‘The great purse of the City’
The consequences of London’s Civil War finances for livery company charities
in Revolutionising politics
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In Behemoth, Thomas Hobbes identified the ‘great purse of the City of London’ as crucial for the Parliamentary cause during the English Civil Wars and Revolution. Hobbes’ analysis has influenced subsequent generations of historians of the 1640s. This essay demonstrates that wealthy Londoners did not draw only from their own pockets. Instead, many members of the metropolitan financial elite, in their role as livery company officers, chose to allocate company funds in ways that deflected financial risk away from themselves and onto some of the most vulnerable members of their society. London merchants often tied up their wealth in illiquid assets, such as land or working capital. This liquidity crisis affected livery companies as well as their members, forcing the companies to borrow money and to sell assets in order to meet their assessments. The debt the companies assumed in the early 1640s impaired their ability to support philanthropy and the social customs that promoted philanthropic activity for well over a decade. As a result, Hobbes and his followers have overlooked the fact that the ‘great purse of the City’ depended heavily on the ability of civic institutions to deprive the many small purses of poor Londoners.

Revolutionising politics

Culture and conflict in England, 1620–60

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