How London’s horizons expanded to encompass the globeby Ben Wilson / May 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
London’s Triumph: Merchant Adventures in the Tudor City by Stephen Alford (Allen Lane, £20)
At the start the 16th century, London was an unspectacular city, marginal to the commerce and politics of the continent. It was a satellite of the great European entrepôt, Antwerp; its merchants were content to trade only as far as the Baltic, the Low Countries and France. In this compelling and lucid account of Tudor London, Stephen Alford shows us a city undergoing dizzying transformation.
By the century’s close, London’s population had quadrupled, its population swollen by migrants from the countryside and Europe. Grand buildings rose in the city; so did fetid suburbs. At the close of Elizabeth I’s reign, it was a big, densely-populated, dangerous, urban world. By then, London’s horizons had expanded to encompass the globe. Innovative corporations traded to Russia, the Levant, Persia, the Far East and North America. London had become a global powerhouse.
Alford gives us an electrifying story of “money, wealth, poverty, self-confidence, greed, tenacity and remarkable happenstance and accident.” It is told from the streets of the city and in the interwoven lives of a diverse group of Londoners going about their daily business. What astounds is the almost outrageous bravado of the metropolis’s mercantile elite, as they ventured their capital on ambitious schemes and became incredibly wealthy. Like his Tudor Londoners, Alford has one foot firmly planted in the dirty streets of the boom town, the other in the distant lands they read about and which conjured up dreams of wealth and possibility. Every page bristles with intriguing facts and fascinating, unfamiliar characters.