17 August 2023

The Ambassador's Fancy Boots

 It happened that a certain Janus Imperial of Genoa lay slain."

                                                – Coroner's Inquest Report, City of London, August 27, 1379

At first glance it appeared that the altercation began over boots.

Like these, perhaps?

By the time the dust had settled, two London juries, the royal government, the city of London, London's powerful trading elites, the king and his uncle/chief advisor were all involved, and what had first seemed a street fight over boots quickly showed itself to be a bloody skirmish in a vicious economic war.

For starters, the victim was not just any Genoan. "Janus Imperial" (in Italian, "Giano Imperiale") was actually Genoa's ambassador to England. And the two thugs detained and charged with his murder weren't just any street toughs: they were rough-and-tumble street merchants. More on that in a bit.

First, the particulars of Imperiale's murder, then the background which showed it to be vastly more than a killing during a street brawl.

The altercation started in front of Imperiale's London residence, located in St. Nicholas Acton Lane. Imperiale was seated in front of his house, when two local men, John Kirkby and John Algor, crossed in front of him, once, twice, and finally a third time. Each time one of the men trod, supposedly innocently, on Imperiale's fancy boots. According to later court testimony, Kirkby "went past Giano Imperiale's feet and came back three time, on each occasion stumbling over his feet. for the sake of picking a quarrel between them."

The third time was the proverbial charm, and a brawl broke out between the two men and several of Imperiale's retainers. Imperiale was cut down, stabbed twice in the head, the coroner's report noted the cuts were "seven inches long and deep into the brain."

Imperiale, as it turned out, had come to London on a safe passage guaranteed by the government of King Richard II, in the person of the king's uncle and most influential courtier, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. The purpose of Imperiale's visit to England was a diplomatic mission. He had come to London to negotiate a new trade agreement between the merchant guilds of Genoa and Richard's government. And since the king was a minor and his uncle influential (if not particularly well-liked), the Duke of Lancaster would be negotiating on his nephew's behalf.

A highly speculative portrait of John of Gaunt commissioned two centuries after his death.

The agreement was intended to cover the export of England's most lucrative product at the time: wool. The Duke of Lancaster was intent on cutting out the wool trade's middle men (in this case the established merchant guilds in London) as part of an on-going feud between the duke and his supporters within the royal government and not just the merchant guilds, but the city government of London itself.

The merchant guilds and their leaders had become vastly wealthy as a result of their participation in the exportation of wool. John of Gaunt found these captains of industry–who provided the royal government with massive loans intended to financially support the English crown's on-going and decades-long war with France–far too independent for the country's good. Worse, as many of these "lords of wool" did their civic duty by holding elective office within the city of London, they also infected the city government with their "independent streak." The root of their feud with the Duke of Lancaster was at their determination to keep the Duke from interfering in London's city government, and in Lancaster's equal determination to involve himself in the city's government whenever and however he saw fit.

"Gold on the hoof"

Lancaster's plan to cut his opponents out of the wool trade involved a treaty with Genoa calling for that trading city's merchant vessels to cease sailing up the Thames River and calling for their cargoes at the port of London. Instead they would call at the smaller, more easily controlled port of Southampton. Said agreement would be more convenient (and thus more profitable) for the Genoese and the  English crown would directly receive the cut of the trade London's wool merchants had counted on as their own for more than a century.

This all came to naught with Imperiale's murder. No Genoese ambassador, no trade negotiations, and therefore, no new trade deal. And the answer to the question of cui bono pointed a finger straight at London's merchant elite.

Throw in the fact that Kirkby and Algor were eventually run to ground, tossed in jail, and indicted on murder charges arising from Imperiale's death. Two successive London juries found the two men not guilty of murder. The fix was clearly in.

After nearly a year of legal maneuvering, Gaunt managed to have the two "street merchants" taken from London to await a trial before the duke himself and a picked "jury" of his closest allies among the English nobility. Dragged before this assemblage of lords after nearly a year in jail, Algor cracked.

The two men had acted on orders of London's governmental and trading elites, Algor said. Recruited through the very guilds which sponsored and protected men such as themselves, they had been sent by their masters to target Imperiale because a number of wealthy and influential men in London had begun to hear rumors of the deal the Genoan was negotiating with the Duke of Lancaster, and "in the event that he could bring his plans to conclusion, Giano Imperiale would destroy and ruin all the wool merchants of London."

Algor also named names, including that of the serving lord-mayor of London, the popular (and very wealthy) Sir John Philpot. It had been Philpot himself who, acting in his capacity as lord-mayor, arrested both Algor and Kirkby for Imperiale's death.

Because he provided evidence against several of his masters and his accomplice, Algor's life was spared. He reminded in jail until released in 1384, after which he disappeared from the public record. 

As for Kirkby, he was dragged still protesting his innocence to the gallows, where he was hanged, drawn and quartered-the traitor's death. This was Gaunt's final card to play. Plotting against a diplomat who enjoyed the Crown's protection was not just criminal, he insisted, but treasonous.

And while Philpot and the rest of the wealthy wool elite of London never faced any formal charges of treason, they were tarred with the same brush, and the taint of "treason" on their parts undermined these men and their peers in their public positions, making it more difficult for them to continue to rule in London.

The Duke of Lancaster celebrated this victory over the City of London, but it proved to be a short-lived one. Within two years Gaunt would be barred from holding direct royal authority as a result of his mismanagement of the on-going war in France, his own person ambitions to win the crown of Portugal for himself (in a disastrous and expensive military operation financed by the nearly bankrupt royal treasury), and his part in mismanaging the royal government's budgets. War, after all, could prove very expensive, especially losing one, as he did in Portugal.

So, in the end, the whole fracas was not over shoes, but over wool, which is to say, over trade, which, in turn is to say, over money, and the power it brings.

And that's it for me. See you in two weeks!


  1. Curious blurb, Sleuther. John of G has been getting bad rap ever since Shakespeare tarred him

  2. 600-some years later, street thugs kill one another over Nikes. A French friend described England and France acting like old lovers, fighting and making up and then bickering again.

  3. John of Gaunt was an interesting character - and a survivor: he managed to survive everything, including the London riots, including the overthrow of Richard II. Thanks for a story about him I didn't know!


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