The is the symbol of the Mercers’ guild and is used to show their ownership of buildings around the capital. The oldest surviving example stands in Corbet Court, off Gracechurch Street, where it was placed in the wall near to its original location during redevelopment in 2014. The date 1669 features prominently in the two top corners of the carving.
The Maiden here looks like a late medieval queen, with a dress with low neck, and slashed sleeves. She is wearing a necklace with a diamond-shaped pendant and two very prominent earrings. She has long hair falling freely over the back of her shoulders and a crown with a band or garland of flowers.
She derives from the seal of the company, and probably represents the Virgin, but she is also referred to simply as the ‘Maid’ in medieval references to the seal, leading to some vagueness as to her attribution. She was later adopted as the Mercers’ coat of arms.
The Mercers were dealers in high-end textiles, and according to the order of precedence that has come down to us from the early sixteenth century they are ranked as number one among London’s guilds. They thus head up not only the livery companies as a whole, but also the Great Twelve, or the dozen of the most prestigious companies. We cannot be certain if this precedence was always recognised before, but they probably ranked in the top two at least for most of their history. The other contender for historical primacy being the Grocers, who dealt in spices among other things.
The old guilds, unlike the monasteries and other avowedly religious institutions escaped expropriation by the crown during the Reformation, and have thus survived to the present day, with some of their endowments remaining. Though they lost their connections with their original trades by the sixteenth century, they carried on as social and charitable institutions. The Mercers benefited from a large endowment in Covent Garden in the seventeenth century and their Maiden can be seen on many of the buildings in the area. The Mercers still own a great deal of property in the City, and also run Trinity Hospital, a seventeenth century foundation, which is Greenwich’s oldest surviving building.
Come on our tour of Medieval London to find out more about the guilds and how they dominated the economic life of the city.