Stephen Alford: London's Triumph

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 97

London in the time of William Shakespeare was a city in the midst of a phenomenal metamorphosis. During the course of Shakespeare’s professional life, the city experienced a meteoric transition, rocketing from the capital of the hinterlands to a cosmopolitan city on its way to becoming the capital of the western world. 
Stephen Alford, a professor of early modern British history at the University of Leeds, writes about this transition in his book London's Triumph: Merchants, Adventurers, and Money in Shakespeare’s City, which was published by Bloomsbury USA in 2017. He was interviewed for this podcast by Barbara Bogaev.
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published May 15, 2018. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, Wander Up and Down to View the City, was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Gareth Dant, the University of Leeds Media Relations Manager, and Simon Moore, the University’s Communications Assistant. 

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MICHAEL WITMORE: No one writes in a vacuum. The places where writers sit inevitably shape the characters they create and the stories they tell. Well, here’s the story of a place ... it is a place filled with memorable characters. One of them was a great entrepreneur. One of them was the first Englishman to set foot in Russia. One of them was Queen Elizabeth, and one of them … was Shakespeare.


From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s Director. While what we know about William Shakespeare is about as much as we would about any middle-class Englishman of his time …. there is plenty that’s known about his stomping grounds. London in the time of Shakespeare was a city in the midst of a phenomenal metamorphosis. During the course of Shakespeare’s professional life, the city experienced a meteoric transition, rocketing from the capital of the hinterlands to a cosmopolitan city on its way to becoming the capital of the western world.

Stephen Alford, a professor of early modern British history at the University of Leeds, tells the story of this breathtaking rise in his new book, London’s Triumph: Merchants, Adventurers, and Money in Shakespeare’s City. He came in recently to talk about a place that Shakespeare helped shape and one that clearly helped shape Shakespeare. We call this podcast Wander Up and Down to View the City. Stephen Alford is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: I didn’t realize until I read your book just how explosive and dramatic London’s growth was heading into Shakespeare’s time. And, for instance, you write that England in 1500 was a marginal backwater, that English was a minor language, and that Spain and Portugal had practically carved up the whole world between them. Why don’t you flesh out the rest of this picture of England for us at this time to give us a baseline.

STEPHEN ALFORD: The baseline is that England was a second, third-rate, marginal power, on the fringes of the European mainstream. It’s connected to Europe through all kinds of interesting, but still very early in developing, intellectual networks. London is a mercantile, satellite of Antwerp. That’s where deals were done, and London merchants went over to Antwerp to sell their cloths. So it’s still a kingdom that is beginning to kind of find its feet. And, in many ways, it’s kind of being pushed back. Calais is the final outpost of spoken English and of English power, but Calais is lost to the French in 1558. So we’re thinking about a kingdom that is very much on the margins.

BOGAEV: But then, just a century later, as you write, London is booming, and you have this amazing population explosion.


BOGAEV: Population is quadrupled practically, right? And, you have these ships full of silk and caviar and tobacco practically clogging the Thames. And, it was a cosmopolitan place with this thriving exchange and global reach. So just simply addressing population, how did that happen given, as you say, that there was a very high rate of mortality in London, specifically, and it really seemed like all the odds were stocked against the city.

ALFORD: It’s immigration. And, that’s one of the key strands of the whole picture and the whole story. Immigration from abroad, which was a hot topic, with strangers, with foreigners fleeing persecution in France, in the low countries, the Netherlands, Belgium and finding new homes. But also, I think the story of London is one of an internal immigration. Really thousands upon thousands of very ordinary people seeking work, seeing livelihood, escaping the countryside, make their way into the city, especially in the second half of the 16th century.

And, London acted as an enormous kind of processor of human capital. It needed people to keep the city running. The merchants’ companies needed apprentices and drew those apprentices from all over the kingdom so that the city, in a sense, sort of drags people into it. And, that not only kind of counterweights those deep problems of plague, disease, low birth rate, but it kind of accelerates the population and really in a remarkable way.

BOGAEV: So you have people flooding in from all over Europe, but also all over England. And, as you say...


BOGAEV: Many of them are religious refugees fleeing religious persecution. I want to dig into that a little bit. Why was London such an attractive haven?

ALFORD: Protection was offered by Edward VI, by Elizabeth I. London, I think, was attractive also because it was, of course, a commercial center and many of these strangers had skills that London needed. So printing, for example. Skilled printers from the low countries were able to help London printers kind of improve their skill set and the quality of what they’re able to produce.

BOGAEV: And, pulling the lens back a little bit, was the English Reformation done is such a different way than the European Reformation that England itself was a haven?

ALFORD: Yes. I mean, the texture of the Reformations across Europe are very different. I think the great attractiveness of the English scene was its relative peacefulness. That’s not how it felt at the time. Elizabethan politicians, counselors of the Queen, felt that theirs was a kingdom that was pretty much from the beginning, always under threat; they sensed that invasion, catastrophe, were just around the corner, and yet, they’re able to kind of maintain peace. And, it’s so different to the civil wars of France or the reality of Spanish armies, Catholic armies, moving through to crush Protestant opposition in the Netherlands.

BOGAEV: So you had these religious refugees just flooding in from all over Europe and Africa, as well, right? And, you give an example of London’s diversity at the time. The list includes French merchants and Dutch craftsmen and Italians who had bowling alleys and...


BOGAEV: A handful of Africans, at least, and foreign teachers and printers and doctors and, you know, wide-eyed boys and girls from across England. I think that’s the quote from you. This must have made London such a cosmopolitan and a dynamic place, but what was the backlash? How did Londoners react to all of these strangers and foreigners?

ALFORD: So in many ways, it was a mixed response to strangers in London – welcomed as co-religionists, but a lot of suspicion about the economic opportunities that they were pursuing. And, I think that was a threat that was perceived both by the elite, who were very, very wary of the ability of merchant strangers to kind of find their own little kind of nooks and crannies of the city, and evade the jurisdiction of the city government. And, it’s certainly true on behalf of apprentices and of poorer Londoners, who feel that they’re kind of being pushed out of work by stranger immigrants.

BOGAEV: And, this ambivalence and this conflict, it was reflected in the theater of time—you see it in Shakespeare, but you also see it in other playwrights of the time, including a play that you mentioned called “The Shoemaker’s Holiday” by Dekker. And, why don’t you tell us what that is about and what you found interesting and illustrative in that play.

ALFORD: “The Shoemaker’s Holiday,” yeah, it’s interesting in many ways, kind of historicized sort of reality of strangers in the city, of forbidden love between the nephew of an earl, the Earl of Lincoln, who falls in love with the daughter of a Lord Mayor of the city. And, in order to kind of break up the relationship, the earl sends his nephew off to fight in France. But, the earl’s nephew disguises himself as a shoemaker, but he’s not an English shoemaker, he’s a Dutch shoemaker.

So the whole thing is really kind of play on this character pretending to be a shoemaker. He has kind of mock patois Dutch. And, my sense of it is that Londoners were fully acquainted with this kind of individual. They’d seen Dutch tradesmen in the city. Dekker’s able to kind of poke gentle fun at the position of this individual. You can see that it kind of speaks to the kind of nuanced humor of Londoners, kind of recognizing the sort of strange reality all around them.

BOGAEV: And, you write that you also see this in the play “Sir Thomas More.”


BOGAEV: Which has a complicated authorship story, which includes Dekker and others, and there’s a scene that some people attribute to Shakespeare. And I mention it because it’s a scene that deals with the hostility and the ambivalence that Londoners felt for its strangers. Tell us about that.

ALFORD: Yes. This is a far sharper work than “The Shoemaker’s Holiday,” but same kind of date. It’s about 1500. And, it looks back to the so-called Evil May Day of 1517, and the central character is Thomas More as an undersheriff of London. As you said, it’s got a critical moment, which appears to be the work of Shakespeare, where you’ve got all these native Londoners wanting the strangers to pack their bags, to get out of the kingdom. And More makes this impassioned speech, which speaks to their humanity.

And, More says, “grant them removed,” you know, “grant these strangers removed from the country and grant that this your noise hath chid down all the majesty of England. Imagine that you see the wretched strangers, their babies at their backs with their poor luggage plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation.” And, this great, kind of impassioned speech and for...

BOGAEV: Wow, so a plea for empathy.

ALFORD: Humanity. Yeah, absolutely. Empathy, humanity, over individual and financial gains. It’s a very powerful piece of theater.

BOGAEV: Well, I’m sure, top of mind, but what do we know of Shakespeare’s familiarity with foreigners in this city, whether he was writing from first-hand experience?

ALFORD: I think it must have been. He was lodging with a French family in the city. And, I think Shakespeare, like other dramatists in London, must have been, you know, able to observe these French, Dutch, Italian communities at close hands. Many of these communities were kind of on the edges of the city. I mean, literally, on the edges of the city, as well as kind of on the edges of city life.

BOGAEV: It’s such a fascinating time because at the same time that London is getting flooded with all of these foreigners, you have English merchants and adventurers flooding foreign markets, and you argue that trade and exploration were what elevated London to a world-class city. And, a big part of this chapter of the city’s history involves the creation of what’s known as The Exchange.


BOGAEV: Which I think everyone in England knows what that is, but why don’t you tell us Americans what was The Exchange. What is it and why was it so important?

ALFORD: The Exchange was Thomas Gresham’s Exchange. Sir Thomas Gresham was a member of one of the great mercantile dynasties. And, Gresham’s ambition was to bring to London the kind of center of mercantile life that other cities – Paris, the preeminently Antwerp – had where merchants would meet, where merchants would, literally, exchange instruments of money, for moving money around Europe. Basically, the...

BOGAEV: So everyone was doing this in the street before this?

ALFORD: Yes. Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. One of the great complaints about London by those around the city, by members of the city establishment, is that London suffered the indignity of its merchants standing on the streets in all weather doing this kind of trade.

BOGAEV: In all kinds of terrible weather. [LAUGH]

ALFORD: In all kinds of terrible weather. This is a consistent complaint over decades of standing there in rain and sleet, you know...

BOGAEV: So it was more than say a stock exchange or a shopping center or a bank. It seems to combine or encompass all of those things.

ALFORD: Yes. Gresham’s Exchange is the place for merchants, but as you say, it’s a place for shopping of very high-end goods, attracting elite purses. The gentry kind of hang out there. It’s a place of gossip, of promenading. It’s a place where people buy books. It’s a place of exchange in so many ways. It’s an exchange of news and information and intelligence.

BOGAEV: And, a place to get robbed blind, it sounds like. [LAUGH]


BOGAEV: Where there is that much money and willing, wealthy people, there were criminals and you describe some lovely ones. Tell us about some of the shady business that went on there. And, I’ve always liked the term “fingerer.”

ALFORD: Yes. The cheater.

BOGAEV: You mention. The cheater.

ALFORD: Fingerer. A cheater.

BOGAEV: It’s a kind of a fancy pickpocket. Is that right?

ALFORD: It is, basically, a pickpocket, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

BOGAEV: But, fancy.

ALFORD: Yes. Yes.

BOGAEV: Not you know, someone who’s posing.

ALFORD: These were just kind of disguised gentlemen who would befriend real gentlemen, would take them to dinner, would con them out of money, as well as...

BOGAEV: Grifter.

ALFORD: Yeah, basically, as well as cut purses, picking pockets, begging. And, The Exchange was really a magnet.

BOGAEV: Now, before I read your book, I had a kind of chicken and the egg question, which is I knew London built this exchange to facilitate trading of all kinds, but I wasn’t sure whether they had the goods to trade in it first or whether they built the exchange to make a mark, to put London on the map, and then said, “oh, no, what are we going to trade?” And then, they took off on this amazing age of exploration.

ALFORD: In a sense, it’s a little of both. I’m not entirely sure I can solve the chicken and egg issue.

BOGAEV: So they coincided, it sounds like.

ALFORD: They do. They do. They do. I think, yeah.

BOGAEV: And, this Exchange was another driving force for this explosive change for London. And, as you tell it, one of the big stories in this period is the search by the English for a route to China.


BOGAEV: Which the English called, at the time, Cathay.

ALFORD: Cathay.

BOGAEV: What did the English know about China at the time that made them so eager to get there?

ALFORD: They thought that it was an empire ruled over by probably the greatest prince of the world, the Great Khan, or the Great Cham. But, a kingdom or an empire of immense wealth, that it was probably pretty cold. So, clearly, you know, the subjects of the Great Cham would need English cloth. So they think that here is a great empire with riches, with sort of rich luxury goods that can be traded for good old warm English cloth.

BOGAEV: So they were sure of that, but a lot of things were just made up, it sounds like.


BOGAEV: The Great Khan lived in a city. Cambalu? Cambalu.


BOGAEV: Or something.


BOGAEV: And, it just seems such an interesting mix of fiction and reality.

ALFORD: It is. It’s an absolute kind of conflation of fiction, reality, but some of the great kind of authorities of the day, the cartographical authorities of the day like Abraham Ortelius; they convinced that Cathay existed. You know, you look at it on middle 16th-century maps, it’s there. You see the rivers. You see the towns. You see the cities. So, in a sense, it’s both imaginative, but also has this kind of physical existence. You know, it’s kind of there. And, it’s that kind of navigational story, which is the story of accident, happenstance, disappointment, and great breakthrough also, that I was really interested in kind of unpicking in the book.

BOGAEV: Which is embodied by Sebastian Cabot. He was trying to find China, but first he ran into America. And then, the very interesting part of this story, as well, he ran into Russia instead.

ALFORD: Yes. They bump into Russia entirely by accident. The story of the Cabot Expedition is the Edwardian expedition of 1552-1553, where the notion is to send ships to the northeast, over the top of Scandinavia, over the top of Asia, which, of course, they thought was, you know, entirely navigable, it would be perfectly straight forward, and they dropped down and they would find Cathy.

BOGAEV: I have to say I love the catchy name of the trading company that he found. “The Mystery and Company of the Merchants Adventurers for the Discovery of Regents, Dominions, Islands, and Places Unknown.” I made an acronym for it. It’s MACOMADORDIPU. [LAUGH]


BOGAEV: Good thing he wasn’t a namer for his profession. [LAUGH]

ALFORD: It doesn’t trip easily off the tongue, does it?


ALFORD: I think the Muscovy Company does it. You know, the Muscovy Company is fine. [LAUGH]

BOGAEV: Yeah, they really nailed it later. That’s true. But, the fact that mystery was part of the name, because they really were taking a leap into the dark and they knew it.

ALFORD: Yes. Yeah, and it’s kind of got that sort of medieval sense to it, which is really interesting when you kind of put it alongside this new world that’s being opened up in a physical way, in an imaginative way. You know, they’re working on some evidence. You know, they’re working from some sources. But, they’re essentially making it up.

BOGAEV: It’s wild too that they set sail for Cathay in 1553 with what sounds just an extraordinary letter from King Edward VI.

ALFORD: Yes. Yes. Yes. To all the princes and potentates that they were bound to bump into on the way, opening up an era of friendship and collaboration and cooperation, and seeing that mercantile contact with the whole world is the key to sort of friendship, which is really interesting in a way when you look at some of the motivations here, which are, you know, exclusive trading monopolies and profit by the English of the English at the expense of anyone else. So there are interesting tensions I think sort of built into the whole operation as they’re kind of feeling their way very slowly into it.

BOGAEV: So three ships started out, but only two, and not the flagship, landed in Russia.


BOGAEV: And, all three could have perished. And, as you say, it was just so happenstance, an accident, fortuitous, that they run into Russia, and it ushers in even more prosperity for London. You say this failure actually to reach China ended up forming a connection that was the main reason London became the capital city of a mercantile empire. What was so valuable about the Muscovy Company and the trade with Russia?

ALFORD: It was the kind of trade that was opened up, which was valuable from the start. Russia gave London and Londoners and London merchants directly, direct access rather, to all kinds of raw materials and commodities, furs, train oil, caviar, that previously had made their way into Europe, but very indirectly and distantly for English merchants.

I think what the Muscovy Company shows also is that meeting of mercantile power, intellectual know-how, in a sense there are brains behind this operation that are keyed into wider European networks of knowledge, and also, political power. The Muscovy Company from the beginning has lots of important contacts around the king’s and then the queen’s courts. So it’s a very kind of powerful confluence of things that takes English merchants, at first northwest and towards Russia, but eventually on the same kind of mission, takes them to North America.

BOGAEV: Well, we’ve been talking a lot about money and wealth and power, but London was also a city of tremendous poverty. Just profound poverty and you see in the accounts of this time, and you quote them, that people refer to the deserving and the undeserving poor.


BOGAEV: So how did Londoners at this time of such explosive growth and the burgeoning prosperity think about the poor?

ALFORD: The poor were categorized absolutely as you say in different ways. Those who were poor through no fault of their own, those poor people were helped. The social net was very, very thin indeed. There were alms, houses, there was private charity. So there was some support.

But, there was a great Elizabethan anxiety about poverty, especially those who were either feigning poverty, who were using poverty to get into the purses of the rich, who were “pestering.” That’s a kind of common word, who were pestering the kind of elite outside, on the streets, outside houses, with their begging bowls, who were fabricating their poverty.

And, for those, there was a very different kind of system. No social net at all, but a system of corrective institutions, of hospitals, increasingly for London parishes. The parishes were expected to whip, to punish, the poor and kind of move them onto the parishes of their birth. So the Elizabethan kind of descriptions of what poverty was and who the poor were were very, very different with very different responses.

BOGAEV: Well, this brings us to the topic of money lenders because where there’s poverty and wealth and trade, there are money lenders. And, really, there were always money lenders. But, you do say that one of the most famous lines in Shakespeare sums up the life of London in Shakespeare’s time and it’s his phrase, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” So what did Elizabethans think about the lending of money?

ALFORD: Profoundly ambivalent. And, I think that’s one of the, I mean, for me, really sort of interesting strands of the book. The book in many ways is not just about a city. It’s certainly about a city. It’s certainly about the world beyond the city. It’s about the Elizabethan imagination, I think also, and about how Elizabethans and Jacobeans saw the world. And, one of the strands of that, I think, is an uncertainty about money that we see dramatists playing with, that we see preachers getting in the pulpits to talk about. Usury, lending money at interest, is a kind of live issue for Elizabethans, really kind of all the way through the reign of Elizabeth into the 17th century.

BOGAEV: So was this...

ALFORD: The word is highly problematic.

BOGAEV: Was this ambivalence what you think Shakespeare was trying to convey by having Polonius say the line in Hamlet, or do you think he had a more honing in on a more specific point?

ALFORD: I think, to me, he speaks to a situation which was, by the time Shakespeare was writing, pretty untenable. I think what’s really clear is that Elizabethans had a double standard when it came to money. They could denounce usury. Moralists weren’t so keen on, you know, what for us is a very neutral word, which is interest.

There was a big anxiety there about how money was earned, about how money was generated, the realities that, I suppose in London, all kinds of Londoners, were drawn into webs and networks of lending. Small loan-sharking sort of seems to have been endemic throughout the city. The reality on a bigger scene was that kings and princes and states borrowed money.

BOGAEV: Right, and you see all these conflicts playing out in Merchant of Venice, but it’s interesting that you mention the clergy. You know, you have the clergy preaching, you know, “neither a borrow or lender be,” basically, and it reminded us of someone we had on our podcast a while back who was talking about makeup, for instance, in the Elizabethan time. And, of course, the clergy preached against wearing makeup. And, all of the clergy’s sermons, or some of the clergy’s sermons, were written down so that’s how we know they were preaching against wearing makeup. But, that didn’t mean normal women didn’t wear makeup. Some certainly did and, obviously, the queen herself was positively spackled with it. So what did people really think about it? Do we know? Was there really such a prejudice against usury or money lending?

ALFORD: I think it is hard to know. Usury sermons are a kind of genre. Preachers are getting into the pulpit and denouncing usury or you have civil lawyers. An interesting individual called Thomas Wilson, who writes a discourse on usury, in which you have the characters of a merchant and a merchant’s apprentice, you know, who talk in very blunt terms about, well, you know, “why bother risking anything? You know, we can just make our money, generate more money, that’s absolutely fine.” There’s an absolutely kind of un-self-conscious sense there of, well, it’s money. It’s a commodity.

So I think that there is that tension there between, you know, the moralists, between the pulpit, perhaps between the stage and the day-to-day reality that increasingly, even very ordinary merchants were able to lend money. They had to disguise that up to a certain point, but they were lending money, and that Elizabethans were borrows, as well as lenders.

BOGAEV: Yeah, and all of this makes it very hard to get a fix on history, especially when it’s in these transition points, which is really the theme of your story. And, in fact, I finished your book and I asked myself whether there was a moral to it. You know, or if the rise of London was just a one-off, an anomaly of history. But, the moral seemed to be that London became this great global superpower by accident. That that’s the overriding theme.

ALFORD: Yes, I think accident and happenstance appear and reappear throughout the book. And, there’s almost a kind of chaos theory element to the story. I mean, it seemed to me in trying to make sense myself of London of the scale, the complexity, the kind of underlying paradoxes, the successes, the failures, the limitations, just the whole kind of size of the place, that who knew what was going to happen. There’s very little kind of conscious design behind, I think, a lot of it.

BOGAEV: Although it’s very tempting to see parallels to what’s going on now. I mean, I have all sorts of dog-eared pages where I see parallels to today in the discussion of the deserving and undeserving poor, of prejudice against refugees flooding England’s borders, of Brexit and the American story playing out here now.

ALFORD: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s right. And, for me, one of the kind of human interest elements of this is the familiarity and some of the resonances and maybe some of the essential continuities of the human situation of finding, you know, Elizabethans finding themselves, of all of us today finding ourselves, in a sense in situations where we struggle with the paradox and the complexity. And, I think that kind of strikes me as a resonance. Well, I hope as a resonance of the book that in a sense I didn’t have to force very much at all.

BOGAEV: Well, it’s just fascinating stuff. Thank you so much for the book and for talking today.

ALFORD: It’s a great pleasure. Thank you very much.


WITMORE: Stephen Alford is a professor of early modern British history at the University of Leeds. His book London's Triumph: Merchants, Adventurers, and Money in Shakespeare’s City was published by Bloomsbury USA in 2017. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Wander Up and Down to View the City was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Gareth Dant, the University of Leeds Media Relations Manager, and Simon Moore, the University’s Communications Assistant.

We hope you’re enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited. If you are, please do us a favor. Please consider rating and reviewing the podcasts on whatever platform you get the podcast from. When you do that, it helps us get the word out to people who haven’t heard it yet. Thanks.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, Folger - dot - edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.