13 October 2022

York’s mediaeval guilds
and how some of their
great halls have survived

York Guildhall … built in 1445 for the Guild of Saint Christopher and Saint George and the City Corporation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

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 arms of the Merchant Adventurers’ over the entrance to the hall on Fossgate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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.

The entrance to the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall on Fossgate … it had the largest and most magnificent hall in York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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 Merchant Adventurers’ Hall was built in the 14th century and is ‘Britain’s oldest surviving half-timbered guildhall’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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 was built in 1415 by the Fraternity of Saint John the Baptist (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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 heraldic arms of the Merchant Taylors of York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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.

The Bedern Hall is home today to three of York’s Guilds (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Thursday 13 October 2022

The Lady Chapel in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Patrick Comerford

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (13 October 2022) remembers Edward the Confessor, King of England, 1066, with a Lesser Festival.

Before today gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

During the last two weeks, I was reflecting each morning on a church, chapel, or place of worship in York, where I stayed last month. This week I am reflecting on the windows in one of those churches: All Saints’ Church, North Street, York.

In my prayer diary this week I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, A reflection on the windows in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

The East Window in the Lady Chapel in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)

King Edward the Confessor was born in 1002, the son of the English King Ethelred and his Norman wife Emma. Living in exile during the Danish supremacy, he was invited back to England in 1042 to become king, and was heartily welcomed as a descendant of the old royal line. However, his reign was a balancing act between the influences of stronger characters at his court or overseas, sustained by Edward’s diplomacy and determination. Edward’s reputation for sanctity was built on his personal, more than his political, qualities. He was concerned to maintain peace and justice in his realm, to avoid foreign wars, and to put his faith into practice. He was generous to the poor, hospitable to strangers, but no mere pietist. Having vowed as a young man to go on pilgrimage to Rome should his family fortunes ever be restored, he later felt it irresponsible to leave his kingdom, and was permitted instead to found or endow a monastery dedicated to Saint Peter. Edward chose the abbey on Thorney Island, by the river Thames, thus beginning the royal patronage of Westminster Abbey. He died on 5 January 1066 and his remains were translated to a new shrine in the Abbey on this day in 1162.

Luke 11:47-54 (NRSVA):

47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. 48 So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute”, 50 so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. 52 Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.’

53 When he went outside, the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile towards him and to cross-examine him about many things, 54 lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.

The Annunciation and the Nativity in the East Window in the Lady Chapel in All Saints’ Church (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)

The Lady Chapel East Window, and the The Great East Window, All Saints Church, York:

All Saints’ Church, North Street, York, which I described in this prayer diary recently (28 September 2022), is said to be ‘York’s finest mediaeval church.’ It dates from the 11th century and stands near the River Ouse.

The church has an important collection of mediaeval stained glass, including ‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window, depicting the 15 signs of the End of the World; the window depicting the Corporal Works of Mercy (see Matthew 25: 31ff); the Great East Window, originally in the north wall, and the Lady Chapel Window, which I am looking at today (13 October 2022); the Saint James the Great Window, which I am looking at tomorrow (14 October 2022); the Saint Thomas Window; and the Coats-of-Arms window.

All Saints’ Church, on North Street, York, is known particularly for two early 15th century windows: the window depicting ‘The Pricke Of Conscience’ or ‘The Fifteen Signs of Doom’ window, which I was looking at earlier this week (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday); and the window depicting the ‘Corporal Works of Mercy’ (see Matthew 25: 35-46), which I looking at yesterday.

This morning, I am reflecting on the 14th century Lady Chapel East Window and the Great East Window.

The Lady Chapel East Window:

The East Window in the Lady Chapel dates from ca 1330, and is the earliest window in All Saints’ Church. The canopies at the top of each light are clearly less assured than those of later windows in the church.

At one point, this window was above the high altar. The central figure of the crucified Christ would have been seen behind the altar, in place of the more modern altar crucifix. These were unknown in mediaeval England; instead, there was normally a crucifixion scene in stained glass in the window behind an altar. Each of the three east-end altars in this church has a crucifix in stained glass behind.

The six main panels in the this window tell the story of salvation. Appropriately for the Lady Chapel, they show Our Lady present in every scene, except the Resurrection where, according to Saint Matthew’s Gospel nobody was present other than the sleeping soldiers.

Many individual pieces of glass in a window of this antiquity have been broken and been renewed down the centuries. The face of the risen Christ, bottom right, is a clear example of a modern piece.

Tracery Lights: The ‘tracery lights’ are small openings in the stonework above the main window. Most of the glass in the tracery lights in this window is not mediaeval.

Left Light, Lower, The Annunciation: The Archangel Gabriel tells Our Lady she is to be the mother of God’s Son. The angel holds a scroll with the words Ave Maria gratia plena (‘Hail Mary full of grace,’ Luke 1: 28). Note how the Latin words on the scroll are abbreviated.

The Centre Light, Lower, The Nativity: At the birth of Jesus, Our Lady holds the infant Jesus, Saint Joseph is beside her, and above them are the heads of an ox and an ass.

The Right Light, Lower, The Resurrection: Christ is shown rising from the tomb. At one side is an angel in white, and below are three soldiers, the centre one frightened and awake, the others are asleep.

Left Light, Upper, The Adoration of the Magi: The three kings offer their gifts to the Infant Christ.

Centre Light, Upper, The Crucifixion: The crucified Christ with, on either side, Our Lady (left) and Saint John (right).

Right Light, Upper, The Coronation of Our Lady as Queen of Heaven: in mediaeval thought, this was regarded as a sign that the redemption of humanity by God in Christ is completed.

The Great East Window:

The Great East Window in All Saints’ Church was originally in the north wall. Like ‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window, it was given by the Blackburn family. Family members are seen kneeling at the bottom of the window: Nicholas snr on the right with his wife Margaret, and their son Nicholas jnr on the left with his wife Margaret.

In between them, at the centre bottom, is a striking representation of The Holy Trinity. The Father is seated on his throne, holding the Son on the cross before him, and the dove of the Holy Spirit is between their two heads.

The main figures under exuberant canopies are: Saint John the Baptist (left), Saint Anne (centre), teaching her daughter, the Virgin Mary, to read and to pray: the words are the beginning of Psalm 142, Domine exaudi orationem meam auribus percipe obsecrationem meam (‘Hear my prayer O Lord; give ear to my supplication’); Saint Christopher (right), carrying the Christ Child Jesus on his shoulders.

It is striking that all the women in this window are reading. In the main panel, Our Lady and Saint Anne read from Psalm 142. At the lower left, Margaret Blackburn is reading the beginning of Psalm 6, Domine ne in furore tuo arguas me, neque in ira tua (‘O Lord rebuke me not in thine indignation, neither [chastise me] in thy displeasure’); on the right, Margaret Blackburn snr reads from Psalm 50, Domine labia mea aperies et os meum (‘Thou shalt open my lips O Lord, and my mouth [shall show thy praise]’).

The Resurrection and the Visit of the Magi in the East Window in the Lady Chapel in All Saints’ Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Today’s Prayer (Thursday 13 October 2022):

The Collect:

Sovereign God,
who set your servant Edward
upon the throne of an earthly kingdom
and inspired him with zeal for the kingdom of heaven:
grant that we may so confess the faith of Christ
by word and deed,
that we may, with all your saints, inherit your eternal glory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God our redeemer,
who inspired Edward to witness to your love
and to work for the coming of your kingdom:
may we, who in this sacrament share the bread of heaven,
be fired by your Spirit to proclaim the gospel in our daily living
and never to rest content until your kingdom come,
on earth as it is in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Day of the Girl Child.’ This theme is introduced this morning by the Revd Benjamin Inbaraj, Director of the CSI-SEVA department, which runs the Church of South India’s social ministries.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

We pray for the social ministries of the Church of South India, which serves the diverse needs of marginalised communities across the region.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Crucifixion and the Coronation of Our Lady as Queen of Heaven in the East Window in the Lady Chapel in All Saints’ Church (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Further reading:

‘Church of All Saints with Anchorage Attached, Historic England List Entry 1257067, [accessed 8 October 2022].
‘The Stained Glass of All Saints’, All Saint Church, [accessed 8 October 2022].

The Great East Window in All Saints’ Church was originally in the north wall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford; click on images for full-screen viewing)