At the beginning of the 16th century, London was on the fringes of Europe, culturally and economically as well as geographically. A hundred years later, it was the pulmonary engine of an empire on the rise and had quadrupled in size. It pumped commodities around the globe, to the enrichment of its citizens and the nation, while one of the greatest epochs of human creativity found its voice in its theatres. ‘A stinking city, the filthiest of the world’ was the judgement of one English diplomat who’d been around the block. But the effluent was the product of a boisterous and energetic conurbation in which business was booming.
Stephen Alford’s new book is about a class of men whose productive churn whipped the city into shape: London’s merchants, most commonly mercers, who combined daring spirits with an eye for the bottom line. In 1500, Europe’s mercantile centre was Antwerp. British importers had a toehold there in the form