London’s Triumph: Merchant Adventurers and the Tudor City, by Stephen Alford

Book of the week: The rise in London’s trading fortunes owed much to foreign visitors, finds Lucy Wooding

April 27, 2017
Old St Paul's Cathedral
Source: Bridgeman Collection

In 1500, England was a backwater – an isolated and comparatively uninteresting kingdom whose language reached no further than Calais, and whose trading activities took place under the shadow of the great mercantile centres of Europe, most particularly that of Antwerp. A century later, London had emerged from those shadows to assert its own trading strength, reaching out beyond Europe to Russia, the Ottoman Empire, the East Indies and America. Stephen Alford’s book tells the story of London and its merchants, but more than that, it relates a history of transformation and adventure, of foreign encounters and the construction of a diverse, polyglot and resourceful city.

Alford charts the rise of mercantile London by weaving together the life stories of the men and women who expanded and enhanced it in their pursuit of prosperity, and who turned their vague and often reckless imaginings into global exploration. Anthony Jenkinson, seemingly destined for an unremarkable life in Market Harborough, found himself in Aleppo when Suleiman the Magnificent rode in at the head of his armies; he was on easy terms with Ivan the Terrible, and travelled to the Caspian Sea and to Persia in search of trade routes. John Sanderson, a sour-tempered Londoner who had been thought unpromising at school, went on to serve in Constantinople; he travelled to Egypt where he saw the Sphinx, visited Antioch, Aleppo, Tripoli and Damascus, and was shipwrecked twice. The characters in this book all excelled in achieving the unexpected. At times, as with the search for the Northwest Passage, their enterprises ended in debt and disgrace. Yet many of their endeavours were astoundingly successful, and their willingness to embark for the Arctic, the Baltic, or across the Atlantic, in frail wooden ships, armed only with a few precious books and instruments and a selection of textiles, still beggars belief.

From these adventures, often driven by the determination of just a handful of people, came the Muscovy Company, the Levant Company, the East India Company and the settling of Virginia. The combination of enthusiastic, if often wayward, cosmography and the more mundane imperatives of the rag trade forged a startlingly successful partnership. Be warned, however, that this is no triumphalist tale of how doughty Englishmen, through their dogged individualism, sowed the seeds of the British Empire. On the contrary, Alford’s book reminds us, in timely fashion, that almost everything that made early modern London a great city was copied or borrowed from our much more skilled and sophisticated European neighbours. We learned navigation from the Genoese and Portuguese, printing and cartography from the Dutch and the Germans, and banking from the Italians; when the Royal Exchange was built, it was designed by an architect from Antwerp and constructed by Flemish bricklayers. The adventurers of this book are those who knew how to build on the wisdom and experience of others, and whose bookshelves were laden with tomes in French, Italian, Latin, Greek and Arabic; and who, arriving unexpectedly in Moscow, seem to have muddled through in Polish, Italian and Greek.

Alford’s book is attentive to the material realities of Tudor London, from the stink of the Fleet river to the packed tenements of the poor and the vastness of St Paul’s Cathedral, almost a third larger than Notre Dame in Paris, and where debts were settled by the font. As one Elizabethan bishop fumed, the cathedral comprised “the south alley for popery and usury, the north for simony, and the horse fair in the midst for all kinds of bargains, meetings, brawlings, murders, conspiracies, and the font for ordinary payment of money”. Thomas Gresham’s Royal Exchange offered a superior replacement, in a vast Renaissance building big enough to hold 4,000 merchants; it was meant to equal the great bourse of Antwerp, which one poet had described as “a small world wherein all parts of the great world were united”. Gresham was marking London’s arrival on the European stage.

The achievements chronicled in this book were only possible because of the foreigners who brought their expertise to England. This prompted concerns about the number of immigrants piling into London, and there were sporadic bursts of outright hostility, not least when harvests failed, epidemics hit and tempers became fraught. The Elizabethan government was mostly intelligent enough to see the value of the “strangers”, however, as well as being moved by the plight of those who came as refugees fleeing religious persecution in their own countries. If poets and playwrights poked fun at the immigrants, they also showed them as part of the life of the city. Thomas Dekker’s comedy The Shoemaker’s ­Holiday, first performed in 1599, revolved around a young nobleman disguised as a Dutch shoemaker in order to pursue the girl he loved, but the joke depended on the audience being able to understand the mock Dutch in which the character spoke. Tudor London was a multilingual city, where the strangers integrated with relative ease.

Although this is a work of popular history, it avoids the usual traps of mawkishness and needless fantasy that often bedevil this particular genre. It ranges widely over subjects that many others have covered in more depth, so at times the fabric is stretched quite thin, but apart from a tendency to disparage late medieval London, Alford’s touch is sure. To read this book is to stand abashed at the achievements of more than 400 years ago. In the 1590s, the harvests failed year after year, famine and poverty mounted, and plague decimated the city, taking 91 parishioners, for example, from the small parish of St Bartholomew-the-Less in 1603. Yet despite these strains, the strangers were still accorded their place. In that same parish, we encounter the Dutch notary, a refugee from religious persecution, who served his turn as parish constable, and sent his son to the University of Oxford to study. He worshipped at the old church of the Austin Friars that the government had given the Dutch refugees for their own, and in time he became a naturalised citizen.

Around the year 1600, a group of playwrights, one of them Shakespeare, collaborated in writing the play Sir Thomas More . Slightly to the alarm of the Court, this dealt with the riots of 1517 when the houses of foreign merchants had been attacked by a disaffected mob. The most striking part of the play, perhaps, was the speech where Thomas More spoke to his fellow citizens about the people they were menacing. He warned them how such persecution offended against all humanity: “Imagine that you see the wretched strangers, /Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage, /Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation…”

London’s Triumph shows us the grand visions and human incongruities of commerce. But it also shows us a city contending with immigration, religious difference and the threat of violence. London’s response was resourceful, resilient and creative; it was prepared, on the whole, to welcome foreigners and to learn from them. Fired not only by the lure of wealth but by the untrammelled possibilities of the imagination, it engaged with the wider world on a scale never before envisaged. The unspoken comparisons that haunt this story are unavoidably poignant.

Lucy Wooding is fellow and tutor in history, Lincoln College, University of Oxford.

London’s Triumph: Merchant Adventurers and the Tudor City
By Stephen Alford
Allen Lane, 336pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780241003589
Published 27 April 2017

The author

Stephen Alford

“I was born in Telford in Shropshire, and grew up in its post-industrial landscape in the Thatcher years,” says Stephen Alford, professor of early modern British history at the University of Leeds. “My family had long worked in the old heavy industries – for about 200 years the men of every branch of my family were colliers. Nonconformity was a big theme of my upbringing, and perhaps there is just a hint of puritan work ethic in my makeup!” 

As a child, he recalls, “I think I always liked to ask questions. Certainly I enjoyed books and comics right from the start, and took to history very early, strongly encouraged by my family and teachers at primary and comprehensive school. I loved the Ladybird history books (my first was Oliver Cromwell): the pictures and artwork are still very much fixed in my mind.”

What was Alford like as an undergraduate?

“My wife feels she should answer this one! I always feel that I sort of fumbled my way through my undergraduate years at St Andrews. My family had no experience of university, and so there were no expectations hung around my neck. I had no clear sense of what I wanted to do at the end of it, but I loved the work and the fantastic teaching (with all the blessings of a pre-modular and pre-VLE age), and had huge fun; I probably spent too much of my time in pubs and the university union.

He adds: “Having four undergraduate years rather than three was a huge privilege. Looking back on that time, and on my postgraduate years, I am amazed at what I did, without (as I remember it at least) any great agonies or anxieties. The cluelessness of youth – of living in the moment, with space and freedom to think and enjoy, without the burdens of grinding continual assessment – possessed for me a wonderful creativity.” 

His research presently focuses on the City of London in the early modern era. Has he a favourite spot in the city where the era he writes about in this book seems most alive and present to him?

“I have never been a Londoner, although I have always loved London as a visitor and have very happy memories of PhD research in the old Students’ Room of the British Library (then in one of the wings of the British Museum) and the Victorian solemnity of the Public Record Office on Chancery Lane. I like the incongruity of those few tiny survivals of pre-Great Fire London overshadowed by the huge modern buildings of the City.

“Probably my favourite spot is at the corner of Seething Lane and Hart Street and the church of St Olave, where so many of the characters I write about in the book seem somehow to meet. There is something so neatly perfect in the tomb of the Bayning brothers, Andrew and Paul, two early 17-century Levant Company and East India Company merchants,” Alford adds.

Like his previous book The Watchers, also a Book of the Week in these pages, London’s Triumph is informed by the author’s serious scholarship, but addresses that fabled creature, the educated general reader. What is the secret to writing for that audience?

“For me it’s a case of embracing the pain of writing and endless re-writing, as well as curbing a natural inclination to pack in everything, to over-complicate things and to show off knowledge – resigning oneself to the fact that readers (and colleagues) will only ever see a fraction of the research behind a book. I try to make it all look effortless, but it most certainly isn’t. 

“I work hard at expressing myself in plain words, returning all the time to some old and treasured points of reference: George Orwell (everything, but especially The Politics of the English Language), Graham Greene (once again everything), Herbert Read (English Prose Style) and Somerset Maugham (The Summing Up). I try to deploy good, robust narrative (a form that makes many academic historians nervous), and work to recover past voices. I want (especially as I get older) to strip everything back to essentials, without jargon or verbiage. Of course I wouldn’t have got very far at all without a highly perceptive and persuasive literary agent, Peter Robinson, and a wonderful and inspiring editor, Simon Winder.”

He adds: “A final comment is that the ‘educated general reader’ is no creature of fable: she and he exists in the many tens of thousands! 

Reading London’s Triumph in the post-Brexit present, are we right to wonder why it is not more widely known how polyglot the London of centuries ago was?

“In some ways we might use the book as a marker of how far we have come in nearly half a millennium. Certainly it is a reminder that to reach out beyond boundaries and borders, and to see the possibilities in otherness and difference, has been a long and painful struggle. Sixteenth- and 17th-century Londoners show us the fantastic ability of human beings to withstand extraordinary strains and challenges – and yet perhaps also how thin the surface crust of decency and tolerance is. Long views and perspectives are essential. What Brexit has shown, in a depressing but not at all surprising way, is how limited our sense of a shared and collective history is, and the vulnerabity of huge constituencies of people to highly selective and distorted nationalist views of the past.”

If he could change one thing about his institution, the University of Leeds, what would it be?

“Leeds is by far the most positive, encouraging and collegial institution I’ve worked in. But if I could change one thing, it would be to reverse the heavy cutting of the library budget, which makes it increasingly difficult to write a book like London’s Triumph, and to do serious research in the arts and humanities more generally – particularly at a time when ever more is expected of us in terms of teaching excellence and scholarly productivity. Where books and libraries suffer, there seem to be in modern universities seemingly inexhaustible funds for grand architectural statements and wobbly IT projects – the 21st-century condition, perhaps!”

What gives him hope?

“My daughter, Matilda, whose energy and joie de vivre inspire me every day.”

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