Shop till you drop in Tudor’s time



Elizabethans witnessed many improvements in daily life. One of those is the stockings knitting machine invented in 1589 by William Lee, vicar of Calverton. The Victorian legend says he was madly in love with a young woman, but she was continually put him off because she was always knitting; so he designed and built a machine to do the knitting so that he could have her to himself. Another story is that he loved his wife dearly, and wanted to release her from the drudgery of knitting his socks.

Whatever the truth is, Lee created the machine and presented to the Queen Elizabeth. She was not too impressed to see the coarse wool stockings it produced; by this time she was wearing those fine silk stockings. So he went back home and built an improved machine and in 1598 began to knit silk stockings fit for the queen.

original Royal Exchange

One of the places where Lee’s stockings would have been sold was the Royal Exchange, built by wheeler-dealer Sir Thomas Gresham, who had acquired a fortune by sometimes dubious deals in Antwerp, where he was Royal Agent for both Edward VI and Queen Mary, and returned to England in 1567. All the dealing in what amounted to the stock exchange was then done in Lombard Street in the city of London, and the traffic had to be excluded because of all the men haggling in the mud. Gresham wanted to create a building like the Bourse in Antwerp, and built what he thought was a suitable structure on Threadneedle Street.

The Royal Exchange c 1760

The Royal Exchange c 1760

The ground floor was designed as the trading floor, but he realized this would not make him much money; so he built two more floors above, with about a hundred retail outlets, or kiosks. Each one was to pay him an annual rent, which eventually rose to seven, eight or ten pounds. To begin with, he had difficulty filling the kiosks, but when news came that in January 1570 the Queen was going to visit he persuaded the existing tenants to fill all the other shops with goods, and said they could keep them rent-free for the rest of the year. He then gave Her Majesty a fine dinner before showing her round. She was much impressed, and said it should be called not the Bourse but the Royal Exchange.

Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I

After the queen’s visit the Royal Exchange suddenly became fashionable, and a wonderful range of merchants congregated in the country’s first shopping mall, from haberdashers, mercers (silk dealers), and milliners to armourers, apothecaries and barber-surgeons; and you could buy anything from a gold chain to a mousetrap.

The queen was concerned that trading should be fair, not only in the new Royal Exchange but throughout the country. One vital component of fair trading was standardized weights and measures. Her grandfather Henry VII had issued a few standard weights, but she decided to do the job thoroughly. Accordingly in 1574 she set up a committee to examine the problem and advise her, and after much argument – because there were two sets of weights in general use – they settled on new standards. In 1588 fifty-seven sets of standard weights were made and sent to the mayors of every town in the country, so that disputes between traders could be settled. These included flat-round weights, bell-shaped weights, and ‘cup’ weights that nested together. One master set remainded in the Tower of London. These weights remained as standards until 1820s. Elizabeth later issued standards for the pint, quart and gallon.

Sir Thomas Gresham

Sir Thomas Gresham

The Royal Exchange burned down in the great fire of 1666, was rebuilt but burned down again in 1838. The current majestic building is Victorian, and higher than the original, although it still boasts on a tower a fine golden grasshopper, emblem of the Gresham family. Curiously, the Royal Exchange has rarely fulfilled its promise. The dealers never thronged to its dealing floor, and the merchants stayed away in droves from the retail outlets.

The Tudor weights

The Tudor weights

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