Elizabeth I’s most well-known favourites were bellicose types like Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Ralegh or Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, whose head in the end was too hot for his own impatient, impetuous shoulders. They smote the queen’s enemies and filled her coffers using fire and sword.
Far more considered and cerebral ways of benefiting the Exchequer were employed by an altogether lesser-known servant: Sir Thomas Gresham (1518/9 – 1579). From a family of Norfolk merchants, this London-born entrepreneur gave the City not one but two great institutions: the Royal Exchange and Gresham College.
Gresham achieved better results than most by more peaceful means.
His upbringing was a privileged one. He was the younger son of Sir Richard Gresham, a successful merchant and Lord Mayor of London 1537. Born at his father’s house in Milk Lane in 1518/9, Thomas’s boyhood remains obscure but he spent some years at Gonville Hall, Cambridge, where he didn’t complete his degree but instead was apprenticed in the mercer’s trade under his uncle, John Gresham. Young Thomas spent much of the seven year apprenticeship on the continent, learning French and Flemish, building on his family’s network of trade contacts and indeed taking on much of the work. He soon caught the eye of royal agents – including Thomas Cromwell – who began putting royal work his way.
This marked the start of service under four Tudor monarchs which saw its apeothis under Gloriana, Queen Elizabeth herself. Gresham’s skill, acumen and a studied disinterest in religion and politics gave him a cloak of immunity during the religious tumult of these reigns. He was the perfect servant for an avaricious and thrifty monarch such as Elizabeth.
Gresham spent his best business years from the late 1540s to the mid 1650s working both on the family’s account and as a royal agent, mainly in the Netherlands, occasionally Spain. In the Gresham interest he acted as both merchant and agent in the cloth trade and also the universal staple of guns and ammunition (“harness”). As the royal agent, his aim was to reduce the royal debt in Antwerp to from around £250,000 to zero. By anticipating interest rates in an extremely volatile market and negotiating the best deals (better than the Habsburgs themselves were able to secure) with bankers, brokers, underwriters, etc., by 1565 Gresham had reduced the Royal foreign debt to a mere £20,000. It was during this period, in 1559, that Gresham became Sir Thomas, before departing on a diplomatic mission.
While all this was going on, domestically Thomas was thriving too, having inherited family estates after his father’s death in 1549 and through an advantageous marriage to Anne Read, the widow of William Read, a wealthy fellow mercer and family friend. So at home in England, in addition to his ongoing mercer’s business, Gresham had considerable holdings in Norfolk, Suffolk and within the City of London.
Although Gresham had illegitimate progeny, his son Richard died in 1564, leaving him with no heir. Like most of the great philanthropists, he pondered his legacy and how best to use his fortune. First, he addressed something that he and his father both hankered after for London so that it could properly better its European rivals: a bourse, or exchange. So he bought up many properties in the Cornhill area, demolished them and built the first Royal Exchange, opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1571.
He financed eight almshouses at the rear of his house in Bishopsgate, a common and popular type of endowment during this period.
Finally, and crucially, he wished for London to have a prestigious seat of learning like Oxford and Cambridge. It was unthinkable that the City should lack such an institution. So he left provision for Gresham College to have a premises and funding for seven professors, each to deliver a lecture once a week in Latin and English. The chairs were, and are: Astronomy; Divinity; Geometry (i.e. Mathematics); Law; Music; Physic; Rhetoric. An eighth chair – Commerce – was added in 1985.
The College has had various homes over the centuries. Since 1991 it has resided at Barnard’s Inn in Holborn, formerly the Mercers’ School. The mediaeval Barnard’s Inn Hall is the gorgeous centrepiece of the complex where Gresham College holds many of its free lectures. There are over 100 of these every year, both at the college and the Museum of London. I can’t recommend them too highly. Full programme for 2014-15 is here. And, superbly, all lectures are recorded, there is a huge back-catalogue of worthy material to enjoy.
It is London Historians’ massive privilege to be holding our inaugural annual lecture at Barnard’s Inn Hall on 4 September. Adrian Tinniswood will be talking about Sir Christopher Wren who was once the Gresham Professor of Astronomy. Unfortunately, if you haven’t a ticket yet, it is fully-booked.
A Brief History of Gresham College (1997) by Richard Charteris and David Vermont
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription site), where the writer is overall quite mean about Gresham’s achievements!