The Founders' Company began its existence as one of the early medieval "guilds" or associations formed by members of various crafts or trades in the City of London. Their main purposes were to defend the craft against unfair competition, to assist its members in their work, to help those in distress and to promote and control education.
Founders were workers in brass and brass alloys or tinplate known as "Iatten" or "laton", producing small cast articles such as candlesticks and pots and pans. Their workshops were situated in and around Lothbury, a street that still exists under that name.
From 1508 to 1987 their parish church was St. Margaret Lothbury. Before that time, the Founders were associated with the church of St. Lawrence Jewry, and indeed there is evidence to suggest that the medieval guild grew out of a parish fraternity known as the Brotherhood of St. Clement, based on the church of St. Lawrence Jewry, which served the spiritual and material needs of its members.
It seems likely that, as many of them were small founders, the original social and religious purposes of the fraternity became increasingly subordinated to the task of defending and organising the craft itself.
If the early historian, Stow, is right, the founders were not always popular citizens. Speaking of Lothbury, he remarks:
"This street is possessed for the most part by Founders that cast candlesticks, chafing dishes, spice mortars, and such like copper or Laton works, and do afterwards turn them with the foot and not with the wheel, to make them smooth and bright with turning and scrating (as some do term it), making a loathsome noise to the by passers that have not been used to the like, and therefore by them disdainfully called Lothberie."
The earliest surviving evidence relating to the Guild of Founders is a petition in Norman French which it made in 1365 to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen for its Ordinances to be enrolled at Guildhall, which was granted. The Company must already have been in existence at that date, but the year 1365 served as the basis on which the Company celebrated its 600th anniversary at Guildhall in 1965. The Wardens' Accounts go back to 1497 and only three other City Companies possess accounts starting earlier.
Early in the 14th century, the guilds came to be known as "mysteries", a name probably derived from the Italian word "Mestierii" used in Venice to describe crafts and trades. The term "Livery Company" was adopted in the reign of Edward III (1327- 1377), by which time the members of different guilds wore distinctive dress when summoned to appear on ceremonial occasions.
An Act passed in 1364 decreed "all artificers and peoples of mysteries shall each choose his own mystery before the next Candlemas, and that having so chosen it, he shall henceforth use no other."
The historian, Macaulay, said of this Act: "Here commences the history of the English nation". In lighter vein, Dr. Hibbert remarks in his History of the Company that the principles of trade unionism are clearly not of very recent origin.
In 1590, the Company secured the grant of a coat of arms, a distinction dear to the hearts of Englishmen throughout the ages.
A larger landmark in the progress of the Company in its earlier days was the Royal Charter it received in 1614 from James I. This required an outlay of about £175 a very considerable sum in those days, which was mostly spent on payments to the City Remembrancer and had to be financed by a loan from the Master, Richard Rowdinge.
The Company's resources, like those of many others, were severely taxed by the constant demands for money made on the City by the Stuart Kings. In 1634 the Company had to sell all the silver spoons presented by Liverymen on their admission, except for one given by Humphrey Bowen. In 1684, when Charles II sought to remove the Whigs from control of the City and replace them by Tories, the Livery Companies were faced with a threat of legal action for alleged breaches of their Charters. As the judges were Royal appointees, and likely therefore to find in favour of the Crown, the Company found itself compelled to surrender its Charter and to submit to the King's demand for the election of Royal nominees as office-holders. In 1688, however, these measures were hastily revoked by James II, on hearing of William of Orange's imminent arrival, and the Company's Charter was restored.
Since 1987 and the move of the Company's Hall to Cloth Fair, the Founders have been associated with the parish church of St. Bartholomew the Great, founded in 1123 by Rahere. The Company's annual Election Day Service is held at this church.