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c15th: Merchant Taylors, who were (are) they?

A visualsation of 15th century tailors by Bing Image Creator.

Edmund Flower, the founder of Cuckfield Grammar School, was a member of - and for two years Master of - the Merchant Taylors' Company, but who were or are they?

The Charter granted by Henry Vll on 6 January 1503, Edmund Flowers was the first Master to enact the new charter and he will have handled this.

The Merchant Taylors' Company, or to give it the full name the 'Guild of Merchant Taylors of the Fraternity of St. John Baptist' in the City of London is one of the 12 Great City livery companies surviving from mediaeval times.

Merchant Taylors' website describes the organisation as 'once the regulator and trade body of tailoring and its related industries within medieval London. As the world changed, so did Merchant Taylors'; over time it became a grant-making organisation whose members are driven to channel their collective good into volunteering, raising funds, or offering their time to support causes that can create transformative good to many lives.'

The guild was initially a religious and social fraternity founded before the beginning of the 14th century by an association of tailors and linen armourers. They mostly specialised in providing fine tailored clothing for the nobility but, in these early days, they also were involved in the fabrication of linen fabric armour worn by medieval soldiers and knights in battle.

Royal charters and renaming

Initially the livery company was known more fully by the name of 'The Guild and Fraternity of St John the Baptist in the City of London'. This was first incorporated under a Royal Charter in 1327 by Edward lll; which was reworded for approval by four subsequent monarchs.

Edmund Flower as Master was the first to enact the new powers and privileges of the fifth charter, approved by Henry Vll in 1503. This introduced a new name the 'Guild of Merchant Taylors of the Fraternity of St John the Baptist' in the City of London. This charter made a big difference, as I will explain in another article, and by the end of the 15th century it controlled the trade.

Merchant Taylors' was one of two of the richest guilds in London (the other were the Mercers, who supplied cloth). Between them they controlled various aspects of the textile industry, including production, trade and regulation, which allowed them to amass considerable wealth over time. Their influence in the City of London gave them access to lucrative business opportunities and connections which further added to their prosperity.

In time many of Merchant Taylors' members ceased to be craftsmen and became merchants trading with other parts of the world, and the membership gradually changed. By the end of the 17th century its connection with the tailoring trade had virtually ceased and it had become what it is today - a philanthropic organisation with socially engaged objectives, supporting schools and colleges, the arts and charity. Today it's more simply called the Merchant Taylors' Company and probably most often associated with Merchant Taylors' School in Northwood.

Merchant Taylors - its London Hall and wealth

Merchant Taylors' Hall today set out for a dinner

Merchant Taylors' Hall in Threadneedle Street is on the site of an earlier hall built some time after 1397. It lost its roof and interior to the Great Fire of London, but reopened in 1n 1671. During the Second World War It suffered incendiary damage which led to extensive restoration, and was reopened in 1959.

Today the building is still used by members of the livery company, and is now a sprawling complex buried in among modern city offices. It's not far from the Bank of England in the old City of London. The splendid banqueting hall, like others owned by London livery copanies, is used for prestigious dinners and major corporate events.

How did the company’s enormous wealth come about?

Even back in the medieval times the livery company was very wealthy. The richest members often bestowed silverware to the organisation. There could be several reasons for doing this - perhaps to keep the member's name alive in the company after they had gone, or in return for privileges that the livery company had bestowed them, or to buy chantry prayers for their souls, or to be sold on for charitable purposes. Crafted silver or gold items, in the medieval times especially, were seen to be more likely to retain their value rather than donating money.

The Maye Rosewater Dish bequeathed to the Company by former Master, Richard Maye in 1597.

The collection held in the Treasury is mainly from the 17th century as earlier possessions were either sold or melted down during the English Civil War to meet the King's demands for money, sold to fund the Company's own projects or were destroyed in the Great Fire.

The Company also has original copies of the royal charters. The Henry Vll charter will have been formerly handed over to Edmund Flower who was Master at the time in 1503 - and is now one of the most precious of the Company’s possessions.

It was customary for Masters and other senior members of the livery company to make generous contributions to pay for the running of the company, in return chantry prayers were said for the deceased as an atonement for sins committed during their lives.

Their donations kept their name alive in the Company after they have gone, and showed appreciation for the privileges that the organisation bestowed them. Donating fine silverware or goldware, was more likely to hold value than leaving cash and benefit their charitable work.

A Columbine cup* similar to Flower's gift

These gifts were of immense value. For example Thomas Howdan in 1505 gave a total of £333* today equivalent to £250,000 partly in valuable silverware (£28,000) and partly as mone - payments in more than one way were known as 'compositions'.

The example (inset) from Merchant Taylors' website is the Maye Rosewater Dish bequeathed to the Company by former Master, Richard Maye in 1597.

*The £333 would have delivered an annuity of nearly £6,000 a year.

Flower's gift

Silver was customarily given by the Master of the Company in the year of their office. An inventory record for the (ewery) Treasury shows that Edmund Flower’s left in his will a ‘gift of gilt cup [M, 91 and HI 96] ‘ ‘Itm, of the gift of Maister Flour (master 1504), 1 gilt cup, wt 1 couer, wt a columbyne* weiying 28oz’.’ [on his death and dated 11 July 1521].

The value of this piece could be worth upwards of £20,000 (new) today. And it confirms that Flower was by 1503/4 extremely rich and may suggest that he founded Cuckfield Grammar school on or around this date (seventeen or so years earlier than often quoted). It was customary in some livery companys that in his year of office the Master would fund, at their own expense, a lavish dinner at Christmas time for senior livery members at their main hall in London, and Flower was Master for two years.

As Master at the time, the Edmund Flower most likely will have been physically handed the new Royal Charter by Henry Vll himself. This is one of the oldest and most precious of the Company’s possessions (see the charter reproduced above).

Written and researched by Malcolm Davison.



The Skinners' Livery Company website:

Merchant Taylors' Hall, London wikipedia entry:,_London

Merchant Taylors’: one of the 12 Great Livery Companies pdf from the Merchant Taylors' school (Northwood) website

Not accessed for these articles but may be of interest: An Illustrated Catalogue of Silver Plate of the Worshipful Company Of Merchant Taylors'. Fry, Sir Frederick Morros & Tewson, Roland Stuart

Published by printed for private circulation by Burrup, Mathieson & Company, 1929

Illustration: Columbine cup* a painting by Pieter Claesz. Master of Haarlem Still Life, Wikimedia public domain image.

Apprentice goldsmiths applying for master-goldsmith status usually had to make a trial piece of work, or 'masterpiece', to show that they could meet an agreed standard of workmanship. From 1531 until 1572 Nuremberg apprentices proved their skills by making a columbine cup (named after its resemblance to the columbine flower). In some guilds, apprentices or journeymen were not allowed to marry until their masterpieces had been accepted. Otherwise, they were subject to fines. If a masterpiece was refused, applicants could continue as journeymen working for other goldsmiths.  

Silver plate from the Merchant Taylors' website.


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