Medieval London

Guildhall Common Chest

Guildhall Common Chest.png

Guildhall Common Chest

Fig. 1 - This image depicts the Guildhall chest made of iron, steel, and wood. Containing six handles, six padlocks, and six keyholes (paired with six different keys) and standing at 840 mm high, 1390 mm long, and 790 mm wide, the chest stored civic documents and city seals in the basement of the London Guildhall.

The Guildhall common chest pictured here remains a symbol of civic authority for the city of London. Created in 1427, this chest was utilized by the Mayor and city officials throughout the fifteenth century. Made of iron, steel, and wood, and standing at 840 mm high, 1390 mm long, and 790 mm wide, it is a rather large chest, especially when compared to others used domestically during this period. There are handles on each of its sides for easy transport, although it remained stationary for most of its time in the basement of the Guildhall.[1]

If the common phrase “a picture speaks a thousand words” holds true, then the composition of an object in medieval London spoke ten thousand. The materials used to create the Guildhall chest are prime examples, as they offer insight into the object’s biography. Artisans known as joiners were well-known in the city of London for their woodwork, and a particular area of expertise for members of this guild was constructing the wooden lining for furniture objects and chests.[2]

The Iron Chest at Guildhall.png

The Iron Chest at Guildhall

Fig. 2 - This image depicts the open London Guildhall chest, in which the three hidden keyholes under the padlocks are shown. There is also an inscription in the chest which references John Barnes, the Mayor of London who supposedly gifted the chest to the Guildhall, although his dates do not match the chest’s appearance in 1427.

Casket Key of Medieval Date.png

Casket Key of Medieval Date

Fig. 3 – This key found in London was made in c. 1150 and used to both lock and unlock caskets. Formed from a copper-alloy, its shape and design were similar to those used to open chests at this time, such as the Guildhall common chest. From the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Joiners, though far from the highest rung of the social ladder, were respected by the King, who had a personal joiner to develop wooden linings for different objects during the early half of the fifteenth century. These artisans lived and performed their craft in London, evidenced by their wills at the Husting Courts and other locations in the city.[3] Though the identity of the creator(s) of the Guildhall chest remains unknown, it may have been a joiner named Simon Beld, who was recognized for his work in 1427 and held the title of “Master of Joiners,” a prestigious position in the guild.[4]

Another group of artisans that the King kept close to him were the coffer-makers, who were called upon to create chests for the royal court. An example of this was the many chests developed by William Green during the reign of Henry VIII.[5] These artisans also made civic chests for government officials, and it is possible they had a part in the development of the Guildhall chest.

Though wood was used to line the chest, iron plates were incorporated to structure it.[6] These plates helped with design, preservation, and allowed the chest to remain stationary. In addition, much of the object’s intrigue centered around the composition of its six locks and keys, which gave the chest a rather bold appearance.[7] The amount of locks and keys affiliated with the Guildhall chest also distinguished it from others during this time.

The chest contains six padlocks, three on its outer surface, and three on its inner surface (fig. 2). These padlocks, and the keys to which they were originally paired, are all made of iron. To construct and preserve the locks and keys to a chest of this size, locksmiths would typically conclude their molding process by brazing these items, which preserved them from rusting using a copper and zinc alloy (fig. 3). This process was not solely limited to locksmiths during this time, as blacksmiths styled many of their objects in the same way.[8]

Medieval Manuscript of the Landing of the Dame de Courcy at Boulogne.png

Landing of the Dame de Courcy at Boulogne

Fig. 4 - This detail depicts the landing of the Dame de Courcy with her personal court at Boulogne, France. There are three chests that accompany the court, two of which are sizable and one of which is smaller and more personal. From BL, Harley 4380, fol.189v (between c. 1470 and 1472).


The Agas Map of Early Modern London.png

The Agas Map of Early Modern London

Fig. 5 – This detail of the so-called Agas map depicts the location of the Guildhall between Aldermanbury, Ketton Street (now Cateaton Street), and Balyngs Hall (now Basinghall Street) from a bird’s-eye view. Wrongly credited to cartographer Ralph Agas, the original Agas map of c. 1561 no longer exists, and this detail is from a later version made in 1633.

These locks and keys were constructed with care and expense because the chest was employed to keep records important to the Mayor, Aldermen, and other civic officials.[9] To secure these records, six different men were in possession of the keys: three Aldermen and three other city officials.[10] If the Mayor or any other civic leader in London wanted to open the chest, the six officials in possession of the keys had to be present. Thus, both the location and structure of the chest were designed for civic exclusivity.

Other chests that were similar in size and structure were utilized in different locations throughout the city, such as the chest used in the Chapel of London Bridge in 1444. In addition, wealthy citizens owned chests for domestic purposes, as demonstrated by the inventory of Richard Lyons, a successful businessman in late fourteenth-century London.[11] Figure 4 illustrates the domestic use of chests among those of high social status.

This chest was created during a period of renovations in the Guildhall that began in 1411 and lasted well into the fifteenth century. Many structural changes took place, such as the removal of the Guildhall chapel, and the surrounding area became known as “the new Guildhall precinct” (fig. 5).[12] It is likely the chest remained an object of civic security at the start of the early modern period in London, as there were continuous records of its keyholders throughout the end of the fifteenth century.[13]

Today, the Guildhall chest resides in the Museum of London, a physical display of civic longevity and historical prominence. It is owned by the Corporation of London, Joint Archive Service, which represents London’s governing body.[14] The preservation of the chest alone symbolizes the value of the object to the city, as it was constructed nearly 600 years ago. In withstanding the test of time, the Guildhall common chest offers insight into the priorities of medieval London’s civic officials.


[1]“Guildhall Common Chest,” Museum of London Collections Online.

[2]Lutkin, “The London Craft of Joiners, 1200-1500,” 132-133.

[3]Lutkin, “The London Craft of Joiners, 1200-1500,” 129.

[4]Lutkin, “The London Craft of Joiners, 1200-1500,” 159.

[5]Hayward, “William Green, Coffer-Maker,” 1-2.

[6]“Guildhall Common Chest.” Museum of London Collections Online.

[7]Eames, “An Iron Chest at Guildhall of About 1427,” 3.

[8]Egan, “Security Equipment,” 89-90.

[9]“Guildhall Common Chest,” Museum of London Collections Online.

[10]Barron, “The City Courts,” 134-135.

[11]Eames, “An Iron Chest at Guildhall of About 1427,” 2-3.

[12]Bowsher, “Introduction,” 8.

[13]Barron, “The City Courts,” 135.

[14]“Guildhall Common Chest,” Museum of London Collections Online.

Works Cited

Barron, Caroline M. “The City Courts.” In London in the Late Middle Ages: Government

     and People 1200-1500, 121-146. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Bowsher, David, Tony Dyson, Nick Holder, and Isca Howell. “Introduction.” In The

     London Guildhall: An Archaeological History of a Neighbourhood from Early Medieval to

     Modern Times, 1-10. London: Museum of London, 2007.

Colson, Justin. Review of The London Guildhall: An Archaeological History of a 

     Neighbourhood from Early Medieval to Modern Times, by David Bowsher, Tony Dyson, 

     Nick Holder, and Isca Howell. Reviews in History(June 2009).

Eames, Penelope. “An Iron Chest at Guildhall of About 1427.” Furniture History 10,

     (1974): 1-4.

Egan, Geoff. “Security Equipment.” In The Medieval Household: Daily Living c. 1150 – c. 

     1450, 88-120. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2010.

“Guildhall Common Chest.” Museum of London Collections Online., accessed Oct.

     16, 2020.

Hayward, Maria. “William Green, Coffer-Maker to Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I.” 

     Furniture History 36, (2000): 1-13.

Lutkin, Jessica. “The London Craft of Joiners, 1200-1550.” Medieval Prosopography 26, 

     (2005): 129-164.

Works Cited - Images and Captions

“Casket Key of Medieval Date.” York Museums Trust., accessed October 14, 2020.

“Guildhall Common Chest.” Museum of London Collections Online., accessed

    October 14, 2020.

“The Agas Map of Early Modern London.” Social Sciences and Humanities Research

    Council of Canada., accessed October 26, 2020.

“The Iron Chest at Guildhall.” The Furniture History Society., accessed October 14, 2020.

“The Landing of the Dame de Courcy at Boulogne.” British Library Catalogue of

    Illuminated Manuscripts.

    8459, accessed October 14, 2020.


Guildhall Common Chest
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