The Gild Merchant and Hanse (old German for band or troop)
Although gilds in various forms existed during the Anglo-Saxon period it was not until the Norman Conquest that the Gild Merchant came into operation. It formed the reorganisation of the old fraternal and craft gilds into an early form of local government. Newly begotten trade interests and connections were established with Normandy. Reorganisation of trading methods were adopted to suit a similar form of Gild Merchant in existence in Northern France and Flanders.
“The Gild Merchant in England was an institution by which the burgesses (freemen) of a town, or portion of them, were able to secure the advantages which accrue from combined trading, and especially from combined purchasing” (Dr Charles Gross). Its members would combine to purchase wholesales and welcome alien merchants who came to sell in gross. But, on the other hand, they were eager to retain in their own hands the business of distribution and jealously excluded all outsiders from taking part in the retail trade.
This practice of combined purchasing by some authority in a town was practiced in many places where there was no gild merchant, or where perhaps the gild merchant had ceased to be effective. In some cases, a royal officer might conduct the town’s actions. An early form of local government in the 12th century, the Ipswich Gild Merchant acted as an informal town government before it gained formal powers of government. It is my theory that Sudbury were able to avail themselves by using the Ipswich Hanse resources for their own exports overseas.
Earliest distinct references to Gild Merchant occur in a charter by Robert Fitz-Hamon to the burgesses of Burford (1087-1107). During the reign of Henry 1, the Gild Merchant appears in various municipal charters. They multiply under Henry II, Richard 1, and John – burghal franchises. Preeminent is the grant of a free borough (incorporation). The fourteenth century craft gilds in England emanated from their gild merchant. The Gild Merchant was specialised, and they exercised their powers under the supervision of the municipal authorities.
Awards of Gild Merchant often included the word Hanse, an ancient word meaning band or association. The sea ports were trading with the Hanseatic League, a cooperation of merchants for the promotion of their trade abroad. The granting of a right to a Hanse appears to allow the burgesses to bypass the need for official (royal) approval and to manage their own buying and selling.
Some Typical References by Charles Gross to the Existence of the Gild Merchant via Town Charters:
Alnwick 1611 Altrincham 1290 Bridgnorth 1227
Andover 1175-6 Axbridge Rich II Bridgwater Edw I
Bambrough 1331 Barnstaple 1303 Bristol 1188
Bath 1189 Bedford Rich I Burford 1087-1107
Berwick Edw I Beverley 1119-35 Bury St Edmunds 1198
Bodmin 1225-72 Boston 1260 Cambridge 1201
Canterbury 1093-1109 Carlisle Henry II Chester 1190-1201
Chesterfield 1294 Chichester Stephen