The Company of Merchants of the Staple of England is one of the oldest mercantile corporations in England. It is rare (possibly unique), in being ‘of England’ and not bounded by any city or municipality. It dates back as far as 1282 or even further, when it appears a group of 26 wool merchants founded The Company. The Dukes of Burgundy and Counts of Flanders granted it charters.
The Merchants were in Bruges in 1282, Dordrecht in 1285, Antwerp in 1296 and St Omer in 1313. The Company controlled the export of wool to the continent from 1314 and was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1319.
It was at the peak of its powers in Calais from 1347 to 1558. Exports were restricted to the Freemen of the Company who, in return for their monopoly, paid a levy back to the Crown. With some two hundred merchants, in 1363 it was known as the “New Company of English Merchants dwelling nowe at Calais” and in 1369 as “The Mayor and Company of the Staple at Calais.” The Company later paid for and eventually managed the garrison in the city.
The Right Worshipful Company of the Merchants of the Staple continued to manage the supply of wool to the clothing industry right up to the industrial revolution, which brought problems of supply and a decline in influence. In the 19th century, the Merchant Staplers still owned considerable property and survived within a strong family basis. It met twice a year (usually April and August) in London including at the Albion Tavern in Aldersgate and the London Tavern, in Greenwich at the Trafalgar Hotel and the Crown & Sceptre, and in Richmond at the Star & Garter. There were only 10 freemen in 1923 and a meeting on 29th June 1927 suspended the Company’s operations.
However, the Charter was not relinquished, and a revival came in 1948 from a small group including two original freemen. There was then a steady increase to 130 freemen by 2018. The Company meets formally three times a year to dine, and has a Charitable Trust which donates an increasing number of grants to the wool and textile industry.