Thomas Gresham

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Portrait by Anthonis Mor, c. 1554

Sir Thomas Gresham (c. 1519 - 21 November, 1579) was an English merchant and financier who worked for King Edward VI of England and for Edward's half-sister Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Born in London and descended from an old Norfolk family, Gresham was the only son 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 honor of knighthood. Though his father intended him to follow his own profession, he nevertheless sent him for some time to Caius, Cambridge, but no information survives as to the duration of his residence. Either before or after this he became apprenticed to his uncle Sir John Gresham, also a merchant: we have his own testimony that he served an apprenticeship of eight years.

In 1543 the Mercers Company admitted the 24-year-old Gresham as a member, 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 Henry VIII. In 1544 he married 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.

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 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.

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 not very successful 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 the duchess of Parma, receiving a knighthood in 1559 previous to his departure. The unsetttled 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 Keys the sergeant porter, remained a prisoner in his house from June 1569 to the end of 1572.

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.

Gresham died suddenly, apparently of apoplexy, on 21 November 1579. His only son predeceased him, and his illegitimate daughter Anne he married to Sir Nathaniel Bacon, brother of the great Lord Bacon.

With the exception of a number of small sums bequeathed to the support of various charities, Gresham bequeathed the bulk of his property -- consisting of estates in various parts of England of the annual value of more than 2300 pounds -- to his widow and her heirs, with the stipulation that after her decease his residence in Bishopsgate Street, as well as the rents arising from the Royal Exchange, should be vested in the hands of 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 -- on astronomy, geometry, physic, law, divinity, rhetoric and music. Thus the functions of Gresham College -- the first institution of higher learning in London -- started in 1597.

Notices of Gresham appear in Thomas Fuller's Worthies of England (1662) and Ward's Gresham Professors; but a full account of him, as well as of the history of the Exchange and of Gresham College appears in J. M. Burgoir's Life and Times of Sir Thomas Gresham (2 vols., 1839). See also a Brief Memoir of Sir Thomas Gresham (1833); and The Life oJ Sir Thomas Gresham, Founder of the Royal Exchange (1845).


Gresham's law takes its name from him (although people had recognized the concept for years) because he urged Queen Elizabeth to restore the debased currency of England.


The weathervane on the Royal Exchange takes its form of a grasshopper from Gresham's coat of arms; Faneuil Hall in Boston later borrowed the device.


Gresham appears as a background figure is a series of fictional mystery novels by the British author Valerie Anand (writing under the penname 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.de:Thomas Gresham

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