WHO KILLED Janus Imperiale?
This is the question that was on the lips of London in the summer of 1379.
All that was known was that a prominent Genoese merchant, Janus Imperiale, had been murdered August 27 on St. Nicholas Acon Lane in the Ward of Langbourne.
Imperiale was in London to negotiate a commercial treaty between Genoa and England, as well as arrange the release of a Genoese vessel that had been seized by English privateers, but he was killed before he complete either mission.
At the coroner's inquest the next day, all the witnesses claimed that darkness prevented them from identifying the “malefactors and disturbers of the King's peace” who had “feloniously slain” Janus Imperiale, so the proceedings were adjourned to allow further investigation.
Finally, on September 27, coroner's jury met for the third time and began to provide some answers. They reported that Janus Imperiale had been sitting outside his lodgings with some of his servants on the evening of August 27 when two men, John Algor and John Kirkby, approached.
Kirkby, a member of the London Mercers' Guild, trod on Imperiale's foot so hard he drew an oath from the Genoese. Seeing their master's annoyance, Imperiale's servants began berating Kirkby, who quickly drew a knife and slashed several of them. When Janus Imperiale tried to separate them, Kirkby cut away the right side of his chin.
Imperiale, who was unarmed, reeled backwards. While Algor, a member of the London Grocers' Guild, held off the servants, Kirkby drew his sword and felled Imperiale in the middle of the lane. Then he dealt the Genoese two mortal blows to the head, each seven inches long and deep into the brain. Their business complete, Kirkby and Algor continued on their way.
In the weeks that followed, neither of Imperiale's assailants made any effort to hide or flee. Indeed, they continued to live and work in London as if they somehow expected protection from the authorities, instead of punishment. Finally, however, the coroner's report forced London Mayor John Philipot, who lived only a few blocks from the scene of the crime, to take action.
Although subsequently tried and convicted, the assailants steadfastly maintained their innocence until the day before Kirkby's execution, when Algor made a full confession. On December 3, 1380, Algor swore that he and Kirkby “met each other in a certain street called Cheap in London after sunset and proceeded thence to ... St. Nicholas Acon Lane, where a certain Janus Imperial of Genoa, merchant, lodged, in order to [kill him]...”
The History of the Corporation
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About the Author: Bruce Brown is the author of eight books, including Mountain in the Clouds, an environmental classic, and The Windows 95 Bug Collection, which was put on display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
He has done investigative reporting for the New York Times (the Karen Silkwood story), foreign correspondence for Atlantic Monthly (baseball in Cuba), and book reviews for the Washington Post Book World, as well as script-writing for PBS-TV (The Miracle Planet).
He is also a successful businessman and CEO, having created BugNet and built it into the world’s largest supplier of PC bug fixes before it was acquired by a Fortune 500 company at the height of the dot com boom.
A threat to the English wool trade had serious consequences for all English commerce because wool was then the British Isles' most valuable trade item. Wool along with wheat, lead and tin had been exported as far back as Roman times, but it did not become the preeminent English crop until the Middle Ages and the coming of the monasteries, especially the Cistercians. The monasteries' sheep runs were far larger than any before, and since there was a limit to how much wool the monks' could use in their tunics, the bulk of their production was put up for sale.
They wished Imperiale dead “because the said Janus Imperial was suing before the King's council to obtain the release of a certain ship which the servants of Richard Preston, his [Algor's] master, and the servants of [London Mayor] John Philipot ... had captured in war upon the sea and from which the said Richard Preston and John Philipot would have had a hundred pounds in profit...” Algor understood that his master and the mayor would lose the profit from their piracy if Imperiale won his suit.
Algor also cited another reason for the murder, which was actually much more important, since it threatened many prominent English merchants with the loss of much more than £100. Two years before, Imperiale had received a special royal patent allowing him to bring a merchandise-laden craft into any English port, load it with wool, and sail directly for Genoa, without stopping at the wool-staple in Calais or pay export duties, as all other exporters Englishmen included were required.
Now he was attempting to negotiate a more general set of commercial privileges for Genoese merchants. There is no doubt that the great London merchants found this prospect extremely alarming, for Algor recounted how he “frequently heard from rumour and gossip in the households of Nicholas of Brembre, William Walworth and the aforesaid Richard of Preston and John Philipot ... that the aforesaid Janus Imperial would destroy and ruin all the wool merchants in London and elsewhere within the realm of England in the event that he could bring to a conclusion what he had in mind.”
Walworth, Brembre, Preston and Philipot were adversaries to be reckoned with, as Janus Imperiale learned to his grief. The most powerful merchants in London at the time, they had been the leaders of the London guild revolution of 1376, which wrested the common council away from the general citizenry, and placed it in the hands of the city's guilds, just as the Florentine arti had done 80 years before. The guilds, in turn, were largely controlled by wealthy merchants like Walworth and Philipot. Neither was a wool merchant Walworth was a member of the Fishmongers' Guild while Philipot was a member of the Grocers' Guild but they still feared Imperiale's plan.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, most of this export trade was controlled by foreigners, especially Flemish, German and Italian merchants, who provided both the ships and the markets for English wool. A reflection of the backwardness of English commerce was the fact that the nation's first export companies were not English at all, but German hanse, Flemish hanse and Italian compagnia. The first English commercial company was not even established by English authorities. Instead, it was chartered by the Duke of Brabant, who granted it privileges to trade in the port of Antwerp in 1296.
From this modest beginning sprang the first great English merchant “compangnie,” the Merchants of the Staple...
"The History of the Corporation, Volume One" © Copyright 2003 Bruce Brown
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This is a free excerpt from The History of the Corporation by Bruce Brown.
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Key words from the remainder of Chapter 11 of
The History of the Corporation, Volume One
English manufactured goods
Calais in 1347
Hundred Years War
Straits of Gibraltar
apes and japes and marmasettes tailed
Italians in England
wine called malmsey
Portugal and finally the Madeira Islands
port and Madeira wines
service of the Pope
Cistercians at Furness
lonely harbors in Lancashire
1262 and 1275
venture, or aventure
traders in English-manufactured textiles
Low Countries, Prussia, Spain, Iceland and even Italy
Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights
Adventurers in the Netherlands
John Philipot, the Mayor of London
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
The Vision of Piers Plowman by William Langland
"Coveitsie," that is Covetousness or Greed
English commercial classes
Lincolnshire to Kent in 1381
peasants and yeomen
coterie around the boy-king, Richard II
Wat Tyler and John Ball
foreign merchants living in London
John Lyons and John Leg
Archbishop of Canterbury
the Savoy mansion of John of Gaunt
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