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Merchant Guild
and the first Mayors

In the Middle Ages, the trade of Reading grew apace. The people were no longer merely toilers in the fields. There is an old story that in the reign of King Edward I (1272-1307) there flourished at Reading a rich clothier, called Thomas Cole, whose wagons were continually going to and fro between Reading and London. We cannot altogether believe this story, but it is certain that as early as this time the trade in cloth had begun in Reading. We know that there was a cloth market in Minster Street in Reading as early as 1311, and perhaps even before; and we know also that, from this time for at least four centuries, the trade in cloth was the mainstay of the prosperity of Reading. In all times England has been noted for its fine sheep pastures, and for the production of great quantities of wool. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the trade in wool grew fast. At first the wool used to be packed in sacks, and carried from the inland pastures down to the ports and shipped over to Flanders. There, the cunning Flemish weavers made it into cloth, and much of this Flemish cloth woven from English wool was shipped back again to England, and sold to the English people. But after a time, the English learnt how to make their wool into cloth for themselves without sending it to Flanders. King Edward I wisely encouraged the English to do this and it is said that he brought over Flemish weavers to Bristol in order that his English subjects might learn from them the best ways of making cloth. The Kings who came after Edward followed his example in helping the cloth trade. So, at length, the English ceased to send much wool abroad, but kept it nearly all at home and made it into cloth themselves. Throughout southern and eastern England scores of towns and villages were, by 1450, busy in making cloth, and were growing rich by so doing. Among the most successful towns were Reading and Newbury.

It is clear that, even before 1300, Reading was no longer merely a small town. The Greyfriars settled in Reading in 1233, and it was not their wont to settle in small settlements. Again, in 1295, King Edward I asked each of the chief towns of England to send two burgesses to sit in Parliament. Among these towns was Reading. About the same date, we can perceive in Reading the rise of the trade in cloth. We know that, earlier still, Reading possessed a Merchant Guild. It is the Merchant Guild which must now be considered.

The Merchant Guild of Reading is first heard of in the year 1253, but it is certain that it existed even earlier. In 1253 we find that the Merchant Guild of the burgesses of Reading had been quarrelling with the Abbot of Reading. The Abbot took his complaint to a court of law, and it is in the records of this trial that we hear for the first time of the Merchant Guild of Reading.

A Merchant Guild, first of all, was an association of traders. This association had two chief objects. The first was to protect the traders of a town from the competition of those who did not belong to the town or to the Merchant Guild. Thus in Reading no ‘foreigner’ (that is, outsider, one who dwelt outside the town) was allowed to set up in the town a shop or stall unless he had the permission of the Merchant Guild. The second object of the association was to make rules for the management of trades carried on within the town. Merchant Guilds are not heard of in England before the Norman Conquest. But one of the results of the Norman Conquest was to increase the traffic between England and the rest of Europe. Partly for that reason, English trade began to grow rapidly and, during the two centuries after the Norman Conquest, we hear of Merchant Guilds in nearly all the chief trading towns.

Although the Merchant Guild was first of all a trading association, it often happened that, in course of time, it came to be concerned with other more important things, than trade. This happened to the Guilds because of their wealth and strength. In Reading, as in some other towns, the Merchant Guild was by far the strongest organisation in the town. Gradually the Guild came to have more and more to do with the general government of the town. In Reading the Merchant Guild, in the end, grew into the municipal authority, or Town Council. This growth and change came very slowly indeed and it would not be easy to say when the old Guild finally disappears and the history of the Town Council of Reading begins. The one, little by little, passes into the other, just as the root of a tree passes into the trunk. For a long time the head of the Guild is spoken of, sometimes as the Custos or Warden of the Guild, and sometimes as the Mayor. After the middle of the sixteenth century, Mayor of the Borough, is the only title used.

Every year three burgesses, or members, of the Guild, chosen by the rest of the Guild in their Guild Hall, preceded on the feast of St. Michael the Archangel to the Compter Gate of the Abbey. Thence they were led to the great hall, where the Abbot would be sitting in state to receive them. The Abbot then chose one of the three to be the Custos (or Warden) of the Guild for the coming year. The duties of the Custos were very important. He had to preside at the meetings of the Guild, and to see that the officers of the Guild did their work. He had to speak on behalf of the Guild, and to act for it, on public occasions. For example, in 1318, the Custos went to London to see that a Burgess of Reading was not wrongly taxed. If the King came to Reading, the Custos might be required to go, in his best clothes, to meet him and to offer him gifts. The Custos had an allowance to meet the expenses of his office, but the allowance was not large. In 1302 it was no more than twenty shillings (about £500 today).

It was the Custos or Mayor who acted as peacemaker when the burgesses quarrelled with one another, as they often did. After a meeting of the Guild, the rule was for the burgesses, two and two together, to escort the Mayor through the streets to his own door. Any burgess who threatened to hurt him, or who abused him, or who disobeyed him, might be turned out of the Guild, or fined, or otherwise punished. The Mayor wore robes of office, and a hood upon his head. It was he who kept the charters and the silver plate belonging to the Guild. In the fifteenth century he was allowed to have a mace (or staff of office) borne before him by two sergeants. Sometimes the Mayor gave a dinner to the Guild. The first existing mention of the office of Custos, Warden, or Mayor is in a record of the year 1302. Yet there is no doubt that the office existed even before that date.

Besides the Mayor, there were other officers of the Guild. First of these were the Cofferers, who, in a strong chest in the Guild Hall, kept the moneys of the Guild. It was they who collected the rents of the Guild and kept the Guild accounts on parchment rolls. Then there was the Clerk of the Guild, who wrote down, in a book, what the Guild did at its meetings. Many of the Clerk's books for Reading are still preserved. In the end, his office grew into the office of the Town Clerk of Reading. Then there were the Constables, whose duty it was to seize those who broke the law and to keep the pillory and stocks, in the Market Place, in good order. Next came the Ward Keepers, who were required to see to the good order of the streets and to drive stray pigs into the pound. Sergeants at Mace are first mentioned in 1487, when the King said, in a new charter, that the Mayor might have a mace. It was the duty of the Sergeants at Mace to ring the common bell to warn the Mayor and burgesses of meetings at the Guild Hall; to attend, with the mace, upon the Mayor, on Sundays and holy days, when he went to Church; and to keep the Guild Hall clean. They also served warrants upon law­breakers and cried proclamations in the Market Place. Lastly, there were the officers called Searchers, whose duty it was to see that the trades in the town were carried on according to the orders of the Guild.

The Merchant Guild consisted of the chief traders in Reading. The number of members or ‘burgesses’ who belonged to it varied from forty to eighty. When a burgess was admitted to the Guild he had to pay a fee, as well as all or part of the cost of a breakfast to the Mayor and burgesses held on such occasions. We happen to know what the bill of fare was at one of these breakfasts in 1497. It consisted of "befe, lambe, hennys, chekyns, suger, wyne, geese, floure, orrengis and powther." It cost altogether six shillings (about £150 today). Every burgess had also, on admission to the Guild, to swear an oath that he would be a true and loyal member, and not tell anyone its secrets.

A Guild Hall is known to have existed in Reading from at least 1254, but we are not told in the records where it was situated. In 1420, a new Guild Hall was built near the George Inn and the Holy Brook. It was quite a small building. At its western end was a barn. On its southern side was a stable, a garden and a dye-house. In 1442, when the Merchant Guild was thriving, the Hall was much improved. We hear of its clock-house and bells to chime the hours, and of the pictures of King Henry VI and King Henry VII that hung within. It was in the Guild Hall that the business of the Guild was done. It was here that, ever since 1295, the two members of Parliament for Reading were chosen. Hither on Friday mornings, at the summons of their bell, came the burgesses in their gowns. Here were held the dinners and the breakfasts. Here took place entertainments before the Guild, as, for instance, when the play-actors from one of the villages near, such as Henley or Aldermaston, Sonning or Wokingham, asked leave to show their skill. For hundreds of years, the Guild Hall was the centre of the trade and business of Reading even more than the municipal buildings of today. In the end, however, this old Hall proved to be too small. Moreover, it stood close to the water's brink, just where the women came to wash clothes in the river. The noise they made when beating their clothes and linen with their ‘bateldores’ was so great that the burgesses, in their Hall, often could not hear one another speak. And so, in 1543, the Mayor and burgesses were allowed to have, instead of their old Hall, the chief part of the church of the Greyfriars, from which the friars had just been driven forth.

The Guild regulated very strictly the trading affairs of Reading. Only those who were members of the Guild might trade freely within the town, and traders from other places, the ‘foreigners’ were sharply watched and jealously controlled. They might come to the town to trade only during fair time, or on fixed occasions, and they had to pay tolls for any privileges. The Guild, in short, did all it could to keep the profits of the town trade entirely to itself. Moreover, it passed many rules affecting even its own members. Thus, no barber was allowed to shave any but certain privileged persons after nine o'clock at night between Easter and Michaelmas. All the methods of making cloth were strictly regulated with the object of preventing the manufacture of cloth of poor quality. Much of the business of the Guild was concerned with matters of this kind.

Such was the Merchant Guild of Reading during the three hundred years from about 1250 to 1550. It received, during this long period, many beautifully written and illuminated charters from the King, each one adding a little to its liberties and privileges. At last, in 1542 after the Dissolution of the Abbey, the burgesses received a most important charter, by which the Merchant Guild of Reading became recognised as a corporate body for the management of town affairs generally. Henceforth the name of Guild, and many of the old ideas connected with it, seem to fade away, and we hear more and more of the Mayor and Corporation. Thus the Town Council of Reading has a long history stretching away behind it into the distant past. We cannot really say with sureness when its history begins, so dim are its origins, but we can truly say that it goes back for more than seven hundred and fifty years.

Edited from W.M. Childs' "The Story of the Town of Reading" (1905)


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