The Guilds of York

Interior of the Guildhall published by J Halfpenny 1807 - York Art Gallery

Guilds are formal groups of citizens who come together to promote and protect their common interests.  There were two types of medieval guilds, trade guilds regulated the activities of a particular trade or craft, while religious guilds were for the spiritual benefit of their members alive and – through prayers – dead.

In York the weavers were first recorded trade guild in 1163, paying the King £10 a year for the privilege.  By 1180 glovers, saddlers and hosiers had banded together, and butchers, drapers and vintners had their own guilds at the end of the 13th century.  Eighty guilds are listed in one 15th century document.

Rules of the guilds were laid out in papers called Ordinances.  The Ordinances of the Porters from 1495 stated that only 16 named porters were allowed to carry items from the river to various named streets, for standard fee of a penny.  The 1492 Ordinances of the Drapers dwelt on ways to stop ‘foreign’ drapers – those who were not freemen – trading in the city.

Guilds were responsible for maintaining the quality of goods and workmanship.  They sent out ‘searchers’ to inspect everything from raw materials to finished goods.  Guilds also fixed wages and prices, and took on apprentices, often for seven years of training.

Disputes within and between guilds were arbitrated by the mayor and council.

The most important of the religious guilds was the Corpus Christi Guild, founded in 1408 to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi.  Between its foundation and closure in 1546 it had nearly 17,000 members, including archbishops of York, regional nobles, and others from the upper tier of city society.

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