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During the Elizabethan and early Stuart period, Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers stood at the center of the highly energized field of forces in which the city was situated. As we have already indicated, the Society was never a simple commercial organization. With its membership drawn from the city’s social elite and with many of its leaders also serving on the Common Council of the city, often as mayor and aldermen, it not only performed social functions but also regularly crossed from the realm of economic profit narrowly construed into the realm of political power and back again. For this reason, the Society should be seen metaphorically as the very heart of Bristol’s body politic in this era; it kept up the pressure and gave impetus to the fluid political forces that circulated through the community. Although in their communal relations most Bristolians no doubt found disharmony and dissension illegitimate and abhorrent, the Society’s receipt of royal letters patent in 1552 set in motion a recurring process of conflict, accommodation, and renewed conflict that was the defining feature of the city’s history in this period.

The privileges granted to the Merchant Venturers by Edward VI did not take long to erode. By early in Elizabeth I’s reign, some of the city’s artificers and retail shopkeepers were openly offering resistance to the Society’s newfound authority. In 1566, the Merchant Venturers responded by acquiring a royal confirmation of their letters patent and by obtaining a parliamentary statute to strengthen their corporate powers.[3] The principal issue for the Merchant Venturers was that Edward VI’s grant had provided no penalties against nonmembers who engaged in overseas trade contrary to its terms. Hence, the Merchant Venturers said, many in the city, “being neither admitted into the saide Society” nor apprenticed “to the same Arte by the space of Seaven yeares,” continued to “exercise recourse of merchaundise beyond the Seas” contrary to “the good intention” and “expresse words” of the letters patent, “to the great hindraunce and decay of all the…Cittie.”[4] In response, the statute granted the Society explicit enforcement authority against violators of its charter and strictly limited the membership to those engaged exclusively in wholesale trade. The Society was to be made up of mere merchants and mere merchants alone.[5]

This parliamentary act had explosive effects in Bristol. Almost immediately, violent protests arose from various quarters about its terms. The Tuckers’ gild openly complained that they were the result of a “sutell fetch” by William Carr and Thomas Chester, the city’s two members of Parliament in 1566, who used petitions for the relief of poverty from the clothworkers of the city to persuade the Privy Council “that the cheffe decay of bristowe was for that the marchauntes and the navigacion of the Cytie and porte weare in decay by meanes of so many occupying unto the sea in the trade of marchaundise and did lade uppon Strayngers bottomes and having non experyence ne skyll therein” and thus “optayned to be a crafte.”[6] This bitterness quickly turned into a determination to have the new statute quashed whenever the next parliament was convened.

Maneuverings began before the municipal elections on 15 September 1570, in expectation that there would soon be a new Parliament, which had been under consideration by Sir William Cecil and the Privy Council since the previous February.[7] Three days before the annual city elections, a new ordinance on nominations to office was passed by the Bristol Common Council to assure that ordinary common councillors would have nominees they could support.[8] This aim was to wrest control of the city elections from the previous mayor, the same Thomas Chester who as a member of Parliament in 1566 had helped to procure passage of the Merchant Venturers statute. With their own men in municipal office, the anti-monopolists hoped to control the upcoming elections for Parliament and assure a favorable representation for their position. The gambit worked. When the writs for the election of MPs were finally issued in February 1571, the mayor’s office belonged to William Tucker, clothier, and one of the two sheriffs’ places belonged to John Barnes, another clothier, whom Tucker had nominated. Of the leading elective offices, only the second sheriff’s post was held by a merchant, William Hickes, closely associated with the city’s leading Spanish traders, who had been nominated by Chester in his capacity as outgoing mayor.[9]

Despite these preparations, the parliamentary elections themselves proved extremely divisive, “so that the Sheriffs were at great debate a long time after.”[10] The two MPs from 1566, Chester and William Carr, both mere merchants, were opposed by John Popham, a prominent West Country lawyer who was also Bristol’s recorder, and Philip Langley, a grocer who lived by retail as well as wholesale. In the end, Popham and Langley were the victors. In addition, John Young, a client of the earl of Pembroke and a prominent gentleman resident in Bristol, sat for Old Sarum and stood ready to speak for the Bristol retailers. He and Popham could be counted on to hold their own with the Privy Council and in Parliament against any counterattack from the mere merchants. With the backing of the mayor speaking officially for the commonalty of the city,[11] these three MPs therefore enjoyed a good chance of securing the repeal of the 1566 statute. But the Merchant Venturers were not without their own resources.

The “Bill for Bristowe,” as the Commons Journal refers to the repeal measure, was formally introduced into Parliament on 10 April, only eight days after the beginning of the session. In the estimation of John Hooker, chamberlain of Exeter and one of its members in this Parliament, “among the private bills” considered in this session “none was more important.”[12] At the time of its introduction, Sir James Croft, recently appointed comptroller of the queen’s household and privy councillor, attempted to compromise the differences between the Bristol merchants and their rivals by asking that “both parties might bee heard and the controversie appeased.”[13] This opened the door for the merchants, who showed immediately that they had taken pains on their own behalf. Since they had no voice among the Bristol MPs, they enlisted the aid of William Fleetwood, recorder of London and one of the more experienced and flamboyant parliamentary speakers, who did not let them down. In a characteristically loquacious and wide-ranging speech, he quickly “entred into a good discourse of the prerogative.” His argument, after it is stripped of its willful obfuscation and its citation of numerous precedents from the reigns of Edward I, Edward III, Henry IV, and the Irish Parliament, made the point that prerogative “might…bee touched, if they should enter to overthroughe her letters patentes, to whom by law there is power given to encorporat any towne,” and, he warned, perhaps from his own experience in the previous Parliament, “she is sworn to preserve her prerogative.”[14]

Fleetwood’s principal opponent in debate was John Young, who, according to John Hooker, “very pithely” presented the case for repeal of the 1566 act,

first shewinge the losse which hath growne to the Queene of her customes; then the private monopoly wrought and occasioned by the Marchants, the controversies which have ensued by this means amonge them; then the subtill meanes whereby the statute was procured without the consent of the Maior and commons of the city.[15]

After Young, the matter was debated in somewhat confusing fashion by a number of prominent Parliament men, during which it was alleged by Popham in answer to Fleetwood that through the Bristol company “the publick and free trading of others was restrained.” Although the queen by the due exercise of her prerogative could create a body with special privileges, Popham said, by “the Greate Charter of England” she could not, according to this argument, harm any of her subjects by her grant.[16] Fleetwood, recognizing that his point had suffered a serious political setback, if not also a legal one, closed the day’s debate by obtaining a delay in the appointment of a committee to take up the bill.[17] In the interval, however, he was not able to find support for quashing the measure, though his efforts did assure that when the committee was finally appointed it would hear “both parties” touching the bill and that he would be among its membership.[18]

Thereafter the bill experienced extremely tough going. In committee, which included Young and Popham and an important group of interested members as well as Fleetwood,[19] the merchants, represented by learned counsel, attacked it vigorously but could convince the MPs only to change some of its words, which were deemed “somewhat sharp,” not to amend it in “substance or matter.” Nevertheless, when it was read for the third time it was only “after many Arguments” that it finally passed “upon the Question.”[20] Nor did this end the controversy, for the measure also met considerable resistance when it was sent up to the Lords, where it was immediately committed on its first reading without being engrossed. The presence on the committee of seven privy councillors, including Burleigh, Leicester, and the Lord High Admiral, indicates that it had caused a great stir among the queen’s leading advisers. This committee kept the bill for fifteen days without amending it in substance. During the interval the queen’s officers appear to have sought to calm the Bristol anti-monopolists in their passion for vengeance by binding their principal spokesman, Philip Langley, and others to obey orders of the Privy Council concerning, as we are told, “the trade of marchandize of Bristowe.”[21] Once this had been done, the “Bill for Bristowe” received its final reading and was approved.[22]

The terms of the act as they finally appear in the statute book indicate that John Young’s arguments in the Commons had been convincing. According to the preamble, the monopoly of the Merchant Venturers had enhanced the prices of “all maner of merchandize,” consumed the wealth of the city, and caused the customs to be reduced and the navy decayed,

for that a great many of welthye inhabitantes and citizens of the said citie which before that tyme occupied greate stockes were thereby cut of[f] from the trade of the Seas. And thereof followith that the poore craftes men are not wrought as they might be to the great ruyn and decay of all the saide Cittye and theinhabitauntes of the same and to the great damage of the countrye envyroning the same.[23]

In remedy, the act ordered full restoration of “the wonted libertye of the said citizens…to trafficke for merchaundize beyond the Seas.”[24] But it left the original charters intact, “to have their validitie according to the lawe,” as Popham argued.[25]

In 1566 the issue between the Society and its opponents was cast as a rivalry between “Merchant Venturers” and “Artificers” who had not been trained in the art of merchandise. But it was not poor handicraftsmen but middlemen who were the primary target of the merchants’ monopoly. The tuckers, for example, became engaged in the debate not so much as manufacturers of finished cloth but as clothiers who organized production and interposed themselves between those who made the cloth and those who bought it in the market. We have already seen that as their new role evolved they had acquired a trading function which included the importation of such raw materials as oil and dyestuffs and the export of finished cloth. Soapmakers became enmeshed in the controversy because they too had developed an interest in trade, including the import of olive oil to supply their workshops. But given the new structure of Bristol’s trading economy, with its heavy emphasis on profits from imports, the main focus was on the retailing of these wares. When the Merchant Venturers fought for their monopoly their principal targets were grocers, mercers, haberdashers, vintners, and soapmakers, who dealt in imported wares. Dealers in domestic commodities, such as chandlers, victualers, and even drapers and clothiers, were not directly mentioned in the parliamentary debates.[26]

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the members of the Society had conceived of Bristol’s mercantile community as a great chain of being, with themselves mediating between the domestic and the international market. As John Browne wrote in his Marchants Avizo during Queen Elizabeth I’s great war with Spain,

…when the marchant was free,
His ventures for to make:
Then every art in his degree
Some gaines thereof did take.
The merchant made the clothier rich
By venting of his cloth:
The Clothier then sets many at worke
And helpeth every craft.
The Grocer and the Vintner
The Mercer profit reape:
When Spices, Silks and Wines, come store
By Marchants ventures great.[27]

At bottom, the merchant monopolists saw the art of merchandise as a craft “where in there is more skill than every man judges.” If handicraftsmen and shopkeepers were to overturn this order, economic chaos would ensue. “Unskilfullness in merchandies and great numbers going over the seas,” the Merchant Venturers argued, “must greatly abase our English commodities and advance the price of foreign wares; for the more there are to sell there, the worse market they will make, and the more buyers of strange commodities the dearer they must be.” “The rich retailers,” moreover, “must needs undo all the poorer sort who do not venture, and eat out the mere merchants, who have but those to whom they make their vent.”[28] The inevitable results would be the decay of trade, the loss of shipping, the diminution of the navy, the decline of the royal customs, the unemployment of clothworkers and others, and the collapse of all charity. We can almost hear them say, “Take but degree away, untune that string, / And hark what discord follows.”[29]

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