Trade and Merchants
Trade, both locally and internationally, was an important part of the 13th & 14th Century English economy. Prestwich starts this chapter by talking about the types and volumes of trade during the period. The wool trade was the most significant – at its peak in the early 14th Century around 40,000 sacks of wool were exported per year, the equivalent of around 10 million sheep. This brought in large sums of money to the economy, in 1297 Edward I’s opponents were able to realistically claim that wool was half the country’s wealth. Wool was not the only commodity traded, the wine trade (of Gascony wines) was also important and other goods were traded too. These included cloth (mostly imports), dyes, timber, tin, lead, grain and many other foodstuffs. International trade was obviously affected by wars – not just because of breakdown in relations but also because the Channel crossing became more risky. Trade was also involved in causing wars, disputes between merchants (particularly at sea) could draw in governments.
Trade and the government were linked together in more than one way. Merchants could become prominent at court, and could influence politics. In part because the trade was important to the economy, so keeping merchants sweet was important. And in part because they could provide funds to the Crown, which was a role Italian merchants often filled. Trade was also subject to government regulation and interference, particularly the wool trade. At times the government would propose to seize wool and sell it themselves, so that the profit came to the Crown rather than the merchants – unsurprisingly not a popular move, and frequently the number of sacks successfully seized was far less than hoped for. Over this period customs duties became a more successful way to raise funds for the Crown, and in 1275 a permanent customs system was established. Taxing trade in this way meant that merchants were at times invited to parliament along with the knights and barons. Prestwich says that during Edward III’s reign there were attempts to negotiate customs with a separate assembly consisting just of the merchants – if these had proved successful then the shape of our government might look different today, with a third house to go along with the Lords & the Commons. However the merchant assemblies were an imposition from the King rather than a natural outgrowth of any sort of coherent merchant community. After a few experiments negotiation of customs duties was returned to Parliament.
The elite merchants of the era were Italians, they were in England primarily to trade in wool. As they could draw on the resources of their internationally trading companies they were able to take bigger risks than the English merchants. They were in a position to offer long term arrangements and even loans (often to monasteries) which would be paid back in wool over a long period of time – one such deal involved a monastery providing 140 sacks of wool over a 20 year period with the Italian company paying 20 marks per year (a good price from the Italian point of view). Although they couldn’t charge interest on loans (Christians were forbidden to do so by the Pope) they could accept “payments to cover costs incurred by making the loan”. They also profited from exchange rates – by making a loan in one currency and asking for repayments in another at a favourable rate to themselves. The larger Italian companies often got sucked into making huge loans to the Crown – these played an important role in financing the wars of the English throughout the period. And these loans played a big role in the bankruptcy of the companies who made the loans. Not always because the loans weren’t repaid in full, sometimes the changing political situation meant a company went out of favour (and lost business) because of close ties to hated previous regime.
Prestwich finishes the chapter by considering the English merchants of the time. Towards the end of this period the involvement of the English in large scale trade increased, although it’s not clear why this happened. Small scale trade is much harder to analyse historically – most of the records are about the wealthiest merchants, particularly those who lent money to the Crown. Tax returns can shed some light on smaller merchants in towns but even then it can be hard to tell the different between a manufacturer of goods and someone who is also selling the goods he makes. So overall not much is known about the English merchants of the time.