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Although after 1571 the Merchant Venturers’ letters patent still remained in their hands, available to be cited from time to time as a sanction for their corporate activities, the events of that fateful year put them in doubt, since the statute of 1566 contained a general confirmation of Edward VI’s patent. The repeal of the statute, accepted by the queen, left the original document in a curious state, vulnerable to various kinds of attack in the law courts.[72] For this reason much effort was devoted by the Society, still committed to the need for a monopoly, to reversing the events of 1571. In 1606, for example, only two months after Bristol’s overseas traders had separated themselves from the Spanish Company, the Merchant Venturers were seeking an exemption for themselves from the terms of the parliamentary act for “free trade” into Spain, Portugal, and France, which had opened Iberian commerce to all who would engage in it. Had they been successful, they would have reestablished parliamentary sanction for their local monopoly. But even though the measure was read twice, it failed to receive approval.[73] In the Parliaments of 1621 and 1624 the Society again attempted to secure itself, petitioning on these occasions for a confirmation of its charters and explicitly requesting the renewal of its earlier statutory monopoly.[74]

On these occasions they bolstered their case by analogy to the Exeter merchants, who unlike the Bristolians had managed to save their monopoly in the free-trade debate of 1606 because of the alleged antiquity of their charter, their service to the Crown, and their maintenance of almsmen, teaching of children, and other charitable works. “[I]n all which respects…wee doe equallize if not exceed them,” the Bristolians claimed in 1621, citing their overseas explorations, their provision of ships for Crown service, and their maintenance of an almshouse and a free school for mariners’ children. They could no longer support these works, they said, “vnlesse wee may obteyne lawfull aucthoritie for the better ordering of their trade” to end the losses caused by untrained shipmasters, mariners, and sailors, dishonest Severn boatmen, and, above all, “the indisscrecion and excesse of vnexperienced enterlopers.”[75] In support, the mayor and aldermen of Bristol provided a detailed certificate outlining the history of the merchants’ monopoly and arguing against the 1571 repeal act because it had been procured “by certeyne shopp keepers and tradesmen” when the mere merchants were weakened by great losses. Since the repeal of the statute and the opening of the Spanish trade at the beginning of James I’s reign, they alleged, many Bristol “shoppe keepers, and men of manuell occupacions, forsakeing their vsuall trades and exerciseing the traffique and recourse of marchandice being altogether vnexperienced therein, are fallen to decay.” By these means, and because the Merchant Venturers could not effectively regulate their own membership or seafarers who depended on overseas trade, the Society and the citizens of Bristol “are much prejudiced to the great hindrance of the weale and prosperitie of the same Citty, the Decrease of Navigation and the Diminucion of his Majesties Customes.” Hence, the mayor and aldermen heartily endorsed the Society’s petition for the renewal of its charters.[76]

Despite this impressive local support, all efforts to reestablish the Merchant Venturers’ monopoly through parliamentary statute failed. Here the analogy with Exeter is instructive, for, unlike Bristol, that city’s mere merchants had been able to accommodate their differences with the other freemen within a year of acquiring their monopoly privileges, which henceforth remained in place. The monopoly survived without a defeat in the courts or in Parliament. When the Exeter merchants asked Parliament to exempt their charter from the provisions of the free-trade measure in 1606, they had history on their side, and no angry local voices to challenge their claims.[77] In the national political climate of James I’s reign, during which the House of Commons placed monopolies of all types under the most intense scrutiny, an appeal by the Bristol Merchant Venturers, who lacked the advantages of their Exeter counterparts, for parliamentary restoration of their monopoly privileges was hardly likely to succeed.

So long as the Merchant Venturers’ authority remained a purely local issue, however, the support of the Common Council was sufficient to sustain it under most of the difficulties it might encounter. But in the 1630s the Merchant Venturers came under direct attack from the Crown, which threatened the very existence of the Society. The point of crisis was the so-called wharfage duty on imported goods, created by the Common Council in 1606 for the maintenance of the port facilities and collected after 1611 by the Merchant Venturers, who from that time expended the proceeds for their own purposes, as their principal source of revenue.[78] From the start there was a question about the legality of this new levy, but during the 1620s the Privy Council had given its support to uphold it.[79] In the mid-1630s, however, the Crown’s officers, searching for new sources of royal revenue, changed this policy in response to a complaint from the merchants of Barnstable.[80] By November 1637 the matter had become the subject of a formal inquiry conducted by a commission headed by the marquis of Hamilton, in which the rapacious and violent Lord Mohun, together with Robert Pawlett, Esq., and Charles Fox, Esq., acted as principal investigators. The terms of their commission included authority to inquire under what warrant wharfage had been imposed.[81] To the Merchant Venturers this was a frightening threat. Not only was their chief source of income under challenge, but their legal status was put in doubt as well, since inquiry into the warrant for the collection of wharfage duty called into question their authority to enforce their own ordinances. The marquis of Hamilton’s commission raised the possibility that the Merchant Venturers would not merely lose the wharfage duty, from which they could recover, but would be stripped of their enforcement authority and damaged beyond repair.

To guard against this prospect the Merchant Venturers and their supporters in the city government began a process of calculated delay. The commissioners’ primary interest was in the Society’s account books and other records. But the Society’s officers—with the aid of the town clerk, James Dyer, who was a well-connected barrister—contrived, by keeping these records from them, to provoke the commissioners, especially the notoriously ill-tempered Lord Mohun, into overstepping their authority. Dyer’s advice led to the arrest of the Society’s warden, while his own harsh words to the commissioners caused him to be placed under security to appear before the solicitor-general. But this “purposed opposition,” as Mohun called it, spurred the commissioners on to forcing entry into the Merchants’ Hall to seize the account books from their locked chest. And so the pot was stirred.[82]

These proceedings resulted in a letter of outrage from Dyer to Sir Edward Nicholas, by now a prominent privy councillor, who was an old and influential friend of the city. Next came a petition to the king complaining of the excesses of the commissioners, carried to London by a party of leading merchants among the aldermen and common councillors.[83] This in turn produced a hearing in the king’s presence at which Charles ordered the Bristolians and the commissioners each to present bills in Star Chamber detailing their grievances, in effect delaying further action. It was just the respite the Bristolians wanted.[84] The litigation came before Star Chamber in April 1638. At about the same time the Society decided to petition the king for a confirmation of its charter. Nothing is known of the negotiations, but approval came quite quickly; new letters patent were sealed on 7 January 1639.

This new charter not only brought the intrusive commission on wharfage to an abrupt halt but granted the Merchant Venturers new powers of enforcement, focused on a new Court of Assistants named in the patent, that guaranteed the Society’s ability to impose its ordinances even on nonmembers. The membership of this initial Court of Assistants is especially important, since to it were named those leading merchants whose trade had long focused on the Iberian Peninsula, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic islands, where the pursuit of high-profit imports was of preeminent importance. Since this body would perpetuate itself by co-optation, the Society was now securely in the hands of men fully devoted to the ideals of monopoly that had first emerged in the sixteenth century. The Merchant Venturers’ efforts, and an expenditure of £400, according to their Hall Book, had brought an end to the uncertainty about their legal position that had haunted them since 1571.[85]

With this authority, the Society set about drafting new bylaws, which were completed and approved on 4 April 1639. Many measures, such as the rules excluding retailers and craftsmen from membership without a special meeting of the Hall and forbidding members from acting in partnership with nonmembers, were repeated verbatim from the 1618 ordinances, though the Society’s new enforcement powers gave them added bite. In addition, all Merchant Venturers were required to refrain from selling any cloth or other goods or from buying any merchandise beyond the seas for the benefit of nonmembers, and all were forbidden to allow any but a fellow Merchant Venturer to freight ships with them. Finally, new inspection procedures were introduced to assure that shipmasters, mariners, and other seamen did not use their ancient privilege of lading their own trading goods aboard vessels in order to conduct illicit trade for retailers and manufacturers.[86]

The acquisition of the charter and the passage of these new ordinances seemed to end an era in the history of the Merchant Venturers. Once again the Society enjoyed the secure legal position and effective enforcement authority it had achieved in 1566. Although technically it did not have a monopoly, by controlling its own membership it could now keep nearly all shopkeepers and artisans from conducting overseas trade. The effect was immediate. By June 1639 the Society’s Court of Assistants was meeting to recover outstanding debts owed the Society for wharfage and other duties. On two days, twenty-nine individuals were summoned to the Merchants’ Hall to arrange for early payment. Twelve of them were not members of the Society at the time.[87] This new power in turn had an effect on the size of the Society’s membership, since it was now not only more difficult for nonmembers to engage in foreign commerce but also more beneficial to be a member. During the twenty-one years between the ordinances of 1618 and the charter of 1639, only sixty-three members had been added to the Society. But now, within three years, fifty-one overseas traders entered the fellowship, including five of the twelve men previously chastised for failing to pay their port duties.[88]


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