previous chapter
Looking Backward
next section

In the early modern period, political ideology normally was never far from religious outlook. Was there a religious dimension to the factional conflicts that had developed in Bristol from the middle of the sixteenth century? Although the prehistory of the Merchant Venturers is centered on a religious gild and its chapel, nothing we have learned about the earliest stages of the disputes between the monopolists and their shopkeeper and craftsman rivals suggests that differences about doctrine, liturgy, or church government might have colored the rivalry. There were certainly many in the city who desired further reform in the church and others who wished to return to the comforts of traditional practices, if not the authority of the bishop of Rome. For example, Roger Edgeworth, writing at the height of the Reformation, saw a city in which

som wil heare masse, some will heare none by theyr good wils, som wil be shriuen, som wil not, but for feare, or els for shame. some wyll pay tithes & offeringes, some wil not, in that wors then the Iewes which paid them truly, and fyrst frutes & many other duties besides. Som wil prai for the dead, som wil not, I heare of muche suche discention among you.[19]

But these differences did not play themselves out in controversies over the merchant monopoly in the second half of the sixteenth century. When Edgeworth lamented the dissension caused by the Merchant Venturers’ 1552 charter, it was not because he favored one side or the other for its religious views, but because he saw social and political conflict to be undermining the communal harmony he deemed essential to a proper religious life.[20] Moreover, the Common Council during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I seems to have been dominated by godly men of a moderate Calvinist outlook, who viewed the Anglican settlement as the exemplum of what Patrick Collinson has called “the religion of Protestants.”[21] The ministers they selected for town lecturerships, such as Thomas Thompson, Edward Chetwyn, and Thomas Palmer, certainly seem to fit this mold.[22]

But there was an important intellectual link between the desire to maintain the art of merchandise as a separate craft and some forms of religious conservatism. As Roger Edgeworth viewed the matter in the mid-sixteenth century, those in the priesthood, no less than in any other occupation, needed training and skills. Just as a tailor ought not to meddle in the work of a Merchant Venturer, and a shoemaker ought not to practice the grocery trade, the priesthood should be left to those called to it. “I have knowen many in this towne,” Edgeworth said, “that studienge diuinitie, hath kylled a marchaunt, and some other occupations by theyr busy labours in the scriptures, hath shut vp the shoppe windowes, faine to take Sanctuary.” What was needed instead was “a true instructour, not infected with wylful and newfangled hereseyes.”[23] Edgeworth’s reason for believing so was that Christ had distributed his gifts “as doth please his goodnes…to some more of them, to some fewer and not so many.” To some God had given “knowledge and cunning in spiritual causes, to some in temporall matters, to some learning in physicke, to some in surgerye, to some in handy craftes, to some in marchaundise or in such other occupying.”[24] In each craft, moreover, some were more fit to lead than others.

As if there should be a matter of the trade of marchaundise to be intreated of among the marchauntes of this citie, if there came in a marchaunte of graue and longe experience, all the others woulde geue eare and lysten to his talke, and would be gladde to followe his counsell.…Euen so it is in matters of higher learnynge pertaining to our soule[’s] health.[25]

Hence those in Bristol who believed in the priesthood of all believers were as wrong in their outlook as those who interloped on the trade of the Merchant Venturers.

For conservatives like Edgeworth there was a strong link between God-given skill and divinely ordained authority. Without authority, such figures were convinced, there would be nothing but disorder. “Experience teacheth,” Edgeworth argued,

that a great housholde wythout good officers is a troublous and vnruly busines. For where there is no quiet order of the subiectes among them selues, and of theym all in theyr degree toward theyr great mayster, soueraygne or ruler, euery man taketh his owne way, and so foloweth streife, brawling, and variaunce, and at the last destruction. The housholder must be fain to breake vp houshold if his folkes amende not. The great housholder almighty god hath a great & chargeable familie, that is the vniuersal multitude & company of al mankinde, which thoughe he could rule at his plesure accordinge to his own wil, yet it hath pleased him to put an order in this houshold, som head officers, som mean, som lower in auctoritie, som subiectes & seruantes.[26]

In such a social order everyone was “to do his office in his degree” and to cherish and help his fellows in safeguarding the whole. This view, of course, was but a commonplace of sixteenth-century social theory, as codified, for example, in the famous “Homily on Obedience.”[27] Most Bristolians, like most other Englishmen, would have accepted its general premises and its broad conclusions.

But could ardent Protestants make its details consistent with the doctrine of justification by faith or election, which focused on the individual Christian’s relationship to God, not on the special skills of the priesthood? If so, could they also make its claims on behalf of a strict division of labor among the crafts consistent with the principles of justice owed to all Bristol freemen according to the spirit of civic brotherhood? Unfortunately, nothing in the evidence for the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I tells us how Bristolians answered these questions or shows us that those who responded to the first of them in opposition to strong claims of clerical authority consistently answered the second in opposition to the Merchant Venturers’ monopolistic claims. Given the complexity of these issues, we can hardly expect a clear-cut pattern to have appeared. However, by the 1620s and 1630s the city’s sociopolitical factions may possibly have taken on some characteristics of a religious rivalry, although the evidence is extremely fragmentary and must be viewed with caution.

We can see such a rivalry surface, perhaps, in the election for mayor contested between Robert Aldworth and Christopher Whitson. Aldworth and some of this supporters seemed to have favored the Laudian or Arminian position in the church and would have found Edgeworth’s view of the world congenial to themselves. Aldworth himself was a distant kinsman of Archbishop Laud.[28] In the 1630s, he and some of his allies favored church beautification and church music in their wills.[29] Unfortunately, we know nothing directly about Christopher Whitson’s religious views, though the use of the word “puntuall” to describe him may hint that his enemies viewed him as a Puritan, overly precise in his morality and public observances.[30] It is also possible that his cousin, John Whitson, was favorably disposed toward Puritan views, at least at the end of his life. The moral and religious reflections he left behind at his death and his charitable bequests conform nicely in thought and action to many teachings of Puritan divines.[31]

A bit more is known about Christopher Whitson’s brother-in-law, Mathew Warren, clothier, whose election to the mayoralty in 1633 also was disputed by Robert Aldworth and thirteen other Merchant Venturers.[32] In Queen Elizabeth I’s reign Warren had been servant to William Tucker, clothier, who as mayor in 1571 led the fight against the Merchant Venturers’ monopoly.[33] Warren’s wife was probably active in Rev. William Yeamans’s circle of Puritans, which met regularly in his house in St. Philip’s parish to discuss sermons and difficult matters of Bible interpretation; she and many others from this group were important sectaries after 1640 and later became early Quakers. Mathew Warren was also tied to George Bishop, one of Bristol’s leading sectaries of the 1640s and 1650s.[34] Most of the members of Yeamans’s group were small shopkeepers and craftsmen, exactly those most likely to see injustice in the Merchant Venturers’ monopolistic pretensions. But since they were not common councillors, their role in disputed municipal elections was, at most, indirect.[35] Although we have no direct evidence of Warren’s own involvement in Yeamans’s meetings, we can see that in his relations with his family and with the city’s craftsmen in the cloth industry he lived in intimacy with some of its most faithful attenders.

This evidence suggests, but only very tentatively, the possibility that the different social visions of the rival parties in Bristol sometimes went together with membership in different religious camps. Some of the monopolists, with their strongly hierarchical views, tended toward Arminianism, while some of the anti-monopolists, with their strong sense of a brotherly fellowship of freemen, tended toward a community-minded Puritanism and even toward what Patrick Collinson has called “voluntary religion.”[36] However, we are looking here at the extremes in the religious spectrum. They illustrate the ideological and cultural forces at work in the city, not the actual distribution of religious opinion among the various groups. It would be wrong to think that the majority of leading overseas traders were likely to be high churchmen while the majority of their opponents tended to be sectaries. Instead, difference in outlook turned on the relative weight given in each quarter to the demands of order and of fellowship. Divergent views on these issues could be readily expressed within the bounds of orthodox Calvinist Protestantism. We can see this point in the 1639 chamberlain’s election, where the evidence of religious affiliation is ambiguous and confused.

William Chetwyn was the cousin of Edward Chetwyn, former city lecturer and late dean of the Bristol Cathedral chapter, who died only months before the October 1639 chamberlain’s election. As we have already noted, Dean Chetwyn was an old-fashioned Calvinist.[37] He possessed a good library of Puritan books, including a Geneva Bible and the works of William Perkins, and he had strong views on the limited authority of bishops. He was also the brother-in-law of Sir John Harington of Kelston, whose Christian humanist learning and moderate Puritanism are well known. Edward’s son, moreover, was an outspoken Presbyterian in the 1640s and 1650s.[38] Hence it is possible that some of the opposition to William Chetwyn arose from the city’s Arminians in disagreement either with him directly or with his cousin and his cousin’s family. He certainly seems to have received little support from the old Aldworth clique, even in the first of the two elections, despite his apprenticeship to one of its leading members.[39]

If it was Chetwyn’s religious affiliation that drove opposition to him, however, support for Ralph Farmer was a poor way to have shown it. His patron, the earl of Berkshire, was hardly a friend or ally of Archbishop Laud or his party; indeed, he was rather the opposite. In April 1639, Laud had written Viscount Wentworth describing Berkshire as one of the “miserable builders” in the king’s council, working “at Babel,” “a very thin tree in a storm, and he will soon be wet that shelter there.”[40] Farmer, for his part, seems to have been anything but a Laudian. He was an “Independent” in the 1640s and later a Presbyterian.[41] Finally, there seems nothing in William Chetwyn’s service in the chamberlain’s office from 1639 to his death in 1651 to show obvious religious partiality.[42] He was almost certainly no Arminian, or he probably would not have survived the parliamentary purge of Bristol’s government in 1645, but he also does not appear to have been an outspoken Puritan, since he remained in office during the Royalist occupation of Bristol from 1643 to 1645, when the crown removed the leading Puritans and parliamentary supporters from their civic offices. Overt doctrinal differences seem distant from the rivalry between Chetwyn and Farmer.

Nevertheless, we cannot dismiss the importance of religion even here, at least for some common councillors. It was Chetwyn who had well-known connections to a prominent clergyman whose orthodox Calvinist views would have been very familiar to the Bristolians from the days he had lectured to them on “The Strait Gate and the Narrow Way” and other subjects, and it was Farmer who had the backing of the king. For those leading Spanish and Mediterranean merchants who were emotionally and intellectually committed to hierarchical order in society and the beauty of holiness in liturgy and who understood their authority in the city to descend from God and the king, the choice between Farmer and Chetwyn would not have been a difficult one. They could vote but one way, even if they knew of Farmer’s dependence upon the earl of Berkshire and of Berkshire’s rivalry with Archbishop Laud. Laud and his followers, after all, were hardly likely to back Chetwyn even to thwart the patronage of the “thin tree” they so despised.

The choice would have been more difficult for the rest of the Common Council, whether they were content with the moderate Calvinism that had prevailed in the Anglican hierarchy before Charles I’s reign and that still engaged most Englishmen or whether they favored further reform in the church, since it required them to weigh their respect for the king’s nomination against their own commitment for or against Chetwyn. In the highly charged atmosphere of this election, the choice was likely to be made ideologically, depending on whether or not the voter honored the role of royal authority in overseeing the city more than the civic community’s liberty to decide the matter for itself. Yet no well-developed rules existed for making such a choice. The king and the community were understood to be joined in harmony in the body politic, not to be opponents or enemies. They were believed to receive mutual benefits from their union, not losses on one side to balance gains on the other. Ordinarily a choice between king and community never arose. Among the councillors who switched their votes in the second election—to Chetwyn from his previous opponents, and from Chetwyn to Farmer—the necessity of deciding between competing values, mixed with the need to make judgments regarding their own self-interest, must have posed a major dilemma. Out of such ethical ambiguity we cannot expect to find intellectual clarity.

We come away with a picture of Bristol in the 1630s as a city in which small but significant groups of high churchmen, many of whom where wealthy Spanish and Mediterranean merchants, and proto-sectaries, the vast majority of whom were shopkeepers and artisans, lived in a place populated by moderate Anglicans, for whom the potentially competing ideals of order and community remained in what at times became an uncomfortable equipoise, exemplified as much in the small disputes over local politics and commercial organization in the city as in the great controversies of church and state.


previous chapter
Looking Backward
next section