The estate of merchants, 1336-1365: IV - 1355-65

Pages 232-255

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

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So far we have been considering those larger common interests of the people as producers, consumers and taxpayers, the convergence of which, in conjunction with the fiscal interest of the King, produced the legislation of 1353-4 If we wish to understand the forces that made for the instability and led to the reversal of that policy we must turn to those divergent lesser interests which also found expression in Parliament and with which it was equally possible for the King to make terms In following the history of the Estate of Merchants we have been led to distinguish broadly between four classes interested in the wool trade-the score of financiers, tax farmers and army contractors at the top, the couple of hundred merchants of staple towns who formed the remainder of the merchant assemblies, the lesser traders perhaps a couple of thousand, who were members of "gilds merchant" in the burghs, and finally the more numerous body of still smaller traders outside all these categories

It was the gradual isolation of the wealthiest of these four classes by the King's monopolist devices that had led the other three classes to join the wool growers in demanding a return to a system of Home Staples, and that system as established by the Ordinances of 1353 involved the recognition to a certain extent of the special privileges of the second class-that of the staple merchants The gild merchants of non-staple towns, on the other hand, though they stood to gain greatly along with other traders by the increased access of foreign merchants and the improvement of internal intercourse, suffered by the free trade enactments of 1351 and 1353-4 a relative loss of status and privilege which was certain to cause discontent and friction A brief consideration of the relations between the gild merchants and the classes below and above them, i e -the country traders, the fellow townsmen who were not members of their gild, and the merchants of the staple towns, will be the best introduction to the study of the somewhat complicated class conflicts of the fourteenth century

The gild merchants of Derby, when their privileges were challenged by the law officers of the Crown in 1330, were accused of oppressing the people coming to their town with goods to sell by charging them double tolls, by forbidding any outside merchant to buy from any other outsider or to sell except by wholesale to one of their number, "and if anyone brings into the town, cowhides, wool or sheepskins for sale and one of the gild puts his foot on the wares and offers a price for it the owner will not dare to sell it except to one of the gild nor for a greater price than was first offered." The profits that thus accrued to the gild members were not shared by the burgesses at large who could not join the gild except by paying a heavy entrance fee As a result of the enquiry the merchants of Derby, in consideration of the payment of a sum of forty marks to the King, were left in possession of their privileges with the exhortation not to charge excessive tolls or to oppress the people (fn. 1)

Another case will serve to illustrate more fully the effect of gild privileges on restricting trade The port of King's Lynn was, throughout the middle ages, one of the most important centres of the English grain trade It was practically the sole outlet by which the rich surplus of the corn-growing districts of Huntingdon, Cambridge and Bedford and West Suffolk supplied the needs of London and the foreign consumers (fn. 2) River-craft, large and small, freighted or owned by traders not only from towns like Peterborough or Ely, but from many of the villages that bordered the Nen and the Ouse, carried down the corn, the beer, the wool and the hides of that flourishing region and returned laden with the fish, the salt, the wine and the other foreign and native wares for which Lynn afforded an excellent market (fn. 3) It was clearly in the best interests of the national economy that such a trade should be free to expand in as many hands as possible Yet in 1335-just before the enactment of the first of the free trade statutes-the good people of the town of Ely and other places in the county of Cambridge complained to Parliament that whereas they and their ancestors had sold beer and all manner of other victuals and also merces and merchandise in the town of Lynn as well retail as in gross and as well to merchants and to strangers as to the town the Mayor and Bailiffs of Lynn would not now suffer them to sell except to the people of Lynn and that in gross (fn. 4)

The merchants of Lynn had a twofold advantage over the traders of Cambridgeshire They were organised in a powerful gild, and though their town was not an authorised staple, it was by virtue of geographical position the natural staple of the corn trade of the east midlands

In the case of Winchester and Southampton the conflicting interests were on a more equal footing The gild merchant of Winchester was traditionally the oldest, (fn. 6) as that of Southampton was commercially one of the most influential in the Kingdom The ancient capital and its port had the strongest interest in each other's prosperity, and they had shown an enlightenment rare in the middle ages in recognising that mutual interest by a treaty of reciprocity for the remission of tolls (fn. 7) This friendly relationship was disturbed by the establishment of a staple at Winchester in 1332, which caused a serious shrinkage in the customs duties of Southampton, (fn. 8) and it was apparently by way of retaliation for this that the gild merchants of Southampton began in 1333-4 to prohibit those of Winchester as well as those of Salisbury from dealing directly with the foreigners who called at the port (fn. 9) It was no doubt with a view to preventing the recurrence of this conflict that when the Home Staples were again established in 1353, Southampton received the official status of port to the Winchester staple

Of the strife engendered by gild privileges between the gild members and their fellow townsmen the case of Newcastle on Tyne affords perhaps the best example Newcastle was not only the staple for the wool export of the four northern counties it became also in the fourteenth century and remained till the nineteenth century the one English staple of the coal trade In the tendency to draw a sharp line between the members of the gild merchant and the members of the craft gilds and to exclude the latter from all share in foreign trade the constitution of Newcastle resembled that of the Scottish burghs The opposition to this policy was first brought to a head in a struggle over the election of the mayor in 1342, which occasioned such a disturbance of trade and stoppage of customs as to call for royal intervention The settlement arrived at involved a change in the municipal constitution of the kind to which the historians of continental cities apply the term 'gild-revolution' The twelve chief misteries were to elect the mayor and to share in the control of municipal finance There was to be an equal law for rich and poor and every burgess whether poor or rich was to have the liberty of going on board the ships of foreigners or natives and of buying merchandise for himself and family (fn. 10) The struggle between the gild oligarchy and the rest of the burgesses was only one factor in the situation During this period Newcastle was endeavouring to suppress or to control the rivalry of Tynemouth and Gateshead in the development of the mining resources of the district (fn. 11)

That these various causes of friction did not work in isolation from each other is strikingly exemplified in the case of Yarmouth, which presents a combination of all the factors already considered with several others in addition Like Newcastle, Yarmouth had its long standing quarrel between rich and poor burgesses about the exercise of gild privileges, (fn. 12) and what Tynemouth and Gateshead were to Newcastle, Gorleston and Lowestoft were to Yarmouth (fn. 13) The relation of the port of Southampton to the staple of Winchester had an exact parallel in the relation of Yarmouth to Norwich, which led to a similar conflict in 1333-5, (fn. 14) and for which the same solution was attempted by the inclusion of Yarmouth in the Home Staple arrangements of 1353 And just as the merchants of Lynn tried to monopolise the function of middleman in the export trade of Cambridgeshire in corn, so those of Yarmouth endeavoured to restrict the share of the same hinterland in the import trade in herrings The additional factors in the complicated situation at Yarmouth were at least as important as those already enumerated The herring market was older than the town, and the men of the Cinque Ports who had been accustomed from time immemorial to land and sell their fish there claimed to share the jurisdiction over the annual fair with the townsmen on equal terms At the beginning of the war, disputes arising out of this claim had to be settled by arbitration before the English navy could put to sea The relations between Yarmouth and London were no less vital In the middle of the 14th century the Fishmongers were the most numerous, wealthy and powerful gild in London (fn. 15) Amongst them were found the leading shipowners of the country, and they probably freighted more ships than they owned They imported fish from the Baltic and exported it to Gascony (fn. 16) They rode in company down to Yarmouth at the time of the Fair, and many of them had depôts and drying places there From the supplies thus brought to London they met the increasing demands of the metropolis and of the surrounding counties Opposition to their monopoly in this supply was one of the leading factors in London municipal politics But the London monopolists were free traders at Yarmouth, whilst the Yarmouth monopolists were free traders in London The London Fishmongers resisted the attempts of the Yarmouth merchants to make themselves the sole channels of the foreign supply at Yarmouth and to suppress or control the rival trade of Lowestoft in Kirkley Road On the other hand it was the competition of the Yarmouth merchants (some of whom had probable depôts in Southwark) that prevented the complete domination of the metropolitan consumer by the Londoners (fn. 17)

In the middle of the fourteenth century London was as yet very far from that preeminence amongst cities which it had attained by the close of the seventeenth century In 1685 London claimed not only to be the largest city in Europe but to have a population seventeen times as great as Bristol or Norwich In the year 1377 it was but a small city as compared with Paris, Florence 01 Ghent, and its population of some 40,000 was only three times that of York, less than four times that of Bristol, five times that of Coventry, or six times that of Norwich (fn. 18) The capital was no doubt at this period growing more rapidly than any other city of the kingdom It is probable that in spite of repeated visitations of the pestilence, its population may have doubled during the reign of Edward III

In the almost continuous conflict on mercantile policy that characterised the parliaments of Richard the Second, the lead on both sides appears to have been taken by Londoners What was the nature of the economic interests whose expansion is thus indicated, and what relation did they bear to similar interests in other trading centres?

The commerce of London was mainly distinguished from that of the lesser ports by the increasing degree of specialisation which separated its merchants into mercers, pepperers, vintners, fishmongers, skinners and drapers As a rule each of the lesser ports was interested mainly in one branch of trade The merchants of Lynn were chiefly concerned in the export of corn, those of Yarmouth in the import of herrings, those of Newcastle in the coal trade But this did not assist specialisation-it hindered it The other branches of trade were each too small to support a special calling The merchants of these ports were general merchants, though in each case with a different predominant interest in one class of trade. The gild organisation of commerce outside London was of a corresponding character On the official and legal side it was represented in each borough by a single Gild Merchant On the religious and social side it was embodied as a rule in a single fraternity of Corpus Christi or Holy Trinity New fraternities were rapidly springing up amongst all classes in town and country during the reign, and some of these, it is very probable, represented a struggle between different groups of traders in the same town for the control of the gild merchant But there is little evidence of specialisation and the conflict generally ended by the absorption or displacement of one rival fraternity of merchants by the other (fn. 19)

In the case of London on the other hand, the extent and variety of the import trade had produced some degree of specialisation in very early times There is no evidence that at any time the commerce of London was controlled by a single Gild Merchant, and the origin of the gilds representing separate branches of trade can be traced back to the twelfth century But it is not till the middle of the fourteenth century that their actual records begin (fn. 20) At that period their social and economic organisation, in most cases, makes a fresh start, in all cases it acquires a new significance both for the municipal history of London and for the commercial history of England

The privileges or "liberties" of the London merchants, which had been suspended by the free trade enactment of 1335 admitting foreigners to wholesale or retail trade in the city on equal terms with citizens, were presumably restored at the outbreak of the war in 1337 as part of the King's bargain with the native capitalists In the period of monopoly that followed we find the greater gilds of London aiming at political or economic power by new or revised forms of social organisation When parliament in 1351 by re-enacting free trade again withdrew the privileges of the gildmen, London replied by calling upon its thirteen leading gilds to elect its Common Council (fn. 21) and by petitioning the King for the restoration of its liberties But the Parliament of 1354, which authorised the Home Staples, restricted those liberties still further It declared that the notorious misgovernment of London by mayors, aldermen, and sheriffs who were interested in gild monopolies was greatly raising prices and setting a bad example to other cities and boroughs, and it withdrew the ultimate correction of these abuses from the hands of the civic authorities and placed it in those of an Inquest representing the counties of Kent, Essex, Sussex, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire

From this humiliating position an escape was offered by the renewal of the war in 1355 The King was soon in need of native capitalists, and amongst these Londoners now took a much more decisive lead In a large assembly of merchants summoned by the King in June, 1356, nearly half were citizens of London (fn. 23) Still more striking evidence of the growing predominance of the capital in national finance is to be found in the petition of the Londoners for a restoration of their franchises in which they recapitulated their former services to the King "They had," they claimed, "been at greater charges than others of the Commons in respect of the King's expeditions to Scotland, Gascony, Brabant, Flanders, Brittany, and France, as well as at the siege of Calais and against the Spaniards in providing men at arms, archers and ships in aid of the war" . "They had lent for the King's use when before Calais and elsewhere the sum of £40,000, and at divers other times more than £30,000 which had not been repaid" But the most remarkable claim is the one that figures first in their petition,-" they had lent the King at Dordrecht more than £60,000." From the full account already given of the forced loan of wool taken at Dordrecht in 1338 it will be seen that a total of £65,861 covers the debts acknowledged by the King to over three hundred merchants of England, of whom the Londoners formed but a small minority In the ten years that followed these debts frequently changed hands The heavy discounting of the King's promissory notes by the wealthier merchants was one of the main subjects of complaint in the Parliament of 1343-8 The claim of the Londoners that they were the holders of the Dordrecht loan has no meaning unless it implies that London capitalists had, in the intervening period, taken over the King's debt from his other creditors, and this, if true, indicates that London was becoming the centre of national credit

Numerous facts in support of this inference are to be found in the correspondence between the city of London and other municipalities during the period 1350-1370 The wealthier members of the London gilds are found advancing capital in various ways to the tradesmen in most of the leading cities and boroughs Grocers and vintners, skinners and fishmongers of London have given credit for goods supplied to dealers in Colchester, Bristol, Chichester, Oxford, Norwich, and Winchelsea for amounts varying between £20 and 100 marks A London woolstapler has placed £40 in the hands of a Canterbury barber for the purchase of wool (fn. 25) A London chandler has invested capital as a sleeping partner in the vessel and stock in trade of a Faversham merchant (fn. 26) A London fishmonger has a depôt in Worcester, where he claims to carry on a daily retail trade Another Londoner entrusts through an agent a tun of oil to a Southampton retailer who is to sell it on his behalf (fn. 27) It is in great part the resistance of the other towns to the penetration of London capital and enterprise that has preserved a record of these cases, and that resistance showed itself in the almost universal attempt to restrict London merchants by the imposition of local dues During the years 1352-66 London addressed sixteen protests to thirteen towns on this subject (fn. 28)

These examples may serve-though very inadequately- to represent the variety, the complexity and the mutual hostility of the economic interests which were from time to time seeking the support or the sanction of King or Parliament It was out of such heterogeneous material that the King during the first period of the French war attempted to form an Estate of Merchants, by whose aid he might levy taxes without recourse to parliament and at the same time secure loans in advance of the taxes The gradual breakdown of this alliance in the years 1344-8 was due in the main to the incurable dishonesty of the King, but also in part to a natural divergence of interest within the estate of merchants On the one hand there was the continually shrinking group of capitalists into whose hands the King's financial necessities threw the monopoly of the chief branch of foreign trade, on the other hand there was the great majority of lesser merchants chiefly engaged as acting middlemen between Englishmen and foreigners who came to realise that they too, like the general body of producers and consumers, would benefit by the free access of foreign merchants to the kingdom and who therefore fell away from alliance with the King and entered into a temporary alliance with the country party of which the Statute of Staples was the fruit

From the constitutional point of view indeed, the alliance had permanent results In spite of one more serious effort on the part of the King to detach the merchants, their absorption from this time onwards in the Commons may be regarded as accomplished But this was because they realised that a House of Commons in which the enormous over-representation of the boroughs gave them frequently a majority of voices was a much more effective guardian of their interests than an unconstitutional Assembly of Merchants For that very reason, however, they were not likely to be long satisfied with the policy formulated in the Statute of Staples That statute entirely excluded native merchants from the export trade in staple articles on pain of death, it greatly restricted their share of the import trade in wine, and it struck a serious blow at their local gild monopolies of the function of middleman between foreigners and Englishmen The King, who had for the moment exhausted the resources of the native capitalists, and who received a higher rate of custom from alien merchants, acquiesced in the arrangement, and may even have prompted it, but if, when the native merchants were once more in a position to help him, they were willing to pay the increased rate of custom, he would be quite ready to form a new alliance with them on that basis

This new alliance was actually in process of formation during the period of renewed warfare in the years 1355-61 In June, 1356, an assembly of a hundred and sixty-nine merchants representing thirty-six cities and boroughs, and including over seventy citizens of London, was summoned by individual writs to Westminster (fn. 29) We have no record of its proceedings, but there can be little doubt that the matter under discussion was the reopening of the staple trade to native merchants on condition of their paying the alien rate of custom and of agreeing to the continuance of the high subsidy which was about to expire Whether or not this bargain was struck with the merchants, the enthusiasm aroused by the victory of Poitiers and the capture of the French king in August, 1356, strengthened Edward in demanding similar concessions from the Parliament of 1357 The continuance of the subsidy was granted for six years, but the wool trade was only to be open to native exporters for six months, and the precautions taken against the lowering of prices paid to producers show that the Commons feared a revival of the monopoly syndicates (fn. 30)

Their fears proved to be well grounded When the six months expired, the native merchants continued to export wool in defiance of Parliament under license from the King, and in 1359 a still more decisive step was taken towards the re-establishment of the foreign staple system The Company of English Merchants at Bruges whose existence had been suspended by the Statute of Staples, was restored by the authority of the King The privileges of self-government and the power of controlling the trade of its members bestowed by the Duke of Brabant in 1296, (fn. 31) and later as regards his dominions by the Count of Flanders and confirmed by the King of England, were the machinery by which earlier schemes of fiscal monopoly had been worked, and the revival of the company was ominous in spite of the assurances of the King that no harm was intended to "free trade" and the Home Staples (fn. 32) In the stress of the campaign of 1359-60 these omens began to be fulfilled Direct taxation was levied unconstitutionally as in 1337 through local assemblies, and new indirect taxes were imposed on commerce with the consent of an assembly of merchants towards the end of 1359 (fn. 33) The speedy close of the war and the indemnity exacted from France enabled the King to dispense with both these irregular forms of taxation, and the Parliament of 1361, in return perhaps for this concession, consented to relieve the native exporters from the danger of impeachment which they had incurred by ignoring the authority of its statutes. (fn. 34)

A new epoch in the fiscal history of the reign was opened by the Treaty of Bretigni in 1360 For a quarter of a century the nation had been reluctantly bearing war burdens of an unprecedented kind in the form of direct and indirect taxation It now expected, not unnaturally, to be relieved of both The heavy subsidy on wool imposed continuously since 1337 had been admittedly a war-tax, and should cease on the conclusion of peace Even the more normal and constitutional grants of dirct taxation in the form of tenths and fifteenths had been usually made to meet the extraordinary needs of wartime, and could not be reasonably demanded from a nation which had levied on its defeated foe a king's ransom equivalent to a ten years' grant of direct taxation from laity and clergy Accordingly during the whole of the following decade no grant of direct taxation was made, and though Parliament was induced in 1362 to continue the wool subsidy at half the war rate, this was only on condition that it should thereafter entirely cease (fn. 35) But natural as these views of the Commons were, it was hardly to be expected that the King would share them Even though Edward's abandonment of his French ambitions had been final and the payment of the ransom of John absolutely certain, it is extremely unlikely that he would have acquiesced in the extinction of the wool tax which had furnished for twenty-five years the most substantial portion of his revenue In his view no doubt the wool tax had been finally secured in 1353 by a bargain The Commons had received an equivalent in the abolition of the foreign staple and in the "free trade" enactments of 1353-4 As they now proposed gradually to withdraw the wool tax, there was nothing left for him but to withdraw the equivalent and to re-establish his hold upon indirect taxation by a system of monopolies such as had been in existence before the Statute of Staples was passed

That this was a main motive for the institution of the Calais Staple in 1363 is scarcely open to question Diplomatic and dynastic motives also, in this episode as in that of the earlier staple at Bruges, played a considerable part Early in 1362 negotiations were already on foot for a marriage between Edmund, Earl of Cambridge, and Margaret of Flanders, (fn. 36) which was intended to cement a new alliance between Flanders and England, on the strength of which Flanders might secure a dominant position in the Netherlands (fn. 37) The proposed cession to the Earl of Cambridge of Ponthieu, Guines and Calais with a new staple was a strong bid for the support of the Flemings to the marriage and the alliance These negotiations were destined to go through many vicissitudes before their final failure in 1369, when the marriage of Margaret to a rival suitor, Philip of Burgundy, opened a new and important chapter in dynastic history

As the diplomatic motives for the Staple disappeared, the fiscal motives were strengthened Calais, as an English port on French soil was free from some of the objections raised against a Flemish Staple whilst it offered even better securities for fiscal control and monopoly

Moreover as the headquarters of the army, Calais was in continual need of supplies of food, drink and clothing Most of these supplies would come from the surrounding country, but they might be got cheaper if the surplus produce of England were forced into the Calais market In either case supplies would be more readily brought in and more easily paid for if Calais were made a great market for English wool and for foreign wares at which profitable return cargoes could be secured But an army would need pay as well as supplies To export money for this purpose from England would be to sin against a leading principle of mediæval economics If all the export trade of England were compelled to pass through Calais the principle of cash payment might perhaps be even more strictly insisted upon than it had been in the Home Staples The greater part of the proceeds would flow back into England, but, incidentally, enough would be available to meet the expenses of the garrison and to furnish timely loans to the government

These reasons account for an attempt to set up a Staple in Calais in 1347-8 which the opposition of the Commons, the plague and the renewal of hostilities combined to render unsuccessful The peace of 1360 afforded a more auspicious opportunity In May, 1361, an assembly consisting of fortyfive merchants representing all the Home Staples, together with six merchants from Calais, was summoned to Westminster to discuss the project (fn. 38) It would seem that there were considerable differences of opinion amongst the merchants, but that the King found enough support to induce him to seek the consent of Parliament in 1362 The lords were friendly to the project, but the knights of the shires, when examined before the lords, said that they had spoken to several merchants about the matter, some of whom thought the staple would be good for Calais, others the reverse "And therefore they prayed to be excused from saying one or the other since knowledge of that matter lay with merchants more than with any other, and so this article remains pending the opinion of and agreement with merchants and others" (fn. 39)

This was the Parliament whose historic achievement lay in the enactment "that no subsidy or other charge shall be granted on wool by merchants or any other without the consent of Parliament" It might therefore have been expected to pronounce more clearly against a revival under any form of the foreign staple which had always been associated with unconstitutional taxation through merchant assemblies The whole method of its consultation and its willingness to throw the responsibility for a decision upon the mercantile section shows that the absorption of that section into the main body of the Commons, though in process of accomplishment was still far from complete That the Commons were anxious to maintain their newly won unity by reasonable concessions to the merchants is clearly shown by their removing this year the ban which had been placed on the native exports by the Statute of Staples And since native merchants were to be free to export English wool it might have been thought that the question as to the desirability of a depôt at Calais was one for them to decide But that Parliament had no intention of delegating powers of taxation or monopoly to the merchants is sufficiently clear

In both these respects the Staple set up at Calais by royal ordinance in March, 1363, was a breach of the King's frequent and solemn engagements with Parliament It placed practically all the export trade of the country under the control of a corporation of merchants chosen by the King from the ruling class in the chief trading centres which displaced the municipality of Calais and received power to levy a new tax on wool The immediate protest of the Commons expressed the views not only of the knights of the shires, (fn. 40) but also of many of the borough members, and the dissensions that arose between the mercantile interests in Calais itself necessitated complete reconstruction of the Staple within a year of its establishment (fn. 41) Under these circumstances the abandonment of the scheme at the demand of Parliament in January, 1365, might at first sight seem to be the natural end of an episode closely resembling earlier conflicts between King and Parliament But the actual situation is more complicated and more interesting The Parliament of 1356, at the very moment when it was denouncing the policy embodied in the Calais Staple, was itself formulating measures on which a similar policy could be based In their anxiety to check the rising prices due mainly to the recent pestilence, the Commons petitioned the King to forbid the exportation of corn and other victuals without licence, and requested that every merchant and every craftsman should henceforth be limited to one branch of trade (fn. 43) The King readily assented to both these petitions The desire of the first he hastened to fulfil, whilst Parliament was still sitting, by issuing a writ to the sheriffs prohibiting the exportation without license not only of corn, malt, beer and herring, but with certain exceptions, of cloth also (fn. 44) Soon after this, licences began to be issued for the export of cloth, corn and beer, and much of the foreign trade of 1364 was carried on under this form of exemption (fn. 45) The second petition was answered by a clause in that remarkable code of social reconstruction which constituted the main work of the session That ordinance carefully prescribed the dress of all ranks except the nobility and higher clergy, it forbade all carters, swineherds, labourers in husbandry or others with less than forty shillings in goods or chattels to indulge their unruly desires for meat and drink, and it required every merchant and craftsman to choose a particular branch of trade before next Candlemas and to follow no other (fn. 46) On the pretext of enforcing this last clause, the King began in the summer of 1364 to issue charters to various wealthy bodies of merchants, to the Vintners of England, to the Fishmongers and the Drapers of London authorising them to regulate and monopolise their several callings (fn. 47) Edward was thus enabled, as the staple began to prove ineffectual, to find support for his fiscal devices in the most recent enactments of Parliament, and Parliament in attacking the policy of the King was driven to a sweeping repeal of its own legislation (fn. 48) In this transitory situation the germs of a new development may be detected For a moment, by virtue of its associations with parliamentary authority, the King's fiscal opportunism takes on the guise of a national policy We are here in touch, as Dr. Cunningham has acutely observed, with the origins of mercantilism (fn. 49)

If, however, we are to understand this much-discussed piece of legislation we must distinguish carefully not only between the use to which it was put by the King and the intentions of Parliament, but also between the quite distinct and even opposite bodies of intention which may have supported its passage through the Commons

The main and indeed the only avowed intention is clear enough The statute aims at the suppression of what is now called "profiteering," by merchants called Grossers, who engross all manner of vendible merchandise, who suddenly buy up the whole supply and fix the prices by a secret agreement amongst themselves called Fraternity or Gild Merchant, and by a similar mutual arrangement hold back part of their stock till dearness or scarcity arise in the land (fn. 50) The intention here implied is identical with that which underlies all the free trade legislation of Edwardian parliaments It is the intention of the main body of consumers and of rural producers as represented by the knights of the shires But the real significance of any piece of legislation is to be sought quite as much in the character of the remedy applied as in the nature of the evil for which a remedy is sought And the remedy in this case bears so little practical relation to the evil that it immediately suggests another body of intention The knights of the shires though they represented a majority of the nation did not constitute a majority in the Commons Parliament might indeed be said to have established its claim to be the constitutional exponent of the national will, and the Estate of Merchants had now voluntarily merged itself in the larger and more authentic voice of the Commons But the danger lest the general interest should be overborne by particular interests was not less real because it had become less obvious

The borough members were a majority of the Commons, and, though their mere numbers were doubtless overborne on most occasions by the greater prestige of the knights of the shires, they would scarcely fail to have some effect when mercantile matters were under consideration In voting for one man one trade the county members may have thought they were providing a sound remedy for the confusion of an evil time by a return to the generally recognised principles of natural right, but that does not exclude the possibility that some of the borough members had private axes to grind "One man one trade" expressed in a broad way the basic principle of craft gild organisation, and during the second and the third quarters of the fourteenth century that form of organisation had been spreading more rapidly throughout Europe than at any time before or since But the different crafts represented many widely divergent social and economic interests, and the cry 'one man one trade' had entirely different meanings in the mouths of opposing parties At first sight it might seem to be a popular protest against the encroachments of capitalism in industry and commerce, but the facts show that this was not invariably -perhaps not even generally- the case It is true for example that the members of the one or other of the textile crafts-the weavers, fullers, dyers, etc -frequently invoked this principle against some wealthy member of another of the crafts who was superintending two or more branches of the manufacture under one roof (fn. 51) But after this function of superintendence had become the basis of a separate calling, as happened in London about the middle of the fourteenth century, the drapers who exercised that calling and who included in their ranks some of the leading citizens, invoked the principle of one man one trade against the independence of the several handicrafts The "making of cloth" was now to be a separate trade confined to the draper The weaver, the fuller or the dyer was not to go beyond the limits of his own craft He must not make or sell cloth on his own account He must work for the draper, and find his sole access to a wider market through the agency of the draper as a middleman. Such, briefly stated, was the purport of the charter granted in July, 1364, to the Drapers' Company of London which was professedly based on the statute of 1363 (fn. 52)

The story of the wine trade, which has been told with an instructive wealth of detail in another chapter of this book, although it covers very different ground, has a similar bearing In the thirteenth century all classes, lay and clergy, noble and simple, from the King and the Archbishops down to the cobbler dealt in wine, which was indeed almost a form of currency The King and his nobles imported much wine for themselves, but the rest of the nation were mainly dependent on the supply brought by Gascons, Spaniards, and Germans, and the main concern of Parliament was that the free access of these foreigners to the consumers in the country should not be hindered by the privileges of English traders in the chief ports or in the boroughs with gild merchant Down to the outbreak of the French war the separate calling of the vintner had no greater footing in England than the separate calling of the manufacturing draper Specialisation would have occurred in any case, but the form it actually took was undoubtedly the product, to a large extent of war conditions It is very significant that the leading members of both the new callings, e g John Pulteney the draper and Henry Picard the vintner, were amongst the chief native financiers of the King The supply of the King's armies with wine and cloth, with corn, herrings and other victuals was no doubt the most lucrative branch of these various trades as long as the King paid his debts, and in order to secure payment the army contractor must also be a financier and politician Under these circumstances the concentration of capital and the growth of monopoly were inevitable, and they gave a sinister turn to what might otherwise been the free and healthy development of specialised professions

The importance of a free import trade in wine cannot be understood by those who have not realised that the expansion of a nation's commerce depends mainly upon the multiplication of small unrecorded spontaneous forms of enterprise During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the bulk of English trade was increased not by the operations of the tax farming Stapler which underwent a steady decline, but by the bold ventures of the petty tradesmen in the smaller ports who carried over little cargoes of corn, ale or cloth to Zealand or to France, and who made their profit on a return cargo of salt and wine Most of the general merchants in the ports had shares in one or more vessels and dealt in wine, and it is difficult to accept the statement of the Vintners' charter that wine was made dearer by this widespread form of enterprise The new Vintners' Company were on more solid ground when they argued that a trade dispersed in so many hands was difficult to regulate and that the larger ships which their syndicate employed were more available for the navy In war time, when big ships were needed and public regulation of prices was loudly demanded, these reasons no doubt carried weight But whether they were or were not sufficient to justify monopoly, it is equally clear that the application of "one man one trade" to the wine business meant the displacement of the small dealer by the larger capitalist

The charter granted to the Vintners of England embodied a curious and inconsistent combination of trading privileges The English trader was not to be allowed to compete with the English vintners in Gascony lest by absorbing all the available supply he should prevent the Gascon vintner coming to compete with the English vintner in England And the Gascon vintner when he arrived in England was not to be allowed to sell his wines except by wholesale to the nobility and to the English vintner The Vintners' Company was further empowered by charter to regulate the trade of the retailing taverner who was frequntly the agent of the vintner in a "tied house" Whilst the vintner was thus to enjoy in his own trade a wholesale monopoly against native competitors, he was to be allowed to encroach on the export trade in cloth and herrings in order that he might carry goods and not money out to Gascony to pay for the wine But the effect of this concession would be to bestow a monopoly of the export trade to Gascony in herrings and cloth upon the vintners as other merchants would be precluded from obtaining a return cargo in wine Such were the practical results of the application of the principle 'one man one trade' in the case of the Vintners (fn. 53)

The Fishmongers' charter was less anomalous, but in view of the greater importance of the fish trade, more oppressive to the consumer. In this case the source of supply was not merely or mainly to be found in foreign ports but at the Herring Fair of Yarmouth The charter was conferred upon fishmongers not of England but of London, and these could scarcely be invested with a monopoly of the wholesale trade to the exclusion of the fishmongers of the East Coast and of the Cinque Ports. In the London market, however, they were granted a complete monopoly of the retail trade All other importers must dispose of their cargoes to the London fishmongers or sell it wholesale under their inspection to the consumer (fn. 54)

The effect of the legislation of 1363 and of the royal charters based upon it was to sow violent dissension in the urban communities The prohibition of all foreign commerce except under licence, the limitation of each man to one branch of trade, the restrictions as to the dress and food of the middle and labouring classes roused universal discontent In several cities and townships, the authorities were forbidden by the inhabitants on pain of death to promulgate the statute (fn. 55) This opposition was repressed in 1363, but in the summer of the following year after the grant of the monopoly charters it was renewed in greater force Fierce election contests took place in London, (fn. 56) York, (fn. 57) Newcastle, (fn. 58) and Coventry (fn. 57) The conflicting interests of the gildsmen in different trades and sometimes in different sections of the same trade led to sanguinary riots

We know more about London than any other town, and in London, though the range of class interests is wider than elsewhere and the situation more complicated, the main issues are fairly intelligible A list of the various sums contributed to a present made by the city to the King in 1363 enables us to classify the gilds at this time (fn. 59) The six leading gilds of wealthy merchants each contributed over £30, it was from these that the aldermen, mayors and sheriffs of the city were selected Another dozen gilds which contributed sums of from £5 to £23 constituted the commonalty-the middle class of citizens represented in the Common Council This class was composed of well to do victuallers, Butchers, Brewers, Poulterers and Chandlers, and of manufacturers-Goldsmiths, Tailors, Girdlers, Saddlers, Pewterers, Ironmongers, etc, who gave out work to suburban small masters and who sought a market for their products in the fairs, boroughs and market towns. A third class of fifteen gilds representing the more prosperous craftsmen made smaller contributions either collectively or through their wealthier members, but there were probably at least a dozen organised crafts of lesser social status which made no contribution at all

It was the middle class or Commonalty who voiced the discontent of London in the autumn of 1364 Their grievances when formulated at the request of the aldermen face in two opposite directions On the one hand they demand the abolition of the new restrictions on the wholesale trade Every freeman of London "ought to buy and sell wholesale within the city and without any manner of merchandise on which he can make a profit" But they desire on the other hand to have the restriction on retail trading confirmed and to strengthen the monopoly of each organised trade by strictly limiting the entrance of new freemen to the gilds and by giving the gilds fuller control over the trades The minimum entrance fee was fixed at sixty shillings, "for it were better," the commonalty explained, "that those unable to pay this sum should continue to serve either as apprentices or as hired servants than that the number of masters should be unduly increased Also the Commons make it known that they suggest these articles for God's glory and for the general profit of the city and in order to restore the good old franchises and usages to their ancient force and perfection, but in this they are hindered by the excessive privileges accorded by the King to foreigners who are the source of all the evils that have occurred to the City" (fn. 60)

These restrictions, though enacted at the moment, were not maintained In less than two years it was found that they were causing the withdrawal of prospective citizens, and as the population of London had recently been greatly diminished by the plague a more liberal policy in regard to the admission of freemen was adopted (fn. 61) At the same time the threatened development of a rigid and exclusive gild system was prevented by an ordinance allowing every freeman who had served an apprenticeship in one trade to transfer his capital and enterprise to any other By these later measures which made its subsequent expansion possible, London constituted itself a remarkable exception to the general trend of urban development (fn. 62) as exhibited in the demands of its middle classes in 1364, in which we seem to hear the civic economy of the middle ages pronouncing sentence of death upon itself The arrest and decay of most mediæval cities after the close of the fourteenth century has been rightly attributed to the exclusiveness of their municipal and gild policy, but the close connection of this with fiscal conditions has hardly been sufficiently recognised "The aids levied for the ransom" [of King John II], says M Delachenal have an extreme importance for the financial history of France. They were the first attempt at regular and permanent taxation They were also the origin of the octrois granted to a great number of towns in France" (fn. 63) The heavy debts and the system of excise imposed on the cities of the Netherlands by the war finance of their Burgundian rulers checked the growth of their population, raised the cost of living and occasioned a demand for protection against the industrial competition both of the neighbouring villages and of foreign countries (fn. 64) The same causes were operative in England In a very instructive passage Dr Cunningham has pointed out the amounts levied on the trading classes by the poll tax of 1379 "are as large as those taken from the nobility, if the Dukes of Lancaster and Bretagne, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who were each to contribute £6 13s 4d, are left out of account The Lord Mayor of London was to pay £4, like an Earl, Bishop or Mitred Abbot, the London Aldermen and the Mayors of larger towns £2 each, like barons or abbeys with a rental of £200 a year The mayors and jurators of other towns and the great merchants were to give £1 each, like knights or abbeys with a rental of over £60 The substantial merchants and mayors of small towns were to pay 13s 4d, 10s, or 6s 8d, according to their estate, like the landed esquires and lesser abbeys, and smaller merchants and artificers were to give 6s 8d, 3s 4d, 2s 1s, or 6d All seems to show that the trading classes had come to form a very important section of the community for fiscal purposes" And again Richard II "seems to have borrowed chiefly, though not by any means exclusively from corporate bodies on one occasion he pledged his jewels with the city of London and obtained £9,000, but all the mercantile and manufacturing centres had to contribute large sums on various occasions" To the loan raised in 1397 seventy cities and boroughs contributed a total of nearly £12,000, and £6,666 13s 4d. of this was raised by London alone (fn. 65) In these facts we may find an adequate explanation of the mercantilist policy of the parliaments of Richard II and of those restrictions on foreign traders enacted in 1393 by which the "free trade" ideals of Edwardian parliaments were deliberately set aside (fn. 66)


  • 1. Gross The Gild Merchant, II, 51-3
  • 2. N S B Gras The Evolution of the English Corn Market, pp 72-6
  • 3. Cartularum Monasteii de Ramseia (Rolls Series), III, 141-157
  • 4. Rot Parl, II, p 93
  • 5. Gross The Gild Merchant, II, 151
  • 6. Gross The Gild Merchant, II, 252
  • 7. Ibid, II, 256
  • 8. C P R 1334, p 435
  • 9. Rot Parl, II, 87
  • 10. Gross The Gild Merchant, II, 185 Brand Hist of Newcastle, II, 155-6 This settlement was upset three years later by a counter revolution, restored in 1371, upset again in 1377, and restored in 1378 (C P R 1343-5, p 540) The intervening period was one of fierce party conflict, causing now and then unrest and bloodshed (C P R 1364-7, pp 18, 20, 47)
  • 11. C P R 1354-8, pp 547, 1364-7, pp 16, 31, 90, 410
  • 12. Rot Parl, II, 353
  • 13. Manship and Palmer Hist of Yarmouth, II, 67, 334
  • 14. C P R 1354-7, p 598
  • 15. Unwin Gilds and Companies of London, pp 38-42
  • 16. Calendars of Letters from the Mayor and Corporation of the City of London, circa 1350-1370 (ed R R Sharpe), pp 94, 97, 126, 143
  • 17. C P R 1354-60, pp 49, 231, 357, 423, 425, Ib 1357, pp 598, 654, S R, I, 369-70, Rot Parl, II, 253, No 117
  • 18. Oman The Great Revolt of 1381, App II, p 164
  • 19. M D Harris, Life in an Old English Town M Bateson, Records of Leicester, II, Intro lvi-lxiv J M Lambert, Two Thousand Years of Gild Life, pp 106-31 M Sellers, A Short Account of the Mystery of Merchants and Company of Adventurers of York, 1913 C P R 1364-7, pp 20, 74, 97
  • 20. Unwin, Gilds and Companies of London, pp 45-60, 103-9
  • 21. Bk F, p 237, Bk G, pp 3, 15, 23
  • 22. Rot Parl, II, 259
  • 23. Ib, II, 456
  • 24. Bk G, p 85-6
  • 25. Calendar of Letters from the City of London (ed Sharpe), p 31
  • 26. Ib, p 82
  • 27. Ib, p 126
  • 28. Ib passim
  • 29. Lords' Report, IV, 609, Rot Parl, II, 456
  • 30. S R, I, 348-51, Bk G, p 87
  • 31. H Obreen, "Une charte Brabançonne inedite de 1296," in tome lxxx of Bulletin de la Commission Royale d'Histoire de Belgique, 1911 Cf review in Eng Hist Rev, XXVII, 810-11
  • 32. Cunningham, Growth of English Industry and Commerce in the Early and Middle Ages, App C, 4
  • 33. Foed, III, 459, 480, 503
  • 34. C P R 1358-61, p 564.
  • 35. Rot Parl, II, 273
  • 36. C P R 1361-4, p 167
  • 37. H Pirenne, Histoire de Belgique, II, 187-8
  • 38. C C R 1360-4, p 267
  • 39. Rot Parl, II, 269
  • 40. Ib, II, 690 It included half a dozen aldermen of London, the exMayor of Newcastle, an M P for Hereford and leading men of York, Bristol, Norwich, Lynn, Boston, Coventry, Leicester, Shrewsbury, Canterbury and Lewes
  • 41. Rot Parl, II, 276
  • 42. Foed, II, 719, 723
  • 43. Rot Parl, II, 17-23, 277
  • 44. Foed, II, 710
  • 45. C C R 1360-4, p 492 A large number of East coast traders were licensed to export money to buy salt
  • 46. Rot Parl, II, 280-2
  • 47. C P R 1364-7, pp 4-6
  • 48. Rot Parl, II, 286
  • 49. Cunningham, Growth of English Industry and Commerce in the Early and Middle Ages, par 116
  • 50. Rot Parl, II, 277-83
  • 51. Unwin, Industrial Organisation in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, pp 28-37 Cf A H Johnson, History of the Drapers' Company, I
  • 52. C P R 1364-7, pp 4-5
  • 53. C P R 1364-7, pp 6-7
  • 54. Ib, pp 5-6
  • 55. Chronica Johannis de Reading et Anonymi Cantuariensis 1346-1367 (ed Prof Tait), p 158
  • 56. Ib, p 161
  • 57. C P R 1364-7, p 208
  • 58. Ib, pp 18, 23, 71, 74
  • 59. Bk G, pp 171-3
  • 60. Bk G, p 179-80
  • 61. Bk G, pp 203-4, 211-12
  • 62. In the case of London as in that of other capital cities there were of course other exceptional causes of expansion
  • 63. Delachenal, Histoire de Charles V, II, 329-30
  • 64. P J Blok, Geschiedenis cenen Hollandsche stad, II, chap VI A Meerkamp van Embden, Stadsrekeningen van Leiden
  • 65. Growth of English Industry and Commerce in the Early and Middle Ages, I, par 116
  • 66. Ashley, An Introduction to English Economic History and Theory, Part II, 14