The estate of merchants, 1336-1365: (G. Unwin), I - 1336-40

Pages 179-205

Finance and Trade Under Edward III the London Lay Subsidy of 1332. Originally published by Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1918.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.




A COUPLE of pages in Stubbs' Constitutional History, and half-a-dozen references and footnotes in the same authority, contain all that was until quite lately known about the estate of merchants

A chapter in Professor Tout's recent book on "The Place of the Reign of Edward II in English History," (fn. 1) has cast a flood of new light on the subject, and has shown conclusively that the assemblies of merchants which were a marked feature of the policy of Edward III from 1336 to 1354, had their main antecedents, not in the reign of his grandfather, but in that of his father The history of the estate of merchants under Edward III is briefly summarised by Stubbs (fn. 2) as follows —

"Although in that king's reign the wool was made a sort of circulating medium in which supplies were granted, and the merchants were constantly summoned in large numbers to attend in council and parliament, they wisely chose to throw in their lot with the commons, and sought in union with them an escape from the oppression to which their stock and staple made them especially liable"

There is no reason to question the substantial accuracy of this account, but there are several questions of considerable importance for constitutional and economic history which it leaves unanswered From what class or classes of traders were the assemblies of merchants drawn? Was their character in this respect uniform throughout the critical period of Edward III's reign, and if it varied, how far were the variations connected with observable changes of policy ? If we can obtain answers to these questions we may proceed to inquire what were the likeliest motives of class interest that operated positively or negatively, continuously or alternately, in unison, in concordance, or in conflict through the assemblies of merchants? And, finally, we may ask, though here, perhaps, we ought not to look for more than tentative answers, what were the relations between this organisation, under state auspices, of sectional or class interests and the growing articulation of a more national interest in parliament?

Fortunately, we possess full lists of the merchants who were summoned to most of the assemblies from 1336 to 1356. There are more than a score of these lists, the longest containing nearly two hundred names, the shortest less than a dozen (fn. 3) Some names are those of "merchant princes" like William de la Pole of Hull, the leading English financier, John Pulteney, who died of the plague in 1348, leaving a ruby ring to the Bishop of London, and a diamond ring to the Earl of Huntingdon, that they might see to the fulfilment of his religious bequests (fn. 4), and Henry Picard, (fn. 5) whose wealth was great enough to give substance to the legend that he entertamed four kings at one feast, "and after kept his hall for all comers, that were willing to play at dice and hazard" Many other names, though less illustrious, are those of men whose business affairs are known to us through numerous entries in the national records, whilst the very obscurity of the remainder —for the most part small traders in country towns—lends significance to their inclusion in the longer lists Only one list—that of the assembly that preceded the establishment of Home Staples in 1353—includes aliens Lombards, Germans and Genoese

As each of the special studies contained in this volume casts some new light on our present subject, it ought not to be impossible, by a comparative study of the lists and by bringing them into connection with what we already know of the constitutional, social and economic history of the period, to come to a better understanding of what is involved in the phrase "estate of merchants"

At the outset of such a study it will be helpful to indicate the central importance of the lists of merchants who constituted the assembly of February 1338, the membership of which is identical with that of the Staple Company of 1337 The previous assemblies of 1336 and 1337 can be best explained when they are regarded as stages in the formation of the Company which, in August 1337, undertook to operate a monopoly in the exportation of wool and to advance an immense sum to the King on the proceeds, and though the history of this arrangement was brief and disastrous, its after effects were of an enduring character and furnish the central clue to the subsequent arrangements down to 1348

Let us therefore endeavour to place the assemblies of 1336 and 1337 with their culmination in the Staple Company of July 1337 and the assembly of February 1338 in an intelligible relation to the social and constitutional history of these two years First of all, it may be noted that in these two years the "budget" of Edward III reaches high-water mark almost at a bound In the year 1330–1 the total revenue, according to Sir Jas Ramsay, was £37,597, in 1331–2 £72,620, in 1335–6 £179,641, in 1337–8 £272,833 (fn. 6) The ordinary revenue of the Crown for this period, apart from Parliamentary grants, is estimated by Sir James Ramsay at £30,000, and the normal Parliamentary grant of direct taxation brought in £38,000 (fn. 7) Whilst, therefore, the total of 1330–1 represents little more than the ordinary revenue, and that of 1331–2 the ordinary revenue supplemented by a normal Parliamentary grant, the total of 1335–6 is equivalent to a four-fold grant, and that of 1337–8 to a six-fold grant of direct taxes in addition to ordinary revenue

Now, it is scarcely necessary to say that neither Edward III nor any other English king in the Middle Ages ever induced a Parliament to make a six-fold or even a fourfold grant of direct taxation to cover the expenses of a single year When a three-fold grant was made in later years it was intended to meet three years' expenditure, and the collection was spread over three years The grants obtained by Edward in 1336–7 were on the same basis He got three grants in two years, but it was intended that the collection, if not the expenditure, should cover a third year Yet, even so, the result secured was unprecedented, and extraordinary efforts had to be made to obtain it To meet the expense of his actual war with Scotland, and of preparation for a threatened war with France, Edward had persuaded Parliament to follow up the grant made in the spring of 1336 with another in the autumn But that this was meant to be an anticipation of next year's taxation is shown by the fact that no further grant was made in the spring session of 1337 When the King began to contemplate an appeal in the autumn of 1337 for a third grant, in anticipation of 1338, it is clear that he expected stout opposition to his demands Professor Willard has described the extraordinary measures employed by the King to forestall this opposition—the summoning of assemblies in each county, the appointment of commissioners to lay the King's case before them, and the final renunciation of the grant already obtained, when the pressure thus exercised on Parliament had induced it to vote supplies in a more constitutional way (fn. 8)

In view of these facts it seems unlikely that the same Parliament that was reluctantly making unprecedented grants of direct taxation can have consented freely to the imposition of new forms of indirect taxation that were equivalent in one year to at least a three-fold direct subsidy

A successful resistance to precisely similar methods of taxation in 1297 had been the most memorable achievement of the English Parliament and a renewal of these devices on a smaller scale had been defeated as recently as 1334 The statement, therefore, of the chronicler that the Parliament which, in the autumn of 1336, made a second grant of direct taxation, also authorised a subsidy of 40/- on wool, would require strong support to make it credible, especially as Parliament itself always subsequently denounced the wool tax as an illegal imposition And the evidence of the records as reviewed by Mr Barnes shows clearly that the tax was sanctioned, not by Parliament, but by an assembly of merchants in conjunction with the council, that it took the form at first of a tax of 20/-, with a loan of 20/- in addition, that the 40/- tax was not imposed till 1338, and that it was not sanctioned by Parliament till 1340 (fn. 9)

During the year 1336–7, the King, whilst, on the one hand, straining the machinery of the Constitution to secure the maximum of direct taxation, was, on the other hand, making continual use of the assemblies of merchants to obtain a maximum of indirect and unconstitutional taxation It now remains for us to study more closely the working of the assemblies of merchants in this connection

There were three distinct councils of merchants summoned in the course of 1336 On May 8th, about the time of the King's departure for his campaign in Scotland, the municipal authorities of London, and of twenty-one other cities and boroughs were required to send four each of their more sufficient and discreet merchants to meet the King or his council at Oxford on May 27th (fn. 10) We have no record of the doings of this assembly It is quite likely that the boroughs did not send representatives in sufficient numbers to transact the business proposed But the character of the agenda is revealed by a mandate addressed to the Sheriff of York from Woodstock, on the day after that fixed for the assembly Certain merchants of the realm and their accomplices, with a view to diminishing the price of wool, had been spreading the news that the King intended to levy an extra export tax of twenty shillings per sack The Sheriff was directed to issue a proclamation forbidding such statements, to imprison those who persisted in making them, and to send in their names to the Council (fn. 11)

As the consent of the merchants to this extra tax on wool was the main result of a later assembly, it is fairly certain that it must have been already in contemplation, and it is also extremely probable, either that the intended council at Oxford never met, or that the negotiations with the merchants proved a failure One or other of these conclusions seems justified by the fact that on June 1st a new writ was issued from Woodstock summoning another council of merchants to meet at Northampton at midsummer (fn. 12) This time there was no scope left to the inertia or resistance of the municipalities The King issued separate writs to a hundred and five individuals Thirty-three of these were citizens of London of the aldermanic class, and the rest were merchants from the chief centres of the wool trade Of the whole number thus summoned only seventeen were amongst those who ultimately took part in the great bargain of the following year But most of the seventeen were leading merchants who played a dominant part in the subsequent arrangement London, Yorkshire and Southampton each sent three of the principal later contractors, whilst Lincoln, Northampton, Nottingham, Ipswich, Gloucester and Salop were each represented by one The county groups led by these men undertook, in 1337, two-thirds of the great contract for 30,000 sacks At the Northampton assembly, therefore, of 1336 it is possible that preliminary arrangements were made of an informal or secret character by which the Government was to levy a super-tax on wool and the merchants were to enjoy a monopoly of the exportation The presence at the assembly of the whole body of London aldermen suggests the further possibility that negotiations were then opened for the restoration of those trading privileges of the capital which had been lost by the "free trade" legislation of 1335 and which were restored in the spring of 1337

Our inferences about this June assembly, like those about the earlier gathering in May, must remain largely conjectural What is certain is that the main object for which they were summoned was first realised in a third (fn. 13) assembly convened a week before Michaelmas at Nottingham, whither a Parliament, or, as the official documents always style it, a Great Council, had been simultaneously summoned to discuss foreign affairs with the King on his return from Scotland and to meet his urgent demand for more supplies The unprecedented grant made by this Great Council of a second levy of direct taxation within a single year was far from adequate to the King's needs The grant would at best bring in less than £40,000; and the King had, early in July, authorised his financial agents to raise loans to the extent of £200,000 (fn. 14) For such loans security would be required, and the only available resource was heavy taxation on wool, or a monopoly in the exportation, or both combined The King obtained a grant of a twenty shilling subsidy and a twenty shilling loan on each sack, in addition to the ordinary customs, but the official documents make it perfectly clear that this grant, though made at the Great Council at Nottingham, was made by an assembly of merchants It is interesting to compare the membership of this assembly with that of the earlier gatherings It was a much smaller body than either of the others, numbering only forty-one Fifteen of these were to be among the contractors of the following year, and ten of the fifteen appear for the first time at this assembly It would certainly seem as if the consent of this body of merchants to the new taxation was closely connected with negotiations for securing a monopoly of exportation And it was doubtless to reassure the minds of wool growers in this respect that a list of minimum prices for the wool of the various counties was promulgated at this meeting—"the Nottingham prices" frequently referred to in later Parliamentary debates

But whatever the King's plans for raising money out of the wool trade may have been, they were not destined to be speedily realised Eighteen most eventful months were to elapse before any considerable amount of English wool was to appear in the markets of the Netherlands, and in the meantime the constitutional and fiscal situation above described was to be complicated by continually changing military and diplomatic factors The wool supply was not only the main support of Edward's war finance, it was also the main resource of his diplomacy In the alliance which he desired with Brabant and Flanders the establishment of wool staples at Antwerp and Bruges was the strongest inducement he could offer But, just as in order to gain his financial purpose he must restrain the exportation of wool till he had acquired fixed control of it, so to achieve his diplomatic object he must withhold the staple till he had bargained for an equivalent.

In the meantime it was the natural aim of the French King to hinder the realisation of Edward's policy in either of its branches For some weeks before the Nottingham assembly met, the depredations of Norman and Scottish privateers had rendered the narrow seas unsafe to peaceful shipping, and it had scarcely concluded its sittings before the Count of Flanders, at the instigation of Philip, caused the arrest of all the English merchants in Bruges, and thus cut the connection between the English wool supply and its principal market Soon afterwards the Francophil nobles of Flanders, by occupying the island of Cadsand, stopped the approaches of English shipping, not only to Bruges, but also to Antwerp For more than a year, English trade with Flanders was absolutely at a standstill, and direct intercourse with Brabant was likewise suspended It was to Dordrecht that the English ambassadors repaired in April 1337 under the protection of a powerful fleet to discuss the question of the staple, and at the end of the year Dordrecht was still the only safe destination for the King's wool when at last it began to be shipped (fn. 15)

There can be no doubt that both England and Flanders suffered greatly from this complete stoppage of one of the main channels of the economic life of each country Froissart and later historians have naturally laid most stress on the sufferings of Flanders, and perhaps these were the greater, but even Froissart sufficiently indicates the other side of the matter when he makes the Count of Flanders assure his subjects that the English people are in open conflict with their King and cannot hold out long without a market for their wool (fn. 16) It is noteworthy that the receipts of customs for 1336 reach a much lower level than those for any year since 1321, in spite of the large additional grant made at Nottingham They were only one-half the amount hitherto raised in a normal year of peace, and only one-tenth of the amount produced two years later, when the war tax on wool was in actual operation (fn. 17)

The entire arrest of foreign trade, the doubling of direct taxation, and the continual summoning of unconstitutional assemblies, made the year that followed the autumn of 1336 one of great unrest The Mayor of London and special commissioners were busy arresting suspected persons (fn. 18) There was all the economic pressure and social ferment of war time without any of the counterbalancing absorption in military achievement It is unfortunate that the legislation of this disturbed and abnormal period should have been so widely accepted as representing permanent aims of royal or parliamentary policy At a time like the present, when titled ladies are forming national societies to repress the extravagance of servants, we can readily understand the Great Council of Nottingham, which had just sanctioned the equivalent of a double income tax proceeding to enact "that no man shall cause himself to be served with more than two courses, and each mess of two sorts of victuals at the most, on the grounds that the King's subjects are not able to aid themselves or their liege lord in time of need, and that many other evils have happened to their bodies and souls" (fn. 19) We have no need to attribute this ordinance to the adoption by Edward III of the conclusions of McCulloch or Nassau Senior

Still less are we justified in assuming that the Act of 1337 prohibiting the exportation of wool and the importation of foreign cloth indicates a far-sighted policy of fostering native industry At that moment a whole year's wool supply was rapidly accumulating in the ports The King's war plan entirely depended upon this wool paying a high export duty, and securing a monopoly price in a foreign market But negotiations were still proceeding with Brabant and Flanders for such a disposal of the wool as would secure a maximum of diplomatic and fiscal result It was necessary to persuade the nation to acquiesce in a continued stoppage of the wool trade The Act of 1337 was intended to combine both these objects It set the embargo laid upon exportation in a two-fold patriotic light It proposed to penalise the chief branch of the enemy's foreign trade, and at the same time to foster native industries Foreign cloth makers were invited to settle in England, and no foreign cloth was to be imported after the following Michaelmas (fn. 20) This time limit was a diplomatic weapon placed in the hands of the plenipotentiaries who were then on the point of embarking for the Netherlands (fn. 21) It was doubtless hoped that before Michaelmas a treaty would have been made by which the Act would be largely superseded, and, as far as Brabant was concerned, these hopes were realised The Brabancons were licensed to buy wool in England on May 24th, 1337, and had acquired 2,200 sacks before Michaelmas A preliminary treaty was drawn on July 13th, and later on the importation of cloth from Brabant was freely resumed (fn. 22)

As the settlement of the foreign staple seemed approaching, it became necessary to bring to a head the negotiations with the English merchants for securing a monopoly profit on the exportation This was done by means of three special assemblies, which met in rapid succession during June and July A brief consideration of the lists of these assemblies, and of their obvious relation to one another will enable us to follow the course of the negotiations The first, the smallest, and probably the most important of these assemblies, met at Stamford on June 16th, and consisted of only twenty-four persons With one exception, all those who were summoned took a leading part in the subsequent contract Amongst them were four of the six Yorkshire contractors, headed by William de la Pole, all the four Lincolnshire men, and the chief men of the Northampton, Leicester, Warwick, Huntingdon, Nottingham, and Derby groups of contractors As these counties furnished the greater part of the English wool supply, and as the writs summoning the assembly had been issued from Stamford, where the meeting was to be held, it seems not unlikely that the general scope of the plan had been agreed upon among the principal contractors, and that the assembly met to confirm its adoption and to make arrangements for forming similar groups in the less important southern and western counties (fn. 23) After a week's consultation writs were issued at Stamford for another assembly to meet at Westminster on July 9th The thirty-five merchants individually summoned were less unanimously prepared to take part in the contract Twenty-five of them, however, ultimately did so, and these comprised the whole of the London group, and of the Wiltshire group three of the six Southampton contractors, two leading representatives of the Salop group, two of the Hertford and Essex group, two from Chester and Flint, and one each from Hereford, Worcester, and Gloucester Writs had been simultaneously issued from Stamford to the Sheriffs of Essex, Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Cornwall and Devon for the election of two merchants apiece to the Westminster assembly, but if any merchants came in response to these writs they took no effective part in the scheme prepared (fn. 24)

If we include the twenty members of the Stamford assembly, fifty-five merchants had now been individually summoned, and forty-four were prepared to take part in the contract This was less than half of the total number of contractors, who were ultimately to number ninety-seven, but it included all the leading capitalists The Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and London groups, which were to undertake between them half the amount of the contract, were already formed Of the seventeen other groups ultimately formed, each containing three to eight members and representing a county or a group of counties, the three groups representing the Northern Counties were not called to any of this year's assemblies, but dealt with separately In regard to all the remaining fourteen groups save one, a nucleus had been formed of two or three members who were doubtless prepared to negotiate on behalf of the others in their several districts

The details of the arrangements must have been settled during the fortnight that followed July 9th by an assembly of some fifty merchants, most of whom were personally concerned in the bargain But on July 13th a large additional body of a hundred and ten merchants was summoned to assemble at Westminster on July 25th Eighty-two of these received separate writs, and twenty-eight were to be sent by the seven towns of Bristol, Gloucester, Leicester, Northampton, Coventry, Chichester and Wenlock (fn. 25) As the contract was completed and agreed on July 26th, these newcomers cannot have played any decisive part in determining its character Two reasons may be assigned for summoning them, one fairly certain, and the other at least probable They were certainly needed to complete the groups of contractors, fifteen of these eighty-two summoned by name are found later amongst the various groups They were probably also summoned to swell the numbers on the day of the final decision and to give an appearance of consent to a wholly unconstitutional proceeding

The character of the arrangement made by the body of contracting merchants through their two elected representatives, William de la Pole of Hull, and Reginald de Conduit of London, with the King has been often misunderstood, and a clear understanding of it is an absolutely essential preliminary to any fruitful study of the constitutional and economic developments of the next ten years The merchants were to buy 30,000 sacks of wool for the King's use, i e they were armed with the prerogative of preemption The prices of the best wool in each county were fixed, but inferior wool was to be bargained for freely Those who sold the wool were to give six months' credit for half the amount, and twelve months' credit for the other half, but this credit was to be conceded, not to the King, as has sometimes been supposed, but to the merchants, who were to give promissory notes to the sellers The average price to be given was about £5 a sack, and the cost of the 30,000 sacks in England was to be a little over £150,000 By the exercise of a stringent monopoly of exportation, it was hoped that a high profit would be realised, and of this the King was to take half Custom and subsidy on the wool would amount—if the subsidy were twenty shillings a sack—to another £40,000 On the security of these prospective gains, the merchants were to make advances to the King by instalments, as fast as they disposed of the wool, to the total amount of £200,000, and they were to secure the remainder of the custom until this was repaid The wool growers were to lend their wool to the merchants the merchants were to lend the proceeds to the King (fn. 26)

The question which at once suggests itself is—what was the expected amount of profit—and on this point we have no certain information The statement of Knighton that £20 per sack could be obtained in Brabant when the price was £6 a sack in England, thus yielding a profit of over 200 per cent, seems at first sight the natural exaggeration of a chronicler, (fn. 27) but two considerations make it possible that this estimate may not be very greatly in excess of the one actually entertained The first of these is to be found in the prices which in 1341 the groups of merchants undertook to pay in Flanders to the King, and which, therefore, contain only the King's share of the prospective profit These prices were from 75 per cent to 100 per cent higher than the "Nottingham Prices," at which the wool was to be bought The second reason for assuming a high prospective rate of profit is that without it the merchants could not have undertaken to advance so large a sum as £200,000

To another question of more vital importance we may hope to give an approximate answer In what relation did this syndicate of merchants stand to the whole body of traders interested in the wool trade throughout the kingdom? The documents arising out of the breakdown of the arrangements shed some light on this matter In May 1338, after 11,497 sacks had been exported, the King seized all the wool at Dordrecht and gave the owners acknowledgments of the amount due to each, which they were to recover by remissions of subsidy on future exportations (fn. 28) In this list of the King's creditors we can distinguish at least three classes, two of which were within the syndicate and one outside About half the members of the syndicate do not appear to have taken any appreciable share in the enterprise Of the other half, a dozen were large capitalists whose shares in the transactions were upwards of a £1,000, the highest amount being £4,430, whilst another forty had exported wool for amounts between three hundred pounds and a thousand But a third body of merchants, numbering about two hundred, to whom the King acknowledged indebtedness from sums varying from ten pounds to more than three hundred pounds, were not members of the syndicate Some of these had sold their wool to the wealthier members of the company We find the four chief Lincolnshire contractors, who had between them exported wool to the value of £12,056, handing over the greater part of the King's acknowledgment of debt to sixty-three lesser merchants, who would appear, by virtue of some arrangement with the syndicate, to have exported wool on their own account Forty such merchants in London exported on the average thirty sacks each, twenty-five merchants in the Lincolnshire towns about twenty sacks each, twenty-three in Beverley about twenty sacks each, twenty in Newcastle about a dozen sacks each, and there were lesser bodies of small exporters in the principal towns of Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Salop, Norfolk, and Durham

The general result of these somewhat rough calculations shows a striking resemblance to the more accurate statistics that have been compiled from the records of the wool export of the year 1273 In that year, of 32,743 sacks exported, 11,415 were exported by 284 English merchants, with an average of forty sacks apiece (fn. 29) the largest amount exported by one merchant being one hundred and sixty sacks

Two important changes are, however, revealed by the statistics of 1337 One of these lies in the larger amounts exported by the chief English capitalists, and the other in the rise from comparative insignificance to a position of predominant importance of the wool trade and the wool merchants of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire

But the two hundred and fifty exporters—fifty of them in the syndicate and two hundred outside it—thus accounted for, by no means represent the whole body of wool dealers in the England of Edward III The forty sacks, each weighing 364 lbs, taken out by the average exporter, must have been collected as a rule from ten or a dozen villages, and bargained for by a score of small traders in the nearest market town We shall not, I think, be overstepping the mark in assuming behind each of our two hundred and fifty exporters, the activity of at least ten of these lesser agents—the gild merchants of a hundred boroughs and market towns

It is not difficult to realise the strong objections of the wool growers and of the local wool merchants to the King's scheme of monopoly At that moment they were being urged in county assemblies, and were soon to consent in Parliament, to make a third grant of direct taxation within two years The chief source from which they were to pay these unprecedented taxes was their wool A year's growth was awaiting a market, and the demand was forcing up prices They were asked to dispose of all their supply at a fixed low price on credit to a small body of merchants, who were to share the high profits with the King, and to postpone full payment for a twelvemonth No wonder they withheld their wool wherever possible, and sought for any other available market Nor were offers wanting It is probable that two-thirds of the wool supply was exported still by aliens, as it had been in 1273, when the Italian merchants exported 8,000 sacks, the merchants of Brabant 3,678 sacks, and the German merchants 1,440 sacks In 1337 also, the Germans, the Brabançons, and the Italians were buying wool throughout England in competition with the syndicate and under the special protection of the King The men of Brabant were the King's allies, and the Italian bankers were just then making heavy loans, and we find him intervening on several occasions to rescue the wool of both from the hands of his own purveyors The purveyors themselves would realise far higher gains on smuggled wool than on that which had to pay half profits to the King, and at least one sack in every six sent by them at this period was smuggled For these reasons it was found quite impossible to collect, in accordance with the contract, 30,000 for the King's use Indeed, the 10,000 sacks actually received was a larger amount than was ever afterwards obtained at one time by way of purveyance By the first of November it was ready for exportation Throughout the summer a fleet had been gradually requisitioned to transport it, and under cover of a successful attack made simultaneously by Sir Walter Manny on the Island of Cadsand, the wool arrived safely at Dordrecht, where it remained unsold till the following May There is no reason to think that the merchants were to blame for this delay, or that they would have withheld the wool from the market if the King had decreed it to be sold Political and diplomatic motives were alone adequate to account for the prolonged restraint of trade Economic pressure was at length producing its effects on the Flemish cities, and the rising at Ghent under Van Artevelde in Christmas 1337 against the French policy of the Count, followed by negotiations for a supply of wool from Dordrecht, the rising of Bruges, and the alliance between the Flemish cities in April, leading up to a series of commercial treaties with Edward in July (fn. 30) —this rapid succession of events, with the disturbed economic and diplomatic conditions that accompanied it, sufficiently explains the suspension of the staple question The King's seizure of the whole of the syndicate's wool at Dordrecht in May, when the settlement was in sight, gave him complete control of his chief diplomatic resource and enabled him to secure the whole profit immediately, instead of the half profit to which he would have been entitled in due course It is true that he was thus blindly sacrificing his future credit to gain a momentary advantage, but the records of his reign furnish no evidence of the honesty or foresight that would have prevented such action

But was not Edward renouncing also the immediate aid of the syndicate in collecting the rest of the 30,000 sacks? The answer is that he had already abandoned the syndicate as a broken reed, and was seeking to procure the wool in other ways The new and important phase in the history of the Estate of Merchants which had opened with the completion of the contract of July 26th, 1337, had come to an end in March 1338 Whether during that interval the merchants had ever realised their corporate autonomy by assembling, as they were authorised to do, to discuss their own and the King's affairs, at Northampton, we do not know They had, however, been summoned by the King on two occasions— November 30th, 1337, and March 16th, 1338,—to meet at Westminster, and the little we know of the intermediate Parliament of February 3rd, 1338, depends for its interpretation on its connection with these two assemblies of merchants The summons to the first, which had been issued on October 20th, before the sailing of the 10,000 sacks, was repeated on November 20th, and accompanied by an urgent demand that the rest of the 30,000 sacks should be forthwith collected (fn. 31) But the merchants had already advanced in customs, subsidy, and loan upwards of £25,000 to the King, and had pledged their credit for another £65,000 to the growers, who were destined in most cases to receive only a small percentage of the debt, and the assembly that met on November 30th must have given little hope that more wool could be raised without Parliamentary consent Of the Parliament that was subsequently summoned on December 30th, 1337, and met on February 3rd, 1338, we know little more than that it consented in some form or other to the King's purveyance of half the wool in the kingdom, on the distinct condition, however, that his subjects should be free to dispose of the other half to their own best advantage

There is no record in the Parliament Rolls of this grant Its terms are only incidentally noted in a Royal writ, (fn. 32) and the sole evidence of its constitutional character lies in the fact that it was not formally repudiated by later Parliaments But under whatever forms it was made, it clearly represents a bargain The King renounced his claim to one-half the wool and acquired some show of Parliamentary authority for the preemption of the other half, which had the further advantage of applying to the wool of a new year

It might be supposed that the most natural instrument for the exercise of this monopoly would be the syndicate of English merchants already organised (especially as, according to their contract of the previous year, they had still to export an amount of wool nearly equivalent to the new Parliamentary grant), and it is possible that the summons to all its members on February 24th to assemble in Council on March 16th (fn. 33) may have been issued with a view to re-arranging the terms of the existing bargain, or of negotiating a new one It is, however, certain that no such negotiations actually took place Five days before the assembly of merchants met, a fresh contract had been made on the basis of the new grant with the two great firms of Italian bankers—the Bardi and the Peruzzi— who were the King's leading creditors This arrangement was soon to prove futile, but in the meantime it nullified the bargain made with the English syndicate as regards that portion of the 30,000 sacks which had not yet been exported We can only surmise the topics discussed in the assembly of March 16th to have been the disposal of the wool that had already crossed the sea, and that was awaiting a market at Dordrecht, and the assistance that might be rendered by the English merchants in collecting the rest of the King's wool for the Italians (fn. 34)

The King probably came to the conclusion that any further immediate aid he could expect from the syndicate in England was small compared with the immediate gain he would derive from the seizure of their wool at Dordrecht Accordingly he directed the two leaders of the company on May 8th to take possession of it, and to hand it over to the King's agents The merchants were repaid in money, what appears to have been the amount they had advanced as customs, subsidy, and loan—a sum of £25,000, and for the wool itself they received paper acknowledgments of debt to the amount of £65,000, (fn. 35) two-thirds of which was still undischarged five years later, and much of it still unpaid in 1348 The seizure made a painful and lasting impression on public opinion, and seriously impaired two of the chief sources of credit It affected three distinct interests, each in a different way The growers or lesser dealers to whom the merchants were indebted for the wool were not allowed to sue their debtors till the King had discharged his obligations The merchants, whether within or without the syndicate, tended to fall into two groups, according as they were or were not in a position to make use of the King's paper The only serious asset of the royal debtor lay in the wool subsidy, and the obligations mainly took the form of exemption from subsidy But as the exportation of wool continued except for long intervals till 1353 to be in the hands of different bodies of monopolists, only those capitalists who kept in touch with the King's fiscal operations could continue from time to time to realise something upon the obligation The great majority of the merchants who had exported wool in 1337, whether inside or outside the syndicate, found themselves, after many years of fruitless waiting, driven to get rid of the King's paper at a ruinous discount In the meantime, as their one hope of repayment lay in gaining exemption from a heavy export tax paid by others, they were led to support the continuance of the tax, both in Parliament and in their special assemblies Since, however, the subsidy on wool was almost the sole basis on which the King could raise fresh loans, he had no desire to lose any more than he could help in paying old debts, and was continually adopting new devices for eluding the exemptions he had granted Special arrangements were made with alien and native capitalists for this purpose, and one such scheme frequently displaced or overlaid another There was thus a broad division between the larger capitalists, native or alien, who were serving the King's more immediate necessities and the general body of merchants who were pressing for a liquidation of former debts From time to time, however, as a concession to the discontent of the merchants, or as an appeal for a larger measure of their support, proposals were put forward by the larger capitalists with the approval of the King, which claimed the merit of reconciling the opposing interests It is the gradual divergence of these interests, their conflicts and the recurrent attempts at reconciliation that lend significance to the history of the Estate of Merchants after the spring assembly of 1338

Before that assembly met its membership had ceased to be identical with that of the syndicate controlling the export of wool, and the monopoly which it had exercised had passed into the hands of the Bardi and the Peruzzi (fn. 36) Although the King had promised that his subjects should be free to sell half their wool, he had afterwards issued a proclamation that no one was to buy or export any till the twenty thousand sacks granted to him had been taken out of the country by the Italians (fn. 37) Now the wool was never intended as a free gift Only the profit and the customs were to go to the King The growers were to be paid by the King's collectors, and after the previous year's experience they were not content to be paid with empty promises The only source from which they could receive payment was the proceeds of the three-fold grant of direct taxation confirmed by the autumn Parliament in 1337, the second and third levy of which still remained to be collected in 1338 and 1339

But during the spring and summer of 1338 the King was pressing forward the collection of these taxes, and offering easy terms to those boroughs and townships that would compound for the second and third years in advance (fn. 38) The whole of the three-fold levy would not more than pay for twenty thousand sacks of wool, and the greater part of it was being rapidly collected and spent in other ways The growers, therefore, refused to deliver their wool without solid guarantees of payment By the middle of July, when the King crossed to the Continent, only 2,500 sacks had reached Antwerp, and the monopoly of exportation conferred upon the Italians was to expire on August 1st (fn. 39) On that day the licences granted to the merchants whose wool had been seized at Dordrecht would come into operation From August 1st to Michaelmas they would be free to export wool on payment of half the subsidy of forty shillings After Michaelmas they were to be entirely free from subsidy till the whole debt was recovered Unless, therefore, some steps were taken to prolong the restriction of export, the greater part of the year's wool would pass out under licenses, and the King would gain little immediate advantage from the staple which he was just about to establish by treaty at Antwerp

These circumstances sufficiently explain the proceedings of the Great Council, and of the Assembly of Merchants which met at Northampton between July 27th and August 14th, 1338 The two bodies did not meet simultaneously, and the order of events deserves to be carefully noted A select number of councillors were summoned for July 23rd The main body of the Great Council or Parliament did not meet till July 27th William de la Pole was required to be present on July 31st (fn. 40) On August 2nd writs were issued for payment of some of the members which seems to imply that the session was already over (fn. 41) The assembly of merchants did not meet till August 3rd

The business to be done was of a two-fold character—to provide such security for the payment of the growers as would facilitate the collection of the King's wool, and to authorise the continuance of restrictions on exportation in connection with the new staple at Antwerp The Great Council, as representing the growers, was alone competent to deal with the first of these matters, and it ordained that all wool delivered to the King's collectors should be counterbalanced by a remission of direct taxes or paid for out of the proceeds of direct taxation (fn. 42) As to the business in regard to which the King consulted the assembly of merchants we may doubtless infer its nature from the terms of the proclamation issued after its close on August 14th Henceforward all wool hides and fells exported were to be taken to the staple which the King had ordained at Antwerp, but for the present all private exportation was to be suspended till the rest of the 20,000 sacks had been collected and despatched for the King's use We are not told whether the assembly of merchants consented to these measures, but it is fairly certain that its consent was sought, and, since the main point lay in the indefinite suspension of the licences recently granted to the members of the syndicate, it would have been of no purpose to consult the assembly of 1337 with whose gradual development we have hitherto been mainly concerned The assembly of August 1338 was accordingly a new body summoned through the sheriffs, who were each to send four merchants to consult with the Keeper of the Realm, the Chancellor and others of the Council at Northampton The intentions must have been to seek another body of mercantile interests, apart from the late syndicate and its agents, that would be willing to assist in the operation of a prolonged monopoly

The attempt cannot have been very successful, since towards the end of the year we find the King recurring to the method of the individual summons in a more violent form with a view to securing financial support from the merchants During November, writs were issued to eighty-four individuals who had refused to obey a previous summons, and the sheriffs in their several counties were simultaneously ordered to arrest them in case of further refusal The first meeting had been fixed for November 11th, but it was subsequently postponed till November 19th, November 26th, and, finally, till December 22nd Only a small proportion of those summoned had been actual members of the 1337 syndicate, but others had shared in the exportation of that year, and most of their names were those of wealthy wool merchants (fn. 44) The purpose of the summons may be inferred from the extensive loans which the King was receiving from the English merchants in November and December 1338, (fn. 45) frequently in the form of payment in advance at a reduced rate of subsidy on the exportation of wool licensed by the King

By far the greatest of these loans were those made by William de la Pole, (fn. 46) who from this time to the crisis of 1340 became the leading creditor of the King, advancing him even greater sums than the Italian bankers He was also one of the King's chief officials He had been made mayor of the new staple in August 1338, and remained at Antwerp for more than a year assisting the King in his negotiations In October 1339 he was appointed second Baron of the Exchequer Twelve royal manors in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire were made over to him entirely, and eight others placed in his keeping for ten years The King also undertook to find wealthy husbands for all his daughters, and was profuse in other promises for the future By midsummer 1339 he had advanced money to the amount of £76,180, and the campaign of that year was entirely dependent on de la Pole's financial aid But as the head of the syndicate of 1337, de la Pole was responsible to the merchants as well as to the King, and both merchants and wool growers in Parliament held him accountable for the seizure of the wool at Dordrecht He was therefore driven, by considerations of his own safety and interest, to provide some satisfaction for the claims of the lesser creditors of the King In January 1339, when he was authorised to receive all the customs and subsidy in the leading ports in repayment of his loans, it was with the explicit reservation that the Dordrecht creditors should enjoy the partial exemption from subsidy which had been promised and again withdrawn (fn. 47) The export licenses were accordingly now issued At first exemption was granted for the whole of the subsidy, (fn. 48) but from the end of February only half the subsidy (fn. 49) (20/-) was allowed As the amount to be recovered from the King was upwards of £60,000, this method of repayment would have occupied more than two years, even if the Dordrecht creditors could have secured the whole of the wool supply In point of fact they received exemption during the next four years on only about 20,000 sacks, i e on an average of about 5,000 sacks a year

Since the ordinance of the Great Council in August 1338 the collection of the King's 20,000 sacks had proceeded more smoothly In March 1339 a shipment of over 13,000 sacks was made, (fn. 50) and the collection continued throughout the summer Some of the wool was taken in substitution for direct taxes, but for the greater part the growers received promissory notes that were little likely to be honoured The most fortunate of the growers were those who managed to dispose of their wool to the German merchants, who exported some 4,000 sacks during the year, and to other aliens The whole amount exported must have been greater than for many years past The customs, which had produced £32,249 in 1338, amounted to £69,868 in 1339 (fn. 51)

But heavy as taxation had become, the King's needs and obligations far outran his new sources of supply His magnificent and costly progress up the Rhine, the subsidies paid or promised to his numerous allies, and the campaign of 1339 had involved him in debts amounting to £300,000 In October 1339 Edward sent de la Pole over from Antwerp to ask Parliament for a further grant of direct taxation, (fn. 52) and at this point the record of the great constitutional conflict of the reign begins For the previous three years the Commons had been groaning under a three-fold burden of taxation They had authorised an annual levy of tenths and fifteenths A heavy export tax authorised by the merchants had lowered the price of that portion of their wool for which they were fortunate enough to be paid in cash, and the rest, as well as a large quantity of military stores, had been taken by the King's purveyors and paid for in rapidly depreciating paper They were willing, in view of the King's urgent needs, to renew taxation in one form as long as it was not simultaneously levied in the other two forms In the Parliament of October 1339 the magnates offered a grant of direct taxation, and asked that the maletote on wool export should cease, whilst the Commons asked that they might consult their constituents before making even this concession (fn. 53) The maletote, however, had become the most productive part of the royal revenue, and, moreover, its abolition would destroy the value of the exemptions held by the Dordrecht creditors An assembly of forty-five merchants, which included all the leading capitalists of the 1337 syndicate, was therefore summoned to meet simultaneously with the new Parliament on January 20th, 1340, (fn. 54) doubtless in order that they might be consulted upon any proposals that might be made by the Commons When Parliament met, the Commons were requested, in case they were dissatisfied with the methods of raising money hitherto employed, to suggest a mode of taxation that would combine a minimum of chargeableness to themselves, and a maximum of assistance to the King They took four weeks to deliberate, and came to the conclusion that a grant of 30,000 sacks of wool would best meet the case, if they could secure safeguards against abuses in the purveyance of it, and guarantees against illegal taxation for the future The ministers felt unable to give the requisite assurances in the absence of the King Accordingly Parliament was adjourned till March 29th, and, at the explicit request of the Commons, writs were to be issued to all the great merchants of the realm to meet the King in person on March 27th (fn. 55) This is the first instance of a summoning of an assembly of merchants by the authority of Parliament, and its significance deserves to be carefully considered The terms of the Commons' resolution imply some degree of estrangement between them and the merchants who are warned that by the neglect of the summons they will incur the grave indignation of the King It would seem either that the earlier assembly had not met yet, or, what is more likely, that it had not been found amenable to the proposals of the Commons This impression is strengthened by the subsequent events of the year

The list of the merchants summoned for March 27th is more than three times as numerous as that of the earlier summons It includes nearly all the members of the 1337 syndicate, and over forty other wool merchants from London, Yarmouth, Newcastle, Lincoln, York, Beverley, and Norwich —in all one hundred and fifty-four (fn. 56) If the assembly met, its deliberations did not encourage the Commons to repeat their offer of 30,000 sacks Instead of that they granted the King the ninth sheaf, fleece, and lamb, and legalised the super-tax on wool for a year, on condition that it should afterwards cease They appointed committees to inquire into the accounts of the Dordrecht seizure and the other abuses of purveyance (fn. 57) And they required that all the merchants who had been summoned for March 29th should be once more required to assemble on May 26th (fn. 58)

Whatever the purpose of this renewed summons, it is interesting to find the same Parliament that had protested strongly against the unconstitutional use of the assembly of merchants by the King, preparing to recognise its activities in some subordinate capacity

It is extremely probable that the merchants were summoned in order that they might make bids for the proceeds of the ninth which had just been granted During May a large part of these proceeds was assigned in advance to various companies of foreign bankers, who made loans to the amount of £52,000, and the City of London received an assignment on the taxation of Kent as security for a loan of £5,000 (fn. 59) In the course of June about forty English merchants, individually and in groups, offered similar advances amounting altogether to £8,724, but the majority of them had not been amongst those summoned to the assembly of May 26th (fn. 60) These loans, or offers of loans, had much more than covered the whole produce of the tax for one year, even if all were duly collected But the collection was encountering much evasion and opposition, and Parliament, which had reassembled on July 9th, was discussing these difficulties when the news of the victory of Sluys, and the King's urgent demand for immediate supplies, led to a grant of 20,000 sacks of wool, which it was thought would be raised by purveyance much more quickly than by any tax This wool was to be paid for out of the next year's taxation, but in the meantime the owners would have to lend it, and the merchants who purveyed it would have to advance the value of the wool to the King, and to pay the subsidy The success of the scheme depended entirely on the existence of a double fund of credit, and the unscrupulous action of the King in relation to the similar scheme of 1337 had seriously impaired both sources of this fund

The crisis in the autumn of 1340 is a repetition in a graver form of that of the autumn of 1337 The growers were still less willing to lend their wool, the merchants still more reluctant to advance their money on the chance of getting the wool There were the same universal attempts to evade the King's collectors, and to sell the wool to aliens, the same riots in London, the same measures of repression (fn. 61)

On the rising of Parliament five groups of English merchants were induced to offer loans, payable at Bruges, on terms which would be extremely favourable to themselves, if the wool with which they were to be repaid were really forthcoming But, bad as these terms were for the Government, the loans only covered about one-fifth of the wool granted by Parliament (fn. 62)

In the hope of attracting more offers the ministry had recourse to another merchant assembly, which, if it ever came together, was the largest body of the kind on record, and differed entirely in its composition from the earlier assemblies of this year The sheriffs of each county were to send from two to six merchants to represent each of the chief towns, and from two to eight to represent the county Yorkshire would thus have twenty members, Lincolnshire eighteen, London twelve, and the total number was to be two hundred and eighty-four (fn. 63) This assembly was summoned on July 27th to meet on August 21st, but it certainly did not do much to solve the financial problems of the Government, and on September 15th the fifth, and final, assembly of the year was summoned to meet on October 1st, composed of sixteen of the leading wool merchants summoned individually, and sixty to be sent by the fifteen chief ports (fn. 64) Amongst the sixteen were three who had already taken part in the wool contracts of this summer, and that is the only practical connection that can be traced between the assemblies and the contracts

During the months of August and September half-a-dozen fresh groups or partnerships had been formed to take over about 4,000 sacks These, with about 1,000 bargained for by William de la Pole, and 2,000 assigned to a foreign firm of financiers, the Leopardi, (fn. 65) and the 4,300 sacks taken by the five groups already referred to, make up little more than half the 20,000 sacks granted by Parliament

But this deficiency affords no adequate measure of the reluctance of the merchants, and of the failure of the scheme The sole purpose of the grant of wool was to secure an immediate supply of money in Flanders, and every other consideration was sacrificed to this object So far from sharing in the profits the King was actually to receive a mark a sack less for the wool through his merchants in Flanders than he engaged through his agents in England to pay next year to the growers But even at this price he was not to receive the full value of the wool Most of the contractors were already the King's creditors, and they naturally bargained that part of the value of the wool should be allowed to them for past debts (fn. 66) The King would thus receive very little for the wool, but the vital part of the bargain was that he should immediately receive a considerable advance on account of that little to support his campaign in France Yet only one small advance of two hundred marks arrived in time to be of any use This was not the fault of the contractors Most of their loans were not due till Michaelmas, and the campaign was ended by the truce of Esplechin on September 25th Moreover, the terms they had made, though ruinous to the King, were not necessarily advantageous to themselves There was no certainty—not even a strong probability—that they would receive wool enough to cover advances As a matter of fact we find that some of them got little or no wool, so that any advances they had made became a part of a rapidly depreciating war loan


  • 1. Manchester, 1914
  • 2. Stubbs, II, 202
  • 3. Lords' Report, IV, 46
  • 4. Cal Wills, I, 609
  • 5. Stow, I, 106, 240 The legendary character of this story is shown in Prof Tait's Chronica Johannis de Reading, etc (Manchester 1914), p 312
  • 6. Ramsay, II, 101
  • 7. Ib, II, 85
  • 8. Willard "Negociations for a grant in 1337," Eng Hist Rev, XXI, 727
  • 9. See article on "The Taxation of Wool," pp 143 et seq, above
  • 10. Lords Report, IV, 457
  • 11. C C R, 1333–7, p 681
  • 12. Lords Report, IV, 458
  • 13. Lords' Report, IV, 464
  • 14. Foed, II, 942 C P R 1334–6, p 260
  • 15. Foed, II, 948
  • 16. Kervyn de Lettenlove (Euvres de Froissart, Chroniques, II, 41
  • 17. Ramsay, II, 101
  • 18. C P R 1334–8, pp 365, 367, 375
  • 19. 10 Edw III, pt 2
  • 20. 11 Edw III, c 1
  • 21. C P R 1334–7, p 428
  • 22. Foed, II, 221 C C R 1337–9, p 318
  • 23. Lords' Report, IV, 474 Since writing the above I find my conjecture fully confirmed by Archbishop Stratford's statement in 1341 See Anglia Sacra, I, 30
  • 24. Lords' Report, IV, 477
  • 25. Lords' Report, IV, 478–9
  • 26. C P R 1334–8, pp 480, 505 C C R 1343–4, p 423
  • 27. Knighton, II
  • 28. C C R 1336–8, p 424
  • 29. A Schaube "Die Wollausfuhr Englands, vom Jahre 1273," in Vierteljahrschrift fur Social und Wirthschaftsgeschichte, 1908, 2 Heft, 68
  • 30. W J Ashley James and Philip van Artevelde, pp 81–110
  • 31. C C R 1337–9, p 276
  • 32. Foed, II, 2, 1022
  • 33. Lords' Report, IV, 491
  • 34. It is not unlikely that the King obtained from this assembly an authorisation to raise the subsidy on wool to 40/- per sack
  • 35. S Terry The Financing of the Hundred Years' War, p 21
  • 36. C C R 1337–9, pp 400, 412
  • 37. Ib, p 393 (March 9 1338)
  • 38. C P R 1338–40, pp 32, 100, 122, 123, 132, etc
  • 39. C C R 1337–9, p 424
  • 40. Lords' Report, IV, 492–51
  • 41. C C R 1337–9, p 526
  • 42. Ib, p 457 This ordinance was issued on Aug 1 before the meeting of the merchants The rest of the 20,000 sacks was to be collected and levied according to the portion of the fifteenth, touching all persons of whatever estate, to wit, ten stones of wool for every twenty shillings of the fifteenth
  • 43. C C R 1337–9, p 516
  • 44. Ib, pp 578, 614, 621
  • 45. Ib, pp 575, 606 Ib 1334–41, p 7
  • 46. D N B Article on William de la Pole
  • 47. C C R 1339–41, p 41
  • 48. Ib, p 20
  • 49. Ib, pp 15–18
  • 50. C C R 1339–41, pp 5–35
  • 51. Ramsay, II, 101
  • 52. Rot Parl, II, 104
  • 53. Ib, p 103
  • 54. Lords' Report, IV, 510
  • 55. Rot Parl, II, 107–8, pars 6–10
  • 56. Lords' Report, IV, 512
  • 57. Rot Parl, II, 113–14
  • 58. Ib, p 115, par 38
  • 59. C P R 1338–40, pp 532–4
  • 60. Ib, pp 414–423
  • 61. C C R 1339–41, pp 616, 621
  • 62. Rot Parl, II, 20
  • 63. Lords' Report, IV, 524–5
  • 64. C P R 1340–3, p 258
  • 65. C C R1399–41, pp 514, 518, 519, 538, 539
  • 66. Rot Parl, II, 120