The City of London livery companies probably had their origins in this country before 1066 and are similar to the fraternities and guilds (or mysteries) that flourished throughout Europe for many centuries. Members paid to belong to trade guilds and the word guild derives from the Saxon “gildan”, meaning “to pay”. The early guilds controlled the provision of services and manufacture and selling of goods and food in the City of London, preventing unlimited competition and helping to keep wages and working conditions steady in extremely unstable times.
In medieval times the term 'livery' was used for clothing, food and drink provided to the officers and retainers of great households, and became associated with distinctive clothing and badges worn as symbols of privilege and protection. Members of each guild were distinguished from other people by their livery, which led to the guilds gradually becoming known as livery companies.
Relations between the livery companies were not always fraternal, with disputes over trade rights and precedence quite often leading to violence, especially between the hot-headed apprentices of each company. The City authorities could impose severe penalties, including execution, for particularly serious incidents.
Rivalry over precedence - specifically which company was entitled to be 6th in order of seniority - had been a source of trouble between the Skinners and the Merchant Taylors for some time in the 15th, and perhaps even 14th centuries. Both companies had received their first royal charters in 1327. It erupted into lethal violence in 1484 during the Lord Mayor's river procession, an occasion which the two guilds treated as their own private boat race. After the administration of justice to some of the offenders, the Lord Mayor, the Haberdasher, Robert Billesdon, mediated between the two companies at the request of their Masters. He resolved that each company should have precedence over the other in alternate years and that each company's Master and Wardens should be invited to dine at the other's Hall every year.
The Billesdon Award is still celebrated with annual dinners, and commemorated in a range of sporting links between the two companies. The change of precedence is marked each year at the ceremony of the Gavel exchange, performed by the Lord Mayor with the Masters and Wardens of the Skinners and Merchant Taylors at Mansion House, prior to the United Guilds Service. The two companies do not, however, agree on the spelling of the Lord Mayor's name. The Skinners have it as Billesdon, the Merchant Taylors as Billesden.
A fixed procession order was laid down in 1516 for the 48 livery companies of the time. That order remains unchanged to the present day, though there are now 108 companies. Lord Mayor Billesdon's judgement was confirmed, with the Skinners and Merchant Taylors alternating between sixth and seventh place, probably the origin of the phrase: 'to be at sixes and sevens’ *
The trade guilds controlled the manufacture and selling of goods and food within the City of London and also cared for sick members and helped those who were in financial trouble. Sir Richard (Dick) Whittington (c.1354 - 1423), a Mercer and the best known name in the history of the City of London, left some £6,000 - the equivalent of many millions today - in trust for almshouses. The trust still exists and has a substantial income which provides comfort and dignity for elderly people and others in need.
Many charitable trusts still exist today. Centuries of careful stewardship have resulted in a broader vision extended to developing countries, people with disabilities, young people, housing, museums and libraries, the arts, and medical research.
Companies have been involved in university education for many centuries. Support still continues in the form of scholarships and bursaries for young people to study for scientific and technical careers.
The Guild of Educators leads the Livery Schools Link
Livery Committee www.liverycompanies.info for livery company members and clerks