The Drapers Company of London
Its History, Function and Usefulness to Genealogical Researchers

A Special Report by Archdale-Combs-Kendall Researcher Denise Mortorff

Drapers’ Old Arms


In the course of researching the ancestry and descendants of one John COMBE who married 1587, St. Antholin Budge Row, London, Margaret ARCHDALE, d/o Thomas ARCHDALE, Draper, and one John COMBE, Draper who was a subscriber to the Virginia Company in 1606 (now documented as having been one and the same John COMBE), Combs-Kendall Researcher Denise Kelly Mortorff not only found herself immersed in the records of the Drapers Company (Guild), but also in need of more knowledge about the Drapers themselves. The following report of the Drapers Company represents only the surface of the in-depth work being done by Ms. Mortorff — an effort that is aiding not only Combe, Archdale And Lovett researchers, but all who have an interest in English Guilds, their history, their activities, and their potential usefulness to genealogical research.

The result of Ms. Mortorff’s outstanding work to date includes not only this report, but a second: Combes, Archdales, Lovetts, &c. of the Drapers Guild, for both of which we thank her.

The Combs &c. Research Group

The Drapers Company of London
Its History, Function and Usefulness to Genealogical Researchers

“The Master and Wardens and Brethren and Sisters of the Guild or Fraternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Mystery of Drapers of the City of London" has existed since at least the year 1180. Historically, the Drapers Company has always played a major role in the affairs of the City, Initially its interests were restricted to the woolen cloth trade, in which it held a monopoly, but with the passage of years came an expansion of its commercial interests that eventually spanned the globe, including “adventures” (wars and settlements) with and the degree of its involvement with the Corporation of the City of London. with its members having been both officials of the City and active co-participants in numerous ventures, including both wars and settlements (“adventures”) such as the East India and Virginia Companies. Its membership consisted of Freemen (ordinary members) and Liverymen (entitled to wear the livery or uniform clothing of the Company), governed by a Master, four Wardens and a Court of Assistants (senior members of the company) elected by the Liverymen.

Many records of both the Drapers and the City are still extant, some of which (or indices to same) have been published:

In 1934, Mr. Percival Boyd published the “ROLL OF THE DRAPERS’ COMPANY OF LONDON Collected from the Company’s Records and other sources”, Croydon: J. A. Gordon at the Andress Press, dated 1934; No copyright (hereinafter Boyd’s Roll). The Roll itself is presented in the form of an encoded list (alphabetical). Mr. Boyd’s Preface includes the following statement:

Further data has been acquired from the archives of both the Drapers Company and the City of London Corporation, both of whose Archivists have been of immeasurable assistance — not only in regard to their respective record depositories, but with additional sources and resources, clarification of activities, definitions of words and phrases, and also in respect to the relationship between the two organizations.

From almost the beginning of this research, it was patently clear that an understanding of the history and function of the Drapers was necessary to understanding the full meaning of the records collected:

Provided By
Penelope Fussell, Archivist
February, 1998
Drapers’ Hall - The Cromwell House


The full title of the Drapers’ Company is “The Master and Wardens and Brethren and Sisters of the Guild or Fraternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Mystery of Drapers of the City of London”. The word Mystery comes from the French Mestier or Metier meaning trade.

The Origins

The origin of the City of London guilds or companies is lost in the mists of antiquity. Initially, they acted as mutual protection societies. The trade element was not apparent at first, but was rather an accidental feature, due to the localisation in early times of the various London trades in particular districts. Traders and craftsman by habit met and transacted business together as neighbours, so that it came about naturally that the first voluntary associations to be formed in London were composed of the members of a particular trade.

These associations adopted a religious complexion, and were known as fraternities. Having no common meeting house they chose as their nucleus a neighbouring church, monestary or hospital, to which they attached themselves, and whose saint they adopted as their patron, paying subsidies out of a common fund to provide lights for the altar and services for their deceased.

As the trading element of these associations developed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, so they became known as guilds. In the fourteenth century they began to obtain Charters from the Crown, giving them definite constitutions and rights of holding property, and defining their duties and responsibilities with regard to the trades with which they were connected.

Moreover, the guilds have, from the earliest times, played a vital role in the City. In particular, they have elected the Chief Magistrate or Mayor and his principal officers from among their own members.

The Foundation

The date of origin of the Drapers’ guild is unknown. The guild’s first charter was granted by Edward III in 1364, but it is known to have been in existence at least in 1180, and according to tradition Henry FITZALWYN, who was elected Chief Magistrate of the City in 1188, belonged to it. He became the first Lord Mayor of London in 1209, and retained the post until his death in 1212.

The first contemporary official record of the Drapers’ guild appears at the end of the thirteenth century. This document gives the names of the Wardens who were to govern the fraternity, and their duties: to instruct the members in their trade; and to regulate and settle disputes within the guild. In the preamble to the Drapers’ ordinances of 1405 it is claimed that a fraternity existed in 1332; in 1351 there is evidence of drapers acting in a corporate capacity at the election of Common Council of the City.

Furthermore, a Brotherhood of Drapers is known to have existed in the 1360’s. This was primarily a religious fraternity attached to the church of St. Mary Bethlehem. It was founded in honour of St. Mary by 'good people Drapers of Cornhill and other good men and women' for the amendment of their lives. Only brethren and sisters 'of good fame and good condition and behaviour' could be admitted to the fraternity. The location of St. Mary can hardly have been convenient for the majority of Drapers who lived in and around Cornhill, Candlewick Street (now Cannon Street) and Chepe (Cheapside). Possibly it was for this reason that the Drapers’ Guild transferred its allegiance to St. Mary le Bow in Cheapside and later to St. Michael Cornhill. Despite these changes the guild has retained the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Royal Recognition

As the guilds increased in wealth and prosperity, they started to organise their trades, crafts and misteries, as they were called, in such a way as to form monopolies, and prevent all competition from outsiders. The wardens of the guilds began to draw up ordinances which gave them absolute power over their own house, with a right to institute searches and punish infringement within their own particular trade. It soon became apparent that these monopolies could be affirmed and strengthened by the acquisition of royal charters which gave the guilds definite legal powers over their trades, and complete internal autonomy.

Edward III perceived that the guilds were the mainspring of the trade of the kingdom, which he wished to encourage, and was therefore generous in granting charters to the influential guilds, confirming their privileges and giving them added stability and prestige. The charter or Letters Patent of 1364 officially inaugurated the Drapers’ guild of London as an association of traders who enjoyed the monopoly allied to the cloth industry, and it gave the Drapers authority to govern their own guild by the election of four of their number to act as Wardens.

In 1438 the guild received their Charter of Incorporation recognizing the Drapers as a legal corporate fraternity a Company which had perpetual succession and a Common seal. Over the centuries the original privileges granted by Royal Charter have been confirmed and amended by successive monarchs. The acting Charter of today is taken to be that granted by James I in 1607, which has been amended by three Supplemental Charters, most recently in 1964.

The Grant of Arms

On receiving their grant of incorporation, the Drapers swiftly acquired their Coat of Arms. This was granted by the Garter King of Arms in 1438. The blazon devised refers to the Virgin Mary, under whose protection the Brotherhood of Drapers was founded. The Garter King explained the derivation of the arms as follows:

'That is to say in honour of the very glorious Virgin and Mother Mary who is in the shadow of the sun and yet shines with all clearness and purity. I have devised in the blazon three sunbeams issuing from three flaming clouds crowned with three Imperial crowns of gold on a shield of azure'

In 1651 the Arms were inspected, confirmed and amended with the additions of a helm and crest with a golden ram upon it, and two supporters in the shape of lions (or and pelleted) replacing the earlier angel supporters. Further amendments were made in 1613 when the crowns were slightly altered and the motto 'Unto God only be honour and glory' was added.

The Members of the Company

The Company consists of Freemen and Freewomen, who are the ordinary members; the livery, or those entitled to wear the livery or clothing of the Company, and the Court of Assistants or Governing Body, headed by the Master and Wardens.

Originally, apprenticeship to a master Draper was the usual means of gaining the freedom of the Company. Members are now admitted by redemption (on personal recommendation and after an interview) or patrimony (by virtue of the father being a Draper) and in both cases a fee is due. Occasionally, individuals are granted honorary freedom such as William, Prince of Orange, Lord Nelson and Prince Charles.

Looking back over the centuries the Drapers’ Company can claim many famous names among the membership - royalty, politicians, merchants, authors, a succession of Lord Mayors of London, and men as diverse as Grinling Gibbons the wood carver and sculptor, and Hugh Dalton the socialist Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The Company Hall

As the trading aspect of the guilds expanded, members required a Hall where they could meet to discuss and co-ordinate business. Initially individuals' houses were used but in the 1420s the Drapers’ guild decided to build its own Hall. This first Hall was in St. Swithin’s Lane.

The present Hall, situated in Throgmorton Street, was bought from King Henry VIII in 1543. This had been the house of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex and Chief Minister to Henry, but had been forfeited to the King on Cromwell’s attainment and execution in July 1540. The Hall was entirely destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. It was rebuilt, and again seriously damaged by fire in 1772, since when it has from time to time been reconstructed and altered to its present form. A small part of the old garden still remains, and contains mulberry trees whose predecessors go back three centuries.

The Company possesses many works of art ranging from furniture and carpets to paintings, including portraits of the royal family, Lord Nelson and distinguished Masters and Clerks of the Company. It also possesses a valuable collection of plate and a unique archive.

The Development of the Company

In the Middle Ages the Company possessed great powers of control over the woollen cloth trade in the City. At one time no dealer could sell cloth to anyone but a member of the Company, the Company controlling the sale of cloth at great fairs in the City; and with the “Drapers’ ell”, or standard measure, all the cloth was marked and its measurements checked. The ram with the golden fleece, seen in many guises, from the architectural ornaments at Drapers’ Hall to the motif on members' ties, is the constant reminder of the origins of the Company’s wealth.

Like other guilds, the Drapers’ Company was from the first a benevolent institution, helping those of its members who fell into distress; it also had a religious side, its patron saint being the Virgin Mary, and in its Hall it gave dinners and entertainments.

With the passage of time, the Company’s connections with the cloth trade have altogether ceased; but it still assists its members, worships annually at the church of St. Michael, Cornhill, and is privileged and delighted to show hospitality. Links with the cloth industry have recently been re-established by the foundation of exhibitions, postgraduate and teaching awards and sponsorship in the field of textile design, conservation and technology.

The Company of Today

The main function of the twentieth century Drapers’ Company is the administration of trusts.

The charitable and corporate wealth of the Company is derived from the bequests of individual Drapers who over the centuries have left money, land, rents, plate, paintings, documents or instructions. An example of one such benefactor is the Elizabethan antiquary, William Lambarde. He entrusted the Drapers with the governorship of the almshouses, Queen Elizabeth College Greenwich; he also presented the Company with a handsome silver gilt cup and four gallons of ippocras (a spiced wine cordial). Other benefactors specified that rents from property should pay for candles at an altar in the parish church, a sermon every Sunday or the distribution of penny loaves to the poor. Today, such wishes are interpreted in a modern context by grants for the relief of need.

As a consequence of these many and varied benefactions, the Company today acts as trustee of four groups of almshouses which provide sheltered homes for some two hundred elderly men and women. The Company also has historical links with a number of schools including Bancroft’s School in Essex, the Howell’s Schools in Denbigh and Llandaff, Kirkham Grammar School in Lancashire, Adams School, Wen in Shropshire, Blundell’s School in Tiverton, Sir George Monoux Sixth Form College in Walthamstow and Thomas Russell Infant and Junior Schools and John Taylor High School in Barton-under-Needwood. Moreover, the Company appoints six members to the Council of Queen Mary and Westfield College (QMWC), University of London, and funds an exchange scheme for law students between QMWC and William and Mary College, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA.

From its corporate funds the Company supports a miscellany of charitable institutions - medical, educational and general - while from ancient trust endowments, the Company annually makes grants for the education and welfare needs of thousands of people.

The Drapers have been particularly determined to adapt its resources (charitable and corporate) to meet the changing needs of society. The Company’s involvement with QMWC is a fine example of this determination. Apprenticeship declined as an efective means of training during the nineteenth century, being replaced by technical education taught through purpose built colleges. The Company, therefore, looked for ways in which it could continue its support for practical training away from the apprenticeship schemes. In the 1870s the Company duly became heavily involved in the foundation of the City and Guilds of London Institute. Ten years later it turned its attention to the People’s Palace in Mile End, which with the Drapers’ Company ongoing and generous support developed into QMWC, a recognized college within the University of London.


From its medieval origins as a religious fraternity, the Drapers’ Brotherhood has evolved into one of the wealthiest and most influential of the City of London Livery Companies. The position of the Drapers as third in the order of precedence, after the Mercers and Grocers, was formally established in 1516. Following the Twelve Great Livery Companies there are now a further eighty-eight Companies and new professions still aspire to join the list.

The continued prosperity and influence of the Drapers’ Company, and the other medieval guilds of the City of London, is unique in the world; it is a remarkable instance of the continuity of English history and the stability of English institutions.

“The Drapers’ Company, Root and Branch,
may it live and flourish forever”

Ms. Penelope Fussell, archivist of the Drapers’ Company, advises that the responsibilities of the Wardens included gathering and dispensing the Company’s corporate monies; i.e., Warden’s Accounts; and that the Court of Assistants is the governing body of the Company. Mr. Jim Sewell, City Archivist, Corporation of London Records Office, provides the added information that the Court of Assistants consisted of senior members of the Company who, like the Master and Wardens, were also elected by the Liverymen of the Company. He also advises that the function of the Court of Assistants was analogous to that of a board of governors, with the "responsibility to assist the Master and the Wardens of the company in their management of the company’s business and property."

For more about the Company’s “adventures”, see Combes, Archdales, Lovetts &c. of the Drapers Company and Earliest Combs &c. to Virginia

In addition to its in the Americas, the Drapers Company was also directly involved in the “settlement” of Ireland, and Ms. Fussell advises that the Company’s Ireland archives are held by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (research in progress).

On behalf of myself and Combs &c., I extend our thanks and appreciation to Ms. Fussell for her major contributions in respect to research of the Combes, Archdale and Lovetts of the Drapers Company, including permission to publish the Drapers’ historical pamphlet as part of this report.

Denise Kelly Mortorff

Recommended Reading:

Combes, Archdales, Lovetts, &c. of the Drapers Company, a Combs &c. Research Report, 1998-2001

Freedom of the City and London Livery Companies, a Combs &c. Research Report, 1998-2001

The Drapers’ Company of the City of London — Official Website

Sources for Tracing Apprenticeship and Membership in City Livery Companies and Related Organisations at the Guildhall Library

The Triumphes of Golde: Economic Authority in the Jacobean Lord Mayor’s Show, Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, John Hopkins University Press, 1993-2001 (Restricted Access Website; Available to subscribing libraries.)

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