The Knighten Guild

Flo Laino

April 23, 2015


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Historically, 100 Minories was situated in the ward of Portsoken, one of 25 ancient City Wards, presided over by an Alderman. Located just east of the original ancient City wall of London, Portsoken represents a key administrative extension of the City, as a ward ‘without’ the Wall. Portsoken has rather curious origins, formerly as a district or ‘soke’ belonging to an obscure body, known as the ‘Cnihtengild’, or ‘Knighten Guild’. It is unclear exactly when Portsoken first got its name, or when it first started to function as a ward; what is certain is that this status evolved as a direct result of the concession of the Knighten Guild soke in AD1125 (Beavan 1908, 179-188) to the Priory of Holy Trinity Aldgate (built 1108), and a shift in the balance of power of the area into religious hands.

From the 15th Century onwards, the affairs of Portsoken Ward enter into more formal and comprehensive records, under the Priory of Holy Trinity’s ‘Cartulary’ documents. However, the life of the area before this time, as the soke of the Knighten Guild, remains sparsely documented and shrouded in mystery. One source, oft having been interrogated for clues of the Guild’s origin, comes from the prolific 16th Century commentator John Stow, who, in his ‘Survey of London’ gives this rather wildly chivalric account of the founding of the Knighten Guild in Saxon times under King Edgar of Mercia [959-975]:

“This Portsoken, which soundeth, the Franchise at the gate, was sometime a Guild, and had beginning in the dayes of king Edgar, more then 600. yeares since. There were thirteene Knights, or Soldiers welbeloued to the king and realme, for seruice by them done, which requested to haue a certaine portion of land on the East part of the Citie, left desolate and forsaken by the Inhabitants, by reason of too much seruitude. They besought the king to haue this land, with the libertie of a Guilde for euer: the king granted to their request with conditions following: that is, that each of them should victoriously accomplish three combates, one aboue the ground, one vnder ground, and the third in the water, and after this at a certaine day in East Smithfield, they should run with Speares against all commers, all which was gloriously performed: and the same day the king named it knighten Guild, & so bounded it…” Stowe (1603) [British History Online pp. 120 - 129].

 

It is perhaps, all too tempting to follow Stow’s account to a re-imagining of this Knighten Guild as a vaguely Arthurian entity of the Dark Ages. However it is to this extent C. L. Kingsford, an early 20th Century editor of Stow’s work, warns that in fact Stow’s only source for this fabled story, comes as a direct extract from the Priory Cartulary itself, written in the 15th Century, and which seems to not have been well-known to historians and medievalists before the late 19th Century (LRS, 1971, introduction). He comments that the Knighten Guild’s “…true character is uncertain, and its bearing on the history of municipal institutions in London has been disputed” (1908, 120). Given that the Aldgate Cartulary itself was compiled 1425-27, in the peak of the High-Medieval romantic literary tradition, it would suffice to assume that amongst the charters and decrees it lists, are also writings of a more fantastical nature.

So if we are not to trust Stow, nor the Cartulary for its mythological clues as to the original nature of this Early Medieval Guild, is there anything that can be truly discerned of this mysterious group?

Really, the Knighten Guild presents us with two main problems for disambiguation; understanding the terms ‘Knight’, and ‘Guild’ in their contemporary form. Most probably, our starting point today would be to picture Knights of the past as figures of the military, horse-mounted, upholders of courtly love, and also to equate Guilds solely with the highly structured trade instutitions that came to thrive throughout the Medieval and Post-Medieval periods in England. However, the Early-Medieval origins of these terms are far more fuzzy. In Early-Medieval feudal society, the key role of a ‘Cniht’, was in its plainest form, a position of servant or retainer to a higher authority (Brooke and Keir 1975, 97). In this sense a Knight may have held a varied standing, not solely a military one. In the same way, the term ‘Guild’, has an equally loose meaning in the Early-Medieval period, which could have extended to any group that banded together for the purposes of mutual protection and shared interest, for a variety of charitable, religious and social functions (Brooke and Keir 1975, 98). Indeed, Brooke and Keir (1975, 98), in their survey of the Early-Medieval Guilds, deduce that the relevant 11th and early 12th Century texts are only really very specific on two points regarding the collectivism of the Guilds - ‘…[a Guild] was something you paid for, and some[where] you drank’. They point to a late 12th Century account from Walter Map and his friend Gerald of Wales, commenting on the profileration and ubiquity of Guild establishments – ‘such… as the English have as drinking houses, one in each parish, called in English Ghuildhus’ - and highlighting a reference to the London Guildhall, by Gerald as a notable drinking house (Brooke and Keir 1975, 280).

The complexity and nuance in the roles of these early guilds, leads us to believe that regardless of how militaristic they may have started out, there is a strong likelihood that the Knighten Guild grew to form a chiefly ‘charitable, religious and social’ face (Hunt and Madigan 2012, 20). This position may be further strengthed by the reference in the Aldgate Cartulary (871) to the individuals who were to eventually surrender the Knighten Guild soke in 1125 as ‘certaine Burgesses’ (a distinctly administrative title). A best guess might be that the Knights retained control of the land as a part of some kind of on-going agreement, akin to the arrangements for municipal defence set up in the time of King Alfred, under his Burghal Hidage programme. Perhaps the Knights were allowed to control the land and reap some form of gain from it in return for serving a form of practical or civic role like the upkeep of the City wall or clearing out of the City ditch.

The circumstances surrounding the demise of the ‘Anglisshe’ Knighten Guild (Aldgate Cartulary 871), tells of the increasing marginalisation of the soke flanked on all sides by bastions of monarchic and monastic power that were the new Norman building schemes: the Tower of London in AD1078  to the south and Holy Trinity Priory Aldgate to the north.  Whatever the circumstances of its ‘gifting’ to the Priory, what we do know is that thereafter the Knighten Guild ceased to exist, with only the names of its final patrons - ‘Ralph son of Algod, Wlunard le Douerisshe, Orgar le Prude, Edward Hupcornhille, Blakstan, Alwin his relative, Alwin and Robert his brother sons of Leofstan, Leofstan the Goldsmith and Wizo his son, Hugh son of Wlgar, Algar Secusne, Orgar son of Deremann, Osbert Drinchepyn, Adelard Hornepitesune’ (871) – to give us any clues as to what may have happened to this very curious and enigmatic historical association.

 

References

‘Parishes: St Botolph Aldgate’, in The Cartulary of Holy Trinity, Aldgate London Record Society 7, ed. G A J Hodgett (London, 1971), pp. 167-192 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/london-record-soc/vol7/pp167-192 [accessed 20 April 2015].

BEAVEN AP, 1908. ‘Aldermen of the City of London: Portsoken ward’, The Aldermen of the City of London:Temp. Henry III – 1908, pp. 179-188. City of London, London.

BROOKE CNL WITH KEIR, G 1975. London, 800-1216: the shaping of a city. University of California Press, Los Angeles and Berkeley.

HUNT G., AND MADIGAN, K 2012. Archaeological Desk Based Assessment 100 Minories London EC3. L – P : Archaeology : London.

STOWE J. ‘Notes: Volume 1, pp.101-200′, in A Survey of London. Reprinted From the Text of 1603, ed. C L Kingsford (Oxford, 1908), pp. 283-308 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/survey-of-london-stow/1603/pp283-308 [accessed 15 April 2015].

STOW J. ‘Portsoken warde’, in A Survey of London. Reprinted From the Text of 1603, ed. C L Kingsford (Oxford, 1908), pp. 120-129 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/survey-of-london-stow/1603/pp120-129 [accessed 16 April 2015].

Featured image
Knights Templar Effigy [PD-ART].

Image credits

Map of Portsoken (1755). William Maitland’s The history of London from its foundation to the present time · Cole, B. (Benjamin) · 1755? · Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

Folio 1r from the Holy Trinty Priory Aldgate Cartulary (1425-1427). ‘Book of the Month’ (2002). Glasgow University Library, Special Collections Department.
Detail of miniature from the New Minster Charter, showing King Edgar (966). [PD-ART].