- The City and the Court 1603-1643 by Robert Ashton
Cambridge, 247 pp, £10.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 521 22419 5
The ‘major reinterpretation’ of City and Crown politics, promised by Professor Ashton in his book on the English Civil Wars, and long awaited, has now been published in a slim volume covering the years from 1603 to the outbreak of the Civil War. Put briefly, his theme runs thus.
The city fathers, defenders of monarchy, not Parliament, under James I, and again allied to the Crown from the autumn of 1641, were nevertheless temporarily ‘alienated’ from their natural ally during the 1630s. The City was estranged as a result of Royal attacks on municipal and corporate privileges which have long featured in our histories. As Clarendon, the first and greatest historian of the time, wrote of Charles’s relations with London: ‘the city was looked upon by the crown as a “common stock” not easily to be exhausted and as a body not to be grieved by ordinary acts of injustice.’ The city’s later Royalism, Ashton tells us, should be attributed to the radical events of 1640 and 1641, and not to a long-standing and continuing alignment. By the end of the 1630s, the city fathers were ‘as alienated from royal policies as was the vast majority of the political nation’.
According to the author, this ‘new model’ does not rest on fresh evidence. It is another way of looking at events which were treated briefly in my book on London and the Outbreak of the Puritan Revolution (1961), but which have been familiar to historians since the days of S.R. Gardiner and W.R. Scott. While the incidents do not themselves amount to ‘irrefutable proof’, the author tells us, they do suggest that such incessant attacks ‘alienated’ the city fathers and caused them to enter into an alliance with the Parliamentary leaders. Since the force of Ashton’s case for a political realignment rests on the piling up of unconnected incidents, it is important that each of them should be placed in context and studied from the original documents. It is also important that each episode should be solid enough to sustain the construction placed upon it by the author. Let us look at a few of these episodes.
One of the most significant organisational changes in the gilds in the Early Modern period was the rise of the yeomanry, of which a scholarly study is badly needed: such a work would greatly enhance our understanding of the position of the small master and artisan in London society. The context of events in which the yeomanry wrested their not inconsiderable concessions from the liveries is not touched upon in this book. A dispute in the Goldsmiths’ Company in 1529 relating to that change is wrongly described by Ashton as a dispute within the Livery over the powers exercised by the Court of Assistants. In fact, the Livery was not divided and the dispute was not about the Court of Assistants. The conflict concerned the struggle of the ‘young men’ outside the Livery for constitutional and financial benefits, and culminated in the creation of the yeomanry. The Goldsmith Court Minute Book leaves no doubt as to the true nature of the episode.
I suggested in my book that in the 1630s the City was more favourable to the Royal plan for rebuilding St Paul’s than to the radical Puritan Feoffees of Impropriation. Ashton throws doubt on this. It should not be thought, he tells us, that the City’s contribution to St Paul’s was eagerly donated, or that it raised any considerable sum: the Royal expectation of generous contributions was sadly disappointed. The reader is left to conclude that in this important matter, so dear to the heart of Archbishop Laud, the City failed to raise the necessary cash. But this was not so. The City responded with enormous generosity. By 1636, the national fund amounted to nearly £56,000, most of it raised in London. The money enabled Inigo Jones to rebuild the west front of the cathedral and to restore the choir – work which was not pulled down until 1687, having been weakened by the Great Fire. By contrast, the Puritan Feoffees of Impropriation, which Ashton hints were not necessarily distrusted by the City, raised little more than a paltry £6,000 in citizen contributions over the eight years of their existence – a sum which hardly suggests that rich merchants preferred that radical organisation to the rebuilding of St Paul’s.
There is evidence on other policy matters contained in the City Lands Committee records, company records and repertories and journals indicating that the Crown and City were not so far apart on municipal policies as Ashton implies. Take the City’s attitude to new building. One supposed clash, on compounding with offenders by fine, was not unknown in the practice of the City Lands Committee, which made the same kind of distinction as did the Crown between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ developers, permitting the former to fine while demolishing the buildings of the ‘poorer sort’. It was not the City, as a quick reading of Ashton might suggest, but Parliament which complained of ‘the sale of pretended nuisances’ in the Grand Remonstrance of 1641.
The most disappointing feature of the book is the failure to ask questions prompted by recent and current thinking. Can we assume, as Ashton does, that political choice or stance, in a time of crisis, can be explained by individual clashes of interest? Before the 19th century, and even after, perhaps, there are surely few important conflicts in political life which were not mainly determined by more general cultural considerations. Notions of social cohesion, loyalty to the Crown or to other institutions, traditional allegiances, attitudes to social inferiors, competition for privilege and power, and so on, were more likely to be crucial than consideration of economic benefit or profit by itself. Even in our age of economic man, individual clashes of interest rarely by themselves dictate political allegiance.
If the blows received by the City’s merchant community could provide an index to their political stance, then they should have registered greater hostility to James I than to Charles I. James’s policy towards the chartered trading companies was far more crushing than anything dreamt up by his successor. But as Ashton points out in an able chapter on James I’s reign, the City and the Crown were then closely allied against the Parliamentarian free traders. By a typical irony not mentioned by the author, William Cockayne, the man who nearly destroyed the Merchant Adventurers’ trade and had earlier helped to foist the unpopular Ulster plantation on an unwilling City, was elected Lord Mayor the year after his disastrous company collapsed.
Ashton doesn’t deny the significance of more general cultural factors, but considers that the sheer number of incidents was more telling. This line of argument verges from time to time on rather narrow and old-fashioned economic determinism.
Any book which, like the present one, has been 15 years in preparation runs the risk of being unresponsive to recent ideas. Two topics in particular, much in historians’ minds nowadays, are not touched upon.
Take first the influences of war and peace. Conrad Russell has pointed out how the financial and administrative strains of Charles’s war policy exacerbated relations between King and Parliament during the first five years of his reign, thus demonstrating the disruptive effect of war on Early Modern society which has been elaborated by Michael Howard and other historians. Ashton doesn’t examine the implications of the change in policy from war to peace after 1629. He ignores the two peace treaties of 1630, and the Goa treaty of 1635, which marked a new turn in foreign and trading relations. The inauguration of peace precisely fitted the interest of the London chartered trading companies: the merchants of Amsterdam, similarly, formed a powerful peace lobby. War harmed long-distance trade by increasing piracy and lawlessness on the seas. Peace opened the way for English traders to exploit their neutrality in the Thirty Years War and to compete with the Dutch for the European carrying trade. The Madrid or Cottington treaty in 1630 was followed two years later by an agreement permitting the shipping of Spanish silver through London and Dover rather than through Genoa. This greater availability of silver greatly benefited the East India Company. The silver trade through Dover was also, as Mr Taylor and Mr Kepler have shown, of vital importance for the reexport business: this brought a new height of prosperity to the Levant traders and others in the 1630s.
The Goa treaty with Portugal in 1635 primarily benefited the East India Company. Not only did it aim to end open warfare in the East India seas between English ships and the Portuguese, but it permitted East Indian merchantmen to replenish their ships at Goan factories, on their long voyage south bearing calicoes from Persia and Surat in exchange for the spices of the south: the benefits which it hoped would accrue to the East Indian traders were mentioned in the preamble to the Royal licence granted to Courteen as one reason for extending trading operations in the Far East.
By contrast, the colonial interloping interest among London merchants, whose sphere of influence was mainly in New England and the West Indies, advocated war with France and Spain. Peace in the Caribbean hampered their attacks on Spanish shipping, and the treaty of Susa with France in 1630, ceding English claims to Canada, damaged the interests of Maurice Thomson and his partners (probably the wealthiest partnership in this trade), and caused them, to surrender their profitable Canadian fur business.
This brings me to the second large theme not treated. Recent work suggests that one of the more deep-seated causes of the Civil War was the growing pressure of classes below the élite. Research suggests that Civil War popular radicalism has a long pre-history. It did not spring, fully armed, from nowhere in November 1640. Conflict in the two wealthiest trading companies appears in the Court Books long before. In overseas trading circles, pressures arose partly from the growth of the colonial and interloping merchants in New England and the West Indies – a ‘free trade’ lobby which greatly expanded in the 1620s and 1630s. As Professor Brenner has shown in his valuable thesis, Commercial Change and Political Conflict (1970), which is not used by the author, the number of settlers grew from around 1000 in the early 17th century to about 30,000 by 1640. In these markets, the City ‘free trade’ interest was often involved in the same trading organisations as members of the gentry, men who would later be leaders of the Long Parliament. These City men made their fortunes out of sugar, tobacco planting and shipping. By the mid 1630s, some were using their new wealth to finance interloping adventures to the East India and Levant areas. They propagated plans, some of which bore fruit in the 1640s and 1650s, for planting China, Japan, Assada and Mauritius and exploiting the African slave-trade. They were also linked with a party hostile to the City directorate within the East India Company itself.
Ashton’s book ignores the New England merchants and their important gentry allies. There is nothing here on the Providence Island Company, nor any reference to the work of A.P. Newton and C.M. Andrews, who first explained the politics of this alliance. Nor are we told anything at all about the Massachusetts Bay Company, the Kent Island Company or the Canada fur trade. Similarly, there is nothing about the buccaneering and planting projects of men who would be the later leaders of the Long Parliament, the Earl of Warwick, Lord Saye and Sale and Lord Brooke: their plans for naval war against Spain in the Caribbean in 1641 and their schemes for the wholesale colonisation of Ireland in 1642, in conjunction with the City traders to the Americas, are not mentioned. Here, indeed, is a political alliance of the kind that Ashton is searching for. It is not, however, the alliance he envisages between the élite City merchants and the Parliamentary leadership, but between their opponents, the American interloping merchants and the followers of Pym. These new men would oust the leading East India and Levant merchants from their controlling positions in City government early in 1642.
Since the purpose of Ashton’s work is to suggest that it was some of the top circle of the concessionair trading interest, who looked with sympathy on the Parliamentary cause after 1629 (though we may well doubt whether such a cause yet existed), we would expect him to look for evidence of this new alignment in the records of the one company where top City men sat side by side with some of the Parliamentary leaders: the East India Company. But these records (the originals, not used by Ashton, are fuller than the calendar) leave no doubt that, far from being aligned, these men were at loggerheads. Here interlopers like Matthew Cradock and John Fowke were joined with Lord Saye and Sale, Lord Brooke and the Earl of Warwick. Their policies entailed curtailing the power of the Directors and Governor by making them financially accountable, by increasing the control of the generality, by switching to general voyages from a continuing joint-stock, and by promoting a policy of expansion and plantation in Africa and the Far East. The list of grievances presented by the Directors to the Crown in 1638 complained about all aspects of this programme, which they saw as undermining their entire enterprise.
Ashton is at odds with all other writers on this period in his estimation of the Royal licence granted to Sir William Courteen in 1635 to trade to the East Indian seas. He describes it as the biggest possible blow to top City merchants, ‘standing in much the same relationship to the East India Company in the fourth decade of the century as Cockayne’s project had done to the Merchant Adventurers in the second’. But the East India Company’s operations were not abolished, as the Merchant Adventurers had been. The Merchant Adventurers’ trade was entirely overthrown for a period of three years by Alderman Cockayne’s New Company: it was a blow from which the Company never fully recovered. By contrast, Courteen’s association was only a pinprick to the East India Company. It was dismissed by K.N. Chaudhuri, the historian of the Company, in three lines of his book, as a ‘miserable failure’. In its first form, it lasted only a year because Courteen died. The licence didn’t give control over the trade to a new organisation, but allowed Courteen to trade in a vast trading area where earlier Royal licences had operated, with an injunction not to infringe the Company’s monopoly. In fact, Courteen chartered only six ships, one of which was partly owned by John Fowke and William Clobery, interlopers in the East India trades, and, later, leading City Parliamentarians. After Courteen’s death, the licence, which then became a Royal patent, was taken over by his son: following his bankruptcy in little more than a year, the entire project, which was probably mainly a planting or colonising venture, was bought up by the partnership of Maurice Thomson and the leading New England merchants mentioned above.
In fact, Courteen’s patent was only one of ten grievances presented by the Company to the Crown in 1638. The downturn in profits which had begun in the 1620s was accelerated long before Courteen by a structural feature much more damaging to the trade, and not touched on in this book: the terrible Gujarat famine, which started in 1631, wiped out the calico workers in north-west India and Persia whose product the Company exchanged with South India for spices. When normal conditions returned after 1636, profitability began to improve. Increases in trade, particularly in the price of pepper, caused the Governor to report in 1640 that ‘the trade is now in a better condition than it has been for many years, on account of the great increase in wares since the late famine and pestilence.’ The £50,000 pepper loan to the Crown in August 1640, at a very delicate moment just before the meeting of the Long Parliament, was described by the Governor, Sir Henry Garway, as ‘the best act that this company ever did’. The loan was opposed by a few members of the generality, according to the minutes, but the Governor refused a request to put the matter to the ballot.
Ties with the Crown were also reflected in the Company’s action in withdrawing its petition of grievances to Parliament on Royal request early in 1641, and in insisting on keeping Garway as Governor despite his bankruptcy and his imprisonment by Parliament for Royalism during 1642 and 1643. Partly because of its political alignment but also because the new interloping merchants were now powerfully entrenched as customs farmers and members of the Militia Committee, the East India Company never got its charter renewed by the Long Parliament, in contrast with the Merchant Adventurers and Levant Companies. The proposal to renew it, which took four years to get through the Commons, was finally defeated by one vote, in the Lords in 1647, and the charter was not finally renewed until 1657. It could be argued that the grant of charters to the other two companies was as much in the nature of bribes for cash as the demonstration of sympathy described by Ashton. Members of both companies had to be imprisoned before they would pay up, and the renewal of their charters didn’t mean that Parliament protected their rights against interlopers. All witnesses agree that the interlopers enjoyed a field-day during the interegnum, with trading areas virtually open. One political consequence was a strong counterrevolutionary movement among these merchant groups: in the 1650s, Thurloe’s spies reported that the Merchant Adventurers’ main overseas station at Hamburg was not just Presbyterian but positively Royalist.
But the greatest omission of this book is the one that the author himself points out: the ‘lack of irrefutable proof, that the city fathers and the Parliamentary leaders were allied from 1628 to 1641. Nor does he offer any explanation of the evidence that contradicts his ‘new model’. If a common campaign against impositions in 1628-9 made the City bigwigs ‘parliamentarian’ in sympathy, why did City merchants trading to France ask the Crown to increase customs duties in retaliation against the French Government in 1632? Why did the trading companies not get together to attack the greater increases in the Book of Rates which took place in 1636? What was the effect of Royal proclamations granting to the Merchant Adventurers in 1634 and again in 1639 the much desired tighter control over this trade? What effect did the stricter regulation of the current trade within the Levant Company have on the City’s ‘free trade’ lobbies?
Above all, Ashton needs to explain why the Aldermen and Common Councilmen refused in 1640 and 1641 to pass any measures in support of Pym’s policy, while acting on at least two questions in ways that could damage him – quibbling over the authorisation of the Protestation in May 1641 and campaigning against Parliamentary protections in an instance which involved a servant of that highly placed Parliamentarian, the Earl of Warwick. All this at a time when the whole world was bombarding Parliament with grievances. Pym had some strong supporters in Common Council, but it is unlikely that measures sympathetic to him were held back by the force of the aldermanic veto: with the collapse of censorship, the flood of newsletters would almost certainly have left some record had the veto been used. No contemporary évidence that it was employed has been found, nor is there any evidence for it in the many pamphlets written later that describe these tense months. Why also did nine out of 12 of the leading livery companies refrain from petitioning the Long Parliament in 1640 and 1641 when everyone was petitioning: failure to do so must have already begun to appear somewhat conspicuous.
It is certainly proper to argue that there was a strong mood of caution in the City in 1640 and 1641, as there had been in the two earlier years. Historians have always recognised this fact. Businessmen don’t commit themselves in political crises without putting their fortunes at risk. The Crown showed a similar caution by confirming many of the disputed City privileges in the royal Charter of 1638 and cancelling most of the unpopular patents. Moreover, as I pointed out in my book on London, a small group of aldermen appear generally to have stood aside from both factions. But true neutralism in a great political crisis is not the same for the city of London as it would be for the clubmen of Somerset. London was the stage of the powerstruggle and the fount of financial supply. Almost at once the national crisis spilt over into City politics.
Disputes about municipal elections began in September 1640 even before the Long Parliament sat. The most important of these, in June and July 1641, was about whether the Lord Mayor or Common Hall should elect one of the sheriffs. This dispute needs more elaboration than it has yet received. It caused the Lord Mayor’s claims to be strongly upheld not only by all the aldermen but by 172 of the wealthiest men of the Levant and East India Companies, who signed a petition which is still extant in the Victoria Tower of the House of Lords. Theirs was not simply a campaign of neutralists or constitutionalists aimed at preserving the City constitution. It clearly reflected a move towards the King, accelerated perhaps by the summoning of a number of aldermen and even some of the companies of London before the Parliament’s Committee of Grievances. The office of sheriff was a highly sensitive one in the confrontation between King and Parliament. The sheriffs controlled the City’s trained bands and appointed jurors for the Mayor’s courts. They were therefore crucial in the control over demonstrators and in the preservation of law and order, a role which would be even more amply manifested in the conflict with Charles II which culminated in the Quo Warranto proceedings. If this conflict had revolved only around support of the traditional City constitution, the citizens’ petition should have been signed by men of all later ‘parties’ – neutralists, Parliamentarian and Royalist. Yet practically all the names on it are those of men who were well-attested Royalists by 1642.
Ashton argues that when the City submitted to the Crown in the 1630s it did so ‘unwillingly’, a point which no one is likely to dispute. But it is still worth asking why they submitted at all to some of the attacks to which they were subjected. The City governors hadn’t always been so compliant. They had refused to raise money for Wolsey in 1525-6, and had gracefully but absolutely firmly declined to appoint Elizabeth’s nominee as recorder in 1596, affirming their right to elect the man of their own choice.
Why was the City more pliant under Charles I than earlier? One possible explanation is Royal interference in City elections and appointments. Such interference had existed before, but it was greatly intensified under the early Stuarts, culminating under Charles II and James II in the complete abolition of the City’s electoral independence, with the Crown choosing all municipal officers. It would seem more fruitful to investigate the extent of this interference under Charles than to discuss whether the City submitted ‘with’ or ‘without’ enthusiasm. The plain fact is that the municipality for the most part did submit to the King, that they gave no support whatever to Pym after 1640, that the majority of the directors of the East India Company and many of the richest Levant traders supported the Crown from at least July 1641, and that a revolution in City government was needed to make the City safe for Parliament.