History of Livery and the Freedom of the City of London
The following information derives from an excellent short leaflet published in September 2009 by the City of London updated where necessary (including History of The Clothworkers’ Company 1994) and information from other Livery Company leaflets.
First – Livery, then The Freedom, finally the Role of the Beadle.
A very good site for more detail on all aspects of the City Civic etc click here
Trade Guilds were the forerunners of Livery companies in Britain with many being traceable back to the 12th Century or even earlier.
The word Guild is said to derive from the Saxon word “gildan” (to pay) since Members were required to contribute towards the cost of their Trade Association. The earliest charter still in existence is that of the Weavers Company dating from 1155. Early Guilds controlled manufacture and selling of most goods and services in the City of London. As Guilds became more established and financially strong, they set up their own headquarters in large houses or halls.
There was a strong religious element to the Guilds, each adopting a Patron Saint and being attached to a local Monastery or Church. Each Guild introduced their own distinctive clothing called Livery (possibly based on various Monks habits) and regalia. This led them to quickly becoming known as Livery Companies.
The Livery Companies had a significant trading position which gave them a key role in the government of the Square Mile. In 1475 a charter confirmed liverymen the exclusive right to elect the City Sheriffs (Shire-reeve), the King’s representative. This right is still carried out today every year on Mid-Summers Day at Guildhall. Two are elected every year, one of the two (sometimes both) will be an Alderman and very likely to be elected as Lord Mayor in a couple of years.
In 1515 their were 48 Companies. After a lethal accident on the River Thames involving various Livery Company barges, The Lord Mayor established an order of precedence for them resolving years of dispute. This “precedence” was not based on Antiquity but more likely “power and influence”.
The Mercers are ranked as Number 1 with the Skinners and Merchant Taylors at 6’s and 7’s. They alternate every year – the could never agree on who was where.
After their peak in the 17th Century, Politics, Wars, the Industrial Revolution, Progress (no more need for some products e.g. Bows (Bowyer’s) or Arrows (Fletchers)) and traders from outside the City of London put their old system of operating under pressure. Many have gained a new lease of life by adopting a change in their function and embracing and encouraging new technologies associated with their craft (e.g. Horners and polymers, Glovers and prosthetics), in addition supporting their craft/industry through research grants . They have also been prominent in Education and Training, for example the City and Guilds Institute, founded 1878 which promotes vocational qualifications. It is estimated that the Livery Companies donate in excess of 60,000,000 to Charities every year.
Looking after their members in sickness and old age has always been a part of the responsibility of the Livery companies and today their charitable donations across a wide spectrum remain substantial.
In the 20th Century, 2 new livery companies were formed before the 2nd World War and 31 since taking the number in November 2020 to 110. To see all their Coats of Arms visit or take a tour of the Guidhall where you will see them displayed all round the walls – in order of precedence. The Newer companies include Tax Advisors, Security Professionals, Educators and Art Scholars . Some 30,000+/- men and women are Members of Livery.
To become a new company, a group of people (usually at least 100) must satisfy the Court of Alderman that they have the resources and willingness to continue their association indefinitely. They must have strong ties with the Square Mile and have a significant number of members engaged in a particular trade, profession or craft. Initially if approved they will have Guild status e.g The Guild of Nurses
Livery Companies – a summary of some of their backgrounds
Below are a selection of various Companies in no specific order, and just a selection for interest.
The Leathersellers received their original Charter in 1344 and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries during Heny VIIth’s reign managed to purchase all the land in and around St Helen’s Place. They are very active in philanthropy.
Originally a single company called Bowers and Fletchers (Makers of bows and arrows respectively), split in 1371 to form to separate Companies. Today they focus on the disabled and in 2011/12 actively supported those taking part in the Paralympics.
Clothworkers Based on A Short History of the Clothworkers Company (Oct 1994)
Many Livery Companies regulated areas of the cloth industry including; Woolmen, Weavers, Fullers (1480), Shearmen (1508), Dyers, Haberdashers, Drapers and Merchant Taylors – they wielded great power and rivalries developed.
Fullers, Shearmen and Weavers’ amalgamated to form The Guild or Fraternity of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Clothworkers in the City of London. Took over Shearmen’s Hall and their “precedence” (1508) as the most “junior” of the Great 12 Livery Companies.
Fletchers (Fleche = Fr for arrow)
The first mention dates to 1385. In recent times have established an annual shoot for disabled archers together with support for the 2012 and 2016 paralympics.
Glaziers and Painters of Glass
First mention of the Guild of glaziers 1328. No 53 in the order of precedence. Today the Glaziers Trust supports training and education in this specialst field, in addition to major involvement with the restoration and conservation of historic stained glass. They still have very old and important pieces of stained glass that might have been deposited with them for safekeeping, where the records are missing – serious research is necessary to try to restore some of these pieces to their rightful owners – if they are still in existence.
Formed to safeguard the welfare of its members and top regulate the craft of stone masonry. Today provides financial support for students and apprentices and actively fosters the use of stone in Buildings via its award schemes
– Painter Stainers
Painters applied colour to solid objects such as wood, stone, metal and even saddles including the inside of Churches. The stainers had a fraternity in place by at least 1268 when they became involved in a riot also involving the Goldsmiths and Tailors.
Stainers applied colour to woven fabrics – flags, banners for pagents, processions and funerals.
Painters had a fraternity in place by 1283.
The two were joined together in 1502 becoming the Union of Painters and Stainers. Today they are ranked 28th.
11th in the order of precedence, its first Charter being granted in 1363 granting a monopoly of trade with Gascogny. Throughout the Middle Ages they conrtolled the Wine Trade in London and had great influence in the rest of England. They maintained a great deal of power in the 1500’s and contributed very high taxes in the 1640’s when Parliament came to power financially supporting Charles I. Its Hall and many other properties were destroyed in the Great Fire of London 1666. Their Hall was rebuilt by 1671 and structurally altered in 1822 when Upper Thames Street was widened.
Although Membership declined, it still had major investments and put those to good use in various charitable donations and ventures. The modern Livery Company received its new Charter in 1973.
The Company has had the right to own Swans on the River Thames since before its ealiest records. Every July the Swans are counted the new cygnets marked. Historically Vintner’s swans were given two “nicks” on their beak, the Dyer’s being given one and the Queen’s swans none. Since 1997 as part of the Swan Upping Ceremony the swans are ringed and do not have their beaks nicked.
– The origins predate the office of The Lord Mayor, but it was incorporated as a Livery Company in 1522. Today they support they support the very important UK wool industry by providing scholarships to study wool technology, prizes for shearing competitions and organising major conferences, meeting involving international industry leaders.
The Worshipful Company of Glovers of London was formed in 1349 by glove makers in London who wished to protect the high standard of their craft and was granted its Royal Charter by King Charles I in 1638.
The Company has developed into a modern organisation with around 250 men and women in the Livery. We strive to be inclusive in every respect with philanthropy at our core
Watermen (transporting people and goods along and across the River Thames) and Lightermen (transferring goods between ships and quays)
joined the company in 1555
Granted their Charter by Charles I to control the horological trade in and around the City of London. Today the Company awards scholarships and bursaries to those training to be watch or clock-makers and those researching the measurement of time.
Company, founded in 1908 and granted Livery in 1944
Unique in that its Members must have practised within 1 mile of the Bank of England or of Canary Wharf (a more recent regulation I presume).
Members leading IT professionals. Runs a programme of charitable and educational activities.
A “modern” very active livery supporting those working in insurance and reinsurance and supporting services.
(Number 108 – Formed in 1999 – Granted Livery in 2008)
Members come form a wide range of differing areas including security professionals, serving and retired members of the police, armed services, consultants and academics.
Freedom of the City of London
– based on a short leaflet ‘ The Freedom of the City of London prepared by the City of London Corporation’.
It’s origins go back to medieval times when craftsmen and women throughout Europe organised themselves into trade guilds which protected customers, employees, and employers alike by checking standards, quality including weights and measures.
There were severe penalties for those who broke the rules. The guilds (which became known as Livery Companies in The City of London), looked after the young, the old and the sick.
The City of London demanded that all Liverymen had to became Freeman thus controlling who could join a Livery Company. Freedom fees were comparatively high and for some years in the 14th Century this was the main source of income for the City. Freemen were exempt from Market and Bridge Tolls and were the only people allowed to vote or have a say in the governance of the City of London.
Today, any individual of good character and over the age of 21 may apply for the Freedom upon payment of a Fee. (which helps to support the Sheriffs and Recorders Fund’. Freedom ceremonies normally take place at the Guildhall in the Chamberlains Court on a daily basis. This simple ceremony is normally carried out by the Clerk. Freemen are required to read the Declaration of a Freeman.
“I do solemnly declare that I will be good and true to our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second; that I will be obedient to the Mayor of this City; that I will maintain the franchises and customs thereof, and will keep this City harmless, in that which in me is; that I will also keep the Queen’s peace in my own person; that I will know no gatherings nor conspiracies made against the Queens peace but I will warn the Mayor thereof, or hinder it to my power; and that all these points and articles I will well and truly keep. according to the customs of this City, to my power.”
The Livery Company Beadle
What is the role of a Beadle?
A Livery Company Beadle has been described in the past by Lord Miles as:-
“A Master of Ceremonies, a nanny, a general factotum, a
military batman, a formal dress expert, a prompter, an organiser, an
accountant, a procedure expert, a church warden, a policeman and a
planner all rolled into one!”
A Livery Beadles own description was,
The duties of the Beadle are to attend upon The Master, Wardens and Court
on all lawful occasions, properly robed and bearing his staff of office. To
protect and proclaim the Livery on attending Common Halls when voting for
the election of the Lord Mayor and other Officers of the City.”
In essence, the Beadle’s duties can be divided into two separate categories.
Formal and Official; Attendance at all Court Meetings, formal occasions
of the Livery, i.e. Court Meetings, Court Luncheons, the United Guild
Service, the Banquet and admissions Ceremonies where his presence is an
essential part of the occasion.
Informal and Essential; In the manner so aptly described by Lord Miles
above, he has to see that Court Functions start on time, that the Master and
Wardens are correctly attired (likely to look after robes and Badges of Office
and bring them to the meetings) and that they always do the right thing at
the right time – no easy task but one that is essential for the smooth and
efficient running of all Livery formal occasions.