In the early fifteenth century there was no question of Bristol’s place among English commercial cities. Although it could not hope to match the wealth and distinction of London, it was at the very height of its vigor, as was manifest in the grandeur and elegance of the church of St. Mary, Redcliffe, beautified by William Canynges’s benefactions. Indeed, Canynges, probably the richest Bristolian of this period, easily rivaled any merchant in the realm. Many of his Bristol contemporaries, such as Thomas Strange, Robert Sturmy, or John Jay, though hardly as wealthy, were themselves great merchants capable of risking vast fortunes in ventures into untried waters. But this picture is somewhat false, since from the middle of the century the foundations of this medieval prosperity had been shattered by events the Bristolians could not control.
Throughout the later Middle Ages Gascony was Bristol’s principal market. From the very start the demand for wine was at the heart of this traffic. It was imported through the city at least as early as King John’s reign, when it began to supplant the vintages of Picardy on the English table. During the fourteenth century, the relationship between Gascony and Bristol deepened as Bordeaux and other Gascon ports became major outlets for English cloth, with Bristol responsible for the largest part of this traffic. Indeed, in Gascony cloth and wine stood in symbiotic relation with one another, with the former serving as the principal medium of exchange used in acquiring the latter. In consequence, the trade levels in the two commodities displayed the same rhythm of upward and downward movement. To a large degree this pattern in Bristol’s trade persisted throughout the first half of the fifteenth century. To be sure, Bristolians were rapidly developing new commercial interests in the Iberian peninsula, especially in Portugal, but this expansion rested firmly upon the solid ground provided by the city’s Gascon trade.
The key to this long-term commercial relationship was its security. So long as Bordeaux and its environs remained the possession of the English Crown, English and Gascon merchants were specially protected in each other’s home districts. In peacetime the trade was as certain as the changing of the seasons. Each fall, large convoys of English vessels, sometimes amounting to fifty ships or more, could be expected to arrive for the new vintage. Small communities of Gascon merchants resided in Bristol and nearly every other English port that dealt with the wine districts, while, for their part, the English enjoyed advantageous trading rights in Gascony. At various periods, including most of the first half of the fifteenth century, the English were even able to trade their own wares duty-free in Gascony. In addition, the English king was anxious to sustain close and friendly relations with his prized French dependency. In times of dearth he invariably licensed shipments of English grain, even when supplies were scarce at home. With this guarantee of necessary food supplies, and with the certainty of a large English market in which to sell wine, the Gascons were free to devote nearly every available plot of land to the cultivation of the vine. In turn, the English supplied cloth as well as grain to Bordeaux and its environs. This trade provided the principal market for Bristol’s cloth merchants. Cargoes sent to Gascony consisted almost entirely of woolen fabric, with only small quantities of hides, fish, and coal making up the exports used to purchase wine. At Bordeaux this link between cloth and wine was so intimate that the one was often bartered directly for the other by Bristolians.
In the mid-fifteenth century, these ties were rent asunder by the English defeat in the Hundred Years’ War. The final stages took more than fifteen years to complete. Until 1438, the Bordelais itself had been relatively free of the devastation of war. But the destructive invasion of marauding bands of soldiers in that year ended this period of immunity, and an era of marked instability in trade ensued. In 1449 the battles were renewed almost at the very moment of the vintage. Bordeaux fell to the French in June 1451, only to be recovered in the autumn of the following year. Finally, in July 1453 the French again seized the city, this time for good. Although trade persisted at reduced levels throughout the period of fighting and immediately thereafter, in the fall of 1455 it was almost completely brought to a halt by French cutbacks in the issuance of safe-conducts to the English. The impact of this new policy was devastating. Between 1453 and 1455 Bristol had imported an average of over seventeen hundred tons of wine per year (Table 1). For the six subsequent years, however, imports were only half this figure. The cloth trade suffered the same setback, with an annual average shipment in the 1460s almost 40 percent below what had been common in the first half of the century (Table 2).
|Source: M. K. James, Studies in the Medieval Wine Trade, ed. E. M. Veale, with introduction by E. M. Carus-Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 112–15.|
|1475–1480||1,549 [o]||2,592||746 [n]||336 [p]|
|Mich.–Mich.||No. cloths||(% denizen)||No. cloths||(% denizen)||No. cloths||(% denizen)||No. cloths||(% denizen)|
|Source: Compiled from E. M. Carus-Wilson and Olive Coleman, England’s Export Trade, 1275–1547 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 97–111.|
These events had profound effects on Bristol’s commerce, making the third quarter of the fifteenth century the low point in Bristol’s late medieval economic history. A stable traffic was replaced by a trade subject to unpredictable interruptions and sharp fluctuations of volume. With the end of the war and the period of reduced commercial exchanges that followed, the change in the framework of Anglo-Gascon relations solidified. Although trade with Gascony did not cease entirely, Bristolians now dealt with it as foreigners in the territories of a former enemy, not as privileged parties in the dominions of their own king. At the same time, the Iberian trades grew in importance. At the end of the century, they easily rivaled commerce with France, taking the bulk of the city’s cloth and other exports and supplying a list of valuable imports, including wax, sugar, spices, fruit, iron, and dyestuffs, as well as wines. On this foundation, the fourth quarter of the fifteenth century witnessed the last flowering of Bristol’s medieval prosperity. After reaching a low ebb in the 1460s, the city’s trade figures bounced back to new heights by the 1490s. In that decade woolen exports achieved an average of sixty-five hundred cloths per annum and wine shipments were significantly higher than they had been in any period except the 1440s (see Tables 1 and 2). Other valuable commodities such as olive oil, woad, sugar, and spices also poured into the port. When judged by customs revenue for this period, Bristol was easily the third most important commercial center in southern England, outranked only by London and Southampton. Following the loss of Gascony, the focus of Bristol’s trade had shifted southward. Although Bordeaux and its environs still remained important to the city’s merchants, the diverse commodities of Spain and Portugal now had a greater attraction than before.