In the City of London there are one hundred and eight Livery Companies. The older ones began as trade guilds, associations of persons aimed at protecting and regulating their various trades, by insisting on certain standards of material and craftsmanship and caring for their less fortunate members. Through the ages, the Companies became influential in the government of the City, and became recognised as suitable bodies to which benefactors could entrust charitable monies.
They are called Livery Companies because in the early 14th century many of them assumed distinctive dress and Edward III was known to have been clothed in his livery when attending the Merchant Taylors. The Butchers were known to have a hall outside the City walls as early as 975, and there was a fraternity of Bakers in 1155, but the Company with the oldest known charter (1155) is the Weavers' Company.
The guilds, whose members engaged in trade and overseas commerce or in luxury goods, were of greater influence and standing than the others, and the present accepted order of precedence, laid down in 1516 for the forty eight Companies then in existence, is largely a recognition of this. There is reference in the City records in 1376 to 'Twelve Principal Mysteries" and it is known that in the 14th century eight of today's Great Twelve Companies provided 220 out of 235 aldermen. Until the second half of the 16th century, it was required that aldermen should be members of the Great Twelve. Until 1742 Lord Mayors were also required to be members of the Great Twelve. New Companies have been formed and some amalgamations have taken place since 1516.
The degree of involvement of Companies with their respective trades or industries today varies considerably. The Goldsmiths, Fishmongers, Vintners, Glovers, and Stationers, for example, still have considerable interest and influence in their respective trades, as do some of the more recently formed Companies. Some Companies have almost completely lost contact with their original trades, and now their main work is in the administration of charitable trusts, and in the pageantry of the City.