Keywords: London commerce ale malt prices brewers craft guilds market offences profiteering quality control measures Whittington
Subject: Charges against the brewers of London
Original source: Archives of the Worshipful Company of Brewers, First Brewers Book, ff.69, 113-114
Transcription in: R.W. Chambers and Marjorie Daunt, eds., A Book of London English 1384-1425, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931, 140-42, 182-85.
Original language: Middle English
Location: London
Date: 1420s


[1. Complaint made by Richard Whittington]

On Thursday, 30 July 1422, during the term of Robert Chichele as mayor of London, on an insinuation made by Richard Whittington against the brewers of London, the mayor in consequence sent a sergeant to summon Robert Smyth, William Crane, Hugh Neel, and John Philip, masters of the brewers' craft at that time, commanding them to bring with them 12 of the most respectable members of the craft and appear before that mayor at the Guildhall that same day. When the brewers came before the mayor and the aldermen, John Fray, who was at that time recorder of the city, addressed the brewers as follows:

"Sirs, you are accused here that you sell expensive ale, setting the price of your ale higher than you ought, without permission of this court. Furthermore, you have put up in this court a bond of £20 guaranteeing that whatever the price at which malt is sold, you will sell your customers [a gallon of ?] your best ale from your establishments for 1½d. – that is, a barrel for 42d. – and no dearer."

Following which the mayor asked Robert Smyth how much he charged for a barrel of his best ale. And he replied:

"For 5s., and some barrels for 4s.10d."

And in this vein answered the majority of the brewers who were present at that time. The mayor showed to them, in the courtroom, various samples of malt, including a sample of Norfolk malt from a ship at Billingsgate, [selling at] 1 quarter for 4s.; in regard to which the brewers responded that no good ale could be made from such. This malt was so inexpensive that the mayor, Richard Whittington, the aldermen, and the greater part of the commons of the city declared that it was fraudulent to sell ale so dearly when malt could be bought so cheaply. People said at that time that the brewers were causing the dearth of malt, by riding out into the counties to buy up malt. It was also said that most of the brewers would have expensive malt so that the rich brewers of London could make a profit. At the instigation of Richard Whittington, who was present, he [?Fray] accused the brewers of having ridden out into the countryside to forestall malt, as a result causing malt to be so expensive. For a quarter of malt was 7s.6d at that time, and just a short time earlier a quarter of malt had been selling in the market for 8s.8d, and sometimes for 9s.

After this, the mayor ordered John Carpenter, clerk of the Guildhall, to read out the ordinance made when Richard Whittington was mayor of London, and when it had been fully read out before the mayor and aldermen and before the brewers, then the mayor and aldermen determined that they were condemned to forfeit the bond of £20. Consequently the recorder declared that decision and, before the mayor and aldermen, pronounced publicly the judgement that the brewers' craft should pay £20 towards the rebuilding of the Guildhall, because they had failed to obey the ordinance made with regard to them.

"The mayor has therefore decided and orders that the masters of the brewers' craft, that is to say Robert Smyth and his colleagues, are to be held in prison, in the custody of the chamberlain of the Guildhall, not to be released until the masters of the brewers' craft have paid the £20 or found surety for its payment."

And so they were held at the mercy of the chamberlain, remaining in the Guildhall until after the mayor and aldermen had gone home to dinner. After which the masters went to the chamberlain and John Carpenter to ask what they should do, and the chamberlain and John Carpenter instructed them to go home to their houses. John Carpenter assured them at that time that they would come to no more harm, neither in regard to bodily imprisonment, nor losing the £20, for they were well aware that the earlier judgement by mayor and aldermen was given only to please Richard Whittington, who was the mover behind the judgement.

[2. Breaches of trade regulations 1423-24]

The names of brewers who had barrels or casks that were not stamped with the cooper's mark, during the term of William Crowmer, mayor of London.

  • Henry Stapuller has 1 cask that is unmarked in the house of Juliana the huckster, who lives in the alley under the Shaft in Cornhill.
  • Thomas Smyth, at the Garland outside Bishopsgate, has 1 unmarked cask in the house of John Cordewaner at the Lily in Lombard Street.
  • Richard Clerk, at the Swan in Bassishaw, has 1 unmarked cask, beside the guildhall gate on the property of a huckster in Bassishaw.
  • John Philipp has 1 cask that is not marked, in the same place.
  • Thomas Hatcher, at the Cup beside the wool quay, has 1 cask that is not marked in the house of alderman Simon Seman.
  • Simon Petefyn, at the "Pohenne" in Bishopsgate Street has 1 unmarked cask, discovered when being carried along Cornhill on the shoulders of his servants.
  • Horold, at the Cross in Tower Street, has 1 barrel that is not marked, discovered upon the shoulders of his servants.
  • Felton, at the Lamb in Mart Lane, has 1 barrel that is not marked, discovered in the high street upon the shoulders of his servants.
  • Thomas Boteler, at the Helm in Cornhill, has 1 unmarked cask at the house of Thomas Goldsmyth in Gracechurch Street.
  • Robert Rose, by the Dolphin in St. Magnus' parish, has 1 unmarked cask and refuses to say to whom it belongs; Robert and his wife harangued in offensive terms the craft wardens in office at that time.
  • Richard Stonham, at St. Julian beside the Gates in Aldersgate Street, neighbouring John Tregelowe, has 1 unmarked cask in the house of John Mogen poulterer in Cornhill.

Malt that was confiscated in the marketplace by the masters and wardens, during the term of that mayor.

First, from John Sharp 2 quarters
From John Tyler 2 quarters
From Thomas Cokkeshed 1 quarter
From Ayleward, or Aylewin 1 quarter
From Robert Sharnebroke of Hoddesdon 1 quarter
From Richard Carter of Barnet 1 quarter
From Danyell 2 quarters
From Grene 1 quarter
From a man of South Mimms 1 quarter

The following are individuals who sold ale without using [proper] measures, during the term of William Crowmer as mayor; which persons paid various fines, as are later indicated.

Thomas Kent, at the Basket beside Billingsgate 1 cask
John Gremesby, at the King's Head 1 cask
Robert Rauff huckster, near the same place 1 cask
Robert Shadde, near that place 1 cask
Mongeon the huckster 1 cask
Trevelias' wife 1 cask
Maud Rose, beside the Dolphin in St. Magnus [parish] 1 cask
John of Lynne, at the Three Moons beside the stocks 1 barrel
Item, at the Long Entry 1 barrel
Item, at the Seven Stairs 1 barrel
Item, at the Red Cock 1 cask
Margaret the huckster, at the gate of the Augustinian Friars 1 cask
Item, at the White Cock 1 barrel
John Langton, beside the gate of the tailors [hall?] 1 cask
Buyles the huckster, in the alley off Gracechurch Street in the parish of St. Peter Cornhill 1 cask
Bradeweye, at the malt market in Gracechurch Street 1 cask
Paddeswik the grocer 1 cask
Hans a Dutchman, at the Green Gate in Pudding Lane 1 cask
William Hacomblene grocer, in a cellar beside the Seven Stairs in the Poultry 1 cask
John Blostmer, at the Coney in Coneyhope Lane 1 cask
Bienvenu, living in Scalding Alley in the Poultry 1 cask
John Leke, at the Lamp in Fleet Street 1 cask
The wife of Robert Cordewaner, huckster, in Shoe Lane beside the Castle 1 cask
Katherine Badeston, in Elden Lane in the parish of St. Martin Ludgate 1 cask
A servant who lives with Baldok the waxchandler, across from the king's Wardrobe adjacent to Baynard's Castle 1 cask
John Aleyn brewer, at the Cock near the Crouched Friars 1 cask
Roger Blissote, at the Swan in St. Nicholas Shambles 1 barrel

Foreign ale confiscated in the time of mayor William Crowmer.

One cask of foreign ale has been confiscated from Alice Martyn, the wife of a baker in St. Katherine Christchurch parish, beside the well at the end of the wall of the Prior of Christchurch.

One barrel of foreign ale has been confiscated from Grace, living beside the Butchers at the end of Ivy Lane.

One cask of foreign ale has been confiscated from the wife of Robert Cordewaner, huckster, in Shoe Lane beside the Castle.

One cask of foreign ale has been confiscated from the servant of Baldok the waxchandler, across from the king's Wardrobe beside Baynard's Castle.

One cask of foreign ale has been confiscated from a non-citizen, living at "latis" across from the Joiner in Hosier Lane on the west side at the corner of Watling Street


The modern English pub has had the reputation of being an almost ubiquitous outlet for drink. The above documents show that the brewing and retailing of ale were occupational activities equally widespread in medieval London. It was sold from taverns named much like modern pubs, from cellars where stored, from shops or informal alehouses located in private houses, down back-alleys, and by hucksters stationed in the streets; engaging in the trade were brewers, shop-owners, other citizens, non-citizens, foreigners, wives and servants. Ale was a commodity in much demand.

The city's brewing trade was – as with other trades – policed by the gild wardens, of which there were four for the east side and four for the west side of London, but offences had to be referred to the city authorities. The brewers believed, for no apparent good reason (there was some purported jealousy over the size of swans at a gild feast), that Richard Whittington held a particular dislike for their gild. Rather it seems to have been the case that Whittington was adamant in his efforts to combat what he saw as trade abuses in London. Abuses by brewers were commonplace, and their gild records show repeated instances of offers of goodwill gifts to the mayor or other city officials, to encourage leniency in enforcing the regulations against malpractices in brewing or in ale retail, in which brewers typically engaged (the French term brasserie reflecting the ancient combination of production and retail). Such gifts were customarily accepted; or, less frequently, declined with good grace.

Whittington was probably around the age of seventy in 1422, a grand old man of city politics who had entered the common council in 1384, been an alderman for almost thirty years, and served the first of three terms as mayor in 1397/98. His last mayoralty, in 1419/20, was marked by his attempt to regulate the brewers' trade, by bringing ale and beer prices under control and enforcing an earlier ordinance (1408) standardizing the containers in which they were sold. The maximum price per barrel he set was 42d., and it was to this that the brewers were obliged to offer a guarantee of compliance, despite their complaints that prices could not be kept low when they depended on the fluctuating cost of malt, and despite their unsuccessful attempt to curry Whittington's favour with an expensive gift of wine, as well as to bribe one of the sheriffs to support their petition to have the by-law amended to increase the maximum price. In protest against what they considered as Whittington's persecution of them, the brewers refused throughout his mayoralty to hold feasts or to provide for their annual livery (in which they were supposed to participate in official parades).

Whittington was probably in the minority in the dogmatic belief that prices could be kept below a certain level, reflecting a notion – traditional but becoming outdated – that it was the duty of those in power to protect the interests of the community above all; a community which suspected the brewers of profiteering. His seniority meant that the Corporation could not just ignore Whittington, and the rapid condemnation of the brewers, without them having much chance to defend themselves, suggests a desire to placate the venerable and influential Whittington. John Carpenter, despite his close connection to Whittington (evidenced by his role as the principal executor of Whittington's will), evidently had a different perspective. Perhaps he was influenced by 20s. paid him by the brewers in 1420 for unspecified advice and activities, or perhaps he just had a more realistic view of the situation or a better understanding of Whittington's ways. In the event, his assurances to the worried master brewers proved correct: after Whittington's death early in 1423, the matter was pursued no further and the Corporation for some years made no efforts to control prices.

By contrast with the strained relations with Whittington, the brewers described William Crowmer, mayor 1423-24, as "a man who performed his duties well on behalf of the entire community of the city, and all the city was well pleased with him, and also he was a good man who was well-disposed towards the brewers' craft and during his term caused the craft no harm, nor would he take any gifts or rewards from the craft during that time..." Crowmer did not refrain from punishing brewers who breached the assizes, as the list above shows, but the brewers' gild had no objection to this type of thing, particularly since it helped discourage practices contrary to their own interests and since the gild occasionally received a percentage of the fines and confiscations. It was the gild's own wardens and searchers who were policing these breaches.



"before the mayor and the aldermen"
The summons was to appear in the mayor's court.

The city's leading legal advisor and often its spokesperson in legal matters. Fray served in that role from 1422 to 1426, prior to becoming a Baron of the Exchequer.

A barrel held 27 gallons.

"rebuilding of the Guildhall"
The construction of a new, enlarged Guildhall was underway during this period, and fines on victuallers and hostelers who broke trading regulations had been assigned to help finance the work.

The original is kilderkyn meaning a small barrel, possibly a half-barrel (14 gallons); for purposes of differentiation, I have chosen to call these casks.

"cooper's mark"

A small-scale retailer, also known in London as burlsters. The archetypal image of hucksters is as single women; but, as this list shows, they could also be married women and men.

The ward in which the city Guildhall was situated.

"wool quay"
This wharf was on the east side of London, near the Tower.

"Hoddesdon, Barnet, South Mimms"
All (at that time) in Hertfordshire, which may be coincidence or suggestive.

"the stocks, Poultry, Coneyhope Lane"
The Poultry was one of London's several food markets that were part of the West Cheap (Cheapside) district; naturally it specialized in the poultry trade. Coneyhope Lane ran off it and was a market for rabbit meat. The stocks were central in that same district.

"the Castle"
I have interpreted this as the name of a tavern, since there was not known to have been a literal castle beside Shoe Lane (which was in the western suburb, running off Fleet Street), although Montfichet Castle once rose above the rooftops not too far away and a view of it could well have inspired the name of a tavern.

"king's Wardrobe"
A house acquired by Edward III in the south-west corner of the city, to house a department of the royal administration known as the Wardrobe.

"Foreign ale"
This refers either to ale not brewed in London, or to ale in the hands of non-citizens (who were forbidden to sell ale to other non-citizens).

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Created: October 28, 2014. © Stephen Alsford, 2014