Unseen Hand in British History - Ian D. Colvin




VI. Family Jars

The historian, like the detective, gathers truth from clues and thumb-prints: he looks into the motives of humanity, and puts his own reading on the maxim that "Interest never lies." Religion especially, that most respectable of sanctions, is to be distrusted as a clue to events. In the Thurloe State Papers a letter of intelligence from The Hague reports that the Dutch "have resolved to order the ministers of the Church to form their sermons and prayers according to the sea occurrences." And so it is more often than the innocent suppose: the occurrences dictate the sermons and prayers, and not the sermons and prayers the occurrences.

It is amusing to find that even some of our most exhaustive historians do not trouble to inquire how the characters of their history made their living. They speak, for example, of Sir Edwin Sandys as a "Patriot" or a "Puritan," it is of more importance to me that he was secretary of the Virginia Company and a director of the East India Company, both of which had a standing quarrel with the Court. John Selden, another "patriot" of the Opposition, was counsel to the Virginia Company, and John Pym was treasurer to the Providence Island Company. It may be said that Sandys was the son of a Puritan archbishop and a Radical in politics. He propounded the unhistorical doctrine, elaborated afterwards by Rousseau, of the Social Contract between King and People. But what made him a leader, what force gave him his power in Parliament?

The Virginia Company was powerful: it consisted of nearly a thousand persons. Hakluyt himself had been one of the founders, and in the charter of 1606 we are told that the shareholders consisted of "knights, gentlemen, merchants, and other adventurers of our Cities of London, Bristol, Exeter, and Plymouth." It was, in fact, a national organization to found an empire in opposition to the American Empire of Spain. And here we are again met by that unseen hand which wrought so much secret mischief between King and People.

"The Spanish Government," says Professor Pollard, in his Life of Sandys, "viewed the growth of Virginia with apprehension. Gondomar was perpetually intriguing against it, and James's anxiety to conclude the Spanish match inclined him to give ear to the Spanish Ambassador's complaints."

When Sandys's tenure of office expired in the spring of 1620 the majority was anxious to re-elect him, but the King intervened and demanded the election of his own nominee. The company, he said, was a "seminary for a seditious Parliament." And again: "Choose the devil if you will, but not Sir Edwin Sandys."

The King was in the meantime toying with a scheme to make money out of that vile weed tobacco. In exchange for giving Virginia tobacco protection against the Spanish leaf, he was to have a pre-emption at 2s. 0d. a pound, "clear of all customs, freights, or impositions." The tobacco thus bought he was to sell to a body of traders to be called "the King's Merchants" at 5s. a pound, who were to have a monopoly of licensing the retailers, and the retailers were to sell "to the alehouses in penny papers, 13 to the dozen," which would afford to the ale-house keepers the not very tempting profit of a penny in the shilling.

How far these diverse considerations influenced "our English Salamon" we need not stop to inquire. Sufficient to say that by 1624 matters had come to a crisis, and the King proceeded against the company by the same procedure of Quo warranto as Sir George Makgill in his famous action against Sir Edgar Speyer.

The Opposition, which included Ferrar, Sandys, Lord Cavendish, and Sir John Danvers, all spoke for the company in Parliament.

"Gondomar and his successors were not spared, and declared to have used their utmost endeavors to destroy the company and the Plantation." The Lord Treasurer commanded Sandys in the King's name to go out of town; but the King, no doubt scenting trouble, disavowed the action and allowed Sandys to return. "The business appearing very foul, many, at first unwilling, were now content to have it ripped up. . . . This was assented to by a general silence, but not without soft muttering that any other business might in the same way be taken out of the hands of Parliament."

The company was dissolved, to the discontent of the shareholders, and the administration taken over by the Crown.

And so we might trace these quarrels between King and companies through the two reigns. The New England Company resigned its charter on April 25, 1635, complaining chiefly that certain persons, "unknown to the council of the company" had obtained a grant of three thousand miles of sea-coast and "thrust out" the company's people in Massachusetts Bay. Matters being desperate, and "finding it too great a risk to rectify what had been brought to ruin," they surrendered their charter "with reservation of their lawful rights."

But let us return to the main stream of contention, the quarrel between the Crown and the greatest of all the companies, the Merchant Adventurers themselves. In 1629 we find them on the Parliamentary side in the dispute over tonnage and poundage, but "hope there is that the Merchant Adventurers leading the way (in the payment of customs) the rest of the sheep will follow." By May 16 Coke reports that "by two hands" the company have agreed to ship their cloth, Coke's brother Gore assisting in the accommodation.

Then there is, for example, the troublesome affair of the Duke of Lennox. This kinsman of the King, a Stuart and a Scot, had been made His Majesty's Alnager and Collector and Farmer of the Old and New Draperies. He had also been given a patent to ship out a certain number of white undressed cloths. The combination of public office and mercantile license was unfortunate, for the duties of Alnager, or Inspector of Cloth for export, and of Customs Officer gave the Duke a position of vantage in his trading operations. The Merchant Adventurers were therefore glad to lease the patent from His Grace upon certain conditions at a rental of £2600 per annum; but these conditions not being fulfilled the company sought release from the contract. The King intervened on behalf of the Duchess the Duke being dead.

The company's petition to the Privy Council upon this case sets forth the history of the export cloth trade to the Netherlands. Incidentally it alleges that Her Grace's officer, one Anthony Story, had been exporting cloth through a stranger, an Anthony Winckler or Winkell, probably a Dutchman, "contrary to the privileges of this fellowship and a particular Order of Council."

The quarrel drags: when the Duchess dies the new Duke takes it up. The company pitifully complaining of "the daily decrease of the vent of white cloth beyond seas, in respect the stranger is so intent upon making this sort of cloth himself," and "the weak estate of the fellowship," offers the Duke £2000 and then £2200 instead of £2600. The Duke holds out; the dispute is referred to the King, and the King decides that the company shall not only pay the full amount half-yearly in advance, but "shall entertain and pay all such servants as were formerly employed in that business by the late Duchess." And His Majesty adds that the Duke can sell cloth to whom he pleases if this order is not accepted by the company.

Then there is the affair of Edward Misselden, an affair of which I should like to tell the story if I had only the space, since it involves the King's financial relations with Holland, the quarrel between Laud and the Presbyterians, Dutch wives, and many other interesting matters. It must suffice here to say that Misselden, working secretly for the King, tried to betray the company and dismally failed.

In the meantime both the Dutch and the interlopers are depressing the trade of the company. In 1634 the King had appointed a strong committee to consider the regulation of the trade, and especially the question of interloping. The company presented "a deduction of the title of Merchant Adventurers to the trade of all the draperies of England vented in Germany and the Low Countries," which begins with a history of the company from 1296 downwards. In 1615, through their vent in Germany by way of Hamburg and their trade in the Low Countries,

"they uttered 90,000 cloths a year, being the greatest height of the trade in draperies. Then came in the new company, and among them the interlopers, who in two years brought down the vent of draperies to 40,000 cloths. Even when the new company was dissolved, the council had allowed an open trade into Germany and the Low Countries except only in white cloth, "which liberty has now been in existence for nine or ten years."

This liberty had resulted in great inconveniences. The interlopers had fixed a mart at Amsterdam, "whither they carry on a trade mostly in Dutch bottoms, and not being under regulation, not only sell falsified commodities, but include white cloths to the great damage of the Merchant Adventurers." The company therefore petitioned either for "an effectual exclusion of the interlopers," or for their admission into the freedom of the Merchant Adventurers upon reasonable fines, so that they might be brought "to an orderly course of trading."

It is evident that at this time the Government was making an earnest attempt to reconcile itself with the company. On December 7, 1634, a proclamation was issued in general accord with the "deduction" of the Merchant Adventurers, and no doubt with the advice of the committee. On the one side it limited the export both of the old and the new draperies to the Mart Towns of the Merchant Adventurers. On the other hand, the company was to admit "all such of the King's subjects dwelling in London and exercised in the profession of merchandise and not shopkeepers" on the payment of a fine.

The proclamation raised a storm both in England and the Netherlands. The clothiers of Kent petitioned against the restriction on their sales whereby they were "like to be ruinated and driven to barter for base commodities," and the clothiers of Devon protested that they now could not sell one-tenth of what they had formerly sold.

But the serious trouble came from the Netherlands. It appears that Rotterdam had agreed to pay £6000 to King Charles for a monopoly of the English cloth trade, and it withheld payment until the monopoly should be made effective. Amsterdam, which had lived on the interlopers, intrigued in the States General against Rotterdam and the Merchant Adventurers, and encouraged the protection party in Holland. The States General thereupon prohibited the importation of English colored cloths, and Amsterdam even carried things so far as to procure a decree for the expulsion of the Merchant Adventurers. As for the interlopers, they declined either to give up their Dutch wives or their Nonconformity, and the company thereupon refused to accept them as freemen.

Such was the situation which the intervention of Laud and the affairs of the Duke and Misselden exasperated. By 1639 we gather that the Government has abandoned its attempt to make peace with the company. Here, for example, are the "Notes by Secretary Windebank touching the course taken with the Merchant Adventurers for reducing them to the Government of the Church of England":

"The prevention of their marriages with the Hollanders upon pain of disfranchising; the interruption [of] the intelligence which they hold with the Puritan faction here; the calling them into the Star Chamber for breach of their charter in maintaining foreign Church government against Statute Elizabeth; for receiving factious ministers and such as have been banished the Church of England for Nonconformity; and for their dispensing with foreign marriages contrary to their charter, whereby His Majesty loses his subjects; the secrets of the kingdom are revealed, our clothing trade brought into those parts; and our commodities of wool and fullers' earth transported."

The Crown and the merchants were now separated by a gulf of misunderstanding, estrangement, hostility. Things had gone so far that only a spark was needed to set all these dry sticks of antagonism in a blaze. The King struck steel on flint, driven to it by lack of money to meet the Scotch rebels.

"On Saturday last," writes a correspondent, "by a warrant under the King's hand, all the money in the mint, about £100,000, brought in by the merchants, was seized upon for the King's present necessity, the merchants being ordered to repair to the Lord Treasurer to receive security for their principal and 8 percent, interest. This stop has put the merchants into great disorder, wherefore they join all together to petition His Majesty and to set down the ill consequences that it will beget. The merchants knew nothing about the seizure till Sunday night, after the King was gone from Whitehall to Oatlands."

Dismay, anger, panic, and agitation ruled in the City only partly allayed when Charles compounded for £40,000 on the security of the Farmers of the Customs.

The King took other measures, ill calculated to restore the confidence of the City of London. He ordered a coinage of base money to pay the Army at the rate of three-pence of silver in the shilling; and was only induced to change his mind by the representations of Sir Thomas Roe and the City Corporation. In August he compelled the East India Company to sell him its stock of pepper, offering in return the security of the Farmers of the Customs for payment over two years. Not only were the grocers in some reasonable doubt as to the return of their money; but the King immediately threw the pepper on the market, thereby producing a crisis in the spice trade.

The end was now near. The Merchant Adventurers were strong in the House of Commons, and the East India Company had thoughtfully distributed stock among the members. Pym first proposed that the City bands should protect Parliament, and on January 3, 1642, the committee of the whole House adjourned to Guildhall, the center of the organized trade of London. And it is noteworthy also that before the House adjourned it appointed committees to sit in the Grocers' Hall, the Hall of the East India merchants.

Thus we gather from the main facts of this great national crisis that the quarrel was less constitutional and religious than commercial and economic. Parliament was the instrument by which two great organized trades protected themselves against the injuries and depredations of the Government, and religion and Parliamentary privileges were used as a cloak to cover the real quarrel. This was natural, as both the Merchant Adventurers and East India Company were bound to the King by an oath, the most solemn and binding part of their fellowship: and they were thus driven to seek the highest and most plausible pretext for the breach of their vows.

But the true motive is nevertheless confessed at the moment of crisis. Thus in the petition of the Mayor, Aldermen, and Common Council of London, presented to the King at Whitehall on January 9, 1641, these good people represent to His Majesty that his policy "tended not only to the overthrow of the whole trade of that City and Kingdom, which they felt already in a deep measure, but threatened the utter ruin of the Protestant religion and the lives and liberties of all his subjects." The trade motive is put first.

The truth is that the foreign policy of the Stuarts was a family policy, and had no relation or was even hostile to the interests of England. Elizabeth's policy was a policy of economic independence, of vent for English cloth, and of free access to those spices which were necessary to the powdering down of English beef for winter consumption. It was a policy which Englishmen understood and liked, the more as it brought England into conflict with Spain and the Empire. Queen Elizabeth might almost have proclaimed the religion of Mahomet and abolished Parliament altogether if she had so desired; an England satisfied of her fidelity to its interests would have submitted to almost any invasion of its religious beliefs and constitutional customs.

Yet it would not be fair to suppose that the interest of England lay altogether with the companies and against the King. On the contrary, there are indications of a conflict of interest between agriculture and foreign trade, and between the cloth industry and the cloth trade. The East India trade especially was thought by many to be a waste of our treasure and of our ships and an injury to our cloth manufacture. Our weavers and their allies, the shearmen, dyers, and finishers, all showed discontent with the management of our foreign trade by the companies. It might be interesting to draw a chart of the civil wars according to industries. We should find shipping on the side of Parliament as well as the towns of the Merchant Adventurers, the chief exception being Newcastle, whose Merchant Adventurers had a standing quarrel with the London Company.

London, Bristol, Southampton, Exeter, Plymouth, Ipswich, Boston, and Hull were all for the Parliament. And so with the new manufacturing towns. Clarendon tells us that "Leeds, Halifax, and Bradford, three very populous and rich towns (which depending wholly upon clothiers naturally maligned the gentry), were wholly at their disposition." And the cloth industry would be divided. The old drapery of Wilts, Gloucester, Oxford, and Somerset went with the King; the new drapery of East Anglia with Parliament. This might be explained partly by the fact that the new drapery was largely in the hands of Dutch immigrants, who were content to use the coarse wools to make new kinds of cloth which came into competition with the old and were frowned upon by His Majesty's alnagers. The records show a more or less constant conflict between these East Anglian weavers and the Privy Council. They were suspected of exporting fullers' earth and half-finished cloth to their friends in Holland; they refused to comply with the regulations of the industry; and incidentally they were obstinate Nonconformists.

It is to the credit of Charles that he stood for the weaver against the merchant, for the farmer against the shipper; but this division in itself might have been accommodated. The difference which could not be accommodated was the surrender of British interests to Spain and to Holland. Royal neediness and family policy led the Stuarts to prefer foreign interests over the interests of England. This was the root of that long and bitter conflict which led to the Civil Wars, and the unhappy struggle has this lesson for us of the present day: harmony in a State depends on the understanding between the Government and the national interests.