Their Strengths and Virtues

Blacksmiths Guild, City of London

Guilds in Britain have their origins in the Anglo-Saxon period, I have included some speculations in my notes below. The background to guilds (or gilds) could be likened to writing a history of commerce. However, the guilds did not necessarily begin as trading enterprises. The earliest of ‘gilds’, in their original form, tended to be fraternities with religious leanings.

Historically, society was led by a monarchy and or their leading nobles. Merchants and craft artisans among the commoners had the human desire to independently fraternise with others of similar religious interests. To form or to belong to a guild would be to seek a hierarchical company of a likeminded fellowship. This is analogous to forming a club where the interests of the members are similarly defined.

The principle of guild membership was commercial and to ensure that products or services were consistently of high quality and reliability. A guild may set standards of quality and service to be maintained, while providing its members with an element of protection and importantly social camaraderie. One should not underestimate the cohesion of such associations, their meetings, festive suppers, and the brotherly singing of patriotic songs or hymns. The sense of belonging to an enhanced kinship was dynamic.

As the gilds developed from their religious rituals they became ‘unions’ with strength and powers. Law and order coupled with regulations produced quality standards and reliability. Inevitably, this dynamic power influenced the politics of communities and in many respects the national directives we currently enjoy today. Royal charters and letters patent provided the legal basis for trading control. Guilds can be seen as the foundation of our parliamentary system and of the democratic institutions.

Guilds anciently existed throughout the world. In ancient China, Phoenicia, the eastern hemisphere and subsequently, western European countries have traded through guilds. It is known that Mohammed was a member of a merchant guild, such was the common regularity of the guilds trading movement. Payment to belong to such organisations in Britain, has long been known to be by quarterage in order to cover the guild expenses. These costs can be high or low depending on the type or levels of commercial activity. Belonging to a Guild provided its members with a level of security, and they could enjoy a well-ordered life with an element of fellowship, comfort, and joy. In olden times, religion would play a very important role in the Guild activities.

Guilds had dedicated churches and chapels for regular worship and guild-related services. Medieval guilds (gilds, and livery companies) were established by charters or by letters patent. The guilds were made up in two distinct forms, the trade merchants, and the craftsmen (artisans). Many of the wealthier guilds possessed their own dedicated ‘guildhalls’ while the less wealthy would share a hall between them.

In times gone by, members would regard their guild (gild) as an extension of their family. Indeed they would often find several relatives in general attendance of their guild. When starting out as an apprentice (in times past), he/she may have expected to ‘live-in’ with their ‘master’s family until they had completed their apprenticeship. The ‘brotherhood’ within the guilds was an all-consuming lifestyle. This would last from the completion of their apprenticeship until the end of their life.

From the 12th century, came the ‘Gild Merchant’ an overseeing body that governed the municipality of the town or city. This format developed into the ‘Corporations’ and eventually into the local government we know today. First and foremost the guilds were a commercial entity. Their activities involved rules, rights, and regulations. Inevitably, their function included political leadership of the local by-laws and in the general running of the boroughs and cities. Guilds were generally philanthropic, providing support not only for their members but for the poor and needy within their borough or city.

Members of the guilds enjoyed regular meetings, church services and festive holidays. Sometimes these occasioned dressing in their significant robes or livery and they would participate in brotherly processions, suppers, or festival meals together. On these occasions there was musical accompaniment and singing of special guild songs with plenty of festive cheer.

Of course, it should be emphasised that the guilds monopolised their respective trades or crafts, they prevented any competition or undercutting of prices or quality in their services. An unregistered master could not easily enter another town or city without the approval of the Gild Merchant (headed by the mayor). It was in effect a ‘closed shop’ to the so called ‘foreigner’ or ‘stranger’. Also, there could be conflictions within society caused by the definition of sworn oaths declared by members within their respective guilds. Such oaths once made were not expected to be broken after they had been given.

This is simply an overview of the ‘guilds’ movement of which I am proud to be a member, a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths of the City of London. The Company was ‘Incorporated by Prescription’ by Edward II in 1325 (Prescription implies a title acquired by long usage). These liberties are closely associated with my Freedom of the ancient Borough of Sudbury in Suffolk, where my forebears were master blacksmiths by trade.


The Fraternity – Nineteenth-century historians have attributed the phenomena of gild life to the social instincts of man, to the human impulse to work or worship in common. The Bishop of Oxford viewed the ancient gild as “simply the club of modern manners”. George Unwin.

Origins – Gilds originated from the constitution of the Germanic tribes. Karl Heinrich von Sybel.

Gilds arose from Scandinavian Viking confederacies. J Winzer

Gilds developed from the association of priests in the Frankish kingdom. O Hartwig

The use of the word gegildan is found in the laws of Ine c690. Charles Gross

Comment – I should mention that closed fraternities also continued within the municipal corporations until their liberties and privileges were abolished in 1835.


It is not difficult to see that membership of a guild has a dynamic element. The member has not simply joined a club, but has become a part of an extended family (brotherhood). They will also find closer connection with their own heritage and that of their hometown and its guild associations.

Alan Shelley

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