The Spanish Company. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 1973.
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i. The first Spanish Company, 1530–1585
The origins of the Spanish Company are to be found not in England but in the organisation built up by English merchants in the early sixteenth century for their own welfare and protection in the Iberian peninsula. In this there was nothing unusual for both the Merchant Staplers and the Merchant Adventurers had established their headquarters in their mart towns rather than in London. The English merchants trading to Spain and Portugal did not possess any staple towns comparable to Calais or Antwerp; but the chief focus of English commerce was the coastline of Andalusia, the area to which the majority of English cargoes were shipped, and it was in the Andalusian ports of Seville, San Lucar de Barrameda, Puerto de Santa Maria and Cadiz that the majority of English merchants and factors congregated.
San Lucar, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir, was the natural seaport of inland Seville, where larger vessels unloaded their cargoes for shipment up the river in barges. As an exempt seigneurial port belonging to the dukes of Medina Sidonia, San Lucar levied its own customs duties which were far lighter than the exactions of the crown of Spain. The duchy had for many years pursued a policy of encouraging foreign merchants to trade and settle in the port, and in 1517 Don Alonso Perez de Guzman, duke of Medina Sidonia, granted to the English merchants resident in San Lucar their earliest corporate privileges, confirming the position of their leader as the 'consul and judge', and bestowing on them 'a piece of ground in the street down below the waterside' on which they might at their own expense erect a chapel dedicated to St. George. (fn. 1)
This grant, usually referred to in later petitions as 'the privilege of St. George' formed the basis on which the English community or 'brotherhood of St. George' as it was subsequently known, proceeded to establish itself. The complex of buildings around the chapel, which formed the main centre, eventually grew to include eight houses for the nation to lodge in, a house for the consul himself, and a riverside area adjacent to the chapel which was used as a quay; in addition the brotherhood owned a local vineyard and some other property in the nearby coastal hamlet of Chipiona. (fn. 2) With its religious and community functions it resembled many other cofradias maintained by foreign merchants in Spain, the largest and most famous being that of the wealthy Flemings of Seville. (fn. 3)
In England no attempt was made to organise the merchants trading to the peninsula until September 1530. By this time, Anglo-Spanish diplomatic relations were deteriorating rapidly, while religious changes in England were making the merchants into objects of suspicion within Spain itself. In response to petitions for assistance from some of the leading traders, Henry VIII incorporated them under the title of the Andalusia Company. (fn. 4) The powers and scope of the company were, however, very small. It incorporated only those who traded to the south coast, in particular to San Lucar, Seville, Cadiz and Puerto de Santa Maria. The residents of these ports, including the Welsh and Irish, were empowered to meet annually in order to elect a consul or consuls and twelve assistants for their own better government. The charter expressed the wish that the advice and consent of the London merchants, together with that of two representatives of Bristol and two of Southampton, should be sought beforehand, but no mechanism was instituted to ensure that this was done. The company had no organisation in England, its chief official being the consul or governor resident in the house adjacent to the chapel in San Lucar. (fn. 5) The Andalusia Company, in short, was not a true company in the sense in which the word later came to be employed; it was merely an attempt to strengthen the brotherhood of St. George by confirming in England most of the privileges already granted to it in Spain.
By 1538 the company was internally divided, with many of the merchants refusing to pay the imposts levied by the consul and his assistants on English trade. At the request of the English ambassador, Charles V confirmed the grant of 1530 in a document that was to become one of the chief safeguards of the merchants' corporate rights and liberties in Spain itself. (fn. 6) It did not succeed in preserving the Andalusia Company, however, and although the election of consuls at San Lucar was sporadically maintained, by the end of the reign of Henry VIII the company no longer had any real existence.
The following three decades were difficult ones for all branches of English commerce. A major European depression, the collapse of the credit of the great powers, the dislocation of the Antwerp trade and the debasement of the English coinage combined to undermine steady trade. In addition the merchants trading to Spain and Portugal encountered further difficulties of their own. Between 1550 and 1559, the great transatlantic commerce of Seville experienced a recession which affected the whole of the Spanish economy; meanwhile the Elizabethan settlement of religion, by ranking England alongside the protestant powers of Europe, brought Englishmen increasingly under the scrutiny of the Inquisition. A revision of customs duties in both England and Spain placed extra burdens upon trade, and in 1561 Philip II in his attempts to strengthen Spanish naval resources revived earlier legislation prohibiting the loading of goods in foreign vessels if Spanish ones were available. (fn. 7)
More problems of a political nature followed. In 1563 Spain imposed a temporary embargo on English imports, largely as a result of the havoc caused by English privateers who were hovering off the Spanish coastline. (fn. 8) At the end of the same year a further embargo was instituted, arising not from events in Spain itself but as a result of the steady deterioration of Anglo-Netherlands relations. (fn. 9) At the same time the old Anglo-Portuguese alliance was increasingly strained by English expansion southward into Guinea, Barbary and other areas claimed by the Portuguese crown. (fn. 10)
Despite the failure of the incorporation of 1530, the idea of a company remained alive throughout the troubled early years of Elizabeth's reign. Various tentative schemes were put forward, usually based on the desire not only to obtain additional security for the merchants themselves but also to exclude the 'unskilful', the retailers or part-time traders who dabbled in Anglo-Iberian commerce. One early group of anonymous petitioners requested a new grant no longer confined to Andalusia but embracing the whole country, including the ports within the 'Strait of Morocco'. They claimed that such an incorporation would enable them to act in unison to defend themselves, particularly against the new customs levied by Philip II. They hoped to bring pressure on the king by confining all English trade to San Lucar, thereby depriving him of revenue from other ports. Moreover the English merchants argued that they would be in a better position to obtain justice in the Spanish courts if they were a company, not merely a collection of individuals. The envisaged incorporation was a modest one; its advocates merely requested that besides the consul at San Lucar, they might elect a consul and assistants in London 'to congregate themselves and punish offenders, with authority to send for them wheresoever they shall be within the queen's majesty's dominions'. (fn. 11) Another suggestion, equally limited, was that the office of consul in Spain should be revived and given extra powers. (fn. 12)
Nothing came of these plans, and in 1568 there occurred the worst breakdown that had as yet taken place in Anglo-Iberian relations. The anger of Sebastian I at English intrusions into the Portuguese sphere of influence in Africa came to a head with the seizure of William Winter's ship off Guinea. Portugal was closed to English merchants, and although illicit commerce gradually grew up, the ports were not to be reopened legally until 1576. (fn. 13) At first the dispute was more of an inconvenience than a disaster; the trade between London and Portugal was at most only a tenth of the total trade to the peninsula and the new contacts with Barbary were already more valuable than the fairly static Portuguese trade. (fn. 14) Moreover, through Spanish border ports such as Ayamonte, Bayona in Galicia and Vigo it was still possible to reach Portuguese markets. By an unhappy coincidence, however, the end of the year was also to see the closure of these and all other Spanish ports, thereby sealing the whole of the peninsula against legitimate trade with England.
The seizure of the duke of Alva's payships in December 1568 brought England, the Netherlands and Spain into acute conflict. (fn. 15) Despite the provocation, Philip II hesitated for a while before taking retaliatory measures. A temporary embargo was imposed in Seville and on the north coast, but only when it became clear that Elizabeth did not intend to return the money, nor enter into negotiations, were the embargo-orders made permanent and universal. (fn. 16) As in the case of Portugal, the growth of illicit trade helped to lessen the impact of the stoppage, but the announcement of the official reopening of the ports in April 1573, as the first move towards reconciliation, was warmly welcomed in London. The proclamation not only revived legitimate trade; it also put fresh life into the idea of forming a new Spanish company.
During the embargo the London merchants trading to Spain and Portugal had been forced to act in unison on several occasions. They had sought licences to continue an irregular trade to the Isles of Bayona, either directly or through the Channel Islands, and to St. Jean de Luz in south-west France. Together the leading merchants had formed committees to assess and sell off Spanish and Portuguese goods sequestered in England, and to distribute among their fellows the money thereby recouped as compensation for their losses in the peninsula. (fn. 17) In dealing with these matters they once again began to feel the need of some form of corporate organisation. In comparison with the Merchant Staplers or the Merchant Adventurers, they had no authorised representatives or standard channels of communication; transacting any sort of joint business was therefore slower, more complex and less reliable.
In May 1573, the merchants trading to Spain and Portugal had been due to receive a dividend of £8,000 from the sale of confiscated goods. The collection of this sum from the commissioners and its division were causing so much trouble that a deputation waited on the earl of Leicester at his London house to seek his help in solving the problem. They requested him to ask Burghley if they might nominate their own officers, as distinct from the commissioners chosen by the crown, who would 'receive for the whole company and make to every man payment according to his due share'. As they pointed out, the Merchant Adventurers and the Merchant Staplers already had such officers, which they lacked only because they were not a recognised company. The earl, who had many carefully cultivated contacts in the City, was broadly sympathetic to their plea. 'For my part', he wrote to Burghley, 'I cannot perceive their request unreasonable', but he added that he left the matter to the secretary's further consideration. Returning from the country in July, Leicester again took up the merchants' cause and sent Thomas Wilford, the future president of the company, over to Burghley to discuss the problem. (fn. 18)
Friends such as the royal favourite were valuable at court, but without support in the City the protagonists of incorporation would have made little headway. They were extremely fortunate at this juncture to have the active co-operation of John Mershe of the Merchant Adventurers. A former common sergeant of the City of London, Mershe had also served several terms as governor of the Merchant Adventurers, leading them in their running battle against interlopers. In addition, he was a former warden and influential member of the Mercers Company, the foremost of the livery companies, and had friendly relations with a large number of government servants and courtiers. On many occasions he had acted unobtrusively as the link between the City interests and the crown. (fn. 19)
During the stoppage Mershe had had numerous dealings with the Spanish merchants, for besides acting as a commissioner for sales he had headed the committee authorised to oversee the regulation of the clandestine trade to Guernsey and thence to Spain. (fn. 20) In May 1571, he and the merchant Thomas Aldersey had submitted a report to Burghley on John Frampton's claim to compensation for injuries received in Spain, (fn. 21) while in December of that year he had signed the petition drawn up to urge the reopening of the Portugal trade, 'not as a merchant trading Portugal but understanding their minds and the necessity of the matter'. (fn. 22) These incidents brought Mershe face to face with the inconveniences arising from the lack of incorporation in the Spanish trade, and as a result he urged the merchants to become a regulated company. His claim to have been the instigator of the whole movement was perhaps a little sweeping, in view of the attempts made earlier by at least some of the Spanish merchants themselves to raise the issue. (fn. 23) Still, Mershe's influence, at a time when the other schemes were fading into the background, may well have been decisive.
Another well-known City figure who gave the plan his qualified support was Peter Osborne, one of Burghley's most trusted economic advisers and a former merchant of wide experience who now held the post of lord treasurer's remembrancer in the exchequer. Osborne, with remarkable foresight, felt that the proposed company would meet with trouble unless it made every effort to avoid conflicts with the Merchant Adventurers. Moreover, in his opinion some guarantee was needed to prevent London and Bristol from drawing even more of the Spanish trade to themselves, at the expense of the smaller outports. (fn. 24)
The plan of incorporation under discussion by November 1574 was more ambitious than anything so far. It envisaged 'a body politic by the name of consuls, assistants and fellowship of merchants trading Spain and Portugal', including both London and the outports, which would unite the merchants in England and nominate a consul or governor for them in Spain. Interlopers were to be punished, retailers and artificers excluded, and the company would have power to make binding ordinances for the conduct of trade. (fn. 25)
After 1573, the movement for incorporation was slowly gathering speed, but at the same time it was generating opposition. The Iberian trade by now was prosperous and expanding; as the memory of the stoppage faded, the need for corporate action seemed less urgent, while the advantages of company membership might prove inadequate to compensate for the internal regulations and financial exactions which would inevitably be imposed. Above all, the new company by the terms of its proposed charter intended to restrict membership to those merchants not free of another society, who had traded to Spain and Portugal since 1569. (fn. 26)
The chief opponents of Mershe's plans for a Spanish company were a group of his fellow Merchant Adventurers, led by Aldermen Thomas Pullyson, Thomas Starkey and Anthony Gamage. They protested that the restriction clause would exclude them, as their vigorous trade between London and Spain was composed largely of re-exports from Flanders, Hamburg and Emden, imported into England during the course of their commerce as Merchant Adventurers. They alleged that if they were not permitted to trade in this way then Flemings, Spaniards and Frenchmen would replace them, 'without bringing any of the same into this realm, to the great hindrance of the navigation … and the great diminishing of her majesty's customs'. (fn. 27)
The opposition continued until February 1577, but Mershe had in the meantime persuaded the privy council that the grant of a charter would be in the national interest. Summoning several leading Spanish merchants such as Sir James Hawes and Alderman Edward Osborne, the council asked them to send for the recalcitrants 'and plainly declare unto them that unless they shall be contented to do as others do, order shall be taken that they shall not be suffered to traffic into Spain'. Hawes and his colleagues were also asked to certify to the council the names of the opponents and the reasons for their actions. (fn. 28)
After further hearings the councillors delivered their verdict in April 1577. The twenty-four Merchant Adventurers who had been excluded were each to be admitted as full members for the fee of £5. Since the two formal documents intended to receive the royal seal had already been drawn up, they were also to bear the cost of making out the new copies which would include their own names. The antagonists 'acknowledged themselves contented and willing to stand to perform and observe this their lordships' order' whereupon they were all dismissed 'and willed to behave themselves as dutiful subjects and good friends and neighbours both in their trade into Spain and other actions'. (fn. 29)
The council's next action was less agreeable to the Spanish merchants. A month later the privy councillors decided that for the better government of the company, a 'principal officer' should reside in Spain in addition to the governor in London. (fn. 30) This would consolidate the position of the old brotherhood of St. George as part of the new company, for the nominee would act as consul at San Lucar and administer the property of the brotherhood. The idea was a valuable one, but the councillors' choice for the post was disastrous. Roger Bodenham, an English catholic trader resident in Seville with a Spanish wife and family, had acted as an informant for Burghley for many years, and to the council he seemed the obvious candidate; but he was disliked by a large majority of the community abroad and Mershe tried strenuously to have him removed. (fn. 31) Mershe's judgment was to be vindicated for Bodenham proved useless as consul, and his negligence was to be a major factor in the subsequent disintegration of the brotherhood.
The charter finally granted on 8 July 1577 was of vastly greater scope than that of 1530 or even the most ample recommendations of 1574. The area of jurisdiction was extended to include the whole Iberian coastline from Fuenterrabia to Barcelona. The president of the company, together with forty assistants, of whom at least ten were to dwell outside London, controlled all business transacted in England. In addition the merchants were empowered to elect a governor and six assistants in Spain, who would in effect act within the framework of the brotherhood of St. George. The company was granted all the usual powers of a corporate body including that of punishing interlopers. Mershe, now knighted, was named in the charter as the first president; among the London assistants were such influential figures as Sir James Hawes, probably the merchant trading to the peninsula on the largest scale, (fn. 32) Edward Osborne who was already supporting the exploration of the Levant, (fn. 33) and Richard Saltonstall. Of the thirty men appointed by the charter, seven were past or future lord mayors of London. Also included were Pullyson and Starkey, the protesters of 1574, together with William Hewett, John Heydon and other Merchant Adventurers who had been brought before the privy council in the winter of 1577. Among the usual honorary members named at the head of the list were Walsingham, Leicester and the pro-Spanish Sir James Crofts, along with the diplomat Sir Henry Cobham, not long back from Madrid, Admiral William Winter, and Sir Thomas Gresham, the most venerable member of the City hierarchy. (fn. 34)
The new company seemed to have good prospects of success. Backed by a large number of leading merchants, with powerful support from the privy council, it had managed to overcome and then to conciliate its opponents. Yet events were quickly to show that this appearance of solidarity concealed serious weaknesses. Within eighteen months of the company's foundation it found itself at odds with the Merchant Adventurers, the outports and the government itself. The renewal of conflicts with the Merchant Adventurers would perhaps have been avoided had Sir John Mershe lived a little longer. His death early in 1579 (fn. 35) left the company without anyone of sufficient stature or experience to mediate in such disputes.
Thomas Wilford, Mershe's successor as president and the dominant figure in the Spanish Company for the rest of its existence, was not an obvious choice. The son of an obscure family, (fn. 36) he had worked earlier as a factor in Portugal alongside his brother William, but in 1559 when returning to the continent after a visit to England he had been taken captive by the French. His trade was never on a large scale and was conducted largely with northern Portugal and the coast of Galicia, where he maintained an agent named George Kerwyn. Although a member of the Merchant Tailors Company he was not particularly active in its affairs, and he never became an alderman. However, he served as chamberlain of the City and in this influential office he may well have had the opportunity to amass a substantial private fortune. (fn. 37)
Wilford's position as a medium-scale trader may perhaps be compared with that of some of the early seventeenth-century governors of the Merchant Adventurers, who had practically retired from active commerce but were elected mainly for their prestige with the government. (fn. 38) Wilford had, if not prestige, a number of extremely useful contacts. He was known to Leicester, who had used him in his negotiations with Burghley in 1574; he had worked with Mershe in setting up the company and was rewarded with an assistantship. Above all, Wilford had admirable connections by marriage. Through his wife, a daughter of Sir James Hawes, he was linked with some of the most powerful Iberian merchants including the future privateer Sir John Watts. It seems probable that his election to the presidency was largely due to the influence of Hawes who intended Wilford to ensure that his own extensive trade should be in no way prejudiced by any future regulations that the company might impose. (fn. 39)
The conflict with the Merchant Adventurers in 1579, just after Wilford's election, was essentially a recurrence in a slightly different form of the issue which had arisen in the winter of 1577. A body of opinion within the Merchant Adventurers now complained of the activities of various of their brethren, who as members of both companies were shipping Hamburg and Eastland goods directly to Spain and Portugal without unloading them at an English port. This lessened the sale of similar goods to the Spanish merchants in England, while the offenders could also afford to sell off their English goods in Germany at lower prices, since they drew an additional profit from their trade to Spain; other traders were thus undercut. These complaints were aggravated by a narrow outlook redolent of secretiveness and suspicious jealousy. It was feared that, 'since no man can serve two masters', the members trading to Spain would put that branch of their commerce first, and not vote in general courts in accordance with the interests of the Merchant Adventurers. This would breed disruption: 'we shall have opinions, sects, divisions, brawls and suspicions amongst us as if it were to begin hell on earth', argued the others. Moreover, an offender could easily evade any fine or imposition, 'for when we shall look for him in our mart towns, he will be gone into Spain or Eastland'. Above all, the culprits would join 'in portable dealings with unfree men, and their servants are made partakers of the secrets of the commodities and reckonings of our company, whilst they make their portable provisions for Spain and other countries'. The fear that the company's carefully guarded 'secrets' would be revealed seems to have been at the root of much of the hostility; although these were left undefined, the reference to commodities indicates some form of price fixing. (fn. 40)
The leaders of the Spanish Company must have been perturbed by this revival of opposition among the Merchant Adventurers when they had hoped that the matter had already been settled. But there was little they could do about it, since officially at least it was an internal dispute within another company. Meanwhile a more ominous threat had arisen. Again, it concerned the re-export of foreign goods to the peninsula, but this time the cause of contention lay in the nature of the goods themselves.
The export of English hides, skins, tallow and related commodities had long been forbidden in order to conserve home supplies. Now, however, 'certain informers' were arguing that these statutes also applied to foreign goods of a similar nature, so that once they had been imported it was illegal to ship them out again to Spain or Portugal. In addition, they extended the list of prohibited exports to include 'shaven latten, virginall wire, thimbles of latten and other things wrought with copper or latten, or andirons tongs fireshovels and such like having any tipping or mixture of brass or latten', all of which were classed as gunmetal and confined to England. (fn. 41)
Wilford retaliated by presenting a petition to the privy council, which argued that since Richard II's reign English merchants had re-exported spices without paying any extra duties, a precedent subsequently invoked by Edward IV to cover leather and metals. He therefore asked that these time-honoured forms of the re-export trade might continue without any hindrance. The councillores, who had no intention of allowing a lucrative branch of commerce to be obstructed, especially as they had just openly lent their support to the company in charge of it, obligingly required the attorney-general and the solicitor-general to join together 'to devise such articles as they shall think meet for a grant to be passed from her majesty for the better authorising of the same unto them'. (fn. 42)
During the course of this dispute the hostility between the Spanish Company and the Merchant Adventurers had withered away with the rise of a new object of joint suspicion. Three months after they had been at odds they found themselves acting in concert to block the foundation of the proposed new Eastland Company, led by Alderman Thomas Pullyson, a member of both the older incorporations. (fn. 43)
The details of this incident are unclear, but it apparently concerned the exclusion of the Adventurers and Iberian merchants alike from the new company on the grounds that they were not 'mere merchants' within the definition of the term. At first it looked as if the dispute might be settled quickly, for the privy council was informed of a rapprochement in July 1579, (fn. 44) but these hopes proved illusory and the quarrel dragged on for over a year despite the close links between all the merchants concerned. The master of the rolls and the attorney-general were instructed to hold hearings on the issue, and in July 1580 their letters were submitted to the councillors. The council then ruled that the Eastland Company's definition of a 'mere merchant' was 'rather a cavil in effect than of moment to debar any merchant of the said companies of Merchant Adventurers and Spanish merchants from being admitted in their said company, paying the ordinary fine appointed'. (fn. 45) The Eastland Company would not accept this verdict but continued to argue that any member of another regulated trading company was not a 'mere merchant' within the meaning of their charter. Angered by this, the privy council again summoned the combatants in August, and informed the Eastland Company that when their plea for a charter had been granted, the council had only intended the words 'mere merchants' to debar those who were also artificers or retailers. The verdict of July was reiterated: those Merchant Adventurers or members of the Spanish Company who had traded to the east country since 1568 were to be admitted into the Eastland Company on payment of £10. Moreover, the dispute had taken so long that the time originally allowed in the charter for submitting requests for membership had by now nearly expired. The council therefore extended it from 17 August to 10 October. (fn. 46)
These differences with the Merchant Adventurers and the Eastland Company were not in themselves insoluble, although they illustrate the importance attached by the London merchants to the re-export trade with Spain. The dispute with the outports, which was in progress at the same time, was of much greater importance in that it brought to the fore a problem that was to dog the Spanish Company throughout the years of its brief existence.
The move towards the foundation of a regulated company had been the work of the Londoners, who of course handled the bulk of the trade. Nevertheless the interests of the outports had been taken into account to a far greater extent than in 1530. Two assistants each were appointed for Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Hull, along with the well-known merchant John Barker who became assistant for Ipswich although like many other Ipswich men he did much of his trade through London. Besides the assistants, four large contingents of outport merchants were listed among the founder-members; seventy-four from Bristol, twenty-nine from Exeter, twenty-six from Southampton and fourteen from Hull, making a total of 173 members out of the overall number of 389. (fn. 47)
The outports named in the charter were not the only ones which traded to Spain and Portugal. Nearly every harbour in the west country sent at least one ship a year to the peninsula, for few of the major trade routes were as diffuse as that between England and Spain. In an attempt to cope with the problem, the company gradually recognised other towns as members, and by the outbreak of war the 'privileged ports' included Barnstaple, King's Lynn, Newcastle, Plymouth and Chester. The number of outport assistants also increased; by 1585 Exeter had sixteen, Plymouth twelve and Barnstaple six. (fn. 48) Despite this expansion, however, it seems likely that in many of the outports the recognised freemen of the company were in a minority. Yarmouth immediately protested against the incorporation of the company in 1577, (fn. 49) and thereafter Yarmouth men continued their trade to the peninsula without troubling to apply for membership. They traded to most of the other monopoly areas with an equal lack of concern, (fn. 50) and although they appear to have been the only outport merchants to make a formal protest, they cannot have been the only ones to adopt this casual approach.
Yarmouth's attitude was not encouraging, but it could be disregarded provided that the major outports acknowledged the new incorporation. It was fortunate for the Spanish Company that the merchants of both Bristol and Exeter already possessed some degree of monopoly organisation within their respective ports. The Merchant Adventurers of Exeter were chiefly concerned with France but in 1566 they had also reserved to themselves all trade to Spain and Portugal. Some time before August 1577 they received an invitation to join the company. After sending a deputation of two members up to London to discuss the question, they accepted, and from then on the Exeter branch of the Spanish Company met in the same hall as the Merchant Adventurers of Exeter since for all practical purposes they were the same group of people. A copy of the charter also seems to have been kept on permanent display there. (fn. 51) In Bristol the situation was rather different for the attempt to establish the Merchant Venturers in the first decade of Elizabeth's reign had proved abortive. (fn. 52) There are no traces of negotiations parallel to those at Exeter, and although a large number of Bristol men became members, at least one of them continued to retail goods as well as to trade. (fn. 53) Wilford appealed to the privy council to punish such a violation of the charter, but long-distance control of this type cannot have been very satisfactory. Although evidence is scanty, it is possible that a number of incidents such as this one preceded the open break between Bristol and the company that was to occur in 1605.
The city which was to give the Spanish Company most trouble, however, was the relatively remote and unimportant town of Chester. In 1554 the Chester Merchant Venturers had been granted a charter by Queen Mary which gave them a monopoly of all trade to the continent, besides excluding retailers and all followers of manual occupations. The latter provision seems to have been disregarded almost from the beginning; the Chester Merchant Adventurers became a fairly comprehensive body despite some early disputes with the town corporation, and the charter was confirmed in 1559. (fn. 54) Shortly after the incorporation of the Spanish Company, president Mershe asked the Merchant Venturers to confer with him over the question of membership. Like their fellows in Exeter they were then established as an outport branch, with a deputy and assistants chosen from among the leading merchants of the town. (fn. 55)
The Iberian merchants of Chester soon made themselves unpopular at home by insisting that all those who traded to Spain and Portugal should join the company, on the grounds that the charter of 1554 allowing them to trade without restrictions had been superseded by the new charter of the Spanish Company. At the same time they tried to prevent those Merchant Adventurers who both traded abroad and retailed goods from doing so, ordering them to choose one activity and abandon the other. (fn. 56) Although technically the dispute lay between the Spanish Company and the Chester Merchant Venturers it soon degenerated into a faction fight among the latter who were divided into the 'mere merchants' and the merchant retailers. More accurately the first group comprised the large-scale merchants whose prosperity was based entirely on commerce, the second the smaller traders whose less ample resources forced them to supplement their income by practising an additional craft or occupation. To add to the confusion, Eric Massey, the Spanish Company deputy in Chester, had meanwhile been attempting without much success to enforce the company monopoly over the merchants of Liverpool, one of the subsidiary havens of Chester. (fn. 57) The Liverpool merchants, angered by this interference, sided with the 'merchant retailers' in Chester, and invoked the assistance of a powerful local magnate, the earl of Derby, who took the matter up in London.
At last in November 1581 the privy council intervened, ordering the lord chief justice and the master of the rolls to hear the conflicting arguments put forward by Wilford, acting for the company, and some of the merchants of Chester and Liverpool. (fn. 58) The law lords concluded that the Spanish Company had acted beyond its powers in attempting to prevent the retailers from trading, since in the small outports there were not enough mere merchants to maintain the trade. (fn. 59) The privy council thereupon permitted the merchant retailers to continue their commerce and informed the earl of Derby of its decision. (fn. 60)
This was not the end of the matter, for in September 1582 the privy council was forced to repeat the whole process as the quarrel had not abated. It summoned the Chester merchants to London and reiterated its orders that the branch of the Spanish Company within the town should not stop the retailers from trading. (fn. 61) Again the settlement was short-lived for in 1584 the 'mere merchants being members of the Spanish Company' obtained from the queen a licence to export 10,000 dickers of calfskins a year. The retailers complained that this was another ploy to monopolise the trade, while the mere merchants argued that as the grant had been awarded 'in respect of their losses sustained by the French' as a result of privateering, the retailers who had suffered no such injuries were not entitled to participate. If they were to share in the transport of calfskins, the mere merchants asked that they in compensation should be allowed to retail. (fn. 62) Finally in July 1589 the councillors adopted the mere merchants' suggestion and in an attempt to obtain a lasting solution they ordered that henceforth all retailers might trade freely and take advantage of the licence, provided that the merchants could retail goods if they wished. (fn. 63) By now the cessation of commerce following the outbreak of war had rendered the conflict pointless, and at last it ended.
The altercation over the powers of the Spanish Company in Chester was not a headlong clash between the Londoners and the outport merchants of the type that was to occur in 1605. Moreover, its continuation into 1589, after the company had ceased to hold its courts, reinforces the impression that it was essentially a conflict between two groups within Chester. Then, too, Massey by his bullying arrogance had needlessly inflamed the situation. Nevertheless the privy council by its decision not to enforce the company monopoly had grievously weakened the chances of any effective control over the outports when the war came to an end. The significance of the affair must have made an impact in many places other than Chester itself.
However, conflicts between the company and the outports were not so widespread as to preclude all co-operation between them. Each provincial deputy and treasurer was expected to make an annual visit to the capital to render the accounts of membership fees and fines; they also attended the annual elections which took place in the general court on Ascension day or shortly after. (fn. 64) Besides being responsible to the central administration for its own affairs, each major outport controlled the smaller havens of its division or stretch of coastline allotted to it, which roughly followed the divisions of the customs system. The details of Chester's intervention at Liverpool suggest that at least some of the head ports made a genuine effort to organise the smaller ones. Similar contacts are apparent later at Exeter where in 1587 and 1588 the merchants on receipt of instructions from Wilford sent out letters to the towns of their division asking them to list the goods and property they had lost in Spain and Portugal on the outbreak of war. They were requested to return the lists to the merchants of Exeter, who would forward them all to London where a general register was being compiled in order to press for compensation. (fn. 65)
The degree of control exercised by the company over its most distant branch, the former brotherhood of St. George, is hard to estimate. The London merchants were apparently eager to maintain those good relations with the dukes of Medina Sidonia which had contributed so much to the emergence of the company itself, and there survive some sketchy indications of financial matters transacted between the company and the duke through John Barker of Ipswich. (fn. 66) If the duke was friendly, however, other Spanish authorities were not. In later years the merchants asserted that they had sent over to Andalusia a copy of the letters patent of 1577, 'fair limmed and set forth in the best sort we could devise' in order to strengthen the position of the merchant community there. They had subsequently learned that 'they of the Inquisition got it and in despiteful manner did burn it'; if the story is true, it seems likely that this was another of those formal English documents to which the Inquisition objected on the grounds that it named Elizabeth as 'defender of the faith'. (fn. 67)
The consulate at San Lucar had had a precarious existence since the demise of the Andalusia Company, but its memory was by no means extinguished, for the last consul to serve had only left Spain in 1570. (fn. 68) Bodenham as the new consul-governor could easily have transformed the post into a valuable agency for the protection of merchants within the peninsula and the transmission of news and advice to London. To assist him in this he had a number of useful contacts in England and Spain as well as his own lengthy personal experience in the Iberian and other trades. (fn. 69) All this went for nothing as a result partly of his own prickly character, partly of the circumstances of his appointment, and above all of his own attitude to his commission. Throughout the years of his consulate, until he returned to England in 1586, he regarded himself as responsible to the privy council, not the company; he disliked the merchants and was in turn disliked by them, for he seems to have performed no useful services for the trading community. He informed on those merchants who shipped prohibited goods such as corn and ordnance, whilst participating in these trades himself; and both he and his family steered an ambiguous course through the muddy waters of Anglo-Spanish intelligence and espionage. (fn. 70)
Although Bodenham was not a good choice, allowance must be made for the additional difficulties that arose in the contacts between the new company in London and the older brotherhood at San Lucar. The years after 1577 saw rising diplomatic tension; as a result English residents in many Spanish ports both north and south experienced harassment and unpopularity. Moreover the brotherhood itself was in an increasingly anomalous position. Openly catholic at its foundation in 1517, it now comprised not one religious group but two or three, for among the English community in Andalusia there were those who had spent most of their lives in Spain, who wished to continue in the old ways; those who had come out more recently from England, who desired to express their reformed convictions; and those, perhaps a majority, who adopted a position of judicious conformity, catholic in Spain and protestant in England. (fn. 71) In this delicate situation the chapel with its usual services posed a real dilemma as the community tried to conciliate its own members and to maintain amicable relations with the local authorities. Not surprisingly, the major feast of the year, the festivities of St. George's day, fell into disuse although the chapel itself seems to have been maintained. (fn. 72) With all these problems to beset him any consul would have found himself in difficulties, and although Bodenham aggravated the situation he cannot be held wholly responsible for it. At no time, however, was his presence in Andalusia of any help to the merchants in London.
By its charter, the company had been granted a monopoly which was legally enforceable, and in the early stages at least of the company's existence the privy council upheld the incorporation which it had granted. In its turn, the council found the company a convenient organisation through which to do business. Pleas for preferential treatment or special concessions made by merchants and shipowners were passed on to the president as were commands to bestow charitable benefactions on mariners' widows or those who had fallen foul of civil or religious authority in Spain. (fn. 73) Similarly, mercantile disputes which came before the council could be delegated to the company for hearing and settlement if one or both of the participants were freemen. (fn. 74) By this means the councillors lessened the burden of the endless private requests made to them and at the same time increased the company's control over business connected with the Iberian trade.
One aspect of that business which needed frequent attention from council and company alike was the general problem of safeguarding English interests in Spain and Portugal. With the situation in the Netherlands growing daily more intractable, a direct conflict between England and Spain appeared more and more likely. A few months after the foundation of the Spanish Company Don John of Austria was urging Philip II to embark on a war of commercial attrition against England and the rebels. (fn. 75) At the same time the king himself was once more trying to revive the Spanish navigation laws, although their operation was suspended for two years to allow time for building the much-needed extra tonnage. Letters from Elizabeth, reminding him of the compromise which had eventually been reached in 1561 whereby the English had been exempted, persuaded Philip to delay until 1580 (fn. 76) but by that year Anglo-Spanish relations had deteriorated further; the loading restrictions, the uneasy state of Ireland and above all the great fleet that was gathering in Spanish harbours all made the council anxious to ensure that English vessels should not be caught in a surprise embargo of the type occasionally used to replenish Spanish naval strength. Early in the year a licensing system was imposed on voyages to unsafe areas; this was then lifted for all regions except the peninsula, and the company was left to handle much of the day-to-day administration of the revised scheme. (fn. 77) Fresh orders were sent out in April, disregarding the merchants' complaints, for the air was thick with unconfirmed rumours about the impending invasion of Portugal. (fn. 78) The stoppages continued until the autumn when it gradually became clear that the need for foodstuffs in Andalusia, together with the absence of Spanish shipping to take off exports, had made the implementation of the threats a practical impossibility. (fn. 79) Nevertheless the council had decided on a mild measure of retaliation and the company received notice that henceforth all Spanish goods should come out of Spain in English bottoms. (fn. 80) In all these manoeuvres the company, willingly or otherwise, found itself increasingly being used as a political tool by the English government. Its vulnerability was to prove two-sided, for in the crisis that arose over Drake the delicate position of the Spanish Company was to be exploited by a master hand.
In November 1577, Drake had slipped away to sea almost unnoticed, and it was not until he began to make his presence felt on the shores of the Pacific late in 1578 that the Spaniards started to watch his movements. (fn. 81) The reports and rumours of his activities were at first confused; it was not clear if the venture was merely an instance of individual freebooting or a portent of something more sinister, perhaps even an organised English attack on Spanish possessions in the New World. By August 1579 Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador in England, was receiving orders to keep alert for Drake's return. In September, news arrived from Seville of his raids on Spanish goods and territory. The Spanish Company, full of anxiety at the situation that was developing, waited on the privy councillors to impress upon them the real probability of retaliation by Philip II through the seizure of English property in Spain at a time of year when many ships were in the ports of Andalusia loading the annual vintage. The merchants were already paying high insurance premiums to guard their property against sequestration. (fn. 82)
The council returned a soothing but ambiguous answer. Many of its members were themselves shareholders in Drake's venture, as was the queen herself, and there was little hope that his deeds would be disavowed on his return. By February 1580, the company had realised that the councillors' vested interests were obstructing a fair hearing of the case. Vigorous protests were lodged but to little effect although the government was now restricting trade for rather different motives. Mendoza, advocating the issue of Spanish letters of mark to Drake's victims in the New World trade, reported with satisfaction that 'the merchants themselves make the greatest outcry over it, saying that because two or three of the principal courtiers send ships out to plunder in this way, their prosperity must be thus imperilled and the country ruined'. (fn. 83) In this situation, anxious to keep open some lines of communication that might enable them to stave off an embargo, the merchants cultivated the ambassador's favour and indicated their willingness to purvey information about the plunder. Mendoza was far too skilled a diplomat to let such a chance slip. Playing on their fears of confiscation he began to use them as a pressure group, and in August, just before Drake's return, he urged the company to press the council on the whole subject of English piracy, which had been an irritant to his master for years. (fn. 84) The arrival of the Golden Hind in Plymouth in September 1580, ballasted with silver taken from the Cacafuego, brought the clash between the merchants and the privy council into the open. Any hopes which the company had entertained of lessening the growing governmental animosity towards Spain were dashed by the news that in the same month 800 papal troops had with Philip II's permission sailed from La Coruna to the aid of the Irish rebels in Munster.
The Spanish merchants were not alone in their hostility to Drake, for there was a solid body of opinion in the City which held that such exploits did little except harm the numerous established trades which depended on the maintenance of good diplomatic relations between England and Spain. Stowe noted that 'many disliked it', while at court those who also opposed the belligerent protestantism of Walsingham and his circle argued earnestly for a restoration of the plunder to its rightful owners. Mendoza encouraged the fears that Spain would go to war over the affair but as long as Drake continued in the queen's favour the ambassador could do little to recover the pillaged goods.
The brunt of the losses had been borne by the members of the powerful consulado of Seville, which organised the New World trades from its headquarters in the great port. The Seville merchants soon concluded that Mendoza was powerless to help them, and in August 1581 they decided to send over their own agent. They chose Pedro de Zubiaur, a native of Biscay who had traded with England for some twenty years and possessed a wide network of contacts. (fn. 85) The members of the consulado wrote to the English merchants requesting their co-operation in Zubiaur's mission with the implicit threat that if no compensation was forthcoming they must of necessity ask Philip to reimburse them out of English goods in Spain. (fn. 86) The ambassador was displeased when he heard the news; far from giving Zubiaur any help he insisted that all negotiations should still be carried on through the embassy. (fn. 87) Instead of being reinforced, Spanish pressure was thus divided.
Meanwhile Mendoza continued to use the Spanish Company to petition the privy council. In June he had agitated the merchants even further by telling them that any English aid to Dom Antonio, the Portuguese pretender who was now trying to raise support in London, would inevitably lead to war with Spain since the king was already incensed over the retention of Drake's plunder. They went first of all to Walsingham, but meeting with little response they hastily contacted their sympathisers on the privy council, thereby managing to delay the outfitting of the pretender's ships. (fn. 88) The ambassador again used these tactics to put pressure on the English government over Drake in November 1581, and in the following January he was able to extend his influence further afield by warning the Bristol merchants of the risk they ran in allowing Dom Antonio to fit out his vessels there. (fn. 89)
By now, however, Mendoza's hold over the company was beginning to weaken. No steps had been taken against English property in Spain although Drake's loot was still in English hands. The Spanish loading prohibitions had proved ineffective against English trade and were widely disregarded by the Spaniards themselves. Above all, in the developing conflict between the ambassador and Pedro de Zubiaur, the Spanish Company was wholeheartedly behind the latter. The two Spanish representatives were deeply at odds over the question of Drake. Zubiaur hoped only for some reasonable composition over the losses of the consulado, whereas Mendoza, anxious to salvage Spanish honour, insisted on the return of the whole of the booty, a political impossibility. Moreover, he hindered Zubiaur in his attempts to reach a settlement, and was suspected of having prevented any grant of assistance to the Seville merchant Pedro de Martinez, which might have staved off his bankruptcy. As several members of the London company had themselves broken when Martinez defaulted on his debts, feeling was running high. All in all, the merchants had become uniformly hostile to the ambassador, 'whose malice and deceiving mind', they informed Burghley, 'they have just occasion to fear'. (fn. 90) In future Mendoza would not be able to use them as a channel of Spanish diplomacy.
In addition to these problems the company also had to cope with the irritating activities of a professional monopolist named William Tipper. In the spring of 1578 Tipper had managed to drum up some influential support in the City for his petition for the grant of a patent for the hosting of strangers. How he had intended to put this into operation was not disclosed, for the impracticability of the project was quickly made apparent by the floods of protests that prevented him from doing anything at all. (fn. 91) The opposition included the Merchant Adventurers and the Archduke Matthias, acting as spokesman for the merchant strangers, but in the end it was the Spanish Company which managed to buy Tipper off, in order to stop him from molesting the small number of Spanish and Portuguese merchants resident in London. (fn. 92) Foolishly the company failed to keep its half of the bargain, thereby laying up trouble for the future, for Tipper's next attempt to enrich himself through a patent was a direct attack on the merchants' trade. He requested the grant of a short-term monopoly on the import of cochineal.
Cochineal had been little used outside Spain until the mid-sixteenth century when its production in the New World greatly increased. Its superiority over the older kermes and lichen dyes was soon appreciated and by 1575 substantial amounts were being imported into England. (fn. 93) The merchants had no wish to lose this expanding trade and the company at once took the matter to the council, as it was of far more consequence than the hosting patent had been. Wilford meanwhile made some devious moves to bring pressure on Tipper through one of his debtors named Munslow; (fn. 94) Tipper for his part drew up a lengthy reply to the objections raised against his proposal by the company. His chief argument was that under his handling the commerce in cochineal would be as well organised as the alum trade had been under the Pallavicini. (fn. 95) These protestations failed to convince the council. The plan to monopolise cochineal was stopped and its importation continued freely until the grant of a patent to Essex on his return from the Islands voyage in 1597. (fn. 96)
The members of the company at this time also came into conflict with the court. As leading importers of the immensely popular sherry-sack, many of them had dealings with the royal household which was a largescale purchaser. The official in charge of such matters was the pro-Spanish Sir James Crofts who had been appointed controller in January 1570. At some point, perhaps shortly before Crofts proposed his reform of the household in December 1586, the leaders of the company entered into negotiations 'touching the service of her majesty's house with sack', during which they protested against the royal debts of at least £400 which were owed to fellowmembers. If the money was repaid promptly, they offered to sell tuns of the best-quality sack to Crofts at £3 sterling below the market price. They also suggested an honorarium of £100 a year to any officer of the household who would agree 'to serve and to content the merchants' so that they might 'be free and not constrained to serve'. (fn. 97) Matters such as provision for the household were probably an irritant to busy City men, but despite their generous offer the matter was not settled, and it arose again in the reign of James I. (fn. 98)
One issue that concerned all the members of the company and not just the importers of sack was that of the facilities and organisation of the port of London. In 1564, in order to prevent fraud, a royal regulation had decreed that all cloth shipped outwards should go by water from Custom House quay to the vessels waiting to load, while all fine or haberdashery wares unloaded inwards should be brought to the same quay by lighter. (fn. 99) Early in 1582 George Needham, the queen's farmer of the quay, had informed the privy council that the regulations were being disregarded. When the councillors re-enforced them several of the London companies, particularly the Merchant Adventurers, the Eastland Company and the Spanish Company, pleaded that the whole system of restricted quays should be abolished, enabling any merchant to load or unload at any quay within the port. (fn. 100) They argued that the present arrangements were not only an impediment to commerce, but that Needham himself was also opposed to any improvement merely from personal malice, for 'he hath said that he will bridle the merchants before he hath done with them'. The Spanish and Eastland Companies further complained that the number of lighters Needham supplied was insufficient for ferrying their goods between the quay and the ships. The vessels, which 'do lie at Deptford or at Limehouse, or often times nearer, or most commonly at Blackwall' were kept waiting while the goods themselves were often spoilt by the weather as they lay piled on the quayside. (fn. 101)
Needham was at great pains to rebut their charges, and eventually Burghley appointed various of the officers of the customs, including Robert Dow and John Robinson, to hear the matter. In July 1582 they reported back, outlining the misunderstandings that had arisen and suggesting a compromise. They proposed that broadcloths and kerseys should be restricted to Custom House quay as before, but that all other wares including cottons, frizes, bays, lead and tin could be shipped from any quay at the merchants' pleasure. With regard to imports 'all manner of wares whatsoever to be brought in might be landed and taken up at all other quays at the appointment of the queen's majesty's farmer of her subsidies and customs inwards'. The arrangement could be tried until Christmas when any inconveniences in its operation should be reviewed and redressed. (fn. 102) As the issue did not revive, the plan presumably worked smoothly.
During the course of all these disputes the company continued to meet privately to deal with its internal business. The members gathered together in Pewterers' Hall in Lime Street, a fifteenth-century building to which was attached the pewterers' bowling-alley and a pleasant garden with a vine. They paid £6 a year for the use of the hall which was also hired out for dinners and weddings. (fn. 103) There is no complete record of the dates of their meetings but from the information which can be gleaned elsewhere it seems that a general court was held at least once a month. The court of assistants probably convened separately between each major gathering.
Of the many trade-regulations which the company must have enacted in its eight years of active life only two survive. One concerns the buying of fruit in Andalusia, the other the restraint on corn-ships' return cargoes, a rule which aroused the irritation of the company's old patron, the earl of Leicester, who feared it would affect the value of his sweet wine farm. (fn. 104) Both, apparently by coincidence, date from August 1580. On 17 August the company ruled that if any member should load fruit at Rota or Jerez, 'it should be lawful for them to do it, so that it were laden by any one of the commissioners elected for the buying of fruit'. (fn. 105) This reference may indicate some scheme whereby a company representative bought fruit in bulk, which he then sold off to other members and at the same time supervised its loading; it is unfortunate that no other information survives concerning it.
In many respects 1580 had been the crucial year in Anglo-Spanish relations and thereafter it could be argued that a war was ultimately inevitable. Cardinal Granvelle, who could recall more imperial days and who was now the chief architect of that return to an aggressive foreign policy which marked the Spanish outlook on Europe after 1580, was urging the strict enforcement of the navigation laws and the seizure of all English ships in Iberian ports. (fn. 106) The following two years however were surprisingly peaceful, and it was not until the crushing defeat of the French Terceira project that the deterioration of the political situation was once more apparent. Dom Antonio's commissions served only as a thin disguise for an increasing number of piratical ventures against peninsular shipping. In addition commercial groups in the City, including some members of the Spanish Company, were by now intent on opening up a direct trade to Brazil. (fn. 107) The early voyages, which were disastrous, did little to achieve this but succeeded in aggravating tension even further. More and more private merchants and shipowners were prepared for their part to take individual action for injuries sustained in the Spanish dominions; as privateering was the easiest method to hand, the high seas became increasingly dangerous. (fn. 108)
Ordinary trade meanwhile continued, but uneasily, and in dwindling volume. Several merchants prudently began to withdraw their factors and goods from the peninsula. Finally in the spring of 1585 events moved towards a climax. By March, news was reaching Stafford, the ambassador in Paris, that English and French ships were being impounded in Spain and Portugal for use in the growing armada. On 29 May, orders came down to the corregidor of Biscay to arrest all the larger ships of any nation which were then to join the fleet in Lisbon or Seville. (fn. 109) A fortnight later English ships on the Guadalquivir were stayed; some of them were attempting to take off such English goods as remained in Andalusia. Factors and sailors caught in the embargo were imprisoned, some of them later being handed over to the Inquisition. (fn. 110)
Arrests such as these were not technically a declaration of war, although they had made peaceful commerce impossible. Elizabeth reacted by ordering the issue of letters of mark and reprisal to all those merchants who could prove their losses, but it was still possible to hope for an early peace as talk of negotiations was common. The company did not immediately dissolve; it began to amass details of its members' sequestered property, and the secretary, Richard May, continued to receive letters from factors caught in Spain, apparently passing them on to the government since many of them contained naval and military information. May also noted the names of those who claimed the freedom after the discontinuation of general courts, which ceased sometime before February 1589. (fn. 111) But as the war wore on, the company inevitably broke up, apparently without any formal attempt to complete its business or settle its affairs. Neither the last treasurer, George Hanger, nor his immediate predecessor Sir John Watts, bothered to present any accounts. Already in May 1586 the privy council was complaining of the company's lethargy, for it had made no response to letters urging financial assistance for the wives of mariners imprisoned in Spain. (fn. 112) By the spring of armada year, it had ceased to function. Wilford took home with him the common seal and the court book, to wait for the return of peace.