Feb 22, 2024

Lucy Wooding · Foxes and Wolves: Stephen Vaughan’s Frustrations · LRB 10 August 2023

London​ in the time of Henry VIII had many colourful, even flamboyant, inhabitants. Stephen Vaughan was not one of them. His was a small life, full of frustrations; his chief characteristic was a pragmatic diligence, which gave him a good, if not brilliant, head for business. He was a merchant, a financier, a minor diplomat and an occasional low-grade spy. It seems that he was also a useful friend, a fixer with a moderate level of competence, and a family man. In religion he was drawn to some of the new evangelical ideas that were in circulation, but he drew back from any overt engagement with Protestantism and was indignant and distressed when he was accused of heresy (a charge that failed to stick). He travelled constantly around Northern Europe on business of one sort or another, complaining morosely about the food and wine, and fretful that he was not able to spend more time at home.

Vaughan’s life revolved around the two cities of London and Antwerp. He was born around 1500 into a London mercantile family of Welsh descent and was probably educated at St Paul’s School; he seems to have known its founder, John Colet. His father was an unsuccessful mercer, who committed the cardinal sin in mercantile terms when he was declared bankrupt. Vaughan was indebted to his grandfather’s patronage for his place among the Merchant Adventurers, which led to his making the acquaintance of a fellow guildsman called Thomas Cromwell. Vaughan rose to a degree of professional eminence on Cromwell’s coat-tails, beginning in the years when Cromwell himself was merely a protégé of Thomas Wolsey. Together they helped Wolsey dissolve monasteries to fund his two new educational foundations at Ipswich and Oxford. Vaughan soon came to be seen as versatile and useful; Susan Rose describes him as a kind of personal assistant to Cromwell. He managed a range of business for him, and sent reports from London as Cromwell travelled around the country; after a spate of neighbourhood robberies, it was Vaughan who sourced a stout chain for the front gate of Cromwell’s London house. Vaughan’s letters ranged over everything from the latest international news to comments on grain imports and prices, alongside news about his family. When Cromwell made a will in 1529, Vaughan was one of his executors, as well as a beneficiary.

Vaughan’s activities bound together the interests of the many people he served, collaborated with, or traded for. He connected Cromwell and the court at home with the merchant community in Antwerp, and the financiers of its Bourse, constructed in 1531 as a testament to the city’s emerging role as the commercial capital of Northern Europe. Closer to home, he was at the centre of a kinship network of mercantile Londoners, many of them of Welsh extraction. He also seems to have had connections with London’s evangelicals, and indeed was sent on a mission to persuade William Tyndale, the Bible translator and reformer, to return to England in 1531. As his professional standing increased, he established diplomatic links, in particular with the regime of Mary of Hungary, who was regent in the Netherlands for her brother Charles V. His ability to connect the various circles in which he moved – politics, finance, commerce, religion and kin – renders his life worthy of consideration.

Much of Vaughan’s time seems to have been burdened with other people’s shopping lists. He spent a considerable amount of time in Antwerp in 1528, for example, searching for a large iron chest suitable for Cromwell’s important papers; it is hard not to feel indebted to him for his role in preserving what would become such a valuable historical archive. At another point, he is looking for an illustrated book that Cromwell wanted. We also find him buying up spermaceti, the wax from the head of whales which was used in perfume manufacture, again for Cromwell’s purposes. In the 1540s, deeply involved in securing finance for the king’s military campaign in France, he was also trying to buy a large amount of crimson damask velvet and a set of fire-irons for William Paget, one of the King’s Councillors. Two years later, he managed to secure for Lady Cobham the cinnamon she wanted, but failed to source black satin from Venice. Writing to Lord Cobham in 1546 about the possibility of English merchant shipping being menaced by French warships out of Dieppe, he included ‘a little clout with needles’ for Cobham’s daughter. A letter of 1530 to Cromwell touched on the dynastic politics of the Habsburgs, the state of the weather (the countryside was badly flooded), the delivery of a globe Cromwell had requested, an unpaid debt of his own and his good wishes to Cromwell’s mother-in-law, among other things.

Vaughan’s life was all about connections, negotiations and overlapping interests, from the social contacts that brought him opportunities, to the commercial and diplomatic links he forged as a result. It is the intermingling of these different elements that makes this book interesting. Henry VIII and the Merchants is representative of a particular kind of history, the sort that attempts to join together fragments of source material and give an account of the way the fabric of society came to be woven into a variety of patterns. While Rose’s story has elements of economic, social, political, urban, military and religious history, it belongs in none of those categories. In its attempt to give an integrated picture of Vaughan’s life and its significance, it tries to break down some of the disciplinary boundaries and compartments which until recently were so evident in history writing. The transactions Vaughan witnessed in the Antwerp Bourse may have reflected fluctuations in trade or the availability of bullion, but they were also affected by the gossip that was an integral part of any broker’s life, and by the reputation of a particular financial house or individual. One merchant renowned for his expertise based his business decisions on astrology; his prognostications included the claim that the papacy would be extinct by the end of the century, but he seems to have been more reliable in predicting the price of pepper, ginger and saffron.

This notion of overlapping circles of culture is a valuable aspect of early modern history as it is currently practised. Steven Gunn’s The English People at War in the Age of Henry VIII (2018) gives an account of military history that doesn’t focus narrowly on battles, fortifications and armaments, but also discusses the human cost of warfare, its impact on the circulation of news, power-broking at court and the petty hierarchies of small country towns. Alexandra Walsham’s Generations: Age, Ancestry and Memory in the English Reformations explores what the religious changes of the 16th and 17th centuries meant for families, communities, and the construction of memory.* The value of history that crosses national boundaries is well established, but the sort of history that breaks down disciplinary conventions and moves across cultural barriers to give a more holistic picture is also full of possibilities.

Commercial life in the 16th century needed the sanction of the Almighty, and several of Vaughan’s missions were dictated by religious imperatives. As well as being sent to find Tyndale in 1531, albeit unsuccessfully, he was responsible for copying out one of Tyndale’s responses to Thomas More for Henry VIII to read. In the winter of 1532-33, Vaughan was sent to France, tasked with finding Thomas Cranmer and bringing him home. After a briefing by Cromwell, he rode through the night to Dover, arrived at 5 a.m. and by 7 a.m. was on a boat across the Channel. He then walked for twelve miles through the snow to find horses in Boulogne; near Amiens he suffered a heavy fall in the icy conditions and hurt his leg, but made it to Paris, then Lyon, where he finally apprehended the reluctant future archbishop, and coaxed him home. The urgency of this quest was almost certainly dictated by the king’s realisation that Anne Boleyn was pregnant; certainly, Cranmer’s first duty on returning to England was secretly to marry Henry VIII to his second wife. Cranmer’s consecration as archbishop of Canterbury took place two months later.

The tempestuous religious climate of the age is illustrated most strikingly here by the lives of two of Vaughan’s daughters. Anne, who married Henry Locke, became a key figure in the Protestant community, a close friend of the reformer John Knox, a translator of Calvin’s sermons and a religious poet of considerable importance. Jane married Thomas Wiseman and became a Catholic recusant, arrested in the 1590s for being ‘a great harbourer of priests’: two of her sons became Jesuits, and all four of her daughters became nuns – two with the Brigittines in Rouen and two with the Augustinians in Louvain. Vaughan himself took as his second wife the widow of a leading reformed writer, yet his friend and brother-in-law, John Gwynneth, whom Vaughan appointed as guardian of his children in his will, was a defender of the old faith who celebrated the accession of Mary I in 1553 with a sermon at Luton that was later published. The historical record likes to treat Catholics and Protestants as though they moved in separate and distinct circles, but the lived experience of religious commitment and religious change shows complicated and overlapping patterns of allegiance, conviction and agency.

Rose’s book concludes with a line about Vaughan helping to prepare the way for ‘the rise of England as a trading power’. In fact, the English authorities emerge from this story looking remarkably inept, and it’s clear that one of the reasons Vaughan’s life contained many exasperations was because England was so new to the game of international finance and diplomacy. In monetary matters, it was the Italians who understood how the business worked, and this was reflected by the terminology: when merchants wrote about money being restricted, they used the word strettezza; when it was easily available, they used larghezza. Trying to emulate the bigger players and raise an international loan to finance Henry VIII’s latest military ambitions, Vaughan was compelled to hire an Italian broker. Gaspar Ducci was not a brilliant choice; he was known as ‘an ill-conditioned intriguer and quarrelsome fellow’ in Antwerp and was thought to have let the Portuguese down very badly; he had even been banned from the Bourse for three years. Vaughan was clear-sighted about this man whom he described as ‘indeed a fox’, but pointed out that it was difficult to borrow money without him. Vaughan had not realised, for example, that the letters of credit on which the loans were based needed to be valid for nine months, not six; it seems that nobody back in London knew this either. The English were discovering by trial and error how such a transaction was done: Vaughan wrote home that he was dealing with ‘foxes and wolves which are shrewd beasts whose natures are well known to your Honors’.

In his diplomatic missions, too, Vaughan experienced many awkward moments. Turning up in Weimar in 1533 with a prepared oration in French and Latin, he discovered that the duke he was hoping to impress had no knowledge of either language. Written copies of the speech had to be submitted instead, to an unenthusiastic response. Attempting to negotiate a match between Henry VIII and the widowed Duchess of Milan in the winter of 1538-39, Vaughan and his fellow envoy, Thomas Wriothesley, were flattered by gifts of wine, the use of horses with velvet saddles and the offer of a royal physician for Wriothesley’s recurrent illness, but repeatedly outmatched in the game of diplomacy. That winter saw them travelling from Antwerp to Valenciennes to Cambrai to Brussels – about 300 kilometres on horseback in cold weather. The baggage cart broke down two leagues out of Cambrai, leaving them embarrassed at the poor hospitality they could offer as a result. At one point they ran out of money altogether, requiring Vaughan to trail back to Antwerp to fetch some more. It was not a triumphant progress. Three years earlier, Vaughan had been on the point of sailing for Denmark with a huge sum of money in bullion for the English ambassadors there who were struggling to negotiate a peace treaty. This risky venture involved a ship appropriately called the Sweepstake; one of the many difficulties was that part of its crew deserted, delaying departure. Vaughan was to be paid more than thirteen shillings a day for this enterprise, which gives an idea of its significance. Even so, it seems probable that he was relieved when it was cancelled at the last minute.

Vaughan​ had at least three children with his first wife, who already had several from a previous marriage. Rose seems to think that he confounds expectations by clearly being very fond of his family, and working hard to care and provide for them, but the argument that parents in this era weren’t attached to their children has long since been lost. The role played by both of his wives, however, usefully challenges assumptions still commonly held concerning the lives of Tudor women. On his marriage to his first wife, Margery, her children were absorbed into their household. She was his partner in business, dealing with affairs in London while he was away in Antwerp. She also had a profession of her own as a silk-woman, who served Anne Boleyn when she was queen. When Vaughan wrote to Cromwell in 1533 to secure Margery this position, he said, ‘If you will recommend my wife to the place you will bind us both,’ and added: ‘I suppose no woman can better trim her Grace.’ His agonised pleas to be allowed back from Antwerp when she was dying – ‘sore sick and in jeopardy of her life’ – make painful reading. In an agitated scrawl he wrote to Paget, the most influential of his friends and patrons, ‘In the reverence of God get me home.’

Business can be brutal. Vaughan’s private tragedy coincided with international developments that saw the two great powers of Europe, France and the Habsburg Empire, reach an accord that had frightening implications for England, threatening a united front against Henry VIII’s schismatic regime. In such a diplomatic crisis he had no option but to stay in Antwerp. In the meantime, Margery died. ‘I have many young children which, wanting a mother and lacking the presence of a father may soon tumble into many displeasures,’ he wrote anxiously, and his next plea to Paget was for help in finding a new wife. There is no suggestion that he was not deeply attached to Margery, but he had a large family who needed a mother. When he did find a second wife, the widow of the Protestant writer Henry Brinklow, he wrote to Paget that she was not wealthy but in ‘person and honesty’ likeable. He observed piously that he had taken this step ‘remembering my declining now towards age and that riches is the gift of God but an honest woman that feareth God is above all riches’. Vaughan struggled to find the time to marry her, however; it is not clear whether he made it back to London for this, and it may be that his new wife had to travel to Calais for the marriage to take place.

Kings and queens, bishops and reformers, councillors and courtiers, all strut across the pages of Tudor history books. Vaughan did not get to strut, yet he stood on the edge of momentous developments. The great wars of the 16th century were dependent on the kind of finance that he was himself only just learning how to generate; they were brokered by the kind of diplomacy in which he came to play a role. Fundamental challenges were being posed to traditional religious assumptions and institutions, and Vaughan was caught up in these matters, helping to dissolve monasteries, convey books and retrieve England’s first Protestant archbishop. London’s mercantile community was growing in confidence and competence, and Vaughan’s professional experience gives some indication of the extent to which political life and decision-making were dependent on both the vagaries and the energies of trade and commerce.

Vaughan’s life reminds us that there is no sweeping historical change that cannot also be measured in the small, incremental, often painful adjustments of everyday life. His political service, and his dedication to business, came at a high personal cost: a wife who died without him, children left unprotected. The complexities of his public life, and its private ramifications, also underline the necessity of exploring the experiences of women, not just in the home but in the fields of politics and economics. His wives were an integral part of Vaughan’s success, and their professional competencies, just as much as his pleas to his friend to ‘be good to my poor children which be babes and cannot help themselves’, emphasise the complexities of gender roles and the significance of working women in early modern society.

His life also shows us the bewildering convolutions of religious change in this era. He witnessed the path of reform nationally and internationally as well as seeing the shifts in religious conviction within his own family. The Reformation was a momentous development in terms of European state formation and the exercise of authority, but it broke hearts, changed minds and brought to individuals and their families a host of tensions and confusions. His daughters’ experiences underline the febrile, antagonistic and creative patterns of religious life and thought in the 16th century. Grand historical transformations left traces on the lives of the individuals involved in them; they frequently left scars as well.

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Oxford, 576 pp., £35, February, 978 0 19 885403 6.