To my immense shame, I have often come across the word ‘staple’ when reading about the Middle Ages and not bothered to find out what it really means. I knew it had something to do with merchants and trade, but I didn’t know the details. Today I’m putting that right.
A staple was, essentially, the only town through which a certain commodity could be imported or exported. There were some in England and some were on the continent. The practice was begun by Edward I in Dordrecht.
The main commodity for which this was important was wool, England’s largest export, but there were also wine staples. The wool staple was introduced in 1313 by Edward II. All wool had to be exported through a single continental port. Initially it was St. Omer, then Antwerp and then Bruges. Eventually it was Calais. The port chosen depended on the king’s political and diplomatic goals at the time.
The staple gave an advantage to English merchants, as foreign merchants couldn’t buy wool directly from the producers. All wool for export had to be taken to a staple town and sold to authorised merchants who then sold it abroad. It was also a way of making it easier for the government to collect duty, as only a limited number of people had the right to export certain goods.
In 1354 the Statute of Staples listed the staple towns in England and Ireland. They were Bristol, Canterbury, Chichester, Cork, Drogheda, Dublin, Exeter, Lincoln, London, Newcastle, Norwich, Waterford, Winchester and York. At first I was surprised not to see Southampton on the list, but the combined blows of the French raid in 1338 and the Black Death in 1348 had almost destroyed the town by this point. Much later it was made the staple for various metals.
Calais became a staple town in 1363 which it remained until it fell to the French in 1558. In Calais there were twenty-six merchants permitted to trade in wool. The intention of the English government was to make Calais financially self-sufficient instead of being a drain on the country’s finances. Calais was a town in France held by the English after a year-long siege in 1346/47. As you can see from the picture at the top of the post, the French wanted it back and defending the town from them cost money. In theory, giving the town the wool staple would increase trade within Calais and, therefore, duty, which could be used to reduce the financial burden on England. The theory was good, but the practice wasn’t. Making Calais a staple town had a negative impact on the wool trade from which it took some time to recover.
England wasn’t the only country to use staples. Scotland used them and there were also staple ports on the Danube and the Rhein. They were unpopular and powerful foreign merchants often petitioned against them. Sometimes they ignored them entirely and took their goods to non-staple ports where, presumably, local merchants were happy enough to break the law.
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Chistopher Corédon and Ann Williams
England in the Reign of Edward III by Scott L. Waugh
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer