The origins and activities of the Merchant Adventurers of England have been the topic of discussion of researchers interested in the history of trade and commerce. Many books and journal articles have also attempted to explore and examine the life and activities of this medieval group. One such attempt is Douglas R. Bisson’s Merchant Adventurers of England: The Company and the Crown, 1474-1564. Although this book deals with commerce and trade during the Elizabethan regime, Bisson focuses on the relationship between the company and the Crown. Basically, the purpose of the book is to explain the interaction between them.
“Merchant Adventurer”, a term often loosely used and misinterpreted, must be defined at the outset. The name was originally accorded to all merchants in England whose primary activities included export trade. It was applied generally in the later Middle Ages to any merchant engaged in trade overseas whose business was not that of the Staplers – the old and carefully regulated export of raw wool – but the newer trade in English cloth. The Adventurer, unlike the Stapler, who went regularly to and fro between England and the English port of Calais, voyaged far afield, east, west, north or south, wherever he could find an opening.
Later, however, the title was applied to loosely structured clusters of merchants in the major ports; these merchants were concerned primarily with exporting cloth to other countries such as the Netherlands. The Merchant Adventurers of England became a trading company in 1407. In the outset, company focused its activities in Bruges. However, in 1446 the company got hold of trading privileges from the duke of Burgundy, establishing its trading center at Antwerp. The Merchant Adventurers faced fierce competition from the Hanseatic League.
The dominance of this trading group in the Baltic was the reason for the exclusion of the company from that area. Nevertheless, in spite of the strong competition, the Merchant Adventurers prospered. It instituted depots in a number of important cities, and in 1560 the company started to monopolize exporting cloth to the Netherlands and West Germany. The Merchant Adventurers continued to flourish throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth, despite political contentions prompting it to transfer its trading center to Hamburg in 1567 and to Dordrecht in 1655.
The Merchant Adventurers finally broke up in 1808. The Merchant Adventurers of England is divided into four sections, which are arranged topically rather than chronologically. In the opening chapter, Bisson develops his thesis that company and the Tudor state had a symbiotic relationship. The Merchant Adventurers provided significant financial services to the Crown. Particularly, Bisson emphasizes Sir Thomas Gresham’s substantive role in making this relationship functional.
According to the author, Gresham used the Merchant Adventurers “to restore and then maintain the credit of the Crown by propping up the rate of exchange in both Antwerp and London”. In exchange, the company was protected from the competition brought about by the Staplers and some outport men. Moreover, the company was provided the service of convoying its merchants to the cloth marts in the Low Countries. In this light, the author states that “the Fellowship of the Merchant Adventurers of England had achieved the dream of all national trading bodies: partnership with a government” during the Elizabethan regime.
For the Merchant Adventurers, regulation of cloth manufacture and collection of customs in the Tudor dynasty were very important. The coalition built between the Crown and the company overcame a minor disaster brought about by the raising of customs rates and the overhauling of the following customs administration. Following a brief period of complaints, the Merchant Adventurers acquiesced and the Crown promised to lower the customs to avoid endangering the trade. The company, protected by the Crown, blocked the interests of the clothing industry in England.
According to Bisson, “opportunities for fostering the development of the cloth industry were usually sacrificed to the needs of the Merchant Adventurers Company”. Further in the Merchant Adventurers of England, Bisson presents and discusses documents explaining the destruction of the Hanseatic League. Throughout the periods of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I, the Merchant Adventurers were unyielding rivals of the Hansa. However, their attempts at eliminating the Hansa’s privileges lost steam due to both international and domestic factors.
By the Elizabethan period, friends of the Merchant Adventurers, Gresham and Sir William Cecil changed the balance, favoring the company. By 1564 the company had the monopoly of the cloth trade. However, the company was less successful in its control of the conduct of foreign affairs. According to the author, the company’s trade “was subject to the needs of policy or even the caprice of princes”. Thus the company’s relationship with the Low Countries was at all times subject to the upholding of good relations. In turn, this depended on dynastic interests instead of mercantile interests.
The influence of the Merchant Adventurers particularly became under threat in the 1560s, when the beginnings of the Dutch revolt as well as the English policy vis-a-vis Spain forced the company to transfer to Hamburg from Antwerp. In addition to these political developments, a more independent Elizabeth tainted the relationship between the company and the Crown, which eventually led to the diminished power of the Merchant Adventurers. The importance of the Merchant Adventurers has been universally recognized, though variously interpreted. But its inner history remains curiously vague.
Its evolution and structure seem to have baffled all attempts at clear analysis. Many historians have exercised their ingenuity in unraveling its ultimate origins or expounding the intricacies of a constitution which was probably never static, endeavoring to analyze the life of the now extinct Society by meticulously dissecting a number of charters and letters patent. But these provide merely a bare skeleton, and the hiatus in the sources for the history of the company still exists; little has been said about the definite clue to the existence or the whereabouts of the private records of the Merchant Adventurers.
Scholars must give Bisson due recognition for addressing a research topic that lacks primary materials. Using an impressive quantity of relevant primary sources ranging from the Rawlinson, Sloane, Lansdowne, Harleian, and Cotton manuscripts to public documents like the State Papers of the Public Record Office and Patent Rolls, Bisson came up with an academic and much needed research of the Merchant Adventures.
The Merchant Adventurers of England complements the earlier studies – G. D. Ramsay’s John Isham, Mercer and Merchant Adventurer and English Overseas Trade during the Centuries of Emergence and E. Carus-Wilson and O. Coleman’ Medieval Merchant Venturers and England’s Export Trade, 1275-1547. While the book contributes much to knowledge about the importance of the relationship between the company and the Crown, it is unfortunate that it is not very reader-friendly in some instances.
For example, readers may hunt for the author’s arguments in the dense prose of the text and supply the context themselves. Despite this minor flaw, this book is of interest to Tudor scholars. In addition, Merchant Adventurers of England may provide graduate students additional topics and directions for their research. It is also an important reference material for those who want to challenge prevalent canonical assumptions about the Merchant Adventurers.