Municipal Corporation

(References: Sir George Clark's English History, A Survey, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, c 1971; E.F. Lincoln's The Medieval Legacy, London, Macgibbon & Kee; c1961; Maurice Ashley, Great Britain to 1688, a Modern History, The University of Michigan Press, c1961.)

By the 10th century, walled towns centered around a market-place were established in England. Early guilds were organized with the responsibility for maintaining and manning walls in emergencies, as well as for managing the market. Many of these towns, boroughs or municipalities obtained charters from the king for an annual fee, which exempted them from the hundred court and allowed them to establish courts and police of their own. (The feudal and manorial laws had proven inappropriate to commercial transactions and church courts involved the sticky Christian issue of usury.)

Guilds were initially started as mutual benefit societies concerned with the welfare of people working in a particular craft. They became the first corporate bodies to represent particular occupation classes within a town framework. By the twelfth century, the "gilda mercatoria" (hanse house,) or market guild, had become a sworn association in the nature of a monopolistic closed corporation, where admission was required in order to secure the right to trade at the town market. had assumed a rudimentary role of self-government.

Guilds became organized so that officials were elected, a treasury established, periodic membership meetings held, roll maintained, and a corporate seal obtained. Under this rudimentary self-government, industry standards and conditions of work were established by ordinance, and weights and measures certified.

By the 14th and 15th century, the English textile industry was full blown. The Mercers Co. was incorporated as a Livery Co. in London in 1393. Before that, the Grocers Co. in 1345; Drapers in 1364; Fishmongers 1364; Goldsmiths in 1327; Skinners in 1327; and Merchant Taylors Co in 1326. In the heyday of craft guilds, there were more than one hundred registered in London, maintaining a monopoly of trade.

In 1486, a London fellowship or "company" called the Merchant Adventurers was founded to promote the sale of English woolen cloth on the continent. Operating under a royal charter, such companies were granted a trade monopoly over transactions within a certain geographic area or over a certain commodity. These early companies seldom undertook a common group venture. Their members carried out individual operations under the protection of the privileges of the guild or "company of merchant-adventurers."