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Despite its shortcomings, then, Corbet’s analysis of the politics of Bristol in the early 1640s has much to commend it. However, its efficacy depends precisely on avoiding a reductionist interpretation of his language.[66] Like the ancient writers from whom he derives his threefold system of categorization, Corbet’s understanding of the concept of class is never exclusively economic. It turns instead on understanding political power and wealth to be intertwined precisely because the possession of wealth typically carried with it the obligation of service and the capacity to command. It is true, of course, that no city’s politics can be made to fit neatly into a simple sociopolitical framework. It would be an oddly utopian world if all members of a given group, however defined, were found to conform their lives to a single formula. Nevertheless, Corbet was certainly right in seeing the majority of leading merchants taking sides with the king when events forced them, sometimes against their will, to decide where they stood. Their view of the world as well as their interests lay with him. And the king, for his part, knew well how to seal their allegiance to his cause. After his forces had seized Bristol in 1643, for example, he rewarded the Merchant Venturers for their “loyalty and fidelity” to him “in these late tymes of difficulty” by granting them the right to trade freely in the heretofore protected markets of the Company of the Merchant Adventurers of England and the Eastland, Russia, and Turkey Companies.[67] Although this patent had no more efficacy than Charles could give it, and his power in commercial matters was very limited in the mid-1640s, it was politically as well as legally the kind of grant that only a king could make. The leading Merchant Venturers lived according to a vision of public order that depended for its coherence on exactly this type of authority. They had spent decades in pursuit of favors of a similar sort. Hence Charles I’s generosity harmonized with their understanding as well as their self-interest.

Corbet was also right in thinking that many of the most ardent supporters of the parliamentary cause during the Civil War came from the ranks of the city’s shopkeepers and craftsmen. We can perhaps see this from the list of witnesses who appeared at Colonel Nathaniel Fiennes’s court-martial in December 1643 to support charges made by William Prynne and Clement Walker against Fiennes for his surrender of Bristol to Prince Rupert the previous July. These witnesses joined with Prynne and Walker in vigorously attacking Fiennes, the son of Lord Saye and Sele, for what they considered his lukewarm commitment to victory against the king and thoroughgoing reform in church and state. Where the leading Merchant Venturers had played the most important role as supporters of the Yeamans-Bowcher conspiracy, here we find on the parliamentary side precisely those middling men whom Corbet had argued were the greatest strength in Bristol. They were figures like Robert Bagnall, Henry Hassard, James Powell, William Deane, Abell Kelly, and John Batten, shopkeepers and artisans who later in the period would be prominent both as interlopers in overseas trade and as leaders in radical politics. Several came from William Yeamans’s circle in St. Philip’s, among them Dorothy Hassard, daughter of a prominent scrivener, sister or sister-in-law to other small dealers, and wife of Matthew Hassard, who had succeeded Yeamans as minister at St. Philip’s.[68] Given the links between the leading mere merchants and the Crown, it is hardly surprising that many men and women in the city’s middling ranks were filled with zeal for the good old cause. By the early 1640s, as we have already seen, a rich legacy of antagonism between figures from these groups and the Merchant Venturers had already been sustained for at least ninety years.

It would be a mistake to think that those who sided with Parliament in the Civil War did so primarily because of their grievances against the Merchant Venturers. No doubt most of them acted, as did the members of Yeamans’s circle, from deeply held religious and ideological convictions, not narrow self-interest. But for many Bristolians those convictions had taken shape in the context of long-standing grievances against the mere merchants’ claims of monopoly. The grievances themselves depended not only on the actual damage done by the Merchant Venturers to the social prospects or material welfare of their opponents but the aggrieved citizens’ beliefs about the requirements of justice owed to all of Bristol’s freemen. These views in turn helped define what it meant for them to live in a properly ordered and godly community. It is perhaps only to be expected that as a result of this process of ideological self-definition, men who opposed the Merchant Venturers’ monopolistic practices would be stirred into support for the parliamentary cause in the early 1640s, when politics continuously cut the middle ground from under the feet of those who might wish to stand upon it. The history of the Society was so deeply embedded in Bristol’s life and culture by this time that a person’s views about it could readily tip the balance one way or the other when large and difficult political decisions had to be made. The Merchant Venturers’ receipt of new letters patent in 1639 seems to have provided a number of the Society’s old opponents with a good reason to take the parliamentary side.

The careers of several leading supporters of the Long Parliament in Bristol can illustrate this connection between political radicalism and opposition to the Merchant Venturers’ monopoly. One of these supporters was Richard Vickris, trained as a fishmonger. He served on the commission appointed by the Long Parliament in 1645 to purge Bristol’s government of “delinquents” after Prince Rupert had been ousted from the city and to settle affairs in the interests of the parliamentary side. Although he had become a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers in the 1630s, he was among those resisting its authority to collect wharfage in 1638–39.[69] During the 1630s he had also regularly traded in partnership with nonmerchants, in violation of the Society’s strict ordinances forbidding this practice. So had another ardent parliamentary supporter, Richard Aldworth, cousin to Robert and a member of the Merchant Venturers, although he had been trained as a mercer. Aldworth was one of the Recruiter members of the Long Parliament added in 1646. Like Vickris, and perhaps John Whitson before him, Richard Aldworth seems to have held a view of the Merchant Venturers as a useful institution for commercial regulation but not as an exclusive organization for promoting the interests of a few. The other Recruiter member for Bristol was Luke Hodges, a grocer and sometime partner of Vickris, though never himself a member of the Merchant Venturers. In 1635 he had fallen afoul of the Bristol Corporation and was threatened with a heavy fine when he resisted election to the Common Council.[70] Although neither Aldworth nor Hodges was an extreme radical, both were politically committed members of the Long Parliament who conformed themselves to the revolution as it unfolded in the late 1640s and early 1650s. Hodges eventually became an excise commissioner for the Commonwealth in 1652.[71] For these three men, the shaping experience of opposition to the Merchant Venturers’ monopolistic claims and practices in the 1630s seems to help account, though by no means completely, for their alignment with Parliament in the 1640s.

Finally, we can also see something of the way the Merchant Venturers’ monopoly had entered into politics in the history of relations between the Society and its opponents in the aftermath of the New Model Army’s victorious siege in 1645. Parliament’s purge of the Common Council in 1645 removed ten men for their military service in the Royalist cause and for other forms of “delinquency.” Eight of them were Merchant Venturers, drawn from that same group of Spanish and Mediterranean traders who in the 1630s had looked to Robert Aldworth for leadership. In the years from 1645 to 1650, eighteen men were either restored to or newly elected to the Common Council. Only eight were Merchant Venturers. One of these members of the Society was Richard Vickris, who had been ousted from his council post by the Royalists in 1643. A second was his son Robert, who was probably an early sectary in his own right and who later married the daughter of George Bishop, one of the city’s leading radicals and a founding member of the Society of Friends in Bristol.[72] Two more were men who joined with the large throng of interlopers who entered the Merchant Venturers after the crackdown on illicit trade that followed the grant of new letters patent in 1639. A further two became members only after 1645, when the Society had markedly relaxed its old standards of admission.[73] In other words, not only did the proportion of Merchant Venturers added to the council drop from about 75 percent in the 1620s and 1630s to about 45 percent in this period, but even among the Merchant Venturers on the council there was no longer the same support for the old monopolistic policies and practices.

Because Bristol’s history in this era was so dominated by the relations of the Merchant Venturers to their fellow freemen, whether friends and associates or competitors and opponents, it is perhaps not surprising that the city should have faced the cataclysm of the Civil War by looking backward to this history. When victory came to the anti-monopolists in 1645, the remedy desired was the restoration of what they considered the rightful order of city life, an order in which the members of each trade or craft had their due place in the fabric of the community. Insofar as the reformed Common Council had a program in these years it was devoted to this end. Not only did the council seek to fill its ranks with a more even distribution of the wealthier occupational groupings in the city—mercers, grocers, soapmakers, and the like, as well as mere merchants—but it set out to put the city’s crafts on a footing equal to that enjoyed by the Merchant Venturers. In 1647, for example, the mercers and linendrapers organized themselves into a gild for regulating their trade; the turners did the same in 1649, the milleners in 1651, and the woolendrapers in 1658.[74] At the same time, several of the older gilds strengthened their enforcement powers by passing ordinances permitting them to recover fines by legal action before city courts rather than by the traditional but difficult and dangerous procedure of seizing goods directly from wrongdoers. The whitawers did so in 1646, the weavers in 1649, and the newly revived company of barber-surgeons in 1652.[75] In these various ways a concerted effort was made to use the old mechanisms of social and economic control, strengthened by new procedures, to bring balance and order to the civic community. The same principle was at work in 1647 when the Common Council ordered the city’s law courts, the Tolzey and the Mayor’s Court, to “be kept & continued as antiently.”[76] In 1652 it carried its purposes further when it made general the use of legal process to collect fines for violation of its own ordinances and regulations.[77]

This evidence also hints at another important feature of the period—its social and economic turmoil. The very fact that the gilds and the city government needed to revive or revise their old regulatory schemes suggests that enforcement had fallen into disarray. During a half-decade or more of strife, Bristol’s affairs had been marked by two full-scale sieges in 1643 and 1645, a major outbreak of plague, the garrisoning of the city by Parliament, by the king, and by Parliament again, and the corresponding turnover of power in the city from one local faction to another. It is no wonder that the traditional mechanisms of social and economic control required renovation. Moreover, the presence of a substantial parliamentary garrison at Bristol Castle after 1645 made the city something of an open market for strangers who might wish to come to the city to take advantage of the new, more fluid economic and political situation this created.[78] In response to these chaotic conditions, the reformed Common Council of Bristol was anxious to establish a social order in which each trade and craft received its due according to the council’s understanding of the ancient traditions of the city.

In a sense, the reformers had accepted the main premise behind the Merchant Venturers’ own desire for control of its trade. They saw a city composed of functionally interrelated economic specialties, each supporting the others through the proper management of its own affairs. To assure this outcome the council wanted all the crafts to have the necessary powers to protect themselves against encroachments from others, and it willingly granted them new privileges to assure that they could. Where a particular group could not defend itself on its own, or where economic disorder arose outside the bounds of craft organization, the city government was ready to assist in imposing its tradition-minded vision of order, employing its own new techniques to do so. This conception of policy implied that the Merchant Venturers would take their place—inevitably, an important one—within the prevailing division of labor. They would no longer be guaranteed superiority in rights and privileges, as they had long desired. Instead, they would become the first among equals in an economy of coordinated and mutually supportive parts.


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