Sir Thomas Gresham: Tudor, Trader, Shipper, Spy

[an edited version of this piece appeared as
Michael Mainelli and Valerie Shrimplin, “Sir Thomas Gresham: Tudor, Trader, Shipper, Spy”, London Topographical Society Newsletter, Number 79 (November 2014), pages 3-6.]

Good Tales Drive Out Bad

Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-79) is possibly the most over-looked sixteenth century merchant and financier.  Gresham served four Tudor monarchs, managed to keep his head, and all the while made money.  His Will of 1575 established his most enduring legacy, Gresham College:

I Will and Dispose that one Moiety.. shall be unto the Mayor and Commonalty and Citizens of London … and the other to the Mercers … for the sustenation, maintenance and Finding Four persons, from Tyme to Tyme to be chosen, nominated and appointed  …. And their successors to read the Lectures of Divinity, Astronomy, Musick and Geometry… and distribute to … Three Persons… and their successors from Time to Time, to be chosen and appointed meete top reade the Lectures of law, Physick and Rhetorick, within myne now dwelling House in Bishopsgate Street ….

Sir Thomas made London a great international financial centre by importing from Antwerp the idea of a ‘bourse’ or ‘exchange’ for intangible items such as ship voyages and insurance.  He installed the first English shopping mall or bazaar as the first floor in the Royal Exchange.  From a base within St Martin’s Goldsmiths he experimented with fractional reserve gold stores, cornering markets, and insider trading.  His Will challenged the ‘Oxbridge’ oligopoly in higher education.

Sir Thomas lacks a thorough biography.  J W Burgon published the largest work, “The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Gresham” in 1839, and F R Salter a shorter work in 1925.  Sir Thomas is a tough subject for biographers used to focusing on monarchs, their families and their wars.  He traded in several lands and worked in several languages.  The purposes behind many commercial dealings are not self-evident from the paperwork, even when fragments of the paperwork exist.  To some he was austere, to others manipulative, to others ruthless.  How did he really make his fortune?  How rich was he in modern terms?  Was his support for ‘new learning’ in his Will a commitment that education should be available to merchants, tradesmen, and navigators, rather than gentlemen scholars, or a throw-away bequest?  The Trustees of Gresham College are working on a modern biography, hopefully to be published on the quincentenary of his birth in 2019.

To those outside the City, he is remembered for ‘Gresham’s Law’.  Colloquially expressed as “bad money drives out good”, the law was attributed to Gresham in 1858 by Scottish economist Henry Dunning Macleod.  But Gresham’s Law was not his; it was noted much earlier by Aristophanes, Oresme, and Copernicus.  In fact, the Law is the reverse, “good money drives out bad”.  If someone offers a debased coin or a real coin, people take the real coin unless some monarch insists on the debased currency.  The Nobel economist Robert Mundell rephrased Gresham’s Law more properly as “cheap money drives out dear money only if they must be exchanged for the same price”.


Gresham left many marks on the topography of the City.  The grasshopper, his family symbol, can be spotted around the City, as weathervanes at the top of his major commercial contribution, the Royal Exchange, and in many crests, seals, and stained glass windows.  A large grasshopper hangs at 68 Lombard Street, site of St Martin’s Goldsmiths.  His major philanthropic contribution, Gresham College, thrives four centuries on at Barnard’s Inn Hall by Holborn.  Its former location on Basinghall Street still exists, on the corner with Gresham Street itself, a street before the Guildhall commemorating the family.  His grave is prominent in one corner of St Helen’s off Bishopsgate.  At least two statues of Sir Thomas stand in the City, one in a north-facing alcove of the Royal Exchange, the other on Holborn Viaduct.  A portrait by Holbein in Mercers Hall, where Gresham was Master Mercer three times, is possibly the first full length painting of a commoner in Britain.  Outside London his various properties extended well beyond his Norfolk origins to include estates such as Osterley Park in Middlesex and Mayfield House in Sussex.

According to family legend, the founder of the family, Roger de Gresham, was abandoned as a baby in long grass in North Norfolk in the 13th century.  A woman’s attention was drawn to the foundling by a grasshopper, hence the family symbol.  While a beautiful story, it is more likely that the grasshopper is simply a heraldic rebus on the name Gresham, with gres being a Middle English form of grass (Old English grœs), and ‘gressop’ a grasshopper.  James Gresham from the Norfolk village of Holt became a London legal agent working for Sir William Paston, a prominent judge.  The grasshopper emblem first appears in correspondence from London to the Pastons in Norfolk in the mid-1400’s.

Low Countries

Thomas Gresham was a cockney, born within the sound of Bow Bells on Cheapside, around 1519.  He attended St Paul’s School and Gonville College (later to become Gonville and Caius), Cambridge.  In 1543 the Mercers’ Company admitted the 24-year-old Gresham as a liveryman dealing in cloth.  In the same year he went to Antwerp to make his fortune.  Antwerp was very cosmopolitan and large for the time, with a population approaching 100,000, double London or Rome.  The growth of the cloth trade between London and Antwerp was the single most important factor in the City’s expansion.  Just 25 merchants accounted for half of London’s cloth exports, and the two biggest exporters were the brothers John Gresham and Richard Gresham, Thomas’s father. [for a fascinating take on the father and uncle – “Sir John Gresham: Shoveller of Human Manure“]

On his own account and on that of his father and uncle, Thomas carried on business as a merchant and acted in various matters as an agent for King Henry VIII.  He was clearly a “merchant adventurer” with a network of agents, though the sobriquets ‘arms-dealer’ or ‘gun-runner’ might apply too.  He procured armaments and munitions for defence of the realm, particularly against Spain (as Philip of Spain attempted to regain a foothold on the grounds of his marriage to Mary Tudor) and France (supportive of the claim of Mary Queen of Scots to the English throne).  There are tales of bullion concealed in bales of pepper or armour.  Interestingly, one of Sir Thomas’s ships from 1570 was re-discovered in the Thames in 2003 with cannons inscribed with grasshoppers and marked ‘TG’.  In 1544, Thomas Gresham married Anne Read (née Ferneley), the widow of William Read, a London merchant, who already had two sons. The Gresham’s son, Richard, was born about 1544-5. In spite of his London marriage, Thomas Gresham still continued to reside principally in the Low Countries.  Later, in 1559 he bought a large mansion on 43 Lange Nieuwstraat, as well as a Flemish country mansion.

Monarchs, such as Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II, and big trading firms, such as the Fuggers, raised funds on the Antwerp Bourse. The extravagancies of Henry VIII and mismanagement of trade by the king’s merchant in the Low Countries, Sir William Dansell, financially embarrassed the English monarchy.  By late 1551, Edward VI appointed Thomas as Royal Agent in Antwerp.  A clever and shrewd dealer, Gresham’s advice was to manage actively the value of the pound sterling by buying low and selling high on the bourse of Antwerp. This proved so successful that in a few years King Edward VI discharged most of his debts.  On the accession of Queen Mary in 1553 Gresham fell from favour, perhaps due to his Protestant leanings, and was relieved of office. Alderman William Dauntsey replaced him, but Dauntsey quickly proved unsuccessful at finance and Gresham was reinstated.  Instructions in 1558 under Mary Tudor said, ‘Gresham shall with all diligence repair to Antwerp … for the speedy receipt to our use of 100,000 pound bargained for by

[a German banker]

and for the borrowing to our use of 100,000 pound more … at such favourable interest as he may [obtain]’.  Not only were his services retained throughout Mary’s reign (1553–1558), but besides his salary of twenty shillings per diem he received grants of church lands to the yearly value of 200 pounds.

High Finance

By Elizabeth’s accession in 1558, Gresham was a royal favourite.  He may not have invented Gresham’s Law, but Thomas understood it well, explaining to Elizabeth that because her father and brother, Henry VIII and Edward VI, had replaced 40% of the silver in shilling coins with base metal, ‘all your fyne gold was conveyed out of this your realm.’   William Cecil put Gresham in charge of recoinage.   To his, Elizabeth, and Cecil’s credit, within a year (1560–61) debased money was withdrawn, melted, and replaced, with a profit to the Crown estimated at £50,000.  The restoration of the coinage improved commerce and positioned London nicely to profit from increasing turmoil on the Continent.

And it wasn’t just money and trade.  Gresham acted temporarily as ambassador at the court of Margaret of Parma, for which he received his knighthood in 1559.  He passed intelligence to William Cecil (Lord Burghley, Secretary of State for Elizabeth) – such as King Philip’s plans to ally with the French King at one stage.  Throughout the 1550’s and 60’s Sir Thomas continued to acquire significant properties in several counties, such as Osterley Park and Boston Manor.  He built his City mansion in Bishopsgate around 1563 on the site now occupied by Tower 42.  The unsettled times preceding the Dutch Revolt compelled him to leave Antwerp for good in 1567.  Elizabeth then found Gresham useful in other ways, including acting as jailer to Lady Mary Grey (sister of Lady Jane Grey) for three years.

The Royal Exchange began as his father’s idea.  Before the Royal Exchange opened in 1571, merchants traded around Lombard Street in a chained off area.  When 750 good citizens had subscribed the £4,000 necessary to acquire the various pieces of land required, Sir Thomas paid for the Exchange to be built, but arranged to receive all the rents himself.  The Exchange brought merchants together regularly to deal in intangible products such as voyages.  Incorporated into the design, at ground and first floor levels, were 150 small shops, called The Pawn, London’s first shopping centre.   After a visit hosted by Sir Thomas, Elizabeth designated the Exchange, ‘Royal’. 

Gresham’s son Richard, his only legitimate child, died in 1564 at the age of 19 from ‘a fever’. Gresham’s illegitimate daughter also predeceased him, as did his sister. Thomas himself died suddenly of apoplexy on 21 November 1579.  

Living Legacy

Gresham’s wife contested his Will in favour of her sons for seventeen years.  After she died in 1597, College lectures began in the Bishopsgate mansion.  The first professor of geometry was Henry Brigge, populariser of the logarithm.  Other notables include Edmund Gunter, with his ‘Gunter’s Chain’ for surveying, John Greaves, setting up observation posts in the Middle East in 1638 to observe the Moon’s eclipse, and John Bull, widely regarded as one of the founders of the modern keyboard repertory.

An intellectual high point followed a lecture by the Professor of Astronomy, Christopher Wren, on 28 November 1660.  Thirteen men formed a ‘College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning’.  A Royal Charter of 1663 named it ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’.  Many Gresham notables played a part in the Royal Society, perhaps none more so than Robert Hooke, a Gresham professor from 1664 to 1703, and Curator of the Royal Society from 1661 to 1703.

In 1710 the Royal Society acquired its own home, two houses in Crane Court, off the Strand.  Gresham College fell into disrepair.  In 1767 an Act of Parliament required the City Corporation and the Mercers to sell the ground to the Crown.  After a peripatetic period of lecturing, a purpose-built Gresham College opened in 1842.  Following a second period of wandering during the 1980s the College was re-established at Barnard’s Inn Hall in 1991.  This Tudor Open University today hosts over 130 physical events per year, distributes extensive recordings under a Creative Commons licence, and provides millions of people with lecture transcripts and recordings via the internet.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies Gresham’s legacy as well as Samuel Pepys frequently writing about shopping in the Royal Exchange and attending College lectures, “To Gresham College, where Mr. Hooke read a second very curious lecture about the late Comet” [1 March 1664].  After the Great Fire – “The Exchange a sad sight, nothing standing there, of all the statues or pillars, but Sir Thomas’s picture in the corner” [5 September 1666].   Today, people can continue to enjoy Gresham’s legacies, listening to one of the professors ‘sufficiently learned to reade the lectures’ reinterpreting the ‘new learning’ in Barnard’s Inn Hall, and then strolling through the Royal Exchange afterwards in search of a gift for a loved one.

About the Authors

Alderman Professor Michael Mainelli is Emeritus Professor of Gresham College, Trustee of Gresham College, and Executive Chairman of Z/Yen Group.  His third book, The Price of Fish: A New Approach to Wicked Economics and Better Decisions, co-written with Ian Harris, is based on his Gresham College lecture series from 2005 to 2009 and won the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards Finance, Investment & Economics Gold Prize. 

Dr Valerie Shrimplin is Academic Registrar of Gresham College.