Wenceslaus Hollar, Byrsa Londinensis, vulgo The Royall Exchange of London. London, 1644. © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
English Merchant

English Navigator


The Royal Exchange of London was founded by the merchant Thomas Gresham in 1568, and officially inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth, in 1571, as the commercial centre for the city of London. But it was also meant to be a forum for merchants to meet and exchange news from all corners of the world. Featuring in London plays such as William Haughton’s Englishmen for my Money, or Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the Exchange, the Royal Exchange was a prominent London landmark, representing trade in commodities as well as in global knowledge. The question that Solanio puts to Salerio in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, anxious to know the fate of the ships of their mutual friend and fellow-trader, the well-regarded merchant Antonio - ‘What news on the Rialto?’- pitches into the excitement, uncertainty and urgency of commercial knowledge. The Rialto was famous for being a hub of international trade, and the site of the Banco della Piazza di Rialto, in a sense the first modern bank of Europe. Salanio’s question, thus, not only indicates the stakes of the news of maritime ventures, but also highlights the importance of place in the new mercantile culture.

The London Royal Exchange consisted of an open courtyard surrounded by a colonnade walk on all four sides. Above the colonnade was a second storey with small shops selling a wide variety of merchants’ wares. Twice a day, in the morning and in the late afternoon, the bell in the tower on the left rang to call merchants from across Europe to come together to do business. The space within the Exchange was, to some extent, ‘mapped’ geographically: contemporary accounts note that merchants of different nationalities set up their stations in specific areas, making them easy to find in the general mêlée. The site became a prominent London landmark, and by the 1630s it was known as the ‘Eye of London’: a place to see and be seen. This engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar captures a sense of the crowds who would throng the Exchange.

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English merchant, from Cesare Vecellio, Habiti antichi, et moderni di tutto il mondo. Venice, 1598. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

Vecellio’s illustration of an English merchant pre-dates Hollar’s engraving by many years, but the silhouette remains easily identifiable. A description in Latin accompanying the image is suggestive of the role of clothing in the geopolitics of mercantile identity:

‘The clothing of English merchants is not extravagant, but serviceable, and is made from excellent cloth. The cloak is black, the other garments coloured. These men are very skilled in maritime affairs. The appearance of the outfit can be gathered very well from the picture.’

Muscovite ambassador, from Cesare Vecellio, Habiti antichi, et moderni di tutto il mondo. Venice, 1598. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

The English navigator Richard Chancellor travelled to Moscow to establish trade relations with Russia in 1553. The Muscovy Company was founded in 1555 to develop and capitalise on the Russian trade; amongst its two hundred and one founding members were two women. This Russian ambassador, as illustrated by Vecellio, is dressed much more lavishly than the merchants in Hollar’s illustration, but they share the same distinctive fur hats.

Pierce Tempest, after Marcellus Laroon, A Merry New Song, from The Cryes of London. London, 1668. © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The Royal Exchange was not an exclusively male space. In Hollar’s engraving (Image 1), a female ballad-seller hawks her wares in the left foreground, wearing a wide, conical hat. Ballads themselves were an irrepressibly mobile form of knowledge, crossing over from one space to another, from the tavern to the law-court to the theatre to the marketplace. They covered a wide range of subjects, from love to politics, and, as a kind of news media, played a vital role in the dissemination of information. A ballad might tell of a battle recently lost at sea in distant lands, or a beached whale in Chester, or unseasonable hail in London. This illustration is from a 1668 collection of The Cryes of London, engraved by Pierce Tempest after drawings by Marcellus Laroon.