Gresham, Sir Thomas

, descended of an ancient family distinguished by many honourable persons, which took its name from a town so called in Norfolk, was the younger son of sir Richard Gresham, knight, alderman, sheriff, and lord mayor of London, an opulent merchant, and a man of great public spirit, who died in February 1548. His brother, sir John Gresham, was also an opulent merchant, and had served the offices of alderman, sheriff, and lord mayor. He died of a pestilential fever in 1556, after, among other acts of munificence, endowing the free school of Holt in Norfolk, and bestowing the government of it on the fishmongers’ company in London. Thomas, the son of the preceding sir Richard, was born in 1519 at London, and bound apprentice to a mercer there while he was young: but, to enlarge his mind by an education suitable to his birth and fortune, was sent to Caius college, then Gonvil-hall, in Cambridge; where he remained a considerable time, and made such improvements in learning, that Caius the founder of the college styles him “doctissimus mercator,” the very learned merchant. However, the profits of trade were then so great, and such large estates had been raised by it in his own family, that he afterwards engaged in it, and was admitted a member of the Mercers’ company in 1543. About this time he | warned Anne, the daughter of William Femley, esq. of West Creting, in Suffolk, und widow of William Heade, of Fulham, in Middlesex, esq., by whom he had a son named Richard, who not long after succeeded his father in the office of agent to king Edward for taking up money of the merchants at Antwerp, and removed to that city with his family in 1551.

The business of his employ gave him a great deal of trouble and much uneasiness. The usual method in which the business of taking up money of the merchants at Antwerp for the king’s use, had been managed, was greatly to the prejudice of the crown of England, as well by giving a very large interest for the money borrowed, as other inconveniences, when the principal was not paid within the time of the contract. And as the money which was now taken up in Mr. Gresham’s agency, was not paid at the time agreed on, this gave him great uneasiness, his business being then to get it prolonged, which was not to be done without the consideration of the king’s purchasing jewels or some other commodities to a large amount, as a consideration for prolonging the debt, besides continuing the interest. But this way of proceeding he neither thought for his majesty’s honour nor his own credit, as his agent, and therefore projected the following scheme to bring the king wholly out of debt in two years Provided the king and council would assign him 1200l. or 1300l. a week, to be secretly received at one man’s hands, that so it might be kept secret, he would so use that matter in Antwerp, that every day he would be seen to take up in his own name 200l. sterling by exchange, which would amount in one year to 73,000l. and so doing; it should not be perceived nor give occasion to make the exchange fall. He proposed farther, that the king should take all the lead into his own hands, and making a staple of it, should put out a proclamation or shut up the custom-house, that no lead should be conveyed out of the kingdom for five years; by which the king might cause it to rise, and feed them at Antwerp from time to time, as they should have need. By which means he might keep his money within the realm, and bring himself out of the debts which his father and the Jate duke of Somerset had brought upon him. This scheme being put into execution, had the proposed effect in discharging his majesty’s debts, which were very considerable, as well as in raising his majesty’s credit so high | abroad, that he might have borrowed what sums he pleased; and, by the advantageous turn which by this means was given to the exchange in favour of England, not only the price of all foreign commodities was greatly sunk and abated; but likewise gold and silver, which before had been exported in large quantities, were most plentifully brought back again.

In the performance of these services, Gresham often stretched his own credit, and kept up the exchange at his own risk, by which he frequently lost several hundred pounds at a time; and on one particular time he took up 50,000l. for the king’s service. In the course of these transactions, he had frequently occasion to meddle with political affairs, as well as those immediately committed to his charge, through the application of the emperor’s sister, then regent in the Netherlands, as well as that of the Icing his master; so that he made at least forty journeys from England to Antwerp during the remainder of the short reign of Edward VI. These services were so acceptable to the young monarch, that about three weeks before his death, he granted to Mr. Gresham, as a mark of his favour, Iool a year to him and his heirs for ever. Mr. Gresham also obtained, in the course of that reign grants of estates and reversions to the value of about 300l. a year. He was but a young man when first employed by king Edward; and the skill and prudence displayed in the various matters in which he was employed, discovered an uncommon knowledge of mercantile affairs. But notwithstanding his abilities, and the considerable services he had rendered to the crown, he was, upon the accession of queen Mary, removed from his agency. This induced him to draw up a memorial of his services to the late king, which he sent to a minister of state to be laid before her majesty; and the services lepresented as done, not only to the king, but to the nation in general, by the increase both of money and trade, and the advancement of the public credit, being observed to be fact, he was taken soon after into the queen’s service, and reinstated in his former employment, as appears by the commissions given him at different times during that reign. After the decease of queen Mary, in 1558, he was taken immediately into the service of queen Elizabeth, who employed him on her accession to provide and buy up arms; and in 1559 she conferred on him the honour of knighthood, and appointed him her agent in | foreign parts. In this state of credit and reputation, he thought proper to provide himself with a mansion-house in the city, suitable to his station and dignity; and with this spirit built a large and sumptuous house for his own dwelling, on the west-side of Bishopsgate-street, London, afterwards called Gresham-college, where he maintained an establishment becoming his character and station. But this flow of prosperity received a heavy check by the loss of his only son, aged 16 years, who died in 1564, and was buried in St. Helen’s church, opposite to his mansion house.

At this time the merchants of London met in Lombardstreet, exposed to the open air and all the injuries of the weather. To remedy wbich inconvenience, sir Thomas’s father during his shrievalty wrote a letter to sir Thomas Audeley then lord-privy-seal, acquainting him that there were certain houses in that street belonging to sir George Monoux, which if purchased and pulled down, a handsome exchange might be built on the ground; he therefore desired his lordship to move his majesty, that a letter might be sent to sir George, requiring him to sell those houses to the mayor and commonalty of the city of London for that purpose. The building he supposes would cost upwards of 2000l., 1000l. of which he doubts not to raise before he was out of his office: but nothing effectual was done in it. Sir Thomas therefore took up his father’s design, and improving upon his spirit, proposed that if the citizens would give him a piece of ground in a proper place large enough for the purpose, he would build ari exchange at his own expence with large and covered walks, where the merchants and traders of all sorts might daily assemble and transact business at all seasons, without interruption from the weather or impediments of any kind. This generous offer was gratefully accepted, and in 1566 several houses upon Cornhill and the back of it, with three alleys, called Swan-alley, New-alley, and St. Christopher’s alley, containing in all eighty houses, were purchased by the citizens for more than 3532l. and sold for 478l. on condition of pulling them down, and carrying off the stuff. This done, the ground-plot was made plain at the charges of the city, and possession given to sir Thomas, who was styled “Agent to the queen’s highness” and who, on the 7th of June, laid the first stone of the foundation and the work was forthwith followed with such diligence, that | by Nov. 1567, the same was covered with slate, and the shell shortly after fully finished. It is said that the timber of which this fabric was built, was first framed and put together at Battisford, near Ipswich, in Suffolk, and thence brought to London.

The plan of this edifice, was formed from the exchange at Antwerp, being an oblong square, with a portico supported with pillars of marble, ten on the north and south sides, and seven on the east and west; under which stood the shops each seven feet and a hall' long, and five feet broad, in all 120, twenty-five on each side east and west, and thirty-four and an half north, and thirty-five and an half south, each of which paid sir Thomas 47. 105. a year upon an average. There were likewise other shops fitted up at first in the vaults below, but the dampness and darkness rendered these so inconvenient, that the vaults were soon let out to other uses; upon the roof stood at each earner, upon a pedestal, a grasshopper, which was the crest of sir Thomas’s arms. This edifice was fully completed, and the shops opened in 1569; and Jan. 29, 1570, queen Elizabeth attended by her nobility, came from Somerset-house thither, and caused it by a trumpet and a herald to be proclaimed “The Royal Exchange.” The story, however, of sir Thomas’s having on this day reduced a costly pearl to powder, and drank it up in a glass of wine, seems to rest on very slender foundation, and is very inconsistent with his character, who knew how to unite the magnificence of the nobleman with the prudence of the merchant.

In the mean time he had scarcely entered upon the execution of this noble design, when in 1566, he was sent over to Antwerp to take up the sum of 14,667l. Flemish money, for her majesty, and prolong the time of payment for 34,3S5l. more; and in December of the same year, there was another debt of the queen’s prolonged of S532l. Flemish. Sir Thomas, however, perceiving the disadvantage of borrowing money from foreigners, at an exorbitant interest, advised her majesty to take up what money she wanted of her own merchants; which advice, however, was not immediately adopted, but in 1569 an opportunity occurred which rendered his advice necessary. The quarrel which at this time took place between queen Elizabeth and the king of Spain, obliged the English merchants to send their effects to Hamburgh, on which the duke of | Alva, governor of the Netherlands, prohibited all commerce with England. Upon this, secretary Cecil, who was then at the head of the exchequer, had nis tears lot the merchants would not have money enough to carry on their trade, and the queen lest the falling off in the duties on cloth might prevent her paying her debts abroad. Sir Thomas, however, when consulted, told the secretary that in his opinion the queen needed be at no difficulty to pay her creditors, if she saw her merchants well paid in London their first payment, which was half of her debt to them; for by the time the other half should be payable, the merchants would have plenty of money both here and at Hamburgh. He assured him, that the commodities shipped by our merchants from Hamburgh were well worth 100,000l.; and those shipped hence with our goods thither, were worth upwards of 200,000l. so that the duty upon cloths (10,000l. at least) would enable the queen to discharge her debt. As to the secretary’s fears respecting the merchants, sir Thomas observed that there was no foundation for them, considering the great vent our commodities had at Hamburgh already, and were likely to have, and therefore he advised that the first payment agreed on at Hamburgh should above all things be provided for; assuring the secretary, that he knew certainly that the duke of Alva was more troubled with the queen’s great credit, and with the vent of her commodities at Hamburgh, than he was with any thing else, and “quaked for fear;” that this xvas one of the principal hindrances to the payment of the tenth, penny, then demanded by the duke for the sale of any kind of goods in the Netherlands; which he believed would be his undoing. He then renewed his advice respecting borrowing of her own subjects in preference to foreigners, urging many reasons grounded on facts. When, however, the motion of lending money to the queen was first proposed among the merchants by sir Thomas, it met with great opposition, and was negatived in the common-hall; but upon more mature consideration afterwards several of the merchants and aldermen lent her majesty various sumg of money, to the value of 16,000l. for six months, at 6 per cent, interest for that time. She gave bonds to each of them separately for re-payment, and likewise -other accustomed bonds to discharge them of the statute of usury; and when the six months were expired, she prolonged the payment for six month? more, paying the same interest, with | brokage. As her majesty was thus enabled to borrow money of her own subjects, instead of foreigners, and the commerce with Flanders, particularly Antwerp, was now prohibited, sir Thomas’s office as agent for her majesty in those parts, ceased of course. But in 1572, to shew her regard for him, she was pleased to appoint him, together with the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishop of London, and other persons of eminence, assistants to the lord mayor for the government of the city of London during her intended progress that summer. This method was afterwards continued on similar occasions, and sir Thomas Gresham was joined in the commission till 1578.

Though sir Thomas had purchased very large estates in several counties of England, yet he thought a country seat near London, to which he might retire from business and the hurry of the city as often as he pleased, would be very convenient. With this view he bought Osterley-park, near Brentford, in Middlesex, where he built a large magnificent seat within the park, which he impaled, being well wooded, and furnished with many ponds stocked with fish and fowl, and of great use for mills, as paper-mills, oilmills, and corn-mills. In 1578, queen Elizabeth visited Osterley, where sir Thomas entertained her magnificently. On this occasion, having given it as her opinion that the court before the house would look better divided with a wajl, sir Thomas in the night sent for workmen from London, who so speedily and so silently performed their task, that before morning the wall was finished, to the great surprize of the queen and her courtiers, one of whom, however, observed, that it was no wonder that he who could build a change should so soon change a building. This became afterwards the property of the family of Child, and is now that of the right hon. the earl of Jersey, by marriage into that family.

Before Osterley was completed, sir Thomas projected and executed that noble design of converting his mansionhouse in Bishopsgate-street into a seat for the muses, and endowing it with the revenues arising from the royal exchange after his decease. While he was meditating this design, the university of Cambridge wrote him an elegant Latin letter, reminding him of a promise, as they had been informed, to give them 500l. either towards building a new college there, or repairing one already built. This letter was dated March 14, 1574-5; and it was followed | by another of the 25th, to acquaint him with a report they had heard, that he had promised lady Burghley both to found and endow a college for the profession of the seven liberal sciences. They observe, that the only place proper for such a design, was either London, Oxford, or Cambridge; they endeavour to dissuade him from London, lest it should prove prejudicial to the two universities; and they hope he will not make choice of Oxford, since he was himself bred at Cambridge, which might presume upon a superior regard from him on that account. At the same time, they wrote another letter to the lady Burghley, in which they earnestly request that she will please to use her interest with him, to rix upon Cambridge for the place of his intended college.

But these letters had not the desired effect he persisted in his resolution to settle it in his house at London and accordingly, by an indenture dated May 20, 1575, he made a disposition of his several manors, lands, tenements, and hereditaments; with such limitations and restrictions, particularly as to the royal exchange and his mansionhouse, as might best secure his views with regard to the uses for which he designed them. This indenture was soon followed by two wills, one of his goods, and the other of his real estates: the former of these bears date July 4th ensuing, whereby he bequeaths to his wife, whom he makes his sole executrix, all his goods, as ready money, plate, jewels, chains of gold, with all his stock of sheep and other cattle if within the realm of England, and likewise gives several legacies to his relations and friends and to all his servants, amounting in the whole to upwards of 2000l. besides some small annuities. The other will is dated July the 5th, wherein he gives one moiety of the royal exchange to the mayor and commonalty of London, and the other to the Mercers company, for the salaries of seven lecturers in divinity, law, physic, astronomy, geometry, music, and rhetoric, at 50l. per annum for each, with his house in Bishopsgate-street for the lecturers’ residence, where the lectures were to be read. He likewise leaves 53l. 6s. Sd. yearly for the provision of eight almsfolks residing in the alms-houses behind his house, and lOl. yearly to each of the prisons in Newgate, Ludgate, KingVbench, the Marshalsea, and Compter in Woodstreet, and the like sum to each of the hospitals of Christchurch, St. Bartholomew, Bedlam, Southwark, and the | Poultry-compter; and 100l. yearly to provide a dinner fof the whole Mercers company in their hall on every of their quarter days, at 25l. each dinner. By this disposition sufficient care was taken that the two corporations, to whom the affair was trusted, should receive no damage by the execution of it; for the stated annual payments amount to no more than 6031. 6s. Sd. and the yearly rents of the exchange received by sir Thomas were 740l. besides the additional profits that must arise from time to time by fines, which were very considerable. But the lady Anne his wife was to enjoy both the mansion-house and the exchange during her life if she survived sir Thomas, and then they were both vested in the two corporations for the uses declared in the will for the term of fifty years; which limitation was made on account of the statutes of mortmain, that prohibited the alienation of lands or tenements to any corporation, without licence first had from the crown. And that space of time the testator thought sufficient for procuring such licence, the doing of which he earnestly recommends to them without delay; in default whereof, at the expiration of fifty years, these estates were to go to his heirs at law.

Having thus settled his affairs so much to his own honour, the interest of the public, and the regards due to his family, he was at leisure to reap the fruits of his industry and success. But he did not long enjoy this felicity, for Nov. 21, 1579, coming from the exchange to his house in Bishopsgate-street, he suddenly fell down in his kitchen, became speechless, and presently died. He was buried in his own parish church of St. Helen’s. His obsequies were performed in a very solemn manner, the corpse being attended by 100 poor men, and the like number of poor women, whom he had ordered to be cloathed in black gowns of 5s. 8d. per yard at his own expence. The charges of the funeral amounted to 800. His corpse was deposited in a vault at the north-east corner of the church, which he had before provided for himself and family, with a curious marble tomb over it; on the south and west sides of which are his own arms, and on the north and east the same impaled with those of his lady. The arms of sir Thomas, together with the City of London and Mercers company, are likewise painted in the glass of the east window of the church, above the tomb, which stood as he left it without any inscription, till 1736, when the following words, taken from | the parish register, were cut on the stone that covers it, by order of the church-wardens: “Sir Thomas Gresham, knight, was buried December 15, 1579.” By his death many large estates in several counties of England, amounting at that time to the clear yearly value of 2300l. and upwards, came to his lady, who survived him many years, and continued to reside after his decease in the mansionhouse at London, in the winter, and at Osterley-park in the summer season, at which last place she died Nov. 23, 1596, very aged. Her corpse was brought to London, and buried in the same vault with her husband.

Mr. Ward has drawn sir Thomas’s character at large, and observes, that he had the happiness of a mind every way suited to his fortune, generous and benign; ready to perform any good actions and encourage them in others. He was a great friend and patron of our celebrated rnartyrologist John Fox. He was well acquainted with the ancient and several modern languages; he had a very comprehensive knowledge of all affairs relating to commerce, whether foreign or domestic; and his success was not less, being in his time esteemed trie richest commoner in England. He transacted queen Elizabeth’s mercantile affairs so constantly, that he was called “The Royal Merchant,” and his house was sometimes appointed for the reception of foreign princes upon their first arrival at London. As no one could be more ready to perform any generous actions which might contribute to the honour of this country, so he very well knew how to make the best use of them for the most laudable purposes. Nor was he less serviceable both to the queen and her ministry on other occasions, who often consulted him, and sought his advice in matters of the greatest importance relating to the welfare of the government. But the most shining part of his character appears in his public benefactions. The royal exchange was not pnly a singular ornament to the city of London, and a great convenience to the merchants, who wanted such a place to meet and transact their affairs in, but likewise contributed very much to the promotion of trade, both by the number of shops erected there, and the much greater number of the poor; who were employed in working for them. And the donation of his own mansionhouse for a seat of learning and the liberal arts, with the handsome provision made for the endowment and support, was such an instance of a generous and public spirit | as has been equalled by few, and must perpetuate his memory with the highest esteem and gratitude so long as any regard to learning and virtue is preserved among us. Nor ought his charities to the poor, his alms-houses, and the liberal contributions to the ten prisons and hospitals in London and Southwark, to be omitted.

His public benefactions, the royal exchange, and his mansion-house on the decease of his lady, immediately came into the hands of the two corporations, the City of London and the Mercers’ company, who, according to their trust, obtained a patent from the crown, dated Feb. 3, 1614, 12 Jacobi I. to hold them for ever upon the terms expressed in the will of the donor. 1


Biog. Brit. Ward’s Gresham Professors. Lodge’s Illustrations, vol. I.