East India Company v John Fowke And The Origins Of The English Civil War
Treated worse than 'strangers that do the lie'
Previous posts about John Fowke, all free and shareable:
This is the first published work based on original research for my thesis, the first draft of which is complete at nearly 50,000 words. It is based on one chapter of the thesis and was only available to paid subscribers. It is now unlocked.
Evolving out of the royal scriptorum, the Chancery Court is one of the most obscure legal institutions in the western world, creating its own specialization within British law practice today. Royal chancellors maintained the great seal of England, hence they also held the privy power over royal charters and commissions, so by Fowke’s era the merchants of London had learned to use the Chancery Court as their arena for disputes over business. A shorthand notation for the word “merchant” in the Caron responses, which are described below, demonstrates that the Chancery was hearing many mercantile cases in the 1630s.
Decisions of the Chancery are “in personam,” specific to the person, therefore inapplicable to any other parties than the disputants. It was in this judicial role that Sir Edward Coke, one of the most formative English legal minds of the age, told King James I in 1608 that he “had no authority to participate in the judicial decisions of his own courts,” according to English legal historian J.H. Baker. Constitutional separation of judicial and executive began here.
In An Introduction to English Legal History, Baker explains that fact and law were held indistinguishable in equity cases, allowing litigious parties to continue cases for years, even decades. “For two centuries before Dickens wrote Bleak House, the word ‘Chancery’ had been synonymous with expense, delay, and despair,” he writes. Susanne Moore, the professional researcher attached to this project, says that this was not the norm. The case of East India Company vs John Fowke ultimately lasted 26 years, resolving only after multiple changes of government, affecting all three branches of state. However, the court records described herein only represent a four-year legal battle in Chancery over the original judgment. Thereafter, the case would play out as political conssequence.
Upon locating documents from the Chancery Court held at the British National Archives, this writer engaged Moore, an experienced reader of 17th Century Chancery script, to provide images and rush transcripts. The images were enlarged and printed locally on the largest paper available. Most of the documents are damaged along the left side, leaving small gaps in our understanding of the text. Wherever this author is convinced of the wordage, or at least the meaning, of what is lost, it has been included in the brackets as text. Where the meaning is unclear and the author is guessing, it is marked as questionable. Where the meaning has not been reconstructed, I have used ellipses in the brackets. Fortunately, the damage is minimal enough, and the legal language windy enough, for them to remain reasonably intact documents. Only the Samuel Bonnell Response, explained below, is damaged enough to make the clarity of sentences problematic for understanding, and even then we can glean some meaning.
For clarity, I have continued Moore’s learned practice of substituting arcane verbal constructions (“has” for “hath,” “says” for “sayeth,” etc). I have also used the American spelling of “saltpetre/saltpeter.” Modern punctuation has been added for legibility.
Surname spellings are also problematic. “Fowke” is spelled throughout the Bill of Complaint as “Fowlke,” which the Further Joint and Several Answers, described below, points out as a defect in the original Bill of Complaint:
And the defendant Fowke for his part further says that a writing in parchment with a great seal in yellow wax affixed unto it was showed unto this defendant, but he did not read the said writing; and at the same time, there was delivered unto this defendant a writing in paper purporting a decree against one John Fowlke and Danniell Bonnell, merchant; how far the same concerns this defendant who writes his name as it is John Fowke, and not John Fowlke, he humbly submits to the judgment of this honorable court. And this defendant says he has not been served with the decree in the bill mentioned nor with any other decree otherwise than this defendant has hereinbefore truly set forth and declared.
In the parlance of modern jurisprudence, Caron, acting as Fowke’s attorney, is attempting to claim that his client was never properly served by the court. This gambit proved as successful then as it usually is today, which is to say that it failed.
Great historians of the ancient world struggle with chipped, cracked, and marred cuneiform tablets. Add the complexity of a legal drama in Caroline England and perhaps the reader will appreciate the difficulties of discernment in telling this story. However, history has been lucky with this tranche of records, for they remain intact enough to be read, comprehended, and glossed by an English Civil War scholar of the military revolution.
Indeed, the author’s interest in the East India Company and its saltpeter trade, before, during, and immediately after the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, studying gunpowder materialschlacht, led to his discovery of Fowke, the case, and these documents.
Military revolution is written into them. “That whereas your said orators were about the beginning of September last past lawfully [bringing into the] kingdom by their trade into the said East Indies upon their common stock, for which his Majesty was duly satisfied all sums of money due for customs, & the same being a merchandise in their hands, the necessary occasions and stores of this kingdom being sufficiently furnished,” the Bill of Complaint begins at great length, “the said orators [came to] London for the sale of some part thereof, and after several treaties between them and your said orators some of the committee of the said Company trusted” them.
The Company complains
Saltpeter was a royal monopoly, as was gunpowder, the most common product made from it. Unauthorized trafficking in either thing was forbidden, driving up prices and encouraging a black market. Emphasizing the lawful legitimacy of their own trade in such an item was therefore an essential element to the first stanza of the Bill, yet this seems…overwrought? In contemporary legal parlance, saltpeter might even be described as a “controlled substance,” similar to ammonium nitrate in that the United States government monitors the traffic of large quantities, though the Carolinian state had no alphabetical agency (ATF, FBI, DEA, etc) appointed to monitor the saltpeter market for such irregularities.
Prosecution, however, was a genuine possibility, and perhaps that was the point of all this verbiage. Which brings me to the fact that Sir William Acton, the man writing to the Chancery Court on behalf of the Honorable East India Company, is the same Sir William Acton that Charles made a baronet as reward for refusing a Parliamentary replevin to release Fowke and his fellow protesting merchants from jail in 1628.
Fowke had been a leader in the refusal to pay impost duties at the customs house. As parliamentary testimony would later reveal, and Charles I would confirm, the custom farmers had royal instructions to raise the imposts without legal authorization from Parliament. Acton was rewarded for his loyalty to the Court with the baronetcy, a patronage plum that had always been reserved for current or former lords mayor of London. Acton’s legal campaign on behalf of the Company against Fowke would represent a conflict of interest, per modern barrister ethics. Company court minutes show him being compensated for his services as the Company attorney throughout the Fowke case.
Saltpeter was the key term Acton invoked as often as possible. A ready cash item in high demand on the European continent, the sale at issue had been made on credit, he said, and the bill left unpaid. Whereas the Company, “having formerly prepared and resolved to send the same beyond the seas, did agree to make delivery thereof in such place as the said Fowke and Bonnell or either” of them had requested, all the recipients’ scheduled payments were delinquent.
According to an online currency conversion tool offered by the British National Archives, the amount at issue had roughly the same purchasing power as £235,117.47 in 2017, which, adjusting for inflation on the Bank of England website, would be £287,068.14 at the time of this writing, or almost $350,000 in US currency. Hardly chump change, in other words. Yet still not that much, really, in Fowke’s world of high finance.
Fowke is charged along with a merchant named Daniel Bonnell, reputedly Dutch, whose first name is spelled “Danyell” in the Bill of Complaint. In fact Bonnell seems to have been connected to the Courteen trade group. Bonnell, “being a stranger born beyond the seas, having transported all or most part of his estate beyond the seas as these orators hope to prove unto this court, suddenly intended to leave this kingdom and to go beyond the seas” skipping out on his obligations, Acton charges.
Fowke is responsible for Bonnell, the Company alleges, “this practice being purposely done by confederacy between them.” Bemoaning “the great trust and confidence they did repose in” Fowke and Bonnell, the Company asks the court to have both men “at a certain day and under a certain pain therein” to “make perfect answers to the premises. upon their corporal oaths” about the alleged agreement over saltpeter.
Acton wanted both men on the record about saltpeter.
Undated, the Bill of Complaint is cataloged as 1633. A second complaint, marked Bill of Complaint 2, dated 13 February 1632, refers to events in 1631. However, that second complaint can be understood as a court motion resulting from the previous decision, asking the court to take enforcement action.
Dated March in what must be 1631, Fowke’s answer is included in the folio with the Bill of Complaint. Denying all knowledge of any saltpeter imported from India, or “whether his Majesty were duly satisfied all or any moneys due for customs subsidies and imposts thereof upon the importation thereof or no,” or whether the saltpeter “did remain in their hands or no, or whether the necessary occasions and stores of this kingdom were sufficiently furnished,” Fowke disowns responsibility for any agreement involving the Company and Bonnell.
“Neither has this defendant any cause or reason for to do selling of saltpeter,” Fowke says. He denies receiving any profit or benefit from saltpeter, or even taking any risk “to undergo any hazard [...] at all in the transportation” thereof. No “confederacy” with Bonnell ever existed, he says, offering a contrarian, nullifying alternative to every element of the charge.
Definitely no saltpeter involvement. Of any kind. Not a bit!
Fowke has a different story. He claims that he heard “Bonnell confess that he had made some bargain for saltpeter with one Mr Thomas Stiles who was one of the committees and trusted by the said complainant in that behalf.” This “familiarity was between the said Mr Stiles and the said Bonnell by occasion of a treaty of marriage that was between the said Bonnell and kinswoman of the said Mr Stiles,” Fowke reports, and “the said Bonnell to gain a good opinion with the said Mr Stiles had sent him diverse presents of good value, and that by that means he became so inward with the [said Stiles] that by his means he obtained his freedom of the said company for a moderate fine.”
Thomas Stiles, Fowke charges, negotiated “for a parcel of saltpeter at a price then propounded by the said company or some of them,” and thereafter acted as Bonnell’s agent “ to get an abatement of the price demanded or a longer day of payment for the same, and that the said Thomas Stiles did agree to accept the sole security of the said saltpeter.”
“Thomas Stiles has also confessed the same to this defendant,” Fowke says. “And this the said Bonnell has also confessed to this defendant,” who has “also credibly heard that the said saltpeter was delivered to the [mills by] some or one of the servants officers or ministers to the said Company by direction of the said Stiles and that an entry thereof was made in the Company’s books by them to be sold [in the name of] the said Bonnell without any mention of this defendants name,” the answer states, adding: “And this defendant has seen the entry in the said book to be accordingly.”
What has happened here, Fowke’s answer argues, is a case of double billing, resulting from an officer of the East India Company who, by attempting to favor a prospective son in law, has mismanaged the sale of a controlled substance. Fowke is uninvolved except as a victim, for as an investor in the East India Company, he is “a part in the loss which his like to grow by the miscarriage of the said Thomas Stiles in the said employment concerning the saltpeter.”
The third and final document in the first folio is the Answer of “Daniell” Bonnell, which is also the longest, taking two full pages that have some of the worst damage as well. Contradicting Fowke, Bonnell admits that they did enter an arrangement “to be joint partners therein both for profit and loss” by insuring (“policies of assurance”) a “vendible commodity” of saltpeter.
Pleading ignorance of what happened to it, unsure whether laws have been followed or taxes paid, Bonnell only mentions Stiles twice, admitting “that several treaties did pass between this defendant and the said master Stiles” and the deal for the “saltpeter was made by this defendant alone and by the said Master Thomas Stiles.”
Contrary to the Company’s Bill of Complaint, Bonnell says he “is a natural born subject within this his majesty’s [kingdom, that is] to say born in his majesty’s county of Norfolk, and not beyond the seas, nor of strange parents.” He seems anxious to declare himself both free of any debt to the company and willing to pay whatever the court deems fit in penalties.
Rather than a “conspiracy” or a “practice and confederacy” to abscond with the profits from a sale of saltpeter, “some accident whereby the said profit was diverted another way” has resulted in both men being charged for it. Neither of them, Bonnell insists, has sold the saltpeter to someone else, or made use of it themselves.
No saltpeter here, either guys. Honest!
More was at stake in these documents of the first folio than mere reputation or profit. Fowke denies everything; Bonnell denies everything except an arrangement with Fowke to insure a cargo of saltpeter; the Company charges them both with a scheme to defraud. For context, in 1631 the Crown was actively investigating saltpeter and gunpowder bootlegging. William Baber, vagabond manufacturer since 1619, first appears in royal records this same year. Beginning as “craftsmen working first in the urban environment and then in the countryside as the processes became water-powered,” the knowledge of making gunpowder was too widespread for complete centralized authority to reign it in, writes gunpowder historian Barbara J. Buchanan, who has written about Baber. Authority over gunpowder making was weak in the Stuart kingdom. Acton may have considered his lawsuit a public service of sorts.
In the second folio, we learn the Chancery court has found in favor of the Company. Dated 13 February 1632, Bill of Complaint 2 adds a new name and a new wrinkle: Joseph Caron, sometimes spelled Carron. An entry in the Calendar of State Papers from November of 1634 indicates he was the brother-in-law of John Fowke, though which man was married into which family is unclear at present.
According to the Dictionary of National Biography, Lord Keeper Thomas Coventry came down on the side of the Company on 21 November 1631, awarding them Fowke’s “adventures in their hands, by him alleged to be sixteen hundred pounds in their second joint stock, and twenty-one hundred pounds more in three of their voyages.” Bonnell is not named as a defendant, for although he remains liable, he still is “not able to pay any part of the debt,” whereas Fowke is an investor in the East India Company with “£1,460 remaining in stock and adventure liable and subject to pay” it.
This focus on Fowke as the deep pockets to sue began early in the case, for an EIC Court minute dated 6 April 1630 shows that “Daniel Boneall” has pleaded inability to pay his saltpeter bill, but the Company “saw no reason to waive their suit, conceiving they had a good man (Mr. Fowkes) obliged with him to satisfy it.”
The lawyers gather
Three years later, however, there was a new stumbling block to seizing Fowke’s adventure. Fowke, the new complaint alleges, has “secretly and fraudulently combined and confederated with one Joseph Carron” to sell him that investment in the Company, contrary to the rules of the Company, in order to deny them their due.
The Company wants an injunction “from the transferring, granting, or assigning of his said adventure unto any others, or in any other men’s names, without the approbation and allowance in the public court of the said Company.” Their transaction is fraudulent, the Company claims, because Fowke and Caron “do at some times pretend that the said Fowlke has […] and transferred the said adventure to the said Joseph Carron or some others, and does give forth that the said Fowlke upon sale thereof, has given his bond or some other security for the enjoying of the said adventure.” The two men “do refuse to make known to your said orators to whom he (Caron) has transferred the same, or for what consideration or upon what trust or confidence” Caron has sold the investment to others.
Ordered second within the second folio is the Plea and Demurrer of John Fowke and Joseph Carron, dated 11 April 1632. A demurrer is a formal objection. Largely intact, the text objects to the Lord Keeper’s November 1631 order detaining Fowke’s investment in the Company, for “it appears not by the said bill that the said complainants have any sufficient power to make such ordinances and constitutions in and amongst themselves as in the said bill of complaint is set forth and pretended.” Fowke “has not yielded obedience to the said decree and therefore at the instances or on the behalf of the [complainants] an attachment has been awarded out of this honorable court to attach this defendant Fowke for the same.” Granted such powers, the Company has harassed him, so Fowke asks for relief.
And by [execution?] of the said writ of the said defendant Fowke has been arrested And at the said day purposed to appear and make answer to such things objected against him concerning the same.
And both the said defendants do demand the judgment of this honorable court whether they or either [of them] ought to make any other or further answer to the said bill and pray to be here dismissed with their costs wrongfully sustained by occasion of this [suit].
Once again, Fowke categorically refutes any oral contract with the Company, or its representative Mr. Stiles, regarding saltpeter. We should bear in mind that 1629 had been a very expensive year for Fowke, “great endeavors used to take away his life and estate upon false pretenses of clipping of money and of piracies,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He had been “prosecuted in Star-chamber for ‘pretended riot and seditious words’ used by him to the officers sent to” seize his goods.
After witnesses had been examined he was committed to the Fleet, “without any cause expressed,” and his ship and cargo, with a prize of sugar, seized. All his endeavors to regain his liberty proved ineffectual, and, after spending a large sum on law costs, he was forced “to give £40,000 bail in the admiralty about the said prize.”
Under those conditions, it is not hard to imagine Fowke skipping out on a bill when he thought he could get away with it. However, Mr. Stiles seems is the only witness against Fowke named in the Plea and Demurrer other than Daniel Bonnell, who only bears mention as a defect in the new Bill of Complaint, for he “is made no defendant thereunto.”
Company minutes show that in November 1632 Fowke openly “scandalized Mr. Styles to all men he spoke with.” Another minute from January 1633 relates the Company solicitor reporting that “John Fowke threatened to complain to the General Court that the proceedings against him for recovery of the Company's debt were without the Company’s allowance, and by instigation of his enemy Mr. Styles; the Court therefore declared that what he hath done was by their joint direction.”
Rather than ignore Bonnell, the Company seems to have tried using their power over him against Fowke. A Company Court minute from November 1633 suggests as much:
Petition of Daniel Boneale for compassion in regard of his debt, pretending his loss in the commodity he bought of the Company was not less than £900, and that John Fowkes, who by the Decree in Chancery is liable with him, had told him plainly that if he might come off for a farthing he would never give it; he humbly beseeched the Court not to seek his utter overthrow by keeping him in prison for their debt, but to afford him the like favor as his other creditors have done, at least to accept £500 which he is able to give. But the Court told him that unless Fowkes would join with him in the offer they cannot accept thereof, and cannot entertain his offer without consent of the Generality.
The two men suffered jointly. By February of 1635, “Mr. Boneale” sent word through Mr. Caron that he was “content to make good his former offer to the company and submit to whatever Mr. Fowke can lawfully bring against him,” and furthermore “desires that this business may be referred to two or three Committees and concluded.”
Answered that on Mr. Fowke making a fair offer to the Company, as formerly proposed, it shall be favorably considered, but the Court refuses to refer it to two or three Committees, and orders that if Mr. Fowke will not conform to their ways he is not to trouble them again.”
At the same meeting, there was acrimony over making the Company’s books open to review. Fowke had been demanding transparency throughout, for example by compelling the Company to present him with “a copy not only of the oath administered to every free brother, but taken by Mr. Governor and other officers.” The Company had to give over copies of their printed orders relating to Fowke’s case.
A second possible motive for Fowke’s ardent objections, an alternative to greed, now presents itself. Joseph Caron’s lawyerly language may be more than a rich man’s rebuttal. It may be an early instance of that phenomenon of common law in the modern legal world known as a “test case.”
Caron and Fowke unveiled this strategy in their Joint and Several Answers, dated 20 October 1632. Fowke states “that he is, and for diverse years last past, has been free of the said company, and had stock and adventure in and with the said company, which he verily believes the Company have in their now bill [not] valued as a true account were made thereof, till which be made, and that this defendant may be permitted to see and examine the same, he is not nor shall be able to [assess?] the true value thereof.”
Caron, who has “for diverse years past has been also free of the said Company,” states that “he bought of the said other defendant Fowke his the Fowke’s stock and adventures in and with the said company for a valuable consideration of money” before the original Bill of Complaint had been filed. Furthermore, both men say that the Company knew about the arrangement, and that Caron offered payment of the debt, but was refused.
And this defendant Fowkes says that before [last Easter] in a public court held for the said company did notify and declare unto the Governor and committees of the said company that he had sold the said stock and adventures to the other defendant Caron and desire the same might be transferred in their books to the account of the said Caron and the said Caron for his part […] the moneys of January and March last past tender to the said company or to some of their offices whom in that behalf it concerned, seven hundred and seventeen pounds being [the] name of the sum or sums underwritten by the said Fowke as is aforesaid which they refused to accept.
In the next overlong sentence “concerning the supposed orders and constitutions of the said company,” the defendants argue the East India Company lacks “sufficient authority by law to make such orders or constitutions” that would nullify their contract. Today, this kind of legal claim might fall under the heading of “tortious interference,” which the Cornell University School of Law defines as “a common law tort allowing a claim for damages against a defendant who wrongfully interferes with the plaintiff's contractual or business relationships.”
Fowke and Caron “were not privy or consenting to the making of any such orders or constitutions,” they argue, “nor do know that any such constant custom and usage have [been] put in execution” before this case.
The next passage deserves to be quoted at length:
This defendant Fowke, affirming that he, for his part, has often since the complainants or some of them of late pretended [there] were such orders, desired both of the said officers that have the keeping of their orders, and of the Governor and Committees at their public court, to see them, but could never be admitted thereunto, [and has been] utterly denied a sight of them, only he says a solicitor for the said company, diverse months after the said sale, and after notice given thereof as aforesaid, did deliver to him, this defendant, a note in [writing] of paper, without any name subscribed thereunto, which he pretended to be a copy of one of their orders touching the transferring of adventures, touching therein a printed book out of which the same was supposed to be copied, which book this defendant was promised a sight of, but having sundry times requested their bookkeeper in whose custody the [book was,] nor any other in his presence at a court of committees affirmed it to be to show him the same, he could never obtain a sight thereof, and these defendants say that albeit they believe the said Company have orders for the well governing [of the] said company in the employment of stocks and adventures therein, yet do they not believe that they should extend to other collateral debts that have no relation to the said stocks and adventures, nor to take the [use] thereby to make the freemen of the company that buy commodity of them in worse case than strangers that do the lie.
Finally, the closing sentence of the Joint and Several Answers provides a sinister twist to the plot as Caron alleges some unnamed East India merchants tried to bully him out of investing in Fowke’s adventures. After all, Fowke had presumably made a fair number of business enemies through his customs house activism.
And the other defendant, Caron, denies that he ever had any warning of the complainants, or any message from them, not to [...] with the said adventures before the said bargain made, and the money paid, and secured for the same as aforesaid, or that he had any such warning or message at all by or from the said Company; however, he acknowledges that after the said bargain made, and the moneys thereupon paid and secured as aforesaid, some merchants free of the said Company, meeting him upon [...] and chance persuaded him to break of the said bargain, threatening him that he should not enjoy it, or to that effect, it being then within this defendants power so to do, as he conceived.
Only one document is in the third folio, C/8/39/63. “The Further Joint and Several Answers of John Fowke and Joseph Caron” is dated 6 June 1633, a gap of more than seven months. Fortunately, we have Company minutes to fill in this space. They show that in November 1632, his filings with Caron still fresh, Fowke communicated “his intention never to give over complaining to the King, and elsewhere, until he be freed from that decree, and have his adventure cleared.”
Transparency and the turmoil of the times
However, when Fowke attended the Company’s General Court on 18 January 1633, he had just lost another round with the Lord Keeper. “Exceptions taken by John Fowke against the penning of some part of the last General Court, answered,” the entry reads.
Hereupon Mr. Governor demanded if he would pass over his adventure for satisfaction of the Company’s debt, to which he replied that although he was willing to submit himself to the Company, yet he must not betray his own innocency, which doubtful speech was understood as a denial, and the Court being acquainted with the Lord Keeper’s order, made this morning, herein Fowkes was again enjoined to pass over his adventures for the Company’s satisfaction or otherwise within 10 days to stand committed, left the business till said order be taken out and so passed to the work of the day.
Undaunted, Fowke kept up the administrative pressure. On 23 January, he requested “to have copies of the orders for detaining his adventure and concerning the saltpeter” delivered, as was his right.
The Secretary directed to let him copy such particular orders as he should require, but Fowkes requiring to see all their orders in these matters, and alleging that there had been “an extraordinary practice with the register for the drawing up of the said order” in Chancery, and that the Company might “overbear him in their countenance and purse,” in fine because the Court and Mr. Fowkes could not understand each other concerning the copies desired, he was referred for answer to Friday next, Mr. Acton to attend.
However, two days later there is a “Motion of Mr. Acton that the (Company} Court would not have their ears open to any impertinent discourse of Mr. Fowkes, who when the decree or orders in Chancery are not as he would have then presently, comes sometimes to their General Courts and sometimes to their Courts of Committees and quarrels with them, and if he prevails not in Chancery then comes back again and quarrels with the orders here, which are settled upon hearing counsel on both sides.”
Fowkes being called in demanded as on Wednesday last, copies of all the orders concerning his adventure and the saltpeter, and was answered, as before, and demanded in conformity with his Lordship’s order to transport his adventure for satisfaction of the decree and supply, the rest in money, or otherwise pay in the whole sum decreed; whereto his answer was that his adventure was not in his power to transport, being sold to another, nor could he pay in so great a sum before he had seen the orders desired, and after some further conference he departed.
In February, the Company moved the Court once again to “put in execution” the Lord Keeper’s order. The following month, Fowke petitioned the Company General Court “complaining of the Governor and Committees for refusing him a sight of the Company’s orders according to his Lordship’s former direction, with his Lordship’s order to the Court to show why they refuse the same; to which they gave Fowkes this answer, that they would by their Counsel show cause to his Lordship and so dismissed him.”
These events passed before the Further Joint and Several Answers, providing context for Fowke to complain that the rules of the Company, like their books, were opaque.
And this defendant says that he does not know that the stock of any freeman of the said company was ever detained for to satisfy a decree made in this honorable court, until now, by woeful experience, this defendant does find the same put in execution against him, but this defendant has heard that in other cases when freemen of the said company become indebted unto the said company by other means, there is former such custom and [...] in the said company as in the bill mentioned, and that the same has at some times been put in execution, but this defendant cannot now certainly depose of his own knowledge when and in what case the said custom and usage has been put in execution, because he cannot to this day obtain a sight of the said company’s written authentic acts and orders of their courts and other written books, though he often desired a sight thereof, which written acts orders and books only discover as this defendant conceives the certainty and truth of the said custom, and when and what has been put in execution, and for what kind of debts freemen’s adventures have been detained.
Emerging from the chrysalis of Samuel Bonnell’s unpaid delivery bill, the activist investor John Fowke spreads his wings. His war with the Company is not just a contest of wills among hard-nosed men of business, or a dodgy deal in controlled substances, but a principled crusade against abuse of process. Perhaps Mr. Caron is onto something. For in its very last sentence, this last motion of the original case files refutes the original Bill of Complaint on Fowke’s prospects for emigration.
And this defendant denies that he gives forth in speeches that he will never pay the complainants their debt decreed unto them, but will lie in prison or live beyond the seas, and continue his trade there, as in the bill is alleged.
Such accusations had some currency at the time. Providence Island, a Puritan colony and privateer base in the Caribbean, had been founded in 1630 to serve as a fallback position for colonizing-interloping merchants, including Maurice Thompson and his cohort, in the event of trouble with Charles. An Atlantic economic revolution was underway and they were its creators in London. This new elite vigorously opposed the arbitrary taxes imposed under the personal rule of Charles. John Hampden, who famously lost his legal challenge to the king’s “ship money” tax during 1637 and spent almost a year in prison, was the founder of Providence Island. The English Civil War would find “London merchants who were not members of the privileged inner ring” leading the takeover of the City and the rebellion against Charles, as Conrad Russell says, because they were rising to the top, not already there.
Fowke had earned status within his merchant community, but also enmities. As explained in my thesis chapter on historians of John Fowke, he was an established part of this ambitious new economic community and an emrging leader of it. Like his community, Fowke was rich, but his riches were too new, and his social power too small, leaving him vulnerable to the vicissitudes of more powerful agents. They had been treated “worse than strangers that do the lie,” to quote Fowke and Caron. From their perspective, the coming war was not just an opportunity to replace the old guard in London, or the Guildhall, or Parliament, but also the East India Company.
Acton would be the very first political casualty of the revolution. In 1640, the freemen of London gathered at Guildhall to nominate a mayor. Sir William Acton was the royal favorite, but this was to be no ordinary common hall. A new, radical mood had taken over the City and “mechanics” (young workers) showed up in force to prevent Acton from carrying the nomination. “If this be permitted,” the royal secretary told Charles in a hasty note, “the government of the City is utterly lost.”
His words proved prophetic. John Fowke helped make this unprecedented wave of mass political action happen, and in the crucial two years that followed, he would ride that wave into power. London was a powder keg, and the man Acton had accused of “impertinent discourse” would ignite the English Civil War in person.
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