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Beverley Great Guild Book

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Jurisdiction 1: CivicDocument category 1: Other
Jurisdiction 2: GuildDocument category 2: Accounts
From region: Yorkshire, EastFrom place:
Refers to location(s): Yorkshire, East, Beverley, Guildhall and Yorkshire, East, Beverley Minster and Yorkshire, East, Beverley, East Riding Archives, Treasure House
Relevant material from 1375 to 1355
The Beverley Great Guild Book, compiled between c. 1409 and 1589 (although the original dates of some of the documents copied into it, including several included here, are considerably earlier), was maintained by successive groups of Beverley town Governors over about one hundred and eighty years. The twelve Governors (Gubernatores in Latin records), also known as Keepers (custodes), were the town authority, equivalent to a town council. Not till 1573, with a new charter of incorporation, was a Mayor instituted.

The Great Guild Book, referred to within its own pages and in other contemporary records as the register or the ledger, is a large parchment book, now deposited in the East Riding Archives and Local Studies (ERALS) office in Beverley: shelfmark BC/II/3. Twentieth-century rebinding may have obscured its original gatherings, which are irregular, with the occasional single leaf; but it was evidently made up as a book, already bound, before most of the existing entries were made. The organisation, the layout and the nature of the contents strongly suggest that the initiating Governors intended it as a permanent formal register of municipal customs and regulations as well as a record of letters and proclamations addressed by state and church authorities to the town. The intended formality of the register is shown by the care with which the earliest entries have been made; they are carefully written in a formal hand, with elaborate rubrication, flourishing and decoration of headings and initials.

Copies of many local craft and trade guilds’ ordinances have also been entered into the book – a fact which may have given rise to its (presumably modern) title, ‘the Great Guild Book’ now stamped on its cover – an unfortunately misleading one. In fact no original guild records survive in Beverley, only these registered copies. The frequently confusing unchronological order in which many of the guild ordinances have been entered confirms the impression that the book was pre-bound before its first use. The internal dates of ordinances are often much earlier than their dates of entry into the book, with the result that many ordinances are double-dated. Evidently successive bodies of Governors attemnpted to keep their copies not only of town but also of guild ordinances up to date – hence the confusion in the chronology of many of the guild ordinances, as later revisions, in the absence of space beside the original clauses, have been entered in any convenient blank space elsewhere, with occasional cross-references which may reflect later Common Clerks’ efforts to keep the book in some kind of convenient order.

The scribes are generally unidentifiable, but some can be recognised by their hands, with one or two which recur frequently enabling at least tentative dates to be assigned to undated entries: an example is the Corpus Christi pageant-assignment list, which on palaeographical grounds can be cautiously dated to the first quarter of the sixteenth century, perhaps c. 1515. (However it appears here along with other undated material.)

Although the status of the Great Guild Book is evidently that of a permanent register, some entries suggest that its function was less clear-cut, though the reasons are not evident. Even at an early stage in its compilation, entries occasionally appear which are more suited to a minute book or even to accounts. For example, a fine imposed on the Smiths in 1392 for failure to perform their Corpus Christi pageant in accordance with an ordinance of 1390 (f. 12v) has been entered on f. 13. Was it recorded here as a reminder of the penalty and the seriousness with which the Corpus Christi regulations were to be regarded in future? However, some later entries do seem simply to be records of specific cases – although they may have seemed at the time to be of potential future significance as test cases.

Dated entries extracted here have been arranged in chronological order, to give some sense of change and development in the management of performance-related matters, particularly the Corpus Christi play and the tradition of the guilds’ ‘castles’, which they erected as exclusive stands from which guild masters, entertained by minstrels, watched the Rogation day procession of the shrine of St John of Beverley. The practice of minstrelsy in the castles is specifically mentioned in the Minstrels’ own ordinances (ff. 41v-42), the only version of which has the surprisingly late date of 1555 – in fact these ordinance are the latest dated relevant record in the Great Guild Book. Undated records follow the dated sequence, and are arranged in MS folio order.

Editing procedures: deleted material is shown in square brackets [ ]. Illegible letters are shown within caret brackets with dots representing the approximate number of letters <...>. Marginalia appear in smaller font at the head of each extract, with notes to indicate their postition in the MS.
*The records are presented here in draft form and have not had final checking and editing for official publication by REED staff. Permission to cite this material must be sought from REED: Yorkshire East Riding editor Diana Wyatt, using the contact form provided on this site.