Dining with Ivan the Terrible

Malcolm Gaskill

  • London’s Triumph: Merchant Adventurers and the Tudor City by Stephen Alford
    Allen Lane, 316 pp, £20.00, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 00358 9

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.

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