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These views were especially attractive to those among the Merchant Venturers who focused their trade primarily on Bristol’s southern markets, where the drive to maximize profits from imports was especially strong. These traders, who numbered in their ranks the city’s richest and most powerful men, were the leaders of the Society. However, men who devoted the majority of their trade to the northern markets, where bulky items with low profit margins were preeminent, would not only have been rather less threatened by the trading activities of the so-called rich retailers but somewhat less inclined to see the economic world in terms of a rigid hierarchy of crafts. Trade in salt, canvas, naval stores, and other goods that came from the French coasts and the Baltic simply did not lend itself to systematic differentiation of the economic functions of merchant and retailer, since the primary market for many of these products was the merchant community itself. At the same time there were always Merchant Venturers who valued their relations in the city at large as much or more than their devotion to the Society’s ideals or their connections with particular members and who therefore were reluctant to press their demand for monopoly to the point of lasting conflict with their fellow Bristolians. But among the leadership of the Merchant Venturers, the dominating view in this period and for decades to follow was the one articulated by John Browne. Restricting each art and craft to its proper bounds alone would benefit Bristol’s commonweal.

Not all Englishmen, and certainly not all Bristolians, agreed with the view of the proper urban social and economic order that prevailed among the Merchant Venturers. Many of the retailers and artificers saw freedom to trade—their “wonted libertye”—as a natural concomitant of their status as burgesses, secured by their freeman’s oath. At the end of Elizabeth’s reign Thomas Dekker’s London comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday presented in dramatic form just such a vision of urban life. There Dekker tells the story of Simon Eyre, the simple London shoemaker who rose to wealth and the lord mayoralty through his good fortune in the merchants’ trade. It is a fantasy of social mobility and urban achievement. Pretending to be of great standing and credit, Eyre bought at a bargain a rich cargo of sugar, almonds, and other luxuries imported to London by a debt-ridden merchant who needed a quick sale. Eyre’s progress to greatness depended on the special customs of London—still in force, though perhaps in modified form, at the time Dekker wrote his play—whereby every freeman of London enjoyed the right to buy and sell by wholesale any goods that came his way. Hence he could also change his occupation from craftsman to trader, even though he had not apprenticed in his new calling.[30] Late medieval Bristol had operated by somewhat similar rules, at least as regards the right to engage in overseas commerce. All freemen could do so without hindrance. As we have seen, in the fifteenth century Bristol’s merchants still traded by retail as well as wholesale.

Those excluded from foreign trade saw the Merchant Venturers’ monopoly as usurping the ancient rights of citizenship and those who performed this act as violating the bonds of community. “O mercifull lorde god,” some of them had lamented after Thomas Chester had obtained the Society’s monopoly in 1566,

who wolde have thought that Mr Chestre beyeng a free Citizen borne and sonne unto the naturaleste Cytizen that was in Bristol in our tyme…wee say who wolde have thought that Mr Thomas Chestre by name wolde consent to have the cytie of bristowe made bond.…[W]hat hath happened to thee o bristowe, bondayge bondaige and mysery for before Bristol withall for inhabitaintes were free and theyre lybertie alwayes to sende theyr goodes unto the sees.[31]

This language represents a very early expression of the arguments mounted time and time again by Elizabethan and early Stuart lawyers and parliamentary debaters in attacking monopolies. By granting an exclusive right to trade to particular individuals, it was said, a monopoly deprived free men of their livelihoods and thereby turned them into villeins or slaves.[32] Even the merchants recognized the strength of this view and were obliged to accept its underlying premise. The existence of ancient rights was in no danger from their corporation, they alleged, because

no man is exempted that ever occupied the seas, but such as voluntarily sequestered themselves from the same, for every retailer, leaving off his retailing, may be a merchant, so that he will content himself with the only trade of merchandise.[33]

But they would not yield the main point. For them, overseas trade was a separate craft.

In this way two rival concepts of the urban community found particular expression in 1571. The Merchant Venturers envisioned a society in which specialized economic functions were arranged in hierarchical order, with foreign commerce at the pinnacle. The retailers and manufacturing entrepreneurs saw all freemen of the city as members of the same undifferentiated legal and economic group, all possessed of an equal right to trade abroad. The struggle between these views, which had previously coexisted in the city’s culture of community and authority, remained the recurring theme of local politics for the next century or more.


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