• Richest of the Rich position: 139
  • Birth/Death: c 1540-1600
  • Origin of wealth: Financier
  • Wealth: £100,000
  • Net National Income: £22m
  • Net National Income Percent: 0.45%
  • In Today’s Money: £4.994 billion

Not many people got the better of Elizabeth I, but Horatio Palavicino was one. A banker and diplomat, who came from a powerful aristocratic banking family in Genoa, Palavicino made his mark in the Low Countries. The family fortune was based on handling the papal monopoly in alum, which was in great demand in the cloth trade. In 1578, he sold the family stock of alum in Antwerp to the Dutch rebels fighting their Spanish masters in return for an import monopoly on alum. When the Dutch could or would not pay cash for the alum, Elizabeth I underwrote a loan to them for £29,000. It was an expedient way of keeping alive Dutch resistance to Spain, her deadly enemy. But it meant that she effectively owed that £29,000 to Palavicino.

A year later, when Sir Thomas Gresham, the English government’s chief financial agent died, Palavicino was seen as the only person with the skills and reputation in high finance to succeed him. He became a naturalised Englishman, was knighted and given a full diplomatic post as ambassador to the Protestant princes of north-western Europe. But he lost Elizabeth’s favour when in 1592, she found that while she had only repaid £4,425 of the 1578 loan, Palavicino had cleared over £41,000 in interest alone.

From 1594 to his death in 1600, he was busy increasing his wealth and buying up land. He speculated in the corn market, driving up prices in times of famine, he handled art and antiques for clients, ransomed Spanish prisoners from the Armada of 1588, and lent money at punishing rates of interest. He tried but failed to corner the world supply of pepper.

At his death he had assets of £100,000 including 8,000 acres of land in three counties. His wealth represented about 0.45% of the £22m net national income of the day. In today’s terms that would be £4.9bn.

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