By Ian Stone
A look at how misteries, guilds and fraternities worked to create a sense of community for the masons of medieval London.
In the late summer of 1418, Walter Walton, a “citizen and mason of London,” died. Walton was both a citizen and mason of some standing. He had worked on buildings as grand as Westminster Hall, Portchester Castle, and Sheen Palace. He had served as a sworn viewer (technical advisor to the mayor and aldermen) in London and as “chief surveyor of all stone-cutters and masons for the king’s works in England.” He was also trusted and respected enough to be called upon by other masons to act as a guarantor for the quality of their work, and to witness or execute their wills. In his own will, he made perhaps as many as five bequests to other masons. Among these were two of particular significance for our purposes. The first was of his “livery cloak of my old and free mistery” to Thomas Perpoynts, a mason. The second, one of a series of Walton’s pious bequests, was of half a mark, that is 6s 8d., to the “fraternity of my craft.” Walter Walton was, then, the first man to leave evidence that he believed himself to belong to both a mistery and a fraternity of masons in London.
The word “mistery” derived ultimately from the Latin ministerium, one of the terms used at the time to describe a craft or a trade. Ministerium became mestier, mestera, or misteria in the French of the period, giving us our modern French and English word “métier.” In an institutional sense, it came to mean the organization that regulated economic practice within its craft. The emergence of these craft associations, or misteries, was a phenomenon of urban life across fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Europe. Across contemporary England, municipal authorities began to delegate responsibility for craft regulation to the misteries – in effect, giving what was often a self-appointed group from within the craft power to regulate the craft and those who worked within it. It is not difficult to understand why.
Misteries provided the urban authorities with a cheap means of regulating labor and production. They also raised money through fines and amercements. In most cases, shared common interests between the leading members of the mysteries and the men who ran the town ensured good relations between the two.
The institutional development of mysteries across the country was given momentum by a statute of 1363–4, which set out that all artisans and craftsmen were to belong to just one mistery, and which provided for the election of two men in each craft “to survey, that none use other Craft than the same which he has chosen.” In London, in particular, this process was given added impetus by the events of 1312 and 1319, which made the acquisition of political and economic rights dependent upon acquiring citizenship, access to which was controlled by the crafts.
30,000 Guilds or Fraternities
The earliest evidence for the existence of a mistery of masons in London is found in 1376. In that year, elections to the common council of London were first decided by the crafts, and four masons were elected by their mistery to that council. It is often believed, wrongly, that “mistery” is synonymous with “guild.” In fact, any medieval association, whether a social, religious, economic, or political one, might call itself a “guild” (gilda). Indeed, fraternities were a form of guild organization much more commonly found than the mysteries.
Gervase Rosser has recently suggested that there may have been at least 30,000 guilds or fraternities that “operated in England at some point between 1350 and 1500.” Certainly, while about 50 misteries were organized enough to elect representatives to London’s common council in 1376, Caroline Barron found evidence of between 150 and 200 parish fraternities in London in the years from 1350 to 1500.
Normally, but not always, a religious aspect was at the heart of the fraternity. A typical fraternity might be centered on the parish, on the cult of a saint, or on a feast or festival such as Corpus Christi. They offered the laity a chance to express their piety in their own idiom, through a model of communal, participatory worship and devotion. Fraternities were open to almost all members of society, from top to bottom – membership fees were typically low – and women were free to join the fraternity in the majority of cases. Usually members of a fraternity would come together on the feast day of their patron saint to worship collectively, feast communally, and, perhaps, elect their officers.
Vivid and convivial associations, to their members, fraternities were equally important in death as they were in life. Members of a fraternity were expected to attend the funerals of their colleagues and to ensure that masses and obits for the souls of deceased members were performed. Indeed, a clear purpose of medieval fraternities was to function as “communal chantries.” It is no surprise, then, that so many appear to have been founded in the decades after the Black Death.
‘Fraternity of masons of London founded at St. Thomas of Acre’
In addition, as we have seen in Walton’s will, a significant minority of fraternities drew their members exclusively or predominantly from a certain craft. The first evidence for a fraternity of masons in London is to be found in the will of William Hancock, a mason who died early in 1389. Among his several bequests, Hancock left 12d. to the “fraternity of masons of London founded at St. Thomas of Acre.”
Outside of London, a fraternity of stonemasons is visible at an even earlier date. The masons of Lincoln established the Fraternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1313. There is no hard and fast rule as to what came first, whether craft fraternity or craft mistery. In Lincoln the fraternity of masons appears long before any mistery, whereas in London the mystery is evident before the fraternity. We should, in any case, not mistake visibility for existence. Moreover, fraternities were mutable institutions. They changed and adapted to the world around them. It was, for example, not unknown for a parish fraternity to develop into a trade fraternity, particularly as in medieval towns it was common for those engaged in a certain craft to live close by others of their craft.
As a matter of fact, we should be careful not to draw too sharp a distinction between a parish fraternity and a craft fraternity, especially in the early fourteenth century, when the evidence can be quite fragmentary. Nor should we assume that all masons would have joined a fraternity of masons. For example, Henry Yevele, the most famous of all medieval masons, was a member of the Salve Regine Fraternity based at St. Magnus the Martyr Church close to London Bridge. Another mason, John Mappleton (d. 1407), was a member of at least two fraternities: his parish one of St. Dunstan and, in an example that proves the diversity of the medieval fraternity, the Fraternity of St. John the Baptist of the Tailors of London.
Fraternities may well have been especially popular with masons. Masons were more likely to be itinerant and some may have found the immobile parish an unsatisfactory or inadequate medium through which they could express their piety. The fraternity, on the other hand, offered more flexibility. For instance, a contingent of masons working at Windsor Castle, drawn from across southern England, could not only continue to express their religious devotion as members of the fraternity at Windsor, but they would also have a sense of fraternal fellowship with each other. Whether the “fraternity of masons of London founded at St. Thomas of Acre” was indeed the same fraternity to which Walter Walton later belonged is unknown. Certainly, in 1383, Walton was working on the church of St. Thomas of Acre from “devotion” to the saint.
Like so many contemporary Londoners, he appears to have been conventionally devoted to Becket’s cult. On the other hand, it is quite possible that there was more than one fraternity of masons in late medieval London, and it was the Mercers of London who developed the closest relationship with the Order of St. Thomas of Acre, even acquiring the site of its London home for Mercers’ Hall after the Order was suppressed in 1536. Moreover, in ordinances drawn up for the regulation of the craft of masonry in 1481, it is Holy Trinity Priory (also known as the church of Christchurch), Aldgate, and the feast of the Four Crowned Martyrs (November 8) that appear as the preeminent devotional site and feast to those enfranchised of “the craft, mistere, or science” of masonry.
Masons’ Company of London
A universal trend of fourteenth-century guild life in London, however, was for craft mistery and craft fraternity to come together. There was no single way that the two fused. In each instance, different dynamics played out at different times. As Elspeth Veale noted, the institutions that emerged from the fusion of mistery and fraternity derived strength and authority from the “common economic interests” of the mistery and the “social cohesion” of the fraternity. In London in the 1390s, the wealthier property-owning institutions began to acquire royal charters. Thus incorporated, they are commonly referred to as companies. It is from this model of incorporation that modern livery companies descend. Their charters granted them a perpetual legal personality and allowed them to administer bequests as charitable and religious trusts, with significant consequences.
The grants of lands and money to the companies were so great that they became the main repositories in London administering charitable endowments, both within and without the city. As a network of institutions playing a significant role in the lives of medieval Londoners, the companies were second only to the parish in importance and size. Royal charters did not, however, come cheap, and their real value was to those companies with significant property bequests. Primarily for these reasons, the Masons’ Company of London would not obtain its charter until 1677.
Nevertheless, The London Masons’ Company was clearly a company rooted in the city’s political and physical environment. By 1376, if not before, there was an established mistery of masons in London which, by 1386, can be seen electing and swearing masters. By 1389, perhaps even earlier, there was at least one fraternity of masons in London. By the time of Walter Walton’s death in 1418, the “old and free mistery” of masons had its own livery cloak. In 1422, the craft of masonry was one of the 111 crafts “exercised of old in London” named on a list drawn up by the clerk of the Brewers’ Company. In 1449 and 1456, the masons were one of about 50 misteries who made a financial contribution towards the cost of soldiers. In 1453, 1461, and 1518 they were again one of about 50 misteries that played a part in the keeping of the peace or of the watch in London. By 1463, the mistery of masons had a hall. In 1472–3 the “hole crafte and felawship of masons” acquired a coat of arms. In 1481, the “goode folke of the craft, mistere, or science of masons” came before the mayor and aldermen of London to seek ratification of a series of ordinances for the better rule and guiding of the craft.
Understanding this rather gives the lie to the traditional view (Louis Salzman; Douglas Knoop and Gwilym Jones; Nicola Coldstream) that masons were “outside the normal medieval craft structure” and, as such, could not and did not participate in the guild system. To be sure, masons and other workers employed in the building industry were different from their contemporaries – in some ways, at least. Masons were specialized among themselves (e.g. between carvers and layers) to a greater extent than those working in other crafts. They were itinerant, liable to be compelled to work on royal projects (impressment), and reliant on a handful of prominent patrons for work. They were, too, ordinarily based in the masons’ lodge rather than in the workshop. However, the idea that the lodge replaced the guild in the craft of masonry, or that the differences between the masons and their contemporary craftsmen were so great that masons could not form a “normal” guild, cannot hold.
Guilds certainly were not formed according to a one-size-fits-all model, and we cannot hold the masons up to this model and find them wanting. Instead, it is clear that the masons of London were absolutely able to participate in a system fundamental to late medieval urban life. In Walter Walton’s will, we have our earliest evidence of the coalescence of mistery and fraternity in the craft of masonry. This coming together was clearly a development of the first importance in the development of the Masons’ Company. More than that, it was symptomatic of the process by which London’s guilds, institutions immediately associated with communal life in the medieval city, became companies.
Ian Stone is a historian and is particularly interested in historical writing in the Middle Ages and the history of London. He is currently writing two books. For the first book, he will publish an edition of the Chronicle of the Mayors and Sheriffs of London. Compiled and composed by the London alderman Arnold fitz Thedmar (1201–74), this chronicle is the first secular, civic chronicle to have been written in the British Isles. Ian is also writing the history of the Worshipful Company of Masons, one of London’s oldest livery companies, ranked 30th in the city’s order of precedence. Ian teaches undergraduate courses on the history of London. For more details of his research and teaching, see his website at www.ianstone.london.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung, Band 1. Nürnberg 1426–1549. Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, Amb. 317.2°