Back to The Acorn Archive





The full title of the Drapers' Company is "The Master and Wardens and Brethren and Sisters of the Guild or Fraternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Mystery of Drapers of the City of London".  The word Mystery comes from the French Mestier or Metier meaning Trade.


The origin of the City of London guilds or companies is lost in the mists of antiquity.  Initially, they acted as mutual protection societies.  The trade element was not at first apparent, but was rather an accidental feature, due to the localisation in early times of the various London trades in particular districts.  Traders and craftsmen by habit met and transacted business together as neighbours, so that it came about naturally that the first voluntary associations to be formed in London were composed of the members of a particular trade.


These associations adopted a religious complexion, and were known as fraternities.  Having no common meeting house they chose as their nucleus a neighbouring church, monastery or hospital, to which they attached themselves, and whose saint they adopted as their patron, paying subsidies out of a common fund to provide lights for the altar and services for the deceased.


As the trading element of these associations developed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, so they became known as guilds.  In the fourteenth century they began to obtain Charters from the Crown, giving them definite constitutions and rights of holding property, and defining their duties and responsibilities with regard to the trades with which they were connected.


Moreover, the guilds have, from the earliest times, played a vital role in the City.  In particular, they have elected the Chief Magistrate or Mayor and his principal officers from among their own members.


The date of origin of the Drapers' guild is unknown.  The guild's first charter was granted by Edward III in 1364, but it is known to have been in existence at least in 1180, and according to tradition Henry Fitzalwyn, who was elected Chief Magistrate of the City in 1188, belonged to it.  He became the first Lord Mayor of London in 1209, and retained the post until his death in 1212.


The first contemporary official record of the Drapers' guild appears at the end of the thirteenth century.  This document gives the names of the Wardens who were to govern the fraternity, and their duties: to instruct the members in their trade; and to regulate and settle disputes within the guild.  In the preamble to the Drapers' ordinances of 1405 it is claimed that a fraternity existed in 1332; in 1351 there is evidence of drapers acting in a corporate capacity at the election of Common Council of the City.


Furthermore, a Brotherhood of Drapers is known to have existed in the 1360s.  This was primarily a religious fraternity attached to the church of St. Mary Bethlehem.  It was founded in honour of St. Mary by "good people Drapers of Cornhill and other good men and women" for the amendment of their lives.  Only brethren and sisters "of good fame and good condition and behaviour" could be admitted to the fraternity.  The location of St. Mary can hardly have been convenient for the majority of Drapers who lived in and around Cornhill, Candlewick Street (now Canon Street) and Chepe (Cheapside).  Possibly it was for this reason that the Drapers' Guild transferred its allegiance to St. Mary le Bow in Cheapside and later to St. Michael Cornhill.  Despite these changes the guild has retained the Blessed Virgin Mary as patron saint.


As the guilds increased in wealth and prosperity, they started to organise their trades, crafts and misteries, as they were called, in such a way as to form monopolies and prevent all competition from outsiders.  The  Wardens of the guilds began to draw up ordinances which gave them absolute power over their own house, with a right to institute searches and punish infringement within their own particular trade.  It soon became apparent that these monopolies could be affirmed and strengthened by the acquisition of royal charters which gave the guilds definite legal powers over their trades, and complete internal autonomy.


Edward III perceived that the guilds were the mainspring of the trade of the kingdom, which he wished to encourage, and was therefore generous in granting charters to the influential guilds, confirming their privileges and giving them added stability and prestige.  The charter or Letters Patent of 1364 officially inaugurated the Drapers' guild of London as an association of traders who enjoyed the monopoly of the cloth trade, wholesale and retail; it asserted the Drapers' predominance over the craftsmen allied to the cloth industry; and it gave the Drapers authority to govern their own guild by the election of four of their number to act as Wardens.


In 1438 the guild received their Charter of Incorporation recognising the Drapers as a legal corporate fraternity a Company which had perpetual succession and a Common Seal.  Over the centuries the original privileges granted by Royal Charter have been confirmed and amended by successive monarchs.  The acting Charter of today is taken to be that granted by James I in 1607, which has been amended by three Supplemental Charters, most recently in 1964.


On receiving their grant of incorporation, the Drapers swiftly acquired their Coat of Arms.  This was granted by the Garter King of Arms in 1438.  The blazon devised refers to the Virgin Mary, under whose protection the Brotherhood of Drapers was founded.  The Garter King explained the derivation of the arms as follows:

      "That is to say in honour of the very glorious Virgin and Mother Mary who is in the shadow of the sun and yet shines with all clearness and purity.  I have devised in the blazon three sunbeams issuing from three flaming clouds crowned with three Imperial crowns of gold on a shield of azure"


In 1561 the Arms were inspected, confirmed and amended with the additions of a helm and crest with a golden ram upon it, and two supporters in the shape of lions (or and pelleted) replacing the earlier angel supporters.  Further amendments were made in 1613 when the crowns were slightly altered in shape and the motto "Unto God only be honour and glory" was added.


In the Middle Ages the Company possessed great powers of control over the woollen cloth trade in the City.  At one time no dealer could sell cloth to anyone but a member of the Company, the Company controlling the sale of cloth at great fairs in the City; and with the "Drapers' ell", or standard measure, all the cloth was marked and its measurements checked.  The ram with the golden fleece, seen in many guises, from the architectural ornaments at Drapers' Hall to the motif on members' ties, is the constant reminder of the origins of the Company's wealth.


Like other guilds, the Drapers' Company was from the first a benevolent institution, helping those of its members who fell into distress; it also had a religious side, its patron saint being the Virgin Mary; and in its Hall it gave dinners and entertainments.


With the passage of time, the Company's connections with the cloth trade have altogether ceased; but it still assists its members, worships annually at the church of St. Michael, Cornhill, and is privileged  and delighted to show hospitality.  Links with the cloth industry have recently been re-established by the foundation of exhibitions, postgraduate and teaching awards and sponsorship in the field of textile design, conservation and technology.


From its medieval origins as a religious fraternity, the Drapers' Brotherhood has evolved into one of the wealthiest and most influential of the City of London Livery Companies.  The position of the Drapers as third in the order of precedence, after the Mercers and Grocers, was formally established in 1516.  Following the Twelve Great Livery Companies there are now a further eighty-eight Companies and new professions still aspire to join the list.


Back to The Acorn Archive