Murder in Lombard St: The Commercial War of 1379

By Amedeo Feniello, April 28, 2015

Lombard Street

Lombard Street

"There will be fight without quarter and no compromise toward any threat to London's market supremacy, including even assassination if need be".

August 1379: a man has been murdered near Lombard Street in London. The victim, only recently arrived in the city, is a Genoese ship owner and merchant named Giano Imperiale.

Bearing letters patent from the King of England , Edward III, Giano had rented a house in St Nicholas Acon Lane, just off Lombard Street in the ward of Langbourne. His corpse was found barely twenty days later, on the night of the 27th, a Friday.

The investigating magistrate and the sheriffs of London set to work, but obstacles arise: witnesses are reticent, concealing as much as they reveal. The officials deduce, however, that shortly before curfew Giano had been drawn into a fight and slain in the dark.

The turning point comes a month later, at the end of September. The investigators have tracked down the assassins, their motive and method: Giano Imperiale had been killed during a senseless street brawl by two known lowlifes, a mercer named John Kyrkeby and a grocer, John Algor.

The toughs had provoked the foreign merchant on a stupid pretence, then attacked and slain him. A futile motive for a virtually random death. The two men are arrested, the case closed. The mystery is resolved, the story over.

But not quite. Doubts remain. The investigators were assiduous but had failed to examine a crucial piece of the puzzle.

They had neglected to examine the identity of the dead man, supposing him simply one of the many Italian traders hustling along Lombard Street. In the wrong place at the wrong time, the foreigner had the bad luck of bumping into two brutal thugs. But Giano Imperiale was not just anyone.

In Genoa he was far more important than Lombard Street knew, and had not come to London by chance. Rumours now circulated that he had planned to encounter the King himself, in Westminster. What for? No one knows.

Unbeknownst to the investigators, the case of Giano’s murder is under discussion in Parliament. The letters patent in Giano’s possession were a royal safe conduct pass signed by the new king, Richard II .

Kyrkeby and Algor had not merely committed murder, therefore, but something far more serious: an act of lèse majesté.

In court on the second of March, 1380, the two plead not guilty. Four months later, the chief magistrate reads the verdict to a stunned court: the jury has decided for the killers, ruling that they had acted in self-defence and are therefore not culpable.

A slap in the face for the court, which in fact rejects the jury’s decision and remands the accused men back to prison, first to the Tower of London and, shortly, to still more insalubrious incarceration in Northampton.

On December 3, 1380, nearly a year and a half after Giano’s murder, comes the coup de théâtre: John Algor comes forward to speak, saying he has truths to reveal about the crime. The investigating coroner now records a confession completely different from the version presented in court.

Chance had nothing to do with the Italian’s death. There had been no drunken brawl. Giano’s murder was entirely premeditated, planned in detail by leaders of the English wool trade, men known both to the King and to their Flemish and Italian competitors on the trading floors of London.

They are Nicolas Brembre, John Philipot, William Walworth and Richard Preston. Kyrkeby and Algor were no more than hired killers. The murder had been ordered to prevent something very big from happening.

Giano Imperiale’s scheme, backed by financial interests in his home city, had been to propose to the King a gentlemen’s agreement that would transform the small port of Southampton into northern Europe’s largest commercial nexus.

The idea had been to provide incentives to the King to allow the Genoese to leapfrog over their competition, whether Italian, Flemish, or – most especially – English.

With Giano’s murder, the London market sends a powerful message both to Richard II and to any pretenders to the primacy of Lombard Street: there will be fight without quarter and no compromise toward any threat to London’s market supremacy, including even assassination if need be.

The Genoese hear the message loud and clear; they immediately abandon the project of transforming Southampton into Europe’s greatest port.

The King also hears it. Of the accused men, only Kyrkeby, who had inflicted the fatal blows, is condemned. His execution is carried out hastily, before the London merchants can unleash an assault on his prison. Algor will be pardoned by the King and released, to disappear again into obscurity. And what of Brembre, Philipot, Walworth, and Preston?

No judicial action will be taken against them, not even so much as an investigation. On the contrary. Walworth will soon serve as Mayor of London. He, Brembre and Philipot will later be knighted by the King.

Giano Imperiale’s extraordinary story, a true-life tale of international intrigue, is documented in Select Cases in The Court of King Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, edited by G. O. Sayles (The Selden Society: London, 1971, Vol VII, 88, doc. 9, 20). I first discovered the story of the liaison dangereuse between Giano and the English Crown in Benjamin Kedar’s 1976 volume, Merchants in Crisis.

What does this dramatic episode tell us? Quite a lot, not only for its neat lesson in the efficient methods of eliminating rivals, but also about the international market and its leading actors.

Giano bears traits specific to the great homme d’affaire, similar to many Italians who traded on Lombard Street in such numbers that the street itself took on their name. These men long represented the cream of English commerce, guiding its shape and growth.

By the late fourteenth century, however, they were losing steam in the face of indigenous competition, their decline signalled especially by the disastrous collapse, thirty years before Giano’s murder, of the legendary Bardi, Peruzzi and Acciaiuoli supercompanies which had controlled English public finances.

Nevertheless, in 1379 Italians still played a key role in English trade, in banking, and the export of raw English wool, the island product that most interested continental Europe.

Giano Imperiale had come to London to play his trump card, innovation, in a strategic game to control the international market. What could be more visionary than creating a new Eldorado in England by exploiting the potential of the port of Southampton?

But his idea was not born ex novo. Rather, it came in the wake of long practice in face-to-face collaboration with the Crown, that fuse of Italian success, which contributed decisively to the growth of a nation heretofore underdeveloped relative to more advanced regions, such as Flanders and north central Italy.

In the 13th century the Riccardi system, named after its Luccan inventors, had virtually invented public financing, leading to the 14th century boom represented by the Bardi-Peruzzi-Acciaiuoli joint venture, which ended in the catastrophic bust triggered by the insolvency of the English royal house, caused by the substantial expenses incurred in financing the first phase of the the Hundred Years’ War.

Giano Imperiale was a child of this open-minded, unscrupulous and innovative era, when service to the king and commercial monopoly went hand in hand: a universe where capitalism was in its infancy and where the global economy stretched from the Baltic to the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

He may be considered the symbol of a period of Italian dominance, and his fate marks the transition into a new era, in which England will prevail.

Further reading

Amedeo Feniello, Dalle lacrime di Sybille, 2013, Laterza.

Yves Renouard, Gli uomini d’affari italiani nel medioevo, Milano, BUR, 1995.

A. Sapori, Il mercante italiano nel medioevo, Milano, Jaca Book, 1983.

Translation by Thomas Haskell Simpson

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Amedeo Feniello has been Directeur d’études invité at l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales of Paris and has taught Mediterranean history in the Middle Ages at the Northwestern University, in Evanston, Chicago. He is the author of many books on Southern Italy’s society and economy in the Middle Ages. Among his latest books, all published by Editori Laterza (Roma-Bari) are: Sotto il segno del leone. Storia dell’Italia musulmana (2011); Dalle lacrime di Sybille. Storia degli uomini che inventarono la banca (2014), and Il bambino che inventò lo zero (Celacanto series, 2015)

Article courtesy of Eutopia

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