If you walk along Cloak Lane, just off Dowgate in the City of London, look up and you’ll see some interesting plaques on the wall. They show the numbers 6 and 7. What are they doing there?
Cloak Lane - nothing to do with outer garments but a corruption of the latin word for drain, cloaca - includes buildings owned by the Worshipful Company of Skinners. This ancient livery company, whose history dates back to the 14th century, is sometimes listed as 6th in the Great Twelve of the City livery companies - but sometimes 7th. They share this interchangeable position with the Merchant Taylors.
In the fifteenth century there was great competition between the City’s ancient trade guilds, the livery companies. It even led to bloody - and fatal - fights! Rivalry between the Skinners and Merchant Taylors was so fierce that in 1484 the Lord Mayor Robert Billesden (a haberdasher) decreed that the two companies should share the position, so one year the Skinners are 6th, the Merchant Taylors 7th; the following year the Skinners go down to 7th and the Merchant Taylors rise up to 6th.
In 1515 an Order of Precedence was laid out, putting the livery companies in order, with the Mercers’ Company 1st, the Grocers; Company 2nd, and so on. Their positions were based on the number of Lord Mayors each company had elected, and on their wealth. The Great Twelve, the first dozen companies, were particularly important because up until the 1700s only a member of those companies could become Lord Mayor.
These days relations between the companies are far more amicable, and every March, around the United Guilds Service held at St Paul’s Cathedral, positions swap between the Skinners and Merchant Taylors. However they still disagree over one thing: the spelling of Robert Billesden’s name. The Skinners spell it ‘Billesdon’, the Merchant Taylors ‘Billesden’!
If you want to learn more about this area of the City, you can come on my virtual tour of Three Wards - Vintry, Dowgate and Queenhithe.