I had for some time been meaning to find out more about Sir Thomas Gresham, but, when embarking on this quest, was diverted almost immediately by the discovery that the first substantial biography of him was written by John William Burgon (1813–88), of whom you may have heard (even if you weren’t aware of it) in the context of his two memorable lines: ‘Match me such marvel, save in eastern clime, / A rose-red city half as old as time’. Burgon had been born in Smyrna (Izmir), where his father was a member of the Levant Company, though the family returned to London the following year.
Thomas Burgon (1787–1858) was an amateur archaeologist, and as his business began to decline (the Levant Company having lost its monopoly in 1826), leading eventually to his bankruptcy in 1841, he was employed by the British Museum, to which had had previously donated coins he had excavated on Melos, and to which he subsequently sold his collection of Greek antiquities. (A second collection went to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.) On the way back from Smyrna to England, the baby John William was carried up to the Acropolis of Athens by his father’s friend C.R. Cockerell and dedicated to Athene. After attending schools near London, he took classes at London University before entering the family business, but he clearly caught the antiquarian bug from his father and his circle of friends, who included C.R. Leslie and Samuel Rogers (from whom, by the way, he seems to have borrowed the phrase ‘half as old as time’, which occurs in Rogers’ Italy).
His interest in Gresham resulted from a competition: the Lord Mayor of London offered a prize for the best essay on Gresham (which had to be read aloud in under 30 minutes), which he entered and won in 1832, continuing his research into the City archives and other primary sources until he published a two-volume Life and Times (happily available online) in 1839. It was only after this that the bankruptcy proved a blessing in disguise, as it released him from Cratchit-like servitude to ‘prepare himself for orders’, as the ODNB has it, at Worcester College, Oxford. There he was not an outstanding success as a classicist, but he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry with ‘Petra’ – where, sadly, when he visited it in later life, he found ‘nothing rosy’.
As vicar of St Mary’s church, Oxford, and later as dean of Chichester, he was mostly known for extreme conservatism in church matters and indefatigable opposition to the education of women, but the Gresham biography, published when he was 26, is extremely jaunty as well as being very thoroughly researched.
Back to Sir Thomas. He was the second son of Sir Richard Gresham (c. 1485–1549), a Norfolk merchant who entered the Mercers’ Company in 1507 and prospered mightily through buying cloth in Antwerp and subsequently trading across the entire Mediterranean. He rose high in the Mercers’ Company, took on a second successful career as a money-trader, and invested massively in ex-monastic properties, most of which he later sold on at a profit. He became Lord Mayor of London in 1537, and was subsequently an economic adviser to the crown – he had been a frequent correspondent of Cromwell on economic and political matters for many years.
Thomas was born, about 1518 in Milk Street, London, into this very prosperous family. His elder brother, John, may possibly have been a bit of a disappointment to their father, since, when old enough, he married and spent most of his life on his (ex-monastic) estates in Norfolk. On his death in 1560, his widow had to be rescued from poverty by the generosity of her brother-in-law Thomas, who, after a period at Gonville Hall in Cambridge, had been apprenticed (aged seventeen) to his uncle John, the founder of Gresham’s School in Norfolk and himself also Lord Mayor of London: Thomas himself later commented on his father’s wisdom in giving him a training in all his business affairs from the ground up.
He was entered at Gray’s Inn to acquire a knowledge of the law, and, to add to the classical languages acquired at school and Cambridge, spent time in Paris learning French; Flemish would have been de rigueur in the family business. As well as acting on his father’s behalf, he also carried out royal commissions in Flanders, and was noted by Thomas Cromwell as a useful young man.
Admitted to the Mercers’ Company in 1543, by 1546 he was effectively running the family business, buying all kinds of textiles in Flanders and shipping them back to London for sale; he also developed a line in armour and weapons. The goods were paid for either in English cloth, or with cash, and the value of his transactions in some years was a very high proportion of the total traded by the English in Antwerp.
The continuous debasement of English silver currency by Henry VIII led to difficulties which caused Thomas to diversify further – the export of Cornish tin, and of lead stripped from the bare ruined choirs of monasteries, also featured in his portfolio. In 1551–2, however, he ceased trading upon his appointment as royal agent in the Low Countries; but in the two periods between then and 1564 when he temporarily lost the post, probably for political reasons, he simply began his mercantile activities again.
All of this resulted in a comfortable lifestyle, which was extended to his wider family and the various servants and employees who made up his household. Records of expenses and of gifts made on occasions such as weddings and christenings make fascinating reading, but against this background the day-to-day difficulties of managing the royal international finances (aka, for almost all of the period, the massive royal debt) must have been acute, and involved a lot of travel between England, Flanders and Spain.
The accession of Elizabeth I, of whose most important advisor, William Cecil, Gresham was a close friend, and his own ability (plus a bit of luck in terms of exchange rates) in eliminating the royal debt, led to honours. He was knighted in 1559, spent a short period as ambassador at the court of Margaret of Parma, regent of the Netherlands, and was frequently consulted on financial issues by the queen.
But in 1560, he broke his leg while riding, and it healed badly (probably mis-set), leading to prolonged illness. Much worse, in 1564 his only son, Richard (he also had an illegitimate daughter, born in Flanders), died at the age of seventeen. This disaster seems to have concentrated his mind on his legacy, and in January 1565 he proposed that the City of London should have its own ‘bourse’ (like Antwerp), which he would fund himself. Thus, over the next four years, a site was cleared, building began (Gresham himself laid the foundation stone in 1566), and the Royal Exchange came into being.
He also built eight almshouses near his house in Bishopsgate, and seems to have planned an endowment of some sort at Cambridge. In the end, he decided to turn his own residence into an educational establishment after his death (which occurred in 1579). In his will (which his wife bitterly resented), she was enabled to remain in the house (and receive the rents of the Royal Exchange) until her death (in 1596), after which it would pass to the City of London Corporation and the Mercers’ Company, who would use the rents from the Royal Exchange and other of Sir Thomas’s properties to found professorships in Astronomy, Divinity, Geometry, Law, Music, Physic and Rhetoric. Each originally received £50 a year in return for giving public lectures. There was no other sort of teaching, and no students; a stipulation was that the professors must be unmarried.
Famously, two of the professors in the late seventeenth century were Christopher Wren (astronomy: he had to ‘read in his solemn lectures, first the principles of the sphere, and the theory of the planets, and the use of the astrolabe and the staff, and other common instruments for the capacity of mariners’), and Robert Hooke (geometry) … and the rest was the History of the Royal Society.
The original Gresham College no longer exists: the site of Gresham House has long been buried under the late-twentieth-century horror formerly known as the NatWest Tower. The College left Bishopsgate in 1768 (the building and the almshouses were demolished to make way for an Excise Office), and, after a nomadic period, ended up in a purpose-built home in Gresham Street in 1842. Today, the College can be found in Barnard’s Inn Hall, near Holborn, where it is possible to mooch around the quiet courts, contemplating Gresham’s Law, which states that bad money drives out good – though apparently, this is not something which Gresham ever said.