top of page

1503: Flower V City's vote to bribe the King

The Merchant Taylors’ plan to introduce a new charter* sent shockwaves through the clothing industry. Some tailors would be deprived of their livelihoods, and others reduced to menial secondary work. The City was so incensed that the Aldermen voted to bribe the King to induce him to annul the charter.

On the face of it the new charter appeared to just change the Company from a craft guild into - what it had already by evolution partly become - a merchants' guild, under its new name of 'the Guild of Merchant Taylors of the Fraternity of St. John the Baptist in the City of London' [AR 30]. But the fine print revealed less obvious and far reaching consequences.

Setting in national context

The country had been ravaged by the Wars of the Roses for 30 years, which had disrupted trade, the nobility had suffered financial burden of raising armies. Agriculture and commerce were weakened from both a failure of central authority and lack of investment.

To rebuild the nation, Henry Vll saw the recovery of the wool trade and its related businesses as front and centre of restoring the country’s wealth. In parallel with this he realised that fostering European trade and peace in Europe was paramount.

Within 11 years (1514) an Anglo-French treaty was signed - and then - a grand festival the 'Field of Cloth of Gold' followed in 1520, all to improve relations in an early entente cordiale between the two great rival kingdoms. The Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, chief adviser and architect of the festival, wanted to put an end to war between Christian nations.

The charter had teeth

It is unclear to what extent the King and his advisors had been involved in the wording of the tailor's charter. But its aims of raising standards and improving trade were an important contribution to the nation's masterplan.

Wording the charter

Essentially the new wording of the Merchant Taylors' charter was a redraft of one signed by Edward lV in August 1465. Most probably the merchants approached the King's advisers with a less controversial draft in mind and Wolsey saw the benfit of 'beefing it up'. The agreed aim was to raise standards in the clothing industry and make England's products more saleable. But the ability of the company to fine and even jail tailors who ignored the new order made its introduction highly controversial. It added the:

‘power to forbid any to labour in the working, cutting, and making of men’s apparel unless first admitted thereto by the Master and Wardens’. [Summary of the patent in CH]

Like a long and complex insurance 'terms and conditions' the document was almost impenetrable for the reader. For a start it was written in Latin - which excluded most tailors from reading it. Visually it was skilfully created, but presented as a single block of text - with the critical wording carefully embedded. To complicate matters further hand written copies were in short supply.

The Merchant Taylors' Henry Vll Charter of 6 January 1503

It made mens’ tailoring a 'closed shop' and only fully apprenticed members of the Merchant Taylors’ Company would be allowed to make clothes. Why not women’s clothing as well? Maybe this was the next step for a future charter. But since outfits were often made in tandem for married couples attending events - the wording largely covered tailoring in a broader sense.

Poaching members

To encourage engagement in the new order, the livery company was allowed to 'increase and augment' its membership by admitting any person to the guild with impunity without impediment or disturbance of any person or persons of any other craft or mistery of the City'. [CH]

In other words it could poach members from other guilds.

The negotiations and drafting were carried out in secrecy and no records exist today. It's believed that Sir William FitzWilliam (Master 1499), and Sir John Percival (Master 1485) were the main negotiators - but, since it was left to Edmund Flower to accept and implement the Charter, on 6 January 1503, he is most likely to have been in the thick of it as well.

Attempt to bribe the King

The City responded in an unexpectedly extreme fashion. They plotted to bribe the King £4 million to annul the charter. This was approved at a meeting of the Court of Aldermen but first ensuring that no members from Merchant Taylors' were present. The agreed declaration, was made on 19 April 1503 (just a few weeks after charter was announced). It read as follows:

'At this Court it is accorded and agreed by the seid Maire Aldermen and councillors that Mr John Shaa, Alderman and Mr Recorder shall move the Kyngs grace to take the somme of vml 11 [£5,000 or £4 million in 2024] for the confirmacion of the Chartre of this Citie and for adnullyng and Revocaeion of the newe Chartre late graunted ioyntly by the Kyng to the taillours of this Citie and for Remedie of their Redcmpciones and to put the same taillours in case that they were byfore.'

In other words they wanted to bribe the king to annul the charter. Sadly there is no complete narrative of what ensued, but the King did make concessions, but not before the City vented its anger.

The Guildhall, City of Lodon, looking East 1864

The City turn on FitzWilliam

William FitzWilliam, was a close friend of Edmund Flower. They joined the Merchant Taylors' on the same day. William later invited Edmund to be one of his four wardens when he became Master. They must have worked well together.

The City saw FitzWilliam as the chief culprit behind the new charter and they took extreme action. The King was on good terms with William and this fact must have riled the City even more.

The King made matters worse by forcing the appointment of William to the office of Sheriff over the Aldermen. Essentially carrying greater responsibility and over-ruling the complainants.

This must have back-fired and the City gave FitzWilliam a bad time - and wanted to aggravate matters further by re-electing him! Dr Matthew Davies put it this way:

‘His opponents in the City took their revenge in September 1510 by electing Fitzwilliam as Sheriff again, on the grounds that his earlier election had been invalid. Naturally, Fitzwilliam refused to serve again and sued the Mayor - who happened to be a member of the Drapers' Company, elected against the wishes of the Merchant Taylors.

In response to FitzWilliam's refusal to serve again - the City fined him more than £600 [nearly £500,000 today], and deprived him of the Freedom of the City, forcing him to leave London.

‘The case ended up in the Star Chamber where FitzWilliam managed to get these penalties overturned, but instead of resuming his career in London he spent a period of time in the service of Cardinal Wolsey.’ [MTMD]

Robes of the Tudor period, worn by Sir Thomas White c1570

The King responds

Most likely to try and pacify the City, the King introduced a new act in the August following the approval of the contentious charter. The Act provided a mechanism to monitor and approve new charters made by all livery companies.

It required that no ordinances should be made by any guild or craft unless ratified by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Treasurer, the two Chief Justices or the Justices of Assize. [AR 32]

But this Act would also give a tighter control of the guilds by the crown.

Calm descends on the City

This is a long a complex story, and my account over-simplifies the long dialogue of exchanges, and, inevitably, there are gaps in City records. The Charter was finally implemented on 31 March 1505, no doubt the delay due to the direct intervention of the King.

It transpires, in records long after this period, that Henry Vll was made a member of Merchant Taylors' although the precise date this happened goes unrecorded - which may have been intended as a show of goodwill and recognition of their contribution to the nation's recovery. But no doubt other livery companies would have been livid.

The City calmed down and turned its attention to other matters. In October 1508, Stephen Jenyns, Merchant Taylors' second Lord Mayor of London was elected with the full support of Henry VII, who died the following year. Merchant Taylor's were then in the driving seat of City politics.

Devious scribe

The scribe writing the document of confirmation of the Charter's implementation made a number of curious and devious changes. The most significant of which was adding an insult to the King he becomes 'de facto et de jure' King of England. This being the monarch 'by right or not' questions his eligibility to the crown. Was this carelessness - or does it betray an individual's personal discent from the outcome of earlier civil war?

Flower front and centre of the action

The saga spans many years and would make a compelling sequence of episodes similar to the TV drama 'Wolf Hall'. For much of the time Edmund Flower was front and centre of this very real and testing controversy. He was the Master for the first two years of the implementation of the new order. His role would have been to pacify livery members who were facing the fury at their workplaces from other tailors. He would have been trying to reassure non-livery tradesmen and encouraging them to join Merchant Taylors' and invite outsiders to engage with apprenticeships to raise industry standards.

Flower was the public face of the livery company responding to the angst of the City Aldermen. It will have been his duty to keep the monarch fully informed of developments with the roll out of the Charter. He will also have seen the beneficial effect of the introduction of the 'closed shop' to the takings of the members, and burgeoning subscriptions to the organisation. Membership of the livery company grew substantially in the coming decades and became increasingly wealthy.

NOTE: Charter / Patent. Although the document is referred to as a ‘Charter’ technically it is actually a Patent. A charter is signed by all the participants - and a Patent is signed only by the King. But the livery company calls it a charter, so that’s what we refer to it as.


[CH] The Charters of the Merchant Taylors’ Company by Sir Frederick Morris Fry and RTD Sale 1937

[MTMD] The History of the Merchant Taylors' Company by Matthew Davies and Ann Saunders, Maney, 2004.

[HI] Clode C M The Early History Of The Guild Of Merchant Taylors’ Of The Fraternity Of St. John The Baptist, In The City Of London Part 1 1888.

[HII] Clode C M The Early History Of The Guild Of Merchant Taylors’ Of The Fraternity Of St. John The Baptist, In The City Of London Part 2 1888 .

London Guildhall and Merchant Taylors' Hall, by Woolnoth, print 1811 from 'The Beauties of England and Wales (1801-1815).

The Great Hall interior), Guildhall c1864 print by Sir Horace Jones.

Merchant Taylor robes: Sir Thomas White (1492 – 12 February 1567) was an English cloth merchant, Lord Mayor of London in 1553, and a civic benefactor and a founder of Merchant Taylors' School of St John's College and Oxford and Merchant Taylors' School.

[AR] Report on the Ancient records in the possession of the Guild of Merchant Taylors of the Fraternity of St. John Baptist in the City of London by Hopkinson, Henry Lennox, Sir, 1855-1936, Publication date 1915

Researched and contributed by Malcolm Davison.


bottom of page