The Guild of Weavers, Fullers and Shearmen was not the only association to emerge from the woollen cloth trade. As early as the 1200s, the merchants who bought and sold woollen cloth also began to join forces. Together they formed what came to be known as the Company of Merchant Adventurers.
The Merchant Adventurers were trading capitalists who rose to prominence by buying and then exporting woollen cloth from England to foreign markets, mainly in Europe. Their membership was dominated by merchants from London, but local branches of the Company were also established within Exeter’s merchant community, and those of other centres of the wool trade including Norwich, Ipswich and York.
The Merchant Adventurers were the leading entrepreneurs of their day, but this did not mean they believed in a free market open to all. Instead they fought hard to make sure that the right to trade woollen cloth in foreign markets remained firmly within their own hands. In 1407, under King Henry IV, and then in 1505, under King Henry VII, the Merchant Adventurers were awarded Royal Charters. These gave official recognition of their importance and provided them with significant powers.
The Charters gave the Merchant Adventurers the ability to levy a membership fee. This was set deliberately high as a way of ensuring that the Company could operate as an exclusive club and that the number of merchants who could freely trade in woollen cloth remained restricted to its own ranks.
The Charters also allowed the Merchant Adventurers to exert control over the port of Antwerp, which held a key position for the English wool trade. It was the main entry point for its exports into the markets of western and northern Europe. Controlling who could sell English cloth in Antwerp meant that the Merchant Adventurers enjoyed an effective monopoly over the European cloth trade.
The power to determine who could trade, and where, allowed the Merchant Adventurers to grow rich on the back of the English woollen cloth industry.
Yet this power and prosperity did not last forever. Around 1550, the fortunes of the Merchant Adventurers changed. In the decades which followed, the demand from Continental Europe for English woollen cloth stalled and then fell away. It was to recover again, but this lay some way off in the early 1600s.
The crisis proved a spur to the Merchant Adventurers. Necessity made them search for new trade routes in the hope of unlocking fresh and lucrative markets. This took them beyond Europe’s ports. Trade was established to the north-east with the Russian Empire of Ivan the Terrible, while other Merchant Adventurers began to import spices from the Far East through eastern Mediterranean ports.
Slideshow: Click for Image GalleryWalter Raleigh was born into a well-connected gentry family at Hayes Barton in Devon (12 miles to the west of Exeter). He led a remarkable life becoming a courtier to Queen Elizabeth I, Member of Parliament, author and poet, but it is by his exploits as a Merchant Adventurer that he is best remembered.
In 1578, Raleigh sailed to America with the explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert. This expedition may have stimulated his plan to found a colony there. In 1585, he sponsored the first English colony in America on Roanoke Island (now North Carolina). The colony failed, as did a further attempt at colonisation in 1587. Raleigh has been credited with bringing potatoes and tobacco back to Britain, although both of these were already known through the Spanish colonialists. However, Raleigh did help to make smoking popular at court.
Raleigh soon became a favourite of the Queen, and was knighted. Well-known for his courtly manners, he is reputed to have placed his cloak over a puddle in order to prevent the Queen from muddying her shoes. More than 400 years on, we can only speculate as to whether Raleigh’s cloak was made of Exeter woollen cloth.