In 14th century England change was in the air as the feudal system began to crumble. Ordinary folk started to wake up and question why they needed the bloke in the big house up the top end of the village to lord it over them. This is a period that marks the rise of the merchant class – the self-made men.
Fine specimens of this new class in society were the De la Pole brothers, William and Richard successful wool merchants who, before moving to Hull, hailed from Ravenser Odd – a once famous port founded on the Holderness coast and now lost to the sea.
They arrived at their wealth through wool export but by lending huge wads of cash to their royal highnesses Edward II and Edward III the brothers swelled the family coffers.
Richard began to spend his time carrying out various duties and services to the King which took him overseas leaving younger brother William to manage the merchant business. When Richard went to live in London in 1331 they dissolved their 20 year partnership. The document recording this is a model of brotherly love as they each “forgave all manner of injuries done, said and thought from the time of coming into the world to the writing of this deed” as well as freeing each other from any obligations. Then they divvied up the spoils of the business which were huge.
William continued to serve the King. He became the first mayor of Hull and fitted out ships with men and munitions for the King’s silly wars against the Scots. In 1339 he redeemed, almost certainly with his own money, the crown jewels which the King had pawned for 50000 gold florins. The king, whose debt to him by this time exceeded £100,000 in old money, created him the Chief Baron of the Exchequer and that’s when the snag came.
Edward was not a miserly King; he liked to live well, make a few wars now and then to keep his people on their toes and didn’t have a problem with living way beyond his means. To fund another minor war in France he demanded money not of William but of the kingdom. He wanted tithes, taxes and vast number of woolsacks to sell. William, who had readily mortgaged all he owned, would not mortgage the country. He told the King that the amount he demanded could not be raised without the very great likelihood of his having a war with his own people, never mind the French. Edward III was majorly miffed, threw his loyal and honest banker in jail and withdrew all privileges and possessions he had given him. A trumped up charge of wool smuggling was levied against him. To obtain a pardon the wily old royal made William wipe out all debts as well as give up his estates in Burstwick near Hull. Nevertheless, there was still plenty left for him to undertake a series of charitable works back in Hull before he died in 1366.