British Catholic Merchants in the Commercial Age, 1670-1714

Just published in our Studies in the Eighteenth Century series, Giada Pizzoni’s first book examines how, while considered marginal and suspect figures at home, British Catholics developed networks of powerful contacts abroad, which stretched from continental Europe to the Levant and colonial America. Here Dr Pizzoni recalls an unusual source of initial inspiration and recounts her book’s development.

Researching and writing this book has been a journey on both a professional and personal level. It started in 2011 when I attended the Bonfire Night celebration in Lewes, Sussex – I was impressed and facing my first understanding of how the British nation was constructed and defined itself. It was after that night in Lewes that I began to reflect on the position of Catholics in the country and the history of the community intrigued me even more. At the time, I had just begun researching at the Westminster Diocesan Archive where the archivist was of second-generation Italian and his family from the village near my hometown. What are the odds! We exchanged some interesting stories about our cities and discussed my research and he was extremely helpful in showing me uncatalogued material on the Catholic gentry and the English Catholic Church. It was fascinating learning about the Church’s financial dealings and its involvement in the maritime companies. However, it deviated from my original idea to look at Catholic-Protestant relations and not necessarily at the community’s economic dealings. Then, it was suggested to me I look into Arundel Castle’s Archives and flicking through the online catalogue, there it was, the Aylward family collection complete with hundreds of authentic letters sent and received by them in various European ports and beyond.

Arundel Castle

­­Arundel had the most impressive collection I had ever seen, the most well-preserved and conducting my research there was like being among family myself. I enjoyed so much the countless days spent in the tower of the castle, reading through the documents as I sat by the fireplace with a blanket on my knees; with so many joyful staff and archivists, who would bring me hot drinks and invite me to join them for meals where we shared stories of the castle and the Norfolks, the nobles who still live in that wonderful place. It took me two years to collect all of my material, and I cherish each day spent there, doing research and in the summer working as a castle tour guide, surrounded by picturesque countryside.

After two years in Sussex, I moved to Scotland, to the University of St Andrews, where I continued my research surrounded by equal beauty and in my office facing a beautiful walled garden. The long winter days were perhaps less enjoyable, but I could not have asked for a better institution in which to complete my thesis. My supervisor Emma Hart helped me in making sense of all those letters, inviting me to think about the Atlantic world and Catholics’ place within it. With her guidance, I realised that from the little village of Arundel, the Aylward family had the potential to shed light on vast inter-imperial exchanges and on the workings of Atlantic-Mediterranean trade.

University of St Andrews

It was in 2016, when I started working at the University of Warwick, that I began to thrive as an academic and with the help of a wonderful department began thinking about my first book. It was a daunting task, especially given the added challenge of writing in my second language, but I kept the Aylwards at the centre of my work and with the kind guidance of Mark Knights I clarified my arguments and placed my research within wider academic debates. I had been further influenced by seminars at Warwick, in both the global and the eighteenth-century centres and while I wasn’t sure my findings could extend globally, they certainly fitted within the political and economic transformations of the eighteenth century. I made sense of the Catholics negotiating their own integration through the economy and in particular through maritime trade. Through the Aylwards, I reconstructed the wider community of Catholic expatriates and observed their interactions with people outside their religion. I believed that my theory contributed to and built on existing discussions by scholars into the economic role of the community, enriching the latest historiography with engagement and rationale in trade.

Completing this book has been a sort of emotional relief, almost as if a chapter of my life had been closed, and in which I have come to terms with the topic and with myself as a historian in a learning process which has not been easy, requiring patience and a constant focus. This work perhaps will not be final nor perfect, but I believe it offers an interesting contribution to the fascinating lives of past Catholic expatriates.  


This guest post was written by Giada Pizzoni, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Exeter.

British Catholic Merchants in the Commercial Age
By Giada Pizzoni
9781783274383, Hardback, £45.50 or $78