Derived from Old French merchand and its variants, and used to designate a person who earned a living by purchasing and selling goods that were manufactured or produced by someone else, ‘merchant’ was an ambiguous term in the early modern period, used not only to describe those involved in commercial transactions but also to criticize individuals whose background and behaviour questioned notions of status or political allegiance. As individuals who dealt with money and were motivated by profit, merchants could be associated with serving lowly or dishonorable functions. Late medieval and Tudor authors often presented the figure of the merchant as a dubious character, usually in the form of an usurer or self-seeking fraudster who tricked his business partners and clients. In Newes from the north (1579), a work inspired by Piers Plowman, the author complained that ‘it is as hard for a Merchant to be no Liar and for a Taverner or Inholder to be no drunkard’.
The widespread notion that landed wealth was the quintessential marker of nobility, distinguishing the aristocrat from those who had to labour to earn money, contributed to negative perceptions of merchants as an emergent class with unconventional pretensions to status. William Harrison’s Description of England (1577) divided Elizabethan society into four groups: gentlemen, ‘citizens or burgesses’, yeomen, and ‘artificers or laboures’. Harrison placed merchants ‘amongst the citizens’, a group of individuals who ‘have next place to gentlemen’ and who enjoyed the privileges of being ‘free within the cities, and are of some likely substance to beare office’. Their wealth allowed them to have the political status of ‘citizen’ and enjoy a proximity to gentlemen, since citizens ‘often change estate with gentlemen, as gentlemen do with them, by a mutual conversion of the one into the other’. However, implicit in that acknowledgement of proximity was a mistrusted fluidity between the place of merchants and gentlemen in the Elizabethan commonwealth. In 1581, the schoolteacher and author Richard Mulcaster divided English society into two main groups, gentlemen and the commons. The latter were formed by ‘marchauntes and manuaries’. Merchants were defined as those who dealt with ‘Marchandize’ and included ‘all those which live any way by buying or selling’, related, therefore, less to the elite than with the ‘manuaries’ were ‘those whose handyworke is their ware, and labour their living’. Mulcaster and Harrison’s observations reflected how the circulation of wealth within and out of the realm allowed individuals to aspire to social betterment and, in the case of merchants, to enjoy the lifestyle and civic activities traditionally associated with gentlemen.
Merchants themselves were particularly zealous about their own identifications. The members of the Spanish Company, for example, refused access to anyone who was not a ‘mere merchant’, thus excluding shopkeepers, retailers, and manufacturers. The Company of Merchants Adventurers of York, established in 1581, only accepted individuals who had been merchants for a minimum of ten years or who had served as apprentices for a period of seven years, rejecting anyone who worked as ‘artificers and handicraftsmen’. These restrictions aimed to regulate a specific profession, and to protect and enhance the status of its members, who were aware of the ambivalent terms used to identify them.
As ‘strangers’, the status of foreign merchants in England was extremely complex and often involved intricate and contradictory interpretations of statutory law, common law, law merchant, and a series of local regulations. Alessandro Magno, a Venetian merchant who travelled to England in 1562, recounted some of the restrictions faced by foreign merchants during Elizabeth I’s reign. ‘No one’, he wrote, ‘can set up shop or buy anything from foreign merchants if he has not served a seven-year apprenticeship; and if it is discovered that goods have been bought from foreign merchants rather than from an Englishman who has served the required time, the goods are forfeited’. The practical problems posed by the restrictions imposed on ‘stranger’ and ‘alien’ merchants led Roger Coke, who considered them to be a ‘defect’, to propose that Parliament should ‘bring in a Bill for a General Naturalization of all Alien Protestants, and allowing them Liberty to Exercise their Trades in all Corporations’. The debate on the status of foreign merchants would continue well into the eighteenth century, heavily influenced by changes in English foreign policy.
Nonetheless, the Crown often relied on London’s Merchant strangers and financiers as a source of revenue in times of need. In return for lucrative monopolies, lands and titles, strangers leant large sums to finance both domestic affairs and military campaigns abroad. The Genoese alum exporter Horatio Palavicino first came to England in 1578 after lending £30,000 worth of alum stock to the States General of the Low Countries in order to support the war effort against Spain. Elizabeth had underwritten the loan which, while never repaid, by 1593 had accrued Palavicino £45,479 11s 11d in interest payments. In 1588 an enforced loan from the City’s merchant strangers to fund the Armada effort accrued £4,900. Palavicino, knighted the year before for services to the Crown, contributed £300.
The expansion of English overseas trade during the Elizabethan and Stuart eras stimulated the social and political ascension of merchants. As Richard Brenner observed, the socio-economic structures of early modern England underwent profound changes between 1570 and 1660. During Elizabeth’s rule English commercial and diplomatic exchanges with Catholic Europe, especially with Iberian powers, were severely damaged. Without direct access to the Asian, African, and American commodities sold in Lisbon and Seville, the English Crown supported projects that sought to exploit new markets and trade routes such as the Turkey Company (1581), the Barbary Company (1585), the Levant Company (1592), or the East India Company (1600). The royal charters issued for these and other trading companies forged a complex web of interdependence between the Crown and the leading members of mercantile groups. Even as English monarchs used the chartered companies as an instrument to increase their revenues, the joint-stock nature of these corporations enabled the development of new and complicated ideas of governance and political authority. This allowed the formation of a politically influential mercantile elite who were able to claim superior social status and help shape the direction of English diplomatic, colonial, and economic policies.
Women from the aristocracy and affluent merchant families were investors and financiers in overseas trade. Their involvement connected them to ports such as London and Amsterdam, but they were also important links between families and patrons who brought a range of trade and colonial projects together. Katherine Hueriblock and Rebecca Romney are two such examples. The first was the daughter of a Dutch merchant who migrated to London in the 1550s. She married two freemen of the Grocers’ Company, John West and Richard Fust, and had a third marriage to Sir Edward Conway, a member of the Privy Council and a secretary of state. The pattern of Hueriblock’s marriages is revealing, not only of the ways in which the riches offered by marriages with women from merchant families attracted individuals with political aspirations, but also of her ability to accumulate wealth through her own independent investments. Rebecca Romney was the sole heir of Robert Taylor, a wealthy mercer and freeman of the Haberdashers’ Company. She had received a thorough education and was well acquainted with London merchant networks. Her union with William Romney was largely a business partnership. Romney made a series of profitable independent investments in the Virginia Company (1609), the Hudson voyages (1610), and the North-West Passage Company (1612), and through her husband and after his death, became involved with the Spanish Company, the East India Company, and the Levant Company. These two cases of early modern businesswomen who constructed global investment portfolios while integrating their social and commercial networks of influence are illuminating examples of how women were able to intervene in overseas ventures, something which only escalated through the seventeenth century.
As an integral part of English overseas expansion, merchants and their exploits abroad were celebrated as triumphs of the English nation. In The principal navigations (1589), the geographer and editor Richard Hakluyt enthusiastically hailed the tradesmen who ‘through the special assistance, and blessing of God, in searching the most opposite corners and quarters of the world, and to speak plainly, in compassing the vaste globe of the earth more than once, have excelled all the nations and peoples of the earth’. Hakluyt’s successor, Samuel Purchas, praised merchants for bringing ‘profit to our Nation, to vent Clothes, Iron, Lead, and other Commodities’, and ‘set[ting] on work so many of all Trades and Professions...to enrich the Kings Coffers and public Treasury, in Customs, Imposts, and other Duties’.
Meanwhile, their presence in foreign lands offered English merchants many opportunities to behave outside the social, religious, and moral norms that regulated sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English life. John Sanderson, writing from Pera in 1600, complained about the loose behavior of his fellow Levant merchants (‘a set of divers devils, fools, madmen, antiques, monsters, beast, whoremongers’) during a dinner where a ‘whore should have been at it in mans apparel, but was sent out of the room because a cuckold of this damned crew could not brooke her company’. The English consul in Lisbon, Hugh Lee, regularly reported his fears that the young English merchants and apprentices who were sent to the Portuguese capital to live with the families of local merchants would eventually convert to Catholicism.
It was not uncommon for merchants with families in England to marry abroad, despite harsh punishments for bigamy. Overseas companies imposed several obstacles to merchants travelling with their families, creating a situation in which many merchants established informal unions with local women. William Adams, the EIC merchant and agent in Japan, had a wife and children in England and another wife and two children in Japan. The status of the children of English merchants born overseas was difficult to establish, especially if they were the offspring of mixed marriages. According to the De Natis statue of 1351, offspring of English subjects could inherit property in England if both parents were English. However, if these children had an alien mother, they were not allowed to inherit the property of their father as the De Natis stated that an alien mother eliminated the father’s English nationality. The rationale behind this argument was that national or political allegiance was tied to place. Thus, the marriage between an alien woman and an Englishman did not change her allegiance and their offspring, being born on foreign soil, were not entitled to the privileges enjoyed by English subjects. As English trade expanded and English merchants abroad constituted families with foreign women, the principles established by the De Natis became increasingly problematic. King v. Eaton (1627), a case concerning the inheritance rights of Richard Stephenson, the son of an English merchant in the Eastland Company and a Polish mother, would initiate a gradual transformation of English legislation. The judges established that in similar cases the application of the principles of the De Natis should include offspring with only one English parent. More importantly, the sentence also established the principle partus sequitur patrem (the offspring follows the condition of the father), confirming that the nationality of an English father was directly transmitted to his children.King v. Bacon (1640), a case involving the inheritance rights of Gertrude Bacon, the daughter of another merchant based in Poland, confirmed the verdict of 1627 and stated that the child of an English merchant based in a foreign country should be considered a denizen and heir. These two cases offered a viable solution based on an idea of superiority of English nationality transmitted via a paternal line.
Throughout the period, merchants were indispensable intelligencers. Much of the Elizabethan and Jacobean knowledge of African, American and Asian geography, and of the colonial projects of other European powers, was provided by the translations of Iberian or Italian works made by merchants such as John Frampton or Thomas Nicholas. Through merchants too, English scholars and armchair travellers obtained valuable manuscripts and objects to enlarge libraries and cabinets of curiosities. Though Francis Bacon disdained the political pretensions of merchants, he praised the ‘[m]erchants of Light’ who ‘[s]ayle into Foreign Countries…[and] bring us the Books, and Abstracts, and Patterns of Experiments of all other Parts’.
The movement of goods and people linking England with the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Indian oceans had a profound impact on English consumption and social habits. Authors attributed the popularity of coffee and tobacco in seventeenth-century England to ‘smoakie Merchants’ or ‘Smoak Merchants...TOBACCO-Mongers’ who promoted the adoption of alien commodities that contained the potential to corrupt English virtues and national character. Tobacco became the first non-European commodity of mass consumption in England, smoked by men and women of all social statuses. Terms usually associated with merchant activities and overseas commercial exchanges, such as ‘assurance’, ‘premium’, ‘credit’ or ‘risk’, became common usage in the seventeenth century. Merchants, especially those who operated in multilingual contexts in the Mediterranean and Asia, also developed a specific jargon based on local words such as ‘bazaar’ (from the Persian bāzār) or ‘bank’ (from the Italian banca). Other loanwords entered English as commodities: tobacco (from the Portuguese and Spanish tabaco), tea (from the Chinese te), or coffee (from the Turkish kahveh, and the Dutch koffie). The novelties introduced by English merchants and their influence on consumption and social practices could be perceived as a risk, but they were also celebrated as a symbol of English power and wealth.
Throughout the period, merchants were often evoked in literature and visual culture as a common, if envied or critiqued, part of the social fabric, responsible for the circulation of wealth and goods. Poets evoked voyaging metaphors and merchant wealth as a literary conceit, juxtaposed against true beauty and virtue, as in Spenser’s ‘Amoretti VI: Ye tradefull Merchants that with weary toyle’ or Fulke Greville’s ‘Sonnet LVIII’. Such poems exposed the uneasy counterpoise between desire and humanist conceptions of virtue, further complicated by metaphors that drew on the physical to explain the metaphysical. In city comedies, as in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century economy, the wives and daughters of merchants became important nodes linking trading companies and merchant families together.
This role of merchants in overseas expansionism, Tudor and Stuart intellectual life, and the circulation of goods – in being responsible, in many ways, for creating a culture of global consumption in England, from plants to spices to ceramics – contributed to a re-appreciation of the political and social status of merchants from the mid-seventeenth-century. The traveller and dramatist Richard Flecknoe presented the English overseas tradesman as ‘the honour of his Nation abroad, and therefore his Nation should be very dishonourable and unworthy, should it not always honour him’. Flecknoe’s description of the lifestyle and moral behaviour of merchants differed greatly from the entrenched image of the usurer or amoral businessman. Those who knew the households and restrained lifestyles of wealthy overseas merchants, Flecknoe remarked, would find ‘him a noble and gallant minded Gentleman’. Merchants strongly identified with their role in advancing the good of the nation through ‘weary toyle’ and merchandizing. In his 1544 portrait the mercer and merchant adventurer Thomas Gresham, founder of the Royal Exchange, chose to be portrayed in full length, his image rivalling the size of those painted for Tudor monarchs. The portrait commemorated Gresham’s marriage to Anne Ferneley through their interlocked initials, but it also included his merchant’s mark and a skull, popular in the vanitas genre. Merchants were the invisible presence behind the still life genre that effloresced as a result of global exploration. The luxurious and exotic commodities brought by English merchants were often understood to be a demonstration of English superiority and their ability to ‘subdue and convert the whole world’.
As the seventeenth century drew to a close, merchant elites consolidated their position and celebrated their success. According to Kirti Chaudhuri, the EIC registered profit rates of more than 100% between 1608 and 1612. The company’s fifth voyage (1608), for example, yielded a profit of 234%. In 1690, Josiah Child, who served in different high-ranking administrative posts of the EIC throughout the 1670s and 1680s, praised the perseverance of tradesmen and social ascension: ‘We that are merchants, can so easily turn Gentlemen by buying Lands for less than twenty Years purchase, let no Man expect that if we thrive, we will drudge all our days in Trade; or if we would, to be sure our Sons will not’. Child’s discourse, like other works written by tradesmen, revealed a self-awareness of merchants as dutiful and important members of the polity, well poised to serve the interests of the realm, at a time when longstanding ideas of the commonwealth were being replaced by ‘more flexible notions of public interest and the public good’. New commodities and consumption habits played a role in these changes to the traditional order of early modern England. Still lifes demonstrated the sheer range of goods that merchants brought into the realm – not just tea, tobacco, and coffee but pepper, ginger, Chinese ceramics, Ottoman tulips, chocolate, pineapples. In 1685, the author Edward Philips remarked that civility gave ‘proper grace to a Courtier’ but ‘would cause derision if presented by a Merchant or a Factor’. Yet elite criticisms of merchants existed alongside the Crown and court’s dependence on merchants for capital and for luxury goods that enhanced their own status. By the early eighteenth century, ideas of luxury, politeness, and honour had shifted the place merchants held in the realm. The world of courtiers and merchants, of court, commerce, and the bustling world of street sellers and shopkeepers, overlapped and could not be fully disentangled.