Above: Looking west along Lombard Street. It is just possible to make out four hanging signs – two on each side of the road. The overhanging clock is on the front of the church of St Edmund the Martyr.
If your knowledge of City streets is a little ‘shaky’ then it might be useful to explain that Lombard Street runs west from Gracechurch Street at the crossroads formed with Fenchurch Street. Lombard Street extends west from that crossroads to the complex junction at the Bank of England. The unusual street takes its name from the Lombards who came to England from Italy.
The reason why the Lombards came to England – and London in particular – can only be explained if we start with the Normans coming to England in 1066. When William the Conqueror came to England and claimed victory at the Battle of Hastings, he brought with him many of his French noblemen to help him govern. In addition, he brought many Jews who settled in England and acted as money lenders. By 1200 there were about 3,000 Jews living in England. Many Jews were employed as money lenders, taking these jobs because the Christian Church traditionally ruled that usury (money lending for interest) was illegal for Christians, but not for Jews. The Jews were taxed heavily, so the wealth earned in the usury trade benefited the Crown directly.
The 13th century in England was a time of many forms of antisemitism. By the late 1200s, a series of laws had been created restricting the rights of the Jewish people. In 1275 King Edward I passed a law forbidding the Jews from usury. Finally, fearing an uprising by the people against Jews, in 1290, Edward I banished all Jews from England. They did not return until the 17th century. With the Jews no longer acting as money lenders, Lombards came from Italy to provide a similar service.
After the expulsion of the Jews, the Lombards – who were merchants of Genoa, Lucca, Florence, and Venice – succeeded them as the money-lenders and bankers of England. About the middle of the 13th century, these Italians established themselves in Lombard Street, remitting money to Italy by bills of exchange, and transmitting to the Pope and Italian prelates their fees, and the incomes of their English benefices.
From the second or third decades of the 13th century, the street we know today as Lombard Street became the centre for Lombards. They carried on a thriving business as bankers and money-lenders. According to Harben, the earliest mention of the name of the street was in 1319.
It should be noted that the Royal Exchange is only a very short distance from the western end of Lombard Street. The building was first erected between 1566 and 1570. According to Stow the Lombards moved from Lombard Street and met at the Royal Exchange once it had been opened. In a world where many people could neither read nor write, banker’s shops in Lombard Street hung large signs outside their premises to attract customers. That tradition was maintained in the street until the 20th century and some of the signs are still to be seen. In ‘Old and New London’ we read that about 1559 when Gresham was honoured by being sent as English ambassador to the court of the Duchess of Parma, he resided in Lombard Street. His shop – situated at about the present No 18 – was distinguished by his father’s crest, in the form of a large grasshopper. Apparently, the splendid Tudor sign was stolen about 1795. The sign that is there today, therefore, is a replica of the original. It is, none the less, a grand sign.
As a footnote to what has been said, the street remained a famous location for banks. Barclay’s Bank Head Offices were established in Lombard Street in 1694. They moved to a new Head Office at Canary Wharf which opened in 2005. Lloyd’s Bank Head Offices also stood in Lombard Street from 1884 until after the turn of the millennium when they relocated to new premises at 25 Gresham Street.
There are buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries in Lombard Street today, some of them are very elegant. They are fully occupied as offices but links with banking are fading rapidly. Most of the buildings are occupied by companies carrying on other types of business.
One final thought – there is almost a modern link today in the City of London with those medieval Lombard bankers. It is not quite a direct link but it is very close. Not far from Lombard Street is Leadenhall Street where the prestigious London premises of the Banca Monte Dei Paschi Di Siena used to stand until 2006. A short time afterwards the site was acquired as part of the Leadenhall Building and the bank moved its offices into Capital House – an office block in King William Street. The Italian bank is one of the oldest in continuous use in the world, being founded in 1472, in Siena, Italy. Today it is one of the largest banks in Italy.
Most of Italy was once part of the Lombard Kingdom. Siena is a city in Tuscany, in northern Italy, which was one of the five great cities of Lombard Italy and became an important rival to Florence during the Renaissance. Banca Monte Dei Paschi Di Siena is probably one of the last links with the story of the Lombards in London because it is descended from its original foundation in Italy at the time of the Lombard Kingdom.