A Short History of Guilds, and of Guild Life in York

Guild life can trace its roots back to Saxon times, with the formation of the frith-guilds - peace-guilds - brotherhoods formed for religious and social purposes and for mutual support and protection. They met at regular intervals for feasting.

The Norman invasion apparently changed this structure. It may be that, with the Normans taking the positions of power (Nobility and Church), the last sphere of Saxon influence lay in the guilds, now representing the working men - traders and craftsmen. By at least 1066 there existed the ceapmanne-gildes - the Guilds-Merchant - associations formed for protection and regulation of trade and for mutual support, that later merged with, or assumed, the role of civic government. In the 12th century, further guilds were formed to unify the members of individual crafts, trades and industries. These societies provided each for the maintenance of the customs of its own craft, laid down stringent regulations as to the quality of the work done and the rate of wages, strove to protect the workmen from undue competition, punished disobedient members by fine or expulsion from the brotherhood and controlled entry into the trade through apprenticeship. The designation 'Merchant', added to some guilds in the 15th or 16th centuries, reflected strong international trade interests.Membership of a Guild, following apprenticeship, was one way of becoming a Freeman of the city – to become a citizen. Freedom enabled a person to engage in trade, gave him a voice in the management of the city and the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

In addition to merchant and craft-guilds, there were also formed guilds for social and religious purposes such as mutual devotion, charity and the observance of religious rites. It was quite possible for a craftsman to be a member of such a guild and his craft-guild. Prominent in York was the Guild of Corpus Christi, founded in 1408 to do honour to the feast of that name. It had a membership similar to, or exceeding, the population of the City at that time.

The first reference to a Guild structure in York appears in the Freemen's Rolls of 1272, with thirty-six names that include two citizens, Robert Withenskirtes and Nich. de Nunnewk, registered as Freemen Butchers. However, there must have been Freemen before that date as Nicholas of Clifton claimed his Freedom by patrimony.

Guild organisation and control were by co-operative agreement between the leading members and the burgesses of the city. Any regulations agreed were incorporated in the Ordinances of the Guild, and enforced by the Searchers of the Company. The Butchers' Gild held sway in matters of hygiene, weights and measures, meat restricted days and fast periods, and over 'foreign' (i.e. non-guild) butchers. The Gild Searchers operated as overseers for the good of the trade with powers of search of shops and stalls, of imposition of fines and of application of correction and punishment.

Standards of workmanship were protected through the apprenticeship system. In London (1556) the authorities decided that:

“Until a man grows unto the age of 24 he has not grown into the full knowledge of the art that he professeth.”

Seven years was generally agreed as the minimum period of training and servitude before the apprentice became a 'freeman to ply his trade'. Apprentice registration was controlled so that children of freemen had priority of admission to the learning of a craft. Guild Masters were responsible for the Indenture and for the entry of apprentices in the City's Register, following one month's probationary period.

Trades would tend to congregate their shops in one area of a town or city. The Shambles in York is well known as the butchers' street, but the trade area also extended over St. Andrewgate and St. Saviourgate.The Butchers may well have been responsible for a civic duty – that is, to act as the City executioners.

The York Butchers' own hall lay behind The Shambles in Gell Garth, an area now occupied by York market. This property was owned by the Gild until 1929 and the last remnants cleared away in the 1950's. Their traditional church was Christ Church, at the west end of The Shambles, where they were responsible for a chapel. The church was demolished in 1937 to form what is now King's Square. It is believed that the execution sword was housed in the church.

In York, the Mystery Plays were a most important part of the life of the craft guilds., under the control of the Corpus Christi Guild. These plays were performed on a procession of pageants at various stations throughout the city, on the Feast of Corpus Christi. The Butchers enacted 'The Death of Christ', reflecting their role as executioners.

The guilds had voting rights in the elections for Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Sheriff. The Butchers, considered as one of the lower fifteen guilds, contributed one voting member, usually the Senior Searcher.

There were 96 craft guilds in York in 1415, at the peak of guild control of trade and civic life. By the late 16th century, guild numbers dropped as specialisation in crafts was ending and some mergers occurred, as 'foreign' (i.e. outside the city) traders were allowed within and as monopoly was curtailed in law. Although records indicate that the Butchers' Gild appointed three searchers in 1826, the 1835 Municipal Reform Act finally abolished all guild trade privileges [1]. In York, guilds withered and nearly all passed away except for two with property. These, The Merchant Adventurers and The Merchant Taylors, converted into social and charitable institutions. A third, the Butchers, struggled on into the 20th century, with just a single member by 1940.

Butchers' Gild Renewal

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Butchers' Gild membership fell - from thirty or forty in 1812 to just two in 1929, and just one remaining by 1940. In 1929, the City Authorities purchased the Gell Garth site for £932 and the records and Ordinances of the Company were passed into the hands of the Corporation for preservation in the City archives.

In 1940, Mr. F. Wright, butcher of Goodramgate, York, and Mr. C. N. B. Crombie, solicitor of York, persuaded the last remaining member to swear in new members. As a result, the present Gild is able to claim continuous membership from its mediaeval roots. The first Court of the modern Gild was held in 1940 at the Hermitage, Stockton on the Forest, the first Feast was held in the Davy Hall, Davygate on Shrove Tuesday, 1941 and the first new-era Master took office in 1943.

Membership has gradually grown since that date, but with the slow decline in numbers of craft butchers, the Gild now draws its members from a wider geographical area than the City of York and now includes the County of York, neighbouring counties in the North of England, and from further afield, so long as the member is able to commit to guild life and functions. The Company considers that its membership should retain strong links with the craft of butchery or the meat trade.

The City Council was able, in 1950, to provide The Gild with a suitable hall, appropriately in The Shambles. However, in 1991, the authorities looked for a 'commercial rent'. The Gild was unable to match the sum proposed and moved out (although the doorway in the Shambles is still carved with the name 'Butchers Hall'). The Gild was fortunate in being able to move into, and furnish, the recently renovated ‘Jacobs Well’ in Trinity Lane, Micklegate.

In common with all the other York guilds, the Company now worships in All Saints’ Church, Pavement.

The Charitable Trust was properly constituted in 1992.

During the late 1990’s, the Gild debated and accepted the notion of the entry of Lady Members. (History indicates that this was always acceptable and was particularly applied when a widow continued the running of a business after the loss of her husband). The first three ladies in the modern era were admitted to the Company on Shrove Tuesday, 2002.

Present (2013) subscribing membership is in the order of one hundred persons.