The transformation of the English capital from a provincial backwater to a cosmopolitan dynamo, courtesy of urban merchants who spearheaded global trade, exploration, and colonization.
Alford (Early Modern British History/Univ. of Leeds; Edward VI: The Last Boy King, 2014, etc.) makes expert use of individual lives to bring London’s various stages to life. Thomas Wyndout, who died in 1500, inhabited a stable, Catholic, late-medieval world of time-honored rituals and work lives ordered by the rules of trade guilds. Richard Gresham built his fortune through trade with Antwerp, the mercantile and financial center of Europe, then parlayed carefully cultivated connections with powerful royal officials to ascend to lord mayor of London in 1537. His son Thomas saw that London’s merchants could expand English trade beyond Europe and rival Antwerp as lender to the crown. In 1553, explorers searching for Cathay wound up in Russia instead, and the resultant Muscovy Company, whose charter members worked hand in glove with the queen’s government, made manifest “the interplay of money and political power” that shaped London’s growth. Striving immigrants also played an instrumental role, as can be seen in the odysseys of Dutch expatriate Cornelis Spierincks, a Calvinist who, like many others on the continent, sought refuge from Catholic persecution in now-Protestant England, and his son, who moved out from an émigré community to become a true Londoner. These and many other stories bring the past to life in warmly human terms, as do Alford’s evocative descriptions of the city’s changing landscape and architecture. By 1600, when Richard Hakluyt’s magisterial Principal navigations was completed, London’s mercantile elite were confident and expansive enough to contemplate not just trading with the Americas, but colonizing them; the Virginia Company of London sent 295 settlers across the ocean in 1606. “The worlds that Londoners inhabited and imagined,” writes the author, “were [now] simply far larger and more complex.”
Solid scholarly history written with an accessible verve that will appeal to general readers.