Article Index

From the 11 century and possibly earlier, Social Gilds or Fraternities existed throughout England and on the Continent of Europe, characterised by the common attributes of oaths of initiation, charities for the sick and poor, annual feast and masses for the souls of the dead, but few now survive outside the city of London. By the 12th century, leading trades in the City of London had formed themselves into Gilds or Fraternities presided over by an “Alderman” exercising jurisdiction over members in matters relating to their trade, recognised by the civic authorities with rights of appeal to the Mayor. Crown recognition was also necessary to permit them to hold meetings at a time when all assembles were potentially unlawful, and to exercise jurisdiction over members in craft matters. Gilds not so recognised were “adulterine” and liable to penalties, The wearing of a distinctive “Livery” or uniform as an indication of their craft became a distinctive mark of such Gilds, and this itself was also potentially unlawful and was prohibited by Statutes of Henry IV (1399-1413) which exempt Gilds and Fraternities. By the early 14th century the leading London Gilds had emerged as the “Great Twelve, and in 1319 Edward II granted a Charter to the City which declared that no man could carry on his trade unless admitted to the Freedom of the City through his Gild.

The reign of Edward III (1327-1377) saw the beginning of the process of the reconstruction of the Gilds, thenceforth known as “Livery Companies”, by Letters Patent whereby the State confirmed powers of trade regulation, and in which the names “Aldermen” and “Gilds and Fraternities” gave place to “Master and Wardens” and “Misteries”. In the reign of Henry IV Letters Patent began to ”incorporate” Livery Companies, rather than merely to licence them. At the instance of a City Corporation fearing the independence of the Livery Companies, in 1437 the Statute 15 Henry VI Cap. 6 (now repealed) required that every Livery Company must register its Charter of Letters Patent and Ordinances with the City Corporation, and submit the latter for approval. An enactment of the Common Council in 1475 declared that the Mayor and Sheriffs should be elected by the Masters and Wardens of Livery Companies.

In 1503 the Statute 19 Henry VII C7 (still in force) enacted that no Ordinances (i.e. bylaws regulating members and the craft) should be made by a Livery Company in diminution of the Royal Prerogative or Public Good and that on pain of forfeiting £40 no Ordinance should be made without the approval of the Lord Treasurer, Lord Chancellor and Chief Justices, a function now performed by the Privy Council.


In the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI occurred the first attack by the Crown on Livery Companies by statutes of 1546 and 1547 which deprived them of their religious functions with the dissolution of Chantries and free chapels, and by vesting in the Crown trust properties charged with “payments by misteries and crafts for priests, obits and lamps” which were used to found Grammar Schools and Colleges. The Companies retained however their charitable trusts for the relief of sickness and poverty and for education, and were allowed to buy back properties formerly held by them on religious trusts.

From the reign of Henry VIII to that of Charles I the Crown looked to the Livery Companies for forced loans for specific purposes including the Plantations of Ulster (1610) and Virginia (1609), and for the provision of men and arms for defence.

The reign of Charles II witnessed the second attack by the Crown on Livery Companies by the Institution of Quo Warranto proceedings against the City Corporation and the Livery Companies resulting in the surrender of their existing Charters in 1684-5 and the grant of new restrictive Charters by Charles II and James II. James II however revoked the new and restored the old Charters and this was confirmed by the Statute 1 William and Mary Cap. 8 in 1690. The 1684-5 Charters are of interest in that apart from new provisions providing for Crown control, they specifically recognised for the first time the existence of Courts of Assistants to run the affairs of the Companies in addition to the Master and Wardens named by earlier Charters, although in many cases these had existed for centuries as select bodies which often replaced the Livery as the body which elected the Master and Wardens.

By the 17th century the control over their craft had begun to decline except in a few cases where it remains to the present day, e.g. the Goldsmiths with their statutory duty to Hallmark silver. The Companies’ powers to regulate the trades associated with them have probably never been soundly based and were probably ineffective being void at Common Law as “in restraint of trade”. The fact that recruitment was always by Patrimony (birth) as well as by redemption (purchase) and Servitude (apprenticeship) also ensured that only a proportion of the members were themselves connected with the trade.

In the 19th century Royal Commissions inquired into the Companies in 1837 and 1884, neither of which however resulted in legislation.

The Livery Companies have moved from their original purely charitable and social activities, through a period between the early middle ages and the 17th century, during which they assumed in addition (insofar as it is possible to describe mediaeval concepts by modern phrases) the combined function of employers’ associations, trade unions and