Although used to designate a person who earned a living by purchasing and selling goods that were manufactured or produced by someone else, throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ‘merchant’ became an ambiguous term applied not only to describe those involved in commercial transactions, but also to criticize individuals whose background and behaviour questioned predominant notions of status or political allegiance. As individuals who were moved by profit and dealt with money, merchants could be associated with serving a lowly or dishonourable function in societal exchanges. The figure of the merchant, for example, was often presented by late medieval and Elizabethan authors as a dubious character, usually a usurer or self-seeking fraudster who tricked his business partners and clients. Around 1579, in a work inspired by Piers Plowman, Newes from the North, the author who signed as ‘T.F., student’ (possibly Francis Thyme) complained that ‘it is as hard for a Merchant to be no Lyar and for a Tauerner or Inholder to be no drunkerd’.[1]

The widespread notion that landed wealth was the quintessential marker of nobility, distinguishing the aristocrat from those who had to labour to earn money, also 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 that ‘haue next place to gentlemen’ and who enjoyed the privileges of being ‘free within the cities, and are of some likelie substance to beare office’.[2] Their wealth allowed them to have the political status of citizen and enjoy a proximity to gentlemen, since citizens, as Harrison observed, ‘often change estate with gentlemen, as gentlemen do with them, by a mutual conversion of the one into the other’.[3] However, implicit in that acknowledgement of proximity was a mistrusted fluidity between the place of merchants and gentlemen in the Elizabethan commonweal. In 1581, 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 and comments 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 that were traditionally associated with gentlemen.

Merchants themselves were particularly zealous of their own identity. The members of the Spanish Company, for example, refused access to anyone who was not a ‘mere merchant’, thus excluding shopkeepers, retailers and manufacturers.[4] 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’.[5] These restrictions aimed not only to regulate a specific profession, but also to protect and enhance the status of the members of a social group which was aware of the ambivalent uses of the terms used to identify it.

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, registered 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’.[6] The practical problems posed by the restrictions imposed to ‘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’.[7] The debate on the status of foreign merchants would continue well into the long eighteenth century, and was heavily influenced by changes in English foreign policy.

The increasing social and political ascension of merchants was stimulated by the expansion of English overseas trade during the Elizabethan and Stuart eras. As Richard Brammer observed, between 1560 and 1660, the socio-economic structures of early modern England underwent profound changes.[8] After the ascension of Elizabeth I, England’s commercial and diplomatic exchanges with Catholic Europe, especially with the Iberian powers, were severely damaged. Without access to the Asian, African and American commodities sold in Lisbon and Seville, the English crown supported several 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 (1601). The royal charters issued for these and other trading companies forged a complex relation of interdependence between the Crown and the leading members of the mercantile groups. If English monarchs used the chartered companies as an instrument to increase their revenues, the joint-stock nature of these corporations involved new and complicated ideas of governance and political authority that allowed the formation of a political influent mercantile elite who were able to claim superior status and define the direction of English diplomatic, colonial and economic policies.

As an integral part of English overseas expansion, merchants and their exploits in Asia, Africa or the Levant were celebrated as triumphs of the English nation. Richard Hakluyt, for example, in the first edition of The Principal Navigations (1589) enthusiastically hailed the tradesmen who ‘through the speciall 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.’[9] Samuel Purchas, Hakluyt’s successor in celebrating the global exploits of the English, praised the merchants for bringing ‘profit to our Nation, to vent Clothes, Iron, Lead, and other Commodities’, and ‘set[ting] on worke so many of all Trades and Professions … to enrich the Kings Coffers and publike Treasurie, in Customes, Imposts, and other Duties’.[10]

Merchants were not only the spearheads of English colonial and commercial expansion, but also indispensable intelligencers of foreign novelties. Much of the Elizabethan and Jacobean knowledge of African, American or Asian geography, as well as of the evolution 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. It was also through merchants that English scholars and armchair travelers obtained valuable manuscripts and objects to enlarge university libraries and cabinets of curiosities. Francis Bacon praised the ‘Merchants of Light’ who ‘Sayle into Forraine Countries … [and] Who bring vs the Bookes, and Abstracts, and Patternes of Experiments of all other Parts.’[11]

This role of merchants as agents of English overseas expansionism, their involvement in Elizabethan and Stuart intellectual life, and the riches obtained from the East Indian and Levant trade - in being responsible, in many ways, to creating a culture of consumption - contributed to a re-appreciation of the political and social status of merchants from the middle of the seventeenth century. Richard Flecknoe, for example, 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 alwayes honour him'.[12] Flecknoe’s description of the lifestyle and moral behaviour of these merchants was far from the image of the usurer or amoral businessman. An English tradesman went abroad ‘with a stock of honour, as well as mony to Traffick’ and managed ‘either bravely, being a Master, and not a slave to wealth, and such a Master as honours it by his commands, making it only serve to noble ends’. Despite his rather plebeian status those who knew the households and restrained lifestyle of a wealthy overseas merchant, remarked Flecknoe, would find ‘him a noble and gallant minded Gentleman’.[13]

Foreign lands offered to English merchants many opportunities to behave outside the social, religious and moral norms that regulated early modern English life. John Sanderson, writing from Pera in 1600, complained about the loose behavior of his fellow Levant merchants (‘a set of divers devells, fooles, madmen, antiques, monsters, beast, whoremongers’) during a dinner where a ‘whore should have bine at it in mans apparel, but was sent out of the rome because a cuckould of this damned crue cold not brooke hir company’.[14] The English consul in Lisbon, Hugh Lee, for example, regularly reported to London his fears that the young English merchants and apprentices who were sent to the Portuguese capital to live with the families of local merchants in order to learn Iberian mercantile practices would eventually convert to Catholicism.[15]

It was also not uncommon to have merchants who had a family in England, and other in the region where they operated, despite the harsh punishment granted to bigamy. Indeed, the overseas companies imposed several obstacles for their merchants to travel 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, for instance, had a wife and children in England, and another wife and two children in Japan. The status of the children of English merchants who were born overseas was often problematic, especially if they were the offspring of mixed marriages. According to the 1351 De Natis statue, it was required that the offspring of English subjects could inherit their properties in England if both parents were English. However, this raised the issue that if these children could not inherit, then the alien mother would eliminate the father’s nationality, a matter that was problematic for many English jurists and became particularly sensitive as a several English merchants abroad constituted families with foreign women. In 1627, the verdict of King v. Eaton, a case concerning the inheritance rights of Richard Stephenson, the son of an English merchant in the Eastland Company and a Polish Mother, established that in similar cases the De Natis should include the offspring of one English father or mother, and not only from both parents, and that it should also be also 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. In 1640, King v. Bacon, 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 an heir.[16] These two cases offered a viable solution based on an idea of superiority of English nationality transmitted via a paternal line.

The movement of goods and people linking England with the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Indian Ocean had a profound impact on English consumption and social habits. The popularity of coffee and tobacco in seventeenth-century England was behind a series of polemical pamphlets such as The smoaking age which blamed 'smoakie Merchants' for promoting the adoption of an alien commodity that had the potential to corrupt English cirtues and national character.[17] the novelties introduced by English merchants and their profound impact on consumption and social practices could be perceived as a risk, but they were also celebrated as a symbol of English power and wealth. The luxurious and exotic commodities brought by English merchants were not immediately perceived as morally damaging, but as demonstrations of English superiority and ability to ‘subdue and convert the whole world’, as John Donne wrote in one of his sermons.[18]

Terms usually associated with mercantile activities and overseas commercial exchanges such as ‘assurance’, ‘premium’, ‘credit’ or ‘risk’ became of common usage throughout 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) which gradually penetrated into English as terms and commodities such as tobacco (from the Portuguese and Spanish Tabaco), tea (from the Chinese Te), or coffee (from the Turkish kahveh, and the Dutch koffie) became increasing popular in England.

As the seventeenth century closed, the mercantile elites consolidated their position and celebrated their success. In 1690, in his A Discourse about Trade, Josiah Child, who served in different high-ranking administrative posts of the East India Company 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 then 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'.[19] Child’s A Discourse about Trade, like other works written by tradesmen, revealed a self-awareness of merchants as dutiful and important members of the commonweal, well-poised to serve the interests of the realm, at a time when ‘ideas of a stable commonwealth were replaced by more flexible notions of public interest and the public good’.[20] Merchants not only changed the traditional order of early modern England, but also the ways in which seventeenth-century English perceived their consumption habits and the commodities they bought. By the end of the century, the characters of The Way of the World consumed ‘Native and Simple Tea-Table drinks, as Tea, Chocolate and Coffee’.[21]
Allegorical designs with the arms of London and of the Merchant Taylors' Company[22]
1. T.F., Newes from the north (London, 1579, STC 24062), sig. A2v.
2. William Harrison, ‘The Description of England’, in The first and second volumes of Chronicles comprising the description and historie of England, ed. by Raphael Holinshed (London, 1587; STC 13569), p. 163.
3. Ibid., p. 62.
4. See, for example, Pauline Croft, “Introduction” in The Spanish Company, ed. Pauline Croft (London: London Record Society, 1973), British History Online [accessed 8 March 2018].
5. David M. Smith, The Company of Merchant Adventurers in the City of York: Register of Admissions 1581-1835 (York: Borthwick Publications, 1996), p. i.
6. Quoted in Michael Wyatt, The Italian Encounter with Tudor England: A Cultural Politics of Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 139.
7. Roger Coke, Reflections upon the East-Indy and Royal African Companies (London, 1695; Wing C4890), p. 16.
8. Richard Brenner, ‘The Social Basis of English Commercial Expansion, 1550—1650’, The Journal of Economic History, 32.1 (1972), pp. 361-84.
9. Richard Hakluyt, ‘To the right honorable Sir Francis Walsingham Knight’, in Richard Hakluyt, The principal navigations (London, 1589; STC 12625), sig. *2v.
10. Samuel Purchas, Purchas his pilgrimage (London, 1626; STC 20508.5), p. 484.
11. Francis Bacon, Sylva sylvarum (London, 1627; STC 1168), p. 43.
12. Richard Flecknoe, A relation of ten years in Europe, Asia, Affrique, and America (London, 1656; Wing F1232), p. 89.
13. Ibid., p. 90.
14. John Sanderson, The Travels of John Sanderson in the Levant, 1584—1602 ed. by William Foster (London: Hakluyt Society, 1931), p. 197.
15. Alison Games, The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560—1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 98.
16. Barbara J. Todd, ‘Written in Her Heart: Married Women’s Separate Allegiance in English Law’, in Married Women and the Law: Coverture in England and the Common Law World, ed. by Tim Stretton and Krista J. Kesselring (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), pp. 161-77.
17. Blasius Multibibus, A solemne joviall disputation (London, 1617; STC 3585), sig. G4r, p. 87.
18. John Donne, Fiftie sermons (London, 1649; Wing D1862), p. 449.
19. Josiah Child, A discourse about trade (London, 1690; Wing 59:02), pp, 158-9.
20. Paul Slack, The Invention of Improvement: Information and Material Progress in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 54.
21. William Congreve, The way of the world (London, 1700; Wing C5878), p. 59.
22. Allegorical designs with the arms of London and of the Merchant Taylors' Company from BL Stowe 309, ff. 1v-2
Usage Examples
'…in these our days rather in corruption of life and maners then in edifiyng or increase of Vertue and Godlynes according to the saying of Jesus of Sirack that it is as hard for a Merchant to be no Lyar and for a Taverner or Inholder to be no drunkerd'