“Communitas Mercatorum Stapule Anglie”; also known as “Mayor and Company of Merchants of the Staple of England”

The Company of Merchants of the Staple is one of the oldest mercantile corporations in England. It is rare, possibly unique, in being ‘of England‘ and not bounded by any city or municipality. It may trace its ancestry back as far as 1282 or even further. A group of 26 wool merchants apparently first started the Company. The Dukes of Burgundy and Counts of Flanders granted it charters. The Merchants were in Bruges in 1282, Dordrecht in 1285, Antwerp in 1296 and St Omer in 1313. The Company controlled the export of wool to the continent from 1314.  The Duke of Flanders awarded a grant to the English Merchants in 1341. Its first charter from an English monarch was in 1347 giving it control of the export trade in staple commodities.

Commercial significance was in Calais – under English rule from 1347 and the main port for wool.    Exports were restricted to the Freemen of the Company who, in return for their monopoly, paid a levy back to the Crown.  With some two hundred merchants, in 1363 it was known as the “New Company of English Merchants dwelling nowe at Calais” and in 1369 as “The Mayor and Company of the Staple at Calais“. The Company later paid for and eventually managed the garrison in the city.

In January 1558 France (Henri II) regained control of Calais from England (Mary Tudor – “Calais engraved upon my heart”) and the Company moved to Bruges. It was also briefly in Middleburgh in 1558/9 and continued in Bruges until 1569. It was awarded a grant to be a perpetual corporation, a legal unit with a common seal. In 1569 the English merchants were expelled from Netherlands (Elizabeth I in dispute with Phillip II) and moved to Hamburg until able to return to Bruges in 1573 where they stayed until 1614.   Although in 1584 a principle established that the compulsory staple market was to be abandoned; only members of the Company were allowed to ship wools from England – to any continental port which did not lie in the hands of the Queen’s enemies.

In 1614, the Cockayne project banned wool exports from England; wool was traded only in domestic ‘staples’. The States-General of the Netherlands banned the import of cloth from England.  The English lifted their ban in 1617 but the Dutch did not.  King James I granted the Company a new charter in 1617 and it moved to Leadenhall in London. King Charles II confirmed the privileges of the Company on 29th July 1669; this royal charter is in the Company’s archives.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, The Right Worshipful Company of the Merchants of the Staple managed the supply of wool to the clothing industry but the industrial revolution brought problems of supply and a decline in influence. In the 19th century, the Merchant Staplers still owned considerable property and survived within a strong family basis. The Company intervened in the wool industry on standards for wool winding. It met twice a year (usually April and August) in London including at the Albion Tavern in Aldersgate and the London Tavern, in Greenwich at the Trafalgar Hotel and the Crown & Sceptre, and in Richmond at the Star & Garter. There were only 10 members in 1923 and a meeting on 29th June 1927 suspended the Company’s operations. However, the Charter was not relinquished and a revival came in 1948 from a small group including two original members. There was then a steady increase to 120 members by 2015. The Company has a Charitable Trust with an increasing number of grants to the wool and textile industry.

IMG_3092 John Vernon Master 1609 portrait[John Vernon Merchant of the Staple – portrait 1609]

The Staplers On the Continent

1248 Antwerp – first known staple town – rights granted by John, Duke of Brabant to the Confraternity of St Thomas a Becket (English traders – predecessors of both the Merchant Staplers and Merchant Adventurers)
1275 King Edward 1 of England levied 6s 8d tax on every sack of wool exported from England
1282 staple at Bruges
1285 staple at Dordrecht
1296 staple at Antwerp
late 13th/early 14th century: 32,000 sacks (weight 364lbs) of wool exported from England per annum
1313 staple at St Omer
1314 compulsory staple for all English wool established by Kings of England and of France.
1325 staple at Flanders
1328  The Count of Flanders (instructed by King Philip IV of France) arrested all English merchants in Flanders.  King Edward III banned all wool exports from England. Famine in Ghent.
1337 Antwerp single staple market established.
1337 start of the Hundred Years War (England v France).
1338 To raise money Edward III seized all the English merchants’ wool at Dordrecht against bonds on later sales.
1340 Bruges staple market established.
1341 Grant awarded to the English Merchants by the Duke of Flanders.
1346  26 August – Battle of Crecy.
1347 Calais capitulates to England.
1348 Calais becomes main staple town on the continent.
1359 Bruges – Single staple market
1363-1558 Calais
1392  19,000 sacks of wool exported from England.
1446  8,000 sacks of wool exported from England.
1558  6 January  – Governor of Calais, Lord Wentworth, surrenders.

– After loss of Calais: Permit for the Merchants to hold the staple at Bruges, Middleburgh and Bergen.
1558 Grant to Staple Company to be a perpetual corporation, a legal unit with a common seal
1558/9 Middleburgh
1559-1569 Bruges
1569 English merchants expelled from Netherlands (Elizabeth I in dispute with Phillip II)
1569 Hamburg
1573-1614 Bruges
1584 Principle secured that the compulsory staple market abandoned; but only members of the Company allowed to ship wools to any continental port which did not lie in the hands of the Queen’s enemies.
1614-1625 English ban on all wool exports
1825 Acts of Restraint lifted. Exports permitted.

 and in England

1326 Edward III – ordinance establishing staple towns in Newcastle, York, Lincoln, Norwich, London, Winchester, Exeter & Bristol. Staple = wool, fells (skin+wool), hides, & tin. Exports only from these towns.

Since 1353 London -various properties
From 15th Century – property in Leadenhall “Staple Hall”
1619 Ordinances established by the Company. Merchants organised from London and operating through the country.

1619  References to the Staple Company’s right to levy a toll on all wools carried over London Bridge.  [ref. Company Minutes Book 19 Jan 1619]

1623 Meetings held at the Dog Tavern, Westminster.  The Company had houses in Westminster and the Woolstaple Wharf there. [ref. Company Minutes Book]

1627,  The weekly market at Leaden Hall for the sale of wool altered from Friday to Tuesday to avoid clashing with the market for hides and meat. [ref. Company Minutes Book 27 June 1627]

1632 Opinion by legal counsel, Sir John Bankes, that “the Staple Markett for sale of wooll was not under the government of the Maior of London but to be ordered by the Maior and Companie of the Staple..”. [ref. Company Minutes Book]

1635 May/June –  Dialogue between the King (Charles I) and the Company.  The King offers to grant the Company a monopoly of the export of woollen cloths in return for £10,000 per annum. The Company stands by claims under privileges already granted re export trade; however, it cannot but accept the King’s offer but no fixed sum can be guaranteed.  [ref. Company Minutes Book]

1739 The Company’s property in Westminster was bought up by the Commissioners for the building of Westminster Bridge – for £1666-10s-0d. (Believed that the Company now owned no property and lived only on investments.)

1824,  Thomas Wilson, MP for the City of London, presented the Company’s petition to Parliament against a proposal in the House to allow the export of raw wool.   [ref. Company Minutes Book 23 April 1824]

1825 Act of Parliament: repealed all laws relating to wool and imposed a duty on the export of British raw wool.

“Staple” . The word, in its primary use, appears to have meant a particular port or other place to which certain commodities were obliged to be brought to be weighed or measured for the payment of the customs, before they could be sold, or in some cases exported or imported. Here the king’s staple was said to be established. The articles of English produce upon which customs were anciently paid were wool, sheep-skins (or woolfels), and leather; and these were accordingly denominated the staples or staple goods of the kingdom. The persons who exported these goods were called the Merchants of the Staple: they were incorporated, or at least recognized as forming a society with certain privileges, in the reign of Edward II, if not earlier. Hakluyt has printed a charter granted by Edward II., the 20th of May, 1313, to the mayor and council of the merchants of the staple, in which he ordains that all merchants, whether natives or foreigners, buying wool and woolfels in his dominions for exportation, should, instead of carrying them for sale, as they had been wont to do, to several places in Brabant, Flanders, and Artois, carry them in future only to one certain staple in one of those countries, to be appointed by the said mayor and council. [Craik, History of British Commerce Vol 1]

The first wool staple (designated by royal ordinance as a special centre of commerce) was established in 1294, and the first compulsory staple, where all wool exporters were required to trade, was set up in 1314.

 The Statute of the Staple, King Edward III – 1353 (27th year) statute 2
[from Ruffhead – The Statutes at Large, 1763.djvu/36]

The text is in Latin and French. Sections and heading summary for each (+ extra notes, some names translated.):
1.WHERE the Staple shall be kept.
In England: NewcastleonTyne, Everwyke,Nicole, Norwich, Westminster, Canterbury, Cicestre, Winchester,Exeter, Bristut;
and in Wales: Carmadyne; and in Ireland: Devlin, Waterford, Cork, Druzhda; and nowhere else.

2. All Merchants may freely sell all their Merchandizes in the Staple.
Merchant Strangers may come into and depart forth of the Realm with their Goods and none of them shall be taken by the King’s Purveyors.
3. Merchants may buy Woolls, Leather, Fells, and Lead in England, so that they be carried to the Staple.
4. That none going to the Staple be disturbed by the Purveyors.
5. The King’s Justices shall have no Cognizance of that which pertaineth to the Staple.
6. That no Marshal or other Minister meddle with the Staple.
7. Touching Licence of Passage of Woolls, Leather, Fells, or Lead.
8. The Jurisdiction of the Staple.
9. For Recognizance of Statutes of the Staple.
10. For Weights and Measures of the Staple.
11. Against forestalling of Merchandizes coming to the Staple.
12. That no Woolls, Fells, Leather, nor Lead, be carried into Scotland.
13. Touching Goods robbed upon the Sea coming into the Realm.
14. For bringing of Bullion into the King’s Exchanges.
15. Concerning Indentures to be made between Carriers of Merchandizes to the Staple by fresh Rivers, and the Bailiffs of the Towns where they be Shipped.
16. For the Rent of Places in the Staple where Woolls and other Merchandizes shall be set.
17. That no Merchant Stranger be impeached for others Debt.
18. Merchants of Ireland and Wales may bring their Merchandizes to the Staples in England.
19. That none lose his Goods by Forfeit of his Servants.
20. Merchant Strangers taken into the King’s Protection.
21. The Authority of the Major and Constables of the Staple.
22. For Correctors of Strangers and Denizens to be in the Staple.
23. For a certain Number of Porters, and other Officers, to be in the Staple.
24. For Association to the Major of the Staple, where any Alien is Party.
25. Nothing to be done in Prejudice of the Staple.
26. Credence to be given to the Letters or Oaths of the Owners of Merchandizes coming into the Realm, testifying the true Value of them.
27. The Penalty of them that be convict for shipping of Woolls.
28. Confirmation of Privileges and Customs of the Staple.
29. The Fees of the Mayors and Constables of the Staple.

Staple Inn, Holborn, London

The current Staple Inn was built in 1585 and was established as an ‘inn of Chancery’ which was a medieval school providing training in legal practices. The inn was also a wool staple where wool was weighed and taxed, which gives the inn its name.
Staple Inn photo


William Browne – Lilford Hall
William Browne    Alderman of Stamford.
1446 Appointed as ambassador for the merchants of Holland, Zeeland and Flanders to the Duke of Burgundy.
1449 Member of the Calais Staple at least from this year. As member he engages in moneylending, in particular to successive Kings of England, namely Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V, Richard III and Henry VII in return for forfeited properties, licenses to export wool free of tax, and at least five royal pardons. Most of his moneylending activities took place during the War of the Roses which took place between 1455 and 1485.