Age of Invention: Business of Beer
And the struggles to centralise a state
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1620 was a dramatic year for England. As I mentioned last time, the rashness of the king’s son-in-law threatened to pull the country into a major European conflict. Religion, honour, and family — James I’s grandchildren were set to lose their inheritance, the Palatinate of the Rhine — dictated that the king should break his decades-long habit of peace. But war was hugely expensive, and the king already heavily in debt. He was forced to summon Parliament so that it could vote him the taxes he would need to wage war.
Parliament was already a major source of annoyance to James I. After 1610, he had done everything in his power to rule without its aid, at one point even comparing its lower house, the Commons, to a “House of Hell”. Yet the MPs of 1610 would come to seem almost angelic compared to those who assembled in Westminster in 1621. The Commons of 1621 would get completely out of control — all thanks to beer.
Beer (and ale, made without hops) was the most important source of calories after bread, and the first choice for hydration — cheaper than wine and safer than water, with coffee, tea, and spirits only becoming popular much later. It financially supported inns, the crucial infrastructure for travellers. Alehouses also provided a major focal point for socialising. If you controlled beer, you controlled society — second only, perhaps, to religion.
If beer was too strong, it could lead to drunkenness and unrest. If inns went unpoliced, they could become havens for criminals, heretics, sinners, and rebels. If brewers used too much malt, made from grains like barley, they could drive up the price of bread and cause famine. If beer-brewers demanded too many hops — used as both a preservative and a source of bitterness compared to sweeter ale — they could also put pressure on otherwise scarce land for food. Regulating the drinks industry correctly was thus a major priority for those in charge.
The making and selling of ale had originally been dominated by brewsters — that is, by female brewers.(Compare with the more persistent word spinster, to mean a woman who spins thread. Spinning remained women’s work long after the brewsters had been driven out of their industry. Only later, because of the independence that earning one’s own money brought, did spinster gain the more general meaning of a woman who was unmarried.) Meanwhile, hopped beer had been the preserve of immigrants. As one popular ditty put it, “Hops, Reformation, baize, and beer, Came into England all in one year”, though it had actually happened more gradually over the course of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.
Yet with population growth, and the dramatic expansion of London in particular, the drinks market became larger and more concentrated, while hop-less ale gave ground to the rise of beer. Male, English ale-brewers seized an opportunity to suppress their competition. London’s Ale Brewers’ Guild, for example, abandoned the use of hucksters — predominantly female ale-sellers — and then in 1556 absorbed the Beer-Brewers’ Guild, which had largely consisted of immigrants. The newly-amalgamated Worshipful Company of Brewers then barred immigrants from becoming members, while the English ale-brewers switched to producing beer. In 1574, they even successfully lobbied for the city to bar foreigners from being members of any guilds at all, including even second-generation immigrants born in England.The bigger the business, the more ruthless it became.
And the more ripe it appeared to policymakers, as a potential source of revenue. From the 1550s, local authorities regularly raised money from the beer industry via the Justices of the Peace, who sold licenses for alehouses, shutting down or imposing fines on those they deemed too disruptive to the social order — or perhaps just those who fell afoul of corrupt local powerbrokers. Alehouse licencing became an important plank of local government.
Yet the drinks industry’s growth also drew the attention of the central state, which at the time meant the Crown. In 1570, Elizabeth I had granted the courtier Sir Edward Horsey a controversial patent to license taverns, which specialised in selling wine. The patent had then gone to her favourite Sir Walter Raleigh in 1583. The Crown had also taken a census of almost 20,000 alehouses in the late 1570s, in an unsuccessful bid to raise cash for the big English infrastructure project of the age, the rebuilding of Dover harbour. But under James I the Crown would significantly step-up its efforts to directly control alehouses, taverns, and inns (in rough modern terms: pubs, wine bars, and hotels).
In 1604, MPs would try to get the licensing of taverns brought under local control, much as was the case with alehouses. They would try again in 1606, 1610, and 1614. But their bills never made it past the House of Lords, and the patent soon went to Charles Howard, the earl of Nottingham, and then to his son. Tavern licensing could be especially lucrative. A syndicate of courtier-bureaucrats paid the Howards a gigantic sum of £3,000 a year to administrate the patent for them, keeping any additional revenue from licence fees for itself. But enforcement was difficult, with many wine retailers simply refusing to pay.
With taverns and wine, licensing had always been in the hands of the Crown. But beer had long been a local matter, and inns not licensed at all. The Crown at first began to try and appropriate some of the alehouse licensing fees being collected by the local authorities. This appropriation of funds, as far as I can tell, was also to be done via a new patent awarded to the Howards. It immediately became a major source of discontent in Parliament. MPs complained in a petition to the king that it was effectively a new tax, and “a precedent of dangerous consequence”.The matter of alehouses, they said, ought to be left to the Justices of the Peace. In this instance, the king backed off. He needed their good will at the time, as he and Parliament were in the middle of negotiations to pay off the his debts and potentially put him on a more secure financial footing — the Great Contract of 1610, which ultimately fell through.
In the late 1610s the king tried again. He granted a rather obscure patent in the name of Robert Dixon and William Almon, in reality to the courtier Kit Villiers, to enforce the collection of bonds that locally-licensed alehouses had taken out as a guarantee of good behaviour.This was on the grounds that local authorities had not been doing a good enough job of enforcing these “recognizances”, letting plenty of alehouses get away with misbehaviour without any financial consequences. It was a clever way for the Crown to tap into a chunk of that licence fee cash. But most serious of all was the patent given to one Giles Mompesson, for the licensing of inns — the third, and thus far untapped source of beer-licensing revenue.
Both Kit Villiers and Giles Mompesson were cronies of James I’s new favourite, George Villiers, who had in just a few short years been raised from obscurity to be Marquess of Buckingham. Kit was his younger brother, and Mompesson was a family friend. Like Buckingham himself, Mompesson and Kit Villiers had seemingly appeared out of nowhere, to be granted sweeping and lucrative powers over one of the most important industries in the country. On Buckingham’s suggestion, Mompesson was even knighted in 1616 to give him greater authority in taking on the inns, so that “he may the better fight with the Bulls and the Bears, and the Saracens’ Heads” — some common inn names.
But Mompesson, who seems to have overseen the practical side of such patents for the whole of the Villiers clan, was perhaps too effective at raising revenue. He quickly became reviled as the archetypal patent monopolist — an upstart raised above his station, enriching himself at the expense of the public, and treading on the ancient rights and liberties of England. His revenue-raising project, initiated by royal word alone, and without the approval of Parliament, seemed to represent the very worst of James I’s descent into tyranny.
That, at least, was how many MPs felt about him when they assembled in 1621 to discuss the funds for war. In just a handful of years, Mompesson and his network of agents allegedly examined over 3,000 innkeepers all over the country, outlawing over a thousand, getting hundreds to pay fines for various infractions, and setting examples by successfully suing those who resisted. It looks, from a distance, like a straightforward shakedown.
But having examined the substance of the complaints that MPs made against him, I’m no longer so sure. I think we should be careful not to accept all of their grievances at face value, especially given that they were so strongly politically motivated. Just consider the kind of outright nonsense that the politically-motivated regularly spout today. Mompesson represented state centralisation — he was a direct threat to the authority and revenue-raising powers of local powerbrokers. And it was his sheer energy and effectiveness as a bureaucrat for a barely-existent central state that earned him so many enemies.
The overwhelming majority of complaints were about him undermining local authority — dozens of cases of him licensing innkeepers who had been barred from keeping alehouses by local Justices of the Peace. But even if such mistakes were made, his contradiction of local authorities may well have sometimes been justified. After all, local powerbrokers could be just as corrupt as any patent-wielding courtier, so he may well have been using central authority to right local wrongs. Though we may never know for sure, a decade before Mompesson had suggested his project, and years before Buckingham had even caught the king’s eye, another would-be bureaucrat had noted that the innholders had long actually wanted to have licences from the Crown, to circumvent the tyranny of local authorities. The innkeepers, he claimed, wished “to be disburdened of the Justices’ taxations and impositions, and also of the promoters, who continually inform against them without authority.”
Only a handful of complaints against Mompesson’s agents were to do with him actually levying fines for infractions, or for demanding licences — the sort of thing we’d expect to be complained about if he had been performing a barely legal shakedown. One agent had allegedly importuned an 80-year-old Staffordshire alehouse keeper of long-standing to stay at his establishment for a night, so as to avoid thieves on the road. Taking pity, the alehouse keeper gave in and let the agent sleep there, only to be repaid for his kindness by being categorised as an innkeeper without a licence and asked to pay up. But this case was an exception, and not even that surprising — with any nascent bureaucracy suddenly regulating thousands of inns all over the country, I would expect there to be at least a few such cases of mishandling, just through the sheer numbers involved. The only other similar case was of Mompesson having punished an inn for having expanded its premises — a punishment that was perfectly justified, as even confirmed by a court of common law.
So there’s not much specific evidence, even from Mompesson’s enemies, of his having overseen a straightforward shakedown. The main charge against him was instead that he gave out licences too freely, allegedly for private profit — after all, he received 20% of the proceeds of all fines and licence fees. But this strikes me as an astonishingly low cut, out of which he also had to pay for his whole travelling network of agents throughout the country, and all the various legal fees. The truly corrupt patents, from what I’ve seen, usually involved the patentee paying the Crown a flat rent of a few hundred pounds a year, with any excess going to the patentee. By contrast, Mompesson’s patent gave the overwhelming benefit directly to the Crown, incentivising him to keep his bureaucracy to a certain standard of efficiency if he was to personally gain at all.
The bureaucracy that Mompesson created actually strikes me as remarkably modern. The House of Commons tried to attack Mompesson on the grounds that no one person could, like some “general inquisitor”, legally have the authority to enforce the laws regulating inns. They contended that granting the licences and punishing infractions was a privilege vested in the king alone, and not something that could be delegated to the discretion of others. Which, in effect, was an argument against the Crown being able to delegate powers and create any kind of centralised bureaucracy at all — something that would have suited local elites just fine, as they were otherwise the ones responsible as Justices of the Peace, as Sheriffs, and as various other local officeholders, for all law-enforcement.
But with this argument they were grasping at straws, as Mompesson did not grant the licences alone. Other than one isolated allegation, the inn licences had to be signed by at least one other commissioner of inns, named on the patent, as well as by Justices of Assize or the Chief Justice. This was not a patent monopoly over an industry, not at all like a patent of invention. It was more like a modern-day regulatory agency, or quango.
And there was even more politics at play. Although Mompesson was connected by marriage to the king’s favourite, Buckingham, the connection was really quite loose. Buckingham’s half-brother had married the sister of Mompesson’s wife. I can’t help but feel that this energetic bureaucrat of mere wealthy yeoman stock, with a university education and some training in the law, was actually appointed largely on merit — something that would, itself, have earned him even more revilement. Those appointed on merit earned the jealousy of the hereditary aristocrats, who were already incensed at the king’s general devaluation of all titles by handing out or selling so many knighthoods, newly-invented baronetcies, and lordships. When Parliament met in 1621, it was not just the House of Commons that had grievances to air. The devaluation of titles was openly criticised in the House of Lords as well.
Buckingham himself was probably MPs’ real target. Back in 1620, before Parliament had assembled, the lord chancellor Francis Bacon had written a personal note to Buckingham that the Mompesson and Villiers patents were likely to be a source of complaint. He said they were “more rumoured, both by the vulgar and by the gentlemen, yea, and by the judges themselves, than any other patents at this day.” Given they did not raise a huge amount of revenue, he had advised Buckingham to earn some political capital by seeing them suspended, as well as to “put off the envy”.
Other influential politicians had lots to be envious about. They were jealous of Buckingham’s rapid elevation from nothing to a marquess, which was largely based on his being sexually attractive to the king. And some smarted at betrayal. The earl of Southampton, for example, had been part of the faction that had engineered for the young Buckingham to catch the king’s eye in the first place, but then watched in horror as the new favourite started having ideas of his own. Such factional politics may not have been quite so threatening to the inn-licensing patent had Southampton not also, for years, been an important patron of MPs who opposed any extension of the king’s power. Southampton had long been in cahoots with the opposition leader Sir Edwin Sandys. Mompesson, then, given the threat he posed to MPs’s local power — many of them were themselves Justices of the Peace — was probably just a convenient soft target for Southampton to start a political witch-hunt.
We will probably never know the truth for sure. Mompesson may well have been the villain he was made out to be. But I don’t think the evidence points that way. His enemies’ case against the inn-licensing patent was remarkably flimsy, moving to new and even slightly contradictory arguments when the old ones didn’t quite stack up. They ultimately only succeeded on the basis that he had licensed some new inns — not really a case of illegality or outright corruption, and simply grounds for the puritanical MPs to allege that he had favoured dens of vice, instability, and crime for financial gain. They seem to have recognised that this was insufficiently damning, because they soon moved on to considering Mompesson’s other projects too.
As we will see next time, Parliament’s witch-hunt had only just begun.
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I especially recommend John R Krenzke, ‘Change Is Brewing: The Industrialization of the London Beer-Brewing Trade, 1400-1750’ (PhD thesis, Loyola University Chicago, 2014) for an overview of the industry and its trends. I’ve drawn heavily upon it throughout.
Judith M. Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 (Oxford University Press, 1996).
Daniel Defoe, A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (G. Strahan, 1724), p.34
Anthony F. Upton, Sir Arthur Ingram c. 1565-1642; a Study of the Origins of an English Landed Family (Oxford University Press, 1961), pp.54-55
A record of some worthy proceedings in the honourable, wise, and faithfull howse of commons in the late parliament (Amsterdam, 1611), p.45
Samuel R. Gardiner, History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War, 1603-1642, vol. IV. 1621-1623 (Longmans, Green & Co., 1883), pp.5-6
For this, and all the evidence discussed regarding Mompesson, see Samuel R. Gardiner, ‘On Four Letters from Lord Bacon to Christian IV. King of Denmark, Together with Observations on the Part Taken by Him in the Grants of Monopolies Made by James I’, Archaeologia 41 (1867), pp.231-6
Interestingly innovation was usually considered negative because it involved some new way of raising taxes or giving privileges to special interests.