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18 June 2014
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Legacies - North Yorkshire

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North Yorkshire
The Company of Merchant Adventurers Guild Hall
© Courtesy of the Company of Merchant Adventurers
'A Mistery of Mercers' - York's commercial heritage

But York is located inland?

Despite York's inland location, the city's access to Hull via the River Ouse enabled it to operate as the second port in England!
In the late medieval period, when Manchester and Birmingham were mere hamlets, it was the city of York that dominated trade outside of London. The Merchant Adventurers' Hall bears witness to York's strategic and financial importance during the period. Though the city's economy has since shifted towards confectionary and tourism, the Hall reminds us that York was once the second most important business centre in England.

The Guilds of York

From the 13th Century, the city of York traded according to a strict system of guilds and corporation allegiance. Guilds were associations of people involved in a particular trade or craft. In the 1400s,York had as many as 50 guilds.

Stained glass window showing the Guild's seal
© Courtesy of the Company of Merchant Adventurers.
The term 'Guild' is believed to derive from Saxon word 'gild', meaning payment; members had to pay to join the association. These guilds operated a monopoly over the city's economy: to earn money you had to be a member of the appropriate guild and a freeman of York.

To join a guild, first you had to be apprenticed to a member for as many as seven years. Once your apprenticeship was complete, you had the prestige of being a member, plus your goods were sold at prices set by the guild. Guilds also provided for dependents when a member was ill and settled disputes between different guilds.

'The Mistery of Mercers'

York Mystery Plays?

The Mystery Plays were Bible stories performed on wagons across York by the city's various guilds. The importance of the Merchant Adventurers led to them performing the expensive Domesday play. The word 'mistery' referred to a trade or craft.
In medieval times, the term 'merchant', referred to an important tradesman. A merchant adventurer was a tradesman who was free to trade or 'adventure' his money at any port and on any market.

The Company of Merchant Adventurers was formed to further members' business interests and co-ordinate philanthropic work, social events and religious services. From 1356, there is evidence of the Merchant Adventurers' guild, though initially under a different name.


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