Origins of the Guilds
Chester has had trade guilds for over 800 years. In a document dated 1190 King Henry 11 conferred the Gilda Mecatoria (the Guild Merchant ) on the people giving them the right to trade. In 1193 this was confirmed by the Earl of Chester. Individual craft companies, or guilds, later developed to protect the quality of their goods and the interests and welfare of the merchants and craftsmen of Chester.
Among the earliest Guilds to emerge were the Tanners, who are first mentioned in 1361, the Weavers in 1399 and the Ironmongers and Carpenters in 1422. Nineteen Guilds are listed in a book of 1475-6.
In the Middle Ages the Guilds were very important to the life of the City. They encouraged trade, set wages, organised apprenticeships and work conditions and gave help to their sick or poor members.
The Guilds were also involved in the social life of Chester. They organised great events such as the Mystery Plays and the Midsummer Show.
Originally there was only one Guild, the Guild Merchant, but during the Middle Ages each craft gradually set up its own Guild to protect the quality of their craft and the interests of its own craftsmen.
Over the centuries some crafts joined together to form larger Guilds. Few crafts were rich enough to stay independent. There were frequent disputes between similar crafts and Guilds often split up and joined up with other crafts.
Newer Guilds were formed for crafts such as the building trades that developed in the Tudor Period.
A few Guilds, such as the Fishmongers, no longer exist. Some trades, such as Fletchers and Bowyers, died out when the need for their products declined.
There are now twenty three Chester Guilds but few members now practice their company trade.
Trade & Crafts
The Guilds reflect the economic life of Chester in the Medieval and Tudor periods. Among the most important Guilds were those providing food for the City (Bakers, Butchers, Brewers). Leather work formed the largest group of occupations and many Guilds were associated with the leather trade (Tanners, Skinners, Glovers, Saddlers, Cordwainers). Clothing and textile trades were also very important in Chester, making up a fifth of all craftsmen in the City (Weavers, Merchant Tailors, Mercers and Merchant Drapers). The building and hardware trades often combined to form bigger companies (Mercers and Ironmongers, Joiners, Carvers and Turners and Wrights and Slaters).
Sometimes craftsmen involved in the same trade worked in the same part of town. Shoemakers Row was in Northgate Street, Mercer’s Row in Bridge Street Row East and the Skinner’s Houses were between the Castle and the River Dee.
The Smiths Company met with special Royal favour when Prince Arthur visited Chester in 1499. A silver badge showing the Company’s arms was presented as a reward, the story goes, for re-shoeing the Prince’s horse.
No craftsman or trader could work in Chester unless he was a freeman and a member of the relevant guild.
Apprentices served at least seven years to learn their trade. They could then become freemen of the City and seek admission to the appropriate craft guild.
To become a freeman, a man had to be the son of a freeman, to have served his apprenticeship to a freeman or be admitted by order of the City Assembly. Today almost all freemen and Guild members are admitted by birth. New freemen are enrolled at the annual Pentice Court.
The Guilds were always quite small, varying in size from 20 to 60 members. Women could not become freemen, but widows of Guild members who carried on the family business could be admitted to a guild.
Politics & Trade
The Guilds controlled the economic life of Chester. A craftsman had to be a member of a Guild to set himself up in business and he could practice no other craft than his own. Outsiders could only trade in the City if they paid tolls or came to the special Fairs held in the summer and autumn.
There were often disputes as each Guild fought to protect its own position and prosperity. To settle these disagreements and to enforce their privilege the Guilds turned to the Mayor or the City Assembly.
The Assembly was the ancestor of the modern day City Council. Its members were mostly also Guild members, so the Guilds were able to influence the political life of the City. Until 1835 only Freemen could vote in the city and parliamentary elections. The Guilds continue to work closely with the City Council to promote the prosperity and image of Chester.
The Guilds gave help to their sick and poor. The archives contain many references to payments to old and ‘decayed’ members. Sometimes nursing care was paid for by a member’s guild. The Guilds often gave help to craftsmen from other towns who were travelling through Chester.
Some Guilds had a rule that required members to attend brethren’s funerals which could also be paid for by the company.
The Owen Jones Charity was established in 1658 and still benefits the Guilds today. Owen Jones was a butcher who owned land at Minera near Wrexham. When he died he left the income from the land to the Guilds. Originally poor freemen were supported by money from this charity. Today it is used to give grants for education.
The Guilds have always played an important part in Chester’s social life. In the Middle Ages they produced the Chester Mystery Plays. These Plays were stories which the Guilds performed over three days. Each play was performed by the Guild that was responsible for its production. The plays were performed on carriages that were pulled around the City. The plays were banned in the 1570’s but were revived many years later in 1951. They now take place every five years but the Guilds are not now responsible for their production.
The Guilds also staged the Midsummer show. This was a procession through Chester with giants, stilt walkers and characters from the Mystery Plays. In the Middle Ages the Show was held every year from about 1498-9 until the 1670’s. These processions have also been revived and take place annually.
There were also contests and races on the Roodee. An early version of football, without many rules, was played through the streets but was banned in 1540 because it led to fights.
The Guilds Today
Twenty three of the original Guilds survive. New freemen are admitted each year at the Pentice Court ceremony held in the Town Hall. The Lord Mayor of Chester presides over the Court. The Guilds then walk in procession, with the new Freemen and Councillors, through the City to the Guildhall. In 1992 the Freemen and Guilds decided to admit women for the first time.
The Guildhall was originally the church of the Holy Trinity Church until the early 1960’s. It was founded in the Middle Ages but the building has altered over the centuries. In the 1860’s it was virtually rebuilt under the direction of the well known Chester architect Thomas Harrison. The church has the highest steeple in Chester and was earlier used as a navigational aid for ships sailing into Chester when it was a bustling port. It houses many memorials including one to the Reverend Matthew Henry, the famous Presbyterian Cleric, who died in 1714. In earlier times the Guilds met in various rented rooms. Many Guilds used rooms in the Phoenix Tower, now called King Charles Tower.
In the early 1960’s the Guilds obtained the lease of the now redundant Church from the City Council for use as their Guildhall. All their meetings and functions took place in this newly refurbished Guildhall. In 2011 the lease was given back to the Council. The Guilds had become smaller and there was no longer any need for them to have the responsibility for the maintenance of such a large building. Whilst it is now in the hands of a commercial enterprise the Council arranged that the Guilds should have use of the building for all their important functions. The Annual General Meeting and the Banquet is still held each year in the Guildhall and the Freemen and Guilds Council meetings are still held in its Council Chamber. All the various Guilds hold their own meetings and functions, by arrangement, in the Guildhall.
Today the Freemen and Guilds of Chester keep close links with the Freemen of England and Wales and with the Guilds of the other historic cities of York and Coventry.
Information supplied by the Chester Records Office and Revised in 2013 by N.A.Edwards MA