The Corporation of London, Its Rights and Privileges

Start from the beginning

Of the purely Teutonic institutions, one of the most characteristic was that of Gilds. Originally, a gild was nothing more than an association of ten families, for purposes of mutual protection and security. By the custom of "frankpledge," every freeman at the age of fourteen was called upon to give securities for his good behaviour. Gilds were therefore formed, binding themselves to produce the offender if any breach of the peace was committed by one of their members, or to give redress to the injured party. To carry out these objects a small fund was raised, to which every one contributed; and thence was derived the name of the association: "gildan," in Saxon, signifying to pay. With a view to becoming better acquainted with one another, and to draw more closely the bands of friendship, convivial meetings were held at fixed periods, when a vast quantity of beer was quaffed in honour of the living, and to the memory of the dead. In after-times this truly Saxon institution assumed greater proportions, and embraced both ecclesiastical and secular gilds. Of the former it is unnecessary to make further mention, but the latter formed the germ of the present livery companies. The earlier secular or mercantile gilds were associations of members of a particular trade or craft, for the purpose of maintaining and advancing the privileges of their peculiar calling. The term was also applied to a district or "soke," possessed of independent franchises, as in the case of the Portsoken Ward, which was anciently known as the Cnighten Gild. A "soke," or soca, it may be incidentally observed, was the territory in which was exercised the soca, or the privilege of hearing causes and disputes, levying fines, and administering justice within certain limits. The practice of gildating or embodying the aggregate free population of a town was of considerably later date. In France and in Flanders, corporations and communes, or commonalties, appear to have existed in the middle of the eleventh century, but the earliest mention of the Corporation of London occurs in the second year of the reign of Richard I. Availing himself of the king's absence in the Holy Land, his brother John, Earl of Moreton, anxious to acquire the co-operation of the city of London in his traitorous designs upon the crown, convened a general assembly of the citizens, and confirmed their ancient rights and privileges by a formal deed or charter. It was then, for the first time, that the commonalty of the city was regularly and officially recognized as a corporate body. The distinctive rights of a town corporation were the election of a council presided over by a mayor or bailiff, a common seal, a bell to convoke the citizens, and local jurisdiction.

But although it was not before the reign of Richard I. that the citizens of London were formed into a body corporate, they had enjoyed, as the inhabitants of a free burgh, the immunities and many essential privileges of a corporation, from the time of Edward the Confessor, if not of Alfred. Without stopping to discuss the etymology of the word "burgh," it may suffice to observe that at the period of the Conquest by far the greater part of the cities and towns of England were the private property of the king, or of some spiritual or secular lord, on whom they had been conferred by royal grant. These burghs, as they were called, were said to be held in demesne, and paid to their superior certain tolls, duties, and customs, levied on goods exposed for sale at markets and fairs. The inhabitants were actually little better than villeins or serfs, and were entirely at the mercy of their feudal lord. Immense, therefore, were the advantages possessed by the free burghs, such as London, which governed themselves, and compounded for all dues by the payment of a fixed annual sum. These annual contributions were styled the "farm," and, when perpetual, the burghs so compounding were said to be held at fee-farm of the king in capite, as was the case with London. One of the chief privileges implied by this tenure was that of exercising an independent jurisdiction, both civil and criminal, administered by magistrates chosen by the burgesses. It is supposed that criminal law was originally dispensed in the free gilds into which the city was divided, under the presidency of an alderman. These divisions were afterwards called wards, and were analogous to the corresponding division of the shire into hundreds. In each ward was held a court-leet, or ward-mote, dating from the time of Alfred, though the actual institution of wards by that name is no later than the reign of Edward I. Civil causes, in London at least, were tried before a peculiar tribunal, the president of which was probably the portreve, or, in minor causes, an alderman.

The Corporation of London, Its Rights and PrivilegesRead this story for FREE!