Magazine article The Spectator

'London's Triumph: Merchant Adventurers and the Tudor City', by Stephen Alford - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'London's Triumph: Merchant Adventurers and the Tudor City', by Stephen Alford - Review

Article excerpt

Tudor merchants -- shivering in furs in tiny creaking ships, sailing through the ice of unknown winter seas -- knew something that today's careworn EU and civil service officials might be irritated to hear: that despite all travails, trade deals can sometimes be sexy, thrilling and epic.

In 16th-century London, plans to open up fresh trading routes across the world were also about vaulting leaps of fantastical imagination, and naturally also about slavering greed. Down by the Thames, men of property would dream of alien Cathay, and of realms where the beaches, they thought, would glitter brilliant red and green with loose rubies and emeralds. Men were crossing oceans with ever-greater cartographical confidence: much better a private ship than a vulnerable caravan of mules trekking the bandit-haunted silk roads. England was opening itself up not merely to a new age of Reformation but also to the start of modern economics: speculation and investment backed by loans.

So even without today's endless Punch-and-Judy pub-fight drama of Brexit, it is very pleasing to have a book that focuses specifically on the rise of London as a global trading city in the Tudor era. Like all the best stories, it is about the timeless tides of power and influence. 'Merchants had an international view,' notes the historian Stephen Alford, 'whose values and merits sometimes transcended those of Europe's sovereign powers...' Sometimes!

In the late medieval years, Antwerp was at the centre of European commerce. Merchants from many kingdoms mingled in its Bourse, guaranteed 'freedom of movement' and dealing in goods -- rich spices, precious metals, gorgeous cloth -- from faraway lands. The nascent banking dynasties -- Fugger and Hochstetter -- went to Antwerp too; and in the wake of the bankers came a taste for fine art, tapestries and stained glass. The yobbish Tudor English were deemed to lack the effortless sophistication of their continental counterparts.

Indeed, by the mid-16th century, the Tudor throne was hopelessly in debt, despite Henry VIII's rapacious monastery-stripping; and here came one of those subtle shifts of power (certainly more subtle than the earthquake of the Reformation). Usury was forbidden in England: but gradually, throughout the century, ways were found -- legal and semantic -- by which money could be loaned for reasonable sums of interest, and this coincided with a sharpening desire for sea-borne trade.

Tudor London also came to enjoy another huge trading advantage. The kingdoms of Europe were roaring with religious violence, and this was too great a hindrance to merchants everywhere; conflict constipated flows of goods. …

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