Dublin City Staple: An Introduction

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The Staple of England, Ireland and Wales was established in the late 13th century by Edward I. Under ordinances which were promulgated by that monarch in 1291, wool, leather and sheep-skins were designated as the 'staple', or basic, items of merchandise and these could be sold to foreign merchants only in named towns, which became known as 'staple towns'.  Dublin was one of the three Irish staple towns nominated under the 1291 ordinances, the other two being Drogheda and Cork. These ordinances also contained detailed regulations governing trade and included an instruction to the wool merchants to elect a mayor for the staple. There is no available evidence to show to what extent the 1291 ordinances were put into effect in Dublin. In 1326 Edward II promulgated ordinances of the staple, which in effect confirmed those of his predecessor and extended the items listed as staple goods to include the tin of Cornwall. Again, Dublin was designated as a staple town for Ireland, along with Cork and Drogheda. This time, the ordinances were proclaimed by the Mayor of Dublin, acting under the command of the king, and they were copied into the city's White Book [1] but again we do not know the extent to which these ordinances were put into practice.

In 1353, a third set of ordinances regulating the staple of England, Wales and Ireland was issued by Edward III and these added Waterford as a fourth Irish staple town [2] with Galway gaining the distinction by royal charter in 1375. [3]  The effect of the 1353 ordinances on Dublin was immediate. Until then, traders had been accustomed to selling goods on shipboard within a distance of six leagues from the city, a necessary arrangement given the shallow nature of the harbour at Dublin, which precluded larger ships from docking and unloading their cargoes. Other vessels anchored in the port of Dalkey and their cargoes were transported to Dublin in barges and boats. The new staple ordinances effectively prohibited both of these practices, to the detriment of Dublin's trade, but the city's merchants managed to obtain charters from the crown in 1358 which authorized the sale of wine, iron, salt and all kinds of goods either on board ship or in ports within six leagues of the city - notwithstanding the regulations governing the staple. [4]

Although the staple ordinances began to affect trade in Dublin from the mid-14th century, if not earlier, evidence for the development of an organisation to enforce these regulations is not available until much later. By 1530, such an organisation existed in Dublin: it was know as "the staple" and its members, who were called "staplers", had their rights guaranteed by law and custom. For example, an edict was issued in 1539 forbidding all inhabitants of Dublin from salting hides within the city franchises, a privilege which was reserved for those staplers whose names were recorded in the staple books. [5] All three sets of ordinances had contained provisions for the election of a mayor of the staple by the wool merchants, but the earliest mention of this post in Dublin is dated 1530.[6] The 1353 ordinances also provided for the election of two constables of the staple but these posts are not mentioned in Dublin until the late 16th century, although it may be assumed that they existed before then. Traditionally, these elections were held on the feast of the conversion of Paul, 29 January, suggesting that this saint was the patron of the Dublin staple. For much of this period, the Dublin staple was closely linked with the municipal governing body, the Dublin City Assembly, a growing association which is best demonstrated by giving an indication of the manifold civic duties assigned to the staple. The mayor of the staple was a keeper of the city treasury's keys in the period 1530-42 and 1546-54 [7] and was appointed by the City Assembly in 1560 as auditor of the city chamberlain's and city treasurer's accounts. [8] In 1558 the City Assembly decreed that, on completion of his term of office, the Mayor of Dublin should serve successively as master of trinity guild [9], mayor of the staple and city treasurer, a move which helped to integrate the staple into the civic administration. [10] In 1573, the mayor of the staple was among six officials appointed as keepers of the keys to the hanaper, the oak casket that held the Dublin city seal. [11]

Early in the 17th century, the mayor and constables of the staple were collectively assigned various duties by the Dublin City Assembly. In 1603, the Assembly decreed that they were to act as master and wardens of the defunct guild of St. George Martyr, a legal fiction that allowed the Assembly to lease out and obtain revenue from the guild's lands. [12]   Two years later, when the Assembly received complaints Dublin goldsmiths in their work used that base metal, it was decreed that the mayor and constables of the staple should have responsibility for the assay of all plate in the city and a detailed series of regulations was drawn up for this purpose. [13]  This promised to provide a useful source of revenue for the staple, which would receive a halfpenny per ounce for every parcel of plate assayed, a sum to be paid by the goldsmith. Full accounts of these transactions were to be kept by the staple, together with a note of all plate stamped and the name of those experts who had been asked to help in assessing the quality of plate. However, no such records have survived and we do no yet know the extent of the Dublin staple's involvement in the conduct of assay.

In these ways, the civic administration not only assumed increasing control over the Dublin staple but also, through its own enactments, extended the legal basis under which that staple might operate. This received support at the highest level when during the reign of James I, an attempt was made by the crown to revive and extend the staples in Ireland, as a means of encouraging the woollen industry. In addition to the medieval staple towns, staples were created in other boroughs, such as Wexford, Youghal, Limerick, Dungarvan, Kilkenny, Carrickfergus and Belfast. [14]  In spite of these developments, the most important function carried out by the Dublin staple during the 17th century was one assigned under the 1353 ordinances of Edward III, which declared that the mayor of the staple should have power to take recognisance of debts incurred within the staple. These recognisance were known as 'statute staple' and, when issued had the staple seal attached. If the debtor defaulted, and if he could be taken within the staple town, the mayor of the staple had the power to imprison the debtor, take possession of his goods and use them to make restitution to the creditor. If the debtor could not be found within the staple, the debt was certified in chancery. [15]

The activity of the Dublin staple in the issue of recognisance of debt is recorded in three registers of the statute staple that are preserved in the Dublin City Archives, covering the period 1596-1615; 1616-1637; and 1664-1678. [16]   These are supplemented by parallel registers that were maintained by the office of the clerk of the recognisance in Dublin for the years 1658-1675 and 1678-1687, and these are preserved in the British Library. [17]  The British Library also holds a complementary set of books dealing with activities in all Irish staples, including Dublin, for the period 1639-58 and 1673-87. [18] A preliminary examination of the registers held in the Dublin City Archives indicates that each entry typically contains the name, social status, townland and county of residence of both debtors and creditors. Annotations from a later date state whether the statute staple was honoured, cancelled, or certified in chancery. In the main those entering into the statute staple were landowners drawn from every part of plantation Ireland, while creditors often came from the Dublin mercantile class (though not exclusively so).

The continued importance of the Dublin staple in the late 17th century is underlined by the inclusion of provisions for its organisation in a charter issued to the city by James II in 1687. [19]  To judge from the available evidence, however, the Dublin staple went into decline in the 18th century, and the only document known to survive from that period is a register of elections of the mayor and constables of the staple for the period 1713-1753. [20]   According to this register, membership was only open to those who had been free of the guild of merchants for three years suggesting that the staple operated in this period as an upper house of Dublin's senior trade guild. There is no known documentary evidence of activity on the part of the Dublin staple after 1753 although it may have continued to function as part of the merchant guild until the latter was abolished following the passage of the Municipal Corporation Reform (Ireland) Act of 1840.

Notes

  1. Dublin City Archives, MR/3 fol 42b-43b. Translated from the original French by J.T. Gilbert, see Calendar of Ancient Records of Dublin I, pp 135-8 (henceforth 'Anc. Rec. Dublin)
  2. 27 Edw III Stat 2 in Statutes of the Realm, vol. I (1810) p. 334
  3. George O'Brien, "The Irish Staple organisation in the reign of James I" in Economic History, vol. I (1926-1929), pp 42-56.
  4.  Anc. Rec. Dublin I, pp 19-20
  5. Ibid. I p 404. No staple books have survived from this period.
  6. Ibid. I p 400. In 1530, Walter Kelly, mayor of the staple, was appointed one of the keepers of the city treasury's keys by the Mayor and City Assembly of Dublin.
  7. Ibid. I 400-37 passim. Note the City Assembly Rolls are missing for 1544-45 and are not comprehensive for 1543. View list of mayors of the staple.
  8.  Anc. Rec. Dublin II, p 10
  9. This was the guild of merchants, the most senior of Dublin's trade guilds.
  10.  Anc. Rec. Dublin I, p 480. This confirmed an earlier custom, in use between 1530-55, see list of mayors of the staple.
  11. Ibid. II p 86. The hanaper is preserved among the Dublin Civic Regalia and one of its six locks still bears the inscription "Mayor of the Staple"
  12. Ibid. II p 405.
  13. Ibid. II p 450-2.
  14. George O'Brien op. cit.
  15. 27 Edw III Stat 2 in Statutes of the Realm, vol. I (1810) p 334
  16. Dublin City Archives, Staple Books 1-3
  17. British Library Add. MS 15635-7. 3 vols.
  18. British Library Add. MS 19843-4. 2 vols.
  19. Dublin City Archives, Royal Charter No. 100. See also Anc. Rec. Dublin I, pp73-5
  20. Dublin City Archives, Staple Books 4

For more information

Dublin City Archives, 138-144 Pearse Street, Dublin 2.
Tel: 01 674 4881, Email: cityarchives@dublincity.ie

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