The Archbishop’s Builders: Lost Letters from the Mary’s Chapel Project

Dr Aaron Allen (University of Edinburgh) is one of the leading experts on the history of the crafts in Scotland. He has been researching the Incorporation of Mary’s Chapel – the builders craft in Edinburgh – and has recently made a very exciting discovery in the archives. In this guest blog, he discusses an important link to St Andrews.

In amongst the recently-rediscovered ‘lost’ records of the Incorporation of Mary’s Chapel were three fascinating documents from Andrew Forman, Archbishop of St Andrews (1514-1521). Two of these are letters, which is remarkable enough – it was very rare for mere craftsmen to receive correspondence from so prominent an Archbishop. The third document is even more significant, however. It is a confirmation of the crafts’ 1475 foundation document, known as a seal of cause.[1] Seals of cause were charters, granted by the burgh council, and they enshrined the rights of the crafts in law. The Archbishop of St Andrews was using his authority over the collegiate kirk in Edinburgh to support the exclusive privileges of the capital’s building trades. But why?

1517 Letter Archbishop St Andrews

Letter from Andrew Forman, Archbishop of St Andrews to the Masons and Wrights of Edinburgh: Edinburgh City Archives, Mill Records, A6.

The fact that these documents connect the ecclesiastical burgh of St Andrews and royal burgh of Edinburgh might seem confusing at first. The building trades in Edinburgh held exclusive privileges from their seal of cause, but these privileges theoretically only covered the capital itself. So why the Archbishop of St Andrews?

The right to work in the town was really an issue of jurisdiction. The Incorporation was supposed to have control over who worked in the building trades, and they did this by by testing the ‘sufficiency’ of the work, and making those who passed the test freemen. To be a freeman meant that one’s work was of a high standard – unfreemen were considered to be less qualified – and this gave access to the privileges of the craft. This ties in with the wider framework of burgh privileges, which were supposedly restricted to those living within the town walls. This is well illustrated by the eighteenth-century place name of ‘World’s End Close’, the last close within Edinburgh’s town walls. Those who lived inside the walls were within the privileged jurisdiction of the capital where the markets were. If the economic privileges ended at the burgh boundaries, then living outside the wall was like being beyond the world’s end.

In reality the rules were far more complex, and often simply ignored. The unfreemen, ‘strangers’ and ‘outland burgesses’ caused constant problems for the burgh establishment, whether they aided the overall economy or not. Burgh jurisdictions were more flexible in practice than municipal regulation would suggest, and as the population of Edinburgh tripled between 1540 and 1640, it became much more difficult to keep track of who had access to the privileges of incorporated craftwork.

This was hardly a new problem, as demonstrated by the recently re-discovered group of papers relating to the Incorporation of Mary’s Chapel in the Edinburgh City Archives. The masons and wrights of Mary’s Chapel had first been granted a seal of cause and an altar in 1475, though other wood- and stone-working crafts soon joined them. Most of these tended to be trades which worked with the masons and wrights on building sites, highlighting the shared occupational factors which helped to unify the diverse, but privileged, freemen. But not all craftsmen or women who worked on the capital’s building sites were necessarily freemen. The same town council which had granted the seal of cause often employed unfreemen for its own building works, as did the kirk, the crown and the nobility. This left the Incorporation with a problem. How could they enforce the council’s seal of cause? How could they exclude – or at least control – the unfree labour which continuously usurped their privileges of work within the town?

One way was by appealing to their patrons, and the lucrative ‘kirk warks’ is an excellent example. Edinburgh’s collegiate church, St Giles, needed regular work done to maintain the aging fabric. As St Giles was under the diocese of St Andrews, the Archbishop technically had oversight of God’s house in the capital. So the Incorporation asked the Archbishop of St Andrews to ratify their seal of cause, to ensure that only freemen would work on Edinburgh’s kirks. The Archbishop agreed. Perhaps there was an element of politics involved, as the provostship of St Giles had been held by Forman’s political enemy, Gavin Douglas, who had unsuccessfully attempted to secure the Archbishopric of St Andrews for himself. Could this have been the reason that Forman agreed to the Incorporation’s request?

1517 Wax Seal Archbishop St Andrews

Detail of wax seal of James Forman, Archbishop of St Andrews: Edinburgh City Archives, Mill Records, A6.

The Archbishop’s letter commands the curates to warn all the masons, carpenters, coopers, glassinwrights, bowers, slaters and dykers to obey the craft’s statutes under pain of ‘excommunicatioune, aggravatioune and reaggravatioune’. As the kirk was a major employer of the building trades, they were in a position to decide whether or not to hire unfreemen. As a senior churchman, and therefore over the ‘curatis of the colegiat kirk’ of Saint Giles, who better to appeal to for recognition of privileges over building within the Scottish capital?

Edinburgh, as a royal burgh, was supposedly beholden to none but their feudal superior, the king. Ironically, in order for the Incorporation to secure its privileges granted by the burgh council, it needed to go beyond the all-important burgh boundaries, appealing to a higher power resident in the burgh of St Andrews. Clearly jurisdiction over craft privileges was a complicated business.


[1] Edinburgh City Archives, Mill Records, A6, A7 and A8, and SL12/236, A. J. Mill, ‘Rough Inventory of Records Belonging to the Wrights and Masons of Edinburgh’ (Unpublished Typescript, 1923).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *