13 July 2020
The origins of the Billesden Award and our feud with the Skinners' Company
24 March 2020
Shakespeare once asked, what’s in a name?
First performed around 1595, Romeo and Juliet questions the true value in a title alone. Almost a century earlier, the Fraternity of St John the Baptist of Tailors and Linen-Armourers was reincorporated by royal charter to become The Merchant Taylors’ Company. Was this purely decorative? Did it reflect a fundamental shift within the Company? Examining the Company’s various titles, we’ll discover how the Company ascended over centuries from a religious fraternity of artisanal craftsmen, to become one of the Great Twelve, and how its names were key to that evolution.
At the fall of Rome in 476 AD, Europe entered the Middle Ages. The era is defined by the pivotal role religion played in daily life; a touchstone for domestic and public spheres, religion was key to political advancement and social status. As a result, a new type of organisation formed across Europe called a fraternity. This organisation was based on piety, collective devotion and unity, supporting funeral costs, praying for one another’s souls and granting alms for the poor. They were ubiquitous and instrumental to a medieval way of life that revered community and the Church. Thus crafts acted as a further social adhesive; crafts meant skills in common and shared experiences.
Tailoring fraternities often dedicated themselves to St John the Baptist, based on a biblical reference where his “clothes were made of camel’s hair and he had a leather belt around his waist.” (Matthew 3:4 and Mark 1:6). St John the Baptist’s motif as the harbinger of Christ, the Lamb of God, saw him often depicted with a lamb, and icons can be seen around the Hall linking our present-day Company to its very beginnings.
As London exploded to become a key trade hub and one of Europe’s largest metropolises, trades and their fraternities flourished. Over time, they began to organise further, seeking not only communal spirit, but self-regulation. This came from a royal charter, also known as letters patent. A charter allowed an organisation to run its own affairs without the intervention (read: meddling) of the monarch, to regulate their trade and affiliated tradespeople and to meet in common. John Stow, Freeman Merchant Taylor and early chronicler of London history claimed that the Fraternity received a royal charter from Edward I as early as 1300. While records from the era are lost to verify this, it could suggest an organised presence of the Fraternity at an even earlier juncture than extant records show.
In 1327, the Fraternity did receive a royal charter, titling it The Fraternity of St John the Baptist of Tailors and Linen-Armourers. It established them both socially and politically, two trades affiliated together, and showed their ambitions, looking outside of City governance to the Crown for confirmation of their rights and cementing of privileges.
This proved an upset, as tailoring, while a vital trade, was largely artisanal. It relied upon goods traded and prepared by other crafts. Merchants, traders and even skinners and furriers preceded tailors further down the chain and so tailors’ profits were generally smaller. As wealth and political status often come hand in hand, the Tailors wouldn’t provide Aldermen, let alone a Lord Mayor, until the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, the Fraternity of St John the Baptist set their sights on disturbing the order of wealthier crafts and their unquestioned dominance, a challenge which didn’t go unnoticed.
As commerce and trades grew, the City relied increasingly on craft fraternities to self-regulate, giving them opportunity to broaden their scope. They became a means for accessing political and commercial interests, for individuals and as a unit. In some towns, membership to these fraternities was compulsory for all that trade’s workers who paid for membership. With such domination of whole industries, it would naturally grate when a rising guild aims to carve out its own niche.
The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw huge upheaval with pestilence and political changes. The City and fraternities consolidated their strength at this time as they provided economic stability. The Tailors saw further opportunity to enhance their reputation and to grant access to members who may be of value. The Fraternity began to recruit members from outside of tailoring. These new members held few rights, would never be eligible for alms, have no say in the governance of the Fraternity or the craft and they were expected to pay the same quarterly sum as their tailoring counterparts. But membership offered connections, access and increasing political and social status, as well, fundamentally, fraternity, mutual support and friendship. Records show that important and desirable people shored up the Tailors’ name and reputation, certainly, but the benefit was no doubt reciprocal.
A Charter of 1390 empowered the Tailors to search properties and suppliers of cloth for defects or poor quality, an important right previously carried out by the Drapers, who were displeased at losing it. As the Tailors rose in wealth and status, discord between the Tailors and essentially, all other guilds and City officials grew. This specific right was overturned by the later Lord Mayor Clopton (a Draper.) Though beaten in this case, the Tailors continued their ascendency.
In time, the Tailors reaped the rewards of their judicious recruitment, as their non-tailoring members brought good reputation and breeding to the Fraternity. In particular, the Tailors fostered relations close to the monarchy, courting of the Duke of Gloucester, uncle to the future King Henry VI for example.
These relationships advanced the Fraternity’s reputation and standing. For King Henry VII’s coronation, leading members of the Tailors were cloth suppliers and tailors, a huge privilege. The knighting of Sir John Percyvale, a Tailor, while a personal accolade, will not have harmed the organisation’s reputation either.
The Tailors cemented formally faster ties with the Crown in 1503, when they were reincorporated as the Merchant Taylors’ Company by royal charter of King Henry VII. The reason for this bold reassessment of the organisation’s remit was, “from time immemorial in many parts and realms of the world frequented, occupied and exercised all and singular kinds of merchandise.” It recognised the growing number of members who traded in cloth and other goods, and the Company began to expand their overseas trade. Ultimately, the royal charter showed that the Taylors were here, and they were here to stay.
The spelling of tailor as taylor reflects the anglicising of older terms. It derives from the French tailleur, pronounced tie-yer. Through the Middle Ages, perhaps due to the lack of standardised literacy, words traditionally including an ‘i’ adapted to include ‘y’. In the nineteenth century, as a result of the industrial revolution and a rise in literacy, spellings often reverted to their original forms!
Unsurprisingly, this charter was not welcomed by many within the City. The charter provoked immense outrage almost immediately and many protestations. The City’s Alderman on one occasion decided to boycott the Merchant Taylors’ annual feast (but promptly changed their minds once they discovered international ambassadors would be in attendance!) The recently renamed Merchant Haberdashers’ lost their own mercantile title and its rights and privileges after similar uproar at the time.
Somehow, perhaps due to their strong connections with the monarchy, the Merchant Taylors’ Company remained intact. Despite the remonstrations of other Liveries and the City, Henry would not be thwarted by them, hardening his resolve to assert himself over the City.
In 1515, the Order of Precedence was confirmed, and the Merchant Taylors’ Company, one of the Great Twelve, cemented its position after an impressive rise. Undoubtedly aided by significant monarchical support and careful planning from shrewd Merchant Taylors whose ambition, foresight and decision-making led to this. Nevertheless, the Company has endured a further five hundred years, not all of them easy. From fires to world wars, the Company’s endurance and consistent strength, certainly paired with ambition and vision, rests in the value of fraternity.