History of the Company

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.

Although there was a ban on wool exports 1614-25 (the disastrous Alderman Cockayne Project), a new charter to the Merchant Staplers was granted by King James I in 1617 giving them a monopoly on broking wool in England (23 named towns).  There was a large increase in membership and the company still held property in Leaden Hall in the City of London.  The picture shows the first entries in a new minute book starting with a meeting of 12 November 1619. 

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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.

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John Vernon Merchant of the Staple – portrait 1609