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To a considerable degree, the movement of the woolen trade away from Bristol was part of a larger process of English economic history, just beginning in this period, which saw a general reordering of the nation’s urban hierarchy as commerce came to be centered upon London. Viewed from the perspective of Bristol’s traditional economy, this story appears as one of straightforward decline, especially for those whose livelihood depended primarily upon the cloth industry. But seen in terms of the emerging national urban system, the tale is rather more complicated, for it involved a recasting of urban functions and not simply a linear descent into long-term depression. Developments of this type almost invariably bring a mood of crisis with them, because they catch particular individuals and groups unable to adapt, economically or intellectually, to the new circumstances. But they sometimes bring new opportunities as well. In examining this era of urban crisis in Bristol, we must keep our eyes open for shifts in function within the larger urban network and the varied effects these changes had on the city’s internal structure and on different groups within it.[23] Nevertheless, taken by themselves, as many of the most hard-hit Bristolians necessarily would have perceived them, the economic conditions revealed by the raw trade statistics for the early sixteenth century show Bristol’s situation vis-à-vis London to have been rather grim.

In the mid-fifteenth century London commanded only something less than 50 percent of cloth exports; a hundred years later the figure was 90 percent. At the same time the traffic in imports concentrated there. Much of this change was due to the growth of the Antwerp mart, through which London’s merchants could readily exchange the vast quantities of cloth at their disposal for the riches of Europe and Asia. But these developments were accomplished primarily at the expense of the outports, whose own growth could not keep pace. Judging from customs revenues collected between 1485 and 1547, London’s share of England’s commerce rose from approximately half to nearly two-thirds of the total, and the proportion of trade in the hands of provincial merchants declined nearly everywhere. When set in the context of national trends these Bristol figures are all the more revealing, since the city’s decline as a center for the cloth trade corresponded to a period of expansion in the export of the same traditional woolen fabrics in which Bristol had previously specialized. Although the rise in these exports may not have been quite so “meteoric” as F. J. Fisher claimed on the basis of London’s figures alone, it is clear that during much of this period shipments of broadcloth from Southampton and Exeter and its member ports remained stronger than from Bristol.[24]

From early in the sixteenth century, outcries against the decay of Bristol’s clothing industry and the intrusion of Londoners into its economic affairs were common among Bristolians. In 1518, for example, Sheriff William Dale complained that

thenhabitauntes of [Bristol] beyng as Cloythers wevers dyers tookers and other sundry Crafty men dayly lak work and runne in Idylnes. And the towne by Reason of the same [is] broughte vnto great desolacion and about viii c howseholdes in the same towne desolate vacante and decayed to the vtter decay and distruccion of the said towne.[25]

Twenty years later the lamentations were even louder. The mayor himself complained that “[m]any tenements are fallen into decay for want of timber and stones, and the quay and town walls are in like ruin.”[26] Much of the blame for this dismal state was placed on London. In the 1540s it was said that Londoners not only had captured the business of Gloucestershire, Somerset, and other counties neighboring Bristol but had invaded the city’s own industrial districts. Redcliffe parish, in which once “spinsters, carders and dyverse substancyall & riche men [made] ther dwelling & levyed well by ther occupacions and occupyeng of clothmakyng,” now would no longer supply the Bristolians with workmen for their cloths. The Londoners, with their large capital resources, were able to give better credit terms than their rivals from the western port.[27]

Although Bristol was well located to tap the cloth production of western England and to travel to and from the Iberian peninsula, its decay in the early sixteenth century made it difficult to acquire the necessary cloth supplies for this commerce. As a result, the city’s wealthiest and most successful entrepreneurs had pulled up stakes and reestablished themselves in London, the hub of the cloth trade. These entrepreneurs include such well-known men of affairs as Paul Withypoll, the younger Robert Thorne, and George Monox, each of whom was a leader first of Bristol’s, then London’s, merchant community. Monox and Thorne both served as mayor of Bristol before leaving for London, while Withypoll came on his mother’s side from a family with a long record of similar service.[28] All three primarily traded with Spain and Portugal. From this base, they appear to have been attracted by the riches of the Levant and of the Indies, even to the point of trading directly with those distant places rather than relying on shipments via Iberian ports. Withypoll was among the earliest traders to the Isle of Candy (Crete), and Thorne was not only a depositor in the famous bank of St. George in Genoa and a dealer in Italian and Levantine goods but was also one of the first group of Englishmen to deal regularly with the West Indies.[29] After leaving Bristol, Monox became a leading London Draper and for a time the master of Blackwell Hall; Withypoll and Thorne were Merchant Taylors. As well as holding major posts in London’s government, both Monox and Withypoll acted as master of their livery companies; indeed, Monox served seven times.[30]

That these men made their choice of London over Bristol not without regret is revealed in Robert Thorne’s will, for among his many substantial benefactions he made several for charitable purposes in his home town, including monies to help found a free school and for the care of the city’s poor. He even set aside £200 for the redemption of the fee farm and the prisage of wines collected at the port.[31] Although he may have replanted his roots in London, his ties to his home remained strong.

The way cloth and its availability affected the cloth merchant is made clearer by the career of Thomas Howell. Howell, who traded with Spain and Portugal, was a regular business associate of the various members of the Thorne family. Not only did he have frequent dealings in Seville with Robert Thorne and his brother Nicholas, but at the beginning of his career he was servant or apprentice to Hugh Eliot, the business partner of Robert Thorne the elder, and later as his factor in Seville he used Thomas Maillard, who was a regular business partner of the younger Robert Thorne. Like Withypoll, Monox, and Thorne, Howell was an expatriate Bristolian who settled in London in the midst of his career. Like them, too, he was a cloth trader, undertaking his activities in London as a member of the livery of the Drapers Company. Judging from his commercial records, he was among the foremost of Iberian merchants in the first half of the sixteenth century, trading in Andalusia and in Portugal, and also with the Spanish ports on the Bay of Biscay. Howell must be listed, along with Thorne and Maillard, as among the earliest Englishmen who traded directly with the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean. In 1527, for example, he shipped £50 worth of “Sartane stofe” (i.e., cloth of some type), to John de Morsynes, his factor in Santo Domingo.[32]

Howell’s ledger offers insight into his motive for abandoning residence in Bristol to set up business in London. The book, which gives a full account of Howell’s commercial affairs from 1517 to 1527, reveals his domestic business to have been almost entirely devoted to cloth. Even his imports were largely complementary to these cloth shipments. Apart from the iron that he brought from northern Spain in substantial quantities, his foreign purchases were primarily supplies for the production of cloth, such as oil, alum, woad, and other commodities used in the dyeing and finishing of textiles. The fabrics he shipped, moreover, were of every variety, dyed and undyed, many of them types originating in the manufacturing districts only a short distance from Bristol. The clothiers with whom Howell dealt, however, were residents of East Anglia and the home counties. They came from Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Berkshire, Middlesex, and Kent; one was even a Merchant Tailor in London itself. This fact is especially revealing because Howell, like Thorne and Monox as well as other Bristolians become Londoners, did a good deal of his importing through Bristol as well as London.[33] Hence it seems it was less London’s geographical position than its role in the marketing of cloth that attracted Howell and his fellows to the capital. With tens of thousands of cloths coming into London every year, not only were supplies for export readily available, but the skilled craftsmen necessary to support the industry, especially dyers and shearmen, were concentrated there as well. As Howell’s ledger shows, he frequently bought unfinished cloths and put them out himself to be barbed, folded, pressed, sheared, and dyed by London specialists, sometimes even paying them in woad, alum, soap, or other raw materials that he imported from the continent. The volume of his trade permitted him to combine his disparate dealings into a single orbit of commerce in which each element complemented the others.[34] As Bristol’s merchants eventually came to recognize, this capacity for integration in London’s cloth industry neutralized their own city’s geographical advantages in trade with the Iberian peninsula and left them unable to compete effectively with their rivals in the capital. In the face of this hard fact, ambitious Bristolians sought a foothold in London.

This transfer of many of Bristol’s leading merchants to London was not only a symptom of their city’s economic crisis but a cause in its own right. Their departures represented more than a choice based on London’s comparative economic advantage. Unlike young apprentices who came to the capital without wives and children and usually with little more than a small stake or the hope of an inheritance, these established Bristolians had substantial personal fortunes as well as deeply rooted personal connections in their home city. Withdrawal of their wealth was itself a significant blow to the city’s prosperity, further reducing its attractiveness as a theater for the ambitions of others.[35] Even though by the second half of the sixteenth century London’s own cloth-finishing industry was in decline, the changes wrought in the overall character of English economic life by London’s domination of these crafts in the first half of the century proved irreversible.[36]


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