The Company started as an association of artisans, ie working tailors, known as the Fraternity of St John the Baptist. This was both for trade regulation and also for a good funeral and for prayers for one’s soul in Purgatory after death. All these aspects were equally important before the Reformation. The Company’s first royal charter was in 1327, and the Company was incorporated by a further royal charter in 1408. The Company also possessed a chapel in St Paul’s Cathedral and, from 1413, almshouses in Threadneedle Street for its aged members.
At this time the Company was known as the Company of Tailors and Linen-Armourers, linen armour being the padded clothes worn beneath metal armour.
From humble beginnings, the Company very gradually improved its status. It acquired considerable wealth through gifts and benefactions. Many important people were admitted to the Fraternity, such as Henry V, the victor of Agincourt. Although many members remained working tailors, by the late 15th century the senior membership contained an increasing number of wealthy merchants, trading within England and also overseas. The first Mayor to be chosen from the Company was Sir John Percyvale, Master of the Company in 1489 and Mayor in 1508. There have been many others since.
The Company became the Company of Merchant Taylors by a royal charter of 1503. This reflected its new status and commercial role in the business of the City of London. A few years later it also became one of the “Great Twelve” livery companies, the senior companies in the City from which all Lord Mayors had to be chosen.
Like all livery companies, the Merchant Taylors is now a social and charitable organisation. The last working tailors in the Company are believed to have been at the end of the 17th century, though links with the trade have recently been revived.
Further information about the Company’s history can be found in Matthew Davies and Ann Saunders, The History of the Merchant Taylors’ Company (Maney, 2004). This includes a select bibliography of works about the Company and its treasures. Copies are available from the Company.
Further reference available as downloads of the milestones of the Company’s history here