English merchant and trader
Obscure Origins. Thomas Betson was a merchant in the wool cloth trade between England and France in the middle of the fifteenth century. His date of birth is not known, and almost nothing is known of his early life, but his activities became much easier to follow as he engaged in correspondence with his suppliers and fellow merchants in the 1470s.
Merchants of the Staple. It is quite common to associate merchants in early modern Europe with cities, because generally only cities had the privilege of engaging in trade, especially important international trade such as the manufacture and export of woolen cloth. Wool was produced in England and woven into fine cloth in Flanders, leading to close commercial and political ties between the two regions. This trade generated so much revenue to the governments of both realms that the English kings, wishing both to protect and control it, designated certain towns as “staples,” centers of distribution for nearly all raw materials for export. For much of the period the staple town was Calais, an English possession on the coast of modern France. The incorporated group of merchants who dealt in wool for export were known as Merchants of the Staple. They had a monopoly on the wool trade, in return for which they paid heavy customs duties to the Crown; they were also responsible for guaranteeing the quality of their wool. As a Merchant of the Staple, Betson had a regular place of business in Calais, as well as in London, and he traveled to Bruges, Ghent, and other Flemish cities in a regular circuit throughout the business year.
Procurement. Yet, the trade that could only be carried out in duly privileged towns began each spring in the heart of English country districts such as the Cotswolds and Yorkshire with the annual sheepshearing. The first task of the Stapler, as members of the trading company were called, was to inspect and purchase wool, either from individual farmers or from local dealers. This was a large-scale enterprise: a single Stapler might purchase several thousand sacks of wool in one consignment. Generally they did not pay in cash, but with bills which they were bound to pay in six months. Once purchased, the goods had to be packed and shipped according to the strict regulations of the government and the Fellowship of the Staple itself. All wool and skins had to be packed in the county in which they were purchased and sealed by officials appointed by the Crown. They were then packed on horses for the overland trip to London. En route, customs officials carefully noted the name of the merchants with the quantity and description of the wool they shipped. Once in London, the wool was stored in warehouses, then packed and shipped across the English Channel to Calais. Such a cargo made a tempting prize for the many local seamen up and down the coasts who supplemented their income with piracy, and the Staplers often traveled in convoy with their own hired guards.
Business Deals. Betson generally traveled across the Channel with the wool to see it safely arrived, unpacked, inspected, then repacked and resealed, ready to be sold. If possible, he tried to sell it right off the boat to Flemish merchants, who would in turn resell it to cloth manufacturers. Any wool left would be taken to the Flemish fairs, held on a regular schedule throughout the year. In the summer he would return to his dealers in the Cotswolds and elsewhere to purchase more wool from the summer sheepshearing, and he would return again in the fall to purchase sheepskins, called fells, after the annual sheep killing. Each would, in turn, be packed, sealed, trans-ported to London, shipped to Calais, and sold as quickly as possible. Much of the leverage in these transactions remained with the Staplers, who had the raw materials the Flemish manufacturers needed, and this leverage is reflected in regulations set by the Fellowship of the Staple. For example, “old wool,” defined as wool from the summer shearing which still remained unsold the following April, was much less desirable than new wool, but Fellowship regulations required Flemish merchants to purchase one allotment of old wool with every two of new, thus ensuring Staplers were not left with last year’s wool on their hands.
Settling the Accounts. However much leverage the Fellowship might have when formulating its regulations, its members still faced the age-old difficulties of merchants when it came to collect their money. Often cloth merchants paid for their wool with bills, which the Staplers had to collect when they came due, and they, like all other early modern merchants, accepted payment in many different currencies and from English, Flemish, Italian, and Spanish banking families. Only after foreign accounts were settled would Betson and his colleagues be able to pay their own bills to their wool suppliers, packers, shippers, and the government. The number of trans-actions, the need for careful accounting, and the many possibilities for legal wrangles made the business highly specialized. Yet, it was also highly lucrative, with revenues of the Fellow-ship regularly augmented by loans to the English Crown. Betson became a wealthy man.
Personal Affairs. Thomas Betson wrote a series of charming love letters to his fiancee, whose family had important trading connections, when she was fourteen, exhorting her to eat well so she might grow quickly and they could be married. They had five children in seven years of marriage before his death in 1486.
Peter J. Bowden, The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England (London: Macmillan, 1962).
Eileen Edna Power, Medieval People, tenth edition (London: Methuen, 1963; New York: Barnes & Noble, 1963).