Trade and craft associations known as guilds or livery companies have flourished all over Europe for a thousand years; they were common during the eleventh and twelfth centuries with the rise of the towns. They were originally voluntary associations or fraternities with religious and social objectives. The craft element grew almost incidentally, largely because people of`the same craft tended then to live in the same locality. The word 'guild' derives from the Saxon word for payment, since membership was paid for. 'Livery' refers to the clothing worn as means of identification; distinctive costumes were common in the Middle Ages, all great households providing their dependants and armed retainers with a livery (or uniform).
The religious side of the fraternities influenced the character of the guilds, encouraging good fellowship and hospitality within the fraternities. Meetings for funerals or masses were followed by feasts which, as the fraternity (later the guild) prospered, grew more and more elaborate - leading to the entertainments for which the Companies are still famous.
The early companies were the medieval equivalent of trading standards departments, checking quality of goods and weights and measures. They also controlled imports, set wages and working conditions and trained apprentices.
From medieval times until the mid-19th century the Craft Guilds of London, better known as the City Livery Companies, were closely connected with the freedom of the City of London. Liverymen had to be freemen of the City, and in this way the Corporation of London managed to exercise a degree of control over the livery companies.
The first mention of London Guilds occurs in the Exchequer Roll of 1130, referring to dues owed to the crown by the Weavers; the 'Goldsmiths of London' are referred to as though they were already an organised body. In the same century associations of Bakers, Pepperers (afterwards a branch of the Grocers' Company), Clothworkers, Butchers, Turners, Cooks and Coopers all appear to have existed. These were probably already long established bodies.
Throughout the years, certain of the Livery Companies have become defunct, for example the Silk-throwers, Silkmen, Pinmakers, Soapmakers, Hatbandmakers, Long-bow Stringmakers, Woodmongers, Starchmakers and Fishermen. But others have been created; in 2000 the 101st and 102nd livery companies were granted their charters (the Water Conservators and World Traders, respectively).
Livery Companies today
The Livery Companies continue to flourish, fostering their trade in a wide context. Several companies - such as the Goldsmiths Company, which has been responsible since 1300 for testing the purity of marking gold and silver wares - still have a continuing statutory or regulatory role, while others support related industries in a variety of ways. In keeping with their origins, the companies provide substantial funds to charitable and educational organisations. Much support goes to universities and other vocational institutions. A growing number of companies are involved in apprenticeship schemes.
The companies also carry out important functions in the elections of the government of the City of London and certain of its officers.
List of Livery Companies
After many years of fierce dispute, an order of precedence for Livery Companies was finally settled in 1515, starting with Mercers. As a result of controversy over the sixth place, the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners change places every year. (This gave rise to the saying "at sixes and sevens".) The first twelve Companies are known as the Great Twelve.
Below is a complete list, in order of precedence, of all the existing London Livery Companies. Those with an attached asterisk indicate companies whose records are included in the London Apprenticeship Abstracts collection. (Note that the British Origins database also contains records of defunct companies.)
Attaining the Freedom of the City of London was at one time essential to anyone who wished to trade or exercise his craft within the City's bounds; it remains a sought after privilege. Not all who became freemen had been apprenticed: in 1275 the then City Chamberlain, Andrew Horn, wrote that "there are three methods by which a man acquires the Freedom of the City; first that he be a man born in the City lawfully from his father, secondly, that he be an apprentice with a freeman for seven years and not less, and thirdly that a man may compound the Chamberlain for his freedom before the Mayor and other Aldermen." These methods, known respectively as Patrimony, Apprenticeship and Redemption, still apply, but from the fourteenth century until 1835 a would-be freeman of the City had first to become a freeman of a guild as well as satisfying one of the other requirements.
Freedom by patrimony is, as its name implies, the freedom by birth or inheritance. Children of freemen born when the father was already free were entitled to freedom 'by patrimony', on reaching the age of twenty-one years.
By no means every apprentice went on to become a freeman. Some died, some left their masters before their term expired and others while completing their apprenticeship simply never took up the freedom to which they were entitled.