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Thomas Gresham

Portrait of Gresham (Flemish school) dated 1544

Sir Thomas Gresham (c. 1519 – 21 November 1579), sometimes called Thomas Gresham the Elder, was an English merchant and financier who worked for King Edward VI of England and for Edward's half-sisters, Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I.


  • Family and childhood 1
  • Agent in the Low Countries 2
  • Financial wizard 3
    • Rescuing the pound 3.1
    • Later services to the crown 3.2
    • Foundation of the Royal Exchange 3.3
  • Death 4
  • Bequest for the foundation of Gresham College 5
  • Gresham's Law 6
  • The Gresham grasshopper 7
  • Legacy 8
  • In fiction 9
  • See also 10
  • Notes 11
  • References 12
  • External links 13

Family and childhood

Born in London and descended from an old Norfolk family, Gresham was one of two sons and two daughters of Sir Richard Gresham, a leading London merchant, who for some time held the office of Lord Mayor, and who for his services as agent of Henry VIII in negotiating loans with foreign merchants received the honour of knighthood. Though his father wanted Thomas to become a merchant, he nevertheless sent him for some time to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge,[1] but no information survives as to the duration of his residence. Either before or after this he became apprentice to his uncle Sir John Gresham, also a merchant, who founded Gresham's School in Holt, Norfolk in 1555: his own testimony states that he served an apprenticeship of eight years.

Agent in the Low Countries

Lady Anne Ferneley (Anthonis Mor, circa 1560)

In 1543 the Mercers Company admitted the 24-year-old Gresham as a liveryman, and in the same year he went to the Low Countries, where, either on his own account or on that of his father or uncle, he both carried on business as a merchant and acted in various matters as an agent for King Henry VIII. In 1544 he married Anne Ferneley, the widow of William Read, a London merchant, but he still continued to reside principally in the Low Countries, having his headquarters at Antwerp in present-day Belgium, where he played the market skilfully.

Financial wizard

Rescuing the pound

Intwood Hall, near Norwich, one of Gresham's residences

When in 1551 the mismanagement of Sir William Dansell, king's merchant in the Low Countries, had brought the English government into great financial embarrassment, the authorities called in Gresham to give his advice, and then chose him to carry out his own proposals. He called for the adoption of various methods – highly ingenious, but quite arbitrary and unfair — for raising the value of the pound sterling on the bourse of Antwerp, and this proved so successful that in a few years King Edward VI discharged almost all of his debts. The government sought Gresham's advice in all their money difficulties, and also frequently employed him in various diplomatic missions. He had no stated salary, but in reward of his services received from King Edward various grants of lands, the annual value of which at that time amounted ultimately to about 400 pounds a year.

Later services to the crown

Portrait by Anthonis Mor, c. 1554

On the accession of Queen Mary in 1553 Gresham went out of favour for a short time and Alderman William Dauntsey displaced him in his post. But Dauntsey's financial operations proved unsuccessful and Gresham was soon re-instated; and as he professed his zealous desire to serve the Queen, and manifested great adroitness both in negotiating loans and in smuggling money, arms and foreign goods, not only were his services retained throughout her 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. Under Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558–1603), besides continuing in his post as financial agent of the crown, Gresham acted temporarily as ambassador at the court of Margaret of Parma, receiving a knighthood in 1559 prior to his departure. The unsettled times preceding the Dutch revolt compelled him to leave Antwerp on 10 March 1567; but, though he spent the remainder of his life in London, he continued his business as merchant and financial agent of the government in much the same way as formerly. Overall he made himself one of the richest men in England.

Queen Elizabeth also found Gresham useful in a great variety of other ways, including acting as jailer to Lady Mary Grey (sister of Lady Jane Grey), who, as a punishment for marrying Thomas Keyes the sergeant porter, remained a prisoner in his house from June 1569 to the end of 1572.

Foundation of the Royal Exchange

In 1565 Gresham made a proposal to the court of aldermen of London to build at his own expense a bourse or exchange – what became the Royal Exchange, modelled on the Antwerp bourse – on condition that they purchased for this purpose a piece of suitable ground. In this proposal he seems to have had an eye to his own interest as well as to the general good of the merchants, for by a yearly rental of £700 obtained for the shops in the upper part of the building he received a sufficient return for his trouble and expense.

The foundation of the Royal Exchange is the background of Thomas Heywood's play: If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody part 2, in which a Lord extols the quality of the building when asked if he has ever seen "a goodlier frame":

"Not in my life; yet I have been in Venice, In the Rialto there, called Saint Mark's; 'Tis but a bauble, if compared to this. The nearest, that which most resembles this, Is the great Burse in Antwerp, yet no comparable Either in height or wildeness, the fair cellarage, Or goodly shops above. Oh my Lord Mayor, This Gresham hath much graced your City of London; His fame will long outlive him.[2]


Gresham died suddenly, apparently of apoplexy, on 21 November 1579. His only son predeceased him, and his illegitimate daughter Anne, whom he married to Sir Nathaniel Bacon (1546?–1622), local politician, half-brother of Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Alban.

He is buried in St Helen's Bishopsgate in the City of London.[3]

Bequest for the foundation of Gresham College

Gresham's house in Bishopsgate Street

Apart from some small sums to various charities, Gresham bequeathed the bulk of his property (consisting of estates in London and around England giving an income of more than 2,300 pounds a year) to his widow and her heirs, with the stipulation that after her death his own house in Bishopsgate Street and the rents from the Royal Exchange should be vested in the Corporation of London and the Mercers Company, for the purpose of instituting a college in which seven professors should read lectures, one each day of the week, in astronomy, geometry, physic, law, divinity, rhetoric and music. Thus, Gresham College, the first institution of higher learning in London, came to be established in 1597.

Gresham's Law

Gresham's law (stated simply as: "Bad money drives out good") takes its name from him (although others, including the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, had recognised the concept for years) because he urged Queen Elizabeth to restore the debased currency of England. However, Sir Thomas never formulated anything like Gresham's Law, which was the 1857 invention of Henry Dunning Macleod, an economist with a knack for reading into a text that which was not written.[4]

The Gresham grasshopper

The Gresham grasshopper
Gresham's initials and his golden grasshopper emblem, on a sign in Lombard Street, London

The grasshopper is the crest above Gresham's coat of arms. It is used by Gresham College, which he founded, and can also be seen as the weathervane on the Royal Exchange in the City of London, which he also founded in 1565. The famous Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, later borrowed the device.

According to an ancient legend of the Greshams, the founder of the family, Roger de Gresham, was a foundling abandoned as a new-born baby in long grass in Norfolk in the 13th century and found there by a woman whose attention was drawn to the child by a grasshopper. A beautiful story, it is more likely that the grasshopper is simply an heraldic rebus on the name Gresham, with "gres" sounding like "grass". The Gresham family motto is Fiat voluntas tua ('Thy will be done').[5]


In fiction

Gresham bust at Stowe
  • Gresham appears as a background figure in a series of fictional mystery novels by the British author Valerie Anand writing under the pen-name of Fiona Buckley. The fictional heroine of the stories, Ursula Blanchard, lived in Antwerp with her first husband while he worked as one of Gresham's agents.

See also


  1. ^ "Thomas Gresham (GRSN530T)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  2. ^ Heywood, Thomas, The Dramatic Works of Thomas Heywood, 6 volumes, ed. J. Payne Collier, London: The Shakespeare Society, 1851.
  3. ^ Memorials of the Institutions – St Helen's Bishopgate
  4. ^ Roover, Raymond de, Gresham on Foreign Exchange, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949
  5. ^ Granville William Gresham Leveson-Gower, Genealogy of the family of Gresham (1883) p. 27


  • The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Gresham by J.W. Burgon (London, 1839, new edition 1968)
  • Sir Thomas Gresham (1518–1579) by F. R. Salter (Parsons, London, 1925)
  • Dictionary of National Biography (various editions)

External links

  • The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Gresham (1839) – full text from
  • "Gresham and Antwerp", Gresham College
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