Mercantilism in England: Textiles and Monopolies

English Mercantilism, English Mercantilists

It was in the sixteenth century that England began its meteoric rise to the top of the economic and industrial heap. The English Crown in effect tried its best to hobble this development by mercantilist laws and regulations, but was thwarted because for various reasons the interventionist edicts proved unen­forceable.

Raw wool had for several centuries been England's most important prod­uct, and hence its most important export. Wool was shipped largely to Flan­ders and to Florence to be made into fine cloth. By the early fourteenth century, the flourishing wool trade had reached a height of an average annual export of 35 000 sacks. The state naturally then entered the picture, taxing, regulating and restricting. The principal fiscal weapon to build the nation-state in England was the 'poundage', a tax on the export of wool and a tariff on the import of woollen cloth. The poundage kept increasing to pay for continuing wars. In the 1340s King Edward III granted the monopoly of wool exporting to small groups of merchants, in return for their agreeing to collect the wool taxes on the king's behalf. This monopoly grant served to put out of business Italian and other foreign merchants who had predominated in the wool export trade.

By the 1350s, however, these monopoly merchants had gone bankrupt, and King Edward finally resolved the issue by widening the monopoly privilege and extending it to a group of several hundred called the 'Merchants of the Staple'. All wool exported had to go through a fixed town under the auspices of the company of the Staple, and be exported to a fixed point on the Continent, by the end of the fourteenth century at Calais, then under English control. The monopoly of the Staple did not apply to Italy, but it did apply to Flanders, the major place of import for English wool.

The Merchants, of the Staple soon proceeded to use their privileged mon­opoly in the time-honoured manner of all monopolists: to force lower prices upon English wool growers, and higher prices upon Calais and Flemish importers. In the short run, this system was quite pleasant for the Staplers, who were able to more than recoup their payments to the king, but in the long run the great English wool trade was crippled beyond repair. The artificial gap between domestic and foreign wool prices discouraged the production of English wool, while it also injured the demand for wool abroad. By the mid-fifteenth century, average annual exports of wool had fallen greatly to only 8 000 sacks.

The only benefit to Englishmen from this disastrous policy (apart from the joint short-term gains to King Edward and to the Staplers) was to give an unintended boost to the English production of woollen cloth. English cloth-makers could now benefit from their artificially lower prices of wool in England, coupled with the artificially high prices of wool abroad. Once again, the market managed to get a leg-up in its unending, zig-zag struggle with power. By the mid-fifteenth century fine, expensive, broadcloth 'wool­lens' were being produced abundantly in England, centring in the West Country, where swift rivers made water plentiful for fulling the woven cloth, and where Bristol could serve as the major port of export and entry.

During the mid-sixteenth century, a new form of woollen cloth manufac­ture sprang up in England, soon to become dominant in the textile industry. This was the 'new draperies', or worsteds, cheaper and lighter-weight cloth that could be exported to warmer climates and far more suitable for dyeing and decoration, since each individual strand of yarn was now visible in the cloth. Since the worsted was not fulled, the draperies did not need to be situated near running water, and so new textile manufacturers and workshops sprang up in the countryside - and in new towns such as Norwich and Rye -all round London. London was the largest market for the cloths, so transpor­tation costs were now cheaper, and furthermore, the south-east was a centre for sheep bearing the coarse, long stapled wool particularly suitable for worsted production. The new rural firms around London were also able to hire skilled Protestant textile artisans who had fled the religious persecution in France and the Netherlands. Most important, going to the countryside or to new towns meant that the expanding and innovating textile industry could escape from the stifling guild restrictions and frozen technology of the old towns.

Now that over 100 000 cloths were exported annually compared to a few thousand two centuries earlier, sophisticated production and marketing inno­vations took place. Establishing a 'putting-out' system, merchants paid arti­sans by the piece to work on cloth owned by the former. In addition, market­ing middlemen sprang up, yarn brokers serving as middlemen between spin­ners and weavers, and drapers specializing in selling the cloth at the end of the production chain.
Seeing the rise of effective new competition, the older urban and broad­cloth artisans and manufacturers turned to the state apparatus to try to shackle the efficient upstarts.

As Professor Miskimin puts it: 'As often happens during an evolutionary period, the older, vested interests turned to the state for protection against the innovative elements within the industry and sought regulation that would preserve their traditional monopoly.'

In response, the English government passed the Weavers' Act in 1555, which drastically limited the number of looms per establishment outside the towns to only one or two. Numerous exemptions, however, vitiated the effect of the act, and other statutes placing maximum controls on wages, restricting competition in order to preserve the old broadcloth industry came to naught from systemic lack of enforcement. The English government then turned to the alternative of propping up and tightening the urban guild structure to exclude competition. These measures succeeded, however, only in isolating and hastening the decay of the old urban broadcloth firms. For the new rural firms, especially the new draperies, were beyond guild jurisdiction. Queen Elizabeth then went national, with the Statute of Artificers in 1563, which placed the nation-state squarely behind guild power. The number of appren­tices each master could employ was severely limited, a measure calculated to stifle the growth of any one firm, and to decisively cartellize the wool indus­try and cripple competition. The number of years of apprenticeship, before the apprentice could rise to become a master, was universally extended by the statute to seven years, and maximum wage rates for apprenticeships were imposed throughout England. Beneficiaries of the Statute of Artificers were not only the old, inefficient urban broadcloth guilds, but also the large land­lords, who had been losing rural workers to the new, high-paying clothing industry. One announced aim of the Statute of Artificers was compulsory full employment, with labour directed to work according to a system of 'priori­ties'; top priority was accorded to the state, which attempted to force workers to remain in rural and farm work and not leave the farm for glittering opportunities elsewhere. To enter commercial or professional fields, on the other hand, required a graded series of qualifications such that the occupa­tions were happy in having entry restricted by this cartellizing statute, while the landlords were delighted to have workers forced to remain on the farm at lower wages than they could achieve elsewhere.

If the Statute of Artificers had been strictly enforced, industrial growth might have been permanently arrested in England. But fortunately, England was far more anarchic than France, and the statute was not well enforced, particularly where it counted, in the new and fast-growing worsted industry.

Not only was the countryside beyond the grasp of the urban guilds and their nation-state ally, but so too was fast-growing London, where custom decreed that any guild member could engage in any sort of trade, and no guild could exercise restrictive control over any line of production.

London as the great export centre for the new draperies - largely to Antwerp - partially accounted for the enormous growth of this city during the sixteenth century. London's population grew at three times the rate of England as a whole over the century, specifically from 30—40 000 at the beginning of the sixteenth century to a quarter of a million early in the next.
The London merchants were not, however, content with free market devel­opment, and power began to move in on the market. Specifically, the London merchants began to reach for export monopoly. In 1486 the City of London created the Fellowship of the Merchant Adventurers of London, which claimed exclusive rights to the export of woollens to its members. For provincial merchants (outside of London) to join required a stiff fee. Eleven years later the king and parliament decreed that any merchant exporting to the Nether­lands had to pay a fee to the Merchant Adventurers and obey its restrictionist regulations.

The state tightened the monopoly of the Merchant Adventurers in the mid-sixteenth century. First in 1552, the Hanseatic merchants were deprived of their ancient rights to export cloth to the Netherlands. Five years later, cus­toms duties were raised on the import of cloth, thereby conferring more special privileges on the domestic cloth trade and increasing the financial ties of the Crown to the cloth merchants. And finally, in 1564, in Queen Eliza­beth's reign, the Merchant Adventurers were reconstituted under tighter and more oligarchic control.

In the late sixteenth century, however, the mighty Merchant Adventurers began to decline. The English war with Spain and the Spanish Netherlands lost the Adventurers the city of Antwerp, and at the turn of the seventeenth century, they were formally expelled from Germany. The English monopoly of woollen exports to the Netherlands and the German coast was finally abolished after the revolution of 1688.

It is instructive to note what happened to printed calico in England as compared to the supression of the industry in France. The powerful woollen industry managed to get the importation of calicoes banned from England in 1700, a decade or so after France, but in this case domestic manufacture was still permitted. As a result, domestic manufactures of calico spurted ahead, and when the woollen interests managed to get a prohibition of calico con­sumption act passed in 1720 (The Calico Act), the domestic calico industry was already powerful and could continue to export its wares. In the mean­while, calico smuggling continued, as did domestic use - all stimulated by the fact that prohibition was not enforced nearly as strictly in England as in France. Then, in 1735, the English cotton industry won an exemption for the domestic printing and use of 'fustians', a mixed cotton and linen cloth, which were the most popular form of calico in England in any case. As a result, the domestic cotton textile industry was able to grow and flourish in England throughout the eighteenth century.

Prominent in English mercantilism was the pervasive creation by the Crown of grants of monopoly privilege: exclusive power to produce and sell in domestic and in foreign trade. The creation of monopolies reached its climax in the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603), in the latter half of the six­teenth century. In the words of historian, Professor S.T. Bindoff: '...the restrictive principle had, like some giant squid, fastened its embracing tenta­cles round many branches of domestic trade and manufacture', and 'in the last decade of Elizabeth's reign scarcely an article in common use - coal, soap, starch, iron, leather, books, wine, fruit - was unaffected by patents of monopoly' .

In sparkling prose, Bindoff writes how lobbyists, using the lure of mon­etary gain, obtained royal courtiers to sponsor their petitions for grants of monopoly: 'their sponsorship was usually a mere episode in the great game of place-and-fortune-hunting which swayed and swirled incessantly around the steps of the throne'. Once granted their privileges, the monopolists got themselves armed by the state with powers of search-and-seizure to root out all instances of now illegal competition. As Bindoff writes:

The 'saltpetre men of the gunpowder contract dug in every man's house' for the nitrate-laden soil which was their raw material. The minions of the playing-card monopoly invaded shops in search of cards lacking its seal and browbeat their owners, under threat of summons to a distant court, into compounding for their offences. The search-warrant was, indeed, indispensable to the monopolist if he were to eliminate competition and leave himself free to fix the price of his wares.7
The result of this expulsion of competition, as we might expect, was the lowering of quality and the raising of price, sometimes by as much as 400 per cent.

England was pre-eminently the home of foreign trade companies receiving grants of monopoly for trade with portions of the globe. The granddaddy of the English foreign trade companies was the Muscovy Company, chartered in 1553, and granted a monopoly of all English trade with Russia and Asia through the White Sea port of Archangel. In the late 1570s and early 1580s, Queen Elizabeth granted trading privileges to a spate of new monopoly companies including the Barbary, Eastland, and Levant Companies. A small group of politically powerful men, centred originally in the Muscovy Com­pany, was at the core of every one of these monopoly companies. The Muscovy Company, for a while, held a monopoly on all exploration and trade with North America. Further, when in the 1580s the Muscovy Company's trade with Russia was severely injured by the Cossacks' disruption of the Volga trade route from Asia, Muscovy Company leaders formed both the Turkey Company and the Venice Company in 1581 for trading with India. The two companies merged in 1592 into the Levant Company, which enjoyed a mo­nopoly grant trade with India through the Levant and Persia.

Running like a powerful thread through all these interlocking monopoly companies was the person and the family of Sir Thomas Smith (1558-1625). Smith's grandfather, Andrew Judd, was a principal founder of the Muscovy Company. His father, Sir Thomas Smith, Sr (1514-77), attorney, had been an architect of the Tudor system of royal absolutism, high taxation, and eco­nomic restriction. By the 1590s, the junior Smith was the governor - the head - of literally every single monopoly company concerned with foreign trade and colonization. These included the Muscovy Company, which held the monopoly charter for the colonization of Virginia. But the climax of Smith's career came when, to all his other posts, was added governor of the mighty East India Company, chartered in 1600 with a monopoly of all trading to the East Indies.