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On the central question of requirements for admission to the refounded Society of Merchant Venturers, the ordinance of 1605 endorsed exclusionary principles similar to those laid down in 1566 and upheld in the Spanish Company of 1577. But with a difference. It ordered that every burgess not already free of the Society who desired to use the “trade of marchandyzes” was to be admitted during the next year for a modest entry fine of twenty shillings, “geving over the exercise of all other trades occupations and professions of getting his or thire Lyvinge.” John Whitson and two other aldermen were appointed to enroll any who sought entrance under this ordinance, apparently in hopes of drawing the merchant retailers and the overseas trading artisans into the Society without a fuss. After this first year of relatively easy admission to the Society, however, all others who were neither the sons nor apprentices of current members were to be admitted only as redemptioners, paying much larger entry fines.[63] Whitson’s involvement in the enrollment of new members was intended to encourage compliance and tranquillity. From his recent experience in the Spanish Company and in James I’s first Parliament, where free trade had been such an important issue, Whitson accepted the principle that no Englishman could be deprived of entry into overseas trade so long as he would submit to its proper regulation. Indeed, Whitson was among the aldermen who approved Lawrence Hyde’s selection to the Bristol recordership in 1605, and Hyde, the scourge of monopolies in 1601, was the principal architect of the free-trade agitation in 1604.[64]

Reliance on a local ordinance rather than royal letters patent, however, made these new rules exceptionally vulnerable to political challenge from the Merchant Venturers’ old rivals within the city. By as early as 1612, if not before, they were in question from those quarters, and the Common Council found it necessary to give its prior consent to the drafting of a new Merchant Venturer ordinance providing that no mem-ber of the Society should “vse or exercise any other trade but onlye the trade of a merchaunte adventurer” so long as he used “the trade of a merchante” and that all who would practice the merchant’s trade must be members of the Society.[65] But this only stirred further controversy when economic conditions began to tighten at the end of the decade. By the summer of 1618 there were renewed difficulties in enforcing the Society’s ordinances, and the Merchant Venturers felt obliged to order that no inhabitant of Bristol should be considered a member of the Merchant Venturers unless he subscribed to its ordinances, was admitted in open court of the company and had his name entered into its register in the presence of the master, wardens, and assistants. In August the Society paid Nicholas Hyde, who had succeeded his brother as Bristol’s recorder in 1615, for his opinion regarding the “validity of the marchantes Charters,” further suggesting that the Society’s authority was under challenge.[66] We have no record of his views, but given the repeal of the 1566 statute and the subsequent record of legal decisions and parliamentary actions against monopoly wherever they appeared, it is hard to believe that Hyde would have found legal support for the monopolistic implications of the 1605 and 1612 ordinances governing membership in the Society. In any case, the upshot in 1618 was the adoption of a new strategy on this issue among the Merchant Venturers.

The Society’s new ordinances, perhaps drafted on Hyde’s instructions, offered membership to three categories of candidates: the sons or apprentices of mere merchants or those who served their apprenticeships with lawfully admitted redemptioners and were “ymployed in the trade and recourse of marchandize onely” during their terms; redemptioners; and the sons of redemptioners. The first were to be admitted at their own request, paying only a modest fine; the second were to enter only by vote of the Hall, paying a substantial composition established at a special meeting; their sons “exerciseing the trade of marchandisinge onelie and haveinge served noe apprenticeshippe therevnto” were treated as a special class, paying a forty-shilling fee in addition to the regular fees paid by the sons of mere merchants. Once a family was established as having redemptioner status, moreover, all its future members were to be subjected successively to this regulation.[67] These new ordinances also made room for the admission of retailers and artificers, since they provided that such individuals might be admitted “whilest they remaine Retailers or Artificers” for a fine at “a speciall Courte holden for that purpose.”[68] These new procedures avoided the legal shortcomings of the old; under them the Merchant Venturers could no longer be accused of maintaining an unauthorized monopoly. But making it necessary for retailers and artificers to win the approval of the present membership before admission meant that only those few individuals who were found acceptable to the majority of the Merchant Venturers would be allowed to enter.

Two other ordinances of 1618 were designed to tighten this control. Brothers of the Society were forbidden to join in partnership with Bristolians who were not members for the sale of any goods within the city or its environs. Similarly, ships’ pursers, factors, and attorneys employed by Merchant Venturers were not to act as agents for nonmembers. Violators were subject to a fine of £20 for the first offense and disenfranchisement thereafter. A second measure explicitly forbade Merchant Venturers to deal in partnership with any retailer or artificer for any merchandise to be transported to or imported from “anie the partes beyond the Seas.” Violators here were to lose 25 percent of the value of all illicitly traded goods.[69] These seemingly contradictory rules suggest that partnerships with retailers and artificers were the more common violation and could not be controlled effectively by the threat of disenfranchisement.

The same day these new ordinances were approved, the Merchant Venturers began, as we have just noted, a membership register, which listed seventy-two men who had been “legally admitted into the Societie.” In the following two years, eleven more Merchant Venturers were added, eight of them in the first year.[70] This influx suggests that the new ordinances confining overseas trade to members of the Society had had some effect. Four of the new admissions were redemptioners, that is, men who lacked apprenticeship in the “art of merchandise.” One had been trained as a brewer; two others earned their livings in part as manufacturers of methaglin, a distilled brandy made from honey usually imported from Brittany. One, Christopher Whitson, was also sometimes identified as a sugar refiner. All three had been resident in Bristol for some time. Whitson, cousin of John Whitson, had been a member of the Common Council since 1611.[71] Presumably these traders were admitted under the new rule governing retailers and artificers and were bound in obedience to the Society’s authority by their solemn oaths upon election. But it was not until 1647 that another redemptioner was permitted to enter.

The Merchant Venturers’ ordinances of 1618 attempted to establish a modus vivendi between Bristol’s mere merchants and its retailers and shopkeepers. By permitting a small number of the latter to enter the Society as redemptioners, they had removed the taint of monopoly that had shrouded the Merchant Venturers’ legal status and had thereby quieted the most serious complaints against their corporation. But they did not open the floodgate to newcomers. Participation in the most lucrative enterprises depended as much on what the structure of trade allowed as on the legal rights of the traders freely to pursue their interests. Hence, even though the concessions of 1618 could not completely end the overseas trading activities of nonmembers, by controlling relations among the Society’s membership and preventing partnerships with outsiders they could nonetheless limit the scope and scale of such activities. So long as Bristol’s commerce remained concentrated on the importation of exotic foreign wares from a small number of specialized markets, few merchant retailers or overseas trading artisans could successfully compete with the major wholesale merchants. Without the aid of the latter, they lacked the necessary shipping, the well-developed local connections, and the secure credit relations required to sustain large-scale commerce to those parts. In the aftermath of the loss of Bordeaux, the trade of Bristol naturally lent itself to oligopoly, whether or not the mere merchants could effectively maintain a monopoly through their exercise of political power.


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