Preferred Citation: Sacks, David Harris. The Widening Gate: Bristol and the Atlantic Economy, 1450-1700. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

Opening the Way, 1450–1650

1. Opening the Way, 1450–1650

1. Feats of Merchandise

At the end of the seventeenth century Bristol was, after London, the preeminent Atlantic port in England. Two centuries before, it had been the first seafaring town from which Englishmen had sailed in search of the Northwest Passage. These facts make it tempting to think of Bristol as destined by geography and history “for the role of Empire builder.”[1] But such a view obscures more than it explains. It assumes that Bristol’s Atlantic commerce grew steadily and along a predetermined natural course, like a great tree from a seed, when in fact its growth was the result of no single developmental process. As Bristol became increasingly involved in trans-Atlantic enterprise, the world around it also changed. In consequence, the events that account for the city’s rise as a center of exploration at the close of the Middle Ages bear little relation to those that explain its dominant position as a colonial entrepôt at the time of the Glorious Revolution. During these centuries Bristol’s history was, nevertheless, inextricably intertwined with that of the Atlantic world. Most of the tale, however, is of a mundane character, involving the workaday activities of conventional traders engaging in the steady pursuit of profit along well-traveled avenues of commerce on the Atlantic shores of Europe—what early sixteenth-century Bristolians themselves called “feats of marchaundises.”[2] Innovations, when they came, were more often the consequence of makeshift efforts to cope with immediate social and economic problems than the result of heroic actions by seafaring adventurers or bold commercial experiments by rationalizing entrepreneurs. The story begins with the close of the Hundred Years’ War, thirty years before the first voyages in quest of newfound lands, and its opening chapter takes us from the so-called economic depression of the fifteenth century to the tobacco boom of the early seventeenth century.

In the early fifteenth century there was no question of Bristol’s place among English commercial cities.[3] Although it could not hope to match the wealth and distinction of London, it was at the very height of its vigor, as was manifest in the grandeur and elegance of the church of St. Mary, Redcliffe, beautified by William Canynges’s benefactions.[4] Indeed, Canynges, probably the richest Bristolian of this period, easily rivaled any merchant in the realm.[5] Many of his Bristol contemporaries, such as Thomas Strange, Robert Sturmy, or John Jay, though hardly as wealthy, were themselves great merchants capable of risking vast fortunes in ventures into untried waters.[6] But this picture is somewhat false, since from the middle of the century the foundations of this medieval prosperity had been shattered by events the Bristolians could not control.

Throughout the later Middle Ages Gascony was Bristol’s principal market. From the very start the demand for wine was at the heart of this traffic. It was imported through the city at least as early as King John’s reign, when it began to supplant the vintages of Picardy on the English table. During the fourteenth century, the relationship between Gascony and Bristol deepened as Bordeaux and other Gascon ports became major outlets for English cloth, with Bristol responsible for the largest part of this traffic.[7] Indeed, in Gascony cloth and wine stood in symbiotic relation with one another, with the former serving as the principal medium of exchange used in acquiring the latter. In consequence, the trade levels in the two commodities displayed the same rhythm of upward and downward movement.[8] To a large degree this pattern in Bristol’s trade persisted throughout the first half of the fifteenth century.[9] To be sure, Bristolians were rapidly developing new commercial interests in the Iberian peninsula, especially in Portugal,[10] but this expansion rested firmly upon the solid ground provided by the city’s Gascon trade.

The key to this long-term commercial relationship was its security. So long as Bordeaux and its environs remained the possession of the English Crown, English and Gascon merchants were specially protected in each other’s home districts. In peacetime the trade was as certain as the changing of the seasons. Each fall, large convoys of English vessels, sometimes amounting to fifty ships or more, could be expected to arrive for the new vintage. Small communities of Gascon merchants resided in Bristol and nearly every other English port that dealt with the wine districts, while, for their part, the English enjoyed advantageous trading rights in Gascony. At various periods, including most of the first half of the fifteenth century, the English were even able to trade their own wares duty-free in Gascony. In addition, the English king was anxious to sustain close and friendly relations with his prized French dependency. In times of dearth he invariably licensed shipments of English grain, even when supplies were scarce at home. With this guarantee of necessary food supplies, and with the certainty of a large English market in which to sell wine, the Gascons were free to devote nearly every available plot of land to the cultivation of the vine. In turn, the English supplied cloth as well as grain to Bordeaux and its environs.[11] This trade provided the principal market for Bristol’s cloth merchants. Cargoes sent to Gascony consisted almost entirely of woolen fabric, with only small quantities of hides, fish, and coal making up the exports used to purchase wine. At Bordeaux this link between cloth and wine was so intimate that the one was often bartered directly for the other by Bristolians.[12]

In the mid-fifteenth century, these ties were rent asunder by the English defeat in the Hundred Years’ War. The final stages took more than fifteen years to complete. Until 1438, the Bordelais itself had been relatively free of the devastation of war. But the destructive invasion of marauding bands of soldiers in that year ended this period of immunity, and an era of marked instability in trade ensued. In 1449 the battles were renewed almost at the very moment of the vintage. Bordeaux fell to the French in June 1451, only to be recovered in the autumn of the following year. Finally, in July 1453 the French again seized the city, this time for good. Although trade persisted at reduced levels throughout the period of fighting and immediately thereafter, in the fall of 1455 it was almost completely brought to a halt by French cutbacks in the issuance of safe-conducts to the English. The impact of this new policy was devastating. Between 1453 and 1455 Bristol had imported an average of over seventeen hundred tons of wine per year (Table 1). For the six subsequent years, however, imports were only half this figure. The cloth trade suffered the same setback, with an annual average shipment in the 1460s almost 40 percent below what had been common in the first half of the century (Table 2).[13]

1. Nonsweet Wine Trade, 1400-1500
(Five-year Averages to the Nearest Ton)
Mich.–Mich. Bristol London Southampton Devon Ports
Source: M. K. James, Studies in the Medieval Wine Trade, ed. E. M. Veale, with introduction by E. M. Carus-Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 112–15.
1400–1405[a] 1,452 3,853 698 337[b]
1405–1410 1,255 3,788 1,262 682 [c]
1410–1415 1,144 5,646 1,420 621
1415–1420 1,357 5,584 1,692[d] 611
1420–1425[e] 1,940 4,325 831 421
1425–1430[f] 1,129 4,013 665 326
1430–1435 1,258 3,493[g] 532 659
1435–1440[h] 1,255 2,626 332 397[i]
1440–1445 2,411 4,135 997[j] 575
1445–1450 1,915 2,855[k] 723 595
    Annual avg. 1,499 4,098 947 563
1450–1455 1,810 2,520 438 270
1455–1460 814 1,409 340 132
1460–1465 834 2,013 502 240
1465–1470 1,075[l] 1,900 489 300
1470–1475 [m] 1,828 688[n] 193
1475–1480 1,549 [o] 2,592 746 [n] 336 [p]
1480–1485 1,323[q] 3,511[r] 517 458 [s]
1485–1490 1,627 3,359 407 426
1490–1495 2,201 3,567 350 595
1495–1500 2,197 3,621 330[t] 838
     Annual avg. 1,504 2,614 487 377
No figures are available for 1400–1403.Figures for 1404–1405 are incomplete and not used.Figures for 1405–1407 are incomplete and not used.Figures for 1415–1416 are incomplete and not used.Denizen subsidy ceased 31 August 1422 to 31 July 1425, hence the figures for 1421–1425 are not used.Denizen subsidy ceased 11 November 1427 to 5 December 1429, hence the figures for 1427–1429 are not used. Figures for 1433–1434 are incomplete and not used.Denizen subsidy ceased 11 November 1436 to 1 April 1437, hence the figures for 1436–1437 are not used. Figures for 1437–1438 are incomplete and not used.Figures for 1442–1443 are incomplete and not used.Figures for 1448–1449 are incomplete and not used.Figures for 1466–1467 are missing.Figures are available only for 1470–1471 (765 tuns).Figures for 1474–1475 and 1475–1476 have been estimated by dividing the single figure of 1926 tuns given for the two years together. Figures for 1475–1477 are missing.Figures for 1475–1476 are missing; figures for 1476–1477 are incomplete and not used.Figures for 1484–1485 are missing.Figures for 1482–1483 are incomplete and not included.Figures for 1483–1485 are missing.Figures for 1498–1500 are missing.
2. Cloth Exports, 1400-1500
(Decennial Averages to the Nearest Whole Cloth of Assize)
  Bristol London Southampton Exeter
Mich.–Mich. No. cloths (% denizen) No. cloths (% denizen) No. cloths (% denizen) No. cloths (% denizen)
Source: Compiled from E. M. Carus-Wilson and Olive Coleman, England’s Export Trade, 1275–1547 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 97–111.
1400–1410 3,079 (98.7) 13,845[a] (41.9) 5,639[b] (12.8) 307 (85.1)[c]
1410–1420 2,281 (99.1) 13,595 (30.0) 2,284 (34.7) 471 (88.0)  
1420–1430 4,427 (99.3) 17,155 (32.2) 6,154 (27.9) 386 (88.6)  
1430–1440 4,087 (99.8) 17,597 (49.8) 8,414 (15.9) 1,122 (93.3)  
1440–1450 5,106 (98.6) 19,082 (43.0) 9,957 (19.0) 1,875 (96.8)[d]  
Annual avg. 3,796 (99.1) 16,304 (39.8) 6,507 (20.0) 824 (93.1)  
1450–1460 3,355 (98.5) 16,444 (50.1)[e] 7,058 (21.3) 1,256 (98.9)[f]  
1460–1470 2,413 (97.3)[g] 18,308 (61.9)[e] 5,233 (18.9) 946 (93.8)  
1470–1480 5,052 (98.7)[h] 28,886 (57.2) 3,972 (23.4) 1,241 (87.6)[i]  
1480–1490 5,245 (92.4)[j] 35,909 (42.5) 1,345 (38.7) 3,021 (76.1)  
1490–1500 6,515 (95.5) 39,495 (43.0)[k] 3,346 (28.1)[l] 3,893 (87.0)  
Annual avg. 4,522 (95.8) 27,322 (49.5) 4,226 (23.2) 2,124 (85.7)  
Figures for 1400–1401 are missing.Figures for 1401–1402 are missing.Figures for 1404–1405 are incomplete and not used; 1407–1408 includes Plymouth until 11 August 1408.Figures for 1449–1450 are incomplete and not used.The London accounts for 1459–1460 and 1460–1461 run from 29 September 1459 to 31 July 1460 and from 31 July 1460 to 29 September 1461, respectively. For purposes of these decennial averages I have taken the mean of these two years in order to provide an annual figure for each of the years involved. Figures for 1450–1451 are incomplete and not used.Figures for 1466–1468 are incomplete and not used.There is a large gap in the figures from 1471–1477. In the first year of this decade a total of only 2,074 cloths were shipped from Bristol; at the end of the decade the average was 6,044 cloths.Figures for 1475–1477 are missing.Figures for 1484–1485 are missing. In addition, denizen figures for 1485–1487 contain an unspecified number of cloths shippped by Spaniards.Figures for 1494–1496 are missing.Figures for 1498–1500 are missing.

These events had profound effects on Bristol’s commerce, making the third quarter of the fifteenth century the low point in Bristol’s late medieval economic history. A stable traffic was replaced by a trade subject to unpredictable interruptions and sharp fluctuations of volume. With the end of the war and the period of reduced commercial exchanges that followed, the change in the framework of Anglo-Gascon relations solidified. Although trade with Gascony did not cease entirely, Bristolians now dealt with it as foreigners in the territories of a former enemy, not as privileged parties in the dominions of their own king. At the same time, the Iberian trades grew in importance. At the end of the century, they easily rivaled commerce with France, taking the bulk of the city’s cloth and other exports and supplying a list of valuable imports, including wax, sugar, spices, fruit, iron, and dyestuffs, as well as wines. On this foundation, the fourth quarter of the fifteenth century witnessed the last flowering of Bristol’s medieval prosperity. After reaching a low ebb in the 1460s, the city’s trade figures bounced back to new heights by the 1490s. In that decade woolen exports achieved an average of sixty-five hundred cloths per annum and wine shipments were significantly higher than they had been in any period except the 1440s (see Tables 1 and 2). Other valuable commodities such as olive oil, woad, sugar, and spices also poured into the port. When judged by customs revenue for this period, Bristol was easily the third most important commercial center in southern England, outranked only by London and Southampton.[14] Following the loss of Gascony, the focus of Bristol’s trade had shifted southward. Although Bordeaux and its environs still remained important to the city’s merchants, the diverse commodities of Spain and Portugal now had a greater attraction than before.

If the closing years of the fifteenth century provided Bristol with a rich harvest, the beginning of the sixteenth century brought the city into a bleak new season in its economic history. Every aspect of commerce suffered in some measure. According to the merchants, the city’s shipping, in which the wealth of its merchant magnates had been heavily invested in the fifteenth century, severely decayed during Henry VIII’s reign. By the 1540s bitter complaints were heard that “where as ther grett shippes haue customably made towe or thre viages in the yere, now by reason of small vtteraunce of their warres & merchantdise the[y] make but one viage in the yere.”[15] Bristol’s drapers also protested a depression in their trade, asserting that in the time span in which two hundred cloths used to be sold, now but twenty could be vented.[16] We should discount the exaggeration of these remarks made by men begging special favors. But the trend they manifest cannot be denied. Bristol’s economy had suffered a sharp blow. It fell further and further behind London in economic position and was rapidly overtaken by Exeter, its chief rival in the western districts, whose access to divers new kinds of woolen fabrics gave it advantages in the French trade, when it revived, that Bristol lacked.[17]

The most severe effects of this early sixteenth-century commercial difficulty were felt by the cloth trade. In the closing years of Henry VII’s reign, its boom in Bristol simply ended. In the first five years of the century, annual average exports were about 30 percent below the figures achieved in the 1490s. The tailspin continued during the next five quinquennial periods, until the averages were barely one-third of those for the last decade of the fifteenth century. Indeed, only in the 1530s and again in the years between 1550 and 1555 were there slight upturns in the trend, but even these were almost immediately halted in the following period. Over the whole first sixty years of the sixteenth century, moreover, the city exported an average of only slightly over twenty-seven hundred cloths per year, a figure rivaling the worst decennial averages of the fifteenth century (Table 3). Bristol’s exports of English woolens had simply stagnated. By the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign they were not only at their lowest ebb but were being traded by higher percentages of alien merchants than ever before.

3. Cloth Exports, 1500-1561
(Five-year Averages to the Nearest Whole Cloth of Assize)
  Bristol London Southampton Exeter
Mich.–Mich. No. cloths (% denizen) No. cloths (% denizen) No. cloths (% denizen) No. cloths (% denizen)
Source: E. M. Carus-Wilson and Olive Coleman, England’s Export Trade, 1275–1547 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 112–19; J. D. Gould, The Great Debasement: Currency and the Economy in Mid-Tudor England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 173–81.
1500–1505 4,612 (96.8) 46,610 (45.5) 6,851 (20.8)[a] 9,329 (95.1)
1505–1510 3,219 (99.1) 52,390 (52.2) 13,504 (13.1) 7,207 (97.9)
1510–1515 3,140 (97.7) 62,257 (53.8) 10,732 (34.2) 4,840 (93.2)
1515–1520 3,025 (98.8) 63,084 (57.8) 13,428 (17.3) 4,087 (95.1)
1520–1525 2,440 (94.1) 61,854 (57.5) 8,481 (26.2) 3,782 (90.9)
1525–1530 2,176 (96.9) 73,513 (58.7)[b] 6,995 (23.5) 4,533 (93.7)
1530–1535 2,344 (95.8) 75,503 (54.3) 7,482 (37.4) 4,429 (91.4)
1535–1540 2,816 (93.8) 91,731 (50.9) 3,816 (50.9) 5,624 (88.1)
1540–1545 2,191 (82.4) 99,535 (49.9)[c] 3,840 (39.5) 5,064 (79.1)
1545–1550 2,663 (84.5) 123,797 (57.2)[d] 2,285 (58.7)[e] 2,433 (89.8)
1550–1555 3,362 (94.9)[f] 111,091 (69.8)[g] 1,990 (90.7)[h] 3,205 (94.1)[i]
1555–1561 1,176 (71.2)[j] 101,743 (77.9)[k] 1,139 (79.6)[l] 3,005 (97.8)[m]
Annual avg. 2,743 (93.7) 76,331 (57.0) 7,042 (28.2) 4,850 (92.3)
Account for 1500–1501 is incomplete and consequently not used.Account for 1528–1529 is incomplete and consequently not used.No account exists for 1544–1545.There are incomplete accounts for 1546–1547 and 1548–1549.No accounts exist for 1546–1547 and 1548–1549.No accounts exist for 1551–1553.No accounts exist for 1552–1553 and 1554–1555.No accounts exist for 1552–1554.No accounts exist for 1551–1553. Accounts for 1553–1554 do not distinguish shipments by denizens; hence figures for this year have been omitted in calculating the percentage. No account exists for 1556–1557.No accounts exist for 1555–1556 and 1557–1559.No account exists for 1559–1560.No account exists for 1556–1557.

In conjunction with this direct blow to Bristol’s chief export came a more general decline in the city’s commercial well-being. The wine trade, for example, suffered a considerable diminution. As with cloth, the first years of the sixteenth century witnessed a sharp initial contraction, in this case of about 50 percent from the high figures of the 1490s, and even though there was some improvement after 1515, the levels neither returned to the peaks of the last decade of the fifteenth century nor remained consistently strong (Table 4). Only the goods subject to ad valorem duties appear to have escaped this gloomy fate, although here, too, there was a decline from the very high figures reached in the late fifteenth century and an increase in the number of non-denizens engaging in the trade (Table 5). During the last five years of Henry VIII’s reign, the average value of these goods for customs purposes was about 25 percent higher than the average figures at the beginning of his reign. This suggests a double shift away from cloth as an export to other items such as metals, hides, and foodstuffs, which were assessed ad valorem, and a corresponding shift to more expensive imports, also assessed ad valorem, though with many items now brought to Bristol by merchant strangers.[18]

4. Nonsweet Wine Imports to Bristol, 1480-1547
(Five-year Averages to the Nearest Ton)
Mich.–Mich. Tonnage
Source: 1480–1500: M. K. James, Studies in the Medieval Wine Trade, ed. E. M. Veale, introduction by E. M. Carus-Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 114–16. 1509–1547: Georg von Schanz, Englische Handelspolitik gegen Ende des Mittelalters mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Zeitalters der beiden ersten Tudors, Heinrich VII. und Heinrich VIII., 2 vols. (Leipzig: Duncker und Humblot, 1881), vol. 2, pp. 132–33. The format and the gaps are a consequence of the fact that the two sources do not form a completely sequential series.
Data for the year 1484–1485 are missing.
1480–1485[a] 1,323
1485–1490 1,627
1490–1495 2,201
1495–1500 2,197
Annual avg. 1,864
1509–1514 1,079
1514–1519 1,965
1519–1524 1,624
1524–1529 1,195
1529–1534 1,638
1534–1539 1,629
1539–1544 1,512
(1544–1547) 1,294
Annual avg. 1,503
5. Value of Goods Subject to Ad Valorem Duties
Entered at Bristol in the Reign of Henry VIII
(Three-year Averages to the Nearest £)
Mich.–Mich. Value % Denizen
Source: Georg von Schanz, Englische Handelspolitik gegen Ende des Mittelalters, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Zeitalters der beiden ersten Tudors, Heinrich VII. und Heinrich VIII., 2 vols. (Leipzig: Duncker und Humblot, 1881), vol. 2, p. 64.
1509–1512 11,455 97.1
1512–1515 12,249 91.7
1515–1518 12,584 95.5
1518–1521 13,441 94.3
1521–1524 9,895 93.0
1524–1527 11,163 93.9
1527–1530 9,852 91.9
1530–1533 13,935 87.5
1533–1536 12,728 92.2
1536–1539 14,068 92.5
1539–1542 14,477 94.1
1542–1545 13,427 85.6
(1545–1547) 17,977 79.0
Annual avg. 12,731 91.4

Nevertheless, not all of Bristol’s markets were equally affected by the general collapse of its trade. Ireland and France were the worst hit. There was perhaps a 50 percent fall in cloth exports to the Irish market, and, although commerce in other commodities still remained brisk, there was also a falling away from the high levels achieved in the last years of the fifteenth century.[19] As regards France, not only did shipping between Bristol and the major Atlantic ports decline and then stagnate, but the volume of French wine coming to Bristol was also severely reduced.[20] In these markets, therefore, conditions were especially dark. But Bristol appears to have held its own more successfully in the Iberian peninsula. In Portugal, old commercial ties and a continued demand for English cloth insured a reasonable traffic for the city.[21] In Spain the picture was brighter still. Although there had been a dramatic decline in the number of cloths shipped there from Bristol during the first decade of the sixteenth century, by 1517–18 the figures had risen again almost to equal those from 1485–86. Despite the strained relations between England and Spain after 1527 or so, a steady trade continued throughout the remainder of Henry VIII’s reign and persisted right to the end of the century, though at a somewhat lower volume than in the teens and twenties. Bristol’s import trade from Spain and Portugal also was remarkably healthy. Wine shipments stayed high, and the value of other imports rose to levels substantially in excess of those for the pre-1490 period. Despite diminished totals in Bristol’s cloth exports, the cloth trade still remained important in the Iberian peninsula, where Bristolians exchanged cloth for a wide variety of valuable goods. But cloth was no longer the backbone of Bristol’s commercial activity. Over the first half of the sixteenth century, the fall in its export substantially outstripped the declines experienced in other sectors of the city’s commerce. As a result, Bristol’s ancient connection with the production and distribution of cloth was weakened, and those inhabitants who depended on the cloth trade faced depressed circumstances and disrupted businesses.[22]

To a considerable degree, the movement of the woolen trade away from Bristol was part of a larger process of English economic history, just beginning in this period, which saw a general reordering of the nation’s urban hierarchy as commerce came to be centered upon London. Viewed from the perspective of Bristol’s traditional economy, this story appears as one of straightforward decline, especially for those whose livelihood depended primarily upon the cloth industry. But seen in terms of the emerging national urban system, the tale is rather more complicated, for it involved a recasting of urban functions and not simply a linear descent into long-term depression. Developments of this type almost invariably bring a mood of crisis with them, because they catch particular individuals and groups unable to adapt, economically or intellectually, to the new circumstances. But they sometimes bring new opportunities as well. In examining this era of urban crisis in Bristol, we must keep our eyes open for shifts in function within the larger urban network and the varied effects these changes had on the city’s internal structure and on different groups within it.[23] Nevertheless, taken by themselves, as many of the most hard-hit Bristolians necessarily would have perceived them, the economic conditions revealed by the raw trade statistics for the early sixteenth century show Bristol’s situation vis-à-vis London to have been rather grim.

In the mid-fifteenth century London commanded only something less than 50 percent of cloth exports; a hundred years later the figure was 90 percent. At the same time the traffic in imports concentrated there. Much of this change was due to the growth of the Antwerp mart, through which London’s merchants could readily exchange the vast quantities of cloth at their disposal for the riches of Europe and Asia. But these developments were accomplished primarily at the expense of the outports, whose own growth could not keep pace. Judging from customs revenues collected between 1485 and 1547, London’s share of England’s commerce rose from approximately half to nearly two-thirds of the total, and the proportion of trade in the hands of provincial merchants declined nearly everywhere. When set in the context of national trends these Bristol figures are all the more revealing, since the city’s decline as a center for the cloth trade corresponded to a period of expansion in the export of the same traditional woolen fabrics in which Bristol had previously specialized. Although the rise in these exports may not have been quite so “meteoric” as F. J. Fisher claimed on the basis of London’s figures alone, it is clear that during much of this period shipments of broadcloth from Southampton and Exeter and its member ports remained stronger than from Bristol.[24]

From early in the sixteenth century, outcries against the decay of Bristol’s clothing industry and the intrusion of Londoners into its economic affairs were common among Bristolians. In 1518, for example, Sheriff William Dale complained that

thenhabitauntes of [Bristol] beyng as Cloythers wevers dyers tookers and other sundry Crafty men dayly lak work and runne in Idylnes. And the towne by Reason of the same [is] broughte vnto great desolacion and about viii c howseholdes in the same towne desolate vacante and decayed to the vtter decay and distruccion of the said towne.[25]

Twenty years later the lamentations were even louder. The mayor himself complained that “[m]any tenements are fallen into decay for want of timber and stones, and the quay and town walls are in like ruin.”[26] Much of the blame for this dismal state was placed on London. In the 1540s it was said that Londoners not only had captured the business of Gloucestershire, Somerset, and other counties neighboring Bristol but had invaded the city’s own industrial districts. Redcliffe parish, in which once “spinsters, carders and dyverse substancyall & riche men [made] ther dwelling & levyed well by ther occupacions and occupyeng of clothmakyng,” now would no longer supply the Bristolians with workmen for their cloths. The Londoners, with their large capital resources, were able to give better credit terms than their rivals from the western port.[27]

Although Bristol was well located to tap the cloth production of western England and to travel to and from the Iberian peninsula, its decay in the early sixteenth century made it difficult to acquire the necessary cloth supplies for this commerce. As a result, the city’s wealthiest and most successful entrepreneurs had pulled up stakes and reestablished themselves in London, the hub of the cloth trade. These entrepreneurs include such well-known men of affairs as Paul Withypoll, the younger Robert Thorne, and George Monox, each of whom was a leader first of Bristol’s, then London’s, merchant community. Monox and Thorne both served as mayor of Bristol before leaving for London, while Withypoll came on his mother’s side from a family with a long record of similar service.[28] All three primarily traded with Spain and Portugal. From this base, they appear to have been attracted by the riches of the Levant and of the Indies, even to the point of trading directly with those distant places rather than relying on shipments via Iberian ports. Withypoll was among the earliest traders to the Isle of Candy (Crete), and Thorne was not only a depositor in the famous bank of St. George in Genoa and a dealer in Italian and Levantine goods but was also one of the first group of Englishmen to deal regularly with the West Indies.[29] After leaving Bristol, Monox became a leading London Draper and for a time the master of Blackwell Hall; Withypoll and Thorne were Merchant Taylors. As well as holding major posts in London’s government, both Monox and Withypoll acted as master of their livery companies; indeed, Monox served seven times.[30]

That these men made their choice of London over Bristol not without regret is revealed in Robert Thorne’s will, for among his many substantial benefactions he made several for charitable purposes in his home town, including monies to help found a free school and for the care of the city’s poor. He even set aside £200 for the redemption of the fee farm and the prisage of wines collected at the port.[31] Although he may have replanted his roots in London, his ties to his home remained strong.

The way cloth and its availability affected the cloth merchant is made clearer by the career of Thomas Howell. Howell, who traded with Spain and Portugal, was a regular business associate of the various members of the Thorne family. Not only did he have frequent dealings in Seville with Robert Thorne and his brother Nicholas, but at the beginning of his career he was servant or apprentice to Hugh Eliot, the business partner of Robert Thorne the elder, and later as his factor in Seville he used Thomas Maillard, who was a regular business partner of the younger Robert Thorne. Like Withypoll, Monox, and Thorne, Howell was an expatriate Bristolian who settled in London in the midst of his career. Like them, too, he was a cloth trader, undertaking his activities in London as a member of the livery of the Drapers Company. Judging from his commercial records, he was among the foremost of Iberian merchants in the first half of the sixteenth century, trading in Andalusia and in Portugal, and also with the Spanish ports on the Bay of Biscay. Howell must be listed, along with Thorne and Maillard, as among the earliest Englishmen who traded directly with the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean. In 1527, for example, he shipped £50 worth of “Sartane stofe” (i.e., cloth of some type), to John de Morsynes, his factor in Santo Domingo.[32]

Howell’s ledger offers insight into his motive for abandoning residence in Bristol to set up business in London. The book, which gives a full account of Howell’s commercial affairs from 1517 to 1527, reveals his domestic business to have been almost entirely devoted to cloth. Even his imports were largely complementary to these cloth shipments. Apart from the iron that he brought from northern Spain in substantial quantities, his foreign purchases were primarily supplies for the production of cloth, such as oil, alum, woad, and other commodities used in the dyeing and finishing of textiles. The fabrics he shipped, moreover, were of every variety, dyed and undyed, many of them types originating in the manufacturing districts only a short distance from Bristol. The clothiers with whom Howell dealt, however, were residents of East Anglia and the home counties. They came from Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Berkshire, Middlesex, and Kent; one was even a Merchant Tailor in London itself. This fact is especially revealing because Howell, like Thorne and Monox as well as other Bristolians become Londoners, did a good deal of his importing through Bristol as well as London.[33] Hence it seems it was less London’s geographical position than its role in the marketing of cloth that attracted Howell and his fellows to the capital. With tens of thousands of cloths coming into London every year, not only were supplies for export readily available, but the skilled craftsmen necessary to support the industry, especially dyers and shearmen, were concentrated there as well. As Howell’s ledger shows, he frequently bought unfinished cloths and put them out himself to be barbed, folded, pressed, sheared, and dyed by London specialists, sometimes even paying them in woad, alum, soap, or other raw materials that he imported from the continent. The volume of his trade permitted him to combine his disparate dealings into a single orbit of commerce in which each element complemented the others.[34] As Bristol’s merchants eventually came to recognize, this capacity for integration in London’s cloth industry neutralized their own city’s geographical advantages in trade with the Iberian peninsula and left them unable to compete effectively with their rivals in the capital. In the face of this hard fact, ambitious Bristolians sought a foothold in London.

This transfer of many of Bristol’s leading merchants to London was not only a symptom of their city’s economic crisis but a cause in its own right. Their departures represented more than a choice based on London’s comparative economic advantage. Unlike young apprentices who came to the capital without wives and children and usually with little more than a small stake or the hope of an inheritance, these established Bristolians had substantial personal fortunes as well as deeply rooted personal connections in their home city. Withdrawal of their wealth was itself a significant blow to the city’s prosperity, further reducing its attractiveness as a theater for the ambitions of others.[35] Even though by the second half of the sixteenth century London’s own cloth-finishing industry was in decline, the changes wrought in the overall character of English economic life by London’s domination of these crafts in the first half of the century proved irreversible.[36]

The earliest signs of change in the direction of Bristol’s commerce are to be found in Robert Sturmy’s ventures into the Mediterranean in the mid-fifteenth century, even though they proved unsuccessful. Trade with this region had long held a special fascination for the merchants of Bristol. Its products—sweets and spices, rich and delicate textiles, and other finery of the luxury trade—were highly valued and highly profitable. But in the fifteenth century this traffic was a monopoly of the Italians, who frequented London and Southampton but rarely ventured to Bristol. Still, Bristolians traded regularly in Eastern luxuries, shipping cloth and other wares by road to Southampton to be exchanged with the Venetians and Genoese for silks and spices.[37] But it was not until the trouble in Gascony that the Bristolians were willing to risk the ire of the Italians by passing through the Straits of Gibraltar on their own.

Two separate voyages were attempted. The first took place in 1446–47 when Sturmy sent the Coq Anne to Pisa and thence to Jaffa, carrying one hundred and sixty pilgrims probably laden with cloth, tin, and wool. Although the occasion for this voyage was the ouster of the Venetians from Egypt, which opened the Levant to English enterprise, the altered conditions in Gascony also provided a stimulus in this search for quick profits and a new market. Unfortunately, on its return the Coq Anne, sailing off the island of Modon, was struck by a fierce storm that destroyed the ship with its crew of thirty-seven Bristolians. The second of Sturmy’s adventures into the Levant dates from ten years later, when Gascony was already lost and the Bristolians undoubtedly were left with great quantities of cloth on their hands. In late winter 1457, Sturmy was licensed to ship in three vessels large quantities of tin, lead, wool, cloth, and grain “beyond the mountains by the Straits of Marrock.” But once again hopes of high profits were foiled. After a successful journey purchasing pepper and other spices in the Levant, Sturmy’s small fleet was met off Malta by several Genoese ships that spoiled two vessels. In all, some £6,000 damage was done to Sturmy and his associates, and it appears that Sturmy himself died in the engagement.[38]

Remarking upon these events, Fernand Braudel insists that they do not “necessarily signify the beginning of an enterprise that was spread over a period of centuries.”[39] But these voyages nevertheless represent a new mode of commercial thinking in Bristol. What Sturmy and his fellow merchants were after was both an outlet for their surplus cloth and an opportunity to tap the riches of the East for their own gain. If cloth could no longer be sold in its former quantities in Gascony, it was necessary either to find another market for it, or to increase the return from each transaction, or to find new products in which to deal. Trade to the Levant, if established on a regular basis, satisfied all these criteria. It not only provided a good outlet for cloth, but the import of pepper, spices, rich fabrics, and other luxuries made an especially attractive substitute for wine. The large returns on the sale of these goods in England meant that dealings in cloth might proceed at reduced levels without adversely affecting the income of the merchants. If the market for exports had decayed, greater stress must be laid upon imports; if risks increased, so must the prospects of gain.

Similar considerations stimulated the Bristolians’ search for markets and trade routes in other parts of the world. The history of Bristol’s dealings in the southern Atlantic, for example, also began in the period following the loss of Gascony. From the mid-fifteenth century Madeira sugar regularly found its way into the city via Lisbon.[40] By May 1480 there was a direct trade, with Bristolians shipping cloth and no doubt seeking the valuable sugars of the island at their source. The earliest recorded inward voyage dates from September 1486, when Portuguese merchants carried sugar and bowstaves to Bristol. There appears to have been some dealing with the Azores as well.[41] And North Africa was visited by Bristolians in the latter half of the fifteenth century.[42]

More dramatic than these ventures in the southern Atlantic and North Africa was Bristol’s search in the 1480s for the mythical Isle of Brasil in the western Atlantic, which was reputed to lie somewhere in the temperate zone to the north of Madeira or west of the Azores.[43] Two Bristol voyages in search of Brasil are definitely known, one in 1480 and another in the following year. Both appear to have been the result of licenses granted to Thomas Croft, King’s Customer in Bristol, and William Spencer, Robert Straunge, and William de la Fount, merchants of the city, to trade to any parts for three years with any goods save staple goods, in two or three ships of sixty tons or less. The first voyage sailed in a single vessel on the fifteenth of July 1480, from Kingroad toward “the Island of Brasylle on the west part of Ireland,” but was turned back by storms and forced to put into harbor along the Irish coast, probably sometime in September of the same year. The following July, two other ships, an eighth part of each being owned by Thomas Croft, set forth “not by cause of merchaundise but thentent to serce and fynd a certain Ile callid the Isle of Brasile.” The vessels were each supplied with forty bushels of salt “for the repacion and sustenacions of the said shippys.”[44]

What did these venturesome Bristolians hope to find? One possibility is that they were searching for new fishing grounds. During most of the fifteenth century they had regularly fished for cod on the banks near Iceland, but contact with this northern island was already in decline by 1480. The lading of large quantities of salt on each of the vessels suggests a cod-fishing venture employing the stockfish technique. In itself this offers a significant clue to the economic goals of the Bristolians. Salt fish were in high demand in the Iberian peninsula, especially in Portugal and Andalusia. Discovery of a new source of supply would have provided a good means to secure the highly valued imports Bristolians sought in these markets.[45] But the Isle of Brasil may have held out other prospects as well. If it was situated in the vicinity of Madeira and the Azores, the newfound island might be expected to yield riches similar to those of its near neighbors. More than simply finding new fishing grounds, then, the Bristolians might have been hoping to discover their own Madeira, on which sugar and other valuable subtropical crops could be planted.

The exact purpose of Bristol’s earliest Atlantic explorations remains uncertain, but the same cannot be said of the projects of John Cabot. Arriving in Bristol sometime in 1495 or 1496, he persuaded a group of Bristolians, several of whom had previously been interested in the quest for the Isle of Brasil, to help finance yet another voyage across the Atlantic. Like Columbus, Cabot believed in a western route to the riches of Asia, and he was determined to find it in northern waters. In March 1496 he acquired a royal patent on behalf of himself and his three sons that permitted him to sail westward with up to five ships “to find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world places, which before this time were unknown to all Christians.” The role of Bristol in this was to be paramount, for all ships in the venture were “bound and holden only to arrive” there.[46] If this project had been fully successful, Bristol would have become the major entrepôt of the spice trade, bypassing the Levant and thereby supplanting Southampton, London, and even Antwerp and rivaling and probably surpassing Lisbon as well. All that Robert Sturmy had hoped for and more would have been gained.[47]

John Cabot, of course, never found the Northwest Passage. His first voyage, in 1496, was abortive. But the second, in 1497, met with success; after thirty-three days at sea his little ship, the Matthew, made landfall at Belle Isle off Newfoundland.[48] Cabot was convinced that he had struck northeastern Asia and that by following the coast he would inevitably reach “an island which he calls Cipango, situated on the equinoctal region, where he believes that all the spices of the world have their origin, as well as the jewels.”[49] According to a contemporary observer, those who had participated in the voyage also reported the new lands to be “excellent and temperate” and believed “that Brizil wood and silk are native there.” In addition, “they asserted that the sea there is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net, but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water.” “These same English,” he went on, “say that they could bring so many fish that [England] would have no further need of Iceland, from which place there comes a very great quantity of the fish called stockfish.”[50] On the basis of this exciting news a third expedition was mounted by Cabot in 1498, this time consisting of five vessels laden with coarse cloth, caps, laces, and other small wares, one fitted out by the king himself and four by merchants of Bristol and London. Although fishing may also have been intended, trade was clearly the principal aim.[51] This venture ended in disaster, but it reveals the interest of Cabot and his investors in a new world of trade beyond the established continental centers. As far as the Bristolians were concerned, it suggests that the quest for imports, which would characterize their trade for the next two centuries or more, had begun.

By the middle of Elizabeth’s reign this new import-driven pattern of commerce was firmly established. At a time when English overseas traffic was focused primarily on the Netherlands, Bristol specialized as a center for the Spanish and Portuguese trades, assembling diverse cargoes of exports in order to supply England with this market’s lucrative wares. In later years this same interest in highly profitable commodities became the foundation for extending trade beyond the Iberian peninsula into the Mediterranean and to the New World. Before proceeding to a description and analysis of this expansion, let us look at the overall structure of Bristol’s trade as it had formed by the second half of the sixteenth century, examining the commerce of a single trading year to get a snapshot view. This technique is somewhat problematic, since the evidence of a single year hardly guarantees a general trend, any more, as Aristotle said, than a single swallow makes a summer. Each trading year has its peculiarities caused as much by chance events—of wind, weather, war, and international politics—as by underlying features of the trade cycle. But we need a clear picture of the interrelationships existing among the various elements of Bristol’s commerce and, given the spottiness of the surviving customs records, the only way we can draw it is by looking at a single complete year, focusing primarily on the structure of trade and checking our findings against related records for different years. The year chosen runs from Michaelmas 1575 to Michaelmas 1576, the first year for which Bristol was treated separately from Gloucester in the customs.[52]

When we compare Bristol’s trade for this year with annual shipments in the fifteenth century, it seems extremely meager. In all, only a little over six hundred tons of wine and seven hundred and forty-nine cloths were shipped—hundreds, even thousands, less than were traded in the best periods of the previous century.[53] Nor had much happened to take up the slack. Lead and coal were being exported, but not in large amounts. In addition, a trade developed in cheap-quality “cottons” and friezes, both of which were coarse woolen fabrics, and in lightweight half-worsteds. But these were not exported in large enough quantities to counterbalance the diminished shipments of traditional woolens. For imports the picture is much the same. Salt, a relatively cheap commodity, was shipped in substantial amounts, and olive oil, train oil, woad, and spices also were brought to Bristol. It is doubtful, however, that they made up for the decay in the wine trade.[54]

Nevertheless, Bristol’s character as a port specializing in trade with southern Europe gave it a commercial strength that belies these dismal figures. If we concentrate on the grand totals for shipping for 1575–76, Bristol’s trade seems remarkably in balance, with ninety vessels of just over four thousand tons burden departing the port and eighty-two vessels, also totaling just over four thousand tons, entering during these twelve months. But analysis of the various geographical components of Bristol’s trade shows this image of commercial equilibrium to be illusory. Comparing voyages to and from the continent or the Atlantic islands belonging to Portugal and Spain reveals inbound traffic to have been one-tenth greater in tonnage than the outbound and one-sixth greater in the number of vessels involved. Even more startling is the distribution of shipping. In the northern trades, nearly equal numbers of vessels were used in the inbound and outbound traffic, but almost 40 percent more tonnage left the city than entered. In the south, however there were about 40 percent more inbound ships, totaling about 50 percent more tonnage. In other words, import trade from the south dominated the picture. Almost equal tonnage departed Bristol for northern and for southern ports, but about twice as much arrived from the latter as the former. The tonnage of all southern voyages, moreover, exceeded the figure for northern voyages by over 40 percent, even though the number of ships used in the north was almost 70 percent greater than in the south.[55]

But tonnages alone do not tell very much, since often the largest vessels did not carry the most valuable goods.[56] To understand the relative importance of the various aspects of Bristol’s commerce, we must study the goods in which the city traded. The northern trades were dominated by imports of salt and iron, and exports of lead, coal, and cheap textiles. Only relatively meager shipments of wine and citrus fruit break the monotony of this workaday traffic. By using the customs rates to determine the value of the city’s dealings in the north, we can see that the trade was heavily concentrated around La Rochelle and the Bay of Biscay, largely bypassing Bordeaux. Assuming that the customs rates for goods taxed ad valorem varied roughly in proportion to their market value—admittedly, a somewhat risky assumption—the figures also suggest, very tentatively, a trade imbalance in favor of imports of at least 60 and perhaps as much as 100 percent, since on a conservative estimate the woolen fabric shipped to this region was worth perhaps £8 per whole cloth, whereas the wine imported was worth between £10 and £15 per ton.[57]

As we move south, however, we enter a different world, one in which subtropical and tropical wares were preeminent. Seventeen ships totaling about sixteen hundred and fifty tons left Bristol for markets in this region during 1575–76, and twenty-four vessels totaling some twenty-five hundred tons returned thence. But trade in this market was richer and more vibrant, focused primarily on high-priced wares, some of them necessary raw materials such as olive oil and dyestuffs and most of the remainder luxury items such as fruits, spices, sugars, and fine wines. The only bulky cheap commodity in the traffic was salt. The city’s exports to the south consisted largely of textiles, although lead also played an important role. The picture is of a commerce in which Bristol sought to tap the riches of the southern trades with outgoing cargoes assembled for their barter value from its own hinterland in south Wales, the Severn valley, and the west Midlands, within which it in turn distributed the fruits of its foreign enterprises. The key was the value of the imports, not the worth of the exports. As measured by value, the import trade exceeded exports by an even larger percentage than was true in the north. Using the same tentative wholesale prices for cloth and wine we just employed in estimating the value of the northern trades, imports from Bristol’s southern markets were worth anywhere from 120 to 150 percent more than its exports to that region (Table 6).[58]

6. Value of Bristol’s European Trade, 1575-76
  Outward Inward  
  Goods[a] Cloth
(cloths of assize)
Goods[a] Wine
Source: Public Record Office, E 190/1129/11, 1129/12. Value estimated using £10 per whole cloth and £15 per ton of wine, to the nearest £.
Northern £1,151 87 £ 1,171 190 £6,042
Southern £1,527 662 £10,861 415 £25,233
Total £2,678 749 £12,032 605 £31,275
Goods subject to customs paid ad valorem to the nearest £

Comparing the estimated values of the northern and the southern trades leads to two firm conclusions. First, for the European trade as a whole, Bristol’s imports were worth between two and two and a half times the value of its exports. Second, the southern trades, concentrated primarily in the Iberian peninsula, overwhelmed the northern. Bristol’s European trade was largely focused on its highly valued riches, particularly of the southern trades, which the city purchased primarily with less expensive English goods. Although the prices of Bristol’s imports and exports were no doubt lower at their sources, where they were in relatively good supply, than in their final markets, where they were scarce, this trade pattern implies regular deficits which had to be made up in coin or by bills of exchange. In addition, since the textile and mining industries, which provided the bulk of Bristol’s exports, were highly labor-intensive, Bristol was acquiring the high-priced commodities of Europe not only with the resources of its hinterland in the Severn valley, the Midlands, and the West Country, but indirectly with the plentiful labor of the region as well.

The Irish trade was the other major component of Bristol’s commercial economy. It accounted for almost 40 percent of the ships entering and leaving Bristol in 1575–76 and for about 13 percent of the tonnage. Virtually all of this traffic was in the hands of the Irish themselves.[59] In terms of goods shipped, this trade had the classic form of colonial commerce. Ireland sent its English customers basic foods, industrial raw materials—particularly agricultural products such as wool—and cheap manufactures, in return for which it received better-quality manufactures, reexports of luxury wares from Europe, and some essential agricultural commodities, such as hops, that it did not produce itself.[60] The most striking feature of this trade is the large quantities of small wares that made their way to Ireland through Bristol. These were acquired at the two Bristol fairs, one in January and one in July, to which great throngs of Irish merchants and tradesmen came each year in their small vessels.[61] But the Irish trade only complemented Bristol’s traffic with its European markets. In terms of value, Ireland accounted for probably less than 10 percent of the total trade of the city.

It might be protested that too much attention is paid in studies of sixteenth-century trade to high-price, high-profit goods, since these commodities were usually sold only in small quantities. In 1575–76, for example, Bristol imported only eighty hundredweight of sugar, while salt, which was much more useful, was carried in far greater quantity. But the customs value of sugar was thirty-three times higher than salt, while retail prices for sugar were on the order of three thousand times higher than for salt. For the same volume of trade, then, the profits were much higher for sugar than for salt.[62] From the point of view of the merchant, as Fernand Braudel has observed, what mattered most was not the tonnage shipped but “the rate and facility of gain, the accumulation of capital.”[63] Because the Bristolians followed this precept, by the middle of Elizabeth’s reign their trade had become settled primarily on the southern routes, with the Iberian coast from Lisbon to Puerta Santa Maria absorbing the bulk of the trade. The shift away from the city’s old market in Gascony had now firmly established Bristol as an Iberian port. At the same time, the emphasis on imports begun in Henry VII’s reign was continued. Bristol, once a great exporter of cloth and outlet for commerce with Bordeaux, had become primarily a trader of foreign wares drawn from the subtropical regions of the known world.

A similar pattern is discernible in the customs accounts for the rest of Elizabeth’s reign and for the early Stuart period.[64] The southern trades remained the most important part of the city’s traffic, providing the richest returns and commanding the greatest attention from the Bristol merchants. But there were significant changes within this structure of commerce. Activity increased and new markets were opened up with the addition of trades to the Netherlands, the Baltic, and the western Atlantic, while interest in the Atlantic islands and the Mediterranean was strengthened. Bristol’s old haunts on the Iberian peninsula came to play a smaller role as a more complex trading system emerged. This expansion, moreover, helped to stimulate a number of developments in the domestic economy, including the growth of the mining, shipping, cloth, and other industries. But throughout the period the underlying theme was the quest for imports, which yielded the highest profits and therefore encouraged the undertaking of risky new ventures. We can see the persistence of this pattern if we look closely at trade in 1624–25, fifty years after the annual trade cycle we have just studied. Again, this procedure has obvious shortcomings, but employed with appropriate caution it allows us to see in some measure how the overall structure of Bristol’s trade evolved during this period.[65]

Again, a conservative estimate, using tentative wholesale prices for cloth and wine as well as the totals for goods paying customs ad valorem, suggests that import value was at least double that of exports (Table 7).[66] In addition, whereas the outward trade for the year is almost equally divided between the northern and the southern region, with the south having a slight edge, for the inbound trade the southern region shows a marked advantage. But the great strength of the southern trades now lay away from the Iberian peninsula. On the inward leg, Marseilles, together with Toulon, accounted for 40 percent of the goods paying ad valorem duties, while Marseilles alone accounted for the bulk of exports to the southern region in this year. In part this was a consequence of the impending war with Spain, which caused Bristolians to bring back their investments from the Iberian peninsula as quickly as they could and prompted them to invest their profits in southern France and Italy. But, as we shall see, the main reason behind this pattern is that the Mediterranean and other southern markets were playing a greater role in Bristol’s trade in the early seventeenth century than they had in the previous period. The wine trade also showed dramatic improvement in 1624–25. The total shipments for this year are almost three times greater than they were in 1575–76, with the traffic in French wine more than five times what it had been fifty years before. This, too, is part of a general pattern of trade in the early seventeenth century. French wines led the recovery, with Bordeaux’s position as the queen of the trade restored, if not to glory, at least to respectability. In addition, wines from the Iberian peninsula, the Atlantic islands, and the Mediterranean were gaining in significance, with direct shipments from Málaga and the Canaries now playing a major role. The picture for the Irish trade is virtually the same as in 1575–76. The general impression is that by the mid-1620s the value of Bristol’s trade had grown considerably from its level in the middle of Elizabeth’s reign.[67]

7. Bristol’s Customs Payments, 1624-25
  Outward Inward
Ports Subsidy (£-s-d) No. cloths[a] Subsidy (£-s-d) Wine
Source: Public Record Office, E 190/1135/6.
A. Northern European:
Norway     9-13-03  
Amsterdam 9-11-03   39-00-08  
Le Havre 18-14-00      
St. Malo, St. Briac-sur-mer 35-10-07 56-04-04 9 tons 1 butt[b]
Le Croisic 1-02-04   5-01-00 9 tons
Le Pouliguen     15-00-00  
Nantes 13-12-00   5-00-00  
Lucon 0-10-00      
Bourgneuf Bay 7-05-08   1-10-08  
St. Martin 1-05-00   1-15-00  
La Rochelle 30-12-01   30-08-04 9 tons 1 pipe
Bordeaux 141-08-02 103 5/12 34-14-05 986 tons 1 terce
Bayonne 4-03-00      
St. Jean de Luz 42-12-00 2⅙ 10-01-00  
San Sebastian     8-19-06  
Bilbao 24-11-06   10-01-00  
   Customs A 330-17-07 109⅚ 227-09-02 1,014 tons 1 terce
   Value A 6,617-11-08   4,549-03-04  
B. Southern European:
Oporto     83-06-08  
Lisbon     77-05-10  
San Lucar     10-18-00 18 tons 1 butt
Cáadiz 8-10-00   38-06-10 444 tons
Máalaga 40-12-00 11 123-11-10 138 tons 1 pipe 1 hhd
Madeira 3-01-00 16⅔ 49-08-04 2 tons
Canaries 30-18-07 20 36-13-08 78 tons 1 pipe
São Miguel 15-00-06 23¾ 25-12-06  
Marseilles 251-12-04 50⅔ 222-03-10  
Toulon     76-19-06  
Leghorn 1-13-10 2⅔    
Candia (Crete)       100 tons muscadels
   Customs B 351-08-03 124¾ 744-07-10 781 tons 1 butt 1 hhd
   Value B 7,028-05-00   14,887-00-00  
   Customs A–B 682-05-10 234 7/12 971-17-00 1,795 tons 1 butt 1 hhd 1 terce
   Value A–B 13,645-16-08   19,436-03-04  
C. Atlantic:
Newfoundland 2-00-00   45-01-01  
New England 1-16-00   0-18-00  
Somers Islands     57-10-00  
   Customs C 3-16-00   103-09-01  
   Value C 76-00-00   2,069-01-08  
D. British Isles:
Scotland     2-04-08  
Ireland 384-01-04 14⅔ 617-06-06  
   Customs D 384-01-04 14⅔ 619-11-02  
   Value D 7,681-06-08   12,391-03-04  
   Customs A–D 1,070-02-02 249¼ 1,694-17-03 1,795 tons 1 butt 1 hhd 1 terce
   Value A–D 21,403-03-04   33,896-08-04  
In whole cloths of assize. Spanish wine.

Even though Bristol’s trade in the early seventeenth century showed the same interest in southern wares as in Elizabeth’s reign, there were several important new developments. Markets in the Netherlands and Norway, in North Africa, and in the eastern Mediterranean grew, while in the Iberian peninsula itself there was a shift in Bristol’s trade away from the Bay of Biscay, Lisbon, and the Guadalquivir valley to new centers of trade on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. There were also important developments in exports as Bristol’s merchants sought to find new commodities to sell to their foreign customers. Calfskins, butter, lead, iron, and coal all played an increasingly significant role in the city’s trade, and textile shipments became much more varied as cheap “cottons” and friezes and expensive worsteds joined the older varieties of broadcloth in the holds of Bristol ships. The cheaper fabrics found a good market in the north, and the lighter-weight and finer-quality goods were in high demand on the southern routes.[68] At the same time, a whole new world of trade opened across the Atlantic. In general, then, the early Stuart period witnessed the emergence of a more widespread and complex system of commerce, knitting together a greater diversity of commodities and overseas ports than in the sixteenth century.

Amsterdam provides the key to understanding the changes in the northern trades. In the course of the later sixteenth century it had become the principal emporium of Baltic and Scandinavian wares. With the wealth accumulated by the city’s traders and the low freight charges on their shipping, the merchants of Amsterdam were able to enter the Mediterranean markets themselves, acting as carriers for its commerce and bringing wealth to their home city. Bristol’s trade with Amsterdam reflects the historic rise of the Dutch city in the early seventeenth century. The Bristolians shipped such goods as coal, lead, some iron, Welsh butter, Welsh cottons, and molasses, produced from imported Madeira sugar.[69] The return shipments were divided in origin. The bulk came from Scandinavia and the Baltic, but some Mediterranean goods were also purchased in Amsterdam. Grain from the Baltic was an especially important commodity in times of dearth.[70] Other northern wares shipped in this year included tar, pitch, Norway deal boards, cable yarn, rough hemp, battery, old iron, rod iron, steel, frying pans, hops, and shellfish. Occasional additions were made in the form of such southern items as madder and cinnamon.[71]

But the more interesting changes in the overall pattern of Bristol’s trade occurred in the southern markets. In 1575–76, southern commercial routes had focused on Lisbon and the Guadalquivir valley ports of San Lucar de Barrameda, Cádiz, and Puerta Santa Maria. During the late sixteenth century these together accounted for over 80 percent of the tonnage in the southern trades. The seventeenth century, however, saw a significant shift; trade with Lisbon remained strong, but Oporto was added as a stopping place for the Bristolians. Bristol’s contacts with southern Spain also moved eastward. San Lucar and Cádiz continued to claim a significant share of the trade, but Málaga became a major center of Bristol’s dealings in the Iberian peninsula, and Almería and Alicante, east of the Straits of Gibraltar, were also frequented upon occasion. Trade in Spain beyond Gibraltar was not entirely new to the seventeenth century,[72] of course, but it had been only intermittent in the mid-sixteenth century and, despite the English reentry into the Mediterranean after 1573, seems to have remained so down to 1600.[73] Hence the growth of commercial dealings inside the Pillars of Hercules in the early seventeenth century represents something of a new development in Bristol’s trade.

What attracted the Bristolians to this market? The customs evidence suggests that it was a fine outlet for exports, particularly lightweight worsteds, traditional broadcloths, and calfskins. But the heart of this commerce, as with all the southern trades, was the imports, which included sugar, white soap, olive oil, dried fruit, and wine, all highly profitable, high-priced wares. These were commodities that in the sixteenth century Bristolians had acquired almost exclusively in San Lucar and Cádiz, even though in many instances they were produced elsewhere in Spain. In this period, then, the Bristolians were content to deal in these wares through intermediary markets and middlemen. But after 1600 they were more anxious to buy “at the first hand,” as the saying went, where the goods were produced.[74]

One possible reason for the move to Málaga and Alicante was that these ports, serving a region new to market agriculture, offered better prices or better-quality commodities than were available in Guadalquivir ports.[75] But a more fundamental development was at work as well. Throughout the sixteenth century, commercial exchange with Spain had operated under the stimulus of the American trade. Although Bristolians participated to a degree in this colonial commerce through Seville, it was not so much the presence of American products such as tobacco that excited their interest as the buoyancy of the market created by Spanish involvement in the New World. The resulting inflation and generally high demand for consumer products encouraged trade in English wares. At the same time, Spanish wage levels ran well ahead of English in the sixteenth century, growing between 1520 and 1620 by more than 200 percent, whereas English wages rose only 44 percent; real wages fell in England during this period, but they remained high in Spain. This meant not only that English manufactures were relatively cheap in Spanish terms, but that there was a large Iberian market with cash to pay for these English wares.[76] The Spanish importation of New World gold and silver also encouraged trade, by helping to ease credit in the Iberian peninsula.[77] Since Seville, by virtue of its privileged position in the colonial trade, was the financial center through which Bristolians raised capital, made exchanges, and settled accounts, it kept Bristol’s trade focused on the Guadalquivir valley throughout the sixteenth century.[78]

But the boom in Spain’s American commerce ended early in the seventeenth century. Silver imports peaked in the decade between 1600 and 1610. At about the same time, real wages in Spain rose sharply, reflecting the movement of capital from overseas ventures to domestic production. Wages stayed high throughout most of the first forty years of the seventeenth century.[79] In the early 1620s, after a thirty-year period of stagnation, Spain’s economic relations with the New World entered a long period described by Pierre Chaunu as “la grande dépression.” This extended depression began in 1620–1622 with a sharp decline in traffic, particularly outbound traffic, from which Spain’s American trade never recovered. These troubles had a direct impact on the main Spanish centers of the colonial traffic. By 1624–1626, Andalusian prices were depressed, and investment in New World activities slowed in Seville and other Guadalquivir ports. The buoyancy of the Guadalquivir market was lost, and the Bristolians and their English compatriots were encouraged to seek further afield for trading partners.[80] The change in the southern trades, however, was not confined to the growth of new commercial relationships with Málaga and Alicante. There was also significant growth in Bristol’s dealings with Madeira and other Atlantic islands and with ports in southern France, Italy, and the eastern Mediterranean. By the mid-1630s, this non-Iberian portion of the southern commerce accounted for half the inbound and more than half the outbound traffic. Bristol, while continuing to maintain its firm foothold in Spain and Portugal, more and more was reaching beyond the Iberian peninsula in search of the high-valued commodities that they had long purchased only there.[81]

These developments conditioned Bristol’s activities in nearly every other part of its southern market. Commerce with North Africa illustrates the pattern. This trade, as we know, has a history dating to at least the 1480s,[82] but a regular English traffic along the Barbary Coast of Morocco probably did not begin until 1551.[83] Even then contacts remained intermittent and of very low volume until the 1590s, when the Spanish war helped deflect a portion of the Iberian commerce onto the North African coast. By the early seventeenth century Bristol’s dealings in Barbary both became more regular and increased in volume.[84] The Barbary trade proved to be exceptionally lucrative. Sugar, molasses, dates, oranges and lemons, figs, raisins, marmalade, candied fruit, almonds, capers, aniseed, cumin, indigo, saltpeter, gum arabic, raw silk, ostrich feathers, and even gold could be obtained there. In return, it was a brilliant market for fine English cloth, for lead and tin, for manufactured items, for European reexports, and for timber.[85]

Along with trading to Barbary, Bristolians also frequented other ports in the Mediterranean, although a large and steady traffic began only in the early seventeenth century. Between 1573 and 1593, for example, among the vessels recorded as arriving at Leghorn only three are specified as originating at Bristol. Still, Bristol’s interest was an early one; for example, the Swallow of Bristol sailed for the Mediterranean in 1576.[86] Leghorn and Marseilles were the keys to the traffic, but by the 1630s Toulon also played an important part. Leghorn was a well-established entrepôt for commerce with the entire eastern Mediterranean, a place where credit or coin might be found and from which it was possible to mount trading expeditions throughout the Mediterranean basin. It dominated Bristol’s interest in the Mediterranean during the later sixteenth century. Marseilles entered the picture only after 1600. As the chief port of Provence, through which the trade of much of southern France passed, it was a close cousin of Leghorn, linked to the Iberian peninsula by regular trade routes and serving as a center for commerce in North African and Levantine wares. In the 1630s Lewes Robertes called it “[t]he principall seate of Trade in Provence…famous for the great concourse of Merchants, and for the commerce that it maintaineth with Turkie, Barbarie, Spain, France, Italy, Flanders and England.” Its own commodities, as Robertes tells us, were only “Oyles, Wines, Wools, Almonds, and Verdigrace.” It was much the same with Toulon, which lay ten leagues from Marseilles. Toulon, according to Robertes, “aboundeth onely in Oyles, which hence is laden in great aboundance.” But, unlike Toulon, Marseilles was also an entrepôt for wares “from other Countries, such as Alexandria, Aleppo, Acria, Constantinople, Naples, Leghorne, or the coasts of Spaine doth yield.” Equally important, it was a financial capital where coin, particularly Spanish reals, could be acquired and licensed for exportation, which, as Robertes says, “is the onely meanes whereby the trade of Turkie is preserved.”[87] Marseilles, then, was a place, like Leghorn, for mounting ventures further to the east where currency was absolutely essential. When we examine Bristol’s trade with the Proven;accal ports, however, we observe little of these more exotic trades. In both exports and imports, Bristol’s commerce there resembled that with the Iberian peninsula. Lead and lead ore were the most important exports. Calfskins and tanned Irish hides came second. Other goods traded included “cottons,” short jersey stockings, linsey-woolsey, and some woolen cloths. Little distinguishes this list from that of the cargoes sent to the Iberian peninsula in the same year. In return for these wares, the goods the Bristolians brought back directly from Marseilles and Toulon consisted primarily of olive oil, though, in addition, there was white soap, similar to the well-known product of Castile, as well as capers from Marseilles and rice from Toulon. Nevertheless, trade in Levantine wares through these southern French ports was fairly common in the first forty years of the seventeenth century, primarily because the monopoly of the Levant Company made it necessary. In these years Bristolians regularly returned from the Mediterranean with substantial shipments of currants and muscadel wine, as well as Egyptian cottons, mohair, dyestuffs such as galles, and aniseed and wormseed, both Levantine drugs. Some of these goods undoubtedly were purchased in Marseilles or in Leghorn from local middlemen, but some probably came directly from the Levant Company’s privileged markets, within which Bristolians had a special license to buy currants.[88]

Closely tied to the expansion of Bristol’s European trades was the evolution of commercial interests in the New World. Three main lines of development may be distinguished. The North Atlantic had the great fisheries off Newfoundland and New England. Further south there was traffic in the commodities of Virginia and the West Indies. Finally, the search for a Northwest Passage remained a recurring theme in Bristol’s history. Each in its way was related to the older southern trades; the fishery provided a highly marketable commodity to sell in the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean, while the other ventures sought “at the first hand” the same type of profitable imports that Bristolians commonly acquired on the southern routes.

Bristol’s knowledge of the Newfoundland fishery was already well established by the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign. Following Cabot’s discovery, during the early sixteenth century the Bristolians maintained a steady interest in Newfoundland cod.[89] The midcentury ushered in a period of reduced English presence on the Grand Banks: by 1570 the entire English fishing fleet amounted, according to the Bristolian Anthony Parkhurst, to no more than “iiii sayle of small barkes.”[90] The English returned in force to Newfoundland, however, in the mid-1570s, with a doubling or even quadrupling in the number of English on the Grand Banks. But Bristol became involved in a large way only in the 1590s. There were three returning ships in 1591–92, ten in 1594–95, twelve in 1598–99, and sixteen between 1600 and 1602. In the 1610s and 1620s eight to sixteen vessels made the journey each year, and in the 1630s, when Bristol’s American interests had become more widely diversified, about half that number made a direct return to the city from Newfoundland and New England.[91] The stimulus for this turnabout was undoubtedly Elizabeth I’s war with Spain, which disrupted the settled patterns of Bristol’s trade in the sixteenth century. The war left much shipping idle; if not employed in privateering, these ships were available for the time-consuming enterprise of fishing or trading for fish across the Atlantic. In the same years, rich new fishing grounds were discovered in American waters off Ramea.[92] And, finally, the Spanish conflict stimulated aggressive new enterprises in the Mediterranean, where salt fish were in high demand.[93]

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Bristol’s interest in the New World was largely one of trade. For most of the period little thought was given to colonial settlement, although in Elizabeth’s reign Anthony Parkhurst of Bristol lobbied for it. But even he was concerned with founding a permanent establishment primarily in order to sustain the fishery. Better facilities, he argued, would improve the catch by permitting salt to be produced on the spot, thus lowering costs, and by enabling the residents to fish beyond the early fall, when the prospect of winter storms forced the fleets to sail homeward.[94] The joint London-Bristol Newfoundland Company, founded in 1610, which managed to plant a colony at Conception Bay, conformed closely to this scheme. The Newfoundland colony established in James I’s reign was very much a Bristol venture. Eleven residents of the city, ten of them leading merchants, were charter members. Trade in fish was the principal aim. Although no outright monopoly was claimed, the settlement was intended primarily to give its backers special advantages in the fishery, particularly by permitting a longer fishing season and by offering the settlers opportunity to monopolize the best fishing grounds. The proximity of the settlement to the fishing grounds, moreover, placed the Company’s agents in an exceptionally good position to buy the catches of non-Company fishermen and transport them to the continent. The Company also hoped to sell fishermen pine boards and timber for barrel hoops and staves.[95]

Since, throughout the early seventeenth century, it was the fishery and the prospects of trade rather than the idea of a colony in its own right that attracted the Bristolians, when this interest was outweighed by other pressures they avoided participation. Above all, they sought independence for their own enterprises. By 1614, John Guy, their leader in Newfoundland, had fallen out with the Londoners of the Company over administrative policy and had withdrawn from membership, probably taking the other Bristolians with him. Still, the advantages of a settlement near the fishing grounds remained, and in 1617 a group of city merchants, possibly including some of the original members, formed their own settlement at Bristol’s Hope on Conception Bay. Richard Hayman, an Exeter man but brother-in-law to the Bristolian John Barker, styled it “Bristol’s Hope of Wealth.”[96]

This same desire for independence and commercial gain conditioned Bristolians’ responses to other colonial ventures. When in 1621 Sir Ferdinando Gorges attempted to bring them into a joint stock venture for planting New England they vigorously resisted the idea, although by this time they were interested in fishing off the New England coast, “in regard that the Newfoundland fishing hath fayled of late years.” They were willing, however, to seek a license from Gorges to maintain their fishery there.[97] During the later 1620s and the 1630s, however, the reluctance of at least some Bristolians to hold land in New England was eased, but, as in Newfoundland in 1610 and 1617–18, fish remained the foundation of these settlements. In 1626 Robert Aldworth, who had previously invested in Martin Pring’s 1602–03 and 1606 explorations of the New England coast and in the Newfoundland Company of 1610, bought Monhegan Island from Abraham Jennings of Plymouth, another Newfoundland Company investor. In 1630–31, moreover, Aldworth and his son-in-law Giles Elbridge acquired twelve thousand acres on the Pemaquid peninsula. Both Monhegan and Pemaquid were used regularly by the English in the early seventeenth century as bases for fishing ventures. Thus, for Aldworth, perhaps the greatest Iberian and Mediterranean trader of his day, the hope for gain was much the same as it had been in Newfoundland. Whatever other benefits might follow from his enterprise, they began with the acquisition of fish to sell in European markets.[98]

Just as Bristol’s activities in Newfoundland and New England helped the city’s merchants acquire the high-value commodities upon which their commerce depended, traffic to and from the West Indies and Virginia was also tied to Bristol’s southern trade routes. The commodities they sought there substituted for the profitable wares they purchased in their commerce with the Iberian peninsula, the Atlantic islands, and the Mediterranean. And they were used in the Mediterranean trade in just the way fish were. We have already seen that Bristol’s ties to the West Indies extend back into the early sixteenth century, when such men as Robert Thorne and Thomas Tison of Bristol maintained a direct trade through Seville with the Spanish possessions in the region.[99] As Anglo-Spanish relations soured in the mid-sixteenth century, however, this open and legitimate traffic came to an end and was replaced by a long period of commercial warfare in which Bristol played its share. In 1576, for example, John and Andrew Barker, in reprisal for the loss of their goods in the Canaries to the Inquisition the previous year, mounted an expedition of two ships, the Ragged Staff and the Beare, “to the coast of Terra Firma and the Bay of Honduras in the West Indies,” which, unfortunately for the Barkers, ended in disaster. Despite this outcome, at least one Bristol ship was privateering in the West Indies in the 1590s. Caribbean and South American waters exerted a powerful attraction for the Bristolians. Even the Barkers maintained an interest. In 1612–13, John Barker, nephew of Andrew and son of Andrew’s partner John, mounted an expedition to the Marowijne River in Guyana. The voyage was aboard the Sea Bright of Bristol, with Martin Pring as master.[100]

If fishing and the tobacco trade were both aspects of Bristol’s quest for the highly profitable wares of the southern trades, the epitome of this mode of commerce was the city’s recurring search for a short route to the riches of the Orient, the search for the Northwest Passage. As we have seen, Bristol had conceived of such a westerly route with John Cabot’s voyages in the 1490s. From then on, it was a continuing theme of commercial life in the city, lying dormant for a time only to be excited by some new prospect of discovery. About the year 1508, for example, Bristolians aided Sebastian Cabot in an exploration of the American coast in search of a southwestern passage to the Orient. In 1521, they were involved with Cabot’s proposals for a venture to find the Northwest Passage. In Elizabeth’s reign they aided Frobisher, at least indirectly, on his second voyage, in which the suspected discovery of gold and the prospect of the city as the site of a smelting works tantalized them as much as the Northwest Passage itself. They were even more intimately involved in Humphrey Gilbert’s 1583 voyage, when Richard Hakluyt the Younger, who was prebend of Bristol Cathedral, approached the merchant community there about a venture, and Walsingham wrote them directly endorsing Gilbert’s plan. The sum they eventually invested came to £1,000. Finally, in 1631, their appetite was whetted again: a large group of Bristol merchants financed the voyage of Thomas James of Bristol in search of the Northwest Passage. James himself says he was encouraged by the merchants who furnished him his ship, which seems to have been mounted to insure that a London-based voyage by Luke Foxe did not capture all the wealth and glory.[101]

There is no mystery about the aims of these voyages. They were intended to find an easy way to the Orient and thereby convert Bristol, already interested in the spice trade, into a major entrepôt in its own right. This heady dream manifested itself in a variety of other ways during this period. Edward Pryn of Bristol, for example, was a member of the Muscovy Company, hoping, with the rest of its members, to find a Northeast Passage and settling, as the others did, for a route to the wealth of Persia that bypassed the Levant. About the year 1611, Thomas Aldworth, brother of Robert, joined the service of the East India Company as an agent. Perhaps through his agency, Martin Pring entered the same service about 1614. Other Bristolians also found the power of the East irresistible in this period. James Oliver, for example, sailed to Mokha in 1625 and established a factory there. These Bristolians wanted a direct trade to the East that would permit them to bypass Lisbon and the Levant and bring home pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and the rest without having to deal through middlemen. To have accomplished this would have converted the port from a significant provincial center to a boomtown such as Leghorn had been earlier in the sixteenth century. Whether they pointed their vessels west or east, these venturesome Bristolians sought to become the intermediaries in the spice traffic and in dealing in other Eastern riches. It was a vain hope, as Thomas James, locked in ice and in fear for his life, discovered, but to the heroes of commerce engaged in these feats of merchandise the prospect of success made it worth the risk and the investment.[102]

In the aftermath of the Hundred Years’ War Bristol’s place in the English commercial economy had been transformed as its dependence on the manufacture and export of traditional kinds of woolen cloth and the import of French wines diminished and it became a major redistribution point for foreign wares to the Severn valley, South Wales, and the west Midlands, on whose products—raw materials and agricultural commodities as well as manufactures—it relied for its exports. Hence, as London grew in population and economic power, coming to dominate and give order to England’s urban hierarchy, Bristol gradually settled into its niche as “the metropolis of the west,” a role it would play with increasing definition in the later seventeenth and the eighteenth century.[103] What drove Bristol’s trade in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was the pursuit of high margins of profit and quick gain, rather than economic concentration and expanding control over capital resources. The entrepreneur’s object was to multiply small investments into large returns by understanding and playing the market, not by efficiently converting raw materials into salable manufactured wares. Small reliance was put upon fixed capital assets. The emphasis was on distribution, not production, and on imports that could be marketed after little or no investment in labor. But there was an elusiveness to the Bristolians’ quest. The more successful the pursuit of scarce and much-prized wares, the greater the supply; the greater the supply, the lower the unit price and profits. The problem of the southern trades, then, was the problem of a traffic in luxuries and other scarce commodities gradually becoming a trade in staples. In the long run this outcome was inescapable. In the short run, however, it was possible to resolve the dilemma by pushing beyond the established trading centers to markets with more plentiful supplies or less competition and by trading whenever possible at the first, not the second, hand. The expansion of Bristol’s commerce in the early seventeenth century was guided by these considerations, which help to account for the movement of the city’s trade into the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and for the continuing search for the Northwest Passage.


1. Charles M. MacInnes, A Gateway of Empire (Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1939), p. 9.

2. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, p. 27.

3. For a brief overview, see E. M. Carus-Wilson, The Merchant Adventurers of Bristol in the Fifteenth Century (Historical Association, Bristol Branch, Pamphlet 4, 1962).

4. See H. R. Fox Bourne, English Merchants: Memoirs in Illustration of the Progress of British Commerce, 2 vols. (London: R. Bentley, 1866), vol. 1, p. 106; Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: North Somerset and Bristol (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958), p. 403.

5. E. M. Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers, 2d ed. (London: Methuen, 1967), pp. 72, 75, 79, 89–90; see also William Worcestre, Itineraries, ed. John Harvey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), pp. 130–33.

6. Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers, pp. 67–73.

7. Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers, pp. 248, 257; Y. Renouard, “Les Relations de Bordeaux et de Bristol au Moyen Age,” Revue Historique de Bordeaux n.s. 6 (1957), pp. 105–6; M. K. James, Studies in the Medieval Wine Trade, ed. E. M. Veale with introduction by E. M. Carus-Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 93–108.

8. Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers, pp. 269–71; James, Medieval Wine Trade, pp. 1–37; Renouard, “Les Relations de Bordeaux et de Bristol,” pp. 106–8; J. W. Sherborne, The Port of Bristol in the Later Middle Ages (Historical Association, Bristol Branch, Pamphlet 13, 1965), pp. 9–13; Théophile Malvezin, Histoire du Commerce de Bordeaux depuis les Origines jusqu’à nos Jours, 2 vols. (Bordeaux: A. Bellier, 1892), vol. 2, p. 199.

9. James, Medieval Wine Trade, pp. 38–42; Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers, pp. 40–43; Sherborne, Port of Bristol, pp. 21–22; Renouard, “Les Relations de Bordeaux et de Bristol,” pp. 109–10, 111; see below, Tables 1 and 2.

10. Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers, pp. 50, 58–59, 257; V. M. Shillington and A. B. Wallis Chapman, The Commercial Relations of England and Portugal (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1907), pp. 13, 14, 18, 49, 56, 68; Sherborne, Port of Bristol, p. 11.

11. Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers, pp. 28–40, 246–48, 269–71; Y. Renouard, “Les Conséquences de la Conquête de la Guienne par le Roi de France pour le Commerce de Vins de Gascoigne,” Annales du Midi 61 (1948–49): 16–18; Renouard, “Les Relations de Bordeaux et de Bristol, ” pp. 104–5; M. G. A. Vale, English Gascony, 1399–1453: A Study of War, Government and Politics during the Later Stages of the Hundred Years War (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 11–26; Robert Boutruche, La Crise d’un Société: Seigneurs et Paysans du Bordelais pendant la Guerre de Cents Ans (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1947), pp. 141–65.

12. Malvezin, Histoire du Commerce de Bordeaux, vol. 2, p. 199.

13. The history of Bristol’s trade just before and just after the English loss of Bordeaux shows how precipitous was the decline in both cloth exports and wine imports. Between 1440 and 1460 an average of 4,231 whole cloths were exported annually from Bristol; in the same period an average of 1,738 tons of wine were imported annually. But during the first five years of this period, from 1440 to 1445, the annual averages were 5,427 whole cloths and 2,411 tons of wine. In the last five years, the annual averages were 2,943 whole cloths and 814 tons of wine. In three years in this half-decade, wine shipments were under 800 tons for the year. For detailed figures see E. M. Carus-Wilson and Olive Coleman, eds., England’s Export Trade, 1275–1547 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 95–100. See also Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers, pp. 41–45, 265–78; James, Medieval Wine Trade, pp. 40–45, 111–12; Renouard, “Conquête de la Guienne,” pp. 18–24; Boutruche, La Crise d’un Société, pp. 170–71, 219–31, 399–411.

14. Bristol produced about £1,450 of customs revenue per year in the 1490s. In the same period London produced about £8,520 per year, Southampton about £6,365 per year, and Exeter about £1,000 per year; see Georg von Schanz, Englische Handelspolitike gegen Ende des Mittelalters mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Zeitalters der beiden ersten Tudors, Heinrich VII. und Heinrich VIII., 2 vols. (Leipzig: Duncker und Humblot, 1881), vol. 2, pp. 37–46; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, p. 284. Note, however, that the ratio between customs rates and market prices varied somewhat from item to item, so port totals never reflect the volume of trade in exactly the same way for each port. These totals also vary according to the proportion of denizen, alien, and Hanseatic merchants in each port’s trade, since these groups paid customs on different scales, with foreigners paying higher rates. In the case of Bristol and its near neighbor and rival Exeter, 90 to 95 percent of trade was consistently in the hands of denizens. For London, however, the figure was approximately 50 percent, and for Southampton, 25–30 percent. Finally, those totals apply properly to customs jurisdictions, not just to one port. In the fifteenth century, Bristol did include some adjacent ports in Wales and in the Severn River valley, but with Bridgewater under a separate jurisdiction, Bristol’s totals are for a relatively well-defined area. Indeed, most of the traffic from the minor ports associated with it passed through Bristol both to and from overseas. London was perhaps even better defined, extending only to Gravesend and Tilbury. With Southampton and Exeter, however, the areas covered by the above customs totals are larger and more diffuse. Southampton included Portsmouth, and Exeter included Dartmouth. Hence the figures represent the significance of each port in the system of customs collection better than their actual place in the hierarchy of port cities. Nevertheless, they undoubtedly give us the right order of precedence and suggest in terms of order of magnitude something of the differences among these ports.

15. I. S. Leadam, ed., Select Cases before the King’s Council in the Star Chamber commonly called the Court of Star Chamber, II: 1509–1544 (Selden Society 25, 1911), p. 266.

16. Ibid., p. 268.

17. See Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, p. 284; E. M. Carus-Wilson, The Expansion of Exeter at the Close of the Middle Ages: The Harte Memorial Lecture in Local History, University of Exeter, 12 May 1961 (Exeter: University of Exeter, 1963).

18. See G. D. Ramsay, English Overseas Trade during the Centuries of Emergence: Studies in Some Modern Origins of the English Speaking World (London: Macmillan, 1957), pp. 134–38; D. Burwash, English Merchant Shipping, 1460–1540 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1947), pp. 161–63, 234.

19. A. K. Longfield, Anglo-Irish Trade in the Sixteenth Century (London: G. Routledge and Sons, 1929), p. 216.

20. On Anglo-French commercial relations in the early sixteenth century, see P. Boissonade, “Le Mouvement Commercial entre la France et les Iles Brittaniques au XVIe Siècle,” Revue Historique 134 (1920): 192–228, and 135 (1921): 1–27; Robert Boutruche, ed., Bordeaux de 1453 à 1715 (Bordeaux: Fédération Historique du Sudouest, 1966), p. 93; M. Mollat, Le Commerce Maritime Normand à la Fin du Moyen Age: Etude d’Histoire Economique et Sociale (Paris: Plon, 1952), pp. 139–45; Gordon Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake: A Study of English Trade with Spain in the Early Tudor Period (London: Longmans, Green, 1954), pp. 41, 60–61; Burwash, English Merchant Shipping, pp. 163, 235–36; Jacques Bernard, Navires et Gens de Mer à Bordeaux (vers 1400–1550), 3 vols. (Paris: SEVPEN, 1968), vol. 2, p. 508; vol. 3, Appendices.

21. Shillington and Chapman, Commercial Relations of England and Portugal, pp. 133–34.

22. Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake, pp. 34, 41, 54, 60–62, 105–6, 124, 207–12; T. S. Willan, Studies in Elizabethan Foreign Trade (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1959), pp. 84–85; D. M. Woodward, The Trade of Elizabethan Chester (Hull: University of Hull Publications, 1970), p. 40n.

23. For discussion of the idea of an urban crisis in the later Middle Ages see Charles Phythian-Adams, “Urban Decay in the Later Middle Ages,” in Philip Abrams and E. A. Wrigley, eds., Towns and Societies: Essays in Economic History and Historical Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 159–85. For a general overview of the concepts of urban function, urban network, urban system, and urban hierarchy, see Jan de Vries, European Urbanization, 1500–1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), esp. pp. 118, 167–68, 171; E. A. Wrigley, “Urban Growth and Agricultural Change: England and the Continent in the Early Modern Period,” in E. A. Wrigley, People, Cities and Wealth: The Transformation of Traditional Society (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), pp. 157–93. For additional discussions, see Alan Dyer, “Growth and Decay in English Towns, 1500–1700,” in Urban History Yearbook, 1979 (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1979), pp. 60–72; Charles Phythian-Adams, “Dr Dyer’s Urban Undulations,” ibid., pp. 73–76; S. Rigby, “Urban Decline in the Later Middle Ages,” ibid., pp. 46–59; A. R. Bridbury, “English Provincial Towns in the Later Middle Ages,” EcHR, 2d ser., 34 (1981): 1–24; R. B. Dobson, “Urban Decline in Late Medieval England,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th ser., 27 (1977): 1–22; N. R. Goose, “In Search of the Urban Variable: Towns, 1500–1650,” EcHR, 2d ser., 39 (1986): 165–86; D. M. Palliser, “A Crisis in English Towns? The Case of York, 1480–1640,” Northern History 14 (1978): 108–25; Charles Phythian-Adams and Paul Slack, “Urban Decay or Urban Change?” in Charles Phythian-Adams et al., The Traditional Community under Stress (Milton Keynes, England: Open University Press, 1977), pp. 5–29.

24. See Tables 3 and 4, above; C. G. A. Clay, Economic Expansion and Social Change: England, 1500–1700, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), vol. 2, pp. 108ff.; Steve Rappaport, Worlds within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 87–96; D. M. Palliser, The Age of Elizabeth: England under the Later Tudors, 1547–1603 (London: Longman, 1983), pp. 278–91; D. C. Coleman, The Economy of England, 1450–1750 (London: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 51; W. G. Hoskins, The Age of Plunder: King Henry’s England, 1500–1547 (London: Longman, 1976), pp. 178–80; Ramsay, English Overseas Trade, pp. 1–33; F. J. Fisher, “Commercial Trends and Policy in Sixteenth Century England,” in E. M. Carus-Wilson, ed., Essays in Economic History, 3 vols. (London: Edward Arnold, 1954–1962), vol. 1, pp. 153–55; Lawrence Stone, “State Control in Sixteenth-Century England,” EcHR 17 (1947): 104 ff.; J. D. Gould, The Great Debasement: Currency and the Economy in Mid-Tudor England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 115ff.; Carus-Wilson, The Expansion of Exeter.

25. Leadam, ed., Select Cases before the Star Chamber, II, p. 146.

26. L. and P. 13, part 2, p. 322; Stat. Realm 32 Hen. VIII, c. 18, lists Bristol in 1540 among the thirty-six English towns which “nowe are fallen downe decayed and at this day remaine unreedified and doo lye as desolate and vacante groundes”; see also Jean Vanes, ed., Documents Illustrating the Overseas Trade of Bristol in the Sixteenth Century (BRS 31, 1979), pp. 28–31.

27. Leadam, ed., Select Cases before the Star Chamber, II, p. 250; SMV, Book of Trade, p. 36; BL, Lands. MS 86/13; Ramsay, English Overseas Trade, p. 137.

28. G. C. Moore Smith and P. H. Reaney, The Family of Withypoll, with Special Reference to the Manor of Christchurch, Ipswich, and Some Notes on the Allied Families of Thorne, Harper, Lucar and Devereaux (Walthamstow Antiquarian Society Official Publication 34, 1936); George F. Bosworth, George Monoux: The Story of a Waltamstow Worthy—His Foundations and Benefactions (Walthamstow Antiquarian Society Official Publication 3, 1916); George F. Bosworth, George Monoux: The Man and His Work (Walthamstow Antiquarian Society Official Publication 17, 1927); George S. Fry, Abstract of Wills Relating to Walthamstow, co. Essex (1335–1559) (Walthamstow Antiquarian Society Official Publication 9, 1921), pp. 20–46; A. H. Johnson, The History of the Worshipful Company of Drapers of London: Preceded by an Introduction on London and Her Gilds up to the Close of the XVth Century, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1914–1922), vol. 2, pp. 14–15, 21, 79, 136; Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake, pp. 8–10, 19–20, 60–65; Ramsay, English Overseas Trade, pp. 135–36.

29. Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake, pp. xii–xiv, 9–19; Gordon Connell-Smith, “English Merchants Trading to the New World in the Early Sixteenth Century,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 23 (1950): 53–67.

30. Johnson, Drapers of London, vol. 2, p. 79; Smith and Reaney, Family of Withypoll, pp. 14–23. Withypoll was a Merchant Adventurer and even governor of the Company.

31. PRO, PROB 5/18 Thrower; a copy appears in E. W. W. Veale, ed., The Great Red Book of Bristol, 5 vols. (BRS 2, 4, 8, 16, 18, 1931–1953), vol. 16, pp. 124–29.

32. Gordon Connell-Smith, “The Ledger of Thomas Howell,” EcHR, 2nd ser., 3 (1950–51): 365–66, 368–69; Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake, pp. 10, 19–21, 24, 67, 69, 75–76; Connell-Smith, “English Merchants Trading to the New World,” p. 61; Johnson, Drapers of London, vol. 2, pp. 251, 252–54; PRO, PROB 5/24 Alen.

33. Johnson, Drapers of London, vol. 2, pp. 252, 253; Connell-Smith, “Ledger of Thomas Howell,” p. 365; Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake, pp. 61–65, 69.

34. Johnson, Drapers of London, vol. 2, pp. 252–54.

35. SMV, Book of Trade, p. 36. On Bristolians becoming non-resident members of the London Drapers’ Company, see Johnson, Drapers of London, vol. 2, pp. 258–59, 261; Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake, pp. 35, 61.

36. See Rappaport, Worlds within Worlds, pp. 96ff.

37. E. M. Carus-Wilson, ed., The Overseas Trade of Bristol in the Later Middle Ages, 2d ed. (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967), pp. 37–39, 70–71, 83–85, 101–2, 104–5; Veale, ed., Great Red Book of Bristol, vol. 8, p. 1; Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers, pp. 9–10, 64–65; A. A. Ruddock, Italian Merchants and Shipping in Southampton, 1270–1600 (Southampton, England: University College, 1951), pp. 18, 41, 44–45, 115, 188, 265; Olive Coleman, “Trade and Prosperity in the Fifteenth Century: Some Aspects of the Trade of Southampton,” EcHR, 2d ser., 16 (1963–64): 11–12.

38. Carus-Wilson, ed., Overseas Trade of Bristol, pp. 84–85, 113–15, 117–18; Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers, pp. 67–68, 70, 71–73; James Dallaway, Antiquities of Bristow in the Middle Centuries Including the Topography by William Wyrcestre and the Life of William Cannynges (Bristol: Mirror Office, 1834), pp. 78, 109; Robert Fabyan, The New Chronicles of England and France in Two Parts, ed. Henry Ellis (London: F. C. and J. Rivington, 1811), p. 633; Robert Ricart, The Maire of Bristowe Is Kalendar, ed. Lucy Toulmin Smith (Camden Society n.s. 5, 1872), p. 41; Calendar of the Patent Rolls (1452–1461), p. 517; see also Jacques Heers, “Les Genois en Angleterre: La Crise de 1458–1466,” in Studi in Onore de Armando Sapori, 2 vols. (Milan: Instituto Editoriale Cisalpino, 1957), vol. 2, p. 810.

39. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 2 vols., 2d ed. trans. Siân Reynolds (London: Collins, 1972–73), vol. 1, p. 612.

40. Carus-Wilson, ed., Overseas Trade of Bristol, pp. 234–35, 260–64; Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers, pp. 60, 92. A similar relation probably also existed with the Canary Islands, with trade proceeding through Cádiz, Puerta Santa Maria, San Lucar de Barremeda, and Seville: J. A. Williamson, The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery under Henry VII (Hakluyt Society, 2d ser., 120, 1962), pp. 14–15; J. A. Williamson, Hawkins of Plymouth: A New History of Sir John Hawkins and the Other Members of His Family Prominent in New England (London: Argonaut Press, 1949), pp. 16–17; Carus-Wilson, ed., Overseas Trade of Bristol, p. 267.

41. J. A. Williamson, The Voyages of the Cabots and the English Discovery of North America under Henry VII and Henry VIII (London: A. and C. Black, 1929), pp. 18, 128; Williamson, Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery, pp. 14–15; D. B. Quinn, England and the Discovery of America, 1481–1620, From the Bristol Voyages of the Fifteenth Century to the Pilgrim Settlement at Plymouth: The Exploration, Exploitation and Trial-and-Error Colonization of North America by the English (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974) p. 57.

42. See T. E. Reddaway and A. A. Ruddock, The Accounts of John Balsall, Purser of the Trinity of Bristol, 1480–1, Camden Miscellany 23 (Camden Society, 4th ser., 7, 1969).

43. There were two Brasil traditions of the Middle Ages. One was the product of Celtic legend, which spoke of a Land of the Blest (Hy-Brasil, in Gaelic). Maps of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries usually depicted it as a round or semicircular island located near the west coast of Ireland. The second tradition was Italian and Portuguese in origin. It postulated an Isle of Brasil in the mid-Atlantic, southwest of the Iberian peninsula. Usually maps depict it, together with several larger land masses which were identified as the Island of the Seven Cities and Antilla, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic along the tropic of Cancer. It was almost certainly this Brasil that the Bristolians were seeking in the 1480s; see Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, A.D. 500–1600 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 102–4; Quinn, England and the Discovery of America, pp. 59–60; Williamson, Voyages of the Cabots, pp. 125–26, 132–33; Williamson, Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery, p. 21; see also Kenneth R. Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire, 1480–1630 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 41–43.

44. Carus-Wilson, ed., Overseas Trade of Bristol, pp. 157, 161–65; Williamson, Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery, pp. 20, 188–89; Quinn, England and the Discovery of America, pp. 8–10, 72–73; Worcestre, Itineraries, pp. 308–9; W. E. C. Harrison, “An Early Voyage of Discovery,” Mariner’s Mirror 16 (1930): 198–99; D. B. Quinn, “Edward IV and Exploration,” Mariner’s Mirror 21 (1935): 283–84. For evidence of other voyages in the 1480s and 1490s see CSP (Spanish) (1485–1509), p. 177; H. P. Biggar, The Precursors of Jacques Cartier, 1497–1534 (Ottawa: Government Printing Office, 1911), pp. 27–30; L. A. Vigneras, “New Light on the 1497 Cabot Voyage to America,” Hispanic American Historical Review 36 (1956): 506–9; L. A. Vigneras, “The Cape Breton Landfall, 1494 or 1497?” Canadian Historical Review 38 (1957): 219–28; Quinn, England and the Discovery of America, part 1; Williamson, Voyages of the Cabots, pp. 23–24, 149–52; Williamson, Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery, pp. 19–32, 210–12, 310–14; A. A. Ruddock, “John Day of Bristol and the English Voyages Across the Atlantic before 1497,” Geographical Journal 132 (1962): 225–33; Morison, European Discovery of America, pp. 166, 205–9, 220; Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement, pp. 43–44, 46–47. Quinn provides a strong circumstantial case for a Bristol discovery of America predating 1497; Morison has firmly questioned several of the assumptions upon which Quinn’s case is built. Andrews cuts to the heart of the matter by arguing that the Bristolians’ quest for Brasil “led to the discovery of North America” whether the actual landfall occurred in 1497 or before.

45. Morison, European Discovery of America, p. 166; Quinn, England and the Discovery of America, pp. 30, 47–54; Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers, pp. 129–30; Williamson, Voyages of the Cabots, pp. 8–10, 128–30; Williamson, Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery, pp. 13–14, 23, 175–77; Harold A. Innes, The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), p. 11n.; C. B. Judah, The North American Fisheries and British Policy to 1713, Illinois Studies in the Social Sciences 18, nos. 3–4 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1933), p. 13.

46. Biggar, Precursors of Jacques Cartier, pp. 7–10.

47. Williamson, Voyages of the Cabots, pp. 24–32, 144, 148, 149–58; J. A. Williamson, Maritime Enterprise, 1485–1558 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), ch. 3; Williamson, Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery, pp. 33–53, 201–14; Morison, European Discovery of America, pp. 159, 165–66; Quinn, England and the Discovery of America, pp. 14–17; Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement, pp. 50ff.

48. Vigneras, “New Light on the 1497 Cabot Voyage,” pp. 507–8; Vigneras, “Cape Breton Landfall,” pp. 226–28; Morison, European Discovery of America, pp. 170–72, 178–79, 209; Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement, pp. 44–46, 47.

49. CSP (Milan), vol. 1, no. 552, see also no. 535.

50. Biggar, Precursors of Jacques Cartier, pp. 13–15.

51. The Great Chronicle of London, ed. A. H. Thomas and I. D. Thornley (London: George W. Jones at the Sign of the Dolphin, 1939), pp. 287–88; introduction to Williamson, Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery, pp. 93, 101–15; Morison, European Discovery of America, pp. 189–91; Polydore Vergil, The Anglica Historia of Polydore Vergil, ed. and trans. Denys Hay (Camden Society, 3d ser., 74, 1950), pp. 116–17; Biggar, Precursors of Jacques Cartier, pp. 27–29.

52. Based on analysis of PRO, E 190/1129/11 and 1129/12. For a full discussion of the reasons for using this method and some remarks on trade conditions in 1575–6 and the limitations of the Port Books as a source, see Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 309–14; vol. 2, Appendix 1 (pp. 723–44), and p. 846n.1.

53. See Table 6 below. The figure of seven hundred and forty-nine cloths refers only to exports to the Continent. A bit less than twenty-eight cloths plus a small quantity of new draperies were shipped to Ireland in this year. Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, p. 351.

54. Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 322–46.

55. Ibid., pp. 314–22.

56. Braudel, Mediterranean, vol. 1, p. 298; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 321–22.

57. Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 322–28.

58. Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 329–45.

59. Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 356–57; vol. 2, pp. 745, 749. About 80 percent of the inward and 95 percent of the outward trade was in the hands of the Irish.

60. Woodward, Trade of Elizabethan Chester, p. 5; Longfield, Anglo-Irish Trade, chap. 2.

61. Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 351–54.

62. J. E. Thorold Rogers, A History of Agriculture and Prices in England from the Year after the Oxford Parliament (1259) to the Commencement of the Continental War (1793), 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1882–1887), vol. 4, pp. 409, 689; William Beveridge, Prices and Wages in England from the Twelfth to the Nineteenth Century (London: Frank Cass, 1939), pp. 36, 75.

63. Braudel, Mediterranean, vol. 1, pp. 442–43; see also Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, vol. 2, chap. 4.

64. The discussion in this and the following section is based on analysis of PRO, E 190/1129/11, 1129/12, 1130/5, 1131/5, 1131/10, 1132/8, 1132/12, 1133/1, 1133/8, 1133/11, 1134/3, 1134/7, 1134/10, 1135/6, 1136/3, 1136/1, 1136/8, 1139/10. The results are tabulated and explained in Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, chaps. 8 and 9, and in Appendix 2 (vol. 2, pp. 745–51).

65. The following account is based on analysis of PRO, E 190/1135/6. This year is the best available in this period, in part because we have a complete set of Port Books on which to base our analysis. For discussion of trade conditions in this year, see Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 372–73.

66. Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 373, 377, 380.

67. But definite conclusions as to the scale of the increase cannot be reached, because the rates upon which the Port Books relied were twice revised upward early in James I’s reign: see T. S. Willan, ed., A Tudor Book of Rates (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1962), p. xlii. Still, the increase in wine shipments suggests considerable growth in the size of Bristol’s trade, even if the improvement in ad valorem duties is only illusory.

68. See Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 429–54.

69. PRO, E 190/1134/7.

70. See, e.g., Adams’s Chronicle, pp. 185–86; Latimer, Annals, p. 34.

71. PRO, E 190/1134/3, 1134/10, 1135/6. For evidence of Bristol’s trade elsewhere in this region, see PRO, E 190/1134/3, 1136/8, 1136/10; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 384–85.

72. Reddaway and Ruddock, eds., Accounts of John Balsall, pp. 1–29; Antonio de Capmany Sur;aa fis y de Montpalau, Memorias Históricas sobre la marina commercio y artes de la antigua ciudad de Barcelona, 2 vols. (Madrid: A. de Sancha, 1779–1792), vol. 1, part 2, p. 137; Jean Vanes, ed., The Ledger of John Smythe, 1538–1550 (BRS 28, 1974), pp. 97, 106–7, 154, 158, 188, 217, 233, 235, 253, 262.

73. The Bristol merchant John Browne makes no mention in his Marchants Avizo of ports beyond Gibraltar. On Gibraltar as a barrier to shipping see Braudel, Mediterranean, vol. 1, pp. 117–20, 609–10, 622–23.

74. See, e.g., PRO, E 190/1134/3, 1134/7.

75. Braudel, Mediterranean, vol. 1, pp. 587ff.

76. Braudel, Mediterranean, vol. 1, p. 523; Earl J. Hamilton, American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain, 1501–1650 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1934), pp. 262–82; E. H. Phelps Brown and Sheila V. Hopkins, “Seven Centuries of Building Wages,” in Carus-Wilson, ed., Essays in Economic History, vol. 2, pp. 168–78; E. H. Phelps Brown and Sheila V. Hopkins, “Seven Centuries of the Prices of Consumables, Compared with Builders’ Wage-Rates,” in Carus-Wilson, ed., Essays in Economic History, vol. 2, pp. 179–96.

77. See, e.g., Vanes, ed., Ledger of John Smythe, pp. 4, 13, 20, 89, 169, 287, 295.

78. Marchants Avizo, pp. 16–17; Ruth Pike, Enterprise and Adventure: The Genoese in Seville and the Opening of the New World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966), chap. 4; Henri Lapeyre, Une Famille des Marchands: Les Ruiz (Paris: A. Colin, 1955), pp. 113, 120, 122–23, 146.

79. Braudel, Mediterranean, vol. 1, p. 536; Hamilton, American Treasure, pp. 33ff., 278–81; Pierre Chaunu, Séville et l’Atlantique (1504–1650), 8 vols. in 11 (Paris: SEVPEN, 1959), vol. 8, part 2, section 2, pp. 1263–64.

80. Chaunu, Séville et l’Atlantique, vol. 8, part 2, section 2, pp. 1158–87, 1458–1569.

81. Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 394–95.

82. Reddaway and Ruddock, Accounts of John Balsall, pp. 1–29; Roger Barlow, A Brief Summe of Geography, ed. E. G. R. Taylor (Hakluyt Society, 2d ser., 69, 1931), p. 100.

83. Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation, Made by Sea or Over-land to the Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at any Time within the Compasse of These 1600 Yeeres (Hakluyt Society, extra ser., 12 vols., 1903–1905), vol. 6, pp. 136, 138–39; Willan, Elizabethan Foreign Trade, pp. 92ff.

84. See, e.g., PRO, E 190/1133/1, 1133/8; Willan, Elizabethan Foreign Trade, pp. 163–87, 279ff.

85. See, e.g., PRO, E 190/1134/3, 1134/10; “Special Direction for Divers Trades,” in R. H. Tawney and E. Power, eds., Tudor Economic Documents, Being Select Documents Illustrating the Economic and Social History of Tudor England, 3 vols. (London: Longmans, 1924), vol. 3, p. 202; Willan, Elizabethan Foreign Trade, pp. 104, 107–14, 240–68.

86. PRO, E 190/1129/11; Braudel, Mediterranean, vol. 1, pp. 555, 606–42, and vol. 2, 1139–42; Fernand Braudel and R. Romano, Navires et Marchandises à l’Entrée du Port de Livorne (1547–1611) (Paris: A. Colin, 1951), pp. 50–51; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 311, 342–43.

87. Lewes Robertes, The Marchants Mappe of Commerce wherein the Universal Manner and Matter of Trade is compendiously Handled (London, 1638), pp. 40, 42.

88. See, e.g., PRO, E 190/1135/6; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 389–92.

89. Innis, Cod Fisheries, pp. 12–13; Biggar, Precursors of Jacques Cartier, pp. 134ff.; Williamson, Voyages of the Cabots, ch. 8; Judah, North American Fisheries, pp. 11–17; Gillian T. Cell, English Enterprise in Newfoundland, 1577–1660 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), p. 3.

90. E. G. R. Taylor, ed., The Writings and Correspondence of the Two Richard Hakluyts, 2 vols. (Hakluyt Society, 2d ser., 76, 1935), vol. 1, p. 123; see also Cell, English Enterprise, pp. 22–23; Innis, Cod Fisheries, pp. 30–33; R. G. Loundsbury, The British Fishery at Newfoundland, 1634–1763 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934), pp. 22–23; D. W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial and Foreign Records (London: Macmillan, 1895), pp. 31–50; Judah, North American Fisheries, pp. 17–23.

91. Taylor, ed., Writings and Correspondence of the Two Richard Hakluyts, vol. 1, pp. 123, 128; Cell, English Enterprise, pp. 23–25, 78, 132, 135; Innis, Cod Fisheries, pp. 33ff.; Judah, North American Fisheries, pp. 24ff.; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, p. 403.

92. Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, vol. 8, p. 155; Pauline Croft, “Free Trade and the House of Commons, 1605–6,” EcHR, 2d ser., 28 (1975): 21.

93. See PRO, E 190/1131/3; Cell, English Enterprise, pp. 24, 31–33, 47–52, 134; Innis, Cod Fisheries, pp. 39, 50, 52; Judah, North American Fisheries, pp. 31–39; Prowse, History of Newfoundland, pp. 79–84; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 404–6.

94. Taylor, ed., Writings and Correspondence of the Two Richard Hakluyts, vol. 1, pp. 123–34.

95. Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrims Contayning a History of the World in Sea Voyages and Lande Travells by Englishmen and Others, 20 vols. (Glasgow: J. MacLehose and Sons, 1905–1907), vol. 19, pp. 405–24; C. T. Carr, ed., Select Charters of Trading Companies, A.D. 1530–1707 (Selden Society 28, 1913), pp. 51–62; J. W. Damer Powell, “The Explorations of John Guy in Newfoundland,” Geographical Journal 86 (1930): 512–18; Cell, English Enterprise, pp. 53–61; Gillian T. Cell, “The Newfoundland Company: A Study of Subscribers to a Colonizing Venture,” WMQ, 3d ser., 23 (1966): 611–25; Innis, Cod Fisheries, pp. 53–56.

96. SMV, Book of Charters, vol. 1, p. 57; McGrath, ed., Records, p. 200; Cell, English Enterprise, pp. 87–88.

97. SMV, Book of Trade, pp. 104–11, 123, 141–45; Miller Christy, “Attempts toward Colonization: The Council for New England and the Merchant Venturers of Bristol, 1621–23,” AHR 4 (1898–99): 678–702; Henry S. Burrage, The Beginnings of Colonial Maine, 1602–1658 (Portland, Maine: Printed for the State, 1914), pp. 142–43, 144–59; R. A. Preston, “Fishing and Plantation: New England in the Parliament of 1621,” AHR 46 (1939–40): 29–43; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, p. 408.

98. Burrage, Beginnings of Colonial Maine, pp. 26, 142–43, 143n., 180n., 217–19.

99. Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, vol. 9, pp. 338ff., and vol. 10, p. 6; Connell-Smith, “English Merchants Trading to the New World,” pp. 57–60.

100. Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, vol. 10, pp. 82–88, 193; I. A. Wright, ed., Documents Concerning English Voyages to the Spanish Main, 1569–1580 (Hakluyt Society, 2d ser., 71, 1932), pp. 102–8, 187–88, 192–93, 196–99, 204, 208–10; PRO, E 190/1134/3; Sacks, Trade, Society, and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 412–13.

101. Quinn, England and the Discovery of America, pp. 139, 143–47; G. P. Winship, Cabot Bibliography, with an Introductory Essay on the Careers of the Cabots (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1900), pp. xvii–xviii; Biggar, Precursors of Jacques Cartier, pp. 134–42; PRO, SP 12/115/35, 122/62; George Best, The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher in Search of a Passage to Cathay and India by the North-west, A.D. 1576–8, 2 vols., ed. Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Eloise E. McCaskill (London: Argonaut Press, 1938), vol. 2, pp. 109–10, 123–26; David B. Quinn, ed., The Voyages and Colonizing Enterprises of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, 2 vols. (Hakluyt Society, 2d ser., 83–84, 1940), vol. 2, pp. 347, 350–51; Miller Christy, ed., The Voyages of Captain Luke Foxe of Hull and Captain Thomas James of Bristol in 1631–32, 2 vols. (Hakluyt Society, 88–89, 1894), vol. 1, pp. cxxxiv–clxviii, 455, 456, 594.

102. T. S. Willan, The Moscovy Merchants of 1555 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1953), p. 118; T. S. Willan, The Early History of the Russia Company, 1553–1603 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1956); Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 735–37; MacInnes, Gateway of Empire, pp. 74–86; McGrath, ed., Merchants and Merchandise, p. 51n.; Alfred Lewis Pinneo Dennis, “Captain Martin Pring: Last of the Elizabethan Seamen,” in Tercentennary of Martin Pring’s First Voyage to the Coast of Maine, 1603–1903 (Portland, Maine: Maine Historical Society, 1905), pp. 24ff.

103. See W. E. Minchinton, “Bristol—Metropolis of the West in the Eighteenth Century,” TRHS, 5th ser., 4 (1954): 69–85.

2. Mere Merchants

As Bristol moved from being a cloth exporter of the first rank to become a principal center for imports, a new and more complex system of commerce emerged. Export commodities were diversified to include significant quantities of metals and metal wares, fish, leather, butter, coal, and more varieties of textiles, while at the same time the city’s leading markets shifted away from Gascony to the Iberian peninsula, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic. In making this transformation Bristol was not alone. Similar changes took place in nearly the whole of English commerce of the Tudor and Stuart period. Bristol, however, was at the forefront of the development, under the pressure of a dismal level of cloth exports in Henry VIII’s reign, whereas for London and much of the rest of England similar changes came only in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, with the trade depressions of the 1550s and 1620s providing the stimulus.[1] In this chapter we shall explore the consequences of these new directions in commercial history for the structure of Bristol’s trading community, as the city became a home for the type of overseas traders whom sixteenth-century commentators called “mere merchants”—traders who lived exclusively by their large-scale dealings in foreign commerce.

New markets and new commodities inevitably called forth new strategies from traders for winning profit and new relationships within the trading community. In the fifteenth century, commercial practices had been quite simple. In the Iberian peninsula a form of “tramping” was followed, in which a vessel laden with export wares sailed from port to port with an itinerant merchant aboard looking for the best prices.[2] Even in Gascony, the most sophisticated sector of the city’s commerce, trade was a type of barter. Cloth, manufactured in or near Bristol, was carried annually in large fleets to Bordeaux to be exchanged for wine, with the French dealers usually paid directly in textiles for the vintage.[3] No elaborate system of credit or arrangement for the clearing of balances was necessary, although the use of loans and reliance on attorneys or factors were hardly unknown. Many merchants combined overseas operations with the maintenance of a workshop or retail establishment, making the merchant community both large and diverse. For example, between September 1479 and July 1480 over two hundred and fifty Bristolians engaged in overseas trade, a very considerable number in a town of only about ten thousand inhabitants. As a result, quite humble men found it possible to enter in significant numbers into the city’s merchant leadership.[4] In the sixteenth century much of this would change. Not surprisingly, the starting place is the connection between clothmaking and overseas trade.

Just as Bristol’s prosperity in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries depended on the cloth trade, the structure of the medieval trading community was founded on cloth manufacture. In the oldest legislation governing this industry, dating from the fourteenth century, we can catch a glimpse of its early organization as its members idealized it. Manufacture was to take place in small, domestic units located within the boundaries of the city, and each producer was to operate independently, not as the agent of an entrepreneur who put out work to him. Weavers not only were expected to keep the instruments of their craft “in halls and rooms next the road,” where only two or three looms could have been worked at one time, but also were forbidden to receive yarn “from anyone except…their husbands and wives.” Similarly, fullers were expected to work only their own cloths, presumably buying them from the weavers, then in turn selling their work to the drapers. Finally, cloth was to be sold primarily in the weekly cloth market held in Tucker Street, which all the city’s merchant drapers were obliged to attend. Only if cloth failed to find a buyer there could it be offered privately.[5]

The wistful tone of these old ordinances makes clear, however, that even at this early date these arrangements survived solely as ideals from a distant past. We can identify two major lines of development in the cloth industry. First, by the 1340s Bristol’s boundaries no longer successfully contained its burgesses’ involvement in woolen manufacture. The combing of wool, spinning of yarn, and weaving, fulling, finishing, buying, and selling of cloth by Bristolians or their employees now took place in the countryside as well as the city.[6] Second, a distinct group of entrepreneurs operating on a large scale had emerged to dominate the industry. To be sure, the industry still sustained a relatively large number of independent producers in Bristol. In 1346, for example, eighty-eight fullers resided in the city, most presumably still using the old walking technique to treat their cloth. But even among these men significant signs of change abounded. Although various ordinances stipulate wages to be paid workers at the stocks and the perch, instruments associated with the older techniques for shrinking and thickening woolens, much of the actual fulling appears to have occurred at mills located in the Mendip and Cotswold hills, with only the “rekkyng, pleyting and amending” of the cloth taking place in Bristol itself. Some of the fullers, then, seem to have become clothiers responsible for organizing the finishing stages of production.[7] At the same time, weaving seems to have fallen under the control of a small group of entrepreneurs, who put out woolen yarn to weavers in both country and town. From other sources we know of the existence of individuals such as Thomas Blanket who maintained large workshops in their own houses, containing “divers instruments for weaving” operated by a number of “weavers and other workmen.” Many of these men participated actively as merchant drapers and as cloth exporters to the overseas markets. Some traded in a wide variety of goods, including dyestuffs, wine, and oil among imports; leather and wool as well as cloth among exports. Thus in place of the antique ideal upheld by the city’s ordinances, we have an industry organized along distinctly proto-capitalist lines.[8]

Unfortunately, it is impossible to reconstruct in detail the pattern of occupations in Bristol during this period. Our best guess is that 20 percent of the city’s population, and probably more, were employed at least part of the time in the various stages of textile production.[9] But we can do somewhat better in establishing an economic profile for the city’s elite, the members of its Common Council. Almost all the fifty-six known councillors from the late fourteenth and the early fifteenth century engaged in overseas trade to some degree, but there was as yet no differentiation of retail shopkeeping from wholesale trading or from the financing of cloth production. Many held properties, usually in the form of tenements and workshops, in the clothmaking districts. They seem very much a group of general entrepreneurs dependent on commerce in cloth, but not yet committed exclusively to overseas trade.[10] Where specialization occurred in this period, it was less in commerce than in real estate and shipping. According to E. M. Carus-Wilson, William Canynges the Younger, one of Bristol’s, and indeed England’s, richest men in the fifteenth century, held “fourteen shops, at least seventeen tenements, a close and two gardens in Bristol, and lands in Wells, the hundred of Wells and Westbury on Trym.” He also owned at least ten ships, which William Worcester tells us directly employed about eight hundred men. Nevertheless, Canynges, once a merchant in his own right, had ceased to trade. Trade in this period, focused as it was narrowly on cloth and wine, exchanged among only a small network of traders in a handful of ports, did not readily lend itself to great concentrations of wealth. For the Bristol entrepreneurs, the only avenues for long-term investment were property and ships, and many of the leading men in the fifteenth century put their hard-earned profits into these ventures as they drew back from the risks of everyday dealings. But for most of the others, trade remained centered on cloth, until the great changes of the second half of the fifteenth century altered this pattern forever.[11]

By the early sixteenth century the social effects of the decline in Bristol’s cloth trade were already quite clear. Judging from apprenticeship records, which give us a rough idea of the demand for labor in particular industries, the proportion of those directly engaged in making cloth during the 1530s and 1540s had fallen to something less than 15 percent (Table 8).[12] About a third of these men were weavers, but they produced mainly cheap cloths, such as friezes, that were a far cry from the fine-quality “Broadmeads” that had made the city’s looms so famous in the fourteenth century. Most of the remainder of the textile manufacturers were engaged in the dyeing and finishing trades. Since the work of several weavers normally was required to employ a single dyer, fuller, and shearman, this imbalance implies that Bristol was receiving the fabrics not only of its own weavers but of country producers as well. Bristol, in other words, had become something of a center for cloth finishers. Many of these individuals used their position at the end of the production process to command the market and to finance and manage manufacture through its various stages. The fullers or, as they were called in sixteenth-century Bristol, tuckers, were especially active entrepreneurs, successfully outmaneuvering the shearmen during a nearly century-long battle for control of the industry. The catastrophic fall in Bristol’s cloth exports and the heavy emphasis upon the manufacture of coarse and cheap fabrics, however, made this victory somewhat pyrrhic. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the place of textile manufacture in the city had fallen even a bit further, despite efforts to build up the industry through production of new, lighter-weight fabrics such as worsteds, fustians, and serges.[13]

8. Distribution of Occupations Among
Bristol Apprentices, 1532-1542 and 1626-1636
  1532–1542 1626–1636
  No. %[a] No. %[a]
Source: 1532–1542: D. Hollis, ed., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 1: 1532–1542 (Bristol Record Society 14, 1949). 1626–1636: Bristol Record Office, Apprentice Book, 1626–1640, ff. 1r–333r.
 Leading entrepreneurs
   Merchants 119 8.51 142 5.22
  Major retailers 145 10.37 317 11.65
  Soapmakers and chandlers 18 1.29 89 3.27
   Total 282 20.17 548 20.13
 Textile production 196 14.02 369 13.56
 Leather production 150 10.73 103 3.78
 Clothing production and other secondary users of cloth and leather 287 20.53 393 14.44
 Metal crafts 121 8.66 317 11.65
 Building trades 35 2.50 197 7.24
 Shipping and related trading and port activities 155 11.09 521 19.14
 Food production and related industries 91 6.51 171 6.28
 Woodworking 18 1.29 20 0.73
 Professional and service industries 42 3.00 68 2.50
 Miscellaneous 21 1.50 15 0.55
  Total known 1,398   2,722  
  Total unknown 7   12  
     Total 1,405 96.43 [b] 2,734 95.86 [b]
Women[c] 52 3.57 [b] 118 4.14 [b]
     Total Men and Women 1,457   2,852  
Percentage of known men.Percentage of total.The occupations of female apprentices in Bristol were almost completely gender-specific in 1532–1542 and 1626–1636. Women were apprenticed primarily in domestic service or in knitting and needlework, crafts to which men were not apprenticed in these two periods. In 1532–1542, however, four women were apprenticed to crafts that otherwise employed men, one to a pinmaker and three to mercers, but the latter may have been trained only in the art of needlework: see David Harris Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics in Bristol, 1500–1640, 2 vols. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1985), vol. 2, p. 763.

There is more here than merely a dismal tale of dwindling trade. Beneath the statistics also lie signs of renewal. In the early sixteenth century the city was already characterized by a new and distinctive distribution of occupations. Just as Coventry, Worcester, and Norwich possessed occupational structures typical of textile towns, and Northampton of a leather-producing one, Bristol now had an occupational structure typical of commercial towns, with a heavy emphasis on trade-related crafts. In the 1530s over a third of all apprentices in the city specialized in overseas trade and retailing or in serving the port; the figure would be even higher if we included among the retailing shopkeepers such small craftsmen as shoemakers, tailors, and other clothing manufacturers, many of whom ordinarily sold at retail what they produced. By the 1620s, this pattern had developed further, with almost half of the apprentices employed in commerce, merchandising, and shipping. In this same period, a similar proportion of the city’s freemen came from this sector of Bristol’s economy. Again, these already large percentages would be still more striking if we also counted the small craftsmen engaged in clothing manufacture. Where once Bristol had itself been primarily a center of cloth production and its trade, it had now become a center of more general overseas commerce and regional distribution.[14]

The driving force in these processes of social and economic change was the growth of the Iberian trade, which, with its emphasis on valuable, exotic, and highly profitable import goods such as spices, dyestuffs, silks, sugar, and tobacco, ended the domination of the cloth traders and turned Bristol into a city of “merchantmen, grocers, mercers, haberdashers,” dealing largely in the wares of southern Europe.[15] This same transformation of Bristol’s commerce brought into being a more complicated trading network that became evident by the early seventeenth century. In order to acquire the riches of the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean, for example, fish were transported from the Grand Banks, which in turn demanded purchases of ships’ timber in Amsterdam, sailcloth in France, and salt in Spain and Portugal. To accomplish this, a variety of export wares were necessary, most of them far different from the English goods demanded in Marseilles, Leghorn, or Madeira. At the same time, a more integrated system emerged that demanded sophisticated financial and managerial techniques. Few traders operating entirely on their own were able successfully to marshal the capital or the managerial skill to conduct enterprises linking Welsh butter and calfskins; Mendip lead; Kingswood coal; Dean’s Wood iron; western, northern, and Welsh cloth; Newfoundland fish; French, Spanish, and Portuguese salt; and American, Mediterranean, Iberian, and French specialties into one system of commerce.

One of the first consequences of this new demand for coordination was a contraction in the size of the trading community, even though Bristol’s population remained remarkably constant, at ninety-five hundred to ten thousand inhabitants, until about 1575.[16] Around 1550, for example, a leading Bristolian, probably himself a merchant, thought that only about one hundred and twenty-five of his fellow citizens then had the wherewithal or credit to be merchants in the city, compared to the two hundred and fifty who had traded fifty or seventy-five years earlier.[17] By the mid-1570s the number of active overseas merchants had fallen to fewer than one hundred; from Michaelmas 1575 to Michaelmas 1576, for example, only ninety-five Bristolians shipped goods to or from foreign markets, and this figure seems to have remained fairly constant into the early seventeenth century, when Bristol’s population had grown by at least 25 percent.[18]

These quantitative changes not only show a contraction in the number of traders engaged in foreign commerce but suggest a concentration of their activities. They signal the emergence of a new commercial order in Bristol. Entrepreneurs whose businesses encompassed a full range of undertakings from the Grand Banks to the Levant required the assistance of their fellows both at home and abroad to achieve their goals even more than did those who had less far-flung or ambitious businesses. Sitting in their countinghouses with their ledgers and journals, they necessarily conducted their affairs through agents and colleagues. The new forms of commercial organization that emerged in Bristol during the sixteenth century depended first upon the existence of these close personal ties and the mutual trust they engendered among overseas merchants.

No matter how cautious or wealthy the entrepreneur, a great variety of events, often of the most prosaic kind, stood ready to disrupt his affairs and threaten his businesses. John Browne, merchant of Bristol and the author of The Marchants Avizo, saw this as a basic fact of a trader’s life. “Let not thy expenses be equall with they gaines,” he warned, “for either sicknes, naughtie debtors, let of trade and misfortune at sea or land, may soone ouerthrow thee.”[19] Merchants were men who might encounter danger at every turn of their professional existence, by placing their goods and sometimes their lives in jeopardy in hopes of returning a profit.[20] According to Alderman John Whitson, this made for an exceptionally “burthensome kind of Life.” “Abundance of Riches…rob a Man of his Quiet,” he said,

and take away his Time either in the account of ’em or in the Disposing of ’em. For what Care is there to be had of Rents? What Caution and Wariness to be had of bad Debtors? What Fear of Losses and Casualties? What Distrust and Suspicion of our best Friends? What Vigilance and Diligence, that we be not over-charged in our Bargains? What Grief, if we be overthrown in our Suits, and vex’d with Fines and Amercements? To be brief, what Toil and Weriness throughout our whole lives? Eithere we are troubled with getting or cumber’d with keeping, or afflicted and heart-broken with losing, and never at Rest, paying and receiving.[21]

Whitson knew whereof he spoke. The inventory of his estate at his death showed him to be owed £3,000 in “desparate debts” in addition to the more than £5,400 in moneys, bonds, leases, merchandise, household stuff, and other movables for which his executors acknowledged responsibility. His “goods debts” and his “hopeful debts” came only to about £1,400.[22] To other Bristolians the truth of Whitson’s remarks was confirmed by numerous examples of fellow citizens brought low by accident or circumstance—of multiple mishaps destroying men “heretofore of some wealth and nobility,” or poor judgment and bad practice bringing calamity down upon men’s heads.[23]

Whitson’s lament envisions the mercantile profession as composed of isolated individuals, each single-handedly confronting the pitfalls of the marketplace, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Rather than plying their trades alone, Bristol’s merchants habitually aided one another by dealing in partnership, by serving as factors and agents, by acting as intermediaries in the delivery or receipt of coin or goods, and by jointly transporting merchandise. Precisely because trade was such a precarious form of endeavor, it was essential for everyone to be certain of his fellows’ trustworthiness. Only those who were known to be competent and honest in their trade could be relied on to pay their just debts or to handle another’s wares and monies safely. A close community of merchants was a necessary precondition to the conduct of business. Signs of its existence appear nearly everywhere, making it—somewhat paradoxically—difficult to study. Nevertheless, a convenient method can be employed to study its operating principles in the mid-sixteenth century.

We have already mentioned a document dating from about 1550 naming those men who were deemed worthy of membership in the merchant community. It lists one hundred and twenty-seven individuals.[24] Not all were exclusively overseas traders; several, such as “Smythe the boke bynder,” must have maintained retail shops. Unfortunately, the author’s hand is unknown, but since the list is found inserted in the ledger of John Smythe, one of Bristol’s most important merchants in this period, we can assume it came from one of his circle and that the names in it represent the vast majority of those in Bristol for whom long-distance wholesale trade was the foundation of business. It was just such men who became known as “mere merchants.”[25] Smythe, in his capacity as an exporter of cloth, lead, and leather, an importer of wine, iron, oil, woad, fruit, and the like, and a shipowner, had economic ties with fifty-seven of the men named in the list. He depended on them to aid in his business dealings from time to time, to freight his ship the Trinity Smythe, and to serve him either as suppliers of export goods or as a subsidiary market for imports. A survey of his dealings with them can help us see something of the socioeconomic bonds that held together the Bristol merchants of his day.

Smythe’s overseas trade was centered in the Iberian peninsula. There he often relied on his fellow Bristolians for help in conducting business. Cash loans were sometimes necessary to complete transactions. Edward Pryn, for example, acting as the “taker” on a bill of exchange, lent Smythe £25 to be received in Andalusia through Hugh Tipton, Pryn’s agent there. On other occasions Smythe himself lent money in Spain to facilitate the trade of fellow citizens, for which he was repaid at home, sometimes in goods. Merchant colleagues were also frequently entrusted with valuables for Smythe, as when 100 ducats were left for safekeeping with Thomas Harris in Seville, or when Francis Codrington carried a large sum of money overland to Smythe’s resident servant in San Sebastian. But in most instances these duties were left in the hands of Smythe’s own servants who traveled overseas with his goods.[26]

More important were the partnerships and other joint ventures in which Smythe engaged with his Bristol colleagues. In 1539, for example, Smythe joined with John Cutt and Giles White, who was Smythe’s servant at the time, for the sale of Málaga raisins. But unlike some of his colleagues, Smythe participated in few such short-term partnerships as this. Joint export licenses were more important to his business. He combined with Edward Pryn and Robert Poole of Gloucester in a license for the export of leather in 1539, and he sold shares in his licenses for grain exports to a number of fellow Bristolians. Several of these ventures were conducted as true partnerships, with the participants buying, shipping, and selling the goods together under the terms of the license. Such an agreement seems to have been in force with Francis Codrington and William Carr, with whom Smythe participated in several licenses between 1538 and 1540. Edward Pryn, too, was a frequent partner in the shipment of restricted commodities. But more often the licensees were merely shareholders, lading their goods independently.[27]

Usually partnership agreements among merchants were for a single voyage. They came into being to combine capital or spread risk in only one enterprise and ended with the clearing of accounts several months later, after the venture had been completed. However, longer-term associations occasionally existed in which a number of individuals combined for mutual benefit, either to trade generally for a period of time or, less commonly, to trade jointly in one commodity over several years. Smythe belonged to one “firm” of the latter type in the early 1540s. Its purpose was to “Adventure in company” to the Azores for woad for six years. Eleven merchants participated in it, including seven of those mentioned in our list of merchants. The total capital was 5,200 Portuguese ducats, worth £1,300, divided into eight shares. Nicholas Thorne, William Spratt, and Smythe himself each held one full share. Single shares were also held by three partnerships, with one possessed by Edward Pryn and Robert Butler, another by Francis Codrington and William Carr, and a third by William Ballard and Francis Fowlar. The final two shares were jointly in the hands of the partnership of Francis Blanckley and Pedro Goncalez. To manage the firm’s interests a simple administrative structure was established, with Edward Pryn “admytted for mynester here in Ynglande & the seid Frances Blanckelley & Pedro Goncalez for mynesters beyond the see.” Thus, the Azorean woad enterprise reveals the existence not only of the main partnership but of several smaller merchant firms of sufficient permanence to hold shares in it.[28]

Shipping is another way that Smythe was bound with the membership of the Bristol merchant community in mutual endeavor. Of the fifty-seven merchants on the 1550 list with whom Smythe dealt, twenty-six used his ship at one time or another to conduct their trade. The vessel was occasionally chartered for long voyages, as by Francis Codrington and William Carr in 1538. More usually, however, merchants merely laded their goods aboard Smythe’s vessel either in Bristol or abroad when it was in his own charge. As an overseas merchant, however, Smythe’s own shipping needs could not be satisfied by his Trinity. Given the risks involved in all seaborne traffic, he would in any case have often sought to ship a portion of his exports and imports on vessels belonging to others. Frequently he laded his goods aboard vessels owned by fellow Bristolians. At one time or another, charter parties for ships owned by Thomas Tison, John Gorney, and Thomas Harris were recorded in Smythe’s accounts. Occasionally Smythe chartered vessels jointly with merchant colleagues, as when he and Edward Pryn together hired the Primrose of Bristol to carry beans and wheat for them to Spain. Sometimes these ties were renewed several times over a relatively short period, reflecting the common business interests of the parties. For example, the Harry of Bristol, owned by Thomas Hickes, Francis Codrington, and William Carr, frequently carried Smythe’s cargoes from 1538 through 1540, when all four men were engaged in other enterprises together.[29]

Foreign trade was not the only realm in which Smythe’s ties to the Bristol merchant community proved significant. His activities in the domestic market also depended heavily upon his economic relations with his fellow merchants. Perhaps most important, these merchants provided a major outlet for his imported goods. Although they traded overseas in their own right, Smythe supplied many of them with commodities to supplement their businesses. Thirty-two of the fifty-seven merchants on the 1550 list with whom he dealt were his customers at one time or another. Spanish iron was the most frequently purchased item, perhaps reflecting Smythe’s special command of this market, but he also sold wine, olive oil, woad, and raisins to other Bristol merchants. In return, Smythe sometimes received goods for his own stock from his fellow merchants. John Gorney and Thomas Harris both sold him wine, and Harris also sold him prunes; Thomas Tison, raisins and alum; William Appowell, cork and spices; John Cutt, cordovan, the red or purple dye known as orchil, and oakum; John Capes, salmon; James Bailey, orchil; William Cary, Walter Roberts, and Robert Saxy, various fabrics. In many of these instances the goods were exchanged to clear debts owed Smythe. Tison and Cutt, for example, paid their freight charges on the Trinity in the goods mentioned; Roberts paid for iron and wine, and Appowell for iron, wine, and woad. John Capes provided the salmon in return for an advance payment for the fish and the sale of wine and vinegar to him for his enterprises.[30]

Along with buying and selling with each other, Smythe and his colleagues also indirectly facilitated trade by acting as intermediaries for one another in domestic transactions. Often merchants well known to Smythe stood surety for lesser tradesmen who bought on credit from him. Usually the bonds were issued to strangers with no long-term ties to Smythe. Richard Pryor, for example, stood surety for William Bemer of Langford on a bond for the payment of £24 for a butt of sack; similarly, William Ballard provided the security on a bond for Richard Apris of Hereford for £10 worth of wine. Sometimes Bristolians whose credit was unknown or suspect also found it necessary to have surety for their bonds, as Richard Browne of Bristol, grocer, did for £6 worth of iron bought in 1540. A more common action was for merchants to pay the debts of their own business associates. This was particularly convenient when the debtor was a stranger, resident at a distance from Bristol. For example, the money owed by William Nowle of Bromwich for iron was paid for him by William Spratt, who in turn probably owed Nowle money. Smythe himself had such an arrangement with William North of Bruton, vintner, who often purchased wine from Smythe. In January 1543, Smythe paid a debt of £8 owed by North to John Gorney, in return for which North paid John Yerberry of Bruton, clothier, for cloths that Smythe had bought. The Bristol merchants also cleared their debts with each other in this fashion, as when Francis Codrington paid Smythe for freight charges owed by Thomas Hickes and Hickes paid Codrington for debts owed by Smythe.[31]

Behind the multifaceted ties connecting Smythe and his fellow merchants stands the credit relationship. Nearly all the fifty-seven merchants whose associations with Smythe have been traced were indebted to him at least once in the years 1538 to 1550. In some cases the form of the debt was a direct loan of cash, as when John Gorney received 20s from him in London in 1546 or when Thomas Harris received £10 in 1547–48. More often, however, it represented shop credit carried on the sale of goods or for the payment of freight charges. The terms were usually “3 monthes and 3 monthes” or “half in hand” and half at a stated date in the future, usually three months or six months hence. Rarely was the full amount paid on the spot for anything. No mention is made of interest charges, but higher prices on credit sales probably concealed them. Just what was done when payments were late, as often occurred, is not revealed. Just as credit helped sustain ties between a merchant and his suppliers or clientele, a network of close personal relationships grew as indebtedness was spread throughout the merchant community. At any given moment Smythe, or any of his contemporaries, not only owed large sums to his fellows for freight or goods or both, but also carried substantial “accounts receivable” on his books. Only those without sufficient credit or reputation were required to find formal security for their obligations. In most cases the evidence of the account book alone was sufficient to prove the debt. Indebtedness created recurring, even nearly permanent, links among close business associates. Often merchants became newly obligated to their creditors as their old accounts were cleared, reinforcing and perpetuating their relationship.[32]

Smythe’s ledger is, unfortunately, a unique document in Bristol’s economic history. No record as detailed or comprehensive survives for the period following its terminal date in 1550. But The Marchants Avizo, issued as a guide to apprentices and young merchants in the Iberian trades, offers a starting point for comparison and analysis. Published in 1589 by John Browne, it contains the accounts and commercial papers of a single large venture to Portugal and Spain conducted on behalf of Thomas Aldworth of Bristol by Robert and John Aldworth of the same city, Thomas’s nephews and apprentices.[33]

The venture that provided Browne with his documentation was a complex one, conducted in the fall and winter of one of the years between 1577 and 1584, during which Robert Aldworth was in his uncle’s service. Probably it took place after February 1582, since the dates on documents sent from the Iberian peninsula appear to depend on the new-style, Gregorian calendar in use there from that time.[34] Five vessels, the Joseph, the Gabriel, the Minion, the Unicorne, and the Pleasure, were involved, all sailing together or associating with each other in the voyage. Robert Aldworth was aboard the Joseph, which was laden with both broadcloth and stammel, as well as wax and lead. The other vessels carried similar cargoes, including additional varieties of cloth such as “bayes” and “reading kersies.” At least three of these ships, the Joseph, the Minion, and the Gabriel, set sail from Bristol on 29 September, bound first for Portugal. After a brief setback caused by a storm that drove them into Milford Haven six days later, they arrived in Lisbon on 24 October, according to the letter Robert sent to his uncle on his arrival there. (The voyage actually took only nine days, not nineteen: there is a ten-day difference between the new-style calendar and the old.)

Thereafter, business proceeded relatively briskly. By 7 November, New Style, the first sales of Thomas Aldworth’s goods had been accomplished and six kintals, two roves of pepper and one kintal of cloves had been purchased and laden aboard the Gabriel; indeed, plans were already afoot “to go for Andalozia” to carry out further business. But this journey into Spain did not occur until the beginning of December, when the Joseph, unaccompanied by the Gabriel, made its way to San Lucar.[35] With ongoing activities in two ports, Robert Aldworth’s task became somewhat more complicated. During December and early January, cloth and wax continued to be sold in Lisbon, while lead and bayes were sold in San Lucar. At the same time, such wares as pepper, cloves, mace, and cinnamon were purchased in Lisbon and olive oil and sack were purchased in the Guadalquivir valley. All in all, Robert Aldworth handled the following goods in the course of this single voyage: broadcloth, stammels, bayes, kerseys, wax, and lead as exports, and pepper, cloves, mace, cinnamon, cochineal, olive oil, and sack as imports. And in doing so, he dealt with at least five different merchants in Lisbon and four in San Lucar.[36]

During this fall and winter, Robert Aldworth not only purchased goods for his master but carried out a variety of other items of business as well. To begin with, he undertook to buy and sell as agent or factor for a number of Bristol merchants other than his uncle Thomas. According to a bill of lading dated 20 January, for example, he bought three roves of cochineal and five butts of sack for John Barker and another eight butts of sack for Thomas James, all of which were placed aboard the Pleasure along with the pepper, olive oil, and sack that he had acquired for his master. He also relied on various other merchants to act as his factors in markets that he could not reach. While resident in Seville, for instance, he wrote a friend in Lisbon to receive 100 ducats from one P. R., draper of that city, “to imploie it all in good pepper,” and to lade the same aboard the Pleasure for shipment to Thomas Aldworth in Bristol. He wrote to another friend in San Lucar asking him to meet the Gabriel there and receive from it six tons of lead containing one hundred and five pieces “& to doe so much as make present sale of it, the best you can as time serueth.” With the money earned from this transaction, moreover, this same factor was ordered “to ride vnto Sheres and buy for me 8. Buts of very good Secke the best that possible can be gotten, though they cost a Ducket or two the more in a But.”[37]

Of equal importance was the financial business undertaken both in England and in the Iberian peninsula. In September, for example, Thomas Aldworth caused his ship the Gabriel to be insured in London by two resident merchants of that city and by one of his Bristol compatriots. Much additional activity concerned the settling of debts and accounts and the exchanging of monies. Inevitably, these procedures also involved dependence on associates and friends among overseas traders in the area. Before he set sail, Robert Aldworth authorized one T. M. “to recouer & receaue of G. H. marchant of the aforesaid City of Bristow the summe of 25. pounds, due vnto me as appeareth by this bill.” During the busy month of January, young Robert also served in this capacity for one of his Bristol principals, while later in the month he authorized yet another fellow townsman to collect a debt owed him in Lisbon. Bills of exchange also were issued. By their very nature these financial instruments required the services of friendly intermediaries who either lent the original sum, delivered the bill, or made the exchange.[38]

Just as in Smythe’s day, the factor remained key to the success of commercial enterprise. It was the factor’s activity that permitted the Bristol merchant to conduct his affairs from his countinghouse rather than the deck of a ship, and therefore to spread his interests over a wider and wider area. Often cargoes laded in Bristol were placed under the charge of a servant, such as Robert Aldworth, or a young merchant acting for a group of merchants. Commonly the ship carried a supercargo who was responsible for the welfare of the vessel and its freight and who usually also served as factor for the sale of the goods that were otherwise unaccompanied. But more and more, Bristol’s merchants were relying on resident factors in foreign ports who were independent professionals rather than servants to a particular merchant or group. Many of these “commission agents” were themselves Bristolians. In the 1520s, for example, Leonard Osborn agreed to act as factor in Bordeaux for Gerom Grene; and in the 1540s Robert Tyndall was resident in San Sebastian. Early in the next century, John Hopkins resided in Venice, where John Whitson used him; in the 1630s, William Colston, Junior, served the interests of his fellow Bristolians from his home in Lisbon. These factors were servants to their native merchant community as much as they were agents for individual traders. Bristolians turned to them, not only for their familiarity with local market conditions, but because they were known and trusted.[39]

The institution of partnership reflects the same reliance on the community of merchants as does the use of factors. Most partnerships existed for short periods and for strictly limited purposes; they were more like trading fellowships than business firms. Frequently, they were no more than convenient arrangements that grew out of extremely short-term market conditions and were typically designed to fill only the most immediate trading needs of the members. In John Whitson’s letter book, for example, we note that one of the alderman’s factors in France, complaining of the high current price of salt, offered to “goe in partabell” terms with his principal if he “canne fynde anny that will goe upon reasonable termes.” Even the long-term trading relations of kinsmen, such as the “cumpany” that was formed between the brothers William and Robert Tyndale in the mid-1540s, had something of this informal and intermittent character, as the surviving records of their accounts reveal.[40] Customs records reinforce this view of fluid relations among merchants and of their small reliance upon permanent companies or firms. In 1636–37, only about 2 percent of the cockets issued by the Bristol customs officers for exports were in the name of a partnership. Trading in company was somewhat more common in inward traffic. For example, about 14 percent of the import cockets in 1637–38 were in the name of more than one merchant or of an association, with wine shipments almost always being made in this fashion. In nearly all of these cases, however, the parties traded independently as well as with co-partners. Indeed, there was nothing to prevent them from combining with more than one group of partners at the same time.[41]

The primary economic function of a partnership was the pooling of liquid resources, not the concentrated exploitation of the market through rational organization and the division of labor.[42] According to the classic seventeenth-century definition, a partnership exists

where one man doth aduenture a thousand pounds, another fiue hundred pounds, another three hundred pounds, and another four hundred pounds, more or lesse as they agree amongst themselves to make a stock, euery man to haue his profit, or to beare losses and aduenture according to their seuerall stocks in one or many voyages, for one or more years…to be diuided into so many parts as they agree.[43]

Yet few commercial enterprises had the permanence of the woad partnership in which John Smythe participated, and almost none had a comparable organization. At the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century, for example, Hugh Eliot and Robert Thorne traded jointly at home and abroad for two decades, but they reckoned their books and settled accounts after each voyage rather than maintaining their profits and losses in a joint account from year to year. Half a century later, William Gittens and John Carr managed their joint ownership in the same way, each paying his share of expenses at the end of a venture. Those long-lived partnerships that did exist usually were family affairs. For almost twenty years in the 1620s and 1630s, for instance, Robert Aldworth and Giles Elbridge, his nephew, former apprentice, and adoptive heir, regularly traded together and engaged in other joint activities such as the plantation on the Pemaquid peninsula in New England. But they also maintained independent commercial establishments, taking apprentices and conducting business on their own. The pattern was the same for the brothers Erasmus and Thomas Wright in the 1630s. Although such arrangements necessarily required joint records and orderly procedures in settling accounts, there was little to differentiate them from partnerships for a single voyage. As with the partnership of the Tyndales in the early sixteenth century, their purpose was preservation of family interests by concentrating capital resources into a single stock, not the creation of specialized firms with highly structured internal organizations. Moreover, long-term partnerships that lacked a strong family character seem to have been especially vulnerable to dispute and litigation when accounts could not be balanced, as happened in turn to Eliot and Thorne and to Gittens and Carr, among others.[44] Only extraordinary investments requiring lengthy and systematic joint endeavor to turn a profit, such as Smythe’s woad partnership or the early seventeenth-century colony at Bristol’s Hope, Newfoundland, seem to have required more highly structured business organizations.

Even among shipowners, economic associations lacked the character of the modern business firm. Although sailing vessels were typically the property of small and apparently close-knit groups of merchants, individual members were continually divesting themselves of their interests, and, just as in commerce, partnerships were in a constant state of flux. Comparison of two lists of Bristol ships and shipowners, compiled in November 1626 and March 1629, respectively, shows an extraordinarily high turnover in both equipment and personnel. In 1626, Bristolians owned forty-two vessels; two and a half years later, they owned forty-eight vessels. However, only nineteen ships are common to both lists. In 1626, 50 percent of the vessels were individually owned: four by Robert Aldworth, four by John Brooke, three by Thomas Wright, two by Edward Ballash, and one each by Nathaniel Butcher, George Gibson, William Haskins, Richard Woodward, Thomas Rogers, John Came, William Owfield, and Edward Peters. With war increasing the risks of shipowning, only 25 percent of the vessels were in the possession of a single merchant in March 1629: three owned by Thomas Wright, two each by Giles Elbridge and Edward Peters, and one each by Robert Aldworth, William Owfield, Thomas Heathcott, Charles Driver, and John Brooke. Most merchants, however, preferred to own shares, often in several vessels. In 1626, for example, Humphrey Browne, John Gonning, and Nathaniel Butcher each held an interest in four ships, while John Barker, Richard Long, and William Wyatt were concerned in three and Francis Creswick, Richard Holworthy, and Humphrey Hooke in two. Between fall 1626 and spring 1629, moreover, the ownership of thirteen of the nineteen ships which appear on both lists was significantly altered. Either new shareholders had been added, or shares had changed hands. Twenty of the fifty individuals named as owners on the first list do not appear on the second, and seventeen of the forty-seven names on the second list do not appear on the first. A portion of this turnover is no doubt due to the maritime warfare that plagued these years, but not all the vessels were used for such purposes. Wartime conditions merely exaggerated what was already commonplace in more settled times.[45]

In the commercial economy of Elizabethan and early Stuart Bristol, the role played by rationalized firms, joint enterprises, and highly organized, permanent partnership was small. The social foundations of trade were provided, rather, by the existence of networks of regular mercantile contacts among Bristolians. Capital was extremely mobile, not only permitting the diversification of a merchant’s interests into many markets and many commodities but also encouraging the formation of a variety of commercial ties with numerous overseas traders. To a remarkable degree, the conduct of most individual merchant businesses showed little difference in principle from the pattern revealed by partnerships. Judging from John Smythe’s ledger, merchants usually considered each investment as a separate enterprise, accounting profits and losses in compartments. Smythe practiced a form of “venture accounting” in which individual enterprises and dealings with particular persons were kept in separate entries. This method permitted him to distinguish his many interests from one another and to keep a close watch on the balances in each one. He grouped his exports under the markets to which they were sent, and a profit-and-loss account was kept by voyages to a particular region for a stated period, usually a year. Import items were each given a separate profit-and-loss account. Hence for most undertakings individual and joint ventures were treated the same in the accounts.[46]

The highly fluid character of partnerships and of shipowning arrangements was a manifestation of the social principle on which trade was based. The commodities market also reveals that principle at work. When large stocks of merchandise were brought into Bristol, their first market frequently was not a retailer but a fellow merchant, whose business contacts could help distribute the goods. Early in James I’s reign, for example, Thomas Aldworth and Francis Doughty imported substantial quantities of sugar, Canary wine, sumac, and perhaps also currants aboard the White Stag of Bristol from Madeira. Aldworth sold a portion of his goods to Walter Williams, merchant, and Doughty conveyed his share to Humphrey Fitzherbert, Peter Miller, and William Barker, merchants. This helped spread the risk among a number of individuals, who for their part were happy to have the supplies. In place of a world of established business firms anxious to exploit a specialized market for the utmost profit to the exclusion of all competition, there existed a community of merchants, men personally known to one another by reputation and credit, who cooperated as well as competed in the marketplace.[47]

As in John Smythe’s day, credit was the binding force in this community in the early seventeenth century. Usually a merchant was both creditor and debtor, waiting on the payments of one tradesman in order to clear his accounts with another. To Alderman John Guy this was an inevitable consequence of the calling. “Neither the borrower nor the lender have any money,” he said, “and only he that neither borrows nor lends; for the borrower commonly as he receives with one hand he pays with the other, and for the lender it is ever out of his hands, he will borrow a small sum to make up a greater to put it out.”[48] Merchant inventories reveal something of this ubiquity of indebtedness. At Richard Pley’s death in 1639, for instance, over 55 percent of his total assets were in thirty-eight separate debts owed him by forty-one different individuals. Thirteen of these debtors were fellow Bristol merchants. Among them was Walter Stephens, who owed a total of over £2,100, of which £675 was exclusively in his own name and the remainder in conjunction with four others. John Gonning, Junior, was responsible for another £130 or thereabouts, and Richard Aldworth was personally indebted for almost £150 and joined with Stephens and three others in a further sum of nearly £900. With these men Pley conducted business “on Accompte,” suggesting either commodity sales or partnerships. But there were also a number of bonds, including one for £104 in the names of Thomas and Erasmus Wright, who perhaps purchased property or capital equipment from Pley.[49] The inventory does not record Pley’s own debts, since those were not assets for which the executors of his estate were liable. But Pley’s account book, had it survived, probably would reveal sums owed others from whom he bought goods or with whom he jointly traded. As Sir Arthur Ingram said in 1624, “if the trade of the kingdom were divided into 4 parts, 3 of them at least are carried on credit.”[50]

The Marchants Avizo indicates that this hard-won credit was to be directed primarily toward obtaining the scarce luxuries carrying high profit margins that came from the import trade. According to John Browne, a young merchant was to have an expert knowledge of such wares as pepper, cloves, mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, sugar, calicos, cochineal, olive oil, white soap, and wine.[51] To this list we should add alum, woad, madder, indigo, tobacco, dried and fresh fruit, sweet wines, and such items of mercery and haberdashery as silks, velvets, laces, ribbons, linens, hats, handkerchiefs, fancy gloves, and other finery. The motives for purchasing such wares is suggested in the “caueat” Thomas Aldworth gave to his young nephew John:

[N]euer think the same ware which is best cheape and is most bought vp, that it will be best to bestowe your money theron, for ordinarily it falleth out, that the best cheape wares that is brought home, hath smaller vtterance and lesse profite, than such deare wares as there commeth but verie little quantitie of.[52]

The scarce, the exotic, and the small and easy to transport were the ideal wares. They might carry the highest prices abroad, but they yielded the greatest profits at home.

In consequence, overseas trade was essentially a well-orchestrated effort on the part of the city’s merchants to maximize imports. Monies received abroad were immediately paid out again to purchase spices, wine, oil, or some other scarce commodity. Restrictions on carrying coin or bullion out of Spain and other markets made this procedure essential for returning home with the proceeds of one’s sales. “And if after you haue bought al these wares,” Thomas Aldworth wrote to his factor, “there may be any surplus money remaining: do you bestow it in good cochenele, so far as it will rise.” The attraction of the import market was so strong that Bristolians were also willing to borrow or to use ready cash in order to participate in it. John Smythe in the 1540s not only transferred funds to the Iberian peninsula by bill of exchange but also shipped coin to Bordeaux and northern Spain to acquire commodities there. Thirty years later Robert Aldworth, acting for his uncle Thomas, borrowed money in England on bills of exchange to make his purchases in Spain. For the Levant trade, paying in cash was essential. Currants, it was said, “haue such an attractive power that noe discouragement can withhould the marchants of England from sending readie money and shippes to buy and lade the same” and “noe Commodities of this Kingdome (worthy the mentioning)” could be vented to purchase them “according to the vsual course of commerce.”[53]

A good picture of commerce conducted on these principles is offered by Smythe’s ledger. Despite his preference for venture accounting, periodically Smythe cast up his total profits from his export-import tallies. A look at his summary for the period January 1540 to November 1543 shows a gross profit of about £1,540, of which sales of exports accounted for about 38 percent and sales of imports for about 62 percent. Against these gains was almost £112 in losses, making a net profit of nearly £1,428, of which about 40 percent came from exports and about 60 percent from imports (Table 9). When Smythe’s exports are closely examined, his difficulties in turning a profit on them become clear. The English commodities upon which his outward trade relied in 1540–1543 were cloth, leather and skins, and beans and wheat. Later in the 1540s he also traded in lead, either newly smelted from the Mendips or old lead from the roofs and furnishings of the local monasteries. Cloth was his major trading item, but his profits on its sale were very meager. In August 1540, he laded thirty-eight of John Yerberry’s better fabrics aboard two vessels bound for Lisbon and Andalusia. Their value “clere abord” was £4 per cloth, or £152. When sold in Lisbon they earned net just about 8 percent profit. In several instances cloth was sold at no profit. For example, fabrics worth £150 were taken to Biscay aboard the Trinity in December 1539. When their sales were complete in June 1540, they had earned Smythe only about £145, a loss of over 3 percent. Two voyages to Lisbon and Andalusia in 1539–40 and one to Bordeaux in 1541 showed net losses as a result of similarly poor sales of cloth. In one case, sixteen trunkers were left unsold in Spain and were finally disposed of six months later for £6 less than they had cost. Profits were earned, however, on wheat and leather.[54]

9. John Smythe’s Trading Profits,
19 January 1540 to 27 September 1543
Exports £-s-d Imports £-s-d Total £-s-d
Source: Jean Vanes, ed., The Ledger of John Smythe, 1538–1550 (Bristol Record Society 28, 1974), pp. 132–33.
  Bordeaux 7-06-08 Oils 117-16-03  
  Biscay 301-15-01 Iron 481-12-07  
   and Andalusia
282-18-03 Woad
  Leather license 1-04-08 Salmon 15-00-00  
    Wine[a] 289-12-01  
    Total 588-04-08   951-04-05 1,539-09-01
  Bordeaux 1-14-04 Salt 6-18-03  
   and Andalousia
20-07-02 Sack
Bad debts
    Total 22-01-06   89-11-07 111-13-01
    Grand Total 566-03-02   861-12-10 1,427-16-00
Consists of Gascon, £55-01-05; sack, £112-03-02; bastard, £38-04-10; teynt, £3-17-09; ossey, £7-08-01; and “of Andalusia,” £72-16-10.

Smythe’s ledger suggests that mid-sixteenth-century Bristol merchants were assembling their outbound cargoes largely as a means to transfer capital to foreign markets. Exports produced only uncertain profits, with cloth sometimes showing losses, leather and wheat requiring licenses for legal shipment, and the demand for grains depending upon fluctuating harvests both in England and abroad. Imports, however, consistently produced handsome returns, with salmon and wine leading (Table 10). Through the inward-bound commodities traffic not only were Smythe’s foreign earnings brought home, but gains were regularly made on domestic sales.

10. John Smythe’s Profits and Losses on Sales, 24 march 1540 to 27 September 1543
Exports Gains (%) Imports Gains (%)
Source: Jean Vanes, ed., The Ledger of John Smythe, 1538–1550 (Bristol Record Society 28, 1974), pp. 132–33. The table does not include bad debts or losses at sea that do not reveal profit margin.
Bordeaux 3.10 Oils 16.51
Biscay 11.06 Iron 14.88
and Andalusia
Leather license 3.84 Salmon 31.25
    Wine[a] 21.11
    Salt -10.63
   Average 12.55   16.40
Consists of Gascon, 13.31; sack, 19.48; bastard, 38.62; teynt, 32.77; ossey, 31.05; and “of Andalusia,” 29.43.

The experiences of John Smythe and his fellow merchants in the 1540s were conditioned by English currency devaluations, ending in 1551, which drove up domestic prices while stimulating cloth exports. Smythe also relied more heavily upon the Biscayan trade than merchants did in the second half of the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, Bristol’s merchants of Elizabeth’s reign conducted their business affairs on much the same basis as Smythe had. As is revealed by the Aldworth papers in The Marchants Avizo, imports remained the foundation of commerce. The particular remembrance which Thomas Aldworth supplied his apprentice gives the prices at which fine broadcloths, stammel, and wax had been purchased; Robert Aldworth’s accounts show the prices at which these goods were sold in Lisbon. The broadcloths, for example, cost “clear on board” £12 per piece and were bargained for 53 ducats 4 reals each in Portugal, or approximately £13 7s; the stammel cost £17 and was sold for 75 ducats, or about £18 15s. Together these transactions provided a gross profit of almost 9 percent. But deducted from the final sale prices were charges for “barking,” “landing,” “Marco customs,” “measuring,” “wyndage,” “brokerage,” and “auerage,” plus a 2.5 percent factor’s fee. This reduced the net profit to a bit less than 5 percent. The sale of wax was even less lucrative. It had cost Thomas Aldworth £5 12s per hundredweight and was sold for 23 ducats 5 reals per hundredweight in Lisbon, or just under £6 the hundredweight. The gross profit here was about 5 percent, and the additional charges and fees reduced this already meager sum to only a bit over 1 percent.

For Aldworth’s imports there are no equivalent figures; only the prices paid in the Iberian peninsula have survived. But we can estimate the profit margins. According to merchant custom, sale of pepper by the dozen pounds was considered a wholesale transaction. Aldworth paid 52 ducats per kintal of one hundred twelve pounds in Lisbon, or just over 27s per dozen pounds. Between 1575 and 1584 the average price of a dozen pounds of pepper in England was around 36s, which suggests a profit margin of about 23 percent, less freight charges and customs in England. For other commodities it is necessary to rely on English retail prices as a guide. Sack was bought by Aldworth for about £5 per butt, or 9.5d per gallon. In the years 1575–1584, a gallon of sack usually sold for 2s 8d, for an estimated gain of just over 70 percent between original purchase and final sale, less freight, customs, and other charges in England, which were steep. Still, this suggests a merchant’s profit in the same range as that achieved by Smythe in the 1540s. The picture we get is of an import-driven trade, in which a merchant could expect to make a substantial profit on the goods he brought from abroad, but little, if any, gain from his exports.

The forms of overseas commercial enterprise prevalent in sixteenthand early seventeenth-century Bristol would have been quite familiar to the city’s late medieval merchants. The factor, the partnership, the existence of shares in ships, and the dependence on credit that characterized the businesses of Smythe, Aldworth, and Whitson were already well-known in the fifteenth century. What was new was the degree to which the forms had become elaborated over a wide network of trade in a variety of different markets. Because of their relatively unstructured character, these older institutions had proven admirably adaptable to new commercial conditions. For Bristol’s overseas trade, the early modern era had been born without revolutionary changes in accepted practices. But the same cannot be said for the organization of the domestic economy. Here shifts in business arrangements redefined the relationship of trade to the economy and recast the social structure of the city.

We can see the clearest signs of these changes in the ways that the merchants’ relations with the domestic market altered in the sixteenth century. The city’s ancient rules for dealing with strangers required them to bring their goods to a central place to be weighed, to have toll paid, and to be sold only to burgesses, by wholesale, not retail. After 1459, the place settled upon was Spicer’s Hall, named after Richard Spicer, who had given it to the city; later it was called the Backhall. There all persons not burgesses were to bring their woad, woolen cloth, wine, and grocery wares. Sales of livestock and goods were also subject to toll and were to be conducted only in the established open markets and at fixed hours. Private dealings between strangers and burgesses were forbidden; instead, every citizen was to have an equal opportunity to view and purchase the goods. But by the mid-sixteenth century these rules were no more than an ideal continually appealed to but regularly violated. In the 1530s and 1540s, for example, John Smythe maintained close ties with a number of country cloth manufacturers who sold exclusively to him in return for the oil, alum, woad, madder, and other dyestuffs he provided them. His chief supplier, John Yerberry of Bruton, clothier, was even paid directly in woad for his fabrics. Smythe also undertook to finish cloth himself, taking unfinished fabrics from country clothiers and employing Bristol shearmen, tuckers, and dyers to ready it for market. As a result of practices like these, the Backhall was moribund in the sixteenth century, used more for weighing and warehousing goods than for regulating their sale.[55]

The history of the Bristol fairs reveals the same story. The fairs of medieval Bristol, of which there were as many as eight at one time or another, were great open marketplaces. Tolls and customs were suspended to encourage strangers and foreigners to bring their “goodes cattell and merchandiszes” to them. Merchants set up stalls in the Marsh, St. James churchyard, Spicer’s Hall, or the city streets to display wares. Negotiations took place on the spot, without guarantee that every item brought to market would be sold. Goods were examined, prices debated, and agreements reached in full publicity. Private dealings with foreigners may also have taken place, but the essence of the fair was sale in “market overt,” primarily between Bristolians and strangers, made in the presence of other marketgoers and subject to regulations imposed by the city and enforced in the market court. By the mid-sixteenth century, however, this had changed. Although there were certainly still booths and stalls around which buyers gathered to bargain in the manner of an Oriental bazaar, and the market court still survived, a fair was no longer primarily such an open marketplace. It had become, rather, an occasion at which “seller &…byer do appoynt to mete…& there do bargayne.” The great annual St. James Fair took place at Whitsuntide, seven weeks after Easter. After 1529 a winter fair was added, first at Candlemas, in early February, and then, from 1548 on, at the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul at the end of January. Together these fairs gave a distinct seasonal rhythm to inland trade. They provided two established periods, some six months apart, during which merchants from all over southern and western England congregated to place orders, pay debts, and settle accounts. In consequence, the fairs became financial as well as mercantile institutions, used as convenient clearinghouses not only by Bristolians but by merchants of the Midlands, the West Country, South Wales, Ireland, and London, who maintained continuous ties with each other year in and year out.[56]

The Backhall and the fairs, two institutions designed to insure open trading between burgess and “foreigner,” were either circumvented or transformed to serve a new economic order in which private contractual arrangements between townsmen and outsiders were the common pattern. As if to mark this change, the collection of tolls at the city gates was abandoned in 1546; the income from newly purchased monastic properties made up for the lost revenue. Medieval restrictions against strangers trading freely with the city remained in force, but Bristol’s leading men no longer relied on them to protect their interests. They did not usually buy and sell in the city markets, either the Backhall or the fairs, but maintained steady working relationships with individual dealers and customers, with whom they were linked by credit.[57]

Credit again dictated the structure of social relations, this time in a distinctly asymmetrical pattern. Dealings in cloth were almost invariably conducted on account by the city’s merchants. John Smythe, for example, usually deferred payments to his country suppliers for three or, more often, six months. Only for such relatively low-priced goods as “lether corne buttar chese tallow calveskyns” and the like did he and his brethren pay in ready cash. In effect, the merchant received his cloths out of the “clothier’s stok” usually for “halff year and halff year,” which permitted the overseas trader not only to sell his fabrics abroad but to pay his debts with the proceeds of the import trade. The trade depended on a clear division of labor from which each side normally benefited. The clothier was relieved of managing his affairs, with all the attendant risks, in foreign as well as domestic markets. The merchant was saved the difficult task of coordinating the various stages of cloth production at home, leaving him free to worry about the state of sales in distant places. Since the merchant controlled access to the final market abroad, he had the advantage over the clothier, even though he was in the clothier’s debt. However, if accounts were to be cleared and new ventures undertaken, rapid, secure, and profitable marketing of imports was absolutely essential to the merchant.[58] For this reason merchants felt an intense interest in their outlet for foreign wares, the domestic retail trade.

The relationship between merchant and retailer ideally was also a symbiotic one. As the merchants themselves said,

A merchant cannot be a retailer for want of skill and acquaintance of customers, which requires an apprenticeship to bring him to it; neither can he have a fit place to dwell in, for all the houses that stand in place of retail are already in the hands of retailers.[59]

A legal dispute between Daniel Bishop, vintner, Edward Coxe, merchant, et al. reveals these close ties.[60] In October 1618, Bishop, together with one James Glover of Bristol, had leased a tavern called the King’s Head and Merchant’s Arms, in which wine was to be sold. Over a period of three years these two men, acting as partners, had become indebted to divers persons for upwards of £300, which they were unable to pay on time. On a thorough examination of their joint estates, Glover decided it was wise to leave the partnership and was willing to grant to Bishop all his rights in the tavern as well as all the personal property of the partnership, if Bishop in turn would dispose of all their outstanding debts. At first Bishop was unwilling to agree to this, but two of his creditors, Edward Coxe, merchant of Bristol, and John Gibbens, baker, encouraged him and promised to stand surety for the debts of the partnership and to use their credit to provide Bishop with the wine he needed to continue his trade. This is a most revealing act on their part. In their efforts to save their debtor from bankruptcy they were not only hoping to recover the money owed them but were also preserving the access to the market that Bishop provided. Moreover, as Bishop was paying his old debts he was becoming further obligated to these benefactors for additional extensions of credit. Had this arrangement been successful the result would have been a tavern tied to the wholesalers who supplied it.

As the relationship between debtor and creditors developed, Coxe and Gibbens required Bishop to sign over to them his rights to the tavern as well as all of the debts owed him—a sum of £200 or so—with the understanding that the conveyance of the tavern would be null and void if Bishop should pay off all his creditors within fifteen months. Bishop paid the first installment on this plan, but found it impossible to meet the second one. Still, the tavern held out a powerful attraction to merchant capital. Even in the depths of Bishop’s financial difficulties, Edward Peters, merchant, was willing to replace Gibbens as coguarantor of Bishop’s debts. Unfortunately for Bishop, this intervention came too late. By March 1623, Coxe and Gibbens had already sued process in the Bristol Tolzey, where the Sheriffs’ Court was located, and, as a result, a capias had been issued and Bishop’s property had been attached. Fearful of the outcome of his case in the Tolzey, Bishop fled the city—over the rooftops, according to one story—taking with him all the plate and other valuables he could manage to transport. He thereby made himself not only a bankrupt but a thief and outlaw to boot. Undaunted, Coxe and Gibbens pursued him with legal process into Gloucestershire and from there across the country to London, where he was found and arrested a year later. Soon thereafter they joined with Robert Aldworth and John Gonning, merchants, and sued a commission of bankruptcy out of the Chancery, which put a final end to Bishop’s career.

Despite the sad end of this ill-starred association of merchant and tavernkeeper, merchant interest in such domestic enterprises was not an unusual phenomenon in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. During this long period, a number of overseas traders maintained their own inns or taverns or informally linked themselves to others. William Pepwell, for example, owned The Starr in the 1560s; and in the 1580s his son-in-law, Philip Langley, was proprietor of the George in High Street. During the early seventeenth century, such important figures as Thomas Wright and Richard Vickris leased other Bristol taverns, while several leading merchants, including Thomas James, John Barker, and Richard Aldworth, had rights to country inns near Bristol.[61] A review of Bristol wills and other surviving family papers reveals at least twelve hostelries in the hands of overseas merchants in the years from 1550 to 1640. Most of these investors were either specialists in grocery wares, such as Pepwell, Langley, and Vickris, or large-scale dealers in wines, such as Barker, James, and Wright. Like Edward Coxe and Edward Peters, they no doubt looked upon their inns and taverns primarily as ready markets for their imports.

This evidence of merchant investment in taverns and inns reveals Bristol’s overseas traders to have been dependent, if only in small degree, upon their customers among the city’s retailers. This dependency was mutual. So long as it was possible to turn a profit of as much as 25 to 35 percent on retail sales, as some shopkeepers were said to do,[62] it was to the advantage of the grocer, mercer, and vintner to maintain good relations with their sources of supply. Merchants, moreover, usually sold their wares to shopkeepers on credit, thereby supplying them with the necessary capital to renew their retail trading stocks.[63] This meant that the merchant ordinarily enjoyed a double hold on his customers among the retailers. Not only were they in his debt, but without him they would have lacked the necessary stocks to run their businesses.

What Bristol’s merchants wanted from the import trade was a quick turnover of their investments. Keeping full storehouses was not a typical pattern; it only idled capital and blocked credit. When stocks built up, merchants sometimes retailed their wares, either openly or illicitly, especially if perishable goods were involved.[64] At times the Privy Council was even enlisted to stimulate sales, as when the Bristol merchants petitioned “to haue the vyntners of this Citty to take from the Marchant yeerly a competent quantity of wines…for that they haue great quantities of wines vpon their Hands which are not taken of as formerly haue ben don.”[65] But because many of the imports were expensive, scarce commodities, their markets were highly elastic and volatile; a small oversupply could dramatically drop prices and cut profits. It was thus necessary for merchants also to control import prices through a form of “ingrossing,” which, according to theory, kept

commodities in reputation to maintain a trade thereby: as when men of meanes do ingrosse and by vp a commoditie, and for a reasonable gaine they sell the same again to shop keepers and retailers. This is much vsed amongst Merchants of all nations, otherwise when aboundance of a commodity doth so much abate the price of it, that Merchants do become losers and discouraged, then the traffique and trade is thereby ouerthrowne, to the generall hurt of the Commonwealth: in which respect it is better to pay somewhat more for Commodities, than to haue them altogether ouercheape.[66]

Such a procedure introduced a degree of predictability into the import trade without which commerce in all but staple items would have been too risky to undertake.

These conditions meant that the relationship between merchants and retailers was always in delicate balance. There was an inherent rivalry between the wholesale trader and the shopkeeper. When the latter invested in overseas commerce on his own account, not only did he keep the merchant’s share of the profits, but he could afford to buy at a somewhat higher price and to sell at a somewhat lower price than his competition. It was not even necessary for the shopkeeper to travel overseas to undertake this business. The services of a factor could be used to carry out his orders. These men, usually young merchants traveling abroad on their own business or resident in some foreign city, regularly acted as commission agents for merchants living at home. Their charges were moderate, typically only 2.5 percent for each transaction, far cheaper than the rates received by merchant middlemen, so that the shopkeeper’s final price was lower even though he now had to pay the freight charges and customs. The incentive for retailers to become their own suppliers thus was large.[67]

Wholesale merchants were especially concerned about this form of competition, for it threatened their control of the market. “The rich retailers,” the merchants warned, “as the grocer, mercer, haberdasher, soapmaker, vintner, &c., adventuring themselves, must needs undo all the poorer sort who do not adventure, and eat out the meer merchants, who have but those to whom they make their vent.”[68] The fear was rooted in economic reality. Provided the shopkeeper conducted his overseas ventures on a cash-and-carry basis and not on credit, he was free to buy when prices were at their lowest, at the peak of supply, and to hold his purchases from the market until consumer demand was at its highest.[69] For many of the items in which he traded, these periods were readily predictable; they came at fair times and festivals in the winter, spring, and summer. If grocers, vintners, and other retailers maintained their own stocks of foreign commodities, however, the market became difficult for the wholesale merchant to judge, since there was no telling when a hitherto unknown supply of a particular commodity would appear for sale. But unless the true state of local supplies could be estimated, the decision to purchase additional imports as prices rose was extremely risky. Buying the remains of the previous fall’s vintage, for example, might be a worthwhile investment if local supplies were nearly exhausted, but it could prove disastrous if the vintners were maintaining an independent stock. The entrance of retailers into foreign trade significantly increased the uncertainties of commercial dealing for the wholesaler.

On the whole, however, the relations between individual overseas traders and retailers were not troubled by competition. Only the very richest shopkeeping grocers, drapers, mercers, or vintners were likely to engage frequently in foreign commerce. For most of the rest, as Smythe’s ledger suggests, ties with merchant suppliers typically were extremely stable, with the shopkeeper dependent on the wholesaler for the continued conduct of his business. Yet relations between wholesale merchants and retail shopkeepers deeply affected the underlying social order of sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Bristol. As those Bristolians who engaged in overseas trade became an increasingly tight-knit community exclusively engaged in wholesale enterprise, separate from other crafts and trades of the city, a reorganization of society occurred that touched nearly every aspect of social life in the city, as we shall see in the following chapters.

Judged on the basis of the foregoing evidence, Bristol’s trading society in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was composed of two contrasting types of social order, the one a fluid fellowship, the other focused more sharply on precisely defined relationships between particular individuals. The difference is largely a consequence of the credit system. Where merchants were often both creditors and debtors in their dealings with fellow overseas traders, dealings with domestic dealers usually were restricted to one mode or the other. Clothiers, for example, tended to be creditors, while vintners and grocers tended to be debtors. To assure payment of these debts, heavy reliance was placed upon continually trading with known, trusted, and credit-worthy individuals. Under these conditions, transactions in the open market became more and more rare as each domestic dealer became dependent upon particular merchants for his business.

Those credit arrangements gave life to the city’s social order and formed its characteristic shape. At the pinnacle stood a cohesive group of overseas merchants, whose relationships with one another defined the framework within which commerce was conducted. Among the membership of this elite the institution of the firm, relying upon highly specialized skills or equipment and exploiting a single market, was present only in primitive form. Stability and order were provided, rather, by the network of economic ties that bound the commercial community together. The links between these overseas merchants and their principal domestic suppliers and customers, however, were dramatically different. Instead of a regime in which co-equals freely associated with one another according to circumstances, fixed business arrangements, even contracts, tied individual merchants to particular suppliers and retailers.


1. For general discussion see B. E. Supple, Commercial Crisis and Change, 1600–1642: A Study in the Instability of a Commercial Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), chap. 7; Clay, Economic Expansion, vol. 2, pp. 108–41.

2. See, e.g., Reddaway and Ruddock, Accounts of John Balsall, pp. 1–29; for an early sixteenth-century example of this form of trading see Vanes, ed., Overseas Trade of Bristol, pp. 58–59.

3. Malvezin, Histoire du Commerce de Bordeaux, vol. 2, p. 199.

4. Carus-Wilson, ed., Overseas Trade of Bristol, pp. 218–89; see also Sherborne, Port of Bristol, p. 27; David Harris Sacks, “The Demise of the Martyrs: The Feasts of St. Clement and St. Katherine in Bristol, 1400–1600,” Social History 11 (1986): 157.

5. LRB, vol. 2, pp. 1–22, 29–30, 38–41, 51–55, 59–61; Ephraim Lipson, The History of the Woollen and Worsted Industries (London: A. and C. Black, 1921), p. 79; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 121–23.

6. LRB, vol. 2, pp. 5, 7–9, 15–16, 29–30, 39, 53.

7. LRB, vol. 2, pp. 7–16; cf. pp. 51–53.

8. Ibid., pp. 7–8, and compare the names there to T. P. Wadley, ed., Notes or Abstracts of the Wills Contained in the Volume Entitled The Great Orphan Book and Book of Wills in the Council House at Bristol (Bristol: Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 1886), pp. 12, 18, 26, 28, 32, 35, 52, 55, 75, 78, 103–4, 110; compare LRB, vol. 2, pp. 10–12 to pp. 51–53; see also Carus-Wilson, ed., Overseas Trade of Bristol, pp. 180–89; Calendar of the Patent Rolls (1330–1334), p. 29; Calendar of the Patent Rolls (1334–1338), p. 268; for fifteenth-century developments in the organization of the textile industry, see Veale, ed., Great Red Book, vol. 4, pp. 27, 29, 30, 126, 157–62; vol. 8, pp. 53, 66–69; vol. 16, pp. 121–24.

9. Lipson, History of the Woollen and Worsted Industries, p. 221.

10. LRB, vol. 1, pp. 114–15; compare to Wadley, ed., Great Orphan Book, passim, and the surviving commercial records printed in Carus-Wilson, ed., Overseas Trade of Bristol; see also Sacks, “Demise of the Martyrs,” pp. 159–60.

11. Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers, pp. 73–97; Worcestre, Itineraries, pp. 130–33.

12. Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, p. 759.

13. BRO, Old Ordinance Book, ff. 1r, 33r; F. F. Fox and John Taylor, eds., Some Account of the Guild of Weavers in Bristol, Chiefly from MSS. (Bristol: William George’s Sons, 1889), pp. 69, 70–71, 97–99; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 134–36, 433–45, and vol. 2, pp. 478–79, 506.

14. Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 469–78, 496, 507–9; for discussion of differing occupational structures, see W. G. Hoskins, “English Provincial Towns in the Early Sixteenth Century,” TRHS, 5th ser., 6 (1956): 13–14; Hoskins, The Age of Plunder, chap. 4; John Patten, English Towns, 1500–1700 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1978), chap. 4; Palliser, The Age of Elizabeth, pp. 205, 238, 242–46, 251, 392–93; J. F. Pound, “The Social and Trade Structure of Norwich, 1525–1575,” Past and Present, no. 34 (July 1966): 49–69; A. D. Dyer, The City of Worcester in the Sixteenth Century (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1973), esp. pp. 81–92; L. A. Clarkson, The Pre-Industrial Economy in England, 1500–1750 (London: B. T. Batsford, 1971), pp. 80–81, 88–92; D. M. Palliser, Tudor York (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), chap. 6.

15. L. and P., Addendum, part 1, p. 238.

16. For the course of Bristol’s population history in the medieval and early modern periods see Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, p. 205 and chap. 5 passim.

17. Vanes, ed., Ledger of John Smythe, pp. 315–17.

18. PRO, E 190/1129/11, 1129/12, 1135/6.

19. Marchants Avizo, p. 55; for a similar view see Gerard Malynes, Consvetvdo, vel, Lex Mercatoria, or The Antient Law-Merchant, Diuided into three parts; According to the Essentiall parts of Traffike. Necessarie for All Statesmen, Iudges, Magistrates, Temporall and Ciuile, Lawyers, Mintmen, Merchants, Mariners and all others negotiating in all places of the World (London, 1636), p. 156.

20. On the etymology of merchant “venturer” and merchant “adventurer,” see Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers, pp. xv–xvi.

21. John Whitson, The Aged Christians Final Farewell to the World and Its Vanities, ed. George Symmes Calcott (Bristol, 1729), pp. 31–32. Internal evidence suggests that this work was written in the summer or fall of 1626; see Patrick V. McGrath, John Whitson and the Merchant Community of Bristol (Historical Association, Bristol Branch, Pamphlet 25, 1970), pp. 4, 16–17.

22. McGrath, ed., Merchants and Merchandise, pp. 80–89; W. K. Jordan, The Forming of the Charitable Institutions of the West of England, 1480–1660 (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s. 1, part 8, 1960), p. 24n.43.

23. See, e.g., PRO, SP 14/97/96; PRO, STAC 8/49/15, 174/15.

24. See above, p. 60; Vanes, ed., Ledger of John Smythe, pp. 315–17. There are one hundred twenty-six entries on the list, but one is “the Wilsones,” making the total at least one hundred twenty-seven.

25. More is said about the political background and significance of this list below, pp. 97–99.

26. Vanes, ed., Ledger of John Smythe, pp. 14–15, 20, 89, 127–28, 169, 177, 235, 254, 280, 295.

27. Ibid., pp. 58, 96–97, 108, 128–29, 256, 270.

28. Ibid., pp. 9, 191.

29. Ibid., pp. 67–68, 95, 96, 105–6, 127, 128–29, 139, 196, 217, 225.

30. Ibid., pp. 46, 52–53, 58, 60–61, 95–96, 127–28, 137–38, 147–48, 227–29, 263–64, 301.

31. Ibid., pp. 34–35, 125, 141, 151, 181–82, 251, 252.

32. Ibid., pp. 19–20, 67–69, 127–29, 228–29, 253.

33. For reason to believe that the documents printed by Browne derive from an actual trading venture see the introductory remarks by Patrick McGrath in Marchants Avizo, pp. xiv–xvi.

34. See C. R. Cheney, ed., Handbook of Dates for Students of English History (London: Offices of the Royal Historical Society, 1961), pp. 10–11.

35. Marchants Avizo, pp. xiv–xvi, xxv, 13, 14–16, 34, 53–54.

36. Ibid., pp. 18–19, 28–43.

37. Ibid., pp. 16–19, 47.

38. Ibid., pp. 16–18, 49–53. For an account of the working of bills of exchange see Raymond de Roover, L’Evolution de la Lettre de Change, XIVe–XVIIIe Siècles (Paris: A. Colin, 1953); Raymond de Roover, Gresham on Foreign Exchange: an essay on early English mercantilism with the text of Sir Thomas Gresham’s memorandum for the understanding of the exchange (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949), pp. 94–172.

39. Willan, Elizabethan Foreign Trade, pp. 3–4; Vanes, ed., Overseas Trade of Bristol, pp. 98–99, 128–29; L. C. Wroth, “An Elizabethan Merchant and Man of Letters: John Frampton,” Huntington Library Quarterly 17 (1953–54): 302–3; McGrath, ed., Merchants and Merchandise, pp. xvi–xvii, 175–76; High Court of Admiralty Examinations (MS Volume 53), 1637–1638, ed. Dorothy O. Shilton and Richard Holworthy, with an introduction by Eric G. M. Fletcher, Anglo-American Records Foundation Publications, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: Frome, 1932), pp. 15, 186, 276.

40. Vanes, ed., Overseas Trade of Bristol, pp. 117–22.

41. See PRO, E 190/1136/8, 1136/10; McGrath, ed., Merchants and Merchandise, p. 175.

42. McGrath, ed., Merchants and Merchandise, p. xix; Malynes, Lex Mercatoria, p. 145.

43. Malynes, Lex Mercatoria, p. 151.

44. PRO, C 1/406/5, 3/210/87; McGrath, ed., Merchants and Merchandise, pp. 5, 6; PRO, E 190/1136/8, 1136/10; PRO, REQ 2/167/27, REQ 2/286/52, among others.

45. PRO, SP 16/39/50 ii, 137/4; Patrick V. McGrath, “Merchant Venturers and Bristol Shipping in the Early Seventeenth Century,” Mariner’s Mirror 36 (1950): 69–80; Patrick V. McGrath, “Merchant Shipping in the Seventeenth Century: The Evidence of the Bristol Deposition Books,” Mariner’s Mirror 40 (1954): 282–93; 41 (1955): 23–27; McGrath, ed., Merchants and Merchandise, pp. xix, 207–14.

46. For discussion of this method of accounting, see Jean Vanes, “Sixteenth-Century Accounting,” The Accountant 155 (1967): 357–67; Vanes, ed., Ledger of John Smythe, pp. 16–22; F. C. Lane, Andrea Barbarigo, Merchant of Venice, 1419–1449 (Johns Hopkins Studies in Historical and Political Science, ser. 62, 1, 1944), pp. 153–81; F. C. Lane, “Venture Accounting in Medieval Business Management,” Bulletin of the Business History Society 19 (1945): 168, 173; A. H. Woolf, A Short History of Accountants and Accountancy (London: Gee, 1912), pp. 117–18; B. S. Yamey, “Scientific Bookkeeping and the Rise of Capitalism,” EcHR, 2d ser., 1 (1949): 111–12.

47. PRO, E 134/12 Jac. I/Mich. 42; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 735–37.

48. The Parliamentary Diary of John Holles, 1624, BL, Harl. MS 6383, f. 91v; I have used the Yale University Center for Parliamentary History transcript, pp. 38–39. See also the Parliamentary Diary of John Pym, 1624, Northampton Record Office, Finch-Hatton MS 50, f. 22, Yale University Center for Parliamentary History transcript, p. 79.

49. McGrath, ed., Merchants and Merchandise, pp. 90–92.

50. The Parliamentary Diary of John Holles, 1624, BL Harl. MS 6383, f.92r, Yale University Center for Parliamentary History transcript, p. 39.

51. Marchants Avizo, pp. 22–25.

52. Ibid., p. 10.

53. Ibid., pp. xi–xiii, 18–19, 48; Vanes, ed., Ledger of John Smythe, pp. 4, 13, 20, 89–90, 168–69, 279–80, 287, 295–96; SMV, Book of Trade, pp. 53–54, 207.

54. Vanes, ed., Ledger of John Smythe, pp. 90–92, 105–6, 131–32, 144–46, 211–12; on the sources for lead exports see Ian Blanchard, “English Lead and the International Bullion Crisis of the 1550’s,” in D. C. Coleman and A. H. John, eds., Trade, Government and Economy in Pre-Industrial England: Essays Presented to F. J. Fisher (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976), p. 22.

55. Veale, ed., Great Red Book, vol. 8, pp. 50–52, 58–60; vol. 16, pp. 80–82; BRO, Old Ordinance Book, ff. 5r–v, 6r–v, 8r, 25r–v, 39r, 57v, 63v, and loose paper dated 19 Eliz. I; Elizabeth Ralph, ed., Great White Book of Bristol (BRS, vol. 32, 1979), pp. 112–16; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 112ff., and vol. 2, pp. 520–26.

56. Veale, ed., Great Red Book, vol. 16, pp. 60–61; Robert Latham, ed., Bristol Charters, 1509–1899 (BRS, vol. 12, 1947), pp. 58, 83–84, 116–18; L. and P., Addendum 1, pp. 238–39; Leadam, ed., Select Cases before the Star Chamber, vol. 2, pp. 248ff.; Vanes, ed., Overseas Trade of Bristol, pp. 31–32. On the economic and financial functions of the fairs and their persistence, see Vanes, ed., Ledger of John Smythe, pp. 4–5; Johnson, Drapers of London, vol. 2, pp. 251ff.; Connell-Smith, “Ledger of Thomas Howell,” pp. 363–70; G. D. Ramsay, ed., John Isham, Mercer and Merchant Adventurer: Two Account Books of a London Merchant in the Reign of Elizabeth I (Northamptonshire Record Society 21, 1962), p. xxiv; PRO, SP 16/343/25, 343/25i; Corporation of London, Analytical Index to the Series of Records Known as the Remembrancia Preserved among the Archives of the City of London (London: E. J. Francis, 1878), pp. 345–46; Minchinton, “Bristol,” p. 80; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 513–20.

57. Henry Bush, ed., Bristol Town Duties: A Collection of Original and Interesting Documents, Intended to Explain and Elucidate the Above Important Subject (Bristol: J. M. Gutch, 1828), pp. 57–60; Vanes, ed., Ledger of John Smythe, pp. 33–34, 81–82, 293, 308; Fox and Taylor, eds., Guild of Weavers, p. 93.

58. Fox and Taylor, eds., Guild of Weavers, p. 93; Vanes, ed., Ledger of John Smythe, pp. 80–81.

59. PRO, SP 15/20/19.

60. PRO, STAC 8/49/15.

61. Wadley, ed., Great Orphan Book, pp. 243, 263; BRO, Great Orphan Book, vol. 2, ff. 2v–3v 143r–144v, and vol. 3, 188r–89v; BRO, MS 09467 (13a); Gloucester Record Office, Dyrham Park MSS, D. 1799 T. 36.

62. Malynes, Lex Mercatoria, p. 226; T. S. Willan, The Inland Trade: Studies in English Internal Trade in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1976), pp. 68–91, 93.

63. See Vanes, ed., Ledger of John Smythe, pp. 34, 59, 103, 123, 151, 162, 198, 214, 234, 296; Willan, Inland Trade, pp. 67, 93–94, 124–26.

64. PRO, SP 12/131/87.

65. SMV, Hall Book, vol. 1, p. 2.

66. Malynes, Lex Mercatoria, p. 152.

67. Marchants Avizo, pp. 28, 36, 63nn. 51 and 54.

68. PRO, SP 15/20/19.

69. See J. W. Burgon, The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Gresham, 2 vols. (London: R. Jennings, 1839), vol. 1, p. 493.

3. Organizing the Society

During the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth century, as Bristol’s economy ceased to be based on trade in wine and woolens with western France and came to depend on much riskier dealings in high-priced and exotic imports from southern Europe, a close community of wholesale merchants, specializing in this southern trade, differentiated itself from the larger body of tradesmen and craftsmen in the city. So far, however, we have treated this development as though it were the natural product of an evolution in which environmental changes produce new forms of social organization to meet altered requirements for survival. But that kind of determinism neglects the way human agency drives such historical processes. In this chapter we shall begin correcting this shortcoming.

In the conventions of sociology and anthropology, social organization has commonly been considered the equivalent of social structure—simply another way of speaking about the “arrangement in which the elements of social life are linked together.”[1] According to the standard definition, “ ‘social organization’ refers…to the observed regularities in the behavior of people that are due to…social conditions…rather than to their physiological or psychological characteristics as individuals.”[2] But, as Raymond Firth has stressed, “the more one thinks of a society in abstract terms, as of group relations or of ideal patterns, the more necessary it is to think separately of social organization in terms of concrete activity.” Social organization understood in this way is “a social process, the arrangement of action in sequence in conformity with selected social ends.” It may “imply a putting together of diverse elements into common relation” according either to “existing structural principles” or to newly adopted procedures; but it also leaves room for the possibility of conscious change in society as choices, backed by the power to impose them, are made about the primacy of some elements over others and the best arrangement of the parts. If social structure expresses “the element of continuity in social life,” setting limitations on the making of decisions, social organization exploits the resulting potential for variations and alterations in social behavior. Hence social organization, understood as “the systematic ordering of social relations by acts of choice and decision,” necessarily enters the realm of politics. It depends on formal or informal mechanisms “to take decisions on behalf of the totality.” It also enables the challenging of those decisions according to conflicting principles and varied interests. In this way it raises issues regarding the exercise of authority and the distribution of power.[3]

One of the principal means of converting social structure into social organization involves the self-conscious creation of what sociologists and political scientists sometimes call “formal organizations.” These differ from the patterned social arrangements of which we have just been speaking: they are distinct institutions deliberately established for expressing the interests and goals of specific groups within the social order.[4] Nevertheless, by providing ways of shaping the social world in which their members find themselves, they can play a major role in social organization more broadly construed. The very establishment of a formal organization tends to fix the boundaries of social relations, putting up barriers where previously there were only signposts, and thereby hardening the lines of social and political conflict. Under these conditions formal organizations cease to be responses to existing social arrangements—ways of coping within an existing order—and become features of social organization itself—ways of remaking that order on a new model.

The evolution of a distinct fellowship of merchants in Bristol during the years following 1453 represents just such a reorganization of society. Rather than being a mere reflexive adaptation to a profound change, the emergence of this separate commercial group was very much the product of the conscious exercise of authority and the willful extension of power that together recast the economic and social environment in which Bristolians found themselves in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Changes in structure promote changes in organization; changes in organization encourage changes in structure. The turning point came in 1552, when the successful establishment of a separate Society of Merchant Venturers transformed what had previously been no more than a convenient set of commercial connections among the leading members of Bristol’s commercial elite into a formal organization for the protection of their interests and advancement of their power. The troubling economic conditions of the later fifteenth and the early sixteenth century did not by themselves dictate this solution. They merely presented a dilemma. Domination of the trading community by a narrow, self-designated group of privileged traders was not the only method available for coping with that dilemma. Since customary commercial practices and the ethos of medieval urban life also emphasized the mutual support owed fellow townsmen in times of economic distress,[5] Bristol’s traditions could have led to the sharing of its ancient commercial franchises by the commonalty of freemen rather than the emergence of the leading merchants in a separate gild. We need to understand how and why the second choice came to prevail.

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]

Bristol’s experiments with various forms of company organization during the century preceding 1552 demonstrate the desire of many of its overseas merchants for some kind of common institution within which to conduct their individual commercial activities. What they sought was not a joint-stock company that would carry on business as a single firm, but a corporate status through which commerce might be regulated, competition limited, and exclusive trading rights enjoyed. The benefits from such an organization would have been large under any economic conditions, but they were a particular boon in times of economic distress, since membership in a company would assist merchants in securing credit and pooling resources under tight financial conditions, in establishing common policies to address mutual problems, and in seeking royal privileges and governmental protection to cope with crises. Finally, by limiting participation in foreign commerce, a company could insure its members a larger share of the reduced profits. Hence the incentives for creating a formal organization of merchants multiplied when trade was in decline, as was the case in the years immediately preceding Edward VI’s grant of letters patent in 1552.

We already know that the first half of the sixteenth century was one of the worst periods in Bristol’s commercial history, with trade receding on nearly every front. In the early 1550s, this general malaise combined with two more immediate crises that deepened the city’s economic troubles. The first and more significant of these crises concerned the state of the Spanish market, already crucial to Bristol’s prosperity. Just at the beginning of the 1550s Spain entered a period of serious economic difficulty, as commerce to and from her American colonies fell victim in 1549 or 1550 to what Pierre Chaunu has called a “grande récession intercyclique” that began with a rapid decline and lasted for the remainder of the decade. As Chaunu describes it, this recession resulted from the extraordinary conditions under which trans-Atlantic commerce proceeded in the sixteenth century, conditions affected by the vast distances that had to be covered and the consequent high costs of transportation.[19]

In the early period of Spanish colonial enterprise, times of expansion such as occurred in the years preceding 1550 generally encouraged the export of such high-priced wares as English cloth, since these made the most efficient and profitable use of the available shipping. As a result, during expansions stocks of relatively cheap and bulky goods built up in Spain, while shipping accumulated in American waters waiting for lucrative cargoes to bring home. Eventually, however, serious scarcities of shipping developed in the Iberian ports, and Spanish merchants, already anxious to recover at least some of their investment from abroad, brought home their vessels, often with inadequate cargoes, to cope with the growing inventories of less profitable wares in their storehouses. This flood of returning ships then caused the prices of American commodities to collapse, with a consequent loss of profits, setting off a recession, first among Spain’s own merchants and later among foreigners like the Bristolians, whose prosperity depended on the buoyancy of the Iberian markets. The recession in Spain during the 1550s was exactly of this type. With increased shipping available in Spain in 1549, freight charges dropped, and it became profitable to reduce the heavy inventories of cheaper and bulkier goods that had been growing in Andalusia during the expansion of the 1540s. Demand declined for the wares that the English and other non-Spaniards usually sold in Spain. In addition, foreign shipping, which had been attracted to Spain by inflated freight charges, was no longer required in the same quantities as before. Hence foreigners engaged in colonial commerce—such as the Bristolians based in Seville, San Lucar, and Cádiz, who operated in the American market by license—felt the effects of the recession before most other merchants and tradesmen.[20]

Within a short time the recession touched nearly everyone trading in Spain, whether or not they were directly dependent on colonial commerce. By the mid-sixteenth century, the American trade had become systematically integrated into the Spanish, and particularly the Andalusian, economy, causing Spanish prices to fluctuate with changes in this traffic. As the flood of ships returning in the early 1550s created an incentive to export, old stocks were cleared out. By 1552 the prices of domestic Spanish commodities began a steep rise. In Spain at large, prices increased by nearly 3 percent between 1551 and 1552, while in the Guadalquivir valley, where the Bristolians did the majority of their business, the rise was more on the order of 12 percent.[21] The prices Bristolians paid increased especially for certain key trading items that they regularly bought in Spain. Between 1551 and 1552, olive oil rose by 8.5 percent, sugar by 10.5 percent, and pepper by more than 22 percent, while wine, which had been relatively cheap throughout the 1540s, jumped by almost 43 percent, to a new plateau at which it would remain throughout the 1550s.[22] These facts meant that in 1552 Bristolians and other foreigners frequenting Spanish ports were faced with inflated prices both on the goods they imported from Spain and on the victuals and other goods they needed to fit out their ships in Spanish harbors. Although it is possible that their own goods also rose in price during this year, we have already learned that they earned very small profits, if any, from sales of these exports. Moreover, the general condition of the Spanish economy suggests that any increase in the price of English wares in Spain would have compensated only partially for their extra outlays.[23]

All in all, the merchants of Bristol were confronted by extremely worrisome circumstances in Spain. By 1552 the more experienced among them would have known that they were in the midst of an extremely unstable and dangerous season. They were bound to have felt anxiety about their long-term prospects and the correct commercial strategy to follow. These fears would only have been compounded by the troubles into which the English economy itself descended in the early 1550s as a result of the chaotic state of monetary policy. From 1542 to 1551, English coinage had undergone a series of debasements that doubled or more than doubled the amount of currency in circulation. This policy undoubtedly contributed in some degree to the inflation and falling exchange rates that England experienced in the 1540s and early 1550s, though recent scholarship has shown that the correlations among the value of English coin, domestic prices, and foreign exchange rates are very rough. This same debasement of the currency also seems to have promoted the expansion of English cloth exports in this period, but in a significant way only during 1549–1551. The sharp rise in cloth exports from Bristol in this two-year period supports this conclusion. In April 1551, however, Edward VI’s council began a policy of “calling down” or deflating the currency. This course was followed very haphazardly for almost a year until, in March 1552, the metal content of the coinage was once again restored to its pre-debasement level. The effect of this new policy was to reduce by half the existing circulating medium, thereby severely tightening credit.[24]

The initial effect of the announced calling-down of the currency in April 1551 was just the reverse of what was intended, which was to cool the overheated economy and consequently lower domestic prices. But prices rose rather than fell. The currency exchanges appeared in disarray and were at most only intermittently in operation. The main cause was that the government proceeded with the revaluation using a series of half-measures, which themselves were undermined by confusions and missteps. For example, it announced in April 1551 that in four months English currency would be worth 25 percent less than at present, but in the interval it issued the most debased currency of the period. The English appropriately began to hoard goods, to settle their outstanding debts in the newly debased coin, and to buy whatever was available on the open market. At the same time, foreigners ceased or nearly ceased all exchange transactions until the dust settled. Matters were only made worse when announcement of a further 25 percent revaluation was made in August and new coins were issued twice before the following March. Since no one could be certain what course events would take, the adverse effects of this initial calling-down of the currency in the spring and summer of 1551 lingered well into 1552.[25]

As might be expected, English cloth exports dropped dramatically in 1552. But the depression was probably felt more severely in London, where trade was already tied more closely to the exchange markets, than in the outports, where local merchants might have been able to profit from London’s difficulties.[26] In Bristol, however, disarray in the Spanish economy almost certainly wiped away any such short-term advantage.[27] Whatever the immediate effect of the recoinage on Bristol’s trade, its merchants must have become extremely wary of conditions, unwilling perhaps to forego the profits that might be won during this unsettled period, yet fearful of committing their wealth to new business while prices, currency values, and exchange rates fluctuated so wildly. Their instincts would have warned them to be cautious and draw in their investments, but they must also have found it necessary to continue to trade at or near their usual levels just to stay even with inflation. In such times, the hope of security often supplants the desire for profits as the primary economic goal.

The crisis of the Hispano-American trade and the great debasement and recoinage set the background for the Bristol merchants’ petition to the Crown for a chartered company. Events in another quarter gave added urgency to the situation and made such an effort all the more essential. The dissolution of the chantries had destroyed St. Clement’s Chapel, the last vestige of their common efforts. In December 1550, moreover, the building and its lands had been ceded to Sir Ralph Sadler and Laurence Winnington, who quickly made a bargain with the city government for its use, thereby eliminating the direct control over the property previously exercised by the merchants.[28] Whatever remnants of commercial organization had survived in Bristol into the mid-sixteenth century were no more. For those merchants who looked to an institutionalized fellowship among themselves to limit competition and provide mutual aid and protection, a new company was now required.

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
I have assigned two questionable cases so as to minimize, rather than exaggerate, the number of retailers. Discrepancies due to rounding errors.

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]

Although the subsequent history of the Bristol Merchant Venturers was by no means smooth, the royal letters patent of 1552 created a local organization that has survived as a corporate body to the present day. As it appeared in the early seventeenth century, it had a relatively large establishment of officers, including a master, two wardens, a treasurer, a clerk, and a beadle, as well as a board of twelve assistants. In addition, there was the Hall, made up of all the members, which met periodically through the year to elect the principal officials of the Society, approve or amend the Society’s bylaws, and carry out a number of other important duties.[43] Separately and together these elements performed a multiplicity of functions that were vital both to the commercial life of the city and to the welfare of the members themselves.

One major area of corporate activity was the maintenance of shipping. By the early seventeenth century, for example, many of the responsibilities for maintenance of Bristol’s port facilities previously borne by the city government had fallen to the Society, whose officers collected keyage, craneage, plankage, and wharfage to pay for them. As a result, the Hall regularly took account of the competency of pilots and port officials, the care of harbor facilities, and related matters.[44] In addition, the protection of ships on the high seas was an important issue, especially in wartime or when pirates were marauding in the Bristol Channel or in nearby English waters. Consequently, the Hall gave considerable attention to this subject, often in response to the Crown’s demands for money to mount naval expeditions.[45] The Society’s charitable activities—which by the early seventeenth century included not only the maintenance of an almshouse for aged seamen but also a schoolmaster for poor mariners’ children—were also a significant area of collective concern.[46]

Although these areas, with their demands for collective decisions and permanent commitments, helped to build a spirit of community among the Merchant Venturers, they were not the center of the Society’s corporate life. Bristol’s great overseas merchants depended to a considerable degree on national economic policy for their privileges and wealth. They were of necessity engaged in the affairs of the kingdom at large, and one of the main functions of their Society was to serve as their political agent with the state. As Patrick McGrath has put it, the Society was in some measure an economic “pressure group” for its members.[47] Sometimes the favors requested were very limited in scope, as when an official license had to be secured from the Lord Treasurer to land goods in the port from a stranger’s ship.[48] Sometimes they were large, as when new powers were begged from the Crown in the form of letters patent.[49] But often there was an air of crisis in dealings with royal officials, as when there was trouble with the royal purveyors, or when new impositions were set upon imported goods, or when disagreements arose with the Customs officers. Urgent meetings were called and streams of letters sent to the king pleading for redress of the wrong, sometimes carried by delegations of merchants ready to appeal personally to their connections in Westminster. To the Merchant Venturers the state was a source of bounty, a reservoir of favors and privileges to be tapped if they could. But in its demands for money and control, it was also a threat to commercial enterprise, something to be kept at a distance if at all possible. On the whole, the Society’s lobbying of the Crown was successful. If it did not always achieve its members’ more ambitious goals, it usually managed to alleviate the difficulties they had with royal officials.[50]

This capacity to intercede with the Crown in the interests of its membership also brought benefits to the economic lives of the Merchant Venturers. Strictly speaking, the Society was a regulated company under whose ordinances individual traders conducted their business on a private basis. Although the principle of individual enterprise generally prevailed, if a royal license was required to export a particular commodity only the action of the Society as a whole made it possible. There was joint stock, for example, to ship eighteen hundred barrels of butter a year under a license held by George Henley of London. For this purpose the entire membership of the Society acted as Henley’s partner.[51] A similar arrangement for exporting calfskins was made in 1615 between the Crown and Francis Knight, John Whitson, Mathew Haviland, Robert Aldworth, and Abell Kitchen, merchants acting in effect as feoffees for their fellow Merchant Venturers, with William Lewis, Collector of Customs at Bristol, serving as the Crown’s agent for the grant. When Knight died two years later, a new agreement was reached between Lewis and twenty-eight Merchant Venturers acting on behalf of themselves and their fellows.[52] In both cases, the licenses were acquired by a joint-stock venture managed by the Society, then divided among the participants, who shipped the licensed commodity abroad for their own account.

By far the most important public business transacted by the Society concerned the protection of trade against official or semi-official intrusion. The case of the New England fishery, which by the early seventeenth century had come to play an important part in Bristol’s trading economy, provides a useful illustration of how problems arose and how the Society fended them off. In 1621, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, acting in his role as President of the Council for New England, approached all the western ports with a scheme for the plantation of New England and for government of fishing ventures on its shores. The plan involved the creation of six “staple” towns, each with its own treasurer and group of commissioners, through which all Englishmen desiring to participate in New England enterprise must “putt in his aduenture into the Common stock of one of these Citties…Corporate togeather with the rest to bee managed by the Treasourer & Commissioners for the publique good of the Adventurers.” This proposed arrangement was heartily supported by the Privy Council, which not only threatened summary punishment of all those who might violate Gorges’s letters patent but also severely chastised the city governments of Bristol, Exeter, and Plymouth when they refused to submit to the newly formed Council for New England.[53]

The Bristol Merchant Venturers, however, were extremely reluctant to enter into such a complex and risky undertaking and used every available tactic of delay to avoid doing so, including sending responses to Gorges’s letters to a place they knew he would not be. They found his articles of plantation “so difficult,” they said, “that…they cannot Conclude” to join in his enterprise without a conference with him, followed by further deliberations among themselves. In the interim, they hoped that “if…any particular men of their Company shall set forth any shipping on a fishing voyadg for that Country,” Gorges would accept “an indifferent rate” from them for the privilege. At the conference, held in October, Gorges informed the merchants that even though his patent did not give him the power to restrain fishing, it did permit him to forbid the use of the shore to salt and dry fish, which is what he proposed to do. Since commercial fishing would then have become fruitless, the Merchant Venturers asked Gorges what he would require from those who wished to send ships just for the purpose of fishing. Gorges’s initial demand was for 10 percent of each venture, valued in shipping as well as the profits of the catch itself, but after much debate he agreed to allow them fishing rights provided they each carried over one man and £10 of provisions for every thirty tons of shipping they used, with the merchants bearing the costs of the provisions.[54]

Some of the Merchant Venturers found this an acceptable arrangement, but many hoped to avoid agreeing to it. Since Parliament was in session, they wrote to the city’s members, both Merchant Venturers themselves, requesting that these men acquire a copy of Gorges’s patent to see if he did indeed have the power to restrain Bristol’s fishing and also to seek protection in Parliament or elsewhere for “the quiet engaging of fishing.”[55] Here Bristol was especially fortunate, since it possessed at least one good friend on the Council for New England, the earl of Arundel, who earlier that year—soon after he had joined the Council—had been allowed to name the city’s new town clerk.[56] Through Arundel’s efforts and the concerted attack on Gorges’s patent mounted by the West Country fishermen in the Commons, a further concession was wrenched from the Council. Gorges finally wrote that “it is not…intended to debar any Regular or honest [traders] from a free recourse” to New England, so long as they conformed themselves to the reasonable conditions and just and lawful orders made by his Council for the advantage of the plantation. He agreed, therefore, to permit the treasurer at Exeter to grant Bristolians licenses if they wished to frequent New England, even for purposes other than fishing.[57]

What troubled the Merchant Venturers was the loss of independence that Gorges’s plan entailed. As reported by the two Bristol members of Parliament in London, the city’s merchants and shipowners liked neither the idea of forming a joint stock with the merchants of other western ports nor the prospect of being governed by the President and Council for New England. This same concern surfaced whenever the Bristolians were threatened with a loss of local autonomy in their trade, as they were at various times during the early seventeenth century in regard to the Spanish Company, the French Company, and the Levant Company.[58] To prevent this from happening they were able to use a variety of political resources at their disposal—their prominence in the city government, their service in Parliament, and their connections in London—all made the more effective by their ability to present a united front to the authorities. Had Gorges been able to win over even a minority of the Merchant Venturers to his demands, he no doubt would have been able, with the Privy Council’s assistance, to exact his due from the rest. But the concerted resistance of the Society, acting for the Merchant Venturers as a whole, made it impossible to adopt such a strategy of divide and conquer.

The initial impulse behind the foundation of the Merchant Venturers was to give the city’s new community of overseas merchants the capacity to defend its common interests in an era of severe economic constraint. What from the perspective of economic history was little more than an effect of large and impersonal social processes soon became a social force on its own. The merchants who brought the Merchant Venturers into being transformed their relations with one another from a mere feature of the economic environment into an active shaper of their world. Like the beaver whose dam-building creates a habitat to suit its form of life, they remade their social landscape. We can perhaps best see the effects of these changes by looking closely at what happened to the patterns of social mobility in Bristol in the years following the Society’s foundation.

The phrase “social mobility” can refer to two very different social processes. In communities that highly value an individual’s or a family’s command over goods and services, change in real wealth is the primary criterion. Here a person—before recent times usually it would be a man—might improve his position in society simply by increasing his income or the number or worth of his possessions while remaining in his particular social niche or occupation all his life. As he goes from being a poor or middling farmer, shoemaker, or lawyer to a rich one, he ascends the social ladder. In other kinds of community, however, social recognition and deference are granted principally according to social rank, defined as the place held in a fixed hierarchy of social stations assigned by birth or career. To move upward in this form of society it is necessary to marry well, thereby improving family bloodlines and connections, or to rise in rank by changing career or acquiring honored office. But even the most status-conscious societies maintain a close link between wealth and social position, since an individual’s social standing helps determine his access to wealth, and fulfillment of his social obligations requires material resources. If wealth is wisely used, moreover, it offers increased opportunity for improved status, if not for the individual, then for his posterity.

Sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Bristol was a hierarchical society in which legal and quasi-legal distinctions such as those between freemen and non-freemen, ruler and ruled, were of crucial significance. But, because it was a commercial city, its inhabitants were also deeply concerned with the acquisition of wealth. Indeed, the achievement of social rank was founded as much on the accumulation of money and possessions as on birth: as successful individuals or families increased their wealth, they were often able to move upward in rank. Unfortunately, direct study of patterns of social mobility based solely on accumulated capital or liquid assets is impossible. We can, however, use an individual’s occupation as a useful guide to his place in the social order. Not only did a man’s occupation define his economic role, it helped shape his social connections and his chances to achieve both riches and recognition. Hence, occupational mobility can serve as a general, if limited, indicator of social mobility more broadly construed. Admittedly, we shall be using a rather crude instrument to accomplish this goal. Occupation alone can tell us very little of any particular individual’s life history. Knowing whether an early modern Bristolian identified himself as a grocer or weaver, merchant or wiredrawer, cannot help us to predict his actual achievements accurately. But such information in the aggregate gives some insight into the relative chances the members of particular groups had to acquire wealth, status, and power and how these chances may have changed over time. Provided we want no more than a general estimate of the overall pattern of mobility and a general sense of the direction of change, this technique seems worth pursuing, even though the aggregation of our data, with its tendency to lump dissimilar cases into common categories, necessarily exaggerates some features of the story while flattening others. Allowing for these shortcomings in our method, what can we determine about the relative openness of Bristol’s social structure before and after the foundation of the Merchant Venturers?

The study of occupational mobility in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries necessarily begins with the institution of apprenticeship. In conjunction with training a young man in the skills of his chosen trade or craft, it established him within the network of business relations in the trading community. For merchants, this process took place in the actual course of trade, as the young apprentice, after receiving the rudiments of training in his master’s household, was allowed considerable opportunity to make his own judgments and decisions in the marketplace. In nearly every other trade, however, apprenticeship also involved both a social and an economic aspect. Under the protection and discipline of a master, young men were not merely trained in the techniques of a craft but were sent on errands to buy raw materials, to settle debts, and to bring finished goods to customers, or, alternatively, were left to look after the shop for short periods while their masters saw to these tasks. If they were to fulfill their purpose as servants, it could not be otherwise. Just how a particular individual was used depended on his years of service, his trustworthiness, and the nature of his craft. Among retailers, the apprentice’s contacts were more likely to be with customers frequenting the shop than with merchant suppliers; among craftsmen, they were more likely to be with the middlemen and other manufacturers in the chain of production with whom his master ordinarily dealt. In these ways service as an apprentice helped to establish the economic opportunities the young man might later have as a master in his own right and also set him in a social network that affected both his future livelihood and his way of life.[59]

The institution of apprenticeship was also tied to occupational mobility in a much more direct way. In many urban families, children stayed at home only until they were old enough to find places in the service of others. This was more than a consequence of the peculiar fact, often remarked upon by foreigners, that the English sent their children at an early age to be raised as apprentices or servants outside the family.[60] It was also the result of hard economic realities. Many fathers and mothers died young, leaving their children orphans who had to be placed with strangers if they were to survive and find livelihoods of their own. Even when one or both parents remained alive, it was often impossible for the family to employ all its children within the household or provide them with formal educations in the professions or set them up on the land. Since many other households simultaneously found themselves needing extra labor to manage their affairs, a regular system developed to exchange children between families in both urban and rural communities. Although, as we shall see for Bristol, many sons simply followed in their father’s footsteps when pursuing their livelihood, many others did not, either because they were unable to or because they had been placed elsewhere to better themselves. In effect, there was a market for their services, conditioned by the individual family’s ability to employ its own children, the supply of and demand for servant labor in particular industries, and the economic and social connections of the people involved. Where premiums were charged for taking on the care and training of young men, as they often were in lucrative trades such as that of overseas merchant, the ability of the family to pay the going rate was a factor. Seen in the aggregate, the resulting distribution of occupations reflects in a concrete fashion the state of the labor market at any particular time and the differences between periods encapsulates the changes in that market. In so saying, however, we note only the fact of movement. We need not assume that a young man’s father or guardian necessarily sought the best possible service for him, although surely many—probably most—did so, since it was in their interests and those of their kin that each member of the family be placed where he could do the others the most good.

Apprenticeship was the most formal type of “fostering” arrangement for children, if it may be so called. In most urban places apprenticeship already had a long history in local custom before the passage of the Statute of Artificers in 1563 incorporated it into national law. What makes it an especially useful institution for our present purposes is that its administration depended on the use of written instruments, called indentures, which in Bristol were carefully enrolled in the central city records kept at the Tolzey. The earliest of these records survive from 1532. These indentures typically name the father of the apprentice, giving his occupation, and the young apprentice’s new master, giving his occupation as well. Using these indentures in their enrolled form, we can glimpse the overall patterns of occupational mobility in Bristol from one generation to another by comparing the occupations into which the sons of Bristolians were apprenticed with those of their fathers. In studying this material we need to look, as it were, at both the outward and the inward traffic in apprentices. To which trades were fathers in particular industries most likely to apprentice their sons? From which trades were those in particular industries most likely to have attracted their apprentices? For our purposes the more important information is the former, since it tells us in some measure about the ways the life chances of members of particular groups were affected over time. Records for two ten-year periods have been chosen for this purpose: 1532–1542 and 1626–1636.[61]

Let us take the history of the leather trades as an example, counting those engaged in leather production together with those who used the finished product to make such items as saddles, aprons, and gloves. In the period from 1532 to 1542, some two hundred and seventy-six men were apprenticed in Bristol in these industries, of whom sixty, just under a quarter, were Bristolians. From 1626 to 1636, two hundred and ninety-three men were apprenticed in the same industry, of whom ninety-five, nearly a third, were Bristolians. Given the fact that Bristol’s population had grown by at least 25 percent between the two periods, however, the difference in the total number of apprentices in these industries represents a net decline in demand for apprentices of 20 percent or more. This fall was sharpest in the crafts engaged in leather production itself; between 1532 and 1542, one hundred and fifty men were apprenticed there; in the period from 1626 to 1636, the number had fallen to one hundred and three men, which, in light of the population growth, means a real fall in the demand for apprentices in this sector of the economy of something in excess of 50 percent. The slack was taken up largely by an increase of more than 100 percent in the number of shoemakers apprenticed in the city, as we might expect in response to its own population growth and its growing role as a center of regional trade in the west.[62]

Turning now to the Bristol-born apprentices in the leather trades, we find that in the 1530s and 1540s the fathers of almost 50 percent of all these apprentices were themselves involved in the manufacture of leather or of leather products, and just over 63 percent of those Bristolians in the leather crafts who apprenticed sons in this period put them out in the leather trades. In the 1620s and 1630s the rates were somewhat lower, with both figures at about 46 percent, which almost certainly reflects the diminished demand for labor in these industries rather than increased social mobility. In addition, an impressive percentage in each period were apprenticed not merely in the industry but in their father’s specific occupation—shoemakers’ sons to shoemakers and whitawers’ sons to whitawers. These same data also yield a second significant result. In both periods the sons of leather craftsmen apprenticed outside their father’s own industry were placed largely in the minor crafts or in the noncommercial sectors of the economy, not among the large-scale entrepreneurs. Between the two periods, however, the proportion of leather craftsmen’s sons indentured in the most lucrative trades had become smaller. In the period 1532–1542 it was just over a third; in the 1626–1636 period it was only about 5 percent. This fall is perhaps indicative of the declining position of the leather industry in Bristol, which left its members less able to support the capital requirements of overseas trade and large-scale commercial dealing, demands which themselves may have been growing in this period. It suggests an increasing gulf between the leather trades and the merchants and leading retailers of the city (Table 12).

12. Bristolians in the Leather Industries
(Production and Secondary Use), 1532-1542 and 1626-1636
  1532–1542 1626–1636
  Sons[a] Fathers[b] Sons[a] Fathers[b]
  No. % No. % No. % No. %
Source: 1532–1542: D. Hollis, ed., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 1: 1532–1542 (Bristol Record Society 14, 1949). 1626–1636: Bristol Record Office, Apprentice Book, 1626–1640, ff. 1r–333r.
Leading entrepreneurs
  Merchants 3 5.00 2 2.60     3 3.13
  Major retailers 5 8.33 5 6.49 3 3.15 12 12.50
  Soapmakers, chandlers             3 3.13
    Total 8 13.33 7 9.09 3 3.15 18 18.75
Textile industries 7 11.67 8 10.40 13 13.68 5 5.21
Leather industries 38 63.33 38 49.35 44 46.32 44 45.83
Metal industries 3 5.00 1 1.30 14 14.74 5 5.21
Building trades     3 3.90 6 6.32 4 4.17
Shipping and related trading and port activities 2 3.33 12 15.58 10 10.53 8 8.33
Woodworking         3 3.15    
Food production 1 1.67 7 9.09 1 1.05 7 7.29
Professional and service trades                
Gentlemen, esquires             1 1.05
Miscellaneous 1 1.67 1 1.30 1 1.05 4 4.17
    Total known 60   77   95   96  
    Total unknown     12       4  
      Total 60   89   95   100  
I.e., the occupations of apprentices whose fathers were in the leather industries.I.e., the occupations of fathers whose sons were apprenticed in the leather industries.

This interpretation of the data presented in Table 12 is complicated by the comparatively large increase in the number and proportion of apprentices entering the industry who were the sons of major entrepreneurs. From 1626–1636, eighteen of the new apprentices in the leather industry came from this kind of social background. But only seven were placed with shoemakers at the lower end of the scale in the industry, and none of these came from the ranks of the merchants, grocers, mercers, drapers, or great soapmakers, but from the haberdashers and innholders, who rarely achieved the wealth or power of the other occupations in this classification. Of the remaining eleven, nine were bound to whitawers, the one leather craft in Bristol that served more than the immediate local market and that maintained a high demand for labor in the seventeenth century. The sons of the city’s leading entrepreneurs thus seem to have competed heavily with the children of leather craftsmen only for the most lucrative positions in the industry, largely leaving the remaining leather trades to others.[63]

Similar patterns of occupational mobility reveal themselves in the textile trades, where the demand for labor had more or less stabilized during these years (Table 13). Between 1532 and 1542, three hundred and fifty-two men were apprenticed in Bristol in crafts engaged in the production of cloth and woolen clothing, of whom seventy-two, or a fifth, were Bristolians. Between 1626 and 1636, five hundred and sixty-two men were apprenticed in this same group of industries, of whom one hundred and seventy-three, or just under a third, were Bristolians. Taking population growth into account, the increase in the total number of new apprentices between the two periods amounts to about 20 percent, but demand for labor ran significantly ahead of the general population expansion only among cappers or feltmakers and tailors; weavers also show some increase, but this occurred primarily among those making cheaper-quality woolens.[64] From 1532 to 1542, nearly 53 percent of all Bristol-based clothiers, weavers, dyers, clothworkers, tailors, and other textile craftsmen who apprenticed sons in the city placed them in one of the textile industries; between 1626 and 1636 the figure was almost exactly 55 percent. The largest portion of those apprenticed in this economic sector were themselves sons of cloth and clothing manufacturers, and the increased percentage of Bristolians apprenticed in these industries in the 1620s and 1630s came primarily from among this same group. Once again, many of the new apprentices in these trades were indentured in exactly the same craft as their fathers. In the first period the figure is just over 23 percent, and in the second it is just under 33 percent. The shift suggests a hardening of social boundaries similar to that in the leather industries. By the seventeenth century, indeed, the textile crafts, even more than the leather trades, had become isolated from the upper reaches of the civic social order. Not only was the proportion of leading entrepreneurs’ sons in these crafts relatively low, especially if we consider Bristol’s population growth in the previous century, but the percentage of textile producers’ children who entered the most lucrative of the city’s trades was markedly reduced from the levels of a century before.

13. Bristolians in the Textile Industries (Production and Secondary Use),
1532-1542 and 1626-1636
  1532–1542 1626–1636
  Sons[a] Fathers[b] Sons[a] Fathers[b]
  No. % No. % No. % No. %
Source: 1532–1542: D. Hollis, ed., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 1: 1532–1542 (Bristol Record Society 14, 1949). 1626–1636: Bristol Record Office, Apprentice Book, 1626–1640, ff. 1r–333r.
Leading entrepreneurs
  Merchants 4 5.56 5 5.75 3 1.75 3 1.61
  Major retailers 4 5.56 3 3.45 7 4.09 10 5.38
  Soapmakers, chandlers 2 2.78 2 2.30 1 0.58 4 2.15
    Total 10 13.89 10 11.49 11 6.43 17 9.14
Textile industries 38 52.78 38 43.68 94 54.97 94 50.54
Leather industries 8 11.11 6 6.90 6 3.51 13 6.99
Metal industries 4 5.56 8 9.20 19 11.11 7 3.76
Building trades     6 6.90 8 4.68 9 4.84
Shipping and related trading and port activities 4 5.56 7 8.05 18 10.53 13 6.99
Woodworking         1 0.58 1 0.54
Food production 3 4.17 6 6.90 10 5.85 10 5.34
Professional and service trades 2 2.78     2 1.17 1 0.54
Gentlemen, esquires     1 1.15     4 2.15
Miscellaneous 3 4.17 5 5.75 2 1.17 17 9.14
    Total known 72   87   171   186  
    Total unknown     8   2   7  
      Total 72   95   173   193  
I.e., the occupations of apprentices whose fathers were in the textile industries.I.e., the occupations of fathers whose sons were apprenticed in the textile industries.

Whereas the leather trades were in decline in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and the textile industries in a period of stability or slow growth, the metalworking industries were experiencing something of a boom. Even though the recruitment of labor in the latter was subject to different economic pressures than employment in the leather and textile trades, metalworking shows the same general pattern of limited occupational mobility as the other two. From 1532 to 1542, only one hundred and twenty-one men were apprenticed in metal trades in Bristol, of whom thirty-seven, or about 30 percent, were Bristolians. From 1626 to 1636, three hundred and seventeen men were apprenticed in these same trades, of whom one hundred and forty-four, or about 45 percent, were Bristolians. During the first of these periods, only about 30 percent of those apprenticed in these crafts were themselves the sons of metal craftsmen.[65] In addition, only about 16 percent of the apprentices in the metal industries were placed in exactly the same craft as their fathers (Table 14). This suggests that the metal trades in this period were less able than other industries to provide livelihoods for the sons of their own members. But the avenues of mobility were not significantly more open than for sons of the other tradesmen. Rather than showing an even distribution of metal craftsmen’s sons throughout the economy, the data reveal a marked concentration in the textile trades, especially in cloth production, which perhaps reflects the location of the metal industries in the same city neighborhoods as the clothmaking crafts in this period.[66] It is also significant that only a small percentage of new apprentices in the metal industries were the sons of the city’s leading entrepreneurs. By the early seventeenth century, however, the state of this sector of Bristol’s economy had vastly improved. In the period from 1626 to 1636, almost 62 percent of the sons of metal craftsmen indentured were placed in the metal trades themselves. At the same time, the proportion of those bound in exactly the same occupation as their fathers increased to 27 percent. The remaining Bristol-born apprentices in these industries came from a relatively wide range of family backgrounds. But only a very small percentage of metal craftsmen’s sons ever entered the service of the city’s leading entrepreneurs. Although pewterers and goldsmiths were among Bristol’s wealthier inhabitants and attracted some apprentices from the families of merchants and other major dealers, the sons of metal craftsmen rarely could enter the upper echelons of Bristol’s social order.

14. Bristolians in the Metalworking Industries, 1532-1542 and 1626-1636
  1532–1542 1626–1636
  Sons[a] Fathers[b] Sons[a] Fathers[b]
  No. % No. % No. % No. %
Source: 1532–1542: D. Hollis, ed., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 1: 1532–1542 (Bristol Record Society 14, 1949). 1626–1636: Bristol Record Office, Apprentice Book, 1626–1640, ff. 1r–333r.
Leading entrepreneurs
  Merchants     1 2.70 3 3.70 1 0.72
  Major retailers     1 2.70 1 1.23 7 5.07
  Soapmakers, chandlers 1 4.17         1 0.72
    Total 1 4.17 2 5.41 4 4.94 9 6.52
Textile industries[c] 9 37.50 4 10.81 7 8.64 19 14.77
Leather industries[c] 1 4.17 3 8.11 5 6.17 16 11.59
Metal industries 11 45.83 11 29.73 50 61.73 50 36.23
Building trades         4 4.94 13 9.42
Shipping and related trading and port activities 1 4.17 3 8.11 9 11.11 9 6.52
Woodworking             1 0.72
Food production     4 10.81 1 1.23 10 7.25
Professional and service trades 1 4.17 2 5.41 1 1.23    
Gentlemen, esquires
Miscellaneous     3 8.11     11 7.97
    Total known 24   32   81   138  
    Total unknown     5       6  
      Total 24   37   81   144  
I.e., the occupations of apprentices whose fathers were in the metal industries. I.e., the occupations of fathers whose sons were apprenticed in the metal industries. For purposes of this analysis, both production and secondary use have been combined.

The picture appears to have been the same everywhere in Bristol. Between the second quarter of the sixteenth century and the second quarter of the seventeenth a growing percentage of Bristolians were apprenticed in the same craft as their fathers. The evidence of apprenticeships within the city of Bristol-born young men whose social backgrounds we can determine shows almost 25 percent in the first period, and over 33 percent in the second. This evidence suggests not only that Bristol’s social order was composed increasingly of kin-based occupational groupings but that social barriers were becoming higher as well. Early sixteenth-century Bristol was by no means an open society in which individuals and families readily changed social station from generation to generation, but movement from trade to trade, at least within a given group of industries, was markedly easier in this period than it would be a hundred years later.[67] Taken by themselves, these changes are important enough. But they gain significance when considered in the light of Bristol’s commercial expansion in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and its 25 percent or more increase in population. Under these new conditions, maintenance of the status quo, if not an actual growth in the social diversity, might have been expected. Instead, economic and demographic growth was accompanied by the development of a somewhat more rigidly hierarchical social order.

The key to understanding these changes in social mobility lies in developments among Bristol’s leading entrepreneurs—its merchants, major retailers, and soapmakers—who occupied the social heights in the city. The composition of the category we have designated “major commercial and entrepreneurial occupations” is different from that of those previously discussed. As used here, it denotes merchants, major retailers such as mercers, grocers and drapers, and one group of manufacturers, the soapmakers. Hence, it links individuals whose common characteristic is command over considerable quantities of capital, rather than participation in the same industry or the performance of the same economic function. This is perhaps especially noticeable for the soapmakers. Although their participation in the national market made them as much large-scale dealers as manufacturers, their place among the city’s magnates results from their financial resources and consequent social power. It has been impossible to identify other manufacturers whose investment in fixed capital or role in the national market would warrant their inclusion in this category. It has been necessary, therefore, to exclude rather arbitrarily those brewers, whitawers, glovers, pewterers, braziers, and goldsmiths whose investment in capital equipment or raw materials and participation in a regional or national market might have made them the equals of the soapmakers. In the textile industry, particularly during the sixteenth century, some tailors, tuckers, and clothworkers acted as clothiers or drapers, putting out raw material for manufacture or selling cloth by the yard or the piece to retail customers. But, unlike the soapmakers, nearly all of whom were significant entrepreneurs, in these other trades and industries only detailed knowledge of each man’s business would reveal whom to include among the leading entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, the surviving evidence is insufficient for this purpose. At the other end of the scale, the category of “leading entrepreneur” may include some individuals whose economic importance was rather small. Many haberdashers, for example, were merely small-scale dealers in odds and ends, rather than purveyors of high-priced, first-quality goods such as grocers, drapers, and mercers tended to sell. Similarly, some innholders were little more than tavernkeepers, renting their property from some major figure and acting as his agent. But the distortion resulting from their inclusion is more than outweighed by the number of leading entrepreneurs among the tailors, whitawers, pewterers, and the like who have been excluded solely on the basis of occupation.[68]

Although a number of leading entrepreneurs apprenticed their sons in the ranks below them, they often searched out successful masters in the more lucrative manufacturing industries, such as whitawers, goldsmiths, and brewers, for this purpose (Table 15). Access to the upper reaches of the social hierarchy was largely closed to men in lesser trades and crafts. In terms of social mobility, the civic elite lived very much in a world unto itself. Just as with other trades, throughout our period elite fathers showed a strong tendency to apprentice their sons in their own sector of the economy and to draw their apprentices from the same circles. In each period, slightly over 50 percent of the sons of Bristol’s leading entrepreneurs who were apprenticed within the city were placed with masters in this same group of trades. Between the early sixteenth century and the early seventeenth, there was a 10 percent increase, from 48 to 58 percent, in the number of Bristol-born apprentices entering these trades whose fathers were leading entrepreneurs. The distribution of other occupations represented among the Bristolians apprenticed in this category also changed. Between 1532 and 1542, only twelve of the Bristol-born apprentices who became indentured to merchants, major retailers, or soapmakers came from families in the city’s large-scale industries, such as brewing and whitawing. The fathers of twenty-one others came from among the minor crafts, such as shoemaking. A similar pattern appears in the distribution of occupations filled by the sons of the city’s leading entrepreneurs from 1532 to 1542. Merchants and other major entrepreneurs placed twenty-nine of their sons as apprentices in manufacturing trades, but only ten of them joined in the more important crafts such as brewing and whitawing. In other words, in the early sixteenth century Bristol’s leading entrepreneurs drew their apprentices from a relatively wide range of family backgrounds and placed their own sons in a relatively wide range of occupations. Between 1626 and 1636, however, both distributions were much narrower. In this period, the sixty-three Bristolians who moved from outside the city’s economic leadership to apprenticeships within it came from families of generally high social standing. Ten were sons of gentlemen, two of parish clergy, and one of a physician. At the same time, the noncommercial occupations to which the sons of major entrepreneurs were apprenticed show a similar change. Fewer of them entered the lesser trades and more went into crafts that enjoyed national markets for their wares. The evidence indicates that the upper echelons of Bristol’s social hierarchy were more homogeneous in family background in Charles I’s reign than had been the case in Henry VIII’s and that by the 1630s the cream of the apprenticeships in Bristol was being skimmed by the sons of the city’s leading entrepreneurs.[69]

15. Bristolians in Major Commercial and Entrepreneurial
Occupations, 1532-1542 and 1626-1636
  1532–1542 1626–1636
  Sons[a] Fathers[b] Sons[a] Fathers[b]
  No. % No. % No. % No. %
Source: 1532–1542: D. Hollis, ed., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 1: 1532–1542 (Bristol Record Society 14, 1949). 1626–1636: Bristol Record Office, Apprentice Book, 1626–1640, ff. 1r–333r.
Leading entrepreneurs
  Merchants 17 28.81 16 25.40 34 25.40 25 16.89
  Major retailers 11 18.64 14 22.22 30 18.52 38 25.68
  Soapmakers, chandlers 2 3.39     21 12.96 22 13.10
    Total 30 50.84 30 47.62 85 52.47 85 57.43
Textile industries[c] 11 18.64 10 15.87 19 11.73 11 7.43
Leather industries[c] 7 11.86 9 14.29 18 11.11 3 2.03
Metal industries 2 3.39 1 1.59 9 5.56 4 2.70
Building trades     2 3.17 2 1.23 4 2.70
Shipping and related trading and port activities 2 3.39 6 9.52 16 9.88 18 12.16
Woodworking 1 1.69     1 0.62    
Food production 4 6.78 3 4.76 8 4.94 9 6.08
Professional and service trades 1 1.69 1 1.59 4 2.47 1 0.68
Gentlemen, esquires             10 6.76
Miscellaneous 1 1.69 1 1.59     3 2.03
    Total known 59   63   162   148  
    Total unknown     5       9  
      Total 59   68   162   157  
I.e., the occupations of apprentices whose fathers were leading entrepreneurs.I.e., the occupations of fathers whose sons were apprenticed to leading entrepreneurs.For purposes of this analysis, production and secondary use have been combined.

Over a long period these patterns of apprenticeship were bound to create networks of kinship among the active masters in every sector of the economy, as ties between father and son and brother and brother ramified throughout each trade or craft. But even in the short term, the high number of sons apprenticed to their father’s fellows in one branch or another of commerce or industry suggests the existence of very intimate social bonds within each group of masters. Where the forming of an apprenticeship tie did not reflect already well-established connections of blood and business, new ones were bound to come into being by the very placing of a son under the tutelage of a fellow Bristolian. In other words, the framework within which most Bristolians carried on their social and economic affairs had a distinctly occupational character, in the sense that trade or craft determined many other social ties. This was as true for the Merchant Venturers, whose membership we know accurately only from 1605, as for any of the other identifiable groups in the mercantile community. In these circles it was fairly common for sons to leave trade for one of the professions or to live on income from land their fathers had acquired. Judging by evidence derived from the Bristol burgess records, which enroll the names of men claiming the freedom of the city, those who followed their fathers into trade usually were apprenticed to other Merchant Venturers; often they married into Merchant Venturer families as well.[70]

The model of society employed in the foregoing analysis is the social pyramid, with an undifferentiated body of wage laborers at the base and the leading overseas merchants at the apex. In such a social order the number of places available in a given rank is fixed, with only a handful of places at the top. Within this framework the meaning of the term “social mobility” is limited. Strictly speaking, it can refer only to the relative ease with which members of different social groupings attain access to the various positions in society, since no more than a small portion of the population can ever reach the heights. Using this definition, an increase in social mobility denotes an improvement in the chances members of the lower ranks have for social betterment, not a rise in the proportion of the total population achieving the upper reaches of the pyramid, which under our definition is a logical impossibility. Under this interpretation, an increase in social mobility indicates only the achievement of a more representative distribution of social backgrounds through all levels of the social hierarchy.

But a second, broader way of considering social mobility is sometimes confused with the first. If a change upward or downward is observed in the percentage of the population able to reach the pinnacle of society, what has occurred is the development of a new framework of social organization. This kind of social mobility is different in character from the first, since an increase or decrease in the percentage of the population reaching the topmost positions can result only from a change in the proportion of positions at the top. In other words, in order for there to be social mobility in this second sense, the old social pyramid has to disappear and be replaced by a structure with a different shape. The new one could be just another pyramid with steeper or more gently rising sides. But it could also be something closer in form to a Siennese tower, with a small room atop a narrow staircase, or to the Empire State Building, with a small tower perched above a larger one. Or it could be analogous to a modern glass-and-steel office block, with clean rectilinear lines. The degree of social mobility possible in a society in the first of our two senses will depend on this second, structural sense, that is to say, on what form society takes and on the consequent proportion of places in the various ranks.

The social changes experienced in Bristol between the 1530s and the 1630s were of the second type: they were changes in structure, rather than in mobility narrowly construed. During this century Bristol became a society in which the topmost positions tended increasingly to be inherited by those born into high rank. We can see this difference in several ways. Between 1532 and 1542, two hundred and eighty-two men were apprenticed to the diverse group of leading entrepreneurs, of whom sixty-eight, or about a quarter, were Bristolians. From 1626 to 1636, five hundred and sixty-four men were apprenticed in this group of trades, of whom one hundred and fifty-seven, or almost 28 percent, were Bristolians. Taking merchants separately, one hundred and nineteen of them were apprenticed between 1532 and 1542, and one hundred and forty-two between 1626 and 1636 (Table 16).[71] In other words, between the end of Henry VIII’s reign and the beginning of Charles I’s there was a dramatic change in the proportion of merchants to major retailers and soapmakers. In the earlier period, merchant apprentices represented about 42 percent of all those we have classified as leading entrepreneurs, but in the later period they represented only about 25 percent. Whereas the total number of merchants apprenticed in Bristol increased by less than 20 percent—in other words, below the rate of population increase—the total number of apprentices in all crafts almost doubled and the total number of apprentices among the other leading entrepreneurs increased more than two and a half times.

16. Occupations Into Which Bristolians and Non-Bristolians
Were Apprenticed in Bristol, 1532-1542 and 1626-1636
  1532–1542 1626–1636
  Bristolians Non-Bristolians Total Bristolians Non-Bristolians Total
Source: 1532–1542: D. Hollis, ed., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 1: 1532–1542 (Bristol Record Society 14, 1949). 1626–1636: Bristol Record Office, Apprentice Book, 1626–1640, ff. 1r–333r.
  Leading entrepreneurs
    Merchants 31 88 119 63 79 142
         % of total known men 8.20 8.63 8.51 6.57 4.48 5.22
         % of category 26.05 73.95   44.37 55.63  
    Major retailers 31 114 145 65 268 333
         % of total known men 8.20 11.18 10.37 6.78 15.20 12.23
         % of category 21.38 78.62   19.52 80.48  
    Soapmakers and chandlers 6 12 18 29 60 89
         % of total known men 1.59 1.18 1.29 3.02 3.40 3.27
         % of category 33.33 66.67   32.58 67.42  
           Total 68 214 282 157 407 564
           % of total known men 17.99 20.98 20.17 16.37 23.09 20.72
           % of category 24.11 75.89   27.84 72.16  
    Textile production 56 140 196 124 229 353
         % of total known men 14.81 13.73 14.02 12.93 12.99 12.97
         % of category 28.57 71.43   35.13 64.87  
    Leather production 51 99 150 38 65 103
         % of total known men 13.49 9.71 10.73 3.96 3.69 3.78
         % of category 34.00 66.00   36.89 63.11  
    Clothing production and other
   secondary users of cloth and leather
85 202 287 146 247 393
         % of total known men 22.49 19.80 20.53 15.22 14.01 14.44
         % of category 29.62 70.38   37.15 62.85  
    Metal crafts 37 84 121 144 173 317
         % of total known men 9.79 8.24 8.66 15.02 9.81 11.65
         % of category 30.58 69.42   45.43 54.57  
    Building trades 7 28 35 69 128 197
         % of total known men 1.85 2.75 2.50 7.19 7.26 7.24
         % of category 20.00 80.00   35.03 64.97  
    Shipping and related trading
   and port activities
26 129 155 193 328 521
         % of total known men 6.88 12.65 11.09 20.13 18.60 19.14
         % of category 16.77 83.23   37.04 62.96  
    Food production
   and related industries
20 71 91 50 121 171
         % of total known men 5.29 6.96 6.51 5.21 6.86 6.28
         % of category 21.98 78.02   29.24 70.76  
    Woodworking 6 12 18 11 9 20
         % of total known men 1.59 1.18 1.29 1.15 0.51 0.73
         % of category 33.33 66.67   55.00 45.00  
    Professional and service industries 15 27 42 19 49 68
         % of total known men 3.97 2.65 3.00 1.98 2.78 2.50
         % of category 35.71 64.29   27.94 72.06  
    Miscellaneous 7 14 21 8 7 15
         % of total known men 1.85 1.37 1.50 0.83 0.40 0.55
         % of category 33.33 66.67   53.33 46.67  
          Total known 378 1,020 1,398 959 1,763 2,722
          Total unknown[a] 1 6 7 5 7 12
            Total men 379 1,026 1,405 964 1,770 2,734
         % of total 93.58 97.53 96.43 93.14 97.41 95.86
         % of category 26.98 73.02   35.26 64.74  
Women 26 26 52 71 47 118
         % of total known women 6.42 2.47 3.57 6.86 2.59 4.14
         % of category 50.00 50.00   60.17 39.83  
      Total Men and Women 405 1,052 1,457 1,035 1,817 2,852
         % of category 27.80 72.20   36.29 63.71  
a In these cases either the occupation or the geographical origin is unknown.

These figures suggest that either the size or the number of retail establishments grew faster than did merchant firms. But the expansion in Bristol’s trade in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries should have had the opposite effect, since the greater scope and complexity of commerce ought to have resulted either in the taking on of additional merchant apprentices to conduct business in different markets or in the establishment of larger numbers of specialized firms working in conjunction with one another. Given that between the late fifteenth century and the late sixteenth, the number of merchants entering goods in the Bristol customs records had fallen from about two hundred and fifty per year to fewer than one hundred,[72] it is clear that no such changes had occurred among merchant firms. Instead merchants must have relied on journeymen to serve as factors and supercargoes in their enterprises. This conclusion in itself suggests that entrance into full participation in the merchant’s trade was more difficult in the early seventeenth century than it had been in the early sixteenth. What explains the increased demand for apprentices among the retailers? Since nothing about the scope or techniques of the drapers’, grocers’, or mercers’ trade had changed significantly between the two periods, at least as far as we know, it is likely that the larger numbers of apprentices entering those enterprises reflect an increase in the number of retail establishments in Bristol while the number of merchant firms declined or remained at the same level as in the 1530s.[73]

Another change also occurred. In Henry VIII’s reign, about a quarter of all merchants’ apprentices and about a fifth of those bound to major retailers and other large-scale dealers and entrepreneurs were native Bristolians. This proportion did not change in the early seventeenth century for the retailers. In the case of the merchants, however, the ratio of Bristolians to non-Bristolians went from about one in four to one in two and a quarter. That is, at the same time that Bristol-born merchant apprentices were becoming a socially more exclusive group, a higher percentage of positions with overseas traders were being filled by residents of the city, often the sons of fellow merchants (see Table 16). From what family backgrounds did the non-Bristolians come? In the pe-riod 1532–1542, they were a relatively diverse group. Of the eighty-eight strangers apprenticed to merchants in this period, only about 15 percent were the sons of esquires and gentlemen; another 17 percent were from the families of merchants and other leading entrepreneurs. The majority came from the less exalted ranks of English society; the industrial crafts, especially textile manufacture, account for just over 25 percent, and agriculture for just over 40 percent. The same general pattern is observed in this period among the apprentices to major retailers and soapmakers. In Charles I’s reign, however, the picture is significantly different. Of the seventy-nine outsiders bound to merchants, only about 13 percent now came from artisan families and another 13 percent from agriculture. The fathers of the rest consist of about 16 percent merchants, 4 percent clergymen, and over 48 percent esquires and gentlemen. The contrast with apprentices in other leading entrepreneurial occupations is striking. Although about 20 percent of non-Bristolians indentured to major retailers and soapmakers had gentry backgrounds, these trades were filled primarily by the sons of yeomen, husbandmen, and minor craftsmen, not from the rural or urban elite.

These data confirm the picture we have been seeing of Bristol society as becoming increasingly rigid and hierarchical in its organization during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. However, apprenticeship reveals the process of occupational and social mobility only at second hand. In and of itself it granted nothing but seven years or more of training and labor in the household of a master. Only if the servant established his own business at the end of his term would apprenticeship have contributed significantly to his advancement. In Bristol and in most other corporate towns in early modern England, this transition was accomplished when a young man entered into the freedom of the town by swearing a formal oath to preserve its liberties and abide by its customs. Performance of this ritual and payment of the appropriate fees gave him full rights to trade under the privileges and immunities of the town. This freedom to trade could be obtained in early modern Bristol in any of four ways: by apprenticeship to a freeman, by patrimony, by marriage to either the daughter or the widow of a freeman, or by redemption, which was accomplished by the vote of the Common Council and the payment of a substantial entry fine. Each signified in its own way that the newcomer possessed social connections within the city. Only apprenticeship, however, permitted an individual truly to earn his place. Even though, as we have just seen, family background limited who became apprenticed to whom, once a young man’s years of service were completed his social origins were technically irrelevant. If he had sufficient resources to start a business of his own, his service in his master’s household fully warranted his entrance into the freedom. The other criteria for admission were different in character, since each stressed the newcomer’s social ties, not his training or economic success. Even redemption, which was purchased, depended less on wealth than on acquiring the goodwill of the Bristol common councillors. As a practical matter this meant having the patronage, and usually also the formal surety, of at least one and commonly several well-established and fiscally sound local businessmen. What is of interest for our purposes is the relative importance of apprenticeship to the other three forms of admission. Since the number of freemen who could successfully carry on business in a particular trade or craft was limited by the size and scope of the market, those admitted by patrimony, marriage, or redemption reduced the number of places available to young men seeking their economic independence by apprenticeship (Table 17).

17. Percentage of Freemen Admitted to Leading Entrepreneurial
Occupations by Patrimony, Redemption, and Marriage, 1607-1651
Source: Bristol Record Office, Burgess Book (1607–1651).
Merchants 36.67 33.33 26.09 60.00 66.67 48.89 36.84 40.48 48.48 55.56 45.71 44.71
Other large-scale dealers, major retailers 20.00 24.44 32.14 24.39 23.40 21.05 26.79 18.18 26.67 25.00 34.69 25.27
Soapmakers and chandlers 25.00 35.71 9.09 6.67 8.33 7.14 5.26 20.00 16.67 10.96
    Total 22.09 25.56 31.18 29.85 30.00 30.70 25.84 27.84 29.46 30.59 36.46 28.89

Unfortunately, we have no long series of admissions to the freedom for the sixteenth century on which to base a comparison, but an examination of the relationship between admissions by apprenticeship to admissions by the three other means in the first half of the seventeenth century shows how difficult it was to become a merchant during this period. Although merchants were one of only three groups in which the ratio between apprenticeships and admissions to the freedom was less than two to one, this fact by itself does not tell us whether a larger than average proportion of merchant apprentices attained the freedom of the city, or whether the percentage of admissions by patrimony, marriage, and redemption was higher for merchants than for other trades.[74] The evidence supports the second conclusion. Between 1607 and 1651, nearly 45 percent of all merchants entering the freedom of Bristol were admitted by patrimony, marriage, or redemption. In some periods the figure was almost 66 percent, and at no time did it fall below 25 percent. The most usual standard was patrimony, which accounted for over two-thirds of the one hundred and thirty-one merchants who were admitted in a way other than by apprenticeship. The figures for major retailers and soapmakers show a much stronger role for apprenticeship. Over the whole period, it accounted for three-quarters of new admissions in these trades, falling only once a fraction below two-thirds. This is the same pattern as in the minor crafts and lesser trades, where typically 70 to 75 percent of new admissions were by apprenticeship. In other words, not only were merchant apprenticeships dominated by the sons of leading entrepreneurs and country gentlemen, but entrance into the seventeenth-century merchant community was more dependent upon birth and family than is true of nearly all other crafts and trades. For members of Bristol’s lower social ranks, moving to the top of the social hierarchy was even more difficult than the apprenticeship data reveal.

The term “merchant” has undergone an evolution in meaning through three distinct phases since the early Middle Ages. According to Charles Gross,

At first it embraced all who, in their trade, were in any way concerned with buying and selling, including petty shopkeepers and many handicraftsmen. During the fifteenth and the greater part of the sixteenth century, it applied preeminently to all who made a business of buying and selling for resale—retailers as well as wholesalers—manual craftsmen not included. It then came to have its present meaning of an extensive dealer.[75]

The earliest stage in this development corresponds to the period of the Gild Merchant, which consisted of all tradesmen of a particular borough. Such a gild is known to have existed in Bristol in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Gild Merchant was an exclusive society whose constitution preserved to its sworn membership the main economic privilege possessed by a chartered borough—the freedom to buy and sell without paying local customs and tolls. Retail trade was its primary concern, and no distinction was made between overseas traders and those who limited themselves merely to buying and selling in the marketplace or keeping shops. Strictly speaking, the gild consisted of one class of individuals, all of whom possessed the same trading rights, and every gildsman was potentially, if not actually, an overseas merchant. The later Middle Ages, however, witnessed a sharp narrowing of the definition. First to be excluded were those poorer elements who used their trading privileges to “color” strangers’ goods under the aegis of their own membership in the borough. Ousted next were the craftsmen, including middlemen and entrepreneurs. Finally the line was drawn between the merchant retailer and the mere merchant.[76]

The development of commercial organization in Bristol followed this pattern closely. In the fourteenth century it had been textile manufacturers, such as Thomas Blanket and William Canynges the Elder, who were Bristol’s leading men. But after the mid-fifteenth century, the history of the merchant community was marked by an accelerating process of exclusion, as a class of merchant dealers who specialized in overseas trade began to differentiate themselves from these industrial entrepreneurs. As late as 1467, however, no challenge was offered to the claims of all Bristol freemen to trade overseas on their own behalf. But in 1500, when Bristol was still a major cloth exporter, this new group of merchant adventurers, as they then began to call themselves, attempted to exclude the city’s clothiers from foreign commerce by prohibiting their fellows from delivering cloth abroad for nonmembers and by permitting mariners to ship no more than three whole cloths in their own name.[77] Nevertheless, at this time no distinction was made between mere merchants and merchant retailers. By the mid-sixteenth century, however, the focus was on the growing rivalry between large-scale wholesalers and prominent shopkeepers as well as clothiers and other manufacturers. Many merchants wished to exclude the latter groups from direct participation in foreign trade.

From the start these moves involved an intricate interplay of political choice and socioeconomic development. The establishment of new trading relations among merchants and between them and the rest of Bristol society led to the foundation of the Society of Merchant Venturers to provide common regulations and political protection for mere merchants. The Society, in turn, helped to crystallize the new trading practices and social and economic arrangements into a form of social organization for the city. It is hard to escape the sense that the increased rigidity of the occupational groupings we have observed in our study of social mobility and the growing differences in social background between the merchants and the rest of Bristol society were the consequence, perhaps only partially intended, of the development of the Merchant Venturers. The establishment of this company brought the mere merchants together in new ways, gave them common interests, and made it both easier and more desirable to form family alliances among the membership. As these overseas traders grew in wealth and power after 1552, they became a focus for gentry from Bristol’s hinterland who desired lucrative and influential positions for their younger sons, and for merchants from other cities who wanted to establish a foothold for themselves in this increasingly prosperous merchant community.

The evolution we have described did not occur in an economic vacuum. In large part it was the consequence of the growing complexity of trade and industry in the sixteenth century. Where once a single tradesman united in his own person the production and the distribution of goods, distinct categories of entrepreneur had emerged to perform these services. This process was accompanied by the development of what George Unwin has identified as “three different capital functions” which distinguished the dealer in foreign wares, the overseas trader, and the industrial entrepreneur, who competed with each other to “secure the economic advantage of standing between the rest and the market.”[78] In place of an economy in which every operating unit was a near-replica of every other, there came about a new economic order composed of specialized and interlocking elements. In it the merchant, with his command of credit, access to shipping, and connections in distant markets, was usually able to dominate both the producer and the retailer.

However, these developments were not uncontested. They arose because of the ability of Bristol’s mere merchants to control the city’s government and to use their influence with the Crown as extra-economic resources which in times of genuine economic crisis could be called on for assistance. But what sprang from politics could be countered by politics. Roger Edgeworth, preaching at the time of the Society’s foundation, saw it even at this early moment as a source of dissension in the city. Speaking of the need for unity in the body politic, he told Bristolians:

You haue in this citie erect a certain confederacie, which you call the companye, I pray God it may do well, but I perceiue a certaine mundanitie in it, a worldly couetouse caste to bring the gaines that was undifferent & common to al the marchaunts of this citie into the handes of a fewe persones. Wherefore good neyghbours, loue the whole brotherhed & vniuersal companie of Christes faithful people, diuide it not, & if there be any cantel broken out, pray for them that thei may returne and come home againe to the great flocke and congregation of Christian people, and that they may hereafter loue the whole fraternitie.[79]

What Edgeworth saw at the Society’s birth became the recurring motif of Bristol’s history in the decades to follow. To understand why this was so we need to see how these disagreements were transformed in ideology, which is the task of the next section of this book.


1. Raymond Firth, Elements of Social Organization: Josiah Mason Lectures Delivered at the University of Birmingham, 3d ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), pp. 30, 33.

2. Peter M. Blau and W. Richard Scott, Formal Organizations: A Comparative Approach (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 2.

3. Firth, Elements of Social Organization, pp. 36–40.

4. Blau and Scott, Formal Organizations, p. 5. The classic definition of “formal organization” is to be found in Chester Barnard, The Function of the Executive (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938), pp. 65–95.

5. See Charles Gross, The Gild Merchant: A Contribution to British Municipal History, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1890), vol. 1, p. 49.

6. Veale, ed., Great Red Book, vol. 16, pp. 82–84; Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 16–18; McGrath, ed., Records, p. x; Patrick V. McGrath, The Merchant Venturers of Bristol: A History of the Society of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol from Its Origins to the Present Day (Bristol: Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol, 1975), pp. 6, 8; Gross, Gild Merchant, vol. 1, pp. 45–46. The histories of previous organizations are associated primarily with the old Gild Merchant. A fraternity of merchants was founded in 1370 by one hundred and forty of the richest and most worthy townsmen, together with “plus ours aultres merchauntz et drapers,” for the purpose of regulating the sale of cloth in Bristol and of controlling dealings with strangers who frequented the town. But this was merely a reform of the Gild Merchant and, after 1372, when the gild’s right to admit freemen was successfully defended, there was no further reference to it. In the late Middle Ages, merchants were also organized through the Staple and its court in Bristol: LRB, vol. 2, pp. 51–55; Stella Kramer, The English Craft Gilds: Studies in Their Progress and Decline (New York: Columbia University Press, 1927), p. 29; Gross, Gild Merchant, vol. 2, pp. 353–55; Cronne, ed., Bristol Charters, 1378–1499, pp. 64–65; McGrath, ed., Records, p. ix n. 2.

7. Veale, ed., Great Red Book, vol. 16, pp. 120–30; McGrath, Merchant Venturers of Bristol, p. 7. Nevertheless, the city’s leading merchants may have maintained some institutional association throughout the later fifteenth century. In 1493, thirteen of the most prominent of them joined together with thirteen mariners to build a new chapel in honor of St. Clement on what was later to be the site of the Merchants’ Hall and Almshouse. But it is by no means certain that the thirteen merchants were performing their charitable work on behalf of an existing gild or society. The years between 1467 and 1499 yield no solid evidence of the activities of any such company nor any record of the election of a master or other officers: LRB, vol. 2, pp. 186–92; Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 19–21; McGrath, ed., Records, pp. x, xi, 66; McGrath, Merchant Venturers of Bristol, p. 6 and 6n. 20.

8. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 26–35. For a discussion of the implications of the new city charter of 1499, see Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 45–101; Sacks, “The Corporate Town and the English State,” pp. 86–87; Latham, ed., Bristol Charters, 1509–1899, pp. 1–19.

9. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, p. 26; Veale, ed., Great Red Book, vol. 8, pp. 57–60.

10. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, p. 30. Many other clauses point in this same direction. For example, it was ordered that no merchant or other burgess of the city send any wine, wax, woad, iron, or other merchandise out of the city without being able to demonstrate that it had first been sold in open market or had been explicitly requested by a letter from an out-of-town customer; ibid., pp. 27–28. Rules were also laid down governing the treatment to be accorded all vessels arriving in Bristol laden with wine, wax, iron, woad, cochineal, oil, or any other merchandise shipped by strangers. Bristolians were forbidden to receive these goods and store them for their owners without the consent of the assembled fellowship: Gross, Gild Merchant, vol. 1, pp. 48–50.

11. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 32–33.

12. Ibid., pp. 32–33.

13. Ibid., p. 27.

14. Ibid., p. 35. The intent was to avoid time-consuming and socially disruptive suits.

15. Ibid., pp. 21–22; BRO, Old Ordinance Book, esp. ff. 2r–3v.

16. Carr, ed., Select Charters of the Trading Companies, pp. 1–3; Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake, pp. 67, 70, 76, 81–82, 90–97; Pauline Croft, ed., The Spanish Company (London Record Society 9, 1973), p. viii.

17. Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake, pp. 82, 89.

18. Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake, pp. 94–97; Croft, ed., Spanish Company, p. viii.

19. Chaunu, Séville et l’Atlantique, vol. 8, part 2, section 1, pp. 244–47, 273, 298.

20. Ibid., vol. 8, part 2, section 1, pp. 248–49, 299; Connell-Smith, “English Merchants Trading to the New World,” pp. 53–67; Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake, pp. 70–75.

21. Chaunu, Séville et l’Atlantique, vol. 8, part 2, section 1, p. 307; Hamilton, American Treasure, pp. 189, 198.

22. Hamilton, American Treasure, pp. 321, 340–41.

23. Ibid., p. 261.

24. See Gould, Great Debasement, pp. 81–86, 94, 96, 133ff.; C. E. Challis, The Tudor Coinage (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1978), pp. 81–134, 223–31; C. E. Challis, “The Circulating Medium and the Movement of Prices in Mid-Tudor England,” in Peter Ramsey, ed., The Price Revolution in Sixteenth Century England (London: Methuen, 1971), pp. 117–33, 134–35, 139, 146; C. E. Challis, “Currency and the Economy in Mid-Tudor England,” EcHR, 2d ser., 25 (1972): 313–22; Albert Feaveryear, The Pound Sterling: A History of English Money, 2d ed., rev. E. Victor Morgan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 64–69; Y. Brenner, “The Inflation of Prices in Early Sixteenth-Century England,” in Ramsey, ed., Price Revolution, p. 78; de Roover, Gresham on Foreign Exchange, pp. 49–60; Fisher, “Commercial Trends and Policy in Sixteenth Century England,” pp. 155–57; Stone, “State Control,” p. 106; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 583–85.

25. De Roover, Gresham on Foreign Exchange, pp. 57–58; Gould, Great Debasement, pp. 85, 90, 91–93; Stone, “State Control,” p. 106.

26. Stone, “State Control,” p. 106.

27. Unfortunately, the absence of local trade statistics for 1551 and 1552 makes it impossible to know the exact course of events there. By 1553–54, however, Bristol’s cloth exports were 18.1 percent below the average figure for 1549–1551, a decline that continued at a precipitous rate until the end of the decade: Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 583, 902n. 39.

28. When the Bristol Corporation struck its deal with Sadler, it apparently was concerned to maintain the charitable functions associated with the chapel, particularly the care of poor seamen. But this act canceled the authority of the thirteen merchants and the thirteen mariner feoffees who had previously held the property. Among the first recorded acts of the newly founded Society of Merchant Venturers was its effort to recover the property directly from Sadler. In October 1553 the property passed by deed to Edward Pryn, one of the founders of the Society and at the time its first master. Pryn appears to have been acting in a private capacity and not as the Society’s agent. He later resold it to the Society. But by 1561 the Merchants’ Almshouse, called St. Clement’s Almshouse, was already on the site, which suggests that the Society’s association with Pryn’s purchase of the property was close and that it had been in possession, if not ownership, for some time; LRB, vol. 2, pp. 186–92; Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 18–21; McGrath, ed., Records, pp. 66, 96; SMV, Merchants Records, Box 5, Bundle A2; William Barrett, The History and Antiquities of the City of Bristol; Compiled from Original Records and Authentic Manuscripts in the Public Record Office or Private Hands Illustrated with Copper-Plate Prints (Bristol: W. Pine, 1789), p. 180; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 903–4nn. 51–52.

29. Edgeworth, Sermons, f. 43v. At the time this collection was printed, Edgeworth was canon of the cathedral churches of Salisbury, Wells, and Bristol, and resident at Wells, where he was also chancellor. The sermon from which this quote comes was part of a series on the “Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost” preached at St. Mary, Redcliffe, sometime during the years 1544–47.

30. See also below, pp. 125–26.

31. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, p. 42.

32. Ibid., pp. 42–43.

33. Ibid., p. 43.

34. Ibid., p. 44.

35. Ibid., pp. 44–45.

36. Ibid., p. 45.

37. See above, p. 61. The Bristol merchants were not alone in this period in seeking to exclude retailers and artisans from overseas trade; see, e.g., W. E. Lingelbach, The Merchant Adventurers of England: Their Laws and Ordinances, with Other Documents (Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, Department of History, University of Pennsylvania, 2d ser., vol. 2, 1902), pp. 111–16; Burgon, Life and Times of Sir Thomas Gresham, vol. 1, p. 464; Woodward, Trade of Elizabethan Chester, p. 74; W. Cotton, An Elizabethan Guild of the City of Exeter (Exeter: W. Pollard, 1873), pp. 6, 15–16; MacCaffrey, Exeter, 1540–1640, p. 137.

38. See above, pp. 62–66.

39. APC (1550–52), p. 485.

40. See D. Hollis, ed., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 1: 1532–1542 (BRS 14, 1949); Elizabeth Ralph and Nora M. Hardwick, eds., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 2: 1542–1552 (BRS 33, 1980); BRO, Apprenticeship Book, 1552–1565.

41. F. F. Fox, Some Account of the Ancient Fraternity of Merchant Taylors of Bristol, with Transcripts of Ordinances and Other Documents (Bristol: J. Wright, 1880), pp. 40–54, 68; Veale, ed., Great Red Book, vol. 16, pp. 64–69; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 132–33.

42. Fox and Taylor, eds., Guild of Weavers, pp. 91–92.

43. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 68, 71–75, 79–80; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 631–33.

44. Patrick V. McGrath, “The Society of Merchant Venturers and the Port of Bristol,” BGAS 72 (1953): 105–28; McGrath, ed., Records, pp. xli, 135–75; McGrath, Merchant Venturers of Bristol, pp. 70–77.

45. McGrath, ed., Records, pp. 176–98.

46. Ibid., pp. 96–116.

47. McGrath, ed., Records, p. xxxvii.

48. SMV, Book of Trade, p. 119.

49. From 1552 to 1639 the Society acquired three such patents from the Crown: Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 39–47, 88–97.

50. See Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 634ff.

51. SMV, Book of Trade, pp. 67–68, 95–96. In a pattern typical of state concessions, the patent belonged to Richard Williams and David Lewis, who assigned a portion of it to William Harbett and Thomas Morgan. Harbett then made independent arrangements for shipping the butter with Henley and Henley with the Bristolians.

52. Ibid., pp. 170–75, 237–38.

53. SMV, Book of Trade, pp. 104ff.

54. McGrath, ed., Records, pp. 110, 111–12.

55. Ibid., p. 112.

56. BRO, Common Council Proceedings, vol. 2, f. 96r; see also Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, p. 918n. 67.

57. SMV, Book of Trade, p. 123; see also Preston, “Fishing and Plantation,” pp. 29–43.

58. SMV, Book of Trade, p. 111; McGrath, ed., Records, pp. 207ff.

59. PRO, SP 15/22/19; Marchants Avizo, pp. 10, 11; Latimer, Merchant Venturers, p. 77; Malynes, Lex Mercatoria, pp. 81–86; Willan, Elizabethan Foreign Trade, pp. 3–4; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 546–50.

60. Cf. A Relation, Or Rather a True Account, of the Island of England; with Sundry Particulars of the Customs of these People and of the Royal Revenues under King Henry the Seventh, about the Year 1500, ed. and trans. C. A. Sneyd (Camden Society 37, 1847), pp. 24–25; Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), pp. 106–8.

61. The sources for this study are Hollis, ed., Bristol Apprentice Book, part 1, and BRO, Apprenticeship Book, 1626–1636, ff. 1–333. Although ordinarily each apprenticeship enrollment identifies the trade of the apprentice’s father and that of his master, such occupational classifications did not exclude an individual from engaging in other kinds of work from time to time. Where there was no gild to enforce the boundaries between trades, or where large investments in tools or capital equipment were not necessary, it was possible to move from trade to trade. Some small shopkeepers, for example, maintained fairly diversified stocks that would qualify them for inclusion in more than one category. For example, William Adams, Bristol’s seventeenth-century chronicler, was identified during his lifetime as a haberdasher, an ironmonger, and a mercer. Occasionally individuals are listed as having multiple occupations, such as Thomas Howell “hooper ac bruer” or Richard Browne “haberdasher atque wierdrawer”: BRO, Mayor’s Audit (1600–1601), p. 138; BRO, MS 09467 (13a); Hollis, ed., Bristol Apprentice Book, part 1, pp. 115, 125, 195; Willan, Inland Trade, pp. 61ff. But since in general an occupational identification in the indentures gives the central focus of an individual’s economic activities, we can safely use it for our present purpose.

62. See above, pp. 57–59 and Table 8; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 205, and vol. 2, p. 760.

63. Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 480–81, 663.

64. Ibid., pp. 478–79, 496, 505, 506, 759–60. Note that the cappers of 1532–1542 had disappeared as an occupational category by 1626; their craft had broken up into haberdashers, on the retail side, and feltmakers, on the production side. Feltmaking appears to have been a growth industry in Bristol in the early seventeenth century.

65. Sacks, Trade, Society, and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 479–80, 506–7, 760–61.

66. See below, pp. 147–53; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 487–88.

67. The actual figures for Bristolians apprenticed in the same occupation as their fathers are: 1532–1542, 23.94 percent; 1626–1636, 34.79 percent. The figures for those apprenticed in the same industry but not the same occupation are: 1532–1542, 18.94 percent; 1626–1636, 14.12 percent. Together, these two sets of figures total: 1532–1542, 42.23 percent and 1626–1636, 48.91 percent. See Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 670–72.

68. The consequences of these methodological difficulties for the overall picture of social mobility are small. Even if we move everyone in a “borderline” craft, such as whitawing, into the category of “leading entrepreneur,” the opportunities for social advancement would still appear greater in the early sixteenth than in the early seventeenth century. The more restricted definition we have employed in determining the composition of this category is better suited to our present purposes, however, since it results in something of an overestimation, rather than an underestimation, of mobility in Bristol. If those manufacturers who relied on heavy capital investment or produced for the national market were all included with the merchants, major retailers, and soapmakers, the apprenticeship of their sons to leading entrepreneurs would be counted in favor of heightened exclusivity, not increased openness.

69. For further discussion of this evidence see Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 672–79.

70. BRO, Burgess Book, 1607–1651, passim; see also Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 706–8.

71. See Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, p. 759.

72. See above, p. 60.

73. For the general history of consumer industries and retailing see Willan, Inland Trade, pp. 50–106; Joan Thirsk, Economic Policy and Projects: The Development of a Consumer Society in Early Modern England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978).

74. See Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, p. 495. The other groups were food producers and woodworkers.

75. Gross, Gild Merchant, vol. 1, p. 157.

76. Ibid., p. 10, and vol. 2, pp. 24–27, 353–55; Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 1–7.

77. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 30, 33.

78. George Unwin, Industrial Organization in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 2d ed. with intro. by T. H. Ashton (London: Frank Cass, 1963), pp. 73, 96.

79. Edgeworth, Sermons, ff. 210v, 211r–v.

Opening the Way, 1450–1650

Preferred Citation: Sacks, David Harris. The Widening Gate: Bristol and the Atlantic Economy, 1450-1700. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.