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The connection of the Merchant Venturers to the membership of the city government that had sustained their Society through its long sojourn in the institutional wilderness after 1571 also made possible their great success in 1639. Merchant domination of the city government resulted in such a close alliance that in the decade preceding the issuance of the 1639 charter the Society and the city government almost formed an interlocking directorate. During these years, for example, Alderman Humphrey Hooke held the office of master for six years, and Alderman Richard Long for two more. In the same period, Hooke and Long each served as mayor for one year, with Long’s term coinciding with one of his two years as master. Alderman Richard Holworthy also was simultaneously mayor and master during this period. Moreover, when Parliament was summoned, it was the same merchant leadership that was sent. In the early Stuart period, Merchant Venturers held both Bristol seats in every session, except in the 1625 Parliament and the Short Parliament, when the city’s recorder served along with a Merchant Venturer. Alderman Hooke sat in both the Short and the Long Parliament, and Richard Long sat in the Long Parliament with him.[89]

Although there were certainly differences in outlook among the Merchant Venturers, with some more committed than others to the Society’s monopolistic policies, control of the city government gave their corporation enormous advantages both at home and in Westminster. As we have seen, not only could the Merchant Venturers count on the Common Council to sustain their Society’s activities, as it did in passing the ordinance of 1605 and again by granting the wharfage duty, but it also often acted on the Society’s behalf when favors were sought from the national authorities, as in 1621 and 1624, when the Society attempted to regain its monopoly through a parliamentary statute, and again in the 1630s, when its letters patent were under challenge.[90] These efforts were supported to a considerable degree by the wider membership of the city’s elite, in part because many who were not members of the Merchant Venturers enjoyed close family and business ties to merchants of the fellowship. For example, among the nine aldermen who in 1621 signed the certificate sent to Bristol’s members of Parliament in support of the Merchant Venturers’ claims to monopoly, one was a soapmaker, one a mercer, one a brewer, and two, identified only as yeomen, were probably innkeepers.[91] At least three of these men also had close family ties to leading Merchant Venturers. In other words, by the 1620s a measure of peace appears to have been achieved in relations between the Society and the elder statesmen among the shopkeepers and artisans. Nevertheless, resistance to the Merchant Venturers’ claims to monopoly survived down to the Civil War and beyond. As we have already seen, opposition arose after the Common Council’s attempt in 1612 to restrict overseas trade to mere merchants. Even the compromise of 1618 did not end the controversy. The aldermen’s certificates in support of the Society in 1621 and 1624 attest that some retailers and craftsmen continued to resist the Society by participating in overseas trade without joining its membership or submitting to the 1618 ordinances. Only with the Merchant Venturers’ victory of 1639 did the Society reacquire the necessary powers to end these challenges.

These controversies only rarely found their way into local electoral politics in Bristol. Because high city offices such as mayor or sheriff were costly to hold, a practice of rotation was commonly followed by which nearly every common councillor was selected as he became the most senior figure who had not yet served. Moreover, the council itself was so heavily dominated by the Merchant Venturers that their rivalry with the retailers and manufacturers rarely could surface there. Nevertheless, this rivalry did manifest itself occasionally in the period. The election of Christopher Whitson to the mayoralty in 1626 can serve as our illustration.[92]

Whitson appears to have been among the leading protesters in 1612 against the Common Council’s ordinance excluding retailers and manufacturers from overseas trade; and, as we have already seen, he became one of the few redemptioners admitted to the Society after the Merchant Venturers had been forced to liberalize their admissions requirements in 1618. Not surprisingly, his place in the city government excited dissension from the mere merchants. When he was proposed for sheriff in 1613 a dozen votes were cast against him, an almost unheard-of occurrence in elections for this burdensome office. Although not all of this opposition came from Merchant Venturers, Whitson’s main adversaries were a closely linked group of great Spanish and Mediterranean traders, longtime proponents of the monopolistic ideals of the Society, who were led by Alderman Robert Aldworth, perhaps the richest and best-connected Bristol merchant of his generation. Whitson may also have been behind the resistance to the Merchant Venturers’ appeals for monopoly in the parliaments of 1621 and 1624 and the subsequent demand for the vote by all the freemen in the elections to the Parliament of 1625.[93] In any case, by 1626 the leading Merchant Venturers thought of Whitson as an overly “puntuall” man, as was said by one of them, rigid in outlook, whom the leading Merchant Venturers could not trust to act in their interests.[94]

Whitson’s main rival for the mayoralty in 1626 was Aldworth himself, who was nominated by the outgoing mayor, John Barker, a Merchant Venturer in Aldworth’s camp. Analysis of the final vote shows the leading Spanish and Mediterranean traders on the council pitted against the retailers and manufacturers. Aldworth received nineteen of the forty-two votes cast; seventeen of these came from Society members. Whitson received twenty-two votes, only eight of which were from Merchant Venturers.[95] The division among the Merchant Venturers is revealing in its own right. The eight votes from Society members for Whitson came from lesser members, men who traded primarily in the bulky and less profitable wares of the Baltic, Normandy, Brittany, and the Bay of Biscay. They were in the following of Alderman John Whitson, Christopher’s powerful cousin. John Whitson’s own rivalry with Aldworth and his clique went back to the beginning of James I’s reign when, as we have noted, Whitson was the only Spanish merchant in Bristol willing to accept the newly refounded Spanish Company, including its apparent welcoming of retailers and craftsmen into the Bristol branch.[96]

These rivalries between the mere merchants and their anti-monopoly opponents penetrated deeply into the structure of politics in Bristol in this period, becoming in the process a foundation for controversies seemingly very distant from the main arena of conflict. Take, for example, what happened in 1639 when the city needed to elect a new chamberlain. By letters patent of 1499, the Bristol chamberlain, with duties modeled on those of his London counterpart, was to be elected by the mayor and the Common Council and to hold office during their pleasure. Because of his central importance as comptroller of the city’s revenues, agent in its dealings with the Crown, and enforcer of its economic regulations, the Corporation took great pains not only to assure that he would be a man of known character but to control his activities when he was in office.[97] Normally, the office was a source of strength in municipal affairs. In 1639, however, the death of Nicholas Meredith, who had been Bristol’s chamberlain for the previous thirty-six years, provoked a crisis with the Crown. At the election of his successor in October, eight candidates presented themselves, only four of whom received votes. The winner was William Chetwyn, a well-connected merchant, the choice of twenty-four of the forty-one councillors present.[98] Among the disappointed, receiving no votes at all, was one Ralph Farmer, gentleman, a minor official of the Chancery and an associate of the earl of Berkshire in the monopoly of malt kilns. At the time of the election, however, Farmer, though the son of Thomas Farmer, brewer, late alderman of Bristol, had not yet sought admission to the freedom of the city, possession of which was required for the office according to the city’s charters.[99] Nevertheless, before a month had passed the Common Council received an ominous letter directly from King Charles I, quashing the election on the grounds that Chetwyn was a man “out of this our realm” and that his election had been for private ends, “to the prejudice of common libertie.” In his place the king recommended “Ralph ffarmer a man not vnknowne vnto yorselves and by many of you much desired, of whose abilities & fitness we have receaved an ample testimony and assurance.”[100] Just how the king became cognizant of this matter is unclear. The common councillors placed the blame on Ralph Farmer himself, whom they accused of casting “some aspersion” on them by some “vndue suggestions” to the king.[101] But probably Farmer’s connection with the earl of Berkshire, recently sworn to the Privy Council, explains how he was able so quickly to obtain the ear of King Charles.

The Common Council’s reaction to the king’s letter showed prudence but determination. They immediately quashed Chetwyn’s election and replaced him with Farmer, who by now had become a sworn burgess of the city. But at the same time they appointed a committee to go forthwith to the court to insure that “the City…stand right in his Majesty’s opinion.”[102] The upshot was a petition to the king describing what they had done in response to his letter, denying that the councillors had acted in any way out of faction, reminding him of the city’s charters, confirmed by him, which placed the right to elect the chamberlain in the hands of the mayor and the Common Council, and asking that he “ratify” the first election or permit them to proceed to a new election between Chetwyn and Farmer. When the king ordered a new election, Farmer received eighteen votes, including those of the mayor and two sheriffs, while Chetwyn again received twenty-four votes.[103]

Curiously, the forces at work in this election show social and political cleavages similar to the ones we have seen at work between Aldworth and Whitson. In the first vote in October, no identifiable faction supported Chetwyn or any of his active opponents.[104] But at the second election fifteen of Farmer’s eighteen votes came from leading Merchant Venturers, including four who had previously voted for Chetwyn. This shift made Farmer the candidate of the mere merchants, including the surviving members of the Aldworth clique, many of whom had been named to the Society’s powerful Court of Assistants in its recent charter. Chetwyn’s supporters came from a wider range of occupations, including, besides merchants, mercers, brewers, drapers, and grocers. Although fourteen of Chetwyn’s votes also came from Merchant Venturers, most of these were northern traders, and less influential in the Society than were Farmer’s supporters. Quite surprisingly, the latter had spent most of the 1630s fending off one royal commission after another in search of unpaid debts owed the Crown or its officials.[105]

How can we explain this division? Unlike in the Whitson election case, the answer cannot be found primarily in the economic activities of the two candidates. Chetwyn himself was a well-connected merchant who had been a Merchant Venturer since before 1618; he had been apprenticed to one of Aldworth’s regular business partners. Farmer apparently did not engage in overseas trade at all. Rather, the deciding factor seems to have been the social horizons and aspirations of Farmer’s party. They were politically wary and politically adept men, dependent upon foreign trade and therefore upon the Crown and national policy for their economic positions. With the granting of the Merchant Venturers’ new charter in 1639, these individuals had received a great boon from Farmer’s nominator, King Charles I. To them it must have seemed only prudent to follow his leadership in filling the chamberlain’s office.


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