You’ve probably heard Lancastrians – wherever they are around the world – mention events that are ‘once every Preston Guild’. How long we’ve been using that phrase is open to debate, but some Prestonians alive today have seen at least four of these celebrations.
The most recent Guild was in 2012, and was a great success, commemorating in style an event with its origins in Plantagenet times. More than 800 years on, Preston Guild is the only such event still celebrated. This unique occasion is a fine example of the strength through tradition that the city thrives on today.
History of the Guild
It was Henry II who first granted Preston’s right to hold a Guild Merchant by royal charter, in 1179. He allowed an organisation of traders, craftsmen and merchants to trade goods and services of only the best quality, those burgesses swearing loyalty to the Mayor and Guild Merchant in a public court. The rigorous standards proved to be part of the success, those merchants wishing to be involved, paying a fee and being closely scrutinised. In time, gatherings for membership renewal became increasingly rare with renewals only accepted once in a generation – hence the gap between events.
Since 1542 Guilds have been held once every two decades, with large crowds gathering in Preston to mark this major date on the regional calendar - a time for feasts, processions and great social gatherings. And while 1790 saw freedom of trade allowed - abolishing the event’s original purpose - Preston continued to celebrate its Guild, its festivities becoming prestigious social occasions and remain so today.
Entertainment and Social Evenings
The Guild always drew large crowds, wealthier visitors attending concerts and plays or watching horse racing on what is now Moor Park, while ordinary people enjoyed circuses, fairs, travelling comedians and exhibitions of curiosity. These popular spectacles included balloon ascents and tightrope walking with world famous tightrope artist, Blondin proving a big hit as he seemed to defy gravity on Preston Marsh in 1862.
The celebrations also included concerts by famous performers, plays featuring nationally renowned actors, regattas on the Ribble, and firework displays on the Flag Market.
Evening events were crucial to the Guild’s success, the Mayor presiding over all manner of lavish entertainment, including masked and costume balls for the county’s leading figures and members of society. The guests expected to be entertained in grand style - no expense spared - and they weren’t disappointed. The highlight of Guild week was a great Mayoral banquet after the opening day’s civic procession.
Past, Present and Future
Records of 26 Guilds survive along with eye witness accounts dating back as far as 1682. The only ‘missing’ Guild was the 1942 event postponed for a decade, due to the second World War.
Generations of Prestonians have always voiced fears that the next Guild wouldn’t be as good as the previous, however records suggest a triumph every time, including September 2012’s celebrations, described as the ‘Best Guild Ever’ by a Lancashire Evening Post headline.
It isn’t just about history and strict tradition, the Guild is updated each time to encourage new events and ways of celebrating. However some elements remain as they were, not least the central theme of the renewal ceremony in the Guild Court, as old as the event itself.
In fact, that spirit of both change and continuity has been a major hallmark of the event over the past eight centuries, and hopefully it will continue to be the case for many more Preston Guilds to come.
Image: Trades Procession, 1972 Guild