Tudor England became a major player in the expansion of European trade, but it had some catching up to do. In the early seventeenth century, it was behind in its trade with the rest of the world, behind the great port city of Antwerp and other Flemish, Dutch, and Spanish cities. (But not the French!) In the course of the sixteenth century, London began its expansion into new opportunities in the Mediterranean and Central Asia. That expansion then merged with London’s growing trade in the Indian Ocean.
Antwerp was the great medieval commercial city of Western Europe, located fifty-miles inland from the North Sea. It was Dutch speaking with a substantial Jewish community. Like other cities in northern Europe, its entry into international trade began with a well-established medieval fair. And these fairs created trading patterns that eventually became international.
As a major trade center, London also became a focus for the mapping and charting of the globe. It’s rivalry with other trading countries encouraged it to seek out alternative sea routes to these other opportunities. That led to encounters with Muscovy – Russia, and through Russia on to Persia, the Eastern Mediterranean, and then to the fabled Cathay – China. Medieval Danzig became a stopping off place between Russia and London’s trading community.
These English and Belgian merchants maintained the first contacts with the various indigenous Central Asian groups that Russia had long sought to over-power. Information was traded amongst London’s mercantile elite. These “international” traders then became important financial sources for English merchants. Several large English banking houses also furnished capital.
London was nearly destroyed by a disastrous fire in 1666. The commercial area was rebuilt thanks to the presence of rich benefactors, including wealthy merchants but also landed gentry. However there remained a shortage of housing. London was being flooded by immigrants from the prosperous countryside north of the River Thames. A disproportionate number of those immigrants were younger sons of the English landed class. The mercantile elite were drawn from knights, esquires, royal customers, officers, and other classes who had initially flocked to the neighborhood abutting the Thames to serve in the Tudor bureaucracy. Privy councilors, earls, countesses, barons evolved into this mercantile elite that soon dominated the private sector and took on the flavor of the existing class structure.
Like all medieval British towns and cities, London also suffered from outbreaks of the plague and from food scarcities. In the last years of the sixteenth century, England experienced four failed harvests. Destitute vagabonds and ex-soldiers crowded into the merchant quarter. Stephen Alford quotes figures – 0.87 baptisms for every burial. There needed to be an influx of population, especially young males, to keep the population from shrinking.
One item always in short supply, capital to finance London’s trade. That essential investment to keep the trade going could be borrowed from the crown’s wealth. But that gave the Tudor monarchs leverage over the mercantile interests. The church was also a source of capital, but here a long-running difficulty kept the financial sector from tapping the church’s wealth; there was a ban on usury, though it was possible to raise funds by allowing the repayment to include interest owed on loans extended by the church.
The leading exports from the Thames basin were English cotton cloth, tin, and other natural resources. London merchants also acted as distributors for a variety of imports: cordage, yarn, silk cloth, calf and other skins used in expensive leather products. Rhubarb and spices of all kinds. Brits also processed silver ore, from which the precious metal was obtained. Its merchant networks developed the trade with powerful Indian states, Fatehpur Sikri, Bijapur, Agra, and others. Another important result of this English trade was the discovery and exploration of the New World and colonies in Virginia and New England.
Stephen Alford has used a dozen or so Englishmen to illuminate the lives and deaths of both the rich and the poor in Tudor London. This network of trade and processing along the banks of the Thames was an early version of what later became the British Empire.