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The force of events in the 1640s, during which Bristol found itself the focus of contention by opposing parties both within and without the city, gave its politics a new and harder edge. But in the face of continued uncertainty on the part of many Bristolians about the best course to follow, political necessity and the opportunity for material advantage took the place of intellectual clarity in the debates. Given the effect of the Merchant Venturers’ 1639 letters patent on the trading activities of nonmembers, it is no surprise to find that the old rivalry between the merchant monopolists and the retailers and craftsmen resurfaced with the calling of the Long Parliament. As we know, from the very moment of its foundation the Society of Merchant Venturers had engendered bitter conflict within the city whenever it triumphed in its battle for effective monopoly powers. The attempt by some of the freemen to win the vote in the October 1640 elections is only the first hint of the troubles. Signs of the character of the political alignments appear in the fate of Aldermen Long and Hooke, Bristol’s members in the Long Parliament. In 1642 both were ousted from their seats for participating, along with many other Merchant Venturers, in Alderman Abell’s wine license. In 1645 the Long Parliament removed them from the municipal office as delinquents.[43] Their replacements, elected in 1642 under the same franchise as Long and Hooke, had similar histories. Both John Glanville, the city recorder since August 1630, and John Taylor, an alderman since January 1640, were adherents of the same social, economic, and political view held by the conservative leaders of the Merchant Venturers. Taylor went to Oxford when the king set up a Parliament there, and in 1645 he died in Bristol defending the city against Fairfax and Cromwell. Glanville, who had been Speaker of the Commons in the Short Parliament, also joined the king in Oxford in 1643, was disabled from future service by the Long Parliament, and was imprisoned for a time in the Tower before compounding for his delinquency. Bristol purged him as its recorder in 1646.[44]

According to John Corbet, minister in the city of Gloucester and ardent supporter of the parliamentary cause in this period, with the outbreak of Civil War Bristol was “much distracted” between the “well-affected and malignant parties,” with the “basest and lowest sort” together with “the wealthy and powerful men” supporting the “King’s Cause and Party,” while “the middle rank, the true and best Citizens,” were on the parliamentary side. “[T]he present state of things,” he says, “had taught men to distinguish between the true Commons of the realm and dreggs of the people, the one the most vehement assertors of Publike Liberty, but the other the first rise of Tyrannical Government and the foot-stoole upon which Princes tread when they ascend the height of Monarchy.” The shortcomings of “the needy multitude” he attributed not only to “their natural hatred of good Order,” but also to the fact that they “were at the devotion of the rich men,” who, he tells us, were “des-affected to reformed Religion” and “conscious of delinquency” and therefore “did much distaste the wares of the Parliament.” By implication, he saw the virtue of the true Commons resulting from their support of “good Order” in civic affairs, their independence from the patronage of the powerful, and their affection for “reformed Religion.”[45]

In offering this analysis Corbet refers specifically to events in December 1642, when Bristol was garrisoned by parliamentary forces under the command of Colonel Essex. Fearful that a garrison would make Bristol the target of attack from the king’s forces, the city government, already committed to the Western Association in support of Parliament, sought to man the fortifications on its own. As Corbet tells the story, Essex found himself blocked “by the multitude” at one of the gates and had to force his way into the city at a less well-manned place to which he received direction “from a Party within.”[46] But Corbet may also have been thinking of the events of the following spring, when a band of Bristolians, including the two sheriffs for the year, organized a plot to reverse these events by opening the city’s gates to Prince Rupert. The attempt was thwarted when a considerable number of sailors and portside laborers, along with many of the leading merchants, were arrested by Colonel Nathaniel Fiennes and his soldiers. Although there were certainly men of “the middling sort” in this conspiracy, its leaders came from that same group of Merchant Venturers who had supported Robert Aldworth in his bids for a second term as mayor in 1626 and 1633.[47]

Many of these men had also been behind the effort in the spring and fall of 1642 to send petitions to both the king and Parliament urging an “accommodation” of their differences. At first glance this petition campaign appears to support the claim that a large number of Bristolians, if not most, preferred a form of neutrality to partisan commitment in the Civil War.[48] But a closer look shows that even neutrality had its partisan edge. Unfortunately, only the city’s petition to the king has survived. It is focused primarily on the grievances of its great merchants but openly follows the very similar petitions mounted in London in 1642 by a group of its prominent citizens, many of whom later became involved in Edmund Waller’s plot to turn the metropolis over to the king. Comparison of London’s petition to the Lords and Commons, which has survived in a copy printed by the king’s supporters in Oxford in 1642, with Bristol’s somewhat later petition to the king, also printed in Oxford, shows them to be very similar in their ideological outlook and political purpose, though somewhat different in their emphasis. There can be no doubt that each city’s petitions had an independent history, but in genesis and ideology Bristol’s shares a great deal with its London counterpart.[49]

The Londoners in their petition to Parliament stressed how “by a knowne Law” the realm had “setled and preserved our protestant Religion, our Liberties, and properties, with a right understanding betweene King and Subjects, which produced peace and plenty in our streets.” Continued civil war, they said, threatened “the destruction of Christians, the unnatural effusion of bloud; Fathers against Sons, brothers by brothers, friends by friends slaine, then famine and sicknesse, the followers of civill war, making way for a generall confusion, and invasion by a forraigne Nation, while our Treasure is exhausted, our Trade lost, and the kingdome dis-peopled.”[50] The emphasis was on the danger to true religion, public order, and social hierarchy engendered by the “divisions” between the king and Parliament. The Bristolians, too, were concerned about these matters. They lamented that the realm was now “as full of horror and wrath as any object which can incounter humane eye-sight, appearing meerly the Ghost of that England which it was so lately.” They complained that they were “overwhelmed with an increasing perpetuity of cares and troubles, such as not time nor history had scarce mentioned in this Kingdome, neither in the Barons nor any other civill warres: Your Majesty being, as it were divorced from those husbands of the Common-wealth, the honourable the high Court of Parliament.” And they spoke bitterly of the “strange and uncouth distractions that have lately broken forth into the Church of England.[51]

Somewhat more than the Londoners, however, they emphasized the disastrous toll on trade created by the outbreak of war. “[I]nstead of the continuall and gainful trade and commerce, which all maritime towns, in especial this City of Bristoll had into forraigne parts,” they said,

[o]ur ships lie now rotting in the Harbor without any Marriners or fraught or trade into forraigne parts, by reason of our home-bred distractions, being grown so contemptible and despised there, that our credits are of no value, wee being (through the misfortune of our nation) reputed abroad as men meerly undone at home; and what detriment this discontinuance of traffique with forrainge nations may beget and bring forth, both to your Majesties particular revenue, by decay of the emolument of customes, and to the Subject in generall by want of exportment and importment of commodities, cannot to your sacred wisdome be unknowne.[52]

As a result, “no man injoyes his wife, children, family or estate in safety this day…so that unspeakable is our misery, unutterable our grievances, fathers being ingaged enemies against sons; and sons against fathers; every good Towne and City, as this your City of Bristoll, being inforced to their great and infinite expence, to maintaine garrisons and courts of guards for their security.”[53] The debt to the Londoners’ language is apparent enough in these sentiments, but the differences suggest how much the Bristol petitioners saw a well-established trade as one of the principal sources of good order in their community.

The logic of the London petitions of 1642 had linked support of the Crown with the defense of liberty and the church. With the 1643 plot in Bristol to turn the city over to Prince Rupert, this same conjuncture of ideas became apparent among the conspirators, although again with something of a Bristol twist.[54] Their motives were heavily colored by the economic and financial burdens imposed upon the city by the war, the blame for which was placed by the conspirators squarely on the shoulders of the parliamentary forces resident within their walls. As an anonymous pamphleteer said in commenting on the martyrdom of Robert Yeamans and George Bowcher in the Royalist cause, “it is no wonder…that a city thus robbed of its wealth and libertie, groaning under the insupportable yoke of bondage and tyranny should endeavor by restoring the king to his rights, to restore themselves to their former freedome,” which could not be done but by casting off the bonds in which the parliamentary garrison had ensnared them.[55] According to one source, the plotters considered themselves as standing for “the King, the Protestant Religion, and the Liberties of this City.”[56] Yeamans said as much in his own defense. His commission from the king, he argued, was

for the mayntenance of the true Protestant Religion established in the Church of England, the King’s Prerogative and safety of his Person, Priviledges of Parliament, and the liberty and propriety of the Subject, and the defense of the City against all forces without the joynt consent of the Maior, Aldermen and Common Councell amongst whom there was some difference at that time concerning the admission of any Forces.[57]

Earlier, in their petition to the king, these same men had indicated that they were also pained by the “too much power of the Prelacie in forcing new Canons and unheard of doctrines upon us.” They saw them as “the immediate and efficient causes of the many dissentions and troubles now raigning in this Realm, no oppression being so forcible or oppressive to mens consciences, as that which is intruded on them concerning their Beliefe and the worship of God.”[58] They were neither Laudians nor sectaries in their religious beliefs. Their identification of local liberties of self-rule with the more general liberties of the subject, however, gives us an insight into the inherent royalism of their position. Serving as a member of the Corporation meant to Yeamans, Bowcher, and many of their colleagues on the Common Council being a royal officer, acting according to the city’s charters for the mutual benefit of the urban community and the kingdom at large. Among those committed to this vision, any action that threatened the political role of the mayor, aldermen, and Common Council as the proper agents of royal authority in the city would be met with resistance, whether it came from the king’s principal officers, as in the late 1620s and 1630s, or from the parliamentary army, as in 1642 and 1643. Since their own position in Bristol, and more generally in the English polity, depended in large measure on their relationship to the Crown, preserving the “liberties” of the city in the 1640s required restoring the king to his proper place at the head of the state.

Those who called for “accommodation” in 1642 and 1643 followed this same line of thinking. As we have seen, they spoke of the “strange and uncouth distractions that have lately broken forth into the Church of England,” the “many dissentions and troubles now raigning in this Realm,” and even of the king being “divorced from…the honourable the high Court of Parliament.”[59] This language carries with it a theory about what has gone wrong. “Distraction,” for example, refers to the physical rending asunder what organically belongs together; it is what happens when a traitor is beheaded, drawn, and quartered. “Divorce,” a relatively new word in the early modern period, refers to the separation of the head of a family from his helpmate.[60] From its earliest usage it carried a sense similar to “distract.” In the Third Book of Sir Philip Sidney’s New Arcadia, for example, Pamela’s executioner is said to have used his sword “to divorce the fair marriage of the head and body.”[61] “Dissent”—used especially in relation to religious matters—is the opposite of “consent” and implies a failure to apprehend and submit to the unifying truth. It depends on the existence of a natural union of parts that together form a harmonious whole. Taken together, the use of these terms to describe the disorder of the times gives us the image of a body politic—with head and members—torn apart. “Accommodation” was the proper remedy for this condition. In a strict sense it means bringing things into measure. In other words, it signifies putting back together in proper order that which belongs together. In the 1640s this could only mean restoring the king to his leadership, just as healing “divorce” in a family meant restoring the husband to its head. Bristolians who adopted this language were neutralists only in a tactical sense; their hierarchical vision of the social order, which made them desire peace within their community, also allied them with the king as the one force ultimately able in their vision of the world to bring harmony and proportion to the body politic.

For most of the Bristol magistrates this desire for unity was very strong in the early days of the Civil War.[62] In November 1642, when they decided to go ahead with the petitions that they had first discussed the previous May, they declared themselves “to be in love and amity one with another and doe desire a friendly assotiacion together in all mutuall accomodation.” At the same time, they ordered the parish clergy to meet with a committee for an “amiable accomodacon one with another throughout the whole Citty to the end the Ministers themselves and other of the inhabitants may be drawn” into discipline and order.[63] But it is clear that the possibility of preserving harmony was growing very dim. Not only had it taken them from May to July to agree on a first draft of their petitions and from November to January to redraft and send them,[64] but in the interval strong political forces were beginning to stir elsewhere in the city. By the end of November, the Common Council even found it necessary to forbid the wearing of colors and ribbons on hats to signify affiliation with the king’s party or the Parliament’s.[65] The aim was to prevent street violence as the political issues of the era diffused into the lower echelons of Bristol society and factionalism threatened to undermine authority in the city.


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