The Regulation of trade: The Grant of Licences to the Mercantile Community


By Simon Harris

It has long been recognised that the trade relationship between England and Aquitaine during the period of the rule of the kings of England as dukes of Aquitaine was of great importance. The English demand for wine was satisfied from the annual vintage shipped from Bordeaux, and the shortage of grain and other crops in Aquitaine was made good by substantial quantities shipped from England, and many other goods including cloth, and wool found their way there as well. So it should be no surprise that the Gascon Rolls, the most significant and voluminous of the administrative records for that rule, should contain a wealth of material concerning trade matters in various forms. The entries contained in the rolls concern a wide range of issues, though many are heavily influenced by the frequent periods of conflict between the English and French.

One of the major issues facing the Anglo-Gascon administration was the regulation of the wine trade. Strict rules controlled when wine from the upper reaches of the Dordogne and Garonne could be brought to Bordeaux, and these rules needed periodic reinforcing. Further issues concerning the levying of taxation on the wine were also frequently addressed. Several different taxes, such as the issac, and the custom of Royan (originally levied in this coastal town situated at the mouth of the Gironde) were levied on the wine passing through Bordeaux, and other places sought permission to levy tolls, or attempted to levy customs and tolls unilaterally.

One of the other very evident concerns was the inability to resolve trade disputes. Throughout the records from 1317 onwards the continued problems of trade between the French, on one hand, and English and Gascons on the other, but more particularly between the latter and that great maritime power of Castile, appear, and often these are perpetuations of disputes that originate in the reign of Edward I.

Other frequent references deal with the problems around the arrest of shipping and goods. On occasion merchants complained when their ships were seized for the use of the Anglo-Gascon government. On other occasions it relates to trade disputes within the Anglo-Gascon merchant community. So for example in 1319 Johan de Bouygues secured possession of wine that had been seized at Kingston upon Hull from Arnaut Dubédat, a fellow Gascon from Bayonne, to satisfy a debt.

One of the other complaints that finds regular space on the rolls is the issue of piracy. Merchant ships, especially lone merchant ships, could be easy pickings for enemy privateers. Even in the supposed security of the mouth of the Gironde merchant ships could be seized, and it was not always the enemy that was undertaking these attacks. In 1320 the Gascon merchants Bernat Durand, Ramon Rolland and Arnaut de Laroque complained that a group of nine named Irish pirates from Waterford, Youghal and Cork seized a ship carrying a cargo of wine of theirs, killed its crew, and stole its cargo, all of which was attested by letters patent of the mayor and jurats of Bordeaux.

However, another issue amply illustrates how a series of records can change over time. Previous calendaring work on the Gascon Rolls concluded at the end of the 1340s, and the current Leverhulme Trust funded project commenced in the roll for 1360-1. In the intervening period licences begin to appear on the rolls that granted permission for merchants to trade between England and Aquitaine, though occasionally alternative destinations in Iberia could be inserted, and the origins of the merchants was, on occasion outside of Anglo-Gascon jurisdiction.  But the point is that the records appear in the 1350s, and there is no clear explanation why this should have happened at this time, and they continue to be granted until the last roll of the Gascon Rolls series, that for 1467, long after the English crown had lost the duchy of Aquitaine.

Before we go any further it would be useful to consider a couple of reasonably standard examples:

C 61/92, Entry 2.

28 June 1378 . Westminster .

[marginated] For the transport of corn.

To all admirals.

Licence to John de Prescott , that he can take, in person or by his servants, 100 quarters of wheat and 20 quarters of beans and peas loaded on to ships in Dartmouth to Gascony and to Bayonne for the sustenance of the king's subjects living there. Prescott had requested that the king grant this, and the king agreed because William Borleston' and Thomas Nottecombe of Devon had mainprised before the king in chancery that he would take the wheat, beans and peas to Gascony and Bayonne, and to nowhere else, under pain of forfeiture of what is carried. It is ordered that Prescott be permitted to take the wheat, beans and peas to Gascony and Bayonne, paying the customs and other dues, any proclamations or orders to the contrary notwithstanding.


In this entry, a licence granted early in Richard II’s reign, the English merchant John de Prescott was given a licence to take substantial quantities of wheat, and a smaller quantity of beans and peas to Gascony in general, and Bayonne in particular. The licence also stated that the grain and beans and peas were to be loaded for export in Dartmouth, perhaps the home port of Prescott. However, the licence was only granted because two Devon men mainprised, in other words stood security, for Prescott that he would take the foodstuffs to Gascony and Bayonne, and not to anywhere else. The licence concluded with an order that Prescott be permitted to do this provided he had paid the customs due on the goods.

The later example, one from near the end of the Rolls series, shows differing aspects of the licence.  Some of these are merely variations in format, whilst others reveal how the type of entry was modified through time.

The second entry comes from the time right at the end of English rule in Aquitaine:

C 61/140, Entry 14.

19 December 1453. Westminster .

[marginated] Concerning a licence to carry.

Grant to John Shipward of Bristol , merchant , at his request, of a licence that he, in person, or by his deputies, is able as often as he likes to charge a certain ship called le Kateryne of Bristol of 300 tuns capacity or less with goods and merchandise that do not pertain to the Calais staple, and take it to Spain and Aquitaine, and sell the goods and merchandise there, and load the ship with other goods and merchandise that he has bought, and return to England. The king being favourably inclined to the request, has granted the same, and the king, does not wish that Shipward, or his deputies, should be troubled or harmed by the king or his officers or ministers, provided that Shipward answers to the king for the customs, subsidies and other dues for the goods and merchandise.


In this entry John Shipward of Bristol, a merchant, was granted a licence to take a general cargo to Spain and Aquitaine. In this example we are told the name of the ship in which the goods were to be carried, and the capacity of the same. In addition, unlike the earlier example, the Calais staple was a reality, the goods were not to be those that had to pass through that port.  In other entries that could be cited, merchants from Bordeaux and Bayonne could be found, and on occasion Spanish and Flemish merchants also appear.

The licences provide a considerable amount of information, giving an insight into the trade patterns for the period of study – which English ports were trading with Aquitaine, and what cargos were being taking there. We get glimpses of networks of merchants, both through those actually doing the trading, and those providing security that they will comply with the licence. We also get some information about the ships that they were trading in, giving us the names, homeports and an indication of the capacity of those ships. This is all valuable data to complement evidence from other records.

If one looks at the rolls for the period 1360 to 1370, the first series of rolls where these licences can be found, it appears to be very much a novelty:

Roll Regnal Year(s) No. of Licences Total No. of Entries Percentage
C 61/73 1360-1 1 19 5.26
C 61/74 1361-2 20 127 15.74
C 61/75 1362-3 5 130 3.84
C 61/76 1363-4 3 77 3.89
C 61/77 1364-5 4 79 5.06
C 61/78 1365-6 4 110 3.63
C 61/79 1366-7 1 159 0.62
C 61/80 1367-8 5 65 7.69
C 61/81 1368-9 1 77 1.29
C 61/82 1369-70 1 180 0.55

Apart from the year 1361-2 the number of licences on each roll remains very low, though the percentage was to begin to change into the reign of Richard II. In the last few rolls of the series, the number of licences amounted to a considerably higher proportion:

Roll Regnal Year(s) No. of Licences Total No. of Entries Percentage
C 61/137 1450-1 4 16 25
C 61/138 1451-2 15 119 12.6
C 61/139 1452-3 3 71 4.22
C 61/140 1453-4 32 55 58.18
C 61/141 1454-5 36 50 62
C 61/142 1455-6 12 19 63.15
C 61/143 1456-61 33 54 61.11
C 61/144 1461-8 1 8 12.5

Although one must not seek to compare these two sets of figures too closely, for the first set clearly come from the time when these types of entries began to be recorded, and the last set concern in part the time after the period of English rule, when one might have expected the recording of licences to be of greater importance when trading with what had become enemy ports displaced then moribund administrative entries, they do show a very distinct change.

So what is going on here, why did these licences begin to be recorded? Well the simple answer is that we cannot be sure, for there seems to be no clear order or a parliamentary statute that required it. It is also interesting to consider why these licences were taken out. The figures that are given in the tables above cannot account for all of the trade between England and Aquitaine, so were the other merchants not taking out these licences, or was there something particular about those who chose to take them out? Again this is unclear, but we can speculate. One possible solution could be that not all licences were recorded, or were recorded elsewhere than on the Gascon Rolls. It is also possible that these licences were not essential, but provided the merchants obtaining them with protection from interference in their trade. This could be considered worthwhile when orders to arrest shipping by the Anglo/Gascon authorities for the shipping of men and equipment were regular occurrences.


Whilst there are many unanswered questions, it remains clear that there had been some change of procedure in the 1350s, which begin to become evident in the 1360s, and by the end of the Gascon Rolls series, had come to account for a very high percentage of business. Whilst it is beyond the scope of this short discussion to provide firm conclusions, it is evident that these licences provide us with valuable data about merchant communities, active trading ports with Aquitaine, the goods being shipped, and the ships themselves.

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