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John Fowke Versus the British East India Company
Merchant adventures in the military revolution
Less known than his contemporary Wallenstein, John Fowke was a merchant adventurer in an era of military entrepreneurship. A tax protester, he was also sent to the fleet for refusing to pay tonnage and poundage. After forking over a literal king’s ransom for his release, Fowke became a constant irritant to the court of Charles I and a leader in the growing resistance to his personal rule.
Now, I am not saying that I have “discovered” this man, exactly. Read Robert Bennet’s book on Merchants and Revolution, and Fowke turns up like a bad penny at almost every major event in London during the tumultuous year before the Battle of Edgehill, especially those involving the Tower of London and control of the gunpowder supply. Read Valerie Pearl’s book about Civil War London, and Fowke turns up in a number of Parliamentary manuscripts and petitions from the immediate prewar period. His entry is the single longest biographical profile in Pearl’s appendix of the “New Men” on the Aldermanic Court of 1643. When the New Model Army marched on London in 1647, Fowke was a primary conspirator in their successful entry of the city, and then reprised this role when they returned in 1649. Each time, the Army made significant changes that pleased John Fowke a great deal. Then Cromwell entrusted him with retrieving the Royal Navy from Holland, where the sailors had interned their ships.
Fowke was such a bitter enemy of royal absolutism that during peace negotiations in 1643, Charles warned Parliament that Fowke would have to die if there was to be any reconciliation — a demand that backfired when Parliament realized they could not trust Charles with their lives, either. Perhaps out of spite, the voters of London then chose Fowke for their Lord Mayor. He had moved up quickly from the Aldermanic Court, where he led recruitment efforts for the parliamentary forces and attacked the oligarchy controlling the tax and custom farms. He would spend his new political career making these and other great changes, but also feathering his own nest. According to his page-length entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Fowke was universally respected by all factions in London, which may explain why he was allowed to get away with a moderate amount of grift.
Fowke was even popular with the radical faction in the City. At one point, he agreed to champion a militia subcommittee that would raise a popular defense force for London in addition to the Trained Bands. However, he never seems to have spent the political capital to make the committee independent, so the project was never pursued any further. To what extent he was genuinely interested in having an alternative to the Trained Bands, or simply using the Levelers to win a share of power, is unclear at this distance in time. Yet it is apparent that he was a canny operator with long vision. Appointed to the jury for Charles after the abortive Second Civil War, Fowke refused to sit or pass judgment on the man who had demanded his head. A decade later, as the restoration of monarchy loomed, Fowke made sure to publish a reminder of his non-participation in the execution of Charles I all over London. His prescience was rewarded with life. Untouched by Charles II, Fowke died a rich old man in 1662, a shrewd operator to the end.
As far as I can tell, John Fowke has never been the subject of a standalone volume. That could probably only happen in a country as disinterested in its own civil war as England. It is long past time someone rectified this travesty. His significance goes deeper than politics or finance. In 1629, when he was already in trouble for tax evasion, we find him making trouble again in the very first extant court minutes of the East India Company. An investor in the company’s joint stock, Fowke was the guarantor for a cargo of imported saltpeter, a business deal which went awry and brought him into conflict with the royal monopoly. This dispute resulted in a lawsuit that ultimately spanned three decades in London’s Chancery Court. I have located records of this case held at Kent University and I am in the process of trying to obtain them. I don’t know much about 17th Century English legal procedures, but with luck I will soon find out more details, such as under what pretext Fowke managed to resurrect the case after it had been dismissed years before.
With the revolution secured for the time being in the form of Oliver Cromwell, who installed his own board at the East India Company, Fowke found himself isolated for once. No one in the General Court would second his demand for the Honourable Company to cease joint stock operations. Moreover, his stock in the company had dwindled to nothing. However, the old guard was gone at last, and the new oligarchy had colonization in mind.
Looking to the Atlantic and Indian oceans, Fowke’s associates were finally able to pursue their long-conceived Western Design and colonize without royal writ, two key goals of the new merchant elite since before the reign of Charles. It was the definitive beginning of the British Empire.
Still, the defeat stung, so John Fowke returned to the Chancery Court with a vengeance. As far as I can discern without seeing the material, Fowke not only managed to resurrect the case, but keep it alive through the 1650s. In his mind, that probably counted as a victory.
Fowke interests me because so many threads of English Civil War historiography intersect at his career. He was a capable merchant sailor and ship owner, a Puritan who supported fire-breathing preachers with quiet piety, and a groundbreaking leader in mass politics at the birth of partisanship. His career touches on the military revolution debate, of course, but also the various economic, ideological, and political interpretations of the period as debated by multiple generations of historians.
There isn’t supposed to be anything new in English Civil War studies, yet this seems to be unbroken ground.