Teacher and translator Jean Belmain was a French Huguenot scholar who served as a language teacher to future English monarchs Edward VI and Elizabeth I at the court of their father Henry VIII. A committed Calvinist, Jean Belmain was a refugee from persecution in France. He may well have had a major role in forming Edward’s Protestant views. Belmain began his teaching duties in 1546 and also completed a French-language translation of the strongly anti-Catholic prose devotion Lamentations of a Sinner written by Catherine Parr (Henry’s last of six wives) in which his most noticeable adaptation was to add exclamations. He died some time after 1557.
Nonsuch Palace was built by Henry VIII in 1538 just south of London. Many artists from the Continent were involved in the project including Florentine High Renaissance painter Bartolommeo Penni who moved to London around 1519. He served as court artist to Henry VIII between 1531 and 1533. He had made the journey in company of fellow Florentine painter and architect Antonio di Nunziato d’Antonio who in English records is referred to as Anthony Toto. The latter was naturalised in 1543 and appointed to the lucrative court position of Serjeant Painter in 1544. Toto and Penni spent most of their time after 1538 working on Nonsuch Palace, including elaborate stucco work for Henry’s most advanced building, now vanished. Penni is recorded as still in England in 1538 and also worked as painter-decorator to Henry’s son and successor Edward VI. Toto died a rich man in 1554 in England.
Merchant and author Francesco di Balducci Pegolotti was born around 1280 into a well-to-do Florentine family. He worked for the Compagnia dei Bardi, one of the largest mercantile enterprises in Europe which was started by the Bardi family, until their bankruptcy in 1345. From 1317 onward he represented the company in England.
He directed the London office in Lombard Street between 1318 and 1321. In this capacity he exercised a prominent role in the company’s trade through English ports. He also participated in the negotiation of loans to the crown (in 1320). His other responsibilities included transferring money from England to the papal court at Avignon. He left London in December 1321 to take up a new assignment in Cyprus. He spent his final years in Florence. In 1347 he was involved liquidating the assets of the Bardi firm, but nothing is recorded of him thereafter, and it is not known when he died. Pegolotti compiled the merchant’s manual to which he owes his fame in Florence.
The manual survived uniquely in a manuscript of 1472 in the Biblioteca Riccardiana, Florence. Its present title, La pratica della mercatura, was invented for an edition of the work published in 1765/6. An important source for students of medieval international trade, the manual supplies extensive detail about the regions to which Bardi interests extended, from England eastwards to Persia and the Black Sea. His information about Britain includes lists of monastic sources of wool in England and Scotland. His work also provides information about London prices (wool, metals, spices, and silk) and estimates of exchange rates.
During the high and late Middle Ages the vast majority of strangers in London were individual members of a multi-national merchant class. In 1303, Edward I signed the Carta Mercatoria or Charter of the Merchants, an agreement in which rights were granted to foreign merchants in return for dues and levies. Under its terms overseas traders were free to come and go, import and export; they enjoyed freedom from city, bridge and road tolls; and were allowed to enforce contracts and settle disputes.
Freedom of trade was inevitably accompanied by freedom of movement. Although attempts were made to regulate migration, many ‘strangers’ settled in London and were able to pursue their business careers. In 1334, in exchange for financial assistance, Edward III replaced the general grant of rights to foreign merchants with a particular charter granted to the Hanseatic League. London became part of the Hanse. From the late thirteenth until around 1600, merchants in several Northern European cities like Bruges, Lübeck, Hamburg, Danzig, Copenhagen, Bremen, and even Novgorod in Russia formed a trading company known as the Hanseatic League.
The merchants in the League met on a regular basis to make trading agreements and to work out issues of common interest. As a result of these meetings, the member cities became highly influential politically. The Hanse had a lasting influence on our notions of commerce, economic association, the importance of free trade, and the role of the nation state. Some seventy cities were regular League members and around one hundred more were passive associates without decision-making power.
The London branch occupied a walled area on the north bank of the Thames just south of London Bridge. It was in effect a separate community, independent of the City of London, and governed by its own strict code of laws. It was called the Steelyard (‘Stalhof’ in German) either in reference to the great steel beam used for weighing goods, or to the courtyard where goods were bought and sold from stalls. It was not dissolved until Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg sold their common property in 1853.
There are many ironies in the turbulent history of Anglo-French relationships. One of those is that the British Ministry of Justice is located at no. 102 Petty France. The name of the street refers to the settlement of Huguenot refugees there. It is also used to refer to the area in the vicinity of the street, the seventh Ward of Westminster. It has been asserted that the name originated from a settlement of French refugees after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, but the name is much older and was most likely derived from a habitation of French wool merchants who came for purposes of trade.
There was a district nearby known as Petty Calais where the wool-staplers principally resided. The Merchants of the Staple was an English company incorporated by Royal Charter in 1319 which controlled the export of wool to the Continent during the late medieval period. The staple was first fixed at Antwerp, then successively moved between Bruges, Brussels, and Louvain. In 1353 the staple was fixed at Westminster which drew so much business it was raised to the dignity of a town.
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.
Merchant Thomas Romeyn may have been of Flemish descent. He made a remarkable career in London’s governing mercantile class. He became a citizen before 1280, was elected sheriff in 1290, alderman in 1294, and mayor in 1309. In 1285, Edward I had forced London authorities to admit aliens of good repute to its citizenship. In the early 1280s, Romeyn first appears in the records as a citizen purchasing a shop in the pepperers’ trading quarter of Soper’s Lane, Cheapside. He sold spices, cloth and furs to members of the nobility. He also invested in property. In 1292 he was one of London’s top taxpayers. In the previous year he served as sheriff with another pepperer, William Layer. Their election as aldermen during that decade symbolised the socio-economic advancement of the pepperers, which had been achieved through their co-operation with Italian and Provençal traders who imported their goods and gave them credit.
The Guild of Pepperers was formed in 1180. Pepperers subsequently became wholesale merchants dealing en gros (hence the word ‘grocer’) and in 1428 were incorporated as the Worshipful Company of Grocers. However, some sections of the London population resented the success of immigrants and, as the economy slumped in the later 1290s, the aldermen had to deal with violent protests and riots. Romeyn and his wife, Julia or Juliana, suffered from one such attack in their house in 1298. As Mayor of London in 1309/10, Romeyn skilfully balanced the grievances of the local population against the interests of the alien merchants in the city. He died in March 1313.