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Something of this process can be gathered if we look briefly to the Petition of Right. This document, justly famous in English history, also has a unique place in Bristol’s local history. In August 1628 the city’s two members of Parliament, John Doughty, an alderman, and John Barker, who had been mayor in 1625–26, brought into the Council House “six paper books containing the several arguments made in the Parliament house of the liberties of the subject,” which the council “thought fit” to be “entered into some of the register books of this citty there to remain of record forever.”[1] Why were the councillors so interested in these debates?

Much of the answer lies in the nature of the events that originally provoked the Petition of Right. Since war with Spain and France depended on sea power, Bristol, England’s second port, inevitably found itself in the thick of the action and thus bearing what its magistrates considered a disproportionate share of the burden. They were required to lay out money to supply the king’s ships and to offer him the services of their own, all without timely payment or clear purpose. Again and again they found themselves dutifully answering requests from the Privy Council for the pressing of sailors and staying of ships, only to be faced with countermanding orders and with seemingly inexplicable administrative confusion and delay.[2] As merchant shipowners deprived by the wars of the late 1620s of their principal markets, they could do little else with the ships, their main capital resources, except engage in privateering, which brought their enterprises into conflict with other naval activities and brought them into all too frequent dealings with the corruption of the Lord Admiral’s agents.[3]

Wartime frustrations had been building in Bristol from the inception of Charles I’s reign to the summoning of the 1628 Parliament, as the actions of naval commanders, press masters, Admiralty officials, and the like became increasingly intrusive. The climax came in the winter of 1628, when Captain William Buxton, under orders from the Admiralty, attempted to press into royal service seven of Bristol’s best ships and eight barques, totaling about eighteen hundred tons and carrying four hundred and forty-four men and one hundred and six pieces of valuable ordnance. The owners of two of the vessels refused to fit their ships, saying they would “not disburse any money in setting them forth.” The “stubbornnesse” of these two men, Giles Elbridge, son-in-law and partner of Robert Aldworth, and Humphrey Hooke, already a prominent councillor and leading Merchant Venturer, encouraged others to resist. Buxton found himself unable to complete his orders without paying “theise stiffnecked people” for everything in advance. “[F]or if possible,” he said, “I will not be behoulding to none of this towne for the smallest courtesie.”[4]

The crisis of 1628 hit the city’s merchants hardest. They wanted relief from the heavy fiscal burdens of the war,[5] and by the summer of 1628 all those who were owed large sums by the Crown had begun what can only be called a lenders’ strike. On 22 August, the very day the six paper books were registered in Bristol, the mayor wrote to the Privy Council that until the debts were repaid “noe man will contribute to any further charge.”[6] But the Bristol merchants were prepared to undertake some necessary burdens, such as guarding the coasts against piracy, provided they were guaranteed in advance that their costs would be met by the Crown. In June, for example, they had set forth two ships on condition that the expense would be covered by the Exchequer from the proceeds of the first two subsidies recently granted in Parliament. Indeed, the city’s two members of Parliament had brought this good news with them from Westminster, along with the arguments in Parliament that they wished preserved in the city’s records.[7] No wonder the leading common councillors found the issue of liberty as expressed in the Petition of Right so worthy of special treatment.

The Bristol magistrates’ concern for the “liberties of the subject” carries with it some important implications about their idea of the state. These men saw themselves in a coordinated relationship with the central government, with which they were jointly to preserve order and protect the subjects. They were willing to accept state power so long as it helped them perform these vital functions. Order to them meant the union of authority with property, a union expressed in their own leadership of their community, and they feared any use of state power that threatened this union. For this reason, no Bristol magistrate was anticipating an all-out breach with the monarch in defense of community against the encroachments of the king’s officers upon the city’s body politic. Many of the councillors, however, were concerned about the best way to distribute power between the local and the central authorities for the preservation of order and property, and in the later 1620s they feared that the unrestrained exercise of royal power might result in social chaos.

The same sense of danger to hierarchical order also troubled them in the 1630s, when a plague of royal commissions seeking concealed prizes and unpaid customs descended upon them in the aftermath of the Spanish and French wars. The commissioners, acting “as lords and judges over them, as if all law and justice lay in their hands,” threatened the networks of cooperation and deference in the city. They forced merchants to tell what they knew “of others their friends and partners…[w]hereby some are constrained (for discharging of their consciences) to accuse one another.” Even worse, they “tempted” the merchants’ factors, servants, and seamen “to accuse the Marchants and owners by whome they liue and are maintayned.”[8] Hence the Bristol magistrates faced the question of political choice by concentrating on what would best promote the maintenance of the national polity as they had come to understand it. For most of them, this was a polity in which men who had roots in the community, not strangers with few local ties and little comprehension of local conditions, properly exercised authority for the king. The Bristol magistrates envisioned a political world in which community and state were related to one another as parts to the whole, not as opponents. In this sense they measured the events of the early years of Charles I’s reign against the model of society made evident in Elizabeth I’s visit to Bristol in 1574 and confirmed in Queen Anne’s visit in 1613.[9]

The responses of the Bristol magistracy to the events of 1628, then, could not become the city’s first step along the “high road to civil war,” since the motives behind them were linked to ideals of hierarchical authority. Though these men were harshly critical of current policies, their grievances did not provide a firm footing for systematic opposition to the Crown. Even their experience in the 1630s of intrusions and usurpations by Charles I and his agents could not force them into rebellion against their king. When the Civil War finally came to Bristol in 1642 and 1643, the majority of the common councillors, and others of similar social and economic position, sided with the king against Parliament. Their long, if tumultuous, association with the Crown as its suitors and servants, culminating in the Merchant Venturers’ receipt of their new letters patent, seems to have anointed their loyalty with the chrism of self-interest. As Sir Ronald Syme tells us of another era of revolution, “liberty and the law are high-sounding words. They will often be rendered, on a cool estimate, as privilege and vested interest.”[10]

But words have a political efficacy of their own, since politics depends in part on how the parties express the issues. In this instance, the words used were corrosive of the very regime of privileges and immunities which those who uttered them sought to uphold. To secure for themselves the “liberties of the subject,” the Bristol common councillors adapted to their purpose a well-established procedure for registering the royal concessions and favorable judicial rulings affecting their corporate franchises.[11] By making the six paper books “of record” they showed their intention of using them as precedents in the law courts at Bristol and Westminster against future encroachments and usurpations by the Crown. But in doing so they transformed the nature of the issue from one of communal privileges and immunities to one of individual and collective legal rights. In a sense, they saw their particular problems as part of a larger dilemma of fundamental law affecting everyone, not as a series of separate challenges to them alone that were to be met one at a time using makeshift defenses.[12] Is it too much to say that these Bristolians—for a brief moment at least—conceived that their English liberties preceded their burghal rights? And that their civic franchises alone could not protect them against the arbitrary actions of the Crown or its officials? If most of these men saw their interests as allied with the king in 1642, that hardly diminishes the importance of this “declassification” of liberty, as J. H. Hexter has called it.[13] It represented a profound and irreversible shift in the conception of contemporary political problems that entered the general political culture, made it possible to juxtapose the claims of authority to those of rights, and—as we shall see—affected Bristol’s affairs in the ensuing period.

In Bristol, relations between the town authorities and the Crown had long worked at cross-purposes. They not only linked the local community to the English state but drove a wedge between the increasingly dominant faction in that leadership and the larger community over which it ruled. As we know, the roles of mayor, alderman, and common councillor served to separate the officeholders from the body politic at large and to give them advantages in dealing with the state on matters vital to their private interests. For members of this merchant elite, the later 1620s and the 1630s had been a period of conflict with the Crown that had ended in accommodation. Other groups in the city were not so fortunate, since they lacked the political resources of the Merchant Venturers. After 1634, for example, the city’s soapmakers had no one of their Company in the Bristol Corporation. Nevertheless, their difficulties with the Crown were just as great as those of the merchants. First, the royal patent granted to the Society of Soapmakers of Westminster resulted in a sharp cutback in legal soap production in Bristol; then the king’s impost on soap almost destroyed the industry in the city. By the late 1630s only four of eleven soap-houses survived in Bristol, and a full dozen of the soapmakers were lodged in Fleet Street prison for nonpayment of the impost. Yet no one from the Bristol Corporation came to the aid of the soapmakers. As a result, several prominent Bristol soapmakers struck private bargains with the Westminster company and the Crown, leaving their fellows to struggle to find a livelihood, a task made all the more difficult by the Merchant Venturers’ new charter, which deprived them of the right to trade overseas free of Merchant Venturer control. Such were the disadvantages of exclusion from civic office.[14]

The various Bristol responses to the summoning of the Long Parliament also show the existence of a divided community in pre–Civil War Bristol. When Parliament was summoned, the freeholders of the borough, namely the members of the Corporation and a few others of similar social rank, selected two Merchant Venturers, Alderman Hooke and Alderman Long, to sit for the city. In January 1641 these men were presented with the two grievances Bristol’s Common Council wished redressed in Parliament: the violation of Bristol’s rights as a staple town for trade in wool, and the actions of those persons who had given false or misleading information to the king about the merchants, causing them “to be Pursuivanted up and unjustly handled and ill dealt with.”[15] In other words, the grievances were the complaints of the narrow merchant group that dominated the city. But the excluded members of Bristol’s community did not go unheard at this time. In October 1640, as the Long Parliament was about to be elected, “a great number of burgesses of the Citie” petitioned the Common Council for the right to vote in the parliamentary elections. This renewed a request made as recently as 1625, which the council had denied. The result was the same in 1640. The Corporation preserved its hold over parliamentary elections.[16] In the absence of evidence naming the petitioners or information about whom they wished to elect, it would be a mistake to overinterpret this petition. Nevertheless, knowing what we do of the social and political structure of Bristol in the Elizabethan and early Stuart period, we can be reasonably certain that among the main beneficiaries of the requested change would have been precisely that excluded group of retailers and manufacturers whom the Merchant Venturers had sought to oust from foreign trade, since they vastly outnumbered the Merchant Venturers among the city’s freemen.[17] The petition called upon the same principles of freeman’s rights and community values that this group saw as being violated by the Society’s privileges. In 1571 their predecessors had responded to the Merchant Venturers’ monopoly with a similar de mand for the right to vote in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.[18] The redress they wanted involved gaining access to the one institution they might use to counter the wide political influence so long enjoyed by the Merchant Venturers.

For ordinary citizens as well as magistrates, the social and political changes of the previous century or more could not be completely covered by Bristol’s ancient traditions. The burghal rights of the former and the civic authority of the latter were now too deeply enmeshed in the institutions of the state and too dependent on events and developments occurring far from Bristol itself. Accommodation of differences would have to occur in a much wider field. The resulting division was deeply ideological. It touched the way various Bristolians understood their social and political world. What mattered was the distribution of authority, the capacity to rule. For one group the social order was arranged in a hierarchy headed by the monarch, with whom the local governors were associated as his lieutenants. In this view the requirements of justice provided that each rank receive its due according to its proper place in the hierarchy and that authority be concentrated at its head. On the other side, the principle of hierarchy, while hardly rejected, was subject to considerations of community and legal rights. Authority depended on recognition and acceptance by those over whom it was exercised, and justice demanded that the community’s governors act for the commonweal, which could override the claims of individuals or particular groups. Any claim for privileges and immunities at the expense of the rights of fellow citizens violated this rule. In consequence, what was necessary and proper in the first view might be a sore grievance in the second.


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