It can be traced back to a 13-century guild, which went on to fund John Cabot's voyage to Newfoundland, before receiving its Royal Charter in 1552. For centuries, it was almost synonymous with the government of Bristol, especially its port. In recent times, the society's activities have centred on charitable agendas.
The Society played a big part in the development of Bristol, including the building of Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Great Western Railway. It was also responsible for the development of Bristol's educational institutions, including the University of Bristol, the University of the West of England and City of Bristol College.
A Guild of Merchants was founded in Bristol by the 13th century, and swiftly became active in civic life; by the 15th century it had become synonymous with the town's government. It funded John Cabot's voyage of discovery to Newfoundland in 1497. The society in its current form was established by a 1552 Royal Charter from Edward VI granting the society a monopoly on Bristol's sea trade. They remained in effective control of Bristol Docks until 1848. Further charters were granted by Charles I, Charles II and Elizabeth II. The society was active in the English colonisation of North America, helping to establish the Bristol's Hope and Cuper's Cove colonies in Newfoundland.
In 1595 the Merchant Venturers' School was founded, which subsequently became the Merchant Venturers' Technical College and was a precursor of the University of Bristol, the University of the West of England and City of Bristol College. In 1676 the society took control of the Manor of Clifton including Clifton Down.
In 1694, the Merchant Venturers Society organised protests against the monopoly held by the Royal African Company in the slave trade, leading to the ending of this monopoly in 1698. By 1700 many Merchant Venturers including the celebrated Edward Colston were active in the slave trade, Colston also founded the Merchant Venturers Almshouses and a school which still exists today, situated on Bell Hill.