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My Research

Faith and Fraternity: The London Livery Companies and the Reformation c.1510-1600

Research Proposal

This study will add to our understanding of the construction and expression of religious identities in sixteenth-century England by exploring the response of the London livery companies to the Reformation at both an institutional and individual level with an especial emphasis on the Grocers and Drapers. The livery companies were medieval in inception and had strong religious elements to their corporate identity. Despite this, research on their reaction to the Reformation has been lacking, yet it would prove fruitful in helping us understand how mercantile institutions and individuals balanced exercising competing loyalties to Church, Crown, Company, and beyond.

Whilst we are aware of the significance of individual merchants to the spread of the Reformation, with new doctrines travelling along trade routes, the livery companies which they belonged to (and governed) consistently conformed to the state religion. Reconciling corporate conformity with a spectrum of individual religious identities will form the central research question underpinning this thesis. I will also consider the extent to which fraternal ties were stronger than those of faith; and whether a desire to protect individuals and retain harmony inadvertently promoted and maintained religious diversity.

I will also seek to address how corporate and individual religious identities changed over time. Merchants have been characterised diversely; as being particularly inclined to the Reformed faith; as being sinful usurers; as noble figures worthy of emulation. Consequently, this thesis will also consider the ‘mercantile mentality’ – what is it and whether it can be discerned? Were merchants in any way remarkable in their religious identities and expressions thereof, or were they more broadly representative of the wider society?


Prosopography underpins this research. A list has been compiled of all active liverymen for the period 1510-1603 (circa 1000 individuals) outlining any positions held within their company, parish and local / national government. Details are also held of wills and any other livery companies of which they were members.

Whilst the first section of the thesis will chart the official corporate reaction to religious changes across the course of the sixteenth century, the rest of the thesis will explore individual merchants in different spheres – through their letters and wills, their civic and parochial duties and through their trading activities.

It is hoped that this approach will uncover the true religious tenor of the livery companies and help reconcile the apparent disconnect between individual identities and corporate responses to religious change on a much larger scale than previously undertaken.

Chapter Plan

Chapter 1: Introduction

This chapter will outline the conceptual and methodological framework of the thesis in greater detail, define the overarching research questions and place them within existing research. It will also define and set the parameters of terms such as ‘merchant’ – recognising that not only was the company structure stratified but so too was the occupational complexion of membership.

Chapter 2: The Institutional Reaction 

This chapter will examine company records (court minutes and financial records) of the Grocers and Drapers to uncover to what extent the companies conformed to official religious change. What was the rate of change, are there any significant differences between the two companies? How do they compare to other companies in the Great Twelve? Four key areas will be examined:

Governance: At their inception, livery companies fused socio-religious functions with trade – to what extent do we see these elements operating in conjunction? What was the language of regulation and dispute resolution? Can we gain a sense of the strength (and limits) of company allegiance? How frequently did members ‘translate’ from one company to another? Both companies faced significant threats to their trading scope. For example, the Drapers lost the monopoly on cloth exports to the Merchant Adventurers in 1564 and were also in dispute with the Stationers over the right to print. The Apothecaries sought to separate from the Grocers – which finally came to fruition in 1617. Did these trade disputes affect religious divisions by adding another element of turmoil?

Communal and Ritual Life: It has been suggested that communal corporate activity became less strongly associated with religion by the end of the sixteenth century. In what ways did corporate activity change / remain the same? And how strong was this corporate identity? Did it transcend all layers of the company? How strong was their link with their associated church? For example, the Drapers held the advowson to St Michael's Cornhill and the Grocers those of St Stephen's Walbrook and All Hallows Honey Lane – how did they exercise this ecclesiastical patronage?

Charity / Education: Existing literature suggests that the management of charity, rather than the regulation of trade, was the chief function of the liveries by the end of the sixteenth century and it was their godly membership which provided the impetus for increasing charitable endeavours. How do we see the administration and execution of charity changing and to what extent was it guided chiefly by godly elements? For example, the ‘Catholic’ William Laxton and the ‘Reformed’ Lawrence Sheriff (both Grocers) left bequests for the founding of grammar schools within a year of each other.

Material and Visual Culture: When, and at what rate, were overtly Catholic objects sold, converted or removed and what were they replaced with? Do we see sacred imagery replaced with secular or were the changes more subtle?

Chapter 3: Individual identities and religious networks

By examining and codifying approximately 350 wills of Grocers and Drapers we will gain an insight into their religious complexion. It will potentially uncover overlapping networks of trade, religion and friendship. How prominent were the Merchant Adventurers within the Grocers and Drapers and is it from them that these companies derived a reputation for being ardently Reformed? I shall also consider the letters of the Johnson brothers (Drapers), 1000 of which are preserved at the National Archives and cover the period 1542-52. These letters provide a more personal insight into individual conceptions of faith in the early years of the Reformation. Although an article was recently published on the religion of the Johnson family, much more remains to be made of their mercantile links.

Chapter 4: Civic life

Mercantile elites existed in many overlapping communities. It will prove fruitful to examine their actions in different settings. For example, do we see evangelical sheriffs having to implement heresy regulations against their brethren? Were they ‘secular’ in attitude or do they use these opportunities to express their faith and perform their religious duties? Do we see a tendency towards ‘tolerance’ and if so was this because of common civic values rather than being an exclusively mercantile trait?

Source base – Minutes from the Common Council / parish vestries / hospitals

Chapter 5: Trade

Modern research has suggested that overseas trading merchants were significant in importing Reformed religious ideas into England. Conversely, some contemporaries defined merchants in negative terms as being guilty of the sin of usury and favouring the pursuit of money over the pursuit of salvation. Bearing in mind our knowledge of individual merchants in different aspects of public and private life, can we uncover to what extent religion shaped their business interests and vice versa? Or was trade religiously neutral?

Examining business records will help to uncover if Catholics were happy (or willing) to trade with Protestants and if they formed businesses together. Did Catholics and Protestants operate in separate trading circles and how did the religious complexion of trading partnerships change over time?

sample source base:

Ledger of Thomas Howell (d. 1537, Draper)

Ledger of George Monoux (d. 1544, Draper)

Accounts and memoranda of George Stoddard 1553-1568 (Grocer)

Principal account book of Thomas Myddleton (1549x56-1631, Grocer)