Visit Historic London
The City and the Silver Trade
Join us on a walk through the ancient and iconic City of London. Established in circa AD 43 as the walled Roman settlement “Londinium”, this “Square Mile” of history is the original commercial centre of Great Britain and birthplace of English hallmarked silver.
London’s Square Mile – A City within a City
The City is an ancient financial and trading district within London, home to the Bank of England, St Paul’s Cathedral and The Assay Office. Its unique constitution, built on ancient rights and privileges, allow it to run its own affairs with an elected Lord Mayor and assembly. Historically the City’s importance and wealth were rooted in trade and the City Trade Guilds, numbering over 100 at their peak, had a major say in the way the City was run. Even today the City retains many colourful traditions dating back across the centuries, not least of which is the annual Lord Mayor’s Show when the newly elected Mayor must leave the safety of the City, travel upriver to Westminster and swear loyalty to the King.
The London Silversmiths
The London goldsmiths’ prominent role in City affairs emanated from their numbers, wealth, and international reputation. A significant factor was their power, granted by the Throne, to supervise the quality of the country’s coinage and to superintend goldsmithing across the country.
The rich and eminent citizens of London have always created a constant demand for gold and silver objects. These decorative pieces not only signified wealth and status but also, prior to the start of banking in the 17th century, were a form of monetary reserves which could be melted to generate funds, or simply to create modern pieces as fashions changed.
A fifteen minute stroll from our shop in the London Silver Vaults takes you to Cheapside. Throughout the Middle Ages this busy shopping thoroughfare was known as Goldsmiths Row, and packed with shops retailing fine gold and silverwares fashioned in workshops congregated in the adjoining back lanes. The Goldsmith’s Hall built in 1339 in the heart of the Goldsmith’s area was ideally situated to keep a watchful eye on the trade workshops and retail shops.
The Fortunes of the Silversmiths
The history of silver in London is as old as the city itself. The first silver coins were minted here during the Roman period and by the 12th century, there was a flourishing silver industry in London. Throughout the centuries the fortunes of London silversmiths have fluctuated, mirroring the continuous, often dramatic events in the capital.
16th Century. The Dissolution (1536-1541) was one of the most momentous changes in London’s history when Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries, seizing their valuable treasuries and land. The Goldsmiths began to accumulate significant stocks of gold during this period; this was the first activity in what later came to be known as banking. Silverware remaining from this early date is rarely found outside major institutions and museums. The Goldsmiths Company’s fine collection, including rare pre-1600 examples is viewable to the public on Open Days.
During Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603) enormous sums of money were invested in the works of the goldsmiths when all chalices were replaced throughout the realm by Royal command. This resulted in mass destruction of old Church plate. Of the Elizabethan chalices remaining today we are proud to offer examples for sale from time to time such as the 1573 silver chalice in our archive.
17th Century. A very turbulent time. The Civil War (1642-46) and resulting Commonwealth Period (1649-60) forced silversmiths to find alternative employment, many turning their skills to producing military wares, others becoming soldiers. The Restoration, when Charles II was crowned in 1660, resumed demand for fine quality silverwares by the King, aristocracy and gentry who needed to replace the amount of silverware destroyed by melting. Then followed three disastrous events for the goldsmiths’ trade namely the Plague (1665), the Fire (1666), and the closing of the Exchequer by the king in 1672, which ruined many of the banker-goldsmiths. The 1680’s saw the arrival of the Huguenot refugees in London, fleeing persecution in France and bringing such masters of their craft as Paul Lamerie, Paul Crespin,
and Lewis Mettayer.
The 17th century has left us a legacy of fine silverware of which we regularly offer good examples such as the 1617 James I Wine Cup, 1649 Commonwealth Porringer and 1667 Charles II Salver.
18th Century. The turn of 18th century (1685-1714) was marked by the coronation of 5 successive monarchs, another revolution, and the Jacobite risings. The Georgian period (1714–1830) followed which saw the creation of great wealth and stability resulting from the expansion of the British Empire and Industrialisation. London was now the largest city in Europe and silver was freely available to wealthy gentry and merchant classes, the silver production was prolific and the grace and artistry of the designs became ever more exceptional. By now, fine gold and silverwares were viewed as objects to be enjoyed and passed down to further generations. A fine and proud legacy.
The exceptional master silversmiths from this period are far too numerous to be listed in this small space however we could not finish without mentioning the world famous Paul de Lamerie, Paul Storr and Rundell, Bridge & Rundell. We are proud to have offered examples by these outstanding artists such as the 1732 George II Salver by Paul de Lamerie and the 1817 Wine Cooler by Paul Storr.
London is still home today to some of the world’s most renowned silversmiths and silver products. Silver is a major part of London’s history and culture, and it will continue to play a role in its future.
The Goldsmiths Hall
Our first stop is Goldsmiths Hall, the home of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, one of the Twelve Great Livery Companies of the City of London. The Hall was built in Foster Lane, the heart of the City’s goldsmiths area, shortly after the Company received its first royal charter in 1327.
The Company has powers, duties and privileges granted by monarchs since the Middle Ages giving it the right to enforce good standards within the trade and supervise regulation over provincial goldsmiths. The term ‘Goldsmith’ refers to a worker in both gold and/or silver.
The main roles of the Company are:
– To protect consumers through the Assay Office and test the coinage of the realm
– To support the trade through apprenticeships, training, education and promotion
– To fund and support the Goldsmiths’ Company Charity
– To contribute to life, work, education and culture in the City of London;
– To secure the long-term future of the Company and its activities.
The London Assay Office carries out many essential duties in order to enforce the legal requirements imposed by the Royal Charters:
1. Silver Standard. In 1158 Henry II declared the alloy of silver 92.5% and base metal 7.5% to be the legal standard required of British coinage and silver artefacts. This was named “Sterling Silver” and has continued in use until today with the exception of 1696-1720 when the higher Britannia Standard of 95.8% silver and 4.2% base metal was obligatory.
2. Hallmarking. All items sold within the UK with elements of gold, silver, platinum or palladium are legally required to be hallmarked by the assay office.
The hallmarks required are:
– Leopard’s Head – mark of the London Assay Office
– Date Letter – the alphabetical mark changes annually and identifies the year of manufacture
– Lion Passant – this was introduced in 1544 and indicates that the metal is of sterling standard. When the finer Britannia standard is used the “Britannia” and Lion’s Head Erased marks replace the Leopard’s Head and Lion Passant. Since the year 2000 the purity mark has been replaced by “925” and “958”.
– Maker’s Mark. Goldsmiths and silversmiths are required to have their unique mark struck on all their wares. From 1697 onwards Goldsmiths Hall has preserved a complete record of maker’s marks.
3. Royal Mint. An annual examination of coins manufactured by the Royal Mint, known as the Trial of the Pyx, is carried out.
4. The Antique Plate Committee meets every month to check silver items suspected of having contravened the Hallmarking Act.
Apprentices and Charity
The system of apprenticeships started in medieval times. An apprentice learnt his trade by working for a master silversmith for a fixed term, usually 7 years, before obtaining his freedom. Apprentices often began at age 12 and frequently lived at their master’s house, given room and board, but earned no money. The Goldsmiths Company kept a record of all indentures on stipulation that each apprentice should be able to read and write.
The Company continues to play an important role in funding apprenticeships and assisting with the technical training of aspiring craftsmen. It has also created The Goldsmiths’ Centre, a unique community in the heart of Clerkenwell, providing training and workspace to goldsmiths, silversmiths and allied crafts.
In keeping with the original objectives of the medieval craft guilds, The Company supports a wide range of charitable areas and pursues a number of educational projects.
The 1681 Destruction of the Silver Makers Record
A fire at Goldsmiths Hall destroyed all records of workmen’s marks when the south west wing of the building were burned down. Until recently, the only way of matching a name to an early silver maker’s mark was from old records such as the inventories of noble houses and other institutions.
An important initiative in identifying the lost makers’ names is the study by Dr David Mitchell, supported by Goldsmiths Hall, which was published in his 2017 “Silversmiths in Elizabethan and Stuart London”. This reference work attributes names to 540 previously unidentified marks.
This is one of London’s hidden architectural treasures. It has a splendid frontage with tall Corinthian columns and rich decoration, and the interior is laid out with sumptuous rooms available for venue hire.
The Goldsmiths Company owns a historic collection of silver dating from the 15th century to 1990 and includes internationally renowned masterpieces, including work by Paul de Lamerie and several fine pre-1600 examples.
The Hall is not open to the public except during the annual Goldsmiths’ Fair and other promotional events for contemporary jewellers and silversmiths. A number of Open Days are held during the year when guided tours of the Hall are arranged.
The Royal College of Arms
A short walk from Goldsmiths Hall, past St Pauls Cathedral, and down towards the river bank takes us to the attractive building which houses the Royal College of Arms, the oldest active heraldic institution in Europe. Silver and armorials have been linked together since heraldry evolved during the mid-12th century. The precious silver metal is soft and easily worked, and the sparkling background reflects the intricately engraved detail adding extra depth. It’s no surprise that historically silverwares have always been regarded as a perfect medium to display wealth and power.
Traditionally, as silver was viewed as a form of currency, the additional expense of armorial engraving would only be undertaken when a piece was specifically intended as a family heirloom or to be given to a church/institution. Accordingly, it was normal practice for goldsmiths to produce new pieces with blank shields which could be hand engraved later with a coat of arms.
There was a heightened interest in heraldry during the Tudor and early Stuart periods (1500-1625) as new families rose to power and wished to show off the family’s distinguished lineage. John Guillim’s monumental work “A Display of Heraldry” was published in 1610, an immensely popular work which was reprinted many times and continued the popularity for heraldic silver engraving, but it was not until the Restoration in 1666 that the production of high value silverwares resumed and the beautiful and elaborate armorial engravings that we admire so much today started to appear.
Heraldry evolved during the mid-12th century, when fighting men became unrecognisable inside their suits of armour to both friend and foe alike, and the practice soon emerged of decorating the armour and shield with a design that was unique to that particular person. Heraldry grew into a science with its own unique language and system of laws to regulate and record it accurately which has continued to the present day by the heralds of the Royal College of Arms. New coats of arms have been granted since the fifteenth century to individuals and corporate bodies by the senior heralds.
In medieval times, heralds were part of the royal household and from 1420 the royal heralds had a common seal and acted in some ways like a corporation. In 1555 Queen Mary granted the charter under which they now operate together with a building just a 3 minute walk from St Pauls Cathedral. The original building was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666 but thanks to the College’s close proximity to the River Thames the world famous library archive was evacuated by river barge into safe keeping. The present College stands on the same site and dates from the 1670s.
Function of the Royal College of Arms
The Royal College of Arms, or Herald’s College, is the official heraldic authority for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and some Commonwealth realms. The heralds are appointed by the Royal Sovereign and have the power to act on behalf of the Crown in all matters of heraldry. Their work includes the granting of new coats of arms, genealogical research and the recording of pedigrees. The College maintains meticulous registers of all heraldic activities, Royal Licences, changes of name, and flags. Besides having ceremonial duties, it advises on all matters relating to the peerage and baronetage, precedence and honours.
The College comprises thirteen officers or heralds plus seven officers extraordinary who take part in ceremonial occasions (such as the recent funeral of Queen Elizabeth II) but are not part of the College. The entire corporation is overseen by the Earl Marshal, a hereditary office always held by the Duke of Norfolk.
The Tower of London
Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London, built by William the Conqueror in 1078, lies on the eastern edge of the Square Mile of the City of London on the banks of the River Thames.
This iconic castle has served as a royal palace, a political prison, a royal mint, a fortified jewel house, a place of execution, an arsenal, a menagerie, and a public records office.
Lovers of early silver should not miss the opportunity to view the Royal Banqueting Plate on show in this spectacular castle protected night and day by the Yeoman Guard.
The Jewel House
The Jewel House was purpose built to house the royal regalia, a lavish collection of jewels, silverwares, and symbols of royalty such as the crown, sceptre, and sword. In 1649, following Charles I’s execution, the contents of the Jewel House were disposed of and the metal items were melted down and re-used.
On the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the only surviving items of the coronation regalia were the exquisite 12th-century Annointing Spoon and three swords. Ritual feasting with a dazzling display of silver was regarded as an important assertion of the king’s wealth and status so Charles II immediately commissioned new banqueting and ceremonial church plate from the London goldsmiths. These items, together with the regalia used by the monarch during the coronation service, are all considered part of the Crown Jewels.
The Collection’s important Church silver includes altar dishes and chalices in gold and silver-gilt which together form one of the most ornate collections of seventeenth-century church plate today.
The Crown Jewels are the most powerful symbols of the British Monarchy and hold deep religious and cultural significance in our nation’s history. They are still regularly used by the Monarch for important national ceremonies, such as the State Opening of Parliament.
The Royal Mint
The Romans invaded Britain in AD 43 and started to mint coinage in London (and elsewhere). After the end of the 4th century, when Roman rule came to an end, minting didn’t resume in London until circa AD 650. In AD 886 Alfred the Great issued silver pennies with his portrait and this is generally regarded as the start of the continuous history of the Royal Mint.
Edward I installed a centralised Mint within the safety of the Tower’s walls in c1279 and most of the coins of the realm were made there in a dedicated area that became known as Mint Street. In 1810 the Mint moved out of the Tower to a new building on Tower Hill, then to its present home in Wales in the 1960s.
Once a year The Trial of the Pyx is performed, a traditional procedure held since the 12th century. The jury is composed of freemen of the Company of Goldsmiths, who assay the coins provided to decide whether they have been minted within the criteria determined by the relevant Coinage Acts.
The Tower is the ceremonial regimental headquarters of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in addition to the resident governor and the yeoman warders, or “beefeaters,” who still wear a Tudor uniform and live within the Tower. The Yeomen guard the Crown Jewels and guide tours for the two to three million annual visitors. At least 6 ravens are kept at all times, they have clipped wings following a tradition dating from the time of King Charles II (1660–85) which said “should the ravens leave the Tower, the fortification and the state will fall”.
The London Silver Vaults
Visit Us in Vault 31-32
Our base in the heart of historic London uniquely compliments our stock of early silver. Our inventory includes examples handmade by London silversmiths hundreds of years ago in their workshops a few minutes walk from our shop. Silver is a major part of London’s history and culture, and it will continue to play a role in its future. A fine heritage which we’re pleased to be a part of.
History of the Vaults
The London Silver Vaults is a vast subterranean market area located on the edge of the City in the heart of the medieval legal area. It’s easily reached by car and public transport from most locations and car parking is available locally. Please note that the entrance is on Southampton Buildings, London WC2A 1QS.
The LSV opened as The Chancery Lane Safe Deposit in 1885 and originally rented out strong rooms for the wealthy to hold household silver, jewellery and documents. A few years later it transitioned to housing silver dealers in secure premises.
With 1.2-metre (3.9 ft) thick walls lined with steel, the vaults were never broken into. Even when the building above was struck directly by a bomb during World War II, the vaults remained undamaged despite the building being destroyed. A new building, Chancery House, was constructed ten years later, and since 1953 it has been in its present format, with shops based underground. It is said that it has “the largest single collection of silver for sale in the world”, contained within more than thirty shops.
Chancery Lane & Environs
Chancery Lane is a focal thoroughfare for the London legal profession, running between Fleet Street and High Holborn. This legal area, on the extreme edge of the City, grew up in the late 13th century when schools of law became prohibited within the City boundary.
The Inns are where lawyers traditionally lodged, trained and carried on their profession and over the centuries the four Inns of Court became where barristers were trained while the more numerous Inns of Chancery trained solicitors. It’s fascinating to wander around these historical buildings and relax in their leafy courtyards and squares, far detached from the modern world and the busy City. The nearest Inns to the LSV are Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn and Staple Inn and a short stroll downhill takes you to the Royal Courts of Justice.