Henry and the Church – this gallery explores the impact of Henry VIII’s break with Rome, and the consequences his installation as the Head of the Church of England had on York. The subsequent dissolution of the monasteries hit the pockets of York citizen’s as well as their souls. An interactive map shows where the religious buildings used to be in York.
Henry and the Guilds – in this gallery it is explained that a Guild is a professional grouping of people engaged in the same trade. In 1415 there were 96 craft guilds in York, and there were still dozens of Guilds in Tudor times. It also highlights that every year each Guild would pay for a waggon play – a re-telling of a biblical story performed on a waggon in the city streets during the Corpus Christi celebrations. Young visitors can re-create these performances on a special ‘Waggon Stage’.
The Butchers’ Guild sponsored this gallery and is featured as a particular example. Some butchers’ waste animal bones, such as found in archaeological digs in Hungate and Skeldergate in the City, are displayed together with examples of typical artefacts associated with other Guilds that existed at the time. To give a flavour of the information panels in this gallery, a series of photos are given below:
The Butchers’ Gild – a Medieval Survivor
Only three guilds that existed at the time of Henry’s visit lasted into the 21st Century: the Merchant Taylors, the Merchant Adventurers, and the Butchers. The first two, which owned property in the city, survived by converting themselves into social and charitable institutions. The Butchers’ Gild had just one member in 1940, when it was revived and new members sworn in.
The hall of the Butchers’ Gild stood in Gell Garth, behind the Shambles, in an area now occupied by a marketplace. The medieval butchers traded in the Shambles, St Andrewgate and St Saviourgate. They maintained a chapel in Christ Church, at the west end of the Shambles, in the spot now known as King’s Square. They worked mainly with cattle, selling cuts of meat, cowhides to tanners (for the production of leather), animal fat to candle-makers, bones to pin-makers and bone-workers. In performances of the Corpus Christi plays, the butchers were responsible for staging the ‘Death of Christ’.
As in the case of other guilds, organisation and control were by agreement between leading guild members and the city authorities. The guild’s regulations were known as the Ordinances of the Guild, and were enforced by its Searchers. The Butchers’ Gild took charge in matters of hygiene, weights and measures, meat-restricted days, and periods of fasting, and over ’foreign’ butchers (any tradesmen from outside the city). The searchers operated as overseers, with powers to search shops and stalls, and to impose fines.
The Guilds and Charity
Some craft guilds had grown out of religious guilds which had been formed with the aim of uniting their members in celebrating certain rituals and feasts. They also functioned as networks for wealthy and influential figures in civic life to meet and socialise.
One such was the guild of Corpus Christi (meaning ‘the Body of Christ’). It existed for just under a century and a half, and in that time nearly seventeen thousand people enrolled, many of them leading figures in the Church and in secular life. The guild had charge of a fabulous shrine that was carried in a procession through the city on the Friday after the feast of Corpus Christi, a tradition that continued until the guild, feast day and procession were abolished in 1547. The guild of Corpus Christi was also responsible for the hospital of Corpus Christi and St Thomas of Canterbury outside Micklegate Bar. It cared for the poor and sick of the neighbourhood, and provided hospitality for poor travellers passing through the city.
As well as giving financial help to members who had fallen on hard times, some craft guilds supported sick or aged members and their families. They made an important contribution to charity within the city. The wealthiest guild, that of the merchants (later the Merchant Adventurers), had a hospital in the undercroft of its guildhall which provided care for the local poor.
Guild Life Under Threat
Henry’s religious reformation struck at the very heart of guild life. Many had come into existence as religious guilds, and were dedicated to one or more saints. Some, like York’s Corpus Christi guild, were the guardians of shrines. England’s shrines and the saints they commemorated had been under attack from the government since 1536, when Thomas Cromwell, the King’s chief minister, had ordered the clergy not to ‘extol any images, relics or miracles’ nor ‘allure the people to the pilgrimage of any saint’.
The first saint to come under fire was St Thomas of Canterbury, to whom the hospital of York‘s Corpus Christi guild was dedicated, and who was especially well loved in York. Due to his quarrel with Henry II in the 12th century, St Thomas was seen as representing a challenge to royal authority. In 1538 he was denounced by the King’s Council, his bones were publicly burned and the treasures of his magnificent shrine at Canterbury Cathedral were seized. The complete destruction of all images of the saint was ordered throughout the kingdom. Amazingly, a number of rare pieces of medieval stained glass depicting St Thomas survive in the church of St Michael le Belfrey, which was home to a small parish guild named after the saint.
The assault on the saints continued when Henry arrived in York, when he gave instructions to the Archbishop to take down ‘all the shrines with their hovels’ throughout the province. It was around this time that the two shrines of St William in York Minster were dismantled. Religious guilds were finally dissolved in 1547, in the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI. This move was inspired by Protestant thinking, which opposed one of the main functions of religious guilds, which was to pray for the souls of dead guild members and their families.