craft as a whole or the internal life of the fraternity. Certainly, as the chapter demonstrates, the Tailors’ fraternity acquired considerable wealth as a result of its activities as a ‘corporate executor’ for its members. One of the uses to which such money was put was the provision of charitable assistance for tailor members of the fraternity, a central function pertaining to all lay fraternities, large and small in the middle ages. The chapter describes in detail the development and operation of mechanisms to help poor members, the criterion used to select almsmen and the various forms of assistance that were offered. The foundation of an almshouse for seven poor tailors and their wives in 1413 epitomised the importance of the charitable dimension to the fraternity’s activities, and was the earliest such foundation in London. The chapter concludes with an examination of the shifts in pious behaviour which took place in the later fifteenth century in London and elsewhere, changes which appear to have affected the provision of charity by the Tailors’ fraternity and the extent to which it continued to administer post obit arrangements. Increasing emphasis upon the parish, in particular, appears to have reduced the role played by fraternities of all kinds in the provision of charitable assistance.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Oxford

Click here to visit Professor Matthew Davies’ webpage at the Institute of Historical Studies

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