13 October 2022
York’s mediaeval guilds
and how some of their
great halls have survived
York Guildhall, in the heart of the city and overlooking the banks of the Ruver Ouse, is an impressive survival from the Middle Ages. Most mediaeval cities had several guilds, and mediaeval York had more than 50 craft guilds, including vintners, butchers, scriveners and many others.
Two mediaeval guilds in York continue their activities and continue to operate from their mediaeval guild halls: the Merchant Adventurers and the Merchant Taylors.
There were two types of mediaeval guilds: trade guilds that regulated the activities of a trade or craft, and religious guilds for the spiritual benefit of their members alive and dead.
The Guild of Corpus Christi, founded in 1408, was the most important religious guild in York. From its foundation until its dissolution in 1546, it had nearly 17,000 members, including Archbishops of York, local nobles and leading members of city society.
The city’s trade guilds largely controlled trade within York, oversaw the quality of goods and workmanship within the city and looked after their members’ interests. The guilds inspected raw materials and finished goods, fixed wages and prices, and regulated the conditions of apprentices. Guild disputes were arbitrated by the mayor and council.
The weavers were first recorded trade guild in York in 1163. By 1180, glovers, saddlers and hosiers had formed guilds, and butchers, drapers and vintners had their own guilds by the end of the 13th century. One document lists 80 guilds in the 15th century.
The guild rules were set out in ‘ordinances.’ The Ordinances of the Porters allowed only 16 named porters to carry goods from the river to named streets, charging a standard fee. The Drapers in 1492 sought ways to stop ‘foreign’ drapers – drapers who were not freemen of the city – trading in the city.
York Guildhall, the municipal building behind the Mansion House, was built in 1445 for the Guild of Saint Christopher and Saint George and the Corporation as a meeting place for the city’s guilds. The city corporation met there for the first time in 1459, and King Richard III was entertained there in 1483.
The city corporation took over the site in 1549. Margaret Clitherow, the Catholic martyr, was put on trial there in 1586, and it was there during the English Civil War that a ransom of £200,000 was counted before Charles I was released in 1647.
Over the years, many of the guilds have merged or been dissolved. However, nine guilds remain in York today. They are active in commercial and community pursuits, and two mediaeval guilds continue their activities and continue to operate from their mediaeval guild halls.
The Merchant Adventurers had the largest and most magnificent hall in York. Described as ‘Britain’s oldest surviving half-timbered guildhall,’ it was built in the 14th century on the site of an earlier Norman mansion.
The hall was built mainly in 1357 by a religious fraternity founded the previous year as the Guild of Our Lord Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
A hospital was established in the undercroft in 1371 for the poor people of York and the fraternity was granted a royal charter by King Henry VI in 1471 and renamed ‘The Mistry of Mercers.’ The members were mostly mercers, who exported wool and cloth across Europe, and imported wine and other goods.
The guild became even more powerful in 1581 when Queen Elizabeth I granted it a charter as the Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York and gave them a monopoly over most goods imported into the city.
The principal parts of the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall are the Great Hall, the chapel and the undercroft. The Great Hall, on the upper floor, was built over a five-year period. It is a massive timber-framed room, with supports in the middle because it was too large to be built all in one piece.
The collections of silver, furniture and old paintings in the hall include a mediaeval ‘Evidence Chest’ that is older than the hall itself. Works of art include a painting by Jan Griffier, ‘Dutch snow scene with skaters,’ a painting by Joseph Farington depicting the Old Ouse Bridge at York and a portrait by William Etty of his brother, John Etty.
The undercroft, like the Great Hall, is divided in two by its supporting row of timber posts. It was used as a hospital and almshouse until 1900, and there is a small chapel attached to the hall. The undercroft also provides access to an attached chapel built for the use of the ill and poor in the hospital as well as the members of the Merchant Adventurers’ Guild. It is still used for worship.
In later centuries, the guild widened admission criteria to include politicians and businessmen. Membership could be by inheritance or nomination, and even today many members can trace their involvement through many generations.
Notable Merchant Adventurers have included members of the Rowntree and Terry families, whose names are familiar because of the chocolate companies they founded in York.
The Merchant Adventurers helped to found the York Chamber of Commerce in 1895 and the University of York in 1963.
Today, the Hall is a Grade I listed building and scheduled ancient monument. It is used by the 160 members of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York for meetings and formal occasions. But it is also popular for outside functions, including weddings.
The Merchant Taylors’ Hall in Aldwark, near the city wall, was built by the Fraternity of Saint John the Baptist, a religious guild linked to the Taylors’ Guild.
The Great Hall was built in 1415, the year of the Battle of Agincourt. A new wing, now known as the Small Hall, was built In the late 15th century. It was referred to as the ‘Counsell howse’ in 1539, and later as the Counting House, although it could have been built or used as a chapel.
The width of the Great Hall was ambitious, and the method of spanning the space can be seen in the exposed roof timbers. The roof is an unusual combination of two systems – a triangular truss consisting of a bottom tie with a central post and braces and two big curved arches both of which are capable of supporting the pitched rafters and roof covering.
The main hall is 60 by 30 ft (18.3 by 9.1 m), with 30 ft (9.1 m) ceilings. This means the width and height of the Great Hall are similar and with a length that is twice that dimension, it forms two cubes side by side.
At the west end of the Great Hall lies the Entrance Hall which forms the original screen’s passage – one of the very few that exists in England today – on the further side of which were kitchens and service rooms, now the cloakrooms. At the other end of the Hall, under the great window was a dais where the Master and Officers of the Company sat.
The heraldic arms over the fireplace are those of the London Drapers Company, painted on wood before 1668, long before the Merchant Taylors of York had their own arms.
The adjoining Counsel House, sometimes called the Counting House, has two stained glass windows by Henry Gyles of York. The south window shows Queen Anne, and was made to commemorate her accession to the throne.
The hall was hidden from public view until the 1960s by a terrace of buildings fronting onto Aldwark, including an entrance archway built in 1887. A large part of the forecourt was also occupied by terrace dwellings. When the archway was demolished, the stone coat of arms above the archway depicting the arms of the London Company of Merchant Taylors was saved and built into the new boundary wall beside the hall porch.
The hall now has a splendid forecourt and garden. The building is still used by the Guild of Merchant Taylors of York, and is available to hire.
In addition, the Bedern Hall is owned by the Bedern Hall Company and is home today to three of York’s Guilds: the Gild of Freemen of the City of York, The Company of Cordwainers and the York Guild of Building.