0001 Exeter Cloth Trade‘Incorporation’ is the term used since the Royal Charter of 1620 to describe the organisation of Exeter woollen cloth trades that had before been organised as guilds. This still leaves the question – what is a guild?

In the past, guilds were associations – groups of people – who came together because they shared a skilled trade. Guilds didn’t just exist in the woollen cloth industry; many other trades, including tailors, stonemasons, woodcarvers and goldsmiths, also formed themselves into guilds in towns across Europe.

Little is known about the early history of guilds. People from the same trades have probably always met to offer support to one another and to discuss the issues of the day, most importantly to resolve disputes. However, the first formal guilds with rules determining their membership and organisation began to form between 1100 and 1300.

In England, the first guilds appeared in London during this period. Weavers and bakers were among the first to organise, and in the following centuries other trades followed. The guilds enjoyed the height of their membership and power in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. From then on, their influence fell away as skilled trades declined in the face of competition from factory-based machine manufacturing.

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