The first skinners or furriers lived in the same areas of London and worshipped at the same churches. The part religious, part secular fraternities of men involved in the fur trade eventually came together in one guild, dedicated to Corpus Christi, which became the Skinners’ Company. This is why the annual election of the new master is held on the feast of Corpus Christi.
In medieval times furs were very much a luxury item and their use was strictly controlled. Ermine and sable – costly furs from abroad – were reserved for royalty and the aristocracy, the middle classes were restricted to furs of lesser value, and the common folk had to make do with home grown lambskin, rabbit and cat.
The Skinners became wealthier, and their influence grew, as the trade in expensive furs flourished. Like the other trade guilds, their power was enhanced by the grant of royal charters that afforded them some legal protection and official control over their own craft.
The Skinners obtained one of the first charters from Edward III in 1327 – a handwritten 17th century copy is still in the Company’s possession.
Furs were becoming very expensive as early as the middle 1400s and when other fabrics became fashionable the fur trade began to decline. A hundred years later few of the most prominent Skinners were in the fur trade – most were general merchants.
Many of these prominent Skinners left charitable bequests, including land, to the Company which managed the estates and used the income for charitable purposes.
© 2007 – The Skinners’ Company