Front Page Titles (by Subject) 48.: SPENCER BRODHURST, THE MERCHANTS OF THE STAPLE 1 - Select Essays in Anglo-American Legal History, vol. 3
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48.: SPENCER BRODHURST, THE MERCHANTS OF THE STAPLE 1 - Committee of the Association of American Law Schools, Select Essays in Anglo-American Legal History, vol. 3 
Select Essays in Anglo-American Legal History, by various authors, compiled and edited by a committee of the Association of American Law Schools, in three volumes (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1909). Vol. 3.
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THE MERCHANTS OF THE STAPLE1
‘CENTURY after century,’ says Dr. Le Bon in his Psychology of Peoples, ‘our departed ancestors have fashioned our ideas and sentiments, and in consequence all the motives of our conduct. The generations that have passed away do not bequeath us their physical constitution merely; they also bequeath us their thoughts. We bear the burden of their mistakes, we reap the reward of their virtues.’ The good as well as the evil that men do lives after them to the advantage or detriment of thousands of whom they never thought, and who, as likely as not, have never heard of them. A legal code, a method of legal procedure, may affect interests separated by centuries of time from those which in the first instance they were intended to serve. The civil law of Rome, embodied in the codes of Theodosius and Justinian in the fifth and sixth centuries, has been the guide and model for most of the legal systems of Europe, the common law of England and the Code Napoléon of France bearing eloquent testimony to the abilities of the great jurists who lived and laboured under the Roman Empire.
The staple system,3 long since dead and gone, but once a most important element in moulding and directing the commercial activities of this country, is an instance on a smaller scale of how an organization, which has for practical purposes completely vanished, may yet exert a modifying influence over some detail intimately connected with a people’s well-being. . . .1 The connexion between the merchants of the staple and bearer debentures is perhaps not very obvious at first sight. Nevertheless there is a connexion, and a not unimportant one. The law merchant in former days was not, as now, a part of the common law administered by the judges of the Queen’s Bench; it had officials of its own, who exercised jurisdiction in the staple courts. Had it always been part and parcel of the common law, it is highly probable that cases connected with bills of exchange would appear in the law books earlier than the time of James I, seeing that they were probably well known in England at least three centuries previously. Owing to the fact that no mention of them occurs at an earlier date, it has been argued that the custom of treating bills of exchange as negotiable did not date from time immemorial (the reign of Richard I), and that if, in spite of that fact, these instruments have been recognized as being rendered negotiable through the instrumentality of the law merchant, there is no reason why debentures to bearer should not likewise be acknowledged as negotiable instruments without the intervention of a statute, although they are avowedly of comparatively recent origin. Now, if it could be shown that bills of exchange were dealt with in the courts of the staple as early as the reign of Richard I, this argument would obviously fall to the ground. It is, however, improbable that any records were kept of proceedings in these courts, and even if such records did exist, it would certainly be difficult to carry them back as far as the end of the twelfth century, if the instruments themselves were, as tradition relates, introduced by the Venetians in the thirteenth. It is a possible, if not a very probable, hypothesis that some of the Assyrian contract-tablets in the British Museum are bills of exchange in a rudimentary form; but, so far as concerns the decision of the question whether the debentures to bearer called into existence for the mercantile convenience of the nineteenth century are or are not negotiable instruments, any inquiry on the point is hardly likely to be fruitful of important results. But the mere fact that greater light on the peculiar law by which the mercantile community was governed in the early phases of our history might effectually modify the commercial relations of to-day, proves that the institutions of our remote ancestors are occasionally of more immediate concern to us than the ‘practical’ man is apt to believe.
Involved in obscurity as the precise origin of the staple system is, it is not difficult to understand how it came into existence. Until almost the end of the reign of Edward III the policy of the English Government tended rather to discourage than to encourage trading abroad by its subjects. That may not have been the intention, but it was the effect of the regulations imposed. At that comparatively late period English merchants were practically excluded from foreign commerce, and their struggles against aliens were chiefly waged around the internal trade of the country. In the twenty-seventh year of Edward III we find it enacted that denizens and aliens alike may purchase wools, &c., in the counties, and convey them to the ports of embarkation, but that the process of exporting shall be exclusively in the hands of the foreigners, and that no subject of the realm shall export wools for himself in the name of an alien, nor have any agent abroad for that purpose, nor receive payment for the same abroad. Naturally enough such regulations as these caused a feeling of intense jealousy against the foreign merchants, particularly when they settled in this country and interfered with Englishmen, who, with some justification, considered that, as compensation for the disabilities they were under as regarded foreign commerce, they should at least be allowed a free hand in the country’s internal trade. The citizens of London had long since formulated regulations of their own under which aliens should trade. Unfortunately, however, they found themselves unable to enforce their rules, and when they complained to Edward I that they, who bore the common burdens of the town, were impoverished by the competition of foreigners, whose stay was now unlimited instead of, as formerly, restricted to forty days, that monarch refused to assist them. Edward was inclined to favour the merchants of Gascony and Flanders, and such confederations as the Hanseatic League, to which he gave a charter of incorporation and a special place of residence in the style-haus. One reason of the favour shown to them probably was that it proved easier to squeeze foreigners bringing their wares into the kingdom than subjects of the realm taking merchandise to the Continent. The latter were always apt to kick against what they believed to be undue exactions, while the former, needing the king’s protection against the hostility of his English subjects, were ready to submit to the payment of tolls which might under other circumstances have struck them as exorbitant.
For another thing, Edward, in favouring the foreigner at the expense of the Englishman, was continuing the policy of his predecessors, and was also giving effect to the generally recognized principle that the foreigners’ visits were to the advantage of the country. They imported wine and manufactured commodities, they exported the raw English products; and it is quite possible that, had it not been for them, England would in the early centuries have been without a foreign trade at all. It is highly probable that the policy was extended, as many a policy has been, beyond the period when it was desirable in a strictly economical view of this country’s interests; but the clauses of the Great Charter had granted freedom of trade to the foreigner, and the towns, in their municipal regulations as well as by their representatives at Acton Burnel, had acquiesced in his encouragement. Aliens were, indeed, forced to pay customs at a higher rate than subjects, but this does not seem to have had any serious effect in counteracting the privileges they enjoyed. At any rate, the English shipowners appear to have been at a disadvantage during the greater part of the reign of Edward III, and it was not until the Navigation Act of Richard II aimed a blow at the Gascon merchants that the Englishmen were able to thoroughly establish their footing in foreign trade. It was then, indeed, that the export trade of the country was beginning to be organized in the hands of the Merchant Adventurers and the Staplers.1
We must not, however, suppose that English activities were entirely confined to English soil; that would be to presume that a change has taken place in English character for which six centuries, howsoever eventful, would be quite inadequate to account. The end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth centuries may be taken as the culminating point of a long period of steady and solid progress. The towns, which were the centres of commercial life, were in a highly prosperous condition, and the circumstances of the time were generally favourable to a rapid industrial advance. It was, therefore, only to be expected that, however Englishmen as a body might be hampered by governmental restrictions in forming commercial connexions abroad, a natural pushfulness would carry an individual here and there over all the obstacles set in his way. That this expectation is not unfounded is proved by the fact that an old writer mentions a mayor of the English merchants trading in Flanders as having been sent to settle certain disputes in the year 1313.2 Such an official could only have belonged to some kind of recognized association, and it may accordingly be fairly assumed that English traders were by no means unknown on the Continent in the early years of Edward II, while it is highly probable that they frequented various marts in Brabant, Flanders, and Antwerp at a considerably earlier date.
However that may be, the institution which was subsequently to give the impetus to and exert a powerful influence over England’s foreign trade became a distinct political organism in the reign of Edward III. It had long been the custom to hold fairs at all places of any importance throughout the kingdom. Thither the country folk would bring their produce for sale, and there, until the time of Edward III, the greater part of the wholesale trade of the country was transacted, aliens being free to frequent them.1 The policy of the fourteenth century, however, was to draw trade into a few selected towns in which were established continuous markets or staples, and not to be content with the occasional opportunities for trade which the intermittent fairs afforded. The same policy seems to have been pursued in Norway where Bergen was the staple for the Iceland trade, and in France where Philip did his utmost in 1314 to induce the English to frequent the staple at St. Omer instead of the fair at Lille.2 That it was not always easy to give effect to the policy is evident from the proceedings relating to the royal staple at Bergen. The English persisted in trading direct with Iceland, and set at naught the regulations which governed transactions at the staple. The King of Norway thereupon confiscated the goods of English merchants throughout his dominions, a step which caused general consternation, since there were no Danish merchants trading with England against whom reprisals could be made. The contraband trade with Iceland, however, continued to be carried on in spite of these endeavours to put it down, until in 1476 the ravaging of the island and the slaughter of the royal bailiff was met by the prompt exclusion of the English from Bergen and the triumph for the time of the Hanseatic League.3
Still, in spite of constant violations, the staple system grew and throve. It is possible that the majority of merchants preferred to have one or more marts assigned, where English produce might regularly be supplied, so that those who wished to purchase it could frequent that recognized place of sale. In early times, when the stream of commerce was too feeble to permeate constantly to all parts of the country, the concentration of trade at certain staple towns was probably advantageous to its growth; particularly as the merchants assembling there might obtain a grant of political and judicial privileges, which they could not hope for unless they undertook to frequent the town and pay the dues regularly. Jurisdiction to enforce bargains must in particular have been a highly valued privilege at a time when the execution of contracts generally was not easily compellable by legal process, and was probably well worth the sacrifice of the freedom of trade which the staple regulations entailed. And although there were some traders who preferred to trade at other ports than the staple, and were willing to pay for royal licenses to do so, we may assume that the system met, on the whole, with the approval of the commercial classes. At any rate we find that the merchants of Scotland considered it desirable to fix a staple at Campfer in 1586 and not to have an open trade, and if the system had not possessed substantial advantages it would certainly not have met with so generally favourable a reception as it did. The objects of the staple system were fourfold:
Primarily it was a fiscal provision, its object being to facilitate the collection of the royal customs; and it is easy to see how much more simple a matter this collection would become if exportation were confined to a dozen English ports and one foreign centre, than if permitted at the absolute discretion of the producer or the merchant. To the king it was a matter of personal interest that the duties should be fully paid, since his private expenditure depended in those days upon the customs, and he was accordingly willing to confer such privileges as would be likely to entice traders to comply with the regulations of the system.
In the second place, the staple system fulfilled a useful function by ensuring the quality of exported goods. Commercial morality was none too high in those days, and the average trader fully appreciated the maxim caveat emptor. He had not the ingenuity of his nineteenth-century successor, but such tricks as he knew for the undoing of the consumer he too often practised with energy and perseverance. The staple checked his activities in this direction by providing a machinery for viewing and marking merchandise at the staple towns and places of export.1 The statute 27 Edward III enacted that all wool for export should be brought to fifteen staple towns named therein, and that the weight should be certified by the mayor of the staple under his seal. When the staple town and the place of export were not identical (the port for York, for instance, was Hull; of Lincoln, St. Botolf; of Norwich, Yarmouth; of Westminster, London; of Canterbury, Sandwich; and of Winchester, Southampton), the wool was weighed a second time on reaching the port; but where the staple town was itself a seaport, as were Newcastle, Bristol, and Dublin, a single weighing sufficed. An indenture was then made between the mayor of the staple and the ‘customers,’ and the tolls were paid by the merchant, these being considerably heavier in the case of aliens than denizens.
Even when raw materials only were exported this precaution seems to have been desirable to prevent adulteration, and it no doubt became additionally so as merchandise manufactured in England began to be sold abroad. When the staple system began to decay and the precautions against fraudulent dealing were relaxed, the quality of goods quickly deteriorated. In a Dialogue or Confabulation between Two Travellers, written about the year 1580, we are introduced at a meeting consisting of a ‘Cittye clothyer,’ a ‘contrye clothyer,’ a husbandman and a merchant, at which a discussion takes place as to the causes of the deterioration of English-made clothing. It is generally agreed that the fault lies chiefly with the careless and inefficient methods of examining and marking woollen goods now in vogue, and the husbandman quaintly points out the difference between the good old times and the present. ‘In times paste,’ says he, ‘we had clothes made that woold contynue a man’s lyfe, where now yf yt be worne two or thre yeares yt is so thryd bare as a lowse can have no coverte.’
Thirdly, the system seems at one time to have been employed to replenish the stock of gold in this country. The idea was that the English merchants trading at Calais should refuse to take payment for their wares except in the precious metals, thus enticing the coin of other countries into England; and an old writer complains bitterly that, on a standard rate of exchange being established at Calais, the former practice was given up to the detriment of the kingdom. Adventurers, he tells us, have brought strange merchandise out of Flanders to destroy the manufactures in England, with the result that the king and his lords are in difficulties for money. ‘The whole wealth of the realm,’ he says, ‘is for all our rich commodities to get out of all other realms therefor ready money; and after the money is brought into the whole realm, so shall all people in the realm be made rich therewith. And after it is in the realm, better it were to pay 6d. for anything made in the realm than to pay but 4d. for a thing made out of the realm, for that 6d. is also spent in the realm and the 4d. spent out of the realm is lost and not ours.’1
Edward III, it is true, allowed payment to be made indifferently in gold, silver, or merchandise, so long as the payment took place in this country, and not more money was taken out of the kingdom than was brought in.2 Richard II, however, provided that foreigners were to receive at least half the value of the wares they brought into the kingdom in English merchandise,3 which, whatever may have been the intention, certainly had the effect of keeping coin in the country as well as pushing English goods abroad. Henry VI, after stating that the mint at Calais was ‘like to be void, desolated, and destroyed,’4 provided that the whole payment for wool, woolfels, and tin should be made in gold and silver without collusion, and that the bullion should be brought to the Calais mint. No part of the price was to be left outstanding on goods sold, in order that ‘the same money may be brought within the realm without subtilty or fraud.’5 In the third year of Edward IV, again, we find a petition from the Commons asking that all coin and bullion received at the staple should be brought to the mint at Calais and thence returned to England, showing that Parliament regarded the system as a method of replenishing the gold stocks of the kingdom. The means adopted may not accord with the economic principles of modern times, but there was possibly some justification for them in an age when there was not a constant flow of gold to our shores from Africa, America, and Australia.
Fourthly, the system provided a special tribunal designed ‘to give courage to merchant strangers to come with their wares and merchandise into the realm.’1 The provision of a satisfactory machinery for the recovery of debts was, by the end of the thirteenth century, becoming a prime necessity of the growth of commerce, and the staple system afforded a convenient basis on which to build up a judicial procedure. Wherever a market or fair was held it had been customary from a very remote period that, when disputes arose as to the terms of a bargain, the questions at issue should be decided by four or five of the merchants present on the spot, who were expected to apply the principles and customs recognized as obtaining generally among the trading classes. This practice is referred to in a charter of Henry III as having prevailed for many years previously,2 and it was this informal judicial procedure upon which was now conferred the sanction of parliamentary authority. Justice, it was ordained, was to be done to the foreigner from day to day and hour to hour, according to the law of the staple or the law merchant, and not according to the common law or particular burghal usages.3 Alien merchants were to be impleaded before no tribunal but that of the mayor and constables of the staple.4 These officials were to be elected annually in every staple town by the commonalty of the merchants, aliens as well as denizens. They were empowered to keep the peace, and to arrest offenders for trespass, debt, or breach of contract. The mayor was, further, to have recognizances of debts, a seal being provided for the purpose.5
The court of the staple had no cognizance of criminal offences, unless when the avenger of blood chose to prosecute at his own peril.6 Speaking of the court of the staple at Calais, Mr. Hall says7 that it was a tribunal analogous in many respects to the local councils of the north and west of England under Tudor sovereigns. Its main object was to draw all civil actions in which staplers were in any wise concerned within its jurisdiction, in order to expedite the course of justice and to lessen the expenses incident thereto. In addition to trying civil actions there appears to have been, in that instance, a general jurisdiction to deal with all matters concerning the well-being of the mercantile community; for we find that the mayor, in a full court of all the merchants, was to assign to each merchant lodgings suitable for his entertainment, which he must frequent unless he could show good cause to the contrary. But this extended jurisdiction was granted, no doubt, after the staplers of Calais had been incorporated, and had reference only to the members of the corporation.
It was further enacted, by the statute already referred to, that the mayors, sheriffs, and bailiffs of the towns where the staples were held, should aid the mayors and constables of the staples in the execution of their duties.1 This must be read as referring to those cases only in which these offices were not combined, or, perhaps, as relating to a time before municipal economy had seen the advantage of combination. For we find, in Toulmin Smith’s English Gilds,2 that at the annual induction of the mayor of Bristol ‘there was to be redde the Maires Commission of the Staple with the dedimus potestatem, and upon the same the Maire there to take his othe, after the fforme and effect of a Cedule enclosid withyn the seide dedimus potestatem yf it be then y-come.’ And on the same day the mayor was to call before him his sergeants to be bound with their sureties for the proper execution of their offices during the year ‘as wele in the Staple court as otherwyse.’ This record was written by Robert Ricart, who became Town Clerk of Bristol in 1497. He tells us that he received instructions from one Spencer, the mayor for that year, ‘to devise, ordaigne, and make this present boke for a remembratif evir hereafter, to be called and named the Maire of Bristowe is Register, or ellis the Maire is Kalendar.’ Now, by a charter granted to Bristol in the forty-seventh year of Edward III (1373), jurisdiction was given to the mayor and sheriffs, to hear and determine all suits relating to all contracts, covenants, accounts, debts, trespasses, pleas, and plaints arising within the town of Bristol, its precincts and suburbs, with the exception of those cases only in which a writ of error should lie to the justices in eyre, or of gaol delivery, and also of ‘inquisitions and determinations of customs and subsidies of wool, leather, skins, felts, and other customs and subsidies of us and our heirs by cocket1 or otherwise belonging to us or our heirs from the grant of our faithful people and subjects.’2 These words would seem to show that the officials of the staple and of the borough were not identical in 1373. On the other hand, since Ricart writes as if there were nothing unusual or new in the execution of the duties of the staple by the mayor of the borough, we must conclude that the amalgamation of the staple and the ordinary jurisdictions took place in this instance nearer to 1373 than to 1479. Indeed, the mayor of the staple town, where there was one, would seem to be a most fit and proper person to execute the duties attaching to the staple, since 27 Edward III specifically required one who was well versed in the law merchant to fill the office of mayor of the staple, and no one was more likely to possess the necessary qualification than the man chosen by the burgesses as their representative and head. It would not be safe to conclude that it became at any time a general practice for the mayor of the borough to discharge the duties of mayor of the staple, since we find that at Drogheda the mayor and sheriffs of the borough one year became mayor and constables of the staple in the following year, and master and wardens of the Gild of Merchants in their third year. But as the mayor and sheriffs of Waterford were, by virtue of their office, mayor and constables of the staple at the same time,3 it is probable that such a combination was not unusual.
The foreign merchant was, it appears, not compellable originally (whatever may have been the case at a later date) to bring his case in the staple court: he might, if he so preferred, sue in the courts of common law, and have the law of the land applied instead of the law merchant.1 And although the justices in eyre, of assise, and of the Marshalsea, were not to intervene in matters of which the mayor of the staple had cognizance,2 there was an appeal to the Chancellor and the King’s Council, if the mayor had unduly favoured either party.3 It would seem probable, also, that the Chancellor had an original as well as an appellate jurisdiction; for in the thirteenth year of Edward IV we find that official stating, in a suit brought before him in the Star Chamber by a foreign merchant, that the plaintiff was not bound to sue in the ordinary courts, ‘but he ought to sue here, and it shall be determined by the law of nature in Chancery.’ The administration of justice in the case of foreigners was, he said, to be ‘secundum legem naturae, which is called by some the law merchant, which is the law universal of the world.’ In the case in question the justices certified that, since the plaintiff was an alien, his goods were not forfeited to the Crown as a waif, though they would have been had he been a subject.4 We may, however, surmise that proceedings in the Star Chamber were exceptional, and were possibly only resorted to when the dispute concerned property of more than usual value. Under ordinary conditions the courts of the staple would be the most expeditious and satisfactory means of settling those differences of opinion which were as certain to arise in the course of mercantile transactions in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as they are to-day.
If an inquest was held to try the truth of any question in the staple courts, the jury was to consist wholly of denizens, when both parties to the suit were subjects; wholly of aliens, when both of the parties were aliens; and half of denizens and half of aliens, when one of the parties was a subject and the other a foreigner.
The statute staple—the recognizance ‘in the nature of a statute staple’ afterwards became a usual form of security in the ordinary courts—was introduced in the staple courts. It was a bond of record acknowledged before the mayor of the staple, in the presence of one or all the constables. To all obligations made on recognizances so acknowledged it was required that a seal should be affixed, and this seal of the staple was all that was necessary to attest the contract. The seal belonging to the staple court of Poole is still in existence, and bears the words ‘Sijill: Staple in Portu de Pole.’1
With the object of giving effect to the staple regulations a number of the most considerable towns in the kingdom were named as staple towns.2 To these centres the principal raw commodities of the kingdom—such as wool, woolfels, leather, tin, and lead—were brought for sale and exportation, and were in consequence known as the ‘staple’ wares of England, though the term came in time to be applied almost exclusively to wool. In speaking of the growth of duties on exports and imports Blackstone says:—
‘These (i. e. the customs on wool, skins, and leather) were formerly called the hereditary customs of the Crown, and were due on the exportation only of the said three commodities, and of none other: which men styled the staple commodities of the kingdom, because they were obliged to be brought to those ports where the King’s staple was, in order to be there first rated and then exported.’3
The staple was sometimes situated abroad, as at Bruges or Calais, and less frequently at Antwerp, St. Omer, or Middleburgh; sometimes at a number of English towns. Its history is involved in considerable obscurity until the reign of Edward III, but it appears to have been generally maintained in one of the wealthy cities of Flanders, no doubt because most of the English wool went thither to be made into cloth. It is true that we find Edward III, when attempting in the second year of his reign to establish freedom of trade according to the tenor of the Great Charter, declaring that ‘the staples beyond the sea and on this side, ordained by kings in times past,’ should cease.1 But in the seventeenth year of the same reign the merchants petitioned that the staple of wools might be removed to England, whereby would arise the following benefits: the price of wool would be enhanced; less merchandise would be lost at sea by English merchants; less bad money would be introduced into the kingdom; the king would have 40s. from every sack at the expense of aliens only; and the petitioners might receive an assignment of one half the customs paid by aliens in discharge of the debts due to them from the Crown. And, again, in the following year, it is stated ‘that the staple is ill-situate at Bruges. Formerly Italian and Spanish buyers were numerous; now the great cities of Flanders will not open the staple to strangers beyond Flanders.’2 It would, therefore, appear probable that such English staples as did exist were of little importance until the great Statute of Staple of 13543 temporarily abolished their foreign rivals and brought them into prominence. With some subsequent minor alterations, this enactment provided for the regulation of the system so long as it continued an active force in English history. . . .4 Even in the reign of Henry VII, the Merchants of the Staple were a body of no small importance, although the system had been falling into decay during the reigns of several of the first Tudor’s predecessors. The process of disintegration had commenced with the very considerable growth of the English cloth manufacture in the reign of Henry IV. In 1464 a statute of the fourth year of Edward IV recites that ‘owing to subtil bargains made in buying wools before that the sheep, that bear the same, be shorn,’ the clothmakers of the realm can obtain none, ‘to the great grief of them which have been accustomed to have their living by the mean of the making of cloth,’ and consequently forbids such bargains for the future. Many other Acts of the same reign show a solicitude for the growth of the home manufacture, and it is clear that the policy which in 1338 had forbidden the wearing of cloth made out of England, except to the royal family, and had invited, with the assurance of protection and privileges, ‘all cloth-workers of strange lands of whatsoever country they might be,’ had resulted in making England the principal centre of the cloth trade by the middle of the fifteenth century. The proverb that ‘riches follow the staple’ was ceasing to be appropriate. In Henry VI’s reign the revenue from staple commodities had fallen to £12,000 from £60,000, which accrued from the same source in the time of Edward III. This led to an enactment revoking all licenses to trade elsewhere than to Calais saving those granted to the Queen, the Duke of Suffolk, the Prior of Bridlington, and three others, and with the exception also, it would seem, of merchants passing the ‘Streyhts of Marrock,’ no doubt Gibraltar. These prohibitions, however, were apparently ineffectual, and by the close of the reign the Merchants of the Staple had reached a low ebb of prosperity. The seas were unsafe; disbanded captains received their rewards at the expense of the stapler’s monopoly; while the Merchant Adventurers had come upon the scene, and, trading under more favourable auspices than their rivals of the staple, promised to outstrip them in the race for commercial supremacy.1
During the reign of Henry VIII the Merchants of the Staple presented a petition to the Crown setting out their grievances. They pointed out that they had from time immemorial enjoyed a monopoly of traffic in the staple commodities of the kingdom, and reminded Cardinal Wolsey that they had exercised the privilege to the complete satisfaction of the Government. During the Wars of the Roses the garrison of Calais, their pay being eight years in arrear, had risen and compelled the merchants to satisfy their claims. Later had come bad seasons; a murrain had broken out among the flocks; wool was in consequence scarce, and production limited to wealthy graziers, who held back for advanced prices. The war had prevented foreign buyers from coming to Calais, the French, who formerly took 2,000 sacks of wool yearly, now accepting only 400. A continual loss had been suffered on exchange, so that ‘there has not been so little loste as £100,000.’ The consequence was that the members were falling off, and the fellowship was in process of decay.1 The sad condition of the Staplers seems to have met with little sympathy from the Government, although we do find that by a statute of the fifth year of Edward VI only Merchants of the Staple at Calais and their apprentices were to be allowed to buy wool, and that the Merchants of the Staple as well as the Merchant Adventurers were exempted from Elizabeth’s Navigation Act.2
The truth was that the system had by this time outlived the purposes of its creation. The principal feature of the economic history of England from the accession of the Plantagenets for some two centuries and a half was the export trade in wool, and the staple system was a useful, almost a necessary, machinery for the direction of that trade. Gradually, as the manufacture of cloth sprang up, and a trade in that commodity began to take the place formerly held by raw wool, the usefulness of the system declined; and the Staplers, with their anxiety to maintain their monopoly on the lines of the most rigid conservatism, ended by being a clog on the foreign trade of England, with which the ideas of the time were out of harmony. The loss of Calais in 1558 must practically have given the Merchants of the Staple their deathblow; but if anything further was required to complete the downfall, it was administered by an Act of 1660, which totally prohibited the export of wool, thereby producing such a glut of the material in the English markets that it had to be followed by the curious enactment which for nearly 150 years compelled every one to be buried in a woollen shroud.
Perhaps as compensation for this blow Charles II, in 1669, granted a charter of incorporation and a common seal to the Staplers under the title of ‘The Mayor, Constables, and Company of Merchants of the Staple of England.’ Since the conferment of this dignity the company has withdrawn itself from the fierce glare of public life, although it emerged therefrom in the year 1887, and successfully maintained an action against the Bank of England.1 The only other vestige of its former prosperity is Staple Inn in Holborn, near to which, tradition has it, was once the Wool Market of London, and at which the dealers in wool had their quarters. More fortunate than they, the Society of Merchant Adventurers were, we notice, represented by their Master upon the Queen’s visit to Bristol in November last. Yet they, too, are now little but a voice, for the merchant princes of the Tudor age have fallen from their high estate, and their place knoweth them no more.
[1 ]This Essay was first published in the Law Quarterly Review, vol. XVII, 1901, pp. 56-76.
[2 ]Barrister of the Inner Temple, 1891; Oxford University, M. A. 1891, B. C. L. 1891.
[3 ]The principal authorities referred to in this article are:—A Dialoge or Confabulation between Two Travellers. By William Spelman, circa 1580. Edited by J. E. Latton Pickering. London, 1896. Statutes of the Realm, 1810-1824. Prolusiones Historicae. By the Rev. E. Drake. Salisbury, 1837. Commentaries on the City of London. By George Norton. 1869. English Gilds. By Toulmin Smith. London, 1870. Drei volkswirthschaftliche Denkschriften. By Reinhold Pauli. Göttingen, 1878. The Gild Merchant. By Charles Gross, Ph. D. Oxford, 1890. A History of the Custom Revenue in England. By Hubert Hall. London, 1892. The Growth of English Industry and Commerce. By W. Cunningham, D. D. Cambridge, 1896.
[1 ][Here the author, in two pages omitted, comments on certain modern English cases.—Eds.]
[1 ]Cunningham, English Industry and Commerce, i. 290, 291.
[2 ]Rymer, Foedera, ii. 202.
[1 ]Cunningham, English Industry and Commerce, i. 293.
[3 ]Ibid., i. 418.
[1 ]Gross, Gild Merchant, i. 144.
[1 ]A Treatise concerning the Staple, in Pauli, Drei volksw. Denk., pp. 19, 32.
[2 ]27 Edw. III. c. 3, 14.
[3 ]14 Rich. II. c. 1.
[4 ]8 Henry VI. c. 17.
[5 ]Ibid. c. 18.
[1 ]27 Edw. III. c. 2.
[2 ]Norton’s City of London, 324.
[3 ]27 Edw. III. c. 2.
[4 ]Ibid. c. 8.
[5 ]Ibid. c. 9.
[6 ]Hall’s History of the Customs, i. 34. Chapter 8 of 27 Edward III gave jurisdiction to the staple courts to try felonies committed by or against merchants of the staple or their servants, but this power was withdrawn by 36 Edward III. c. 7.
[7 ]Ibid. i. 33.
[1 ]27 Edw. III. c. 21.
[2 ]P. 419.
[1 ]A cocket was a parchment scroll sealed and delivered by the officers of the custom-house to merchants as a warrant that ‘their merchandises are customed.’
[2 ]Seyer’s Bristol Charters, pp. 52 et seq.
[3 ]Gross, Merchant Gild, i. 146, 147 and notes.
[1 ]27 Edw. III. c. 8.
[2 ]27 Edw. III. c. 5.
[3 ]Ibid. c. 21.
[4 ]Blackburn on Sale, 317 (2nd ed.); and see Malynes, Lex Merc. 311.
[1 ]Gross, Gild Merchant, i. 142, n. 7.
[2 ]Duke in his Prolusiones Historicae suggests that the word staple originally meant padlock, and that its application in this sense arose from the fact that when the wares, on which customs were payable, were brought to the seaports for exportation, they were bonded in the royal warehouses under lock and key, until such time as they could be sold and the duties on them paid from the proceeds; that in course of time the word was applied to the goods so treated, and, lastly, to the merchants who dealt in the goods. But this seems merely fanciful. See Skeat, Etym. Dict. s. v. Staple, and Littré, s. v. Étape.
[3 ]Comm. i. 314, 315.
[1 ]2 Edw. III. c. 9.
[2 ]Hall’s History of the Customs, i. 215.
[3 ]27 Edw. III. stat. 2.
[4 ][Here the author, in six pages omitted, discusses the shifting of the staple towns and the date of the origin of the Company.—Eds.]
[1 ]Hall’s History of the Customs, i. 36.
[1 ]Hall’s History of the Customs, i. 37-39.
[2 ]Cunningham’s English Industry and Commerce, ii. 21.
[1 ]21 Q. B. D. 160.