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London’s Triumph: Merchant Adventurers and the Tudor City 
by Stephen Alford.
Allen Lane, 316 pp., £20, April 2017, 978 0 241 00358 9
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The Tudors​ knew all about the uncertainty caused by weak leadership and isolation on the world stage. After the break with Rome, complete by 1534, England stood alone. Henry VIII’s imperial claims, couched in Thomas Cromwell’s majestic legalese, were introspective, asserting the power of the monarch freed from the constraints of papal rule. The economy was beset by inflation, there were land shortages and there was growing poverty, along with anxiety about the balance of payments and the value of sterling.

Of course, it worked out all right in the end – as propagandists for England’s providential destiny always said it would. Episodes of apparent divine preservation – the wrecking of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 – were exploited for all they were worth. This rhetoric masked the pragmatic manoeuvres taking place behind the scenes to defend England and promote its interests. Researching his biography of Elizabeth I’s chief adviser Lord Burghley, Stephen Alford discovered a scribbled memo from 1562, written while the queen lay dangerously ill with smallpox, ordering the privy council to appoint a successor in the event of her death. Elizabeth recovered, but it was still a revolutionary moment – the start of bureaucratic responsibility for the election of monarchs – and deeply revealing of the locations of Tudor power. In his next book, The Watchers, about the Elizabethan ‘security state’ (2012), Alford imagined what would have happened had Elizabeth been assassinated as a result of the Babington Plot, exactly the sort of scenario that obsessed statesmen like Burghley. Their strategy was to maintain a web of counterterrorism using spies, tip-offs, agents provocateurs, interrogation and torture.

Alford’s work bypasses the conceited myths of our island story, describing instead a less familiar and less confident time. In London’s Triumph, he begins in 1500 in an England that had not yet taken off economically and politically, and was not close to doing so. This is a story about extraordinary change, but Alford avoids giving any sense that its ending is inevitable or its characters prescient. The investors and merchants and adventurers who people his book were brave and imaginative and resourceful; they were attracted to risk and saw opportunity in danger. They had a taste for victory and a tolerance for loss. Teleological narratives suck drama from history, obscuring difficult choices behind final decisions and actions.

One man stands out in this account: the merchant and financier Sir Thomas Gresham. A magnificent portrait by Anthonis Mor from around 1560 shows him in a trim bonnet and black silk doublet, an outfit pegged somewhere between modesty and ostentation. He fixes us with a self-assured gaze; there is the trace of a smile. He holds a pair of soft gloves; a later portrait, in which he looks more like a courtier, has him clasping a purse, suggesting the precariousness of riches as much as their importance. Analysis of this second portrait shows that the fingers were painted over to loosen Gresham’s grip: ‘he may,’ according to the National Gallery, ‘have wished to appear less avaricious.’ The maxim attributed to him as Gresham’s Law – ‘Bad money drives out good’ – was a Victorian invention, but he did know a thing or two about finance. Still in his early thirties, he was hired to plug a hole in the national exchequer, which he managed through a forced loan on the Merchant Adventurers Company. By its terms, his fellow merchants would make the king solvent using the profits from their business in Antwerp. They complained, but in the end, they were according to Gresham ‘the great gainers’ from the arrangement. It was a masterstroke of financial wizardry.

Gresham had the right credentials for this sort of work, with links to the capital and the countryside. His family had been established in Norfolk since the late 14th century; his father, Sir Richard, was a cloth merchant (or mercer), who had thrived first on the patronage of Cardinal Wolsey and then of Thomas Cromwell, and had been knighted for his success in procuring foreign loans. Richard even had the nerve to ask Henry VIII to honour one of Wolsey’s unpaid debts. His son, born around 1518, inherited his father’s reputation and business acumen.

Both men lived and died in the city of London, a hive to which fortune-seekers flocked, many of them immigrants towards whom feelings were at best ambivalent. The twisting streets, where fishmongers and tailors, pimps and pickpockets lived cheek by jowl with urban gentry were noisy and smelly. Forges and foundries clanged. Kilns belched smoke, cookshops clouds of steam. The Thames, rank with sewage, was criss-crossed by barges and ferry boats. A rich civic culture coexisted with disease, debauchery and theft. It was a place of peril and discomfort, promise and excitement. ‘In the midst of life we be in death,’ the burial service from the Book of Common Prayer said, and nowhere was this more obvious than in foetid 16th-century London. During epidemics, these words were spoken over brimming pits of corpses – when anyone bothered with the formalities.

There isn’t much left of the world the Greshams knew. Most of the sites where they met clients, drafted contracts and closed deals no longer exist: erased either by the Great Fire of 1666 or by the Blitz and the rebuilding programmes that followed. Sir Thomas is buried in St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, a church that survived both of London’s major conflagrations only to be severely damaged in the 1990s by IRA bombs. But the Greshams’ legacy – Britain’s global wealth and the city’s primacy in international finance – remains visible and vital. The greatest alteration in London’s fortunes predated modernity. The city of the 1620s would have astonished those who had lived there a hundred years earlier, so profound was the transformation between the reigns of Henry VIII and James I. Despite rampantly high mortality rates, the population quadrupled to around 200,000, blurring the boundary between the medieval cities of London and Westminster. By 1600, hideously overcrowded tenements, with dozens of families sharing the same privy, stood alongside imposing public buildings and opulent private houses like Thomas Gresham’s long-gone mansion in Bishopsgate Street, with its decorated gables and neoclassical pillars. In its place stands Tower 42, better known as the Natwest Tower, a product of the global capitalism that men like Gresham promoted.

In the 1490s, when Richard Gresham was a boy, England was far from being a unified realm – it was, Alford writes, ‘a hotchpotch of kingdoms, provinces, dukedoms and city-states’ – and made little impression abroad. There was no branch of the arts or sciences in which Englishmen excelled, and English was not a language useful to the traveller, even in parts of the British Isles. Spain and Portugal had carved up almost the whole world between them, a dominion blessed by the pope, whose authority permeated Western civilisation.

The Reformation changed everything. The spread of Protestantism had implications extending far beyond faith: it meant that anyone might concoct their own truth. The consequences were a huge efflorescence of ideas and new forms of expression, and horrific bloodshed in rebellions, massacres and civil and international wars. England had its own odd reformation, which had the result of insulating it from the worst strife afflicting the Low Countries, France and Germany and isolating it further. Most European states remained Catholic: to their rulers, notably Philip II of Spain, the English were anti-Christian and their queen a heretic. She spent the last 18 years of her reign fighting the Spanish, emptying the royal war chest and becoming increasingly dependent on the rich merchants who topped it up again. Driven by a sense of social utility as well as self-interest, these men explored ever more distant markets, building networks of exchange that stretched into the Americas, Africa and Asia.

The foundations of power remained in land, with the crown supreme in lordship and God at the apex of the great chain of being. But now, Alford writes, ‘between the claims of God and the king was the city.’ Piety and devotion were still important to London’s mercantile elite, but with the great religious houses dissolved and papal legal authority revoked there was a significant secularisation of daily life, resulting not just in attenuated religiosity but in the expansion of commercial, administrative and technical activity. The printing press was crucial to this cultural revolution, advancing fields of inquiry and channels of communication that had little or nothing to do with religion. By the 1550s the churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral was clustered with printers and booksellers offering everything from cheap broadsides to calf-bound Bibles tooled in gold. Soon there were atlases, guides to navigation, travel narratives and the promotional literature of colonial and trading companies.

In the Middle Ages, England’s Company of Merchant Adventurers had been based in Antwerp, but its decline as a financial and mercantile centre after the Dutch revolt of the 1560s shifted the focus to London. Thomas Gresham’s plans to make England fiscally independent of European states coincided with those of Elizabeth I. ‘I would wish that the queen’s majesty in this time,’ he wrote to her, ‘should not use any strangers but [instead] her own subjects.’ By these means, ‘all other princes may see what a prince of power she is.’

Nowhere on earth seemed too distant or inhospitable. Cathay was the archetypical example, exotic in itself and the gateway to Asian treasures – pearls, silks and spices – as well as trade routes. It was in pursuit of this dream that the elderly navigator Sebastian Cabot in 1551 established the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands, patronised by the Duke of Northumberland, then the most powerful man in England (given Edward VI’s youth), and bankrolled by eager investors. The colossal sum of £6000 was raised. Combining what Alford calls ‘formidable ambition and startling ignorance’, an expedition to find the north-east passage set off in 1553, armed with a letter from the king extolling the universal benefits of a shared treasury of the high seas. The mariners were briefed on how to manage alien encounters: the native should be treated warily yet courteously and given alcohol ‘to learn the secrets of his heart’. But their plans went miserably awry: the crew of the flagship, the Bona Speranza, froze and starved to death when their ship became trapped in the ice at the mouth of the river Varzina, not far from Murmansk. The Edward Bonaventure ended up in Russia: its crew were the first Englishmen to reach the country, even if, in the finest maritime tradition, by accident. This was no bad thing, even if it wasn’t what they aimed for.

A subsequent trading agreement with Ivan the Terrible, who invited the Bonaventure’s captain, Richard Chancellor, to Moscow, had symbolic as well as substantive importance. Not only could England now exchange weapons for seal oil, cordage and furs, but a model for future ventures had been established. The renamed Muscovy Company of London had stumbled on a formula that would be copied by the enterprises that became the cornerstones of the British Empire: the independent joint-stock company able to act abroad under its royal imprimatur. Free trade was anathema: the modus operandi was to secure monopolies, tariffs and exclusive rights. The reciprocal relationship between the city of London and the crown was neatly balanced. There were setbacks – in 1557 only one of four ships limped back from Muscovy, two having been smashed on rocks off the Moray Firth (Chancellor drowned, though the first Russian ambassador to England escaped and finally reached London after being held hostage by the Scots), the fourth simply vanished – but in the risks lay the advantage: embracing mortal danger could bring vast power and material rewards.

Anthony Jenkinson, who became an important figure in the Muscovy Company, was as content wandering the White Sea or racing through a Russian winter on a sledge as he was dining with Ivan the Terrible, drinking from a cup he valued at £400. Jenkinson’s itch for the unknown – his maps of Russia teem with curiosities – meant he was keen to extend the company’s operations into Persia. The court magus John Dee supplied him with ingenious clocks and compasses – Dee was credited with being the first to use the term ‘British Empire’. Then there was Richard Hakluyt, who from an early age was absorbed by cosmography, a peculiar – Dee’s word – Tudor art-science that claimed to explain everything about the world. By the 1580s no one knew more about navigation than Hakluyt, whose knowledge had imaginative as well as practical uses. He was inspired by Thomas Hacket, a bookseller whose translations of French accounts of expeditions to America were full of stories of strange fauna and flora and precious metals. Hakluyt’s work, Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America and The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffics and Discoveries of the English Nation, was both formative and summative. On behalf of God and the queen, England and its merchants, he pulled together the achievements and ambitions of global navigation and formed them into a compelling narrative.

The narrative became so well established it wasn’t damaged by failure, as when the swaggering privateer Martin Frobisher ruined his investors with a ton of worthless ore (he thought it was gold, but it was iron pyrite) mined off Baffin Island. Elizabeth I had no wish to rule the waves or build an empire, and showed little interest in the proposals put to her by Hakluyt. For her subjects in the city of London, however, Cathay still shimmered, but the East Indies and Americas were more accessible. Paranoia that other nations were getting ahead – Spain in the west, the Netherlands in the east – had a galvanising effect on English merchants. A mixture of outrage and greed led to the foundation of the East India Company in 1600 and six years later the Virginia Company, which settled the first permanent plantations in America. The fortunes of both outfits would fluctuate wildly, but their commercial and territorial gains hugely increased the wealth of the metropole and its geopolitical influence.

Alford is sensitive to nuances of character and speech, and to the importance of place and material culture. He knows the significance of the merchant Gregory Isham’s townhouse being furnished with imported tapestries, carpets, cushions and furniture, and Isham’s clothes being of the finest silk. Why seek profits from trade except to buy conspicuous comfort and beauty? Thomas Gresham had several stately homes; the contents of just one of them, Mayfield in Sussex, were valued at more than £7000, and this at a time when the average labourer in London earned £14 a year.

Another of this book’s tricks is to zoom in on London’s alleys before panning out to draw much of the world into the field of vision. But we always return to the city from whose docks so many hopeful ships set sail. Its commercial hub was the Royal Exchange, founded by Thomas Gresham in 1571 to rival Antwerp’s bourse. This was where Elizabethan merchants performed the drama of what Alford calls ‘London’s double triumph of riches and poverty’ – a thematic refrain inspired by the allegorical murals Holbein made for the London headquarters of the Hanseatic merchants. As well as being a place of business, the Royal Exchange was a site of all types of public activity, from begging and gossiping to buying jewels and chartering ships. It was, according to a diplomat who knew Paris and Antwerp well, ‘a small world wherein all parts of the great world were united’.

The extremes of wealth did not sit together entirely comfortably. Those at the top of fortune’s wheel put the sin of pride before the virtue of charity – caritas, traditionally the moral compass of communities, the demise of which was a constant nostalgic lament. Mercantilism came at a social and spiritual cost that attracted criticism and satire. The merchants who frequented the courtyards and galleries of the Royal Exchange were lampooned as usurers and parasites, servants of the Tudor state but not the common ‘weal’ – a word that meant ‘happiness’ before it meant ‘wealth’. And what should be done about London’s poor? How might the indigent be helped or pacified, punished or concealed? These were sobering questions and remain still in a city where extremes of wealth and poverty are no less stark than they were for the first Elizabethans.

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