What is a Merchant Adventurer?

The term “merchant adventurers” came into popular use during the 15th century in medieval England, originally used to describe any English merchant willing to risk their wealth in speculative ventures in shipping and trade – this coming on the heels of the Age of Exploration (1419 – 1507), in which new lands were discovered by the Western world and thusly, new trade goods.

In other words, Merchant Adventurers were the venture capitalists and “angel investors” of the medieval and Renaissance periods. And so, “joint stock” Merchant Companies were formed for the purpose of forming trading expeditions overseas, as well the construction and management of factories and trading stations in foreign lands.

The Hanseatic League: Medieval Trade and Immigration in Europe – Brewminate

One of the more well-known speculative adventures to be found in the medieval period was the colonization of North America, where merchants backed a handful of attempts to settle the New World beginning in 1583. The best-documented endeavor belonged to the London Merchant Adventurers, who backed the Pilgrims as they established Plymouth Plantation in 1620.

Traders. Explorers. Colonists. This included keeping a wide array of tradesfolk on their books, to facilitate their enterprises. Trappers and hunters, textile workers and farmers, sailors and craftsmen…and soldiers, to protect those investments. Wealthy entrepreneurs would invest in these companies, risking their personal fortunes on the survival of trade ships and the exotic goods they brought in for sale in English markets – or English goods being shipped out, to be sold to the colonies. A single round trip enterprise could bring great wealth to the right investor…or great ruin, should the ships not survive the storms or pirates roaming the seas.

Each Merchant Company can generally be identified by their “mark“, a stylized mark that would be unique to each organization. They would be the medieval equivalent of a corporate logo, and would be stamped on the shipping crates to identify the owner of the goods. The English versions often reflected the “Sign of Four”, also known as the “Staff of Mercury” – Mercury being the Roman god of merchants and shopkeepers, whose symbol of the caduceus represents commerce and negotiation. One of the more well known marks would be that of the East India Tea Company and its iconic “EIC”, whose goods found themselves floating in the Boston Harbor in 1773.

Our guild – the Company of Merchant Adventurers and Guardians of Sterling – is a young Company, having not long ago received our charter from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I to operate from the town of Sterling. But we are a wide-ranging Company with contacts found East along the Silk Road, and West among the New World colonies and islands. We’ve trade routes with the Norsemen of the North, and across the sea with the Moors of the Muslim lands. And should we come across Spanish or French ships along the way…well, we’re not above taking advantage of our privateer charter, should opportunity arise!

For those visiting our Guildhall site within the shire of Sterling (also known as the New York Renaissance Faire), feel free to stop by and pay us a visit! You may not find all of us on the grounds at once; some of us may be hard at work out among the village, as part of our charter includes a guardianship over the shire and it’s inhabitants – but we maintain a presence at all times around our hall, and we’d be happy to help guide you should you find yourself directionless as you walk the grounds of our happy village!

Some of our actual historical contemporaries include: the Company of Merchant Adventurers of York, the Hanseatic League, the Barbary Company, the East India Company, and the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands