As in many European cities, the social and commercial life of medieval York was dominated by the trade guilds. And in many ways they are still important today. One of the best ways of discovering the history and influence of the guilds is through a visit to the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall in York.
Who and What were the Guilds of York?
In the Middle Ages most cities had several guilds. These were early trade associations, bringing together people with particular trades or crafts, and promoting their interests. There were more than 50 craft guilds in medieval York. These included vintners, butchers and scriveners (people who wrote and illustrated manuscripts), and many others.
The most important and powerful guild in York was the Company of Merchant Adventurers. It was founded in 1356, originally for charitable and religious objectives, but it quickly acquired a commercial purpose. Its members were mostly mercers, who exported wool and cloth across Europe, and imported wine and other goods.
The Merchant Adventurers became even more powerful in 1581 when Queen Elizabeth granted them a monopoly over most goods imported into the city. In later centuries they widened their admission criteria to include politicians and businessmen. Membership could be by inheritance or nomination, and even today many members can trace their involvement through many generations. Notable Merchant Adventurers have included people from the Rowntree and Terry families, whose names are familiar to us through the chocolate companies they founded in York.
The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall and Other Guildhalls of York
The guilds needed places where they could meet and conduct their business, and in the 15th century the city of York built a guildhall for use by all the guilds. This building was rebuilt after wartime bombing and is still used by the city council today. Some guilds had their own halls, such as the Merchant Taylors’ Hall (14th century) and the hall of the Guild of St Anthony (built around 1450). Both of these halls are still in existence.
But, as befitted their status, the Merchant Adventurers had the largest and most magnificent hall. Described as “Britain’s oldest surviving half-timbered guildhall”, it was built in the 14th century on the site of an earlier Norman mansion. Reflecting the guild’s religious and charitable origins, the undercroft was used as a hospital and almshouse (a function it retained until 1900), and there was a small chapel.
The most impressive part of the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall is the Great Hall, on the upper floor. This is a massive timber framed room, with supports in the middle because it was too large to be built all in one piece! Apart from the building, visitors can enjoy the old paintings and the furniture in the Great Hall and the various ante-rooms. Today the Hall is used by the Merchant Adventurers for meetings and formal occasions; it is also popular for outside functions such as weddings.
The York Guilds Today
As you walk around the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall you will learn about the history of the guilds of York, and the Merchant Adventurers in particular. Over the years many of the guilds have merged or been dissolved. However nine of them remain in York today, and they are active in commercial and community pursuits. The Merchant Adventurers helped to found the York Chamber of Commerce in 1895 and the University of York in 1963.
For the visitor one way in which the guilds are still visible today is in the annual performance of the York Mystery Plays. This is a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages, when each year the guilds would perform a series of plays based on Bible stories. This was a way of educating a mostly illiterate audience. The reason for the performance may have changed, but the tradition persists. And if you’re lucky enough to be in York in September you can see the plays for yourself.
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