On August 17th 1387, a number of journeymen Cordwainers were charged with making an illegal fraternity.
Cordwainers were shoemakers who practised their trade for centuries within the walls of the City of London.
During the medieval period, craftsmen formed guilds to regulate their trades and to protect the quality of their wares. The guilds trained apprentices and, in theory, supported their members over trade issues. In theory, the guild united members vertically, from wealthier masters employing any number of workers, through journeymen, craftsmen who had served their apprenticeship and worked at the trade, to apprentices learning the craft, as all sharing a common interest. (And yes, they were generally men, women were pretty much excluded from guild membership, although, not exclusively in some places and some guilds).
However, the guilds were often venues of struggle, usually between masters and journeymen, as the latter struggled to improve wages and working conditions, and the masters attempted to prevent them from getting together to organise – using force, the law, and all the strength of the guild’s regulations.
The middle ages in the City of London saw some attempts by journeymen of most crafts to form what are referred to as congregations, combinations, associations, with the aim of agreeing common action. The mere act of meeting as such was banned by law, and since the masters of the Guilds were also often the aldermen, mayors, sheriffs, and members of he Court of Common Council, the law was used heavily against the journeymen.
However the records are scanty – one commentator, having studied the London Letter-books of the deliberations, decisions and ordinances of London’s mayors and aldermen between the mid-13th and the mid 15th century, totals “only five such conflicts between artisans and their bosses, and none before the Black Death.” This doesn’t mean that much more conflict didn’t take place, only that it wasn’t necessarily considered serious enough to be recorded… Although some historians of this period have suggested that at this point such class conflict was relatively low. That it is only after the Black Death that these cases begin to appear is significant, as the huge shortage of labour that followed this cataclysmic plague led to an upsurge in demands from labourers for higher wages, more freedom to choose their employer, and better working conditions. (See our earlier post on the Ordinance of Labourers).
The 1387 Master Cordwainers’ case against some of their journeymen is the earliest of these five recorded cases. According to an account of the hearing of the cordwainers’ case:
“John Clerk, Henry Duntone, and John Hychene, were attached on the 17th day of August, in the 11th year etc., at the suit of Robert de York, Thomas Bryel, Thomas Gloucestre, and William Mildenhale, overseers of the trade of Cordwainers, and other reputable men of the same trade, appearing before Nicholas Extone, Mayor, and the Aldermen, in the Chamber of the Guildhall of London; and were charged by the said prosecutors, for that, whereas it was enacted and proclaimed in the said city, on behalf of our Lord the King, that no person should make congregations, alliances, or covins of the people, privily or openly; and that those belonging to the trades, more than other men, should not, without leave of the Mayor, make alliances, confederacies, or conspiracies; the aforesaid John Clerk, Henry Duntone, and John Hychene, servingmen of the said trade of Cordwainers, together with other their accomplices, on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin [15 August] last past, at the Friars Preachers [Black Friars] in the said city, brought together a great congregation of men like unto themselves, and there did conspire and confederate to hold together; to the damage of the commonalty, and the prejudice of the trade before mentioned, and in rebellion against the overseers aforesaid; and there, because that Richard Bonet, of the trade aforesaid, would not agree with them, made assault upon him, so that he hardly escaped with his life; to the great disturbance of the peace of our Lord the King, and to the alarm of the neighbours there, and against the oath by which they had before been bound, not to make such congregations, or unions, or sects, for avoiding the dangers resulting therefrom.
And the said persons, being examined and interrogated thereon, could not deny the same; but they further confessed that a certain Friar Preacher, “Brother William Bartone” by name, had made an agreement with their companions, and had given security to them, that he would make suit in the Court of Rome for confirmation of that fraternity by the Pope; so that, on pain of excommunication, and of still more grievous sentence afterwards to be fulminated, no man should dare to interfere with the well-being of the fraternity. For doing the which, he had received a certain sum of money, which had been collected among their said companions: a deed which notoriously redounds to the weakening of the liberties of the said city, and of the power of the officers of the same. Wherefore, by award of the said Mayor and Aldermen, it was determined that the said John Clerk, Henry Duntone, and John Hychene, should be confined in the Prison of Neugate, until they should have been better advised what further ought to be done with them.”
(11 Richard II. A.D. 1387. Letter-Book H. fol. ccxix. (Latin.)
More cordwainers – Nicholas Bosbury, Walter Hoggeslade, Adam Loseye, Walter Gyngyver, Roger Rabas, William Robyn, William Hare, Robert Suttone – seem to have been tried, presumably for the same offence, on the 3rd of September in the same year, but there is no further record.
However, the imprisonment of some of the alleged ringleaders of the cordwainers’ ‘great congregation’ was far from the end of their attempts to organise in their own interests. Only 9 years later, in 1396, the masters were petitioning the mayor of London and aldermen again, alleging that their ‘serving-men’ had violated guild ordinances again by forming their own fraternity. The journeymen again lost in court, this time being fined £10 a head, way beyond their means.
The Cordwainers may well have been at the forefront of attempts to combine to improve their lot collectively. Other trades were also riven by inter-guild class struggle in 1396: the master saddlers accused some journeymen of their guild of holding meetings outside the City without the masters’ consent, seeking to increase their pay, and neglecting work…
Another question that comes up: there seems to have been an upsurge in ‘labour troubles’ in London in the 1380s. As mentioned above, the post-Black Death labour shortage had sparked any number of individual, and some collective, attempts to bargain for better wages and conditions by labourers. This was definitely happening in rural areas – it’s very likely similar pressures were operating in the capital too. What, if any, influence the second great cataclysm in fourteenth century history – the peasants Revolt of 1381 – had on the uppitiness of the Cordwainers and other London trades, is open to debate. It may be that a political element particular to London’s experience of the Revolt remained active both politically and/or in the disputes within the guilds.
Its certainly true that the Cordwainers as a guild may have been considered relatively radical in the 1380s, in that it had become involved in faction fighting among the guilds, merchants and citizens, which had peaked around the June 1381 events. The Cordwainers had to some extent been associated with the faction of John Northampton, alderman from 1375 and Lord Mayor 1381-3, a reformer, whose record was characterized by an attempt to address inequality and trim the powers of the City oligarchy. Ousted by Nicholas Brembre, backed by the oligarchic faction, Northampton was jailed ‘for sedition’ in 1383, and sentenced to death (though this was commuted to 10 years imprisonment). His supporters and relatives suffered repression, banishment, and disenfranchisement as the oligarchic faction asserted themselves. The struggle between the two factions saw riots, ambushes, and arrests. It is worth noting that during the repression that followed the election of Nicholas Brembre, some of those arrested represented the settling of other scores – so when the guilds were forced to hand over names of those involved in tumults around the election, names of turbulent guild members were added. Relevant to the above story, the Cordwainers Guild masters dobbed in one John Remes, who was accused of a variety of charges including inflammatory words and other insubordinations, but pointedly also for rebellion against their own guild leadership.
It is interesting that the cordwainers – shoemakers – were pioneering in getting together to improve their lot. In later centuries many shoemakers and cobblers, like tailors, were famed for political radicalism, intellectual learning and debate, and trade unionism. Some put this down to the nature of their trade – shoemakers, like tailors, often working in their own rooms, or one or two to a workshop, in relatively quiet conditions, which perhaps allowed for more discussion and swapping of ideas than in some other trades. The on-off, boom and slack, manner that these trades fluctuated may have also resulted in periods of no work, which could both allow time to read and talk politics, and provoke anger and resentment… However their particular struggles arose, London’s cordwainers and shoemakers would continue to gather, debate, agitate, educate and organise…
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online