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Although the repeal of the 1566 act removed the Merchant Venturers from the parliamentary agenda for the time being, it did not end the turmoil in Bristol. Within twelve days of the dissolution of Parliament, the bitter rivalry between the merchants and their opponents surfaced again. On 10 June, Mayor William Tucker reported to the Common Council that Thomas Chester had been behind the appeal to the Privy Council “to have reasonable articles drawen as well for the Norishinge of Aymitie betweene the marchants of this Citie and other Inhabitants of the same As for the makinge and concludinge of good orders for the Comon Welthe and profit of the same citie.” It was this effort that resulted in Langley and Bristol’s other anti-monopolists becoming bound to the Privy Council for their obedience to its orders. Chester’s participation in that search for accommodation is significant. Despite his evident support for the Merchant Venturers’ monopoly, he was the son of a pointmaker and had close ties with the city’s clothworkers. He had also been associated in a business venture with John Young.[34] Hence he was well placed to calm the political seas in Bristol. Nevertheless, his efforts were a failure; the Common Council majority seems to have had deep suspicions of his motives, as well as strong partisan feelings of their own. In response to Tucker’s announcement, a majority of twenty common councillors ordered the chamberlain to draw a bond “to save harmless” those who stood bound to the Privy Council.[35]

We are fortunate in knowing the names and something of the connections of these twenty men, whom we may identify as Bristol’s anti-monopoly faction. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mayor Tucker headed the list with Sheriff John Barnes; as we know, both of these men were clothiers. In addition, three aldermen were in this group, all of them grocers. Of the remaining fifteen, the occupations of fourteen are known. Four were grocers, two were clothiers or drapers, two were mercers, two were coverlet makers and upholsterers; a tailor, a tanner, a skinner, and a soapmaker made up the rest. No one among this group could be identified as a “mere merchant” by the usual standards. This party of anti-monopolists was also a relatively tight-knit social group which had strong interlocking ties of business association, family, and friendship. But the anti-monopolist party in the city was not primarily a social clique isolated from the major overseas merchants by birth, marriage, and commercial connection. Although the ties of its members with the merchants were neither so numerous nor so strong, regular cross-cutting links bound Bristol’s retailers and industrial middlemen to the leading Merchant Venturers.[36] But in 1571, political and economic circumstances drove these social bonds into the background and made connections with other retailers and manufacturing entrepreneurs more important. The key to the anti-monopolists is not the social relations of its members with each other, but their opposition to the Society of Merchant Venturers.

Because family connections and other social ties reinforced the economic interests of the Society’s opponents, the political wounds of 1571 went very deep. Bitterness lingered for more than a year following the dissolution of Parliament, with contentious debates marring a number of council sessions as merchants and their opponents angrily attacked each other with “contumelious words.” This was a period in which calling someone “knave in his ear,” as George Snygg, merchant, did to John Jones, skinner, or claiming “you belie me,” as Philip Langley said to Alderman Robert Saxey, one of the leading Merchant Venturers, could itself become the cause of violent hatred. Even levying fines against the wrongdoers, as the Common Council quickly did on each occasion, could not completely erase the dishonor associated with the public insult.[37] Nor was the spirit of partisan rage limited to a few individuals. In April 1572 the Common Council majority sought to avenge itself in a fiscal way on their Merchant Venturer opponents by ordering a tax of eight pence in the pound on all inhabitants, to cover Philip Langley’s charges for repealing the 1566 statute. Had this extraordinary levy ever been enforced, it could have been used by the assessors to cripple those with cash reserves and well-stocked storerooms, that is to say, principally the merchants.[38] But before the council majority executed the ordinance, calmer heads seem to have prevailed and the tax measure was repealed in favor of an award to Langley of just £50 for his expenses at the last Parliament.[39]

But even this prudent backing away from further confrontation did not end the troubles. Within just five years new controversies were at work in the city. They came with the establishment of the Spanish Company in 1577. This new commercial organization was founded with powers greatly surpassing those that had belonged to its predecessor, the Andalusia Company of 1530.[40] Like the Andalusia, however, the Spanish Company’s main purpose was to give England’s Spanish merchants a common policy and single voice with which to face the difficult conditions they found in the Iberian peninsula. Plans for establishing the Company were well underway as early as 1573, and although it was Londoners who primarily pressed the Privy Council for new letters patent, a party of Bristolians seems to have joined them.[41] Recent experience had unfortunately made the latter all too aware of the need for a protective organization in Counter-Reformation Spain: the religious persecution and subsequent legal problems of their fellow townsman, John Frampton, a resident factor in Andalusia, had touched the goods many had left in his charge.[42]

The new Spanish Company also filled an even more important need for the Bristol Merchant Venturers, since retailers and artificers were expressly excluded from membership.[43] Bristol had its own branch of the Company, including resident assistants to enforce ordinances. Hence membership provided the mere merchants with a way to rebuild their monopolistic control of local trade, so heavily dependent in this period on Spain, without controlling the Common Council or electing supporters to Parliament.[44] However, the participation of Bristol’s mere merchants in the new Spanish Company quickly reopened the battles of 1571 and 1572. The Bristol membership was headed by Alderman Robert Saxey and Thomas Chester, the latter being named among the three Bristol assistants to the Company. Many of the other members were also among the principal protagonists in the earlier dispute. It was perhaps inevitable, therefore, that there would be trouble when in August 1577 the Privy Council ordered Chester and three other Bristol members “to require all such of that cittie as are retaylers and artificers trading Spaigne to forbeare any more traffique in that countrye.”[45]

Since the queen’s councillors stood ready to use their extensive powers to back the new Company’s privileges and ordinances, open resistance was no longer a fruitful course for the city’s merchant retailers. For this reason Langley and the others ostensibly accepted restrictions on their retailing as the condition of their continued participation in the Spanish trade. But rather than giving up their retail activities, they took them underground. By December 1578, Langley and his supporters were again subject to the attentions of the Privy Council, which at the request of the Merchant Venturers commanded the mayor and sheriffs of Bristol, with the assistance of their brethren on the Common Council, to call the merchant retailers before them and advise them “to yeilde to suche order as by that Societie hath ben taken against that kynde of retailing.” If they refused, the mayor and sheriffs were to take bonds from them “to her Majesties use for…apparence fourthwith before their Lordships that such order may be taken…as shalbe thought convenient.”[46] If they could not be persuaded to comply, they would be constrained.

Neither Langley nor his allies appear to have found the prospect of a visit to the Council Board very attractive. Faced with the Privy Council’s threat, they yielded. When a year or so later a similar dispute regarding the Spanish Company’s prohibitions against retailing opened in Chester and spread to Liverpool, the Bristolians refrained from using it as an occasion for renewed protests of their own.[47] By the early 1580s the local branch of the Spanish Company was vigorously enforcing its rules, placing violators in the Bristol Newgate, and levying heavy fines against interlopers, without encountering the leading merchant retailers again.[48] Although this fact does not necessarily mean that Langley and the others had entirely left off overseas trading or completely abandoned their retailing, it does suggest that by the 1580s retailing by merchants had been sharply curtailed and that an accommodation had been reached between the mere merchants and their rivals.

Dependent as the Bristol Merchant Venturers had become upon the privileges of the Spanish Company, however, their renewed local monopoly could not survive for long after war broke out between the English and the Spanish in 1585. Although trade with Spain did not cease during the war years, it took place illicitly through French ports and was so closely associated with privateering as to make the two almost indistinguishable. Since war made trading in Spain and Portugal more risky and more costly, there were also increased incentives to push commerce into the Mediterranean and in general to rely on non-Spanish and non-Portuguese markets for business. At the same time, the scarcity of Iberian goods in the market increased the pressure among merchants to indulge in retail enterprise; doing so helped make up lost profits. Even if the Spanish Company had continued to operate, its ability to discipline its members would have been all but destroyed. But the authority of the Company did not simply erode under the pressure of war; it collapsed. In May 1586 the Privy Council was already complaining of the Company’s failure to meet its obligations, and by February 1589 its general court had ceased to meet; thereafter no financial accounts were kept. With it went the effective existence of the Bristol branch. In whatever capacity the Merchant Venturers managed to stay together during the 1590s, and there is evidence that the Society did survive through the war years, their hard battles of the 1570s had been for naught.[49]

With the succession of James I and the end of open hostilities with Spain that followed, the Spanish Company attempted a revival. Official meetings began in March 1604, and by mid-May assistants for the principal outports were named, including John Barker and John Hopkins for Bristol.[50] But almost immediately a hitch occurred when a group of leading merchant retailers in London, perhaps joined by others from the outports, entered objections with the Privy Council against the Spanish Company’s old privileges, arguing that its charter had become “voyde by Non User, during the longe tyme of Contynuance of the warr, which doth therefore dissolve the said Corporation.” To quiet this rather technical complaint and to forestall difficulties from the outports to which it opened the door, new letters patent were issued in May 1605, granting provincial merchants a larger role in this Company than they had enjoyed in its predecessor. There were now to be sixty-one assistants, in place of the forty established in 1577, with thirty from the outports and thirty from London. Since the remaining place belonged to the Company’s secretary, who was also a Londoner, the merchants of the metropolis remained in control. But among the new Company’s five hundred and fifty-seven original members, only two hundred and thirty-seven were Londoners. The Bristolians fared especially well, with ninety-seven members, four of whom were appointed to the first Court of Assistants.[51]

By early June 1605 the new Spanish Company was once again capable of filling the role it had played earlier for the Bristol Merchant Venturers. Not only had the new climate of relations between England and Spain resulted in the confirmation of the old English privileges in the Iberian peninsula, but the Company showed every intention of once again eliminating retailers from the Iberian trades. It instituted its own campaign to end the practice of partnership between mere merchants and retailers,[52] and it secured from the earl of Dorset, Lord Treasurer, a broadly worded order to the Customers prohibiting them from taking

any entry of any merchaundizes to be transported into Spaine or Portugall, or make any agreement for Custome, but only with such as are or shalbe free of that Company, and thereby excluding all retaylours Artificers Inholders ffarmors Comon Marryners and handycrafts men, out of the said society.[53]

Former retailers were not permitted to join until they had been mere merchants for at least seven years, while all present members were to give over their retailing activities or leave the Company.[54] But there is perhaps more here than meets the eye, for the initial enumeration of the membership seems to have been based on a rather more generous interpretation of mere merchant status than before, at least in the case of Bristol. In 1577 there had been but seventy-five Bristolians named to the Spanish Company; in 1618 there were but seventy-two Bristolians listed as Merchant Venturers in its first official membership roll.[55] It is very likely, therefore, that the ninety-six men named in 1605 included among their number more than a few whom the Bristol mere merchants would have rejected as ineligible. Possibly the refounded Spanish Company was seeking to avoid the troubles with the larger merchant retailers that had punctuated the life of its predecessor in the later 1570s and early 1580s.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of Bristol’s history in the early Jacobean age, it matters little whether the new Company was harshly exclusionary or generously welcoming, since only a minority of the city’s leading merchants were enthusiastic participants in its affairs. Of the four Bristol assistants, for example, only John Whitson, who was in London in 1605 as one of the city’s members of Parliament, ever attended meetings of the fellowship, perhaps because he found its new admissions policies to his liking. But even he did so just three times.[56] The Bristolians’ indifference, if not caused by the liberal membership policies of the new Company, resulted from two other interrelated factors. First, the city’s trading interests were less heavily based in the Iberian peninsula than they had been before the war. It was no longer possible to control the city’s economy by controlling this one aspect of it. And, second, they were suspicious of the Londoners, in part because the Bristolians feared that the merchants of the capital would control the new trade between Newfoundland, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Mediterranean, in which Bristol and other western ports had a geographical advantage, and in part because it was still necessary to appeal to London many important Company matters vital to the Bristolians’ interests.[57] With the Mediterranean and trans-Atlantic trades playing an ever greater role in Bristol’s economy, there simply was less reason to rely for help upon a London-dominated corporation.

Two months after the sealing of the Spanish Company’s new charter, the question of London’s role produced an incisive protest from the merchants of the outports, led by those from Exeter, Plymouth, and Barnstable, who wanted to elect their own officers, make their own ordinances, and admit their own freemen rather than going to the Company in London.[58] In response the Company agreed that each branch could lay down its own bylaws, provided they were ratified by a general court in London before being put into execution. It also decided to send officers to the outports to enroll new apprentices and freemen and to swear in local officials rather than requiring them to come to London for the purpose.[59] This seemingly conciliatory approach apparently encouraged Whitson to attend his last two London meetings, in hopes probably of keeping the Company alive in Bristol.[60] But by now the majority of Bristol’s merchants were determined to take no further part in it. When the Company’s agents arrived in the city in September to swear in the local officers, the Bristolians, who had elected their own officers the previous May, refused to submit to the agents’ authority or the orders of the Company, pretending, as the Londoners said, “to stande and governe of themselves.”[61]

After this action the dénouement was not long in coming. On 31 December 1605, the Bristol Common Council regularized the independent existence of the local merchant company with a remarkable ordinance requiring the “merchant adventurers” of the city to exempt themselves from the London-based company and establishing in its place a company of merchant adventurers

to be ordered and governed amongest them selves by such Orders Constitutions and pollycyes as shalbe hereafter set downe and agreed on by the Mayor aldermen and Common Counsell…according to the Charters of the said Cytie and by the Master Wardens Communytee and Corporacon of merchaunts within the Cytie of Bristoll.[62]

In place of membership in a chartered national company with large and secure powers, the Merchant Venturers had decided to reestablish themselves on a purely local basis.

The Common Council ordinance of 1605 represents a remarkable turn of events in the history we have been following. For over a century, commercial organization in Bristol had oscillated between purely local institutions and participation in one or another national company. The first approach rooted Bristol’s trade in the civic polity; the second recognized the city’s connections to the wider world of commerce and industry in the realm. As the city’s trade networks expanded, the available forms of national organization, focused as they were on controlling particular markets, had become less and less useful to its mere merchants, but so too had reliance on civic authority. Nevertheless, the Merchant Venturers now had in essence been refounded by a Common Council ordinance; its powers to enforce its regulations rested on the city’s right to legislate for the well-being of its burgesses. The presence on the council of a powerful contingent of merchants made this arrangement eminently workable. But the Society’s new status was not much different now from that of an ordinary craft gild. In legal terms, Bristol’s merchants had returned to their position of a century before. They were once again dependent upon the Bristol Corporation for their regulatory powers.

If history had thus repeated itself, it was only to a very limited degree. The urban world into which the merchant company of 1500 had been introduced could still be represented in that period as a self-contained community of brothers in which the general welfare of the polity took precedence over the particular good of any of its members. Although even at this early date the city’s gates were already opening to commerce from southern Europe and the Atlantic, the effects of this revolution on social organization and mental outlook were only just becoming apparent. By 1605, however, Bristol was completely enmeshed in an open-ended commercial network, ramified throughout western Europe and the north Atlantic, and its inhabitants were therefore affected by events in places far from the control of their local government. Its merchants in particular were as much citizens of the world as freemen of Bristol. To reintroduce a local trading company into this new commercial context was not merely anachronistic, or even reactionary; it was also radical. In borrowing ideas from a past age to advance particular interests in the present one, the Common Council sought to grant the merchants effective control of these new trading networks and to place the new pattern of merchant domination in the social and political order of the city. Given the bitter antagonisms engendered by such monopolistic aspirations, it could not hope to succeed without a fight. Before long one was in the offing.

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