Gilds and their origins.


There was a lot of interest in gilds in Victorian times and many Victorians offered histories of the gilds, some conflicting, but where there is doubt I have tended towards the views of H F Westlake. This is partly because he has published on Suffolk gildhalls in the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archealogy and History (PSIAH) and partly because his more readable book was published towards the end of many others on the subject, references some of them and is therefore likely to have filtered out the more unlikely views. These Victorian sources of information are listed on the
Sources page. There are also modern equivalents such as those from Clive Paine and Leigh Alston. An article by the latter appeared in the "Eavesdropper" the newsletter of the Suffolk Historic Buildings Group (SHBG). Also see the Sources page.

Any corrections or further information on the subject would be welcome via the contact link at the bottom of the page.

The origin of gilds

There is some agreement amongst experts that the origins of gilds go back to Anglo-Saxon frith-gilds, which were associations of ten townsmen or villagers formed to maintain the King’s peace. In the earliest days they had responsibilities that were entirely secular but by the 10th century, in the reign of Aethelstan (925 – 940), obligations of a religious nature appeared that started to link the gilds with the parish church.

Within a hundred years the brethren of different frith-gilds had begun to combine together to form associations of a purely religious character. The earliest known example of this new type of gild dates from the reign of Canute (1017 – 1035). Orcy, a friend of the king, founded a gild among the frith-gildsmen of Abbotsbury in Dorset and endowed it with a hall. Shortly afterwards (1072 and 1107) records exist of gilds in Exeter and the surrounding area and at the time of the Domesday Book two gilds at Canterbury were recorded.

The broad purpose of parish gilds was to provide the spiritual insurance policy of a decent burial and intercession (prayer) after one’s death. Other functions included fraternity, conviviality and holding agreeable social events including communal feasting, as well as what we might now call accident insurance and financial loans.

There was a parallel development of craft and trade guilds from similar origins to those of the religious and social parish gilds. There were also gilds merchant which were an early form of local government.

For local context, remember that the Kingdom of East Anglia was only consolidated in the later Anglo Saxon period in the 7
th Century under the Wuffinga dynasty and the existing framework of towns and villages mainly became established in the four centuries before the Norman Conquest. By this time the county of Suffolk was already an identifiable administrative entity, based on the original southern territory (allegedly South folk) of the Kingdom of East Anglia. In this period churches were constructed in almost all settlements such that by 1086 over 400 were recorded in the county. The earliest recorded Suffolk gild, the Fraternity of the Clerks of Glemsford located in the Church of St Mary at Bury St Edmunds, claimed to have come into being in the reign of Canute and certainly received some sort of constitution from Abbott Baldwin in the time of Edward the Confessor (1042–1066).

Purgatory and Indulgences

Westlake says that no one can understand the life of the Middle Ages without realising the quite extraordinary importance attached to the doctrine of Purgatory, and the efficacy of prayer and alms as a means of deliverance therefrom. Purgatory may be summarised as a halfway point between Heaven and Hell where a person’s sins are purged to make them worthy for Heaven. The prayers of the living can shorten a soul’s stay in Purgatory so it is good to pray for the dead. Reserves of left over grace from the Saints, who went straight to Heaven, could be purchased as indulgences to accelerate release from Purgatory. In the mid-16
th century Henry VIII put a stop to Purgatory, praying for the dead and purchasing indulgences – and most of the religious and parish gilds were swept away with them (see also Country Gilds below).

The Gilds of Corpus Christi

The feast of Corpus Christi was founded about 1264 by Pope Urban IV. It was to be celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday by a procession. Indulgences were granted to those who took part and gilds soon began to be formed with the special object of celebrating it. The first one with a remaining record was in Norwich in 1287. Another was formed in Bury St Edmunds in 1317. Evidence of the celebration of Corpus Christi in England is sparse and disputed but evidence is available of many gilds devoted to the purpose, including in Suffolk.

The Black Death

The Black Death (mainly 1348/9 but also 1361, 1369 and 1407) halved the population of England from 4 to 2 million. This increased the price of labour and decreased the price of land and as a result marked a revolution in social and economic life with a similar major effect on gilds. Churches bereft of priest and people will have lost their gilds and no record remains. It is frequently noted that Norfolk lost two thirds of its clergy, that in Norwich 60,000 died and that the population of London was reduced to 35,000.

In the aftermath of the Black Death there were strong undercurrents of dissatisfaction and revolt in the population at large. The re-forming of parish gilds in these circumstances may have aroused royal suspicion that seditious societies were being formed under the guise of religious purposes and in 1389 Richard II called for much detail about gilds. The reason remains unknown and, sedition aside, may have been with an eye to taxation. Returns only survive for 13 places in Suffolk describing about 40 gilds. These are listed in pp 225 – 230 of The Parish Gilds of Medieval England by Westlake (see

Religious, parish or country gilds

The gilds of the 15
th and early 16th centuries were numerous and it was an exception for a Church not to have a gild associated with it and in many cases a village would have several gilds. Their objectives were simple in character, the most ambitious being the maintenance of a side chapel in the parish church. A large majority contented themselves with the support of a light to burn perpetually, or on special days, before the image of a Saint in whose name they were enrolled (see Sources for a partial listing of gilds in Suffolk).


The social activities of gilds were originally held inside churches but popular opinion steadily moved against this and special gildhalls were built. Sometimes a single hall would be used by more than one gild. For example the hall at Fressingfield was established late in Henry VII’s reign to remove all “church ales, gilds, yeardays, buryings and other drinkings from the church”.
More on gildhalls.

The passing of religious gilds

By the middle of the reign of Henry VIII there is some evidence that in towns and larger villages the gilds had lost some of their older democratic character. They were becoming associations from which poorer people were excluded by reason of their poverty. Where there were several gilds side by side there was some evidence of social grade determining membership. To this could be added the turmoil of conflicting religious opinion (noted above under Purgatory and Indulgences) together with, from 1536 onwards, the dissolution of the monasteries. With all this, men were considering their fate as well as the plate and property of the parish churches and the fraternities located in them.

In 1545 (according to Westlake - or implied as 1547 in Historical Atlas) an act was passed conveying to the king the property of all “colleges, free chapels, chantries, hospitals, fraternities, brotherhoods, gilds and stipendiary priests” although the king died before it could be fully carried out. Nevertheless, the heyday of the parish gild was over.

Gildhalls were confiscated by the Crown but some remained intact and were bought back by the parish continuing as parish property later to appear as schools or workhouses. Others maintained their hospitality roots and became inns.

Trade and craft guilds

The Historical Atlas of Suffolk takes a fairly strong line that “The study of these institutions has long been bedevilled by confusion between craft guilds and civic guilds. Rural Suffolk had no craft or trade gilds, while even in the towns of Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich, at least in the period for which documentary evidence survives, they were the exception rather than the rule.”

Mark Bailey in his “Medieval Suffolk” book outlines some craft guilds of Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds (pp 139 – 141). He noted that Ipswich had a gild merchant in the 12
th Century. Gilds merchant considered the major issues of urban government, while craft guilds emerged with a specific interest in regulating activity in their particular trade. In the 12th century the Ipswich gild merchant acted as an informal town government at a time when there were no formal powers of self-government. When Ipswich acquired those powers through a royal charter of 1200 the role of the gild merchant diminished and it became a socio-religious club for all the burgesses. Eventually it developed a prominent ceremonial function after its rededication to Corpus Christi in the early 14th century.

In Bury St Edmunds the informal structures of trade and craft guilds were used to organise commercial activity at arms length from the Abbey. Weavers, linen drapers, bakers and shoemakers (cordwainers) guilds were known to exist, the bakers dating from the 1170s. The gild merchant of Bury St Edmunds became known as the Candlemas gild by the mid 14
th century and grew in power over the next two centuries. By the end of the 15th century it had sufficient legal standing to allow the burgesses to act as a communal body. There is evidence of some similar influences in Beccles but otherwise no others in the authoritative literature. There is a hint of a craft guild in Sudbury in other material.

Gilds as a foundation of other institutions

Although the parish gilds were overtaken by events and gilds merchant evolved, the craft and trade guilds remain to this day. In the City of London there are 108 Livery Companies that trace their history to gilds - see this

Collectively, the early gilds were the source of evolution of parish (and subsequently all local) governance, friendly societies, trades unions, professional bodies and many other aspects of life that we now take for granted.

Find out more about gildhalls on
the gildhalls page.