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and public-spirited merchant laying aside his robes
and thus putting out to sea.

Running down John Mercer in the Channel,
or, as some accounts say, in the southern waters
of the North Sea, he fought a fierce battle with
him. The pirate had imder his command no fewer
than twenty-one vessels. Of these John Philpot
captured or destroyed all but five, and sailed up
the Thames again with five hundred prisoners,
amongst whom was the redoubtable Mercer him-
self. The citizens of London were roused to
enthusiasm by the victory, but not so the Govern-
ment in the shape of the King's Council. Before
this august body Philpot was charged with making
war without the King's permission. His reply
was characteristic and belongs to English history.

" Know, Sir," he said to the Earl of Stafford,
" that I did not expose myself, my money, and
my men to the dangers of the sea that I might
deprive you and your colleagues of your knightly
fame, or that I might win any myself, but in pity
for the misery of the people of the countrj'', which,
from being a noble realm with dominion over other
nations, had through your selfishness become ex-
posed to the ravages of the vilest race. Not one
of you would lift a hand for her defence. Therefore



The Dawn of Commerce 19

it was that I gave of myself and my property for
the safety and deliverance of my country."

To this the Earl could say nothing, and indeed
Philpot's indictment was an unanswerable one.
In spite, however, of the disfavour with w^hich his
action was regarded by the idle and decadent
nobles in King Richard's court, Philpot continued
stoutly to do his best for his country, very often
at his own expense ; in 1380 he redeemed the
military equipment of several hundred soldiers,
who had had to pawn these in order to procure
themselves the means of living. In 1381 he was
knighted, with his friend Sir William Walworth,
the pressure of public gratitude for his services
being too great for King Richard to withhold this
recognition. Three years later, when he died,
England lost one of the finest and most typical of
her children.

He was indeed, as one of his contemporaries
described him, "the most noble citizen that had
ever travailed for the commodity over the whole
realm more than all others of his time." But how
many frequenters of the City of London, as they
turn daily into Philpot Lane, cast a thought to
that old seaman merchant whose name is still
commemorated in the narrow thoroughfare of the
city that he served so well?



CHAPTER III

MERCHANT SEAMEN OF BRISTOL

Early Trade of Bristol — William Canynge and Henry VI. —
His Trade with Iceland and the Baltic — The Effect
of the Wars of the Roses — Henry VH., the First of
the Tudors, and his Relations with John Cabot and his
Sons — The Discovery of Newfoundland — Sebastian
Cabot and his Adventures — His Meeting with Robert
Thome — The Family of the Thornes and their Overseas
Enterprise.

"pvURING the reigns of Edward III and Richard
"*-^ II, in which John Philpot, the subject of our
last chapter, Hved and flourished, Bristol was only
second to London in size and importance. From
very early times it was a seaport town of consider-
able influence. During the reigns of some of the
Saxon monarchs it was the centre of a flourishing
slave trade, Saxon slaves being bought and
exported to the Danish settlements in Ireland.
Throughout the period covered by the Norman
sovereigns it conducted a comparatively large and
prosperous overseas commerce, particularly with
Iceland and Norway, with fish as one of the
principal articles of trading.

Indeed, throughout this period, the prosperity
of the town depended almost entirely upon its
natural advantages as a seaport, and it lagged
behind many far smaller towns as a centre of



Merchant Seamen of Bristol 21

industiy. Thus, while for some generations such
towns as Hull and Boston and Winchester were
becoming wealthy as the result of the woollen weav-
ing industry introduced by the Flemish artisans,
Bristol was content to rest upon its laurels as the
second greatest harbour town of England. How
conservative it was can be gathered from its
treatment of one of its citizens, an enterprising
merchant, one Thomas Blanket, whose name is now
a household word among us six hundred years
later. This far-seeing merchant was, in the year
1840, fined by the civic authorities of Bristol for
having caused various machines for weaving and
making woollen cloths to be set up in his house,
and in the houses of some of his friends, and for
having hired weavers and other workmen to carry
on the new industry.

Thanks, however, to the support of Edward
III, this fine was remitted, and when the Bristol
people, who were shrewd enough in their own way,
perceived the value of this newly instituted addition
to the mercantile resources of their town, they were
generous in owning their mistake and honouring
the pioneer. In 1342 Blanket was made Bailiff of
Bristol, and in 1356 was one of a deputation of
Bristol merchants that was summoned to West-
minster to advise the King upon sundry matters of
importance in the trade interests of the country.
By this time the manufacture of cloth was rapidly
becoming the chief industry of the town, and it was
to remain so until the discovery of the New World



22 The Sea Traders

opened up other fields to the adventurous spirits of
this western seaport.

Great as Thomas Blanket was, he was over-
shadowed, both in the councils of his own town
and in that of the country generally, by a con-
temporary of his, one William Canynge, who
w^as six times elected mayor of Bristol, and who
represented the town as its member of Parliament
in the years 1364, 1383 and 1384. Primarily an
ow^ner of ships with which he traded his wares, he
afterwards took up cloth-making with great suc-
cess ; and, when he died in 1396, about ten years
after John Philpot, he left a very large fortune to
his son John.

This John Canynge carried on the traditions of
his father, and like him was both mayor of Bristol
and its representative in Parliament. He had two
sons, Thomas and William, the former of whom
was apprenticed to the Grocers' Company in
London, from which position he rose to be its
master in 1466, just before his death. He, too,
attained high honours, being a member of Parlia-
ment and Lord Mayor of London. But it was his
younger brother William who was destined to be
the most illustrious member of this great and influ-
ential commercial family; and his fortunes, like
those of his father and grandfather, were closely
associated with the town of Bristol.

Born in 1399, in the year of Henry IV's acces-
sion to the throne, and the year after Richard
Whittington — the famous Dick — had been elected



Merchant Seamen of Bristol 23

Lord Mayor of London for the first time, he seems,
in his early twenties, to have been deeply engaged
in exploiting the wealth of the Iceland fisheries.
He was at any rate very intimately concerned with
them as the following incident shows. Jealous of
the large share of this fish trade that English mer-
chants were obtaining, the King of Denmark,
under the terms of a treaty to which Henry VI had
agreed, forbade commerce on the part of English
merchants with this portion of the territories of
Denmark. One exception was made, however, in
the person of William Canynge, who was expressly
permitted, " in consideration of the great debt due
to him from the subjects of Iceland and Finmark
to load certain English ships with merchandise for
those prohibited places and there to take fish and
other goods in return."

That was in 1450, and during the next ten years
he is recorded as being the owner of a fleet of ten
vessels, the three largest of which, the Mary and
John, the Mary Redcliffe, and the Mary Canynge,
represented a total of 1,800 tons, and a capital cost,
in present money, of about £30,000. In this fleet
he employed some 800 seamen. With his vessels
Canynge, a man of unbounded enterprise, opened
up for English traders the rich ports of the Baltic
— a commercial sphere in which the merchants of
Flanders had hitherto reigned in almost un-
challenged supremacy.

To this new sphere he came commended by
Henry VI as his " beloved and eminent merchant



24 The Sea Traders

of Bristol"; he seems to have stood high in the
estimation of this Lancastrian Plantagenet king.
It was in 1451 that WilHam Canynge first entered
Parliament as member for Bristol, and we are
told that the city allowed him for his expenses in
London a sum of two shillings a day. He was
one of the members who were asked to vote the
sum of £1,000, to be levied from the seaport towns
and expended upon a fleet for the protection of
merchant vessels on the high seas; and it is an
interesting side-light on Bristol's position in the
country that it had to contribute a sum half as large
as that contributed by London, and larger than
that required of any other seaport town. When
Parliament was dissolved in 1455, he was re-elected
by his constituents, and the next year, for the third
time, he became Mayor of Bristol.

The country was now at the beginning of the
sordid era of the Wars of the Roses, a party
quarrel chiefly waged by noblemen and their re-
tainers, but one which, in spite of its disastrous
general effect on the trade and commercial enter-
prise of England as a whole, left the agricultural
and commercial life of the country singularly
untouched. In the case of WilUam Canynge,
however, who, as we have seen, was identified
rather prominently with the Lancastrian cause,
the victory of the Yorkists, in the person of
Edward IV, meant a very considerable financial
loss. After entertaining the new king at Bristol,
in his mayoral capacity, he found himself obliged



Merchant Seamen of Bristol 25

to contribute to the Royal Exchequer, a so-called
benevolence, in proportion to his wealth, of no
less than £20,000.

Possibly it was this fact, and the fact that
many other of Bristol's merchants were similarly
mulcted, together with the uncertainty of the
general political outlook, that led William Canynge
in 1466 to the formation of a Guild of his fellow
merchants for the regulation of prices and for
mutual protection and union against disaster.
Here we see one of the earliest instances of a
social policy that was, in later times, to undergo
profound developments ; and its immediate effects
were to ensure for the commerce of Bristol remark-
able prosperity throughout the difficult years that
were to follow.

The Guild was formed during the last year of
William Canynge's mayoralty, and upon its ter-
mination he decided to retire. He was sixty-seven ;
his life had been a crowded one beyond the experi-
ence of most men ; he had acquired an immense
fortune ; he had enjoyed many honours ; and he was
becoming tired and anxious for rest. For six years
he had been a widower. He had outlived most of
his children, and the reigning monarch was one of
whom he disapproved. He had made all the
money that he wanted, and he had been a generous
giver to many charities. He spent, for instance,
a large sum in restoring the church of St. Mary
Redcliffe ; and it was here a year later, that
having taken Holy Orders, he said his first mass.



26 The Sea Traders

Soon afterwards he was made Dean of Westbury,
and in this capacity he Kved another seven years.
Among his fellow traders at Bristol, and indeed in
all England he was second to none, and his name
stands among the highest upon the roll of pre-
Tudor English merchants.

Watching from the security of his ecclesiastical
retreat the troubled years through which his
country ,was passing, William Canynge may well
have assured himself that in withdrawing from
public life he had chosen the better part. But
ten years after his death, in the person of Henry
VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs, a new and
happier era began to dawn in England. Accused
by many of his contemporaries of a niggardly
disposition, Henry VII 's management of public
affairs was certainly in advance of that of any of
his predecessors since Edward III. With the
conflicting claims of the opposed houses of York
and Lancaster at last settled, the country drew
a new breath and became conscious in itself of a
changed spirit. The death pangs of the old
feudalism had been prolonged but were now over,
and the country turned with renewed vigour to its
more practical problems.

Henry VII, the first of those Tudor monarchs
under whom England was eventually to exercise
so world-wide an influence, was perhaps more
sensible of the importance of sea power than any
EngHsh sovereign since Alfred the Great; and it
was towards the promotion of the foreign com-



Merchant Seamen of Bristol 27

merce of his country that he bent his chief energies.
This trade had hitherto been far more under the
control of Continental than of native English mer-
chants, while the ships in which the goods were
carried were much more generally foreign than
English. Thus in the first year of his reign
Henry VII made a beginning of his new and
self-imposed task by forbidding the import of
Gascoigne and Guienne wines in any but English,
Welsh or Irish vessels. In the year 1490 he con-
cluded a treaty with Denmark, whereby Norway,
Sweden and Iceland were reopened to the enter-
prise of English merchant seamen ; and though
for three years trade with Flanders was forbidden
owing to political reasons, it was re-established in
1496 to the great satisfaction of both countries.
It was to English traders, indeed, that the great
city and harbour of Antwerp owed its early
prosperity, since it had become the headquarters
in Europe, in the year 1446, of the Company of
Merchant Adventurers — a company to which
Henry IV had granted a charter in 1406 under
the title of the Brotherhood of St. Thomas a
Becket. It was small wonder, therefore, that
after the three years cessation of commerce, due
to the Perkin Warbeck conspiracy, when the
English merchants came again to their mansion at
Antwerp they were received, as Bacon tells us,
*' with procession and great joy."

That was in 1496, by which time events had
already occurred that were destined to alter



28 The Sea Traders

for ever the old trend of English thought and
enterprise. In the year 1486 Bartholomew Diaz
had first rounded the Cape of Good Hope,
and four years later, Christopher Columbus had
landed on the Bahamas Islands and laid the New
World at the feet of the Old. This was the year,
too, in which a new and illustrious name dawned
among the company of English navigators — that
of John Cabot of Bristol, a man of Venetian
birth, who had long been settled as a merchant in
Bristol, becoming to all intents and purposes an
Englishman. Cautious as he was by temperament
and training, Henry VII had been quick to grasp
the possibilities that the new discoveries had opened
to the Island Kingdom of which he was monarch.
He therefore, on March 5, 1496, granted letters
patent to John Cabot and his three sons, Sebastian,
LfOuis and Sanzio, for the discovery of new lands ;
and in May of the following year, with three
hundred sailors and a couple of vessels, the stout-
hearted Bristol merchant set sail for the unknown
on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. His
orders were to keep to the north, since Henry VII
had no desire to provoke trouble with the mighty
and world-wide Empire of Spain by the appearance
of English mariners in a region originally opened
up by the Spanish.

It was on June 24 of this year that Cabot dis-
covered Newfoundland, which he believed to be
part of the possessions of the Cham of Tartary,
and from which he proceeded to the further dis-



Merchant Seamen of Bristol 29

covery of the coast of North America. This was
about the same time as the southern part of the
continent was discovered by the Florentine sailor,
Amerigo Vespucci, who was afterwards to give
his name to both North and South America. On
their return the voyagers brought back with them
three men from across the ocean to be presented
to the King, and these have been described as
being clothed in the skins of wild beasts and
speaking in an unknown tongue. It is also
recorded that Henry VII granted "to him that
found the new island ten pounds." This does not
appear to have been an over generous reward, but
we are told that nevertheless John Cabot met with
much honour ; that he was dressed in silk ; and that
the English ran after him like mad people, so that
he was able to enlist as his crew any number that
he liked. It is probable, however, that soon after
this voyage John Cabot himself died, as the next
expedition was fitted out by his son Sebastian.
In this several London and Bristol merchants
adventured stocks of goods for the purpose of
trans- Atlantic trade, including, we are told, coarse
cloth, caps and laces ; and the King himself lent
financial support and every royal encouragement.
Primarily the object of this voyage, undertaken
in the year 1498, was the discovery — as it was that
of so many subsequent ones — of the North- West
Passage to Cathay — the overland route to the East
being very precarious, if not actually closed, by
the victories of the Ottoman invasion. But as a



30 The Sea Traders

commercial proposition this voyage was not much
of a success, nor was the supposed passage found,
although from the point of view of the geographer
it was a voyage of the greatest interest. In
spite of continual dangers from floating icebergs
the coast of Labrador was reached, and from there
Sebastian Cabot sailed south along the shores of
what are now known as New Brunswick, Nova
Scotia and Maine, to Chesapeake Bay. The final
results were nevertheless considered very disap-
pointing by the promoters of the adventure and
especially by Henry VII ; and although Sebastian
Cabot made another voyage the next year, it was
without any of the support that had at first been
given him.

The impetus that this Bristol merchant sea-
man had lent to English oversea enterprise was
all the same by no means vmfruitful ; and in
1501 three Bristol merchants, Richard Warde,
Thomas Ashehurst and John Thomas succeeded
in obtaining from the King a licence to explore,
at their own cost, all the islands, countries, regions
and provinces in the eastern, western, northern
and southern seas not already known to Christians,
with an exclusive right of trading thither for ten
years. This monopoly was afterwards extended
to cover a period of forty years, in most of which
these merchants appear to have organized at least
one voyage to North America. It is indeed prob-
able that Sebastian Cabot himself had some interest
in several of these ventures; but it was in Spain



Merchant Seamen of Bristol 31

rather than in England that he now discerned
larger opportunities for his skill and energy, and
he left England, therefore, to become Pilot-Major,
map-maker and general maritime adviser to the
Spanish Emperor at a large salary. Here he
seems to have planned out many of the most suc-
cessful of the earlier Spanish voyages to America.
But, perhaps on account of the growing rivaliy
between the Spanish and English seamen-traders
and of his own English relationships, his position
in Spain became a somewhat difficult one. He
was presently compelled, therefore, although the
Spanish supremacy in the waters of the New
World was in no small degree due to his skill
and experience, to return to England in 1516
owing to the jealousies that surrounded him in
Spain.

He found Henry VIII on the throne, a far
more generous monarch than his predecessor ; and
in 1517 he was once more in charge, with one
Sir Thomas Spert, of an English expedition. This
voyage, which was organized under the direct
patronage of the King, had the object, as Hakluyt
tells us, of " going in the back side of the new-
found land," in order to reach " the back side and
south seas of the Indies Occidental " and so home
through the Straits of Magellan. Unfortunately,
however, this venture also was a commercial
failure, largely, as it was alleged, owing to a lack
of courage on the part of Sir Thomas Spert —
but it resulted in the discovery of the Davis



32 The Sea Traders

and Hudson Straits, and opened up a further
knowledge of the coast of Labrador.

Shortly after his home-coming from this ex-
pedition, Sebastian Cabot again left England, and,
after a visit to Spain, went to Venice, where
he used all his arts in attempting to persuade the
Venetian Government to employ him in American
discovery. In this also he was unsuccessful, and
he once more returned to Spain, where he at
last succeeded in organizing another expedition,
destined to spend five years in the exploration of
the La Plata river and its surroundings in South
America ; and it was while he was in Seville, for
this purpose, that he met Robert Thorne, the
younger, also a member of a great Bristol family.

The history of mercantile England, especially
in respect of its oversea trading connexions, may be
regarded, in the main, as the history of numerous
able and enterprising merchant families, in whose
abilities it is impossible to deny the evidence of
a strong hereditary factor. We have already seen
this in the case of the Canynges, and to a lesser
degree in that of the Cabots ; and it is even more
marked in the case of the Thornes, of whom this
member, Robert Thorne, the younger, was perhaps
the most celebrated.

Of Norman stock, the original forbears of the
various branches of this remarkable clan fought at
the Battle of Hastings on the side of WilHam the
Conqueror, and seem to have taken very readily to
their new surroundings. Thus they rapidly be-



Merchant Seamen of Bristol 33

came established in various parts of England, in
the west as well as in the home counties, and as
far north as Lancashire. Sundry members of the
family fought in the Crusades, while others were
identified prominently with England's oversea
trade. We learn, for instance, that one of them,
belonging to the Society of English Merchants
at Florence, received special privileges in the year
1249 from Pope Innocent III, and was prosperous
enough in the year 1257 to lend money to Pope
Alexander IV.

One of the sturdiest off-shoots of this vigorous
clan seems to have sprung from Robert Thorne
of St. Albans, who, in the year 1417, was ap-
pointed, among other "discreet men," to investi-
gate the prevailing poverty and suggest steps for
reform. He had four famous grandsons, James,
a clothier of Colchester; John, of Reading, the
famous abbot at whose hospitable board Henry
VIII is said, on one occasion, to have knighted a
loin of beef — hence sirloin ; William, also of Read-
ing, a clothier ; and Robert, a merchant of Bristol
and the friend of Cabot.

He was a cloth merchant as well as a soap
manufacturer, Bristol then being almost as cele-
brated for its soap as for its woollen goods ; and
he seems to have shared in the family fondness for
oversea mercantile enterprise. Thus, for many
years, he lived at Seville in Spain, where he re-
ceived the honour of knighthood from King
Ferdinand; and in the year 1510, with fourteen



34 The Sea Traders

colleagues, he was appointed to hold in commission
the office of an Admiral of England in Bristol.

At this time his son, Robert the younger, was
eighteen years old, and was soon to be largely
identified, as his father had been, with the com-
merce of Seville ; and it is in this connexion that
we find him associated, a good many years later,
with Sebastian Cabot's expedition to La Plata.
Towards the expenses of this venture he con-
tributed 1,400 ducats, " principally," as he said,
" for that two English friends of mine which are
somewhat learned in cosmography, should go in
the same ships to bring me certain relation of the
country and to be expert in the navigation of
those seas." That was in the year 1526, when
Robert Thome was still a comparatively young
man of thirty-four ; and a further proof of his
enteri)rise, his wide outlook, and his public-spirited
interest in exploration, is to be seen in a letter
that he wrote soon afterwards. This was in reply
to the English Ambassador at the Court of Spain,
who had asked him for details of Cabot's new
expedition.

" It appeareth plainly," he wrote, " that the
new-found-land that we discovered is all a main
land with the Indies Occidental from whence the
Emperor hath all the gold and pearls." Follow-
ing this he again pressed the importance to
England of discovering the North- West Passage


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