Selected Excerpts from Latimer’s History of the Merchant Venturers Guild of Bristol, U. K., Part 1

Over eleven decades ago, an important history of the Merchant Venturers Guild of Bristol, U. K., was published in England.

I will be excerpting relevant passages that I believe will prove useful in developing insights into the ancestsral family history of related families who settled in 17th century Virginia.

I offer these excerpts as providing support to my argument that mercantile institutions existed in Bristol and elsewhere that would help explain the distribution near port cities in England of several (perhaps many) related surnames that are also found in 17th century Virginia.


From the preface to John Latimer Society of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol; with some Account of the Anterior Merchants’ Guilds, 1903, J. W. Arrowsmith, Quay Street, Bristol, U.K.:

“It is somewhat remarkable that although the merchants of the leading outports in England obtained royal charters of incorporation in the sixteenth century, no Merchant Venturers’ Society was established in London.

“A corporate body, eventually styled the Merchant Adventurers of England, had indeed been founded by Henry the Fourth, and granted exclusive rights of trading with Germany and the Low Countries; but . . . the members ‘were in those times dispersed, and dwelt as well in the outports of the kingdom – viz.: at York, Hull, Exeter, and Newcastle, as at London, though the greatest number always dwelt at London’. . .

“Down to the rupture with Spain in the reign of Elizabeth, the General Courts of this singular Society, whose members were exclusively Englishmen, but whose Governor, Wardens, and Assistants were elected and resided abroad, generally assembled at Antwerp, and at that time the members living in London do not appear to have had a recognized right to elect a resident deputy Governor.

“At a later period, the headquarters of the fraternity were at Hamburg, whene it became commonly known in this country as the Hamburg Company; and it being then customary to hold three General Courts yearly – two at the new centre and one in London – the organization got later on to be loosely styled the ‘London Company.”

The crest of the Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol

“By the charter granted to the Bristol Merchants by Edward the Sixth, they were forbidden to traffic in the region reserved to the Merchant Adventurers of England; but this restraint was abrogated by the second local charter granted by Charles the First. The latter instrument, resulting from the temporary capture of this city by the Royalist army, was probably regarded as invalid by the party that afterwards gained supremacy.

:But in 1662 Charles the Second, in response to a petition setting forth the decay of the clothing trade in the West of England occasioned by the narrow policy of the English Adventurers, ordered that admission to that company should be granted to all merchants at the outports on payment of a small fine. . .

“[I]t appears that in 1669 the Bristolians, pleading their charters, appealed to the Privy Council against the monopoly claimed by the Hamburg Company; . . . The Merchant Adventurers of England still flourish for a time at Hamburg , . . . [but by the early years of George the Third] English trade with the Hanse Towns had been entirely unrestricted for three-quarters of a century.”

“Dr Gross [author of The Gild Merchant] has been unable to find any trace of the existence of an English Guild Merchant in the Anglo-Saxon period of our history. . .  although Merchant Guilds had been undoubtedly established in some parts of Normandy and Northern France.

“The history of our own guilds, therefore, begins after the advent of the Conqueror, when . . . the close unity between England and Normandy led to an increase in foreign commerce, and greatly stimulated internal trade and industry. With the expansion of trade, the mercantile element naturally became a more important factor in town life, and would soon feel the need of joint action to guard the nascent prosperity against encroachment.

“The earliest extant references to the Guild Merchant . . occur in the charter granted by Robert FitzHamon [Lord of the Honour of Gloucester] to the burgesses of the little town of Burford (1087-1107) and in a document drawn p whilst Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109). Soon afterwards, during the reign of Henry the First (1100-1135), the Guild appears in various municipal charters, and its propagation must have been greatly stimulated by the further extension of England’s Continental possessions under Henry the Second.

“[I]n November, 1200, King John [Henry II’s son] made a fresh grant of liberties to the burgesses of Dublin, permitting them . . to have all guilds, as well as, or better than, those enjoyed by the burgesses of Bristol (Charter Rolls).

“The privileges of Bristol were in fact so extensive, and so much coveted by other buroughs , that it became the custom for less favoured communities to appeal to the Crown for the like concessions . . , None of these, however, obtained the full privileges enjoyed by Bristolians. In the reign of Richard the First the import of foreign wines was exclusively confined to London and Bristol . . and the western port seems to have had the largest share of the trade, for the Patent and Close Rolls of King John and his son, Henry the Third, contain a multitude of mandates of wine for the Royal household and Court favourites. Latimer, pp. 1-4

“When trade and industry underwent a great expansion during the period of the three Edwards, the mercantile interests must have become completely dominant in many towns, the burgher merging in the townsman, and gildship becoming an appurtenance of burgess-ship. . .The same men swayed the counsels of the borough and gild. Latimer, p. 5 (quoting Gross.)

“The case of the town of Gloucester is still more striking, for there the Guild actually became the Corporation. The irst common seal of that borough, an impression of which is appended to a document executed between 1237 and 1245, bears the inscription in latin: – “Seal of the Burgesses of the Merchants’ Gild of Gloucester”.




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