previous chapter
Organizing the Society
next section

The Master, Wardens, and Commonalty of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol—which is the official corporate name of the Society—was the focus of much of the city’s political, social, and economic life during the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. As a commercial gild, it stood at the heart of the city’s mercantile community, regulating trade and defending the interests of Bristol’s merchants at home and abroad. Of equal importance was its social role, for in helping to organize the activities of the city’s leading overseas traders it gave coherence to this group as a local elite. In consequence, the Merchant Venturers formed a distinct element within the city’s social order, one whose influence was discernible in almost every facet of urban life. This is especially true of politics. Whether in conflict with other groups or divided among themselves, the Society’s membership is usually found in the thick of controversy over the uses of power and the direction of policy within the city. Most of these disputes and conflicts were initiated by the Merchant Venturers in advancing their own vision of the urban social order.

But the Society did not spring full-grown into Bristol’s history in 1552. During the century preceding the Society’s first royal charter, Bristol’s merchants participated in a series of experiments in commercial organization designed to help them cope with the new conditions under which they traded after the loss of Bordeaux. The earliest attempt to establish an organization of overseas merchants dates from the period immediately following England’s ouster from Gascony. This organization had very limited purposes. In 1467, when commerce with France was still deep in the doldrums, a city ordinance created a society of merchants to assure that the city’s diminished trade would benefit its freemen, not outsiders. The legislation covered iron, olive oil, wax, and “meteoyle,” probably tallow, the first three of which were major Iberian imports. To control the sale of these wares, the ordinance instructed the Common Council to elect from its own membership each year a master, two wardens, and two beadles to serve a newly created merchant fellowship. This group was granted the use of a chapel and a room in Spicer’s Hall, to which all the merchants of the city periodically were to be summoned to set the prices at which the four commodities might be sold to strangers. Although there was no specific provision for this “fellowship” to make regulations for its own governance, in drawing a distinction between its members and the rest of the city’s “merchants” the ordinance appears to have created a separate society of “adventurers,” defined as those who traded in bulk beyond the seas. The larger body of merchants in this period would have been primarily retail shopkeepers, not large-scale or wholesale traders.[6]

No evidence has survived of the activities of the body brought into being by this ordinance. It may well have dissolved within a decade of its foundation, when economic conditions improved sufficiently to relieve pressure on the sale of the four commodities.[7] But following Bristol’s receipt of a new royal charter in 1499, a second attempt was made by the city Corporation to organize a company of merchants. Very probably this effort was the work of the newly created bench of aldermen, which was made up of the wealthiest citizens. In 1499 it was granted extraordinary powers to shape governmental policy and to lead the Common Council. The new company, like the society of 1467, was also organized to attend to the Iberian trades.[8] Its stated purpose was to solve an ancient urban problem, the “colourable and crafty dealyng” by certain burgesses who habitually “colored” the goods of strangers; that is to say, bought and sold them as their own, contrary to the burgess oath, to the profit of the outsiders.[9] To cope with this old problem, the Corporation established a merchant fellowship, separate and distinct from every other organized group of tradesmen and craftsmen in the city. Only “merchant adventurers,” as the ordinance called them, were permitted to join. The main aim seems to have been the exclusion of all clothiers—men trained in the crafts—from participation in overseas trade. Members of the newly founded company were forbidden to act as agents for nonmembers, whether stranger or citizen, either in shipping goods from Bristol or in receiving them abroad for return to Bristol. If any nonmember freighted a vessel for a voyage to or from the port, no member was to join with him or lade his goods aboard the same vessel.[10]

By implication, these and similar regulations defined the membership of the new company. They insured that members would give over trading as agents for nonmembers—neighbors or foreigners—and that those unable to sustain their businesses without this source of income would cease trading abroad altogether. A rough line was drawn, therefore, between overseas merchants and other tradesmen. Artisans were forbidden membership outright, but there was no prohibition of retailing on the part of the membership, and many merchants undoubtedly continued to sell small quantities of their stock for immediate consumption. Nevertheless, the distinction between the major “merchant adventurers,” who depended primarily on foreign commerce, and lesser figures, who only occasionally ventured abroad for foreign wares, had emerged more clearly than in 1467.[11]

Limiting the competition facing the merchant adventurers was only one intended effect of the new fellowship. Equally important was the way it sought to enhance their social cohesion. For example, all members were expected to trade to and from foreign parts together, under company rule, rather than individually. No merchant of Bristol was to lade any ship, either at home or abroad, with any goods without the advice, assent, and license of the master and wardens or the approval of the majority of the membership. Company members were to share the same vessels for all their overseas traffic.[12] Moreover, the fellowship itself was to settle all controversies among its members. Twice every week, if necessary, the master and wardens were to call together the entire membership to discuss not only their “feats of marchaundises,” but also

to here complayntes and sett direccions accordyng to reason and good conscience bitweene partees of the same company beyng atte variaunce or debate, or to send the said parties with their causes as they have founde theym certifyed unto the maire of Bristowe…further to be ordred or directed as the case rightfully shall requyre.[13]

To further prevent members from going to law against each other, every merchant adventurer was forbidden to “vex trouble or sue” any of his brethren in any court before first bringing “the matier hangyng in variaunce” to the master and wardens. By relying on the common interests of each disputant in maintaining his reputation and goodwill with his fellow merchants, and by using the services of friends and partners to resolve disagreements quickly, the ordinance sought to preserve the internal harmony among the membership that it presupposed.[14]

Had this company of merchants accomplished all it set out to do, it would have given Bristol’s overseas traders a cohesive communal structure and a privileged organization on which to build their personal and business relationships. Unfortunately, no records of its activities have survived and nothing is known about how it met the economic crises that struck Bristol soon after its creation. It may well have continued to operate in some form throughout the first half of the sixteenth century. The mariners’ chapel, dedicated to St. Clement of Alexandria and built in 1493, with which the fellowship of 1500 was associated, survived intact until the dissolution of the chantries in 1549. The chapel’s property eventually became the site of the Merchant Venturers’ almshouse, established to perform the charitable functions associated with the original foundation. The ordinances of 1500 also passed into the hands of the Merchant Venturers as its earliest surviving documentary record. But by 1508 the city government’s powers to make ordinances regarding “the colouring of strangers goods” were already under challenge, and it may be that the merchant fellowship ceased to enforce its wide-ranging regulations on this subject soon thereafter. There is certainly no reference to it in the Common Council acts of 1520 and 1527 regarding “strangers goods.”[15] Perhaps the maintenance of the chapel provided sufficient institutional basis to keep the fellowship together.

In addition to experimenting with local companies during the century preceding 1552, Bristol’s merchants participated in the commercial organizations established during Henry VIII’s reign by English traders in Spain: the Brotherhood of St. George, founded at San Lucar de Barrameda in 1517 by letters patent from the duke of Medina Sidonia, and the Andalusia Company, founded by Henry VIII’s letters patent in 1530.[16] However, neither body possessed a constitution well suited to the needs and interests of the Bristol merchants. The privileges of the Brotherhood of St. George, for example, amounted to little more than the right to build a church at San Lucar and to elect a consul with authority to hear and decide civil and criminal cases, especially those arising from debts between Englishman and Englishman or Englishman and Spaniard.[17] Even the much more elaborately organized Andalusia Company was not ideally suited to the Bristolians, since its jurisdiction remained confined to traders in southern Spain, with no permanent organization in England itself, and its leadership was dominated by Londoners, whose interests were not always the same as those of provincial merchants. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Company ceased effective existence by the end of Henry VIII’s reign. All that was left of a once quite important organization was the consul of the English nation, who could hardly be effective without a united community behind him.[18]


previous chapter
Organizing the Society
next section