In the summer of 1609, Southwark innkeeper William George was targeted by a distant ancestor of the ‘stranded traveller’ scam. A group of respectable-ish men that George knew through his business had decided to take him to the cleaners, but he saw straight through it. They showed him a letter, which ostensibly had travelled from Cologne but in fact had been cooked up just around the corner. The intention of the letter was clear: to indirectly embarrass and threaten George, in order to extort ‘the some of fortye poundes to be shared and devyded amongest them selves’. In the letter, Robert Swadden claimed to be stuck in Cologne, so he couldn’t pay his debts, but he said that George had stolen the money from him and he threatened consequences if the innkeeper didn’t cough up.
Fortunately for us, rather than paying up, George petitioned the King’s Court of Star Chamber to investigate, and records of that case survive at the National Archives. To do that, he had to submit the full letter as evidence, and so we get a window into this interesting episode. The gist is as follows: Swadden owed £40 to Mr Cradock, but this was only because William George had rode away with the money when he and Swadden had been working together in Cambridge. Swadden had since been to prison (for uncertain reasons) and was now in Cologne, he said, from where he wouldn’t return because the quality of the English air was not up to snuff. If Cradocke wanted payment, then he would have to go to George, and if George wouldn’t pay up, then Swadden had all sorts of dirt that he could dredge up.
Why did Swadden think that George be so keen to pay out? The threat to ‘make my Lord Cheiffe Justice acquaynted with that I have wrytten’ is clear enough, but it backfired when George himself sent a copy of the letter directly to the King’s council. The real threat was to George’s reputation, and that’s why he brought the case. There were grounds for a suit because the threat to publicise this letter (technically a ‘libel’) was intended to damage George’s public reputation and his business interests – his ‘credit’. The conspirators, according to George, ‘offered for the saveinge of [George’s] reputacion and Creditt … in not divulginge of the said scandalouse and infamous libell’ – blackmail, in other words.
We often now think of ‘credit’ as something value-neutral, a mysterious but objective ‘score’ calculated on our behalf by the credit reference agencies (though the 2007-8 financial catastrophe should have cured us of such naivety). It reflects our assets, our income, and ultimately our ability to pay back creditors, nothing more. But, as Craig Muldrew showed, to early moderns, financial credit was intimately bound up with moral and social worth. The modern meaning of the word followed from the older sense of ‘favourable reputation’. In an economy with a chronic lack of hard cash, tradesmen and merchants had to know who they could trust to pay later, and the moral virtues of sobriety, sexual propriety and honesty were important factors. For one person to challenge another’s moral character was to attack them financially as well as socially.
In this case, the libellers were threatening the innkeeper with a reputation as a thief and a swindler. Swadden’s letter described him as ‘as notable a fellowe and daungerouse as any lives in London’, something of a Thenardier: a menace to his customers and to everyone else. Not only did he rip off both Mr Cradock and Swadden, but he regularly payed ‘only ½ halfe the worth’ for items he bought; he was disloyal to friends; he overcharged at his inn (£2000 in only seven years). And further unnamed dark sins lurked in his past, capital crimes ‘which shall cost him his lyffe’.
The ‘conspirators’ vigorously denied any wrongdoing, as we might expect – and the Star Chamber was already becoming known as cruel and arbitrary, so we should consider whether George was simply lying through his teeth. But Swadden’s case was not helped when the court began to dredge up his past. Cambridge merchant Thomas Jewry believed he had ‘used threateninge deceite and consoning to gett money’. And Swadden’s account of how he came to owe forty pounds to Nathaniell Cradock in the first place was contradicted by a number of witnesses. According to one of the inn’s servants, Swadden had come to the Dolphin Inn in Cambridge about three years earlier, under a false name, Johnson. He asked the servant ‘whoe were the greateste traders in the Towne, and likelieste to paie moneye by exchainge from London’. Cradock’s name was suggested, and they agreed that Cradock would give ‘Johnson’ £80 in return for a bill of exchange which he could cash in London (a handwritten note that worked a bit like a traveller’s cheque, meaning merchants need not travel with large sums of cash but instead could instruct that a third party pay out unconditionally on their behalf). Cradock paid half the money, but the bills Swadden handed over turned out to be counterfeit, and he skipped town.
He then, as we have seen, tried to pin the blame on innkeeper William George in a threatening letter from ‘Cologne’. This illustrates another aspect of early modern credit – its networks were spread across oceans and international boundaries. Swadden’s intrigues had long had an international flavour. A trader from Suffolk ran into him two years earlier, though this time he was going by the name of Thomas Smith. He conned Shawberrie out of ‘fifty poundes by counterfeyting of a bill of exchange in the name of Sumuell desbonnerie of London a douchman’ – a German merchant resident in London. Swadden was clearly a Germanophile of sorts, studiously watching the news from the continent as confessional fighting was straining the Holy Roman Empire. He added a touch of authenticity to the end of the dodgy letter with ‘the newes which is heare currant is, that this next Sommer wee expect great wares. Leopaldus is stronge in feild for the Emperor… The Cyttie of Collen have put out all religions except Catholickes…’.
The modern ‘stranded traveller’ scam – when an email account is hacked to solicit money from the victim’s friends with tales of an ‘emergency’ – exploits new technology and booming international travel to fool its victims. In William George’s time, expanding networks of trade and a growing system of debt and credit left room for similar scams. Conmen like Swadden could exploit their understanding of London trade in Cambridge, of Cambridge trade in London, and of goings-on in Cologne to fool their victims into accepting counterfeit bills in return for cash. This pace and reach of trade multiplied over the 16th and 17th centuries, and as Durham’s Professor Chris Brooks showed, so did the number of people coming to court to settle debts and resolve other disputes. It was particularly important for early modern people to maintain their reputation: without it, they had no credit, and without credit, life was much more difficult.
Dr Andy Burn is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of History, working on a project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust: Social relations and everyday life in England. He writes about early modern economic and social history, and tweets from @aj_burn
Transcription of the libel:
Mr Brett, accordinge to my promise unto yow at my beinge in durance, I will nowe give you some light to recover the fortye poundes which I owe to Mr Cradocke, for my owne parte I had smale reason to stay where I was, when youw last sawe me for I did not like the ayre. Nowe these are to give yuw to understand that ther is dwelling at the Bancke side neere ould parris Garden steares at the signe of the meaden head, on William George, as notable a fellowe and daungerouse as any lives in London this fellowe, sett my plott upon Mr Cradocke. He was with me att Cambridge laye att the dolphin shared ½ of yt and Caried the rest the ostler and tapster doe know him very well, he road uppon a sorrell mare with a shorne mayne which he hath yett, Alsoe he was with me that same tyme att Huntington at Mr Kilbornes, where one Peacocke should have paid me 80li … but that he was gone to London, wee myst it also at that tyme, he and I Receavd 50li of younge Noble, of Newark uppon Trent where he shared halfe, wee laye at the post maysters which servantes do all knowe him and so do kilborne. I protest Mr Brett I have layen at this fellowes house this 7 yeeres as all the neighbours do nowe and have spent in his house above a 2000li … whereas I am fully assured that he cheted me of the one halfe, yett at my beinge in prison of thirtye poundes Ix/xx lent him out of my purse, I would now have a penny but I must confesse untill the last I did Impositon him for any. Also I gave him a Grey mare which he was proferred tenn poundes for, my truncke of apparell did all this while stand at his house, besided, not longe before my trobles I bestowed a blacke suyte of stuffe amd a gonne for his wyffe the which I gott of one about the Queenes head in Patternoster Rowe by a letter, he sett the match and bought it all at ½ halfe the worth, a hundred things more. But I thinke this shall suffce to cause him to give yow sattisfacion, the Reason why I write yow this is when I had gotten out I went pryvilie unto him to send me one of my Rapiars and dagger and a suyte of apparell with other lynen and ten pownd in money this Roge sent me an answere he had bynn before the Justice and there swore yf ever he sawe me to apprehend me and for money or any thinge els he would send none so I not having meanes to procure my owne was fayne to lose it and begone, yett he gott all that he hath by me. I pray yow yf this this fellowe give yow not sattisfacion and content yow make my Lord Cheiffe Justice acquaynted with that I have wrytten yow said wryte unto me at your leasure to Collen at the white horse upon the new markett, and yf this will not suffice I will wrte yow more against him which shall cost him his lyffe, the newes which is heare currant is, that this next Sommer wee expect great wares Leopaldus is stronge in feild for the Emperor arr much assisted by the archduke Reformados, Braughborch on thother side of the Raigne. Also very strong 8000 french newly come into his Ayre, the termes of their strength stand equall Bredenbaint is belevyed by Braughburgh they have sailed from within slaine some hundred horse and foote, the Cyttie of Collen have put out all religions except Catholickes, the Towne of utricke in Armes, and will paye no more assisses or Customes without they mae have wares againe. In hast, I commend me unto you and so comytt in to god your lovinge freind