When we were invited to visit the Liveries of London in 2003 by the Director of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust, (which became The National Churches Trust in 2007) we had no idea what a special treat this would be. We weren’t familiar with the significance of the grand halls and were overwhelmed by their grandeur and history. On our walking trek, we quickly learned to recognize a Livery Hall by the discreet Coat of Arms on the exterior of the building which often gave a clue to the trade it represented.
Painting the livery halls was a natural progression from the project we had just undertaken–watercolors of some of the ancient churches in England. These churches had been heavily supported over hundreds of years by members of the guilds who often endowed them with treasures to assure their “acceptance into heaven”. At the time of our visit, the Director of the National Churches Preservation Trust was also a member of the Leathersellers guild, so he helped us gain access into halls which had historically been closed to members only.
We were told that in 1515, 48 Livery Companies were in existence in London, and their order of precedence was officially established based on economic or political power at the time. A long-standing argument over place 6 and 7 actually resulted in an annual ‘swap’ which continues to this day!
Today only 40 of the 77 companies established before 1926 have great halls within the square mile of London and often share them with other guilds. None of the halls survived completely intact after the Great Fire of London in 600AD and many were further damaged by the London Blitz of WWII. However, their grandeur and opulence remains unsurpassed and the halls remain a vital and historic part of the City of London. We were able to visit 30 of the 40 great halls.
Merchant societies all over Europe began to loosely form as trade and crafts associations around 1100AD. After the Middle Ages, these fraternities or guilds (named for the gold that was deposited into common accounts) were legalized to protect members with similar skills as they aged, or became disabled, to protect widows and orphans, to build chapels, etc. and many developed schools to perpetuate their trade in the form of apprenticeships. As they grew in economic power and importance, the guilds were allowed special privileges issued by the king, including the ability to maintain funds, and to ‘hold’ and inherit property from members.
This special ‘holding’ privilege allowed the guilds to accumulate enormous wealth and power over hundreds of years. Many created grand halls where their members met to socialize or to conduct business. Through sheer numbers and economic strength, they were able to minimize competition, and shape labor, production, and trade. They became powerful secret societies with member legacies and an aristocratic aura. However, toward the end of the 18th century with the advent of industrialization, their power began to be questioned and eventually ‘free trade’ and antitrust laws prevailed.
Today, in the City of London, the ancient guilds now survive as Livery Companies, often referred to as “The Worshipful Company of …” and although some retain ties to their original craft, their trade power is vastly diminished. Membership is coveted although the guilds are now primarily ceremonial and philanthropic. Today, the Lord Mayor of London still governs over the liveries, presiding over the Square Mile in the heart of the city, and must invite Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to enter the city, a ritualized reminder of the long struggle between the powerful merchant class and the monarchy. After 800 years, the magnificent Guildhall is still the home of the City of London Corporation and is the site of honorary and royal occasions.
During the height of their power, the London Guilds were required to locate their great halls in the heart of the city, within the square mile of London, and they gathered for annual ceremonies at Guildhall.