MYSTERY surrounds the ancient medieval guilds of York, seven exclusive clubs of successful and wealthy business people.

The guilds, which gather in some of York’s finest architectural gems, are led by Masters, who wear crimson robes, gold chains and elaborate headwear, and have a “beadle” to assist them, who carries a staff to lead them in procession.

But the “mystery” in their case is not secret handshakes, but the late 14th century meaning of the word, which referred to “trade, craft or art”, hence York’s famous Mystery Plays, now Waggon Plays, which are performed by the guilds every year.

Despite their proud traditions, the guilds have changed much over the years, and today they play a role in helping young people advance in their careers, providing enterprise education, support for apprenticeships and bursaries for further education.

Graham Millar, Master of the Company of Merchant Taylors, speaking at an event organised by young professionals organisation Make-York in association with York Professionals, said: “If you look back at the history of the guilds they were mostly interested in promoting their own trade and nowadays would almost certainly be illegal.”

The guilds gradually disappeared, although those, particularly with assets such as the medieval halls, have been resurrected.

The guilds are now charities, raising money from their members to fund the support of young protegés, as well as the upkeep of their assets, such as the magnificent Merchant Taylors’ Hall and Merchant Adventurers’ Hall in York.

By 1415, there were 96 craft guilds in York, which has now been whittled down to only seven – The Company of the Merchant Taylors, The Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York, The York Guild of Building, The Company of Cordwainers, The Company of Butchers of the City of York, The Guild of Scriveners of York and the Gild of Freemen of the City of York.

The Freemen are the city’s oldest guild, dating back to the mid-1100s when they negotiated a Royal Charter making them the only people allowed to trade in the city. Only a Freeman could join any of the craft guilds or vote.

The gild shares its base, Bedern Hall, with the Company of Cordwainers and the York Guild of Building, which was resurrected in the early 1950s by founder members including Sir Peter Shepherd, former chairman of Shepherd Building Group.

The York Guild of Building involves industries associated with property, from professional services to stonemasons, and supports students through sponsoring awards for excellence in the construction sector at York College.

The Company of Cordwainers of the City of York was also started in the 1300s, but ran out of money in the 19th century. It was resurrected by a group of business people involved in the shoe trade in the 1970s.

The ancient cordwainers guild would check the quality of the shoemakers, of which there used to be many in the city of York. Today the company has expanded to include any leather workers and sponsors students, often involved in the manufacture of furniture involving leather.

Similarly, the Company of Butchers used to regulate hygiene, weights and measures, meat restricted days and fast periods, and these days represents the meat trade in York and neighbouring counties, supporting students in the sector through sponsoring opportunities, such as the attendance of York College students at the International Olive Oil Conference in Spain in 2010.

The Company of the Merchant Taylors

The Company of the Merchant Taylors, which has 92 members, was formed in 1387 and over the years has expanded its reach from tailoring to become the guild for art and craftsmanship.

It helps young people to get ahead in traditional crafts, including stonemasons, blacksmiths and glaziers, as well as fashion design and performing arts.

The company’s members regularly contribute into a fund to help young people. Graham Millar, Master, said: “We focus on trying to make sure that very talented youngsters, aged between 14 and 22, who might be a bit short of wherewithal from time to time can help them with what they want to do.”

The company has connections with schools and colleges as well as the York Consortium for Conservation and Craftmanship to look out for very talented people in need of financial help.

“We seek them out and find out if we can help them. Sometimes it’s just too much money, but we can help them in a number of ways, whether it’s cash towards costs they’re going to incur or helping to buy instruments they need to use in their craft.

“But we don’t give money out for the sake of it. It has got to be the right person.”

Possibly what makes it most successful, he said, is that the company maintains contact with them so they can see how they develop through their course or apprenticeship.

He said this encourages the members of the guild to donate generously and encourages them to do more in the future, as well as motivating the young person.

“It’s somebody completely outside their family or school that they have never heard of before that’s taking a real and continuing interest in what they do. It seems to make a real difference.

“We’re a privileged group. Everybody in our membership has been successful in some way and we tend to be older people, so we want to put something back financially and help people,” he said.

The Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York

The Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York came together in 1357 as a religious fraternity and built the city’s famous Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. By 1430 most members were mercers, they conducted business in the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall and met socially, as well as looking after the poor and using it as a place to pray.

Most of them traded in woollen cloth and sold their wares in northern Europe and as far as the Baltic and Iceland, bringing back exotic goods, such as mirrors, seal meat and squirrel skins to York.

Today, York’s Merchant Adventurers are men and women who work in a variety of different careers, including teachers, architects, accountants, bankers, all united by an entrepreneurial spirit.

The “entrepreneurs” guild concentrates on enterprise education, working with secondary schools in the city and North Yorkshire Business and Education Partnership (NYBEP), and supporting events, such as the Griffin’s Nest competition at Venturefest, at which teams of school children develop a product to benefit the community and plan a business around it.

It also sponsors Young Enterprise’s company programme, in which students set up and run their own business for a year, as well as Salter’s Chemistry Camp in August, when 50 Year Ten and 11 students will spend three days doing exciting chemistry experiments at the University of York.

The Guild of Scriveners of York

The Scriveners was formed in 1487 by people who could write and illustrate manuscripts and evolved, as this elite became book-keepers to become the guild of lawyers and accountants. Graeme Robertson, past Master of the guild of Scriveners, said: “Like so many of the medieval guilds we just disappeared, but we came back in 1981 as an opportunity to resurrectwhat had been a medieval necessity when the King had ordered the Sheriff of York to inspect the quality of ale.”

The Scriveners now hold the Assize of Ale every August, which these days is a fundraising pub crawl in medieval dress for the charities chosen by the guild.

It too supports young people in the city, providing bursaries for students to take up opportunities abroad as part of their studies.