My intent is to allow the reader to walk down the lanes of old London (before it burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1666) and feel as if you are actually there. You can smell and touch the nuances of London. You'll know what it's like to work your way through the City and its the conflicting laws where religion played in important part of everyday life. So sit back and enjoy the ride.

Oh, and then there's my French Revolution novel.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Rules & Regs London 17th Century

A reader asked a question to a post I placed July 4th regarding what and whatnots in a coffee house. His question was:

"I find all these social mores fascinating because I am curious....given this Independence Day....just how much personal freedom we really have compared to past eras."

I guess my answer was a bit flippant, for he did not Like or respond. The question got me thinking, though, and so I decided to write about some of the rules and regulations during past eras, and the 17th century. 

The church, i.e., Roman Catholic or Protestant, then the guilds, or livery companies, were the forces to be reckoned with for centuries. They ruled the roost. 

Sources say livery companies or fraternities called guilds (The word ‘guild’ derives from the Saxon ‘gildan’.) started prior to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and originated in Europe. To be a member of a guild, you had to be a freeman. In order to do that, you must complete your apprenticeship. Once done, you paid a fee to belong. You followed their rules, kept their secrets, and eventually participated in good works. You lived near their centers, and you sold wares that were approved by your livery company. 

Your livery company had the right to arrest you, fine or imprison you. When at war, the guild could call you up for arms, fit you with armor, and give you weapons, men and boys ages 7 and up; then off you’d go into military action. The Corporation of London had control over the livery companies, and the company you belonged to had control over the people in their organization. 

They owned land, set up hospitals, schools, and loaned kings money. If one of their own were in trouble, the company would bail him out, gave money to the family during difficult times; buried their dead, and gave pensions to the widows. 

New livery companies were established all the time. The Mercers obtained their royal charter in 1394, and the Worshipful Company of Needlemakers in February of 1664. Back in the day, there were considered 12 companies, but in January of 1551, the Lord Mayor & Court of Aldermen set down the order of precedence for 48 livery companies. Now, there are 110. 

The companies had their rules and regs, and the merchants passed down more rules unto their customer. For instance, the Barber-Surgeons Company. On a scale of 1-110 in order of precedence with the Mercers as number 1, the Barbers (which includes surgeons and dentists) is number 17 (per Wikipedia). 

Gate to Skinner's Hall

The Barber-Surgeons, as the title infers included the two fraternities. Their ordinances had the choice of apprentices, number of servants to be kept by freeman and liverymen, servants’ wages, rule against or for masters who lured servants away, where a shop opened, how the shop owner conducted his business. It was against the rules for a barber to cut hair on Sundays with a hefty fine, up to 5 shillings which was a great deal, but still, that rule was rarely obeyed. 

There were certain things you could and could not do in a barbershop. “Forfeits used to be enforced for breaches of conduct as laid down in laws…” The person who made a gaff would have to pay for his offense. 

You could not:
Handle razors
Talk of cutting a throat
Call hair powder ‘flour’
Meddle with the barber’s tools
Take another's turn, swear or curse, you pay 7 half-pennies. 

During the 17th century, a few things happened during this century that impressed the inhabitants of the time. Religion took a big stake out of everyone's lives. Separate beliefs, and a deep irritation toward King Charles I brought on the Civil Wars, resulting in the execution of the said king, the scattering of his family into exile, a strict Commonwealth, then the Restoration. 

When King Charles II returned from exile, he took a Portuguese bride. Her dowry gave England new lands to explore, and England reaped the benefits of trade. Goods brought back from these far flung places gave merchants a new perspective of what was truly available across the seas, and in the wide blue yonder.

Entrance to Fishmonger's Hall

 As a result, rules & regs from the past blurred with the new. Shops sold other than what their guilds dictated. Some livery companies failed, and those that remained primarily did good works. Those whose halls were located within the old City walls perished, along with all the records, in the great fire of 1666.

For more on this, especially of the Barber-Surgeons Guild, please see my novel,  
The Barbers: A Tale Most Curious & Rare 

Many thanks to:

The Annals of the Barber-Surgeons of London, Compiled from their Records and other Sources, by Sidney Young, one of the Court of Assistants of the Worshipful Company of Barbers of London, with Illustrations by Austin T. Young. London, 1890

At the Sign of the Barber’s Pole, Studies in Hirsute History, by William Andrews, Cottingham, Yorkshire, 1904.  


  1. Katherine, I enjoyed this interesting blog. I found it especially noteworthy to read about the rules for the barbers...

    1. Yes, there were rules everywhere, what to wear what not to say. Here's the blog that sparked mine, rules of coffeehouses.

  2. Not only were they "irritated," the Puritans were downright choleric!
    Poor Charles, in some quarters, "The Martyr", a victim of his own in-born Stuart pig-headedness.

    Interesting blog, and it's clear you've done your homework! All these rules and regs must have come down through the medieval guild system--and I'm enjoying your book, The Barbers, too.

  3. Very informative post, Katherine, thanks! That's one of the things I enjoy most about writing historical romance - the research. It's so interesting to see how things were done in the past. :)

    1. It's amazing where tidbits come from while researching, and then, I have to use them, make a human interest story out of it.

  4. Researching is my favorite part of writing...even if I never get to use half the information. But this blog is something I will bookmark for my medieval-ish fantasy. Just the sort of detail that makes worlds come alive. Thanks :-)

    1. Kathy, thanks so much. You've given the best of compliments to a historical author. :-)