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).

Evil speech and discord in the Fleshers craft


This entry in the Fleshers book, from July 1630, records that freemen of the Flesher craft were to be responsible for their wives’ speech. It seems that talk by ‘certane of the wyffis’ had spread discord within the craft, although the subject of the women’s discussion is not recorded. It was decided that a member of the craft would be fined every time his wife, child or servant ‘spoke evil of a brother of craft, privately or publicly’.

It was essential to answer slander publicly, because reputation was an important way in which people could judge the trustworthiness and credibility of others. Once a man’s good name had been lost it was very difficult to regain. People in all walks of life were careful to protect their ‘renown’, but it was particularly important for craftsmen, because the reputation of the guild was closely tied to its success in the commercial sphere.

A woman’s reputation was gained or lost by her personal conduct, and the social penalties for nonconformity could be severe. If she was accused of inappropriate or immoral behaviour the things people said about her character and past actions became very important. This was true even in court, as there were far fewer sources of evidence which could be drawn upon to support a case.

Unsurprisingly, the Fleshers preferred to handle such disagreements internally. Making a craftsman responsible for the actions of his household could be an effective method of addressing the problem, because he had the most to lose from the opprobrium of his brethren and the imposition of financial penalties. He would therefore be more likely to monitor the behaviour of his wife and servants to ensure they followed the rules.


Thomas Phennesoun and remanent brethren of craft understanding that divers and syndreis discordis and dissentiones aryses betuix brethren of craft arryseing upon the great calumnies and eivill speaches of certane of the wyffis. Thairfor it is statut that if ony fremanis wyf barne or servand sall heirefter at any tyme injur calumniat or speik evell of or to ane brothir of craft privatlie or publictlie that the husband of the said wyff offendand sall be answerable for his wyffis fault and for his barnis and servandis under the pane of xl s for the craft fault and to be doublit toties quoties [as often as it shall happen].


The breaking of the Hammermen’s buist


In 1575 a dispute erupted within the Hammermen craft after someone broke the buist, or strongbox, and removed the money contained within it. A group of craftsmen (below) were chosen as arbiters by the others to decide what ought to be done, and ‘with one voice’ they stated that the box should be mended and the money returned to it. The buist would then be given to the deacon for safekeeping, and the keys given to the most honest men of the craft. If it so happened that any craftsman broke the buist in the future, he would be deprived of his office, and forbidden from holding any office again.The outcome was also copied into the book of Master John Bonkle, Steward of the regality of St Andrews and clerk of the city, and witnessed by members of the craft.

This kind of decision-making process was very common in the crafts. They chose respected men of good judgement to speak on behalf of the others, and settled disputes and arguments amongst themselves. This was part of the freedom which burgesses and guild members enjoyed from other jurisdictions – for example that of the regality – and was a privilege of craft membership. It meant that a burgess who committed a crime had the right to be tried in the burgh court, by his peers, instead of the sheriff court, where he might receive less favourable treatment.


At santandrois the last day off Aprile the yeir off God 1575 yeiris the quhilk day anent the variance betwix the hammer men off the cite of santandrois anent the complent gevin in for brekking up of thir commoun buist and taking out oft certaine money out of the sam The decisioun off the said mater and taking away and doun-putting of the variance forsaid with the heall consentis professit the heall mater to James Sowrdye, Alexander Millar, Andro Craffaris, Andro Muffat, James Broun in Ergaill, Johne Buge and William Giffard all in ane voic findis ordanis and decernis the buist to be mendit againe and the money takin furth thairof to be ressavit and put thairin againe and the buist to be usit with the auld kayis thairoff and failyeing thairoff to be usit with new kayis to be maid thairto.

Health and Safety by the Fleshers


The first two acts on this page of the Fleshers book deal with the storing of animal flesh – an important concern in a city the size of seventeenth-century St Andrews.

It was forbidden for a brother of the craft to hang flesh up on any stair, or to lay it under any stair, east of the market cross. Anyone who broke this rule would be fined forty shillings each time he did so. Brothers were also not allowed to hang sheep flesh on the common. Instead, they could do so at any freeman’s door, with his leave, or on a fleck. This was a special stand for the display of meat or cheese.

Any Flesher who bought a sick or diseased beast, and attempted to sell it at the market, would be fined ten merks. There were also strict rules about where meat could be sold – brothers were not allowed to use any booth in the marketplace except their own. Allowing an unfreeman to slay an animal in a freeman’s booth was also punishable.

By maintaining these standards the craft also preserved their reputation for producing quality goods. It was the deacon of the craft who was responsible for enforcing the rules. He therefore had to be both a skilled craftsman, and a man of good local standing.


Item it is ordanit withe the consent of the hail breither of craft that na brother of craft, at ony tyme heireftir, upon the merkatt day, hyng thair flesche upon ony staire or lay thair flesche under ony stair be eist the cross under the paine of xl s ilk tyme.
Item it is voted and ordanit with the consent of the hail breither upon the hill that na brether hing thair flesche sheip at the comoun, nor at Androw Dewingis staire, nor na stair exceptit be at ane freimans dur, with his leife, and na uthir wayis or upon the fleckis, under the paine of foure ls ilk tyme ony sall do the lyk.