2. The Guild and Guild Buildings of Stratford-upon-Avon

2.1 Stratford-upon-Avon and the Guild of the Holy Cross

Stratford-upon-Avon was a relatively late urban foundation in the UK, established in the 12th century to a grid pattern by John de Coutances, Bishop of Worcester, some half-a-mile distant from the original settlement and the parish church of Holy Trinity (Bearman 1997). By c. 1300, Stratford had all the attributes of a successful market town, including markets, crosses and commercial properties. On a day-to-day basis the borough continued to be governed by the manor court of the Bishop of Worcester. However, from the late 13th century onwards two other institutions began to play a prominent role in its religious and secular life. In 1331, a College of priests was established in Holy Trinity parish church, by John de Stratford, later Archbishop of Canterbury (Horsler et al. 2010). In 1269 Robert de Stratford and the brethren and sisters of the fraternity of the Holy Cross had given a charter to build a chapel in which divine service was to be said for the souls of guild members and their ancestors, and a hospital for the use of those serving the Chapel, brethren and sisters of the Guild and priests in need within the Diocese of Worcester (Macdonald 2007; forthcoming). Permission was also granted for the guild, like the College, to acquire land in mortmain. A charter of Henry IV, dated 8 June 1403, re-confirmed the terms of the Guild's earlier licence and gave it permission to continue or to re-found a new fraternity dedicated to the Holy Cross and St John the Baptist. A further charter granted by Henry VI in 1429 confirmed the re-foundation of a guild dedicated to the Holy Cross, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist (TNA, C66/369 m.13; C 66/424 m.5; Macdonald forthcoming). This formalised the association of the original fraternity with one or two smaller guilds dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist, which had been based within the parish church of Holy Trinity (SCLA BRT1/2/153; BRT1/2/153; BRT1/2/239; Macdonald forthcoming).

Throughout the 15th century the guild grew, attracting members from the local gentry as well as merchants and craftsmen from the town. By 1441 the guild had acquired a property 'portfolio' of 41 tenements, eight cottages, five shops, two burgages, seven barns, two crofts, two gardens and two 'lands' in Shottery fields (SCLA BRT1/3/155; Macdonald 2007; forthcoming). This growth enabled the guild to embark on an ambitious programme of rebuilding the Church Street/Chapel Lane complex, including the Guild Chapel. In 1427 Pope Martin V granted the Guild the right to have mass and other divine services celebrated in the Chapel by their own and other 'fit priests', 'saving the right of the parish church' and its Collegiate priests (SCLA BRT1/3/3, 39, 42, 350). Although technically subordinate to the College in religious matters, the guild records witness the important role it played in the religious and secular lives of Stratford's inhabitants, including the establishment of an early grammar school (Gill and Green forthcoming) and charitable provision for the living, through its almshouses. By the end of the 15th century, the Guild had become the town's semi-official governing body (Bearman 2007, 83).

The Stratford Guild is therefore a classic example of the role played by voluntary religious and mercantile associations in the rise of medieval towns and the emergence of self-conscious civic elites, found across Europe in the late medieval period (Giles 2011; Gadd and Wallis 2002; 2006).

From the early 16th century, membership of the Stratford guild declined as a wave of religious change and uncertainty swept across the country. The Guild — and the College — were dissolved under the terms of Edward VI's Chantries Act of 1547/8. However, by 1553 Stratford's civic elite were petitioning for a licence of incorporation to purchase both the College and Guild lands (Bearman 2007, 84-6). The loss of the socially cohesive role of the Guild seems to have been as great a concern to the Corporation as the loss of property, for most of those involved in the successful petition had formerly played a prominent role in Guild affairs. The influence of the Guild continued after incorporation had been granted, with nine of the newly appointed aldermen having previously held office as proctor, alderman or master of the Guild and a further two being sons or grandsons of past Guild aldermen or masters (Macdonald forthcoming). Bearman (2007, 90) has shown how Stratford-upon-Avon's newly formed Corporation accommodated men of both conservative and more reformist views, whose priorities were to establish 'a body politic composed of men of sufficient substance', which gradually moved towards increasing conformity with the Elizabethan settlement after 1559 and finally, by the 1560s, to a more firmly established Protestant persuasion. Here too, Stratford is a model for the way in which England's early modern towns negotiated their political way through the difficult religious territory of the 16th century.

Primary sources

The survival and partial transcription of the Guild's records by a series of antiquarians and more recent scholars have opened up the rich history of the Guild and the later Corporation (Bearman 2011; Fox 1990; Fripp 1928; Halliwell 1863; Macdonald 2007; Parker 1987; Savage 1921-1926; Wheler 1806). This article draws both on published and original works, including the Masters and Proctors' Accounts, the Corporation Minutes, the Puddephat archive and other antiquarian volumes, held by the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archives in Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as records of probate held by national repositories, such as The National Archives and the Victoria and Albert Museum.


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