London’s Triumph: the making of a capital


Exclusive interview with author Stephen Alford about his new book on sixteenth-century London

By Gabrielle Pantera


“With London’s Triumph I wanted to make sense of the city as a city,” says author Stephen Alford. “What it looked like, felt like to live there, how it grew, its landmarks, its people. But also, to trace how it encountered an ever-growing world, in terms of London’s merchants sending out ships, and later colonists, to Russia, Persia, the East Indies and America. As well as how ordinary Londoners read and heard about those far-off places in books printed in the city.”

     In London’s Triumph, the sixteenth century is a time of growth for England. The British ruled the sea, their ships navigated the globe, visiting the New World and Russia. They opened trade routes that helped merchants gain exotic items to sell. Sailors went on adventures to new lands. They were searching for rare and exotic treasures to bring back that would make their fortunes and fame.

“The persuasive nudge to write this book came from my London agent, Peter Robinson, over lunch in Notting Hill,” says Alford. “In a sense it has been shadowing for me a while. As I remember it, Peter wondered about a book that tried to crack the mystery of how Tudor London grew so unexpectedly. I scribbled down my ideas and responses as I went back to Cambridge on the train. Some of those ideas…London’s cityscape, its people, its poverty and riches, its massive growth…have stuck with me and the project. Others themes, the space I give to voyages and trade, for example, grew with the book.”

Alford has been researching London for his book projects for years, from the British Library, the National Archives at Kew and the London Metropolitan Archive. Work in the Brotherton Library at Leeds and Cambridge University Library helped hugely. On a research trip to Leiden in the Netherlands, he found the University Library has an immaculate edition of The Principal Navigations (1598-1600) by Richard Hakluyt. Hakluyt’s huge work, 1.7 million words in three volumes in an effort to print everything possible on English navigation across the globe, became a major source.

“The most memorable thing about ordering up the volumes was to find that Leiden’s copy had the world map that Elizabethans could buy separately if they wanted to,” says Alford.

“It’s huge and stunning. The librarians kept a very close eye on me as I folded it out section by section to its full extent. The interesting thing about it is that it’s a hydrographical map. It concentrates on coastlines and the places that had been discovered along them. This means that where other late sixteenth-century maps show us the whole globe as if Elizabethans knew everything about it, the hydrographical map gives us the reality.”

London’s Triumph is Alford’s sixth book. The first two were scholarly monographs (Cambridge University Press), the third a biography of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (2008), the fourth The Watchers (Penguin and Bloomsbury 2012), and the fifth a short biography of King Edward VI (Penguin Monarchs series 2014). His Burghley book was shortlisted for the Marsh Prize in Biography. London’s Triumph is being considered for UK TV. The Watchers is being adapted to film by British production company Water & Power Productions.

“Probably the most interesting experience my writing has led me to was a lecture at Vauxhall Cross, the headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service or MI6,” says Aford. That was just before the publication of The Watchers. Chaired by ‘C’, the Chief of SIS, the audience was made up of intelligence officers.

Alford teaches sixteenth and seventeenth-century British history at Leeds University. He lives in the Yorkshire Dales, with Brontë country and Haworth to the south and the Lake District to the northwest. He was born in Shropshire.

Alford is currently developing a book about the English and Dutch East India Companies in the seventeenth century. He describes himself as “elusive and unnetworked”, has no website, but loves to do book signings.


London’s Triumph: Merchants, Adventurers, and Money in Shakespeare’s City by Stephen Alford. Hardcover: 336 pages, Publisher: Bloomsbury USA. December 5th, 2017. Language: English. ISBN: 9781620408216 $28.00