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The history we have been recounting in this book tells of the transition from Edgeworth’s form of economy to Cary’s. But it was also a history that took Bristolians from one form of social and political order to another. Although it was possible at the end of the period to think of political economy, if not economics itself, as an autonomous subject, this was only part of a process of change that was as much social, political, and cultural as it was economic. To citizens of the fifteenth-century city, Bristol had appeared as a replica of the cosmos, an ordered and harmonious arrangement of parts that made a unified whole. Its trade may have extended their reach far beyond the city’s boundaries, but in theory the city remained a compact community of sworn brothers who acted with common interests and for the common good. By the fourteenth century a group of wealthy men, mostly engaged in the overseas trade in cloth, had emerged as a distinct body of civic leaders in Bristol. Although their prosperous circumstances had distinguished them from their fellow townsmen, as citizens they were but members of the commonalty, enjoying equal liberties and franchises with all other sworn burgesses. The loss of Bordeaux, however, and the course of change it helped set in motion had undermined the foundations of this community.

The first signs of a significant shift in social outlook had come quickly. In 1467, when the level of Bristol’s trade stood near its nadir for the fifteenth century, the city government created the first organization exclusively for overseas merchants. Although this special fellowship of merchants, comprised of officers, hall, and regulatory functions, appears to have been short-lived, ending when economic conditions improved, it marked a change and set a precedent. From this moment on, merchants would become increasingly separate from those in other occupations who engaged in buying and selling. In 1500, the idea of a separate fellowship of merchants became even more definite when the newly reformed Bristol Corporation issued an ordinance establishing a company “separate and distincte from every other companyes of handecraftymen.”[45] During the second half of the sixteenth century this concept crystallized further, first with the acquisition of a royal charter of incorporation for the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol, and then with the concerted efforts of its members to exclude all but wholesale merchants from overseas trade. The attempt at monopoly became the recurring theme in Bristol’s history until well into the seventeenth century.

At the same time a parallel development occurred in the realm of politics. The medieval borough had long been governed by a mayor, annually elected at a general meeting of the burgesses. It was not until the mid-fourteenth century that a select body of councillors joined him in rule. Until then, government seems to have had a communal form; all major decisions were made at the same sort of general meeting as that which elected the mayor. In Edward II’s reign, when a group of fourteen local magnates set themselves up as a governing body, their rule was met with violent resistance from the townsmen. Finally, in 1344, the city established a Common Council of Forty-Eight, whose members were chosen from among the wealthier men engaged in cloth manufacture and trade. When Bristol was incorporated as a county in its own right in 1373, this body was reformed into a council consisting of the mayor, the sheriff, and forty of the “better and more worthy men” of the borough. At the same time, the mayor became the king’s lieutenant in the city and one of the justices of assize, and the mayor and the sheriff jointly became keepers of the peace and justices of gaol delivery, which linked the city to national administrative and legal institutions. Nevertheless, their elevation to these national offices did not break the mayor’s and the sheriff’s ties to the community. The Bristolians still considered them and their brethren on the Common Council as the representatives of the whole body politic of the town, not its overlords. They served by communal acceptance of their rule, ritually given and received by the shouts of acclaim at the annual mayoral elections and in the festivals of the civic year that followed.

The new Bristol constitution of 1499 altered this delicate balance between the role of royal official and communal representative for these civic leaders. By creating a bench of aldermen, who along with the mayor served as justices of the peace, and by adding as recorder a learned lawyer who was also an alderman, it integrated the city government into the same national regime of administration then emerging in the counties. In consequence, the members of the Corporation more and more were identified by their new status as a separate body of officials within the city, partaking of the authority of royal rule. What made this development especially potent was the way it connected with the changing character of the overseas trading community. Since the leading men in the council were also the leading men in commerce, the power and influence they enjoyed in government could be used to advance their interests in the economy. Time and again the city government intervened to support the leading merchants in their petitions for royal favor and in their quest for monopoly. Bristol had evolved a strongly hierarchical social order in which the great wholesale merchants dominated the economy, interposing themselves between other domestic dealers and foreign markets, and in which the magistrates—who in most instances were the same men—dominated the polity, interposing themselves between the ordinary citizenry and the central institutions of the state.

However, the rivals of the mere merchants among the city’s retailers and craftsmen of the city perceived issues very differently. To them the attempts at merchant monopoly usurped the ancient rights of citizenship, and those who performed this act violated the very bonds of community. This communitarian undercurrent surfaced only occasionally to produce political strife among the citizenry, but it seems to have been present in latent form throughout our period. Whenever the mere merchants’ efforts to secure a monopoly resurfaced, the retailers and craftsmen mounted stiff resistance to the Merchant Venturers’ claims as best they could. Among some of these rivals of the Merchant Venturers, an undercurrent of communitarian social feeling converged with religious ideals of community to create a revolutionary party in the city, anxious for fundamental reform in church and state. Indeed, many of the most radical Bristolians in the 1640s and after came from just those sections of the city’s economy most affected by the monopolistic claims of the merchants. To match the religious passions of some of the enemies of monopoly, among the monopolists themselves a small but powerful group emerged who favored a Laudian view of religion and society and who supported the king with fervor in the battles of the 1640s.

In these ways the central place of a state-supported, regulated merchant company in Bristol’s history contributed to the growing radicalization of the city’s politics. Clashes between rival economic interests, fueled by changing patterns of social mobility and political recruitment, took on increasingly more significance as the ideological edge already apparent in the battles of the 1560s and 1570s transformed the issue of monopoly into one of high morality and linked it to affairs of state. The Merchant Venturers’ new charter of 1639 only added kindling to the flames, since the antagonisms aroused by it became one element in the partisan rivalries of the Civil War period in Bristol. The coming of the Civil War also meant that the Merchant Venturers’ great victory of 1639 was short-lived. Once Parliament’s forces had defeated the Royalists, control of Bristol fell into the hands of citizens with no sympathy for monopoly, while in Westminster little support with which to challenge the new local regime remained for the Merchant Venturers. As the instrument of national economic policy and the product of political conflicts played out in Westminster as well as Bristol, the Merchant Venturers could not help being caught up in the upheavals of the 1640s; they were nearly destroyed by them. Just as the Society’s formation was the local expression of national politics, so was its fate.

It is sometimes said that all politics is local politics, since ultimately it must be played out by people in the context of their daily lives. However, local politics can either draw in upon itself and make the connections and rivalries of local inhabitants the foundation of local affairs, or it can reach beyond its boundaries to participate in the larger world of governmental institutions and political movements. Late medieval Bristol attempted with increasing difficulty to maintain the first kind of politics. Sixteenth and seventeenth-century Bristol was an example of the second type. In ordinary times, the focus of political action was the exploitation of the state for local advantage, but when a national crisis developed, it engaged Bristolians immediately because they were a politically integrated part of the realm.

Moreover, the seventeenth century witnessed a significant transformation in the ways the local effects of politics were experienced in the city. Before 1640, the main political issues concerned the role of the city in the state. The magistrates saw themselves in a coordinated relationship with the central government to preserve order and protect the subjects. They were willing to accept state power so long as it helped to perform these vital functions. When they found it necessary to defend their role as local governors, they were not acting because they considered themselves as buffers against the king but because they saw themselves as essential parts of royal government. Order to them meant the union of authority with property, as expressed in their own leadership of their community, and they feared any use of state power that threatened this union. For this reason they made their political choices by concentrating on what would best promote the maintenance of the national polity as they understood it. In the Tudor and early Stuart years, most of Bristol’s magistrates conceived of this polity as one in which authority was exercised for the king by men rooted in the community, not by strangers with few local ties and no comprehension of local conditions. In other words, during this period they envisioned a political world in which community and state were related to one another as parts to the whole, not as opponents.

This “country” attitude, which the Bristolians shared with many of the gentry, persisted into the Restoration and beyond. But after the Civil Wars the underlying structure of politics was vastly complicated by ideological and religious differences, which on the one hand drew many more Bristolians into the vortex of political conflict and on the other connected the city’s affairs in new ways with national political developments. Religious divisions founded on rival conceptions of universal truth touched men and women in the city who rarely, if ever, had engaged in public controversy. Local politics were no longer confined to the city’s better and more worthy men and their immediate opponents, but now involved many servants and apprentices, craftsmen, and shopkeepers in the lesser trades and their wives and daughters. Moreover, the efforts of the 1650s to regulate the trading activities of the sectaries and the attempts of the 1660s to purge the civic community of their presence were linked directly to shifts in the configuration of national politics and thus tied to extralocal institutions—Parliament, the national executive, and the leaders of sects, among others. When the Army in Bristol came to the support of the radical candidates for Parliament in 1654, when Cromwell ordered the demolition of the Castle and the disbanding of its garrison in 1656, when Sir Humphrey Hooke stood down from his parliamentary seat in favor of the earl of Ossory in 1661, and when the Conventicle Act became the weapon of Sir John Knight’s persecution in 1663, the gates of local politics widened. These events not only confirmed Bristol’s connection with the ever-present powers of the state but also revealed its participation in political conflicts that had their center far outside the city’s boundaries.


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