The Company is one of the oldest of the City guilds or livery companies. Its origins probably date back to the end of the twelfth century when it was known as the Guild of Our Lady and St. Thomas Becket. The earliest written reference to the existence of brewers as a body can be found in the City Letter Books where it is recorded that in 1292 London Brewers lodged a complaint against the Sheriffs. In 1406 the mistery of free Brewers successfully petitioned the Mayor and Aldermen for the right to appoint Masters and Wardens to control the trade.
Henry V1 granted the Company the first of its charters on 22 February in the sixteenth year of his reign.
William Porlond's Memorandum Book
The company still possesses the memorandum book of William Porlond who was Clerk to the Company from 1418-1440. The book contains some of the earliest examples of official written English. Porlond originally recorded the Company’s business in Latin or French but in 1422 it was decided that the Brewers should follow the example of Henry V in using English, not least because many brewers did not “in anywise understand” Latin and French. Porlond gives a detailed account of both the domestic affairs of the Company and notable public events throughout this period.
The memorandum book also provides evidence of the long standing enmity between the Brewers and the Lord Mayor, Richard Whittington, who persistently fined the Brewers or threatened the Master and Wardens with imprisonment for, among other things taking too much water from the Chepe Conduit, artificially increasing the price of malt and overcharging for beer. Moreover, Porlond records, Whittington complained that the Brewers had fat swans at their feast on the morrow of St Martin when he had none at his. Whittington’s revenge was apparently to make the Brewers sell their ale at 1d per gallon all the following day.
Grant of Arms
The first grant of arms in 1468 was impaled with the arms of the Company’s patron saint, Thomas Becket. It is not known why Thomas Becket was chosen as patron of the Brewers: one view is that pilgrims on their way to Canterbury to visit Becket’s shrine drank a great deal of ale and brewers felt it appropriate to dedicate themselves to him.
After the Reformation references to Becket become more cryptic. The current Coat of Arms which was granted by Henry VIII in 1544 contains, above the shield, a demi morien bearing sheaves of barley. This alludes to his father Gilbret Becket, a City Merchant, who was captured by pirates off the north coast of Africa and saved by a Moorish lady – so tradition has it – who followed him to London and married him, thus becoming Thomas Beckets’ stepmother.
Membership of Company
Until the twentieth century, many non-brewers were admitted to the Freedom of the Company. Often this was to enable those whose trade was not represented by a Livery Company to practise their craft within the City. For example, the founder members of the Society of Spectacle Makers were originally Freemen of the Brewers Company who, with the consent of their Company, were translated to the Society when it was incorporated in 1634. Sometimes non-brewers were admitted to render them eligible to enter their children for Aldenham School as preference was given to sons of Freemen of the Brewers’ Company as well as boys from Aldenham.