If the closing years of the fifteenth century provided Bristol with a rich harvest, the beginning of the sixteenth century brought the city into a bleak new season in its economic history. Every aspect of commerce suffered in some measure. According to the merchants, the city’s shipping, in which the wealth of its merchant magnates had been heavily invested in the fifteenth century, severely decayed during Henry VIII’s reign. By the 1540s bitter complaints were heard that “where as ther grett shippes haue customably made towe or thre viages in the yere, now by reason of small vtteraunce of their warres & merchantdise the[y] make but one viage in the yere.” Bristol’s drapers also protested a depression in their trade, asserting that in the time span in which two hundred cloths used to be sold, now but twenty could be vented. We should discount the exaggeration of these remarks made by men begging special favors. But the trend they manifest cannot be denied. Bristol’s economy had suffered a sharp blow. It fell further and further behind London in economic position and was rapidly overtaken by Exeter, its chief rival in the western districts, whose access to divers new kinds of woolen fabrics gave it advantages in the French trade, when it revived, that Bristol lacked.
The most severe effects of this early sixteenth-century commercial difficulty were felt by the cloth trade. In the closing years of Henry VII’s reign, its boom in Bristol simply ended. In the first five years of the century, annual average exports were about 30 percent below the figures achieved in the 1490s. The tailspin continued during the next five quinquennial periods, until the averages were barely one-third of those for the last decade of the fifteenth century. Indeed, only in the 1530s and again in the years between 1550 and 1555 were there slight upturns in the trend, but even these were almost immediately halted in the following period. Over the whole first sixty years of the sixteenth century, moreover, the city exported an average of only slightly over twenty-seven hundred cloths per year, a figure rivaling the worst decennial averages of the fifteenth century (Table 3). Bristol’s exports of English woolens had simply stagnated. By the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign they were not only at their lowest ebb but were being traded by higher percentages of alien merchants than ever before.
|Mich.–Mich.||No. cloths||(% denizen)||No. cloths||(% denizen)||No. cloths||(% denizen)||No. cloths||(% denizen)|
|Source: E. M. Carus-Wilson and Olive Coleman, England’s Export Trade, 1275–1547 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 112–19; J. D. Gould, The Great Debasement: Currency and the Economy in Mid-Tudor England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 173–81.|
In conjunction with this direct blow to Bristol’s chief export came a more general decline in the city’s commercial well-being. The wine trade, for example, suffered a considerable diminution. As with cloth, the first years of the sixteenth century witnessed a sharp initial contraction, in this case of about 50 percent from the high figures of the 1490s, and even though there was some improvement after 1515, the levels neither returned to the peaks of the last decade of the fifteenth century nor remained consistently strong (Table 4). Only the goods subject to ad valorem duties appear to have escaped this gloomy fate, although here, too, there was a decline from the very high figures reached in the late fifteenth century and an increase in the number of non-denizens engaging in the trade (Table 5). During the last five years of Henry VIII’s reign, the average value of these goods for customs purposes was about 25 percent higher than the average figures at the beginning of his reign. This suggests a double shift away from cloth as an export to other items such as metals, hides, and foodstuffs, which were assessed ad valorem, and a corresponding shift to more expensive imports, also assessed ad valorem, though with many items now brought to Bristol by merchant strangers.
|Source: 1480–1500: M. K. James, Studies in the Medieval Wine Trade, ed. E. M. Veale, introduction by E. M. Carus-Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 114–16. 1509–1547: Georg von Schanz, Englische Handelspolitik gegen Ende des Mittelalters mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Zeitalters der beiden ersten Tudors, Heinrich VII. und Heinrich VIII., 2 vols. (Leipzig: Duncker und Humblot, 1881), vol. 2, pp. 132–33. The format and the gaps are a consequence of the fact that the two sources do not form a completely sequential series.|
|Source: Georg von Schanz, Englische Handelspolitik gegen Ende des Mittelalters, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Zeitalters der beiden ersten Tudors, Heinrich VII. und Heinrich VIII., 2 vols. (Leipzig: Duncker und Humblot, 1881), vol. 2, p. 64.|
Nevertheless, not all of Bristol’s markets were equally affected by the general collapse of its trade. Ireland and France were the worst hit. There was perhaps a 50 percent fall in cloth exports to the Irish market, and, although commerce in other commodities still remained brisk, there was also a falling away from the high levels achieved in the last years of the fifteenth century. As regards France, not only did shipping between Bristol and the major Atlantic ports decline and then stagnate, but the volume of French wine coming to Bristol was also severely reduced. In these markets, therefore, conditions were especially dark. But Bristol appears to have held its own more successfully in the Iberian peninsula. In Portugal, old commercial ties and a continued demand for English cloth insured a reasonable traffic for the city. In Spain the picture was brighter still. Although there had been a dramatic decline in the number of cloths shipped there from Bristol during the first decade of the sixteenth century, by 1517–18 the figures had risen again almost to equal those from 1485–86. Despite the strained relations between England and Spain after 1527 or so, a steady trade continued throughout the remainder of Henry VIII’s reign and persisted right to the end of the century, though at a somewhat lower volume than in the teens and twenties. Bristol’s import trade from Spain and Portugal also was remarkably healthy. Wine shipments stayed high, and the value of other imports rose to levels substantially in excess of those for the pre-1490 period. Despite diminished totals in Bristol’s cloth exports, the cloth trade still remained important in the Iberian peninsula, where Bristolians exchanged cloth for a wide variety of valuable goods. But cloth was no longer the backbone of Bristol’s commercial activity. Over the first half of the sixteenth century, the fall in its export substantially outstripped the declines experienced in other sectors of the city’s commerce. As a result, Bristol’s ancient connection with the production and distribution of cloth was weakened, and those inhabitants who depended on the cloth trade faced depressed circumstances and disrupted businesses.