The Mercers

Mercers stained glass windows
© Jane Ruddell

The Mercers in the medieval period were a distinct company of merchants operating from London. Prior to taking over the Hospital on the site of Thomas Becket’s birth at the Reformation, the Mercers had many connections with the saint. From the early 14th century they were mainly based on Cheapside and according to a charter of 1390 there were regular meetings of ‘toutz les bons gentz de la Mercerie a la sale de Seynte Thomas d’Acres’ (‘all the gentlemen of the Mercery at the room at St Thomas of Acre’). William Caxton was a mercer in the late 15 th C, and made the first printed copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

By around 1510 the Hospital of St Thomas, where the Mercers met, was in considerable debt, having for some years been spending more on hospitality than it had been able to collect in income from rents and gifts. John Colet, the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, persuaded his friend Dr John Young to become Master of the Hospital. As a solution to both the poverty of the Hospital and the need of the Mercers for more space Colet and Young arranged the establishment of the Mercers’ Hall on part of the site. The Mercers’ splendid first Hall was completed in 1522. It had an ornate façade on Cheapside and shared an entrance with the church of the Hospital of St Thomas. The new chapel on the ground floor below the Hall was finished in 1524.

In 1538 the Hospital was closed and the monks who served it removed. After four years of negotiation the Mercers’ Company purchased all its property for just over £960. The Hospital’s church of St Thomas became Mercer’s Chapel. As part of the sale, the Mercers agreed to continue to support the school which had been attached to the Hospital. This became Mercers School which operated until 1959. The Mercers’ also, uniquely among London’s livery companies, agreed to maintain a chapel in their Hall with a regular public liturgy. Today the Mercers’ chapel offers two public sermons each year, at Lent and Advent, which anyone can attend. While all the Becket images were removed from the old Hospital at the Reformation, in 1554 the statue of St Thomas Becket was briefly reinstalled above the door of the new Mercers’ Company Hall, although it was frequently vandalised before being taken down under the reign of Elizabeth I.

Mercers Maiden (Corbet Court)
Origin/Date: Image source
© Dani Middleton

In the 19th century the Mercers’ Company became interested in its history as the birthplace of Thomas Becket, and it was (wrongly) thought that Thomas’ father Gilbert Becket had been a Mercer. Tennyson’s popular play ‘Becket’ was dedicated to a prominent Mercer family, and the Company commissioned new stained glass windows for their chapel including one of Becket. The Hall was bombed in 1941 during the Second World War, and the rebuilt offices were named Becket House. A plaque on the site is based on one of the Becket’s head pilgrim badges. From the 1960s the annual election of the Master and Wardens was changed to the first Friday after the Feast of the Translation of St Thomas (7 July). More recently in 2012 a group of Mercers and members of staff walked from Mercers Hall to Canterbury Cathedral to raise money for charity and to reconnect with Thomas Becket.


In England since the twelfth century, a chapel has meant either a part of a church containing an altar and used for worship, or a free-standing building used in a similar way. It can also mean a place of worship in a private house. The term comes from the ‘capella’ or cloak of St Martin, a major relic in France, the name of which was first applied to the building where the cloak was kept and eventually to other religious buildings.


A talk which provides religious instruction or exhortation.

Chaucer, Geoffrey

(c.1342-1400) English author, poet, administrator, courtier and diplomat, who’s most famous work is The Canterbury Tales.


Term given to the movements of church reform which in the 16th century resulted in Protestantism. The Reformation took different forms in different parts of Europe, sometimes being promoted by rulers, as in Germany and England, sometimes expressing itself as a popular movement. While different reformers promoted different doctrines. They were united in their rejection of pilgrimage and visual images which were viewed as idolatrous and superstitious, their emphasis on salvation through faith rather than the sacramental systems, masses and good works and their desire to promote the study of the Bible and the conduct of worship in the vernacular. The origins of these reforms can be traced to religious movements in the Middle Ages, such as the English Lollards. The criticisms of Protestantism provoked a time of reform within the Catholic Church usually known as the Counter-Reformation and expressed in the pronouncements of the Council of Trent (1562-3).  

Thomas Becket

 English Archbishop (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162) and martyr, famously murdered by knights at Canterbury Cathedral after a dispute with Henry II. Miracles were soon recorded at his tomb. Canonised in 1173, his shrine became one of the most popular pilgrimage centres in Christendom. Patron saint of London with St Paul.

Queen Elizabeth I

(1533-1603) Queen of England from 1558. Re-established the Protestant Church of England after the reign of her Roman Catholic sister Mary.


A merchant trading in luxury goods, particularly fabrics and cloth. More specifically, a member of the Worshipful Company of Mercers set up as an association of such merchants.

Where at this courte it was declared & shewed by all Maister Wardeins howe that theye
were all sende for before my Lorde Chauncellour beinge the Bysshope of Winton

[Winchester] for the consernynge an image of Saynte Thomas of Canterbury that somme
tyme stode over the grete churched dore in the street, the whiche was takeyn dowen a xv
or xvj yeres paste by Maister Cromewelles comaundemente, and a maydenes heade of
stone sette in the place, whiche nowe remaynethe in the waye house of silke under our
haulle, and also for the celebraction of the daye of Sainte Thomas of Canterbury as it hath
bene before a xx ti yeres paste, before the companye pourchased the churche thenne named
Sainte Thomas of Ackeres. After the coirte hadde harde Maister Wardeins speke and
declare my Lorde Chauncellours commaundemente, theye all of oon voice agreed and
graunted that the saide maydens heade shalbe taken downe oute of hande and an image to
be graven in stone &newe made & sette vpe in the same place ouer the churche dore. And
also the company to meate in the churche beneathe in theire lyuere whoddes on the
morrow & theire here messe, because it is Sainte Thomas of Canterburyes daye in
Christenmes weke, whiche was so done & accompleshed accordinglye
London Court Records, 1554