A man who can serve four Tudor monarchs without losing his head, while becoming fantastically rich at the same time is bound to be an enigmatic figure.
Such is Sir Thomas Gresham, who was born the son of an already Royal favourite merchant and was to go onto leave a legacy that’s still being felt today.
A new exhibition has opened at the Guildhall Library to mark the 500th anniversary of his birth in 1519, and looks back at his achievements.
For such a rich man, little of his personal belongings survive intact, and his legacy is more what happened to his wealth after his death. Although recent research is now casting doubt on just how rich he was. Indeed, he may have died while deep in debt.
In fact, while he is known to have been born in 1519, no one knows exactly when in 1519 that event took place. Such is the mystery of a man who should be very well known, and yet is oddly mysterious. Possibly in part thanks to his activities, which often skirted legal boundaries, and his arms trading activities.
Although a cloth trader by profession, it seems his understanding of the money markets was his real skill and value to monarchs, and it was that which kept him in regal favour though most of the Tudor era.
While a cloth merchant trading with the low-countries, he imported an idea from Anterwep — of the bourse, or exchange. He secured a deal that the City of London would provide the land and he would cover the cost of building it — and then he made a tidy income from renting out the upper floors to traders.
It was going to be the Gresham’s Exchange, but Queen Elizabeth liked the building on her visit to open it, renamed it the Royal Exchange, and there we are.
Although little of the man survives, a lot of his legacy is scattered around London. The family symbol — a grasshopper — is found on the top of the Royal Exchange and on Lombard Street. A painting by Holbein may be the first ever full length painting of a commoner. At least three statues are known to exist, his grave is grand, and most famously of all, the Gresham College is still giving free lectures to the public.
In fact, the grant to Gresham College didn’t come from his own assets, but as a consequence of his deal to build the Royal Exchange — as its revenues were expected to go to the City and the Mercers on his death, but he locked them into funding the college instead.
The man himself seems to have actually been deep in debt when he died, owing some £23,000, which was a sizeable fortune.
Although his widow contested the will for 17 years, in the end the dead man prevailed, and in 1597 Gresham College opened, with funding for seven Professors and a building to work in. That building is now occupied by Tower 42, and the College now occupies Barnard’s Hall in Holborn, although most of its lectures are held in the Museum of London, thanks to having a larger lecture hall.
The exhibition is a small selection of objects with a large section of information boards. What comes out is a far more complex man than early Victorian hagiographies would suggest and a good few myths are set to rest.
The exhibition, Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579): Tudor, Trader, Shipper, Spy is free to visit and open until the middle of September.
It’s open Mon-Fri, with late opening to 7:30pm on Wednesdays. It’ll also be open on the following Saturdays: 13th July, 27th July, 10th August and 31st August.
A special illustrated lecture was recently presented by Dr John Guy at Gresham College to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Sir Thomas Gresham.