Throughout the Middle Ages London’s import and export trade was with the near Continent. During the Tudor period the transformation began in which the city and its environs were to become the country’s leader in shipbuilding and the world’s premier financial centre. Trade difficulties with Continental neighbours led to voyages of discovery. In the following centuries these beginnings would lead to London becoming the capital of the world’s largest empire.
The riverside of the City of London had for centuries, by the Tudor period, been busy with ships and smaller vessels coming and going. Quays and warehouses lined the north bank of the river from the Tower up to London Bridge and above the bridge as far as Queenhithe. No doubt the sails and masts of vessels on the river could be seen from many points in the town. The movement of goods up and down the narrow streets that descended to the river was handled by members of fellowships of porters. From the early 14th century the City had made rules regarding the unloading and measuring of corn at Queenhithe. Salt, coal and other goods such as fruit and shellfish, cloth, skins, and products in barrels were gradually regulated and their handling monopolised by different types of porter, who were freemen of the City.
The main Customs office for the entire port, where the officials based themselves, continued as before at Custom House Quay, upstream of the Tower. Official inspectors from there boarded each ship as it arrived to obtain a certificate of the vessel’s cargo and to calculate the duty.
London’s maritime trade with the Continental countries had risen steadily during the 12th and 13th centuries but had been hard hit during the period of the Hundred Years War that ended in the mid-1400s. From the latter part of that century commerce, such as the importing of French wine and the main exports of wool and cloth, began rapidly to rise again and growth continued during Tudor times. By 1500 about forty five percent of England’s wool and seventy percent of cloth exports were passing through the Port of London, much of it to Antwerp and Calais. There were many cloth-finishing workers around the Antwerp area, with a ready market for un-dyed, unfinished English broadcloths.
Throughout the medieval period foreign merchants, often with superior ships and monopolies in certain goods and markets, dominated trade in and out of London. One such group was the Hanseatic League, or Hanse. They were a confederation of merchants from towns across northern Europe, from the Low Countries to Russia, and centred on Lübeck, who monopolised trade in the Baltic area. In 1493 Henry VI banned Flemish merchants from trading in London, a move that favoured the Hanse, who obtained the right to import Flemish cloth. This caused a riot by London merchants who had previously traded with the Flemings and the Hanse’s London base at the Steelyard in Upper Thames Street was attacked and temporarily destroyed.
A shipbuilding and repair industry, as well as associated trades such as rope and sail-making, had existed in London since Saxon times. As the city became more congested those enterprises moved further downstream. By the 14th century they were located in riverside hamlets at Ratcliffe, Shadwell, Limehouse, Poplar, Blackwall and Rotherhithe where ships could be pulled up on mud berths. Work on naval vessels was supervised by the Clerk of the King’s Ships who was based close by at the Tower of London. A Company of Shipwrights trade guild was established by the 15th century with their own meeting hall at Ratcliff.
When Henry VIII was at war with France he found it inconvenient that his navy was based at Portsmouth, far from the Royal Armoury at the Tower of London. He decided that the ideal locations were close to his palace at Greenwich, at the Kent fishing villages of Deptford, Woolwich and Erith, which were also easier to defend than Portsmouth. These yards came to employ men with shipbuilding and repairing skills and there was a need for local suppliers and administrators with suitable knowledge. Initially the facilities on the Thames were rather small but Henry invested heavily in the navy and they grew ever larger and better-organised. During his reign the King’s Yard at Deptford expanded to thirty acres, including two wet-docks, three slips large enough for warships, forges, rope-making and other facilities. All these factors created an enlarged industry that was not only useful for naval shipping but for the wider Port of London. The area to the east of London therefore grew to become the ship-building capital of England at the end of the 16th century.
New methods of ship construction had been introduced at the end of the previous century, changing from the old ‘clinker’ to the newer ‘carvel’ type. Larger ships required additional sails, with more than one mast to support them. These new ships were more robust, with greater manoeuvrability, of larger capacity, faster, and cheaper to build. By 1545 all ships built on the Thames were in the new style.
Increased shipping on the Thames, and accusations that some dishonest pilots were being paid by rival merchants to run ships aground, created a need for new rules and standards to prevent accidents. A group of masters and mariners petitioned Henry VIII that regulation of pilots was required. From its foundation by royal charter in March 1514 responsibility for safety on the river was given to ‘The Master, Wardens and Assistants of the Guild or Fraternitie of the most glorious and blessed Trinitie and Saint Clement in the parish Church of Deptford Stronde in the County of Kent’. Trinity House, as they became known, were given the responsibility to provide pilotage – the safe guiding of ships by experienced pilots – along the Thames, particularly through its shifting sandbanks in the Estuary. Their work was funded by a levy on vessels entering the port, collected by Customs House in London. The only ship-owners not obliged to use their services were the Hanseatic League.
Queen Elizabeth extended the responsibilities of Trinity House. By the middle of the century they were involved in a number of river-related activities such as the provision of buoys and beacons to mark safe channels, the supply of ballast and (from 1566) the authorisation of Thames watermen. Trinity House continues to be responsible for lighthouses, buoys and navigation in modern times.
English import and export trade had for centuries been largely with the western ports of France, northern Spain, Flanders and the Baltic area. Yet until the late-medieval period the world’s most significant long-distance trade routes were around the Mediterranean and eastwards from there, with ports such as Venice and Genoa being the most important. The advances in shipbuilding in the 15th century made it possible for longer sea journeys and voyages of exploration. In the following century Atlantic ports in Spain, Portugal and England grew in importance, including London, Bristol and Plymouth.
Henry VIII’s disagreements with the Catholic Church diminished trade with France, Spain and Italy and English merchants sought new trading routes. A group of London traders known as the Merchant Adventurers had emerged in the 15th century, dominating the booming business in English cloth to Antwerp, and Letters Patent were drawn up in 1505 to bring them together as a single joint-stock company. England’s trade with the Baltic area was blocked by the Hanse’s monopolies and Edward VI was petitioned to support the English merchants. In February 1552 he revoked the League’s rights in England and the Steelyard was seized. Two years later the Hanse’s rights were restored once more by Queen Mary. Much trade also passed though Calais, England’s last remaining territory on the Continent but that was lost to the French in 1558 during the reign of Queen Mary. When the Hanse attempted to block English grain exports to the Low Countries English merchants petitioned Queen Elizabeth. In 1598 the Hanseatic League were given two weeks to vacate the Steelyard that they had occupied for several centuries and it was closed, becoming a naval storehouse.
Trade with China and the East Indies via the southern coast of Africa was under the control of Dutch and Portuguese ships. In 1548 Sebastian Cabot persuaded members of the Merchant Adventurers Company to raise finance in order to look for a new north east passage to the Far East. London’s merchants and courtiers subscribed six thousand pounds for the venture. In May 1553 Sir Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor sailed from Ratcliff but their three ships were separated in a storm. That winter the one carrying Willoughby became trapped in Arctic ice and he and his crew perished in the cold. Chancellor and his crew reached the harbour of Nikolo-Korelsky from where he was invited to Moscow by the Tsar, Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible). Chancellor and the Tsar struck up a trade agreement that took English wool and other goods to Russia in return for Russian furs. In 1555 Chancellor returned to London and the Company of Merchant Adventurers was renamed the Muscovy Company. Queen Elizabeth became one of its shareholders and it was given a monopoly on English trade with Russia. It was the first English long-distance joint-stock company and its influence on the future of London as a trade centre was enormous.
International shipping and trading was a lucrative but risky business and merchants needed to share that uncertainty rather than the danger of losing everything. Syndicates began to be formed in order to share the risk and these were formalised as joint-stock companies. As a reward for their investment in the voyages of discovery and in forming new trading posts and colonies each company was given a monopoly on dealings with their particular area of the world. This led to the formation of a number of other English joint-stock companies, including: the Eastern Company (1579) around the eastern Baltic sea; Morocco Company (1585) in northern Africa; the Guinea Company (1588) in western Africa; and the Levant Company (1592) in the eastern Mediterranean. The first voyage by the East India Company was made in 1601.
The Anglo-Spanish wars during Elizabeth’s reign caused disruption to England’s overseas trade. Many of London’s merchant ships and crews either joined hostilities or sailed as privateers – licensed pirates – during that time. When Francis Drake sailed to Cadiz in 1587 his fleet included seven London ships. Around thirty London ships sailed in the fleet that set out to meet the Spanish Armada in 1588. Many of the crewmen of those vessels would have been Thames watermen who had been press-ganged into service.
The merchants who formed the joint-stock companies needed convenient places to meet and undertake this complex business together so the first steps were made that were to turn London into a major financial centre. Until the late 16th century one of Europe’s main money markets was in Antwerp and it was there that the London merchant Thomas Gresham acted as Crown Agent to raise finance for the English monarchs. Having first-hand experience of the bourse in Antwerp he decided to open such an institution in London, where merchants could meet to transact business. The first building was opened in the City in 1567 at the junction of Cornhill and Threadneedle Street. In 1571 Queen Elizabeth visited and thereafter it was known as the Royal Exchange. Antwerp’s golden period as the cultural and financial centre of northern Europe ended in 1585 when a large part of the Protestant population fled following a siege by the Catholic Spanish. Some bankers emigrated to London and thus enhanced the City as a major European finance centre.
Ships were arriving in London from as far as Barbary (the Atlantic coast of Morocco), Danzig (Gdansk), Venice and Russia. The annual tonnage of shipping entering the port rose fifty percent in the second half of the 16th century. At the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign in 1558 a new set of regulations were introduced, instigated by the Lord Treasurer, the Earl of Winchester. Following a commission on royal revenues, customs duties in the port were reorganised, adding three hundred types of merchandise on which duty was payable.
In order to manage collecting duties new rules restricted all goods being imported by ship into London, other than beer, coal from Newcastle and corn, to a limited number of wharves on the north bank of the river, mostly between London Bridge and the Tower. These became known as the ‘Legal Quays’. Cargoes from then on could only be loaded and unloaded under the watch of Customs officials at those locations. Those wharves at the ancient Queenhithe – in use since Saxon times – as well as Gravesend, Barking, Blackwall and many other places ceased to be used for imports. The Legal Quays were to maintain their monopoly on the landing of imports into the Port of London for the following two hundred and fifty years.
The wharves were thus concentrated in the City of London but in other respects the Port of London gradually spread eastwards. As we have seen, the Thames east of London became a major centre of shipbuilding. Many captains and crew members and their families lived in the hamlets close to the river at Wapping and Ratcliff, some of whom were buried in their parish church of St. Dunstan at Stepney. Distinguished Elizabethan mariners included: William Borough (part of the crew of Sir John Willoughby’s first Arctic expedition in 1553 and second in command to Francis Drake in the expedition to Cadiz in 1587), Sir Henry Palmer (a leading English commander against the Spanish Armada), Christopher Newport (Admiral of Virginia), and William Coxe (master of the Golden Hind on Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s expedition to Newfoundland, who died in combat against the Spanish Armada), all of Limehouse; and John Vassall of Ratcliff (one of the founders of Virginia).
During the Middle Ages London was a small port on an island at the periphery of Europe. From the end of the Tudor period that began to change and by the 18th century it had become the country’s leading financial centre, the capital of a growing empire and a major port at the centre of the world.
Sources include: Ian Friel ‘Maritime History of Britain And Ireland’; Gustav Milne ‘The Port of Medieval London’; Caroline M.Barron ‘London In The Later Middle Ages’; John Schofield ‘London 1100-1600’; Liza Picard ‘Elizabeth’s London’; John Pudney ‘London’s Docks’; Fiona Rule ‘London’s Docklands’; Arthur Bryant ‘Liquid History’; Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith ‘The History of East London’.