Merchant Adventurers


When Elizabeth Boleyn-Tudor inherited the kingdom of England from Queen Mary in 1558, she found the country bankrupt for the first time. Mary's husband Philip II of Spain emptied all the coffers in order to meet his expenditures in fighting the Protestant rebels in the Netherlands. Secretary of State William Cecil and other members of the Privy Council advised the new Queen that the only way to rescue Crown's finances was to take recourse to the City of London, precisely to the Merchant Adventurers. The Company was the backbone of the English export trade and had their own fleet of ship, their own armaments and their own treasury. The group was dominated by the Worshipful Company of Mercers, a number one company in the order of precedence of 48 existing livery companies in the City of London. The Worshipful Company of Mercers traded in luxury fabrics and was associated closely with the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket. He was son of a mercer and sheriff of the City, who opposed king Henry II's attempts to limit the power of the Roman Catholic Church. After his murder in 1170, Thomas Becket became a saint and symbol of resistance against royal power. His sister, Agnes de Helles and her husband, founded the hospital of St Thomas of Acon on the spot where the Beckets used to trade in Cheapside, between Ironmonger Lane and Old Jewry. The hospital served the Order of St Thomas Acon that was formed during the third crusade by William, the Chaplain to the Dean of St Paul's, who, seeing the corpses of the Christians about the walls of Acre, decided to form an Order for the purpose of burying Christian Knights who fell in battle in the Holy Land. Due to disease and death of the other knights, the Order was pressed into service becoming an Order of military monks, fighting alongside the Knights Templar, the Knights of the Hospital of St John the Almsgiver, the Knights of the Hospital of Lazarus and the Teutonic Knights of the Hospital of St Mary. Of all the five noble Orders of knights in the Holy Land at this time, only this Order had a purely English foundation. Following the battle of Acre, the Order of St Thomas of Acon merged temporarily with the Order of the Temple.37 The Church of St Thomas, which formed part of the hospital in Cheapside, had become, in time, a meeting place of the Mercers Company and other Livery Companies.38 The Mercers transformed the Church of St Thomas into their own chapel, which became 'Mercers' Chapel', with its own burial site underneath. The Worshipful Company of Mercers was proud to be one of the oldest and most powerful corporation in the City of London. Many Lord Mayors of London were mercers and William Caxton, famed as the printer of the first book in English - The History of Troy - was a mercer by trade and a Member of the Mercers' Company.

Merchant Adventurers were the Mercers' branch in Antwerp in then Spanish Netherlands, accumulating wealth through trade in cloth. The metropolis of Antwerp outbid Bruge in the sixteen century as the centre of the world trade offering Portuguese spices, German copper and English cloth. It controlled the money market of the world and every important loan in Europe was negotiated there. King Philip II of Spain had its own financial agents in Antwerp to raise loans for war, and so did the English Crown. The Master of the Mercers' Company, Thomas Gresham, had been a Crown agent operating in Antwerp since 1551. His services to the English Crown and the City of London spanned the reigns of four monarchs. When Elizabeth came to the throne, £69,069 was still owned by the Crown to the Flanders merchants accrued from the previous reigns.39 Throughout his many years of residency in Antwerp, Gresham build up a network of influential friends, who were active in political and commercial world. One of them was the shrewd German banker, Gaspar Schetz, son of Erasmus Schetz, an important creditor to Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and friend of a learned scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam. Gaspar was well connected in the City government as his wife belonged to one of the leading patrician families in the Town council. His brother, Melchior acted as a treasurer general of the Netherlands and was key figure in political government circles. Gresham was therefore up to date with politics of the Netherlands via the family of Schetz, who became the main creditors to the English Crown.40 Other English Crown creditors were also important figures in the Netherlands. Christopher Pruynen was a treasurer of the City government, whilst merchant Gillis Hooftman, had been an arms supplier to William I, Prince of Orange, the leader of the Dutch revolt against the House of Habsburg who ruled Austria, Spain and the Netherlands. William of Orange encouraged piracy and privateering “as the only way both to raise the money for the cause and inflict damage on the enemy's weakest points...”41 He often invited Thomas Gresham for dinner to discuss politics, war and loans. Over the next years, Gresham acted as a prime financial and intelligence agent of the Queen, collecting information, providing armaments and ammunition for England's wars with France and Scotland and supplying Queen's secretary Cecil with other commodities like books, maps and arts, which was often done through bribery and corruption. Gresham's final accounts with the Crown in 1574 show that in the last 11 years of his service he had received and expended over £650,000 on crown's behalf.42 Due to growing religious turbulences on the European Continent, Thomas Gresham was preparing Queen Elizabeth that the City of London was going to become the next merchant capital of the world. He thoroughly advised her on how best to consolidate her debt, rebuild confidence in pound sterling and strengthen the navy. Security of the Channel against the raids was of utmost importance, so Gresham and other members of the Privy Council advised the Queen to transfer the princely sum of £14,000 a year to Benjamin Gonson, treasurer of the Admiralty, to spend on maintenance, construction and servicing of the shipping. Furthermore, in 1565, Gresham made a proposal to the City's Court of Aldermen to build, at his own expense, a bourse modelled on the Antwerp bourse for the merchants to meet, exchange information and make deals. The site for the bourse was chosen and provided by the City of London Corporation and the Worshipful Company of Mercers. Flanked by Cornhill and Threadneedle Street, it was situated near to the ancient site of the Temple of Mithras. The Exchange was officially opened on January 23, 1571 by Queen Elizabeth, who awarded the building its royal title. Thus, the Royal Exchange, founded by Thomas Gresham, the Master of the Mercers, became London's first temple of commerce.

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37 Commemorative Order of St Thomas of Acon, History »

38 The Mercers' Company, 700 years of history »

39 Susan Ronald, The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, And The Dawn of Empire (New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2007), p. 32 »

40 Lecture by Prof. Guido Marnef, Gresham and Antwerp, 19 June 2008 at Gresham College, London; »

41 Cornelis Ch. Goslinga, The Dutch in the Caribbean and on the Wild Coast: 1580-1680 (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1971), p. 8 »

42 Lecture by Prof.Vanessa Harding, “Change, Exchange and International Interchange: London and International Trade in the Sixteen Century”, 3 March 1997, Gresham College, London »