Published by EH.Net (August 2020)

Thomas Leng, Fellowship and Freedom: The Merchant Adventurers and the Restructuring of English Commerce, 1582-1700. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. xi + 343 pp. $85 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-879447-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Ellen M. Nye, Department of History, Yale University.


Over the course of the seventeenth century, English trade expanded from a largely provincial affair to an enterprise of global dimensions. To understand the transformation of English commerce, Thomas Leng, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sheffield, examines the Merchant Adventurers, a leading player in early seventeenth-century English trade. Leng’s emphasis on the Hanseatic ports and the Low Countries, the core areas where the Merchant Adventurers operated, distinguishes him from scholars who examine the transformation of English commerce by looking at its expansion in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Indian Ocean. By following the Merchant Adventurers from its prominent position in the English late-sixteenth-century merchant community to its loss of trading privileges in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution, Leng charts its decline beginning in the 1620s. Instead of focusing on external factors impeding the Merchant Adventurers such as the navigation system, deteriorating Anglo-Dutch relations, and decreasing demand for English cloth, Leng investigates internal, endogenous causes for the Company’s decline while at the same time emphasizing its dynamic responses to changes at both a collective and individual level. Through his research, Leng intends to reshape our understanding of the Merchant Adventurers and of the structure of seventeenth-century English commerce more broadly, a field where Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution (1993) continues to loom large.

Brenner narrated the transition from feudalism to capitalism in England through changing forms of mercantile organizations, from Crown-chartered corporations to free-trading merchant networks. In Brenner’s argument, the Merchant Adventurers – a company with a charter from the Crown that granted them control over membership and a monopoly on the licensed exports of unfinished broadcloth to designated market towns in Germany and the Low Countries – were the epitome of the “old merchants” who clung to their established privileges instead of engaging with new opportunities in the import and re-export trades in the Levant, East Indies, and Americas. The “new merchants” benefitted from new forms of commercial government during the English Civil War and then thrived through freer trade, moving adroitly across geographical borders leaving the Merchant Adventurers and the other “old merchants” largely unable to compete.

Leng argues against Brenner’s division between “old merchants” like the Merchant Adventurers and the “new merchants” of the Atlantic emphasizing instead how membership within the two groups overlapped (p. 9-10). Further, the seventeenth century “was characterized less by a succession of merchant groups replacing each other as the pace-setters of commercial change, as Brenner presented it, than by a transformation of the merchant community as a whole” (p. 310). In adapting to the changing circumstances of overseas trade, some Merchant Adventurers, Leng argues, were more dynamic and variegated than often appreciated, active, even if in a limited way, in emerging opportunities. The success of these merchants, then, fostered cleavages within the Company itself. Why did most Merchant Adventurers not engage more in the long-distance import and re-export and colonial trades? Leng rejects Brenner’s criticism of the Merchant Adventurers as complacent rent-seekers, arguing instead that the Merchant Adventurers’ trade was very time-intensive to learn, crowding out other commercial enterprises (p. 111). Further, he argues that they often lacked the connections necessary to flourish in new areas (p. 310). In the end, Leng successfully modifies Brenner’s argument by emphasizing the dynamic responses to change shown by some Merchant Adventurers, but, more broadly, he accepts earlier depictions of the Company as declining from the 1620s (p. 311) and as largely consisting of highly-specialized merchants who, due to structural constraints, rarely diversified into trade in new markets (p. 112).

Leng presents his argument in two parts, making extensive use of six surviving merchant letter books kept by Englishmen trading in Germany. He also examines port books, Company church records from Hamburg, and political petitions, treatises, and correspondence. His detailed description is all the more impressive given the loss of the official Company archive. The first part of his book discusses how corporate membership shaped the practices of individual merchants. Here through a discussion of apprenticeship, commercial networks, risk management, and Company discipline, Leng argues that the Merchant Adventurers constituted “a community with shared norms and values” (p. 30), that “influenced and to some extent regularized behavior” (p. 307). In other words, the Merchant Adventurers qualify, following Avner Grief, as an “institution” (p. 307). Social ties formed at least partially though participation in the corporation and maintained through family, fellowship, joint enterprise, credit, and painstaking correspondence were essential for achieving commercial success and managing the threat of financial failure. Unlike Grief, Leng follows Sheilagh Ogilvie in addressing the distributional effects of the Company. Admission to the Company through patrimony, service or the payment of an entrance fee was restricted to male “mere merchants” with English parentage. Through Leng’s account, we see the Company channeling trade into its centers and vehemently opposing interlopers while at the same time endeavoring to distribute trade equitably among its members (p. 154-5).

The second part of the book traces the Company’s responses to internal threats against corporate unity from its members and external hostility against its privileges in English politics. Leng, like Philip Stern in The Company-State (2011), emphasizes both the divisions within the Company and the institution’s embeddedness within larger economic, social, and political configurations. As some members contested Company policies, the Company similarly jockeyed for influence among a number of competing institutions, including the Crown and Parliament. Leng addresses events familiar to scholars of English history, like the Free Trade Bill, the Cokayne Scheme, the Civil War, and the Glorious Revolution, but discusses them as disputes over the proper organization of England’s trade and the correct role for corporate governance. Leng persuasively argues that as the dominant political economy in England grew increasingly hostile to the Merchant Adventurers’ privileges, the Company itself struggled to maintain corporate unity. The restructuring of commercial opportunities disrupted the Company’s traditional sources of community and shared identity. This then led to divides between members in London and those overseas over corporate governance and politics, including political fractures between members that complicate Brenner’s London-centric account of the Merchant Adventurers’ politics during the Civil Wars (p. 229).

This well-researched and clearly-written book will provide readers with an exciting new understanding of an important institution of early modern English trade. The book also raises interesting, as of yet unanswered, questions. If corporate disunity in the face of a hostile political economy condemned the Merchant Adventurers, were other more successful companies more cohesive? Leng clearly demonstrates the essential value of social ties in managing business within the Company, but these merchants’ engagement with foreign merchants is barely touched upon. Given the Company’s insular policies against marrying foreigners or hiring non-English agents (p. 96), what alternative means did merchants use to manage their commercial relationships outside of the Company? Further, while the Merchant Adventurers’ uneasy alliances with the Crown and Parliament are vividly described, we learn very little about the diplomacy and negotiations underlying the Company’s political position abroad. Due to Leng’s focus on internal corporate governance, in his account, a company founded to sell cloth to foreigners appears largely as an inter-English affair. Still, Leng should be commended for his clear description of a regulated company attempting to respond to hostile political environments and for breathing new life into important questions for understanding early modern globalization. His impressive monograph has much in common with the burgeoning literature on institutional logics, an approach that combines insights from institutionalism with those of cultural history. Through Fellowship and Freedom, we learn about both the power and the limitations of trading companies to shape individual actions in the early modern period.


Ellen M. Nye is a PhD candidate at Yale University studying the Levant Company

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