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The belief in the need to keep the craft of merchants separate from all others emerged, or reemerged, as a theme of Bristol’s life in the mid-1540s. Roger Edgeworth, the conservative city preacher, speaking at the end of Henry VIII’s reign, expanded on the principle that each man should remain within the vocation to which he had been called, exhorting his congregation

to medle not to muche with other mens occupations that you cannot skyll on, leaste whyle ye be so curious in other mens matters not perteininge to your lerning you decaye as well in your owne occupation, as in the other, so fallinge to penurye, extreme pouertye, and very beggery. For when a tayler forsakyng his owne occupation wyll be a marchant venterer, or a shomaker to become a groser, God sende him well to proue.[29]

The moral principle was hardly new—Plato had articulated it in his Republic—but the definition of what constituted a proper occupation is of some significance. Edgeworth is concerned with protecting crafts or arts with trading functions—merchants and grocers—from encroachment by those engaged in manufacturing. As we already know, “marchant venterer” was no ancient craft in the 1540s.[30]

But it was only in 1552 that this spirit was transformed into a plan to acquire a royal charter for the creation of a new company of merchants in Bristol. The principal movers were Edward Pryn, Thomas Hickes, and Robert Butler, all prominent Iberian merchants who called themselves “marchant Venterers” and who described their businesses “as putting themselves their factors servants goods and marchandice in perill uppon the Sea.”[31] To justify their request for letters patent, these men submitted a “lamentable petition” which, as is common with such documents, complained bitterly of a severe decay of trade. Bristol’s principal problem, according to the petitioners, was

that divers Artificers and men of manuell arte inhabitinge the saide Citty haveinge alsoe occupacions to get theire liveinge (whoe were never apprentice or brought upp to or in the recourse or trade of the arte of marchants…nor haveinge anie good knowledge in the same Arte) Doe commonly exercise use and occupie the saide recourse or trade of marchandize to and from the partes beyond the seas.[32]

As in 1500, the merchants desired to remove artificers from overseas trade and thereby convert the art of merchandise into a separate craft, although this time the complaints focused on the tradesmen’s lack of training and the consequent harm to the commonweal it caused, instead of their illicit dealings on behalf of strangers. Ignorant and untrained handicraftsmen who engaged in overseas trade, it was asserted, ordinarily relied for their business on foreign shipping, on board which English goods were secretly conveyed away to the defrauding of the royal Customs and the detriment “of the Navye and marriners and the porte of the saide Citty…and chiefly of the said marchants.”[33]

Most of Edward VI’s charter is devoted to incorporating the Society of Merchant Venturers as a legal entity. Unlike the merchant fellowship of 1500, this company was not merely authorized to elect its own officers and make its own ordinances, as any officially sanctioned city gild might do, but to have a common seal and to be “capeable and fitt in ye lawe” to act as a corporation in administering property and conducting its collective business in “perpetual succession.”[34] Nevertheless, it was not entirely independent of the city government, since each year its master and wardens were required to take a corporal oath before the mayor and aldermen, just as the officers of other, lesser gilds did. In addition, the jurisdiction of its ordinances was limited only to its own membership and to the “Misterie or Arte” of the merchant adventurers. As we shall see, this limitation created a loophole through which passed much of the city’s politics for the next century or more.[35]

Since the newly formed Society’s power to regulate trade was restricted, what gave it its life were the rights and rules governing membership. “[N]oe Artificer of the Citty,” the charter said,

shall exercise the recourse of marchandize into the kingdome or dominions of the parties beyond the seas unlesse he shalbee admitted into the said Societie and State [of Merchant Venturer] by the…Maister and wardens, Neither that any other but onelie those who have bine, or hereafter shalbee apprentice to ye saide Misterie or Arte of Marchaunts…or have used the same Misterie by the space of seauen yeeres.[36]

On its face, this amounted to a grant of monopoly in overseas trade to the Society’s membership, although it was not clear whether they could enforce it with their own ordinances. Moreover, it is not entirely certain who exactly were to be the beneficiaries of the grant, since the patent provides no list of members and does not define what was meant by merchant venturer. The exclusion of artificers barred those trained as craftsmen unless they had been expressly admitted to the Society. Were the members also to be “mere merchants,” as contemporary usage had it, who would devote their businesses entirely to wholesale dealings, eschewing even occasional retail transactions? We do not know. In the absence of company ordinances, all we can say for certain is that merchant venturers devoted themselves primarily to “adventuring” or risk-taking in overseas trade.[37]

Nevertheless, the question of membership stirred great controversy from the moment the Society was born. If only those who had been admitted to its fellowship indeed could legally trade beyond the seas, it was perhaps inevitable that those excluded would cry out against the loss. Fortunately, one document suggests some of the contested points. Among the papers kept with John Smythe’s ledger for 1538–1550 is a list of “such as be marchauntes and hath the sporonge of marchauntes,” which we have already examined for other purposes.[38] “Sporonge” here means “purse” or “credit.” These individuals, the author urges, were “not to be denied to be of the mystery.” This document apparently was written either just before or just after the founding of the Society, probably in opposition to the denial of admission to some of those mentioned. It is perhaps related to the “matter at variaunce” in February 1552 between Smythe and Thomas Chester, mayor of Bristol when the Society was founded, who was one of the most ardent harrowers of retailers later in his life.[39] As we know, the list gives the names of one hundred and twenty-seven individuals, considerably more than appear in most later lists of Merchant Venturers. Twenty of them were grocers, drapers, mercers, vintners, and haberdashers (Table 11). These occupations typically were retail trades dealing in relatively high-priced goods. Over time, of course, the more successful of these men may have given over their retailing to specialize in wholesale trade. In effect, they would have become “mere merchants,” who rarely if ever had to indulge in retail sales to reduce unwanted inventory or turn a quick profit. Hence their presence in the list, as summarized in Table 11, need not be a sign that the Society remained open to Bristolians who still operated primarily as shopkeepers. But the same cannot be said of the bakers, skinners, tailors, pewterers, and others who appear in Table 11 in the miscellaneous category. Nearly all of these sixteen men were known to have been practicing their craft during the middle years of Henry VIII’s reign and none appears to have become sufficiently wealthy in his subsequent career to have entirely abandoned this craft work.[40] These men, along with a few of the retailers, probably were marginal overseas traders who only occasionally ventured their capital or their goods in foreign markets.

11. John Smythe’s List of “Such as be
Marchauntes and Hath the Sporonge
of Marchauntes I Thinck Not to be Denyed
to be of the Mystery,” circa 1550
Occupation No. % of
Known Men
Source: Jean Vanes, ed., The Ledger of John Smythe, 1538–1550 (Bristol Record Society 28, 1974), pp. 315–17.
Merchants 52 59.09
Other large-scale dealers[a]
   Grocer 7 7.96
   Draper 7 7.96
   Mercer 3 3.41
   Haberdasher 1 1.14
   Vintner 2 2.27
     Total 20 22.73 [b]
   Scrivener 1 1.14
   Bookbinder 1 1.14
   Baker 3 3.41
   Brewer 1 1.14
   Ropemaker 1 1.14
   Tailor 2 2.27
   Tucker (clothier) 1 1.14
   Pewterer 2 2.27
   Skinner 2 2.27
   Saddler 1 1.14
   Soapmaker 1 1.14
    Total 16 18.18 [b]
       Total known 88 100.00
       Total unknown 39
      Total 127

We can get some measure of the significance of this matter by taking the tailors as an example. As an occupational group, they were primarily craftsmen, who worked to order and who were usually supplied the necessary fabric by their customers. But many were also retail shopkeepers who kept their own supplies of cloth and reserved to themselves the right to sell it by wholesale when they were overstocked.[41] The more adventuresome probably also kept supplies of linen, silk, velvet, lace, and ribbons, which were usually foreign wares. There was a temptation, then, for tailors to seek their own sources for these accessories to their craft, and it seems likely that the two tailors who appear in the list did so on a sufficiently regular basis to warrant their inclusion. Similar stories can be told for almost all the other handicrafts represented in the list. Hence even if all the merchants, grocers, drapers, mercers, haberdashers, and vintners in Table 11 dealt exclusively by wholesale—an unlikely prospect—the author of the list apparently contemplated the inclusion of some craftsmen in the membership of the new Society. This viewpoint apparently won the day in 1552. According to Bristol’s tuckers, Edward VI’s charter did not exclude all shopkeepers and artisans from participation. It failed, they said, “to make the marchants and [sic] Crafte.”[42]

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