London’s Triumph by Stephen Alford review – merchant adventurers and Tudor boomtime

By Jessie Childs

This fresh account of the rise of the English capital as a global metropolis never loses site of the city’s searing inequality

Inside Samuel Pepys‘ favourite church, St Olave’s on Hart Street, stand monuments to aldermen, mercers, knights of the realm and directors of the East India Company. Out in the churchyard, via a gateway studded with stone skulls – “like a jail”, wrote Dickens, who renamed the place St Ghastly Grim – are the plague victims. They lie alongside “a man blackamore”, found dead in the street in 1588, and two African maidservants of a Jewish-born Portuguese physician. Interred here, too, are the scant remains of an Inuit baby, who perished within weeks of being taken from Baffin Island, Canada, by the explorer Martin Frobisher. Here, in microcosm, is Tudor London, a city of commerce, immigration, adventure, disease, celebrity, curiosity, money, power and risk. As Stephen Alford makes clear, “London was both a triumph of riches and a triumph of poverty.” This is a book about travel, trade and the rise of London as a global metropolis, but it does not neglect the churchyard.

In 1500, London was marginal and underwhelming. Paris had more people; Antwerp had bigger markets; Augsburg in Bavaria had the bankers and Florence the art. London didn’t even have a bourse. Most French people didn’t understand the English language. A century later, the city was booming. Her population had quadrupled and her river teemed with ships full of caviar, tobacco and silk. She had a Royal Exchange and a global reach. In Arctic waters seamen encountered islands called Cape Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s Foreland and Charing Cross, which was just south of West England. “Not an infant of the curtailed skinclipping pagans but talk of London as frequently as of their Prophet’s tomb at Mecca,” wrote the satirist Thomas Nashe in 1599. Such a statement could not even have been conjured at the beginning of the century.

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