The first London goldsmiths were Jewish. They also acted as bankers and moneylenders, but medieval attitudes to usury were critical. In 1275, Edward I issued the ‘statutus de Judeismo’ banning Jews from lending money at interest. It was one of many repressive measures which culminated in the expulsion of the impoverished Jews from the country in 1290, at which time they may have numbered as many as 16,000 souls.
It would take over 350 years before they were allowed to return to Britain. Their powerful position as moneylenders to the English Crown was taken over by Italians with Lombard Street as its financial centre. The area was originally a piece of land granted by Edward I to goldsmiths and merchants from Lombardy and is mentioned by name in a Charter of Edward II in 1319. Economically sophisticated and socially self-contained, the Italian merchant elite regarded itself as the financial aristocracy within the larger London stranger community. Many commercial terms such as debtor, creditor, cash, bank, or bankrupt were directly derived from the Italian. In Das Kapital Karl Marx specifically refers to Lombard Street in reference to credit and money-lending.
The first Italian settlers were members of the Corsini dynasty, a Florentine dynasty who made their fortune in the fourteenth century as politicians and traders. They lost political power with the emergence of the Medici family, but continued to flourish economically. Filippo and Bartolomeo Corsini increased the wealth of the family thanks to their network of banking offices around Europe, connected with a fast private postal service. They accumulated fabulous wealth in a relatively short time in London – so much so, that Italians in London at the time were referred to as ‘Caursinis’. With the emergence of the Hanseatic trade, the pre-eminence of the Italians was challenged by merchants from the Low Countries and Northern Germany. During the last decade of the fifteenth century as many as eighty Hanseatic merchants were resident in London, mostly quartered in Dowgate Ward, better known as the Steelyard. Lombard Street however retained its reputation as being at the heart of London’s financial centre.