Two dozen and more Silkwomen of Fifteenth-Century London

Medieval womenTwo dozen and more Silkwomen of Fifteenth-Century London

Anne F. Sutton

The Ricardian, Vol.16 (2006)


Medieval London was the centre of the English silkwomens’ trade. Young girls came from all over England to be ‘maydens in Chepeside and Soper Lane that be prentees … prentees which mercer wifes have’.1 The Mercery stretched east along Cheapside from St Mary le Bow to opposite the frontage of the present Mercers’ Hall and back as far as the east-west line of St Pancras Lane; it included and was divided by Soper Lane (Shopkeepers’ Lane) now under Queen Street. It was a mass of small shops, selling stations and covered markets called selds, of which one of the best known was the Crown, owned by the Mercers’ Company from 1411. There a mercer maiden might sit sewing in a window and inspire a poet soon after the accession of Edward IV:

Erly in a sommeristide y sawe in london, as y wente, A gentilwoman of chepe-side workinge on a vestiment. She sette xij letters on a Rowe, And saide, if that y myght it understond, Thorough the grace of god, ye scule it knowe, This lettres xij schall save mery Englond . . .


The twelve letters included three Rs for the three Richards who had saved England: Richard of York, Richard of Salisbury and Richard of Warwick, and another ‘R for the Rose that is frische and wol nat fade’. This was one of several poems celebrating the Yorkist victory that circulated in London in the 1460s. A silkwoman made items of silk, from braids, laces, ribbons to buttons, fastenings and tassels, and every thing which is still covered by the French term passementerie. She also dealt in certain types of haberdashery (once also mercery and still so called in French: mercerie) and in such items as veils of silk and linen, kerchiefs, gloves, and linen and silk coifs for the head.

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