The estate of merchants, 1336-1365
III - 1349-54


Centre for Metropolitan History



George Unwin (editor)

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'The estate of merchants, 1336-1365 : III - 1349-54', Finance and trade under Edward III: The London lay subsidy of 1332 (1918), pp. 221-232. URL: Date accessed: 20 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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The history of the Estate of Merchants during the seven years that intervened between the crisis of 1347 and the enactment of the Statute of Staples in 1354 may be briefly outlined in the light of the above interpretation of the preceding development By the spring of 1348 the resources of the small group of English financiers who now furnished the King's supplies were rapidly becoming exhausted, and Edward was obliged to meet a Parliament in which, as we have seen, the wool growers and the merchants were united in their opposition to the restraints on the wool trade and to the continuance of the maletote A grant of direct taxation for three years was only to be obtained by a promise that the illegal indirect taxation on wool should cease Whether under normal circumstances the King would have fulfilled his purpose is a point that is perhaps hardly worth discussion But the circumstances were very far from being normal The Black Death, which began its ravages in the autumn of 1348, must have greatly diminished the produce of direct taxation, whilst it gave the King a good reason for not meeting Parliament until 1351 That Edward therefore should, in spite of his pledge, seek to retain his hold upon the maletote is readily intelligible The main obstacle to success in this direction lay in the impending bankruptcy of the firm of Chiriton, Swanland and Wendlingburgh, which had been financing the maletote and the purveyance of wool since 1346 (fn. 1) As a means of staving off this eventuality the King, in March 1349, attempted to resuscitate an Estate of Merchants on the lines of that of 1343, except that it was to consist of only half the number of members He summoned to his counsels at Easter (fn. 2) an assembly of seventy-six merchants in the hope, apparently, that by authorising some of their number to take over the farm of the subsidy, they would not only save the financial situation but would conter a quasi-legality on the maletote and provide some guarantee of its efficient collection If this was the King's scheme it failed A body of thirty-two merchants was indeed got together who undertook to be guarantors for Chiriton & Co, but only four or five of them had been amongst those summoned to the assembly, nor do they appear to have possessed any other claim to a representative character A year later they were involved in the ruin and disgrace which, sooner or later, overtook all the King's creditors, (fn. 1) and the King himself, especially as the truce with France was expiring, was again compelled to seek parliamentary sanction for his finance

The importance of these middle years of the fourteenth century in the history of Parliament can scarcely be exaggerated During the first half of the reign of Edward III all the main features of our parliamentary constitution had emerged, but none of them had attained fixity The exclusive right of a properly constituted parliament, as distinguished from a Great Council however summoned, to authorise taxation, and its claim to initiate and determine legislation had been repeatedly asserted by the Commons and clearly acknowledged by the King But Great Councils in consultation with irregular assemblies of merchants had continued to levy new taxation, the petitions of the Commons, even when fully granted, had remained without statutory effect, and the representative basis of the Commons, as determined by writs of summons, had changed its character from one Parliament to another The conflict on all these connected issues had been clearly approaching a climax in the January and March sessions of 1348, but the pestilence of the autumn had enabled the King once more to repudiate his concessions and to reassume control over finance and legislation.

In view of what had happened, the parliament of 1351 could hardly be expected to make a new grant of direct taxation in the simple faith that the King would cease to impose the wool tax Since the renewal of war necessitated further taxation it was safer to authorise for a limited period the subsidy which the King was certain to exact, and to extort in return as many concessions and safeguards as possible.

This was the origin of the "free trade" enactments of 1351, (fn. 2) which, so far from embodying, as has been generally supposed, a policy of plenty conceived and inaugurated by the King (fn. 3) represent the protests made by the Commons against the King's fiscal expedients in the past and the safeguards adopted by the Commons against the repetition of those expedients in the future The Commons pray that, "as the tax of forty shillings on the sack of wool which the merchants have granted to the King falls in no wise on the merchant, but on the people, that it may please the King for the relief of his people that the said forty shillings be not henceforth demanded or levied, and that commission be not made for such special grants except in full Parliament, and that if any such grant be made outside Parliament it may be held as of no effect And that all manner of merchants, poor as well as rich, aliens as well as the King's subjects, the King's enemies only excepted, may be free to pass with their merchandise without being restrained by those who call themselves the King's merchants or by any other individual as long as they pay the King what is due And in case it please the King in this his great necessity to have the aforesaid subsidy of forty shillings for half a year or a year longer, may it please him to show his will to the Peers and Commons of the land for their comfort (fn. 1) "

The grant of the subsidy for two more years which the Lords and Commons were ultimately induced to make was, it is clear, the price paid for the King's consent to the Statute in which their demands for freedom of trade were fully conceded There were, however, three serious elements of instability in the settlement thus attempted in 1351 In the first place, the new statute, in empowering all merchants, native or foreign, to buy and sell freely in all parts of the realm, set aside, not merely the monopoly of a small group of financiers, but the gild privileges enjoyed by a considerable number of that middle section of the trading class from which the Estate of Merchants had been mainly drawn In the second place, the King was not likely to accept as final a settlement which would not only deprive him in two years time of his main fiscal resource, but would, in the meantime, if strictly observed, prevent him from offering special terms to any body of merchants in return for an advance on the subsidy And in the third place, whilst free trade in wool was nominally established, the staple at Bruges, in which that trade had for ten years been concentrated, was still in operation and possessed all the advantages of a highly organised market

It was this last condition that gave force to the other two, as it enabled the King to negotiate once more with the exporting merchants In the autumn of 1351 he obtained £5,000 in advances upon the security of future subsidy from over a hundred exporters In half a dozen cases the loans were made by boroughs in their corporate capacities, including Norwich, Lynn, and Coventry As early as April the aldermen and certain leading commoners of London, on behalf of the city, had given their consent to a much larger loan of 20,000 marks on the same security, but the main body of the commoners had repudiated the action of their representatives, and even brought two of them for trial at the Guildhall Similar opposition to the assessment of the loan was manifested at Coventry (fn. 3) and York (fn. 4) Without entering more fully into the wider social and economic significance of these municipal conflicts we may, I think, take it for granted that the negotiations of the loans with the mercantile oligarchies of the towns involved a deliberate infraction of the conditions upon which the Commons had agreed to continue the subsidy It foreboded in fact a renewal of the attempt to displace Parliament by an Estate of Merchants, and it is this attempt and its failure that afford the main clues to the constitutional development of 1352-4, as recorded in the Rolls of Parliament.

The issues raised in the Parliament of January 1352 and the Great Council of July 1352 have not been overlooked by historians, but their bearing and importance become clearer in the light of the previous history of the Estate of Merchants and of the subsequent events of 1353-4 In opening the January Parliament on behalf of the King, Chief Justice Shareshill proposed that the Commons should delegate twenty-four or thirty of their number to negotiate with the great men of the Council This, it will be remembered, had been the course adopted with the Assembly of Merchants in 1343, and the result had been to separate the interests of the delegates from those of the main body of merchants The Commons refused to derogate from their responsibility as an assembly, and insisted on continuing to deliberate as a whole. The other issue was the vital one of their legislative capacity Again and again since the beginning of the war the King had purchased supplies by granting the petitions of the Commons, but no effective way had been found of giving statutory force to those concessions or of preventing subsequent evasion of his promises by the King In 1348 the Commons had requested that their petitions might be heard by a committee of prelates, lords and judges in the presence of four or six of their own members so that they might be reasonably answered in the present Parliament and when they were answered in full the answers might remain in force without being changed (fn. 1) In 1351 the full text of the principal statutes enacted in that year, including the Statute of Labourers and the statute in which the "free trade" demands of the Commons were embodied, was appended to the Roll of Parliament As a precedent these steps were of great consequence, but, measured by the standards of solid constitutional achievement, they were no more than tentative beginnings-the expressions of a tendency that might easily be frustrated

From this point of view the procedure of the January Parliament of 1352 is of great interest In making his appeal to the whole Commons for a further grant of supply, after their tacit refusal to negotiate through delegates, Chief Justice Shareshill encouraged them to present to Parliament petitions either for redress of grievances or for amendment of the law. The Commons, after long consultations with their constituents on the one hand, and with members of the King's Council on the other hand, upon the two inseparable questions of supply and the legislative redress of grievances, appeared again before the King to present a roll in which a grant of two tenths and fifteenths was made conditional upon a speedy and favourable reply to a long list of forty-three petitions attached to the offer It is true that according to the literal sense of the roll the only absolute condition was the grant of the first petition, i e that the fines levied for breach of the Statute of Labourers should go to the diminution of the taxes, but there can be no doubt that the favourable replies attached to the great majority of the other petitions, including the full text of the new Statute of Treasons, were clearly intended as part of the bargain and recorded as such upon the Roll (fn. 1)

The solution of his financial problems which the King thus achieved was but a temporary one Experience had shown that the expense of the war which had now recommenced required the simultaneous imposition of the wool subsidy along with direct taxation Parliament had now made a grant of direct taxation, whilst the wool subsidy previously authorised had still a year to run, but the price of this concession was the acknowledgment of its control over taxation in future, and it was not at all likely to authorise the simultaneous renewal of both forms of revenue At this point there was added to the problem a further complication The foreign staple at Bluges which, through the organisation of a restricted market, had rendered it possible for the King to secure not only a high export tax on wool but also monopoly profits in addition, was ceasing in the summer of 1352 to be practicable owing to the growing hostility of the Flemings (fn. 2) If the large revenue hitherto derived from the wool trade was to be maintained some new arrangement must be made Staple restrictions were not absolutely essential to the imposition of a high subsidy, though they made its collection easier, but they were essential to any scheme of monopoly, and the prospect of sharing in monopoly profits had been the chief motive that had induced successive assemblies of merchants to authorise the subsidy, and to make advances on the security of it The great majority of the native traders had found that prospect to be illusory, and in recent parliaments their denunciations of the staple at Bruges and the forms of monopoly associated with it had been blended in a common protest with the wool growers' denunciations of the subsidy The abandonment of the Bruges staple which was becoming a political and fiscal necessity might be represented as a valuable concession with which the King might expect to purchase some kind of parliamentary authorisation of the continuance of the subsidy But such a bargain would be most likely to be successfully accomplished in an assembly dominated by the native traders, since their objections to the foreign staple were stronger and their objections to the subsidy were weaker than those of the wool growers Moreover, the separate interest of the native traders, more especially those of the home staple towns, would afford the most convenient basis for a new arrangement for collecting the subsidy and for negotiating loans

Some such considerations as these would at any rate serve to explain the character and the sequence of the assemblies called together in 1352-3, the Great Council of August 1352, the Assembly of Merchants of July 1353, and the Great Council of September 1353 It was in the last of these assemblies that the Ordinance of the Staple was enacted, but the question had very probably been under discussion in all three The development of their representative character is therefore worth noting Eleven boroughs and the Cinque Ports were represented in the first, twenty-three in the second, and forty-three (including the Cinque Ports) in the third In the first and second assemblies the towns represented were, with two or three exceptions, ports or previously recognised "home staples," whilst in the final assembly over a dozen of the chief inland centres of the wool trade were added (fn. 1)

From the constitutional point of view, however, the character of these assemblies is determined not so much by the narrower or wider representation of the mercantile element as by the due subordination of that element to the larger social interests that had come to find normal expression in parliament The Great Council of July 1352, with its thirtyseven knights and fourteen borough members, was a miniature parliament not much larger than the committee which the Commons had been invited to appoint in the spring It would doubtless have been a dangerous precedent for such a body to have assumed the power of discussing the future basis of taxation, but as the county members summoned were in a considerable majority over the borough members, they would be scarcely likely to sacrifice the interests of the wool growers to those of the merchants The Great Council was probably summoned to deal administratively with the threatened stoppage of the Bruges staple, and as the re-establishment of the home staples would, apart from the question of the subsidy, be a popular measure, the King may have mooted the proposal at this assembly, especially as all the boroughs represented, but one, were included in the subsequent scheme But from the King's point of view the "home staples" proposal was a valuable concession to be sold to the highest bidder, and he would not be likely therefore to begin serious negotiations about it except with an assembly that would find it worth while to offer a high price, i e with an assembly composed mainly of merchants

In those negotiations two main stages are clearly indicated by the calling of two quite distinct assemblies in July and September 1353, but it is only the second of these bodies-the Great Council-by which the ordinances of the staple were fully discussed and finally approved that has left us any account of its deliberations We may be quite sure that the earlier assembly was called to consider the staple question, but in what form this was done and what relation the proposals laid before it or emanating from it bore to the later ordinances must be entirely a matter for inference or conjecture In its composition and the form of its summonses the assembly did not differ from the bodies with which in 1337 and 1343 the King had concluded his contracts of monopoly except that it contained, along with seventy-one native wool merchants, thirteen of the King's Italian and German creditors (fn. 1) The possibility, therefore, that some project of monopoly was considered and rejected by the assembly cannot be altogether excluded On the other hand, it is to be noted that the merchants summoned were not, as in the case of earlier assemblies, largely from inland wool-producing districts, but, with two exceptions, were all from staple towns or from the ports, a fact which makes it extremely probable that they were consulted in the drafting of the ordinances that established the home staples It is indeed not impossible that the scheme in its main features was drawn up by this purely mercantile body and was afterwards submitted to the more parliamentary assembly of September, partly in order to secure a greater degree of sanction, but still more as a valuable concession by which a continuance of the wool subsidy might be purchased.

Of the assembly that met at Westminster on September 23, 1353, Stubbs says "This body acted very much as a parliament it was in fact a 'magnum concilium,' including a representation of the Commons except the beneficed clergy it contained all the elements which were necessary to a perfect parliament, but these elements were combined in different proportions" (fn. 1) And Sir James Ramsay says "It was in fact an expanded merchant assembly summoned to sanction a change of mercantile policy" (fn. 2) Each of these descriptions is true, but the whole truth is best expressed by a combination of both In summoning eighty-two burghers from forty-three towns specially selected for their interest in the wool trade, and only a single belted knight from each of thirty-seven shires, the King undoubtedly intended to give such a preponderance to the mercantile element as would facilitate his bargain about the subsidy and the staple, and it is equally certain that by including the knights and the other elements of a perfect parliament he hoped to secure parliamentary sanction for any bargain that was struck He was successful in both these immediate aims, but if he hoped to establish a precedent he was disappointed The Great Council, it is true, " acted very much as a parliament", it authorised a three years' continuance of the wool subsidy and it enacted the Ordinances of the Staple But whilst consenting to exercise temporarily the powers of a parliament, it showed in two important respects an effective desire to safeguard the rights of a properly constituted House of Commons Its own attitude and procedure were those of a parliament, and not those of an assembly of merchants, and it insisted that its legislative action should be confirmed and recorded by a parliament summoned on strictly constitutional lines (fn. 3)

The procedure adopted in regard to the enactment of the Ordinances of the Staple constitutes perhaps the first formal acknowledgment of the legislative power of Parliament The ordinance as first presented to the representatives of the Commons took the form, not of an administrative measure framed primarily in the King's fiscal interests, but of a remedy devised against a popular grievance-the admitted monopoly of the King's financiers in the foreign staple It had been drawn up by the prelates and great men of the King's Council without the advice of the Commons, but now that their assent was sought they were requested to put in writing any amendment to the ordinance which seemed to them desirable "And upon that the Commons demanded a copy of the said points, which copy was delivered to them, this is to say, one copy to the knights of the shires and another to the citizens and burgesses And they, after great deliberation, had between them showed to the Council their opinion in writing, which writing, having been read and debated by the magnates, the Ordinances of the Staple were made in the following form 'Edward by the grace of God, etc Inasmuch as after good deliberation with prelates, dukes, earls, barons, knights of shires, and commons of cities and boroughs, we have, by the counsel and common assent of the said prelates, dukes, earls, barons, knights and commons aforesaid, ordained and established' " (fn. 1)

From this it is clear that the Commons took an active part in framing the ordinances From the actual provisions of the ordinances, from the demands that they should receive statutory form, from the later petitions of the Commons that they should be thoroughly enforced, and from the indignation of the Commons when they were set aside, it is equally clear that they represented in the main a body of concessions made by the King to his people at large This aspect of the matter is somewhat obscured by the fact that the primary object of the ordinances was the organisation of the home staples, and this seems to be a fiscal concern of the King's Even on this side, however, the purpose of the ordinances was to displace an unconstitutional and monopolistic organisation of foreign trade by an organisation which, whilst duly providing for the collection of the revenue, would leave to buyer and to seller the greatest possible amount of freedom Viewed as a whole the ordinances of 1353, and the statute of 1354 may be regarded as a re-enactment of the "free trade" statute of 1351 with the addition of elaborate machinery intended to secure the practical realisation of the policy demanded by the Commons Wool and hides, lead and tin must be taken before exportation to the staples that they might be duly cocketed and customed, but they might be bargained for freely by native or foreign merchants in any part of the country, and similar freedom was conferred upon the import trade in wine, victuals and other commodities (fn. 1)

To this general demand for free trade there was a remarkable exception which has been a stumblingblock to most commentators, but which is seen on closer examination to be an exception that proves the rule Native merchants were entirely prohibited from exporting staple produce, (fn. 2) and a similar though not quite so complete a restriction was placed on the native importation of Gascon wines As the King gained by the higher rate of custom paid by aliens on staple produce, it is possible to regard this clause of the Ordinance entirely as a concession to his fiscal interests But those who have followed the history of the wool trade as it has been recorded will probably find no difficulty in believing that the exclusion of the native exporter was supported, not only by the wool growers, but by the majority of native traders as a necessary safeguard on the freedom of trade In the incurable division of interest which this implies, and which was destined to endure for a generation to come, the Statute of Staples may be considered as marking the final collapse of the Estate of Merchants as a dangerous rival to the House of Commons (fn. 3)


1 C C R 1349-54, p 61
2 Ib, p 64 Lords' Report, IV, 586.
1 C C R 1349-54, p 197
2 25 Edw III, c 2
3 Cunningham, I, par 98
1 Rot Parl, II, 229
1 C C R 1349-54, p 342
2 Bk F, p 235, C C R 1349-54, p 392
3 C P R 1349-54, p 201
4 C C R 1349-54, p 336
5 Stubbs, II 428, 617, Ramsay, I, 376
1 Stubbs, II, 603-9 Cf J Redlich, The Procedure of the House of Commons (trans A E Steinthal), I, 14
2 Rot Parl, II, 231-5
1 Rot Parl, II, 237-42
2 C C R 1349-54, pp 454-5. 506, 508
1 Lords' Report, IV, 595-601
1 Lords' Report, IV, 596-8
1 Stubbs, II, 429
2 Ramsay, I, 378
3 Rot Parl, II, 242-53
1 Ib, 242-6
1 Rot Parl, II, 246-52
2 Ib, II, 247
3 Another assembly of merchants (apparently the last recorded) was summoned by individual writs in June 1357 (C C R 1354-60, p 314; Lords' Report, IV, p 609