The Rise of the Merchant Venturers

Late medieval Bristol thrived on adventure. Its merchants braved the hazards of storm, shipwreck and piracy to gain fortunes trading to foreign shores.

The replica built in Bristol of John Cabot's ship the Matthew.

The replica built in Bristol of John Cabot's ship the Matthew.

Medieval Bristol was among the richest of English cities. Its safe harbour made it second only to London as a port. In late medieval times cloth was the basis of Bristol's trade. West Country woollens flowed out through Bristol. This was a reversal of early medieval trade, when English wool was fed into the looms of the Low Countries to return here as cloth.

By 1400 the English were making cloth themselves on a large scale. England had undergone an industrial revolution. One technical development had a huge impact. The invention of mechanical fulling by water-power gave the South-West, with its abundance of fast- running rivers and streams, a natural lead in the developing industry.

Bristol expanded across the Avon into the new industrial suburb of Redcliffe. There the busy looms of weavers converted wool from the surrounding area into cloth. Fullers pounded it, dyers dipped it and it was hung out to dry on great racks. Then the merchants set out to market it.

Cloth could be sold in Bristol's own shops and markets. It could also be traded to London and elsewhere within the country. But the greatest profits came from shipping cloth overseas. It was a perilous enterprise, yet the rewards were great. Merchant adventurers could live like lords. The term 'adventurers' was given to those who traded overseas in cloth and other goods beyond the heavily-regulated staples like raw wool. From this aristocracy of merchants evolved the Society of Merchant Venturers, who controlled the port of Bristol for centuries.

Bristol trade was overwhelmingly in the hands of English merchants. Facing the Atlantic, Bristol had not attracted the German merchants who settled in every port of eastern England, or the Italians who were planted in the southern ports from London to Southampton. Bristolians paid their own way to markets in Ireland and down the Atlantic coasts of France, Portugal and Spain.

Ships leaving Bristol laden with bales of cloth might return from Ireland with linen, or hides to be worked into leather goods in industrious Bristol. The fine wines of sunnier climes were imported from Bordeaux, Lisbon and Seville. Another cherished commodity was dye. Without it the cloth of Bristol would have been sadly drab. Woad was crucial. It not only provided blue dye, but was used in the mixing of other colours. England did not grow enough to supply the booming cloth industry and so it was imported from Gascony. A precious scarlet dye came from Portugal.

The risks of all this sea traffic were formidable. A ship could be lost in a sudden storm or seized by pirates. Piracy was a constant threat. Any voyage between Bristol and Seville took a ship past nests of pirates in Cornwall, Brittany, Gascony and Castile. So it took courage simply to pursue the regular trade of Bristol.

Some pioneers went further. Robert Sturmy was determined to break the Italian monopoly on the spice trade, with tragic consequences. In 1446 he sent the Cog Anne into the Mediterranean, long dominated by the ships of Venice and Genoa. She carried pilgrims safely to Joppa, but on the return voyage was driven onto rocks off Modon (now called Methoni) in southern Greece, with the loss of all the crew. Modon was then a colony of Venice, but no foul play is suspected. The islands off the coast there have wrecked many a ship.

The sad end of Sturmy's dream came in 1457. In the summer he boldly set out on the Katherine Sturmy to the Levant. There he bought peppers and other spices, but the Genoese, resenting this English intrusion, lay in wait near Malta and ambushed his ship. Sturmy seems to have perished in the engagement. There was outrage in England. All the Genoese in London were incarcerated in the Fleet prison in retaliation. There followed a lawsuit by the Mayor of Bristol, who won 6,000 in compensation.

Even more intrepid were those who set sail for unknown lands. In 1480 Bristol merchant John Jay funded a voyage to seek 'the Isle of Brasil' to the far west. The ship sailed for months finding no land and was driven to a port in Ireland. Yet Bristol merchants were undeterred. Other ships were sent on the same quest. Most famously the Italian navigator Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) set sail from Bristol in 1497 in his ship the Matthew and discovered Newfoundland. As a west-coast port, Bristol had much to gain from the opening up of new markets in the New World.

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