In prime position in the charismatic church of St Helen’s Bishopsgate lie the remains of Sir Thomas Gresham, one of the most influential and enigmatic figures the City of London has ever produced.
Gresham, who lived from roughly 1519 until 1579, was hugely rich, with a palatial home in Bishopsgate where Tower 42 is today, yet he died heavily in debt. The story of his grave just about sums him up. Gresham manoeuvred to have his tomb located in what was his home parish church by promising an endowment to build a steeple – a promise Professor John Guy, one of his recent biographers, says “he never made good”.
It is easy to see why Gresham wanted to be buried in this singular church. It is beautiful and exceptional in that it incorporates the remains of a nunnery, which was once next door and became part of the church after the dissolution of the monasteries – hence the dual naves seen in the photo below.
A little later, in around 1598, it was the parish church of William Shakespeare who for a while lived close to where the Gherkin is today, and is honoured with a stained glass window. It went on to become one of the few churches to survive both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz.
Gresham had an astonishing career by any standards. He was an effective banker to three monarchs, segueing between the fiercely Protestant Edward VI, the fiercely Catholic Mary I and back to the Protestant Elizabeth I. He bailed Edward and Mary out of their financial difficulties by halving the government’s overseas debt through shrewd manipulation of interest rates and interventions in the foreign exchange markets. Small wonder Guy calls him “the first true wizard of global finance”.
Gresham was also involved with bullion and arms smuggling on the government’s behalf. He even had his own intelligence network which he bequeathed to Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster. He was the inspiration for Gresham’s Law, the monetary principle that “bad money drives out good”.
Most of Gresham’s financial and diplomatic activities were conducted in Antwerp, when the Belgian city was Europe’s financial capital. But he had long wanted to set up a rival centre in London, an idea first put forward by his father, Richard. An opportunity to do this arose after Philip II of Spain forced his Roman Catholic Inquisition on the Protestant Netherlands. This led to thousands of skilled Flemish people, fearing persecution, moving from there to London.
Gresham offered to build the Royal Exchange with his own money if the City and others, such as the Mercers’ livery company to which he belonged, would provide the land. The Exchange building was designed by a Flemish architect helped by a Flemish carpenter and, to the consternation of London brickies and labourers, was constructed mainly by Flemish workers. In 1839 John William Burgon, an early biographer of Gresham, claimed that, apart from wood from Suffolk “nearly all of the materials of which the edifice was composed were brought from Flanders.”
The building was officially opened in January 1571 by Queen Elizabeth, who gave permission for use of the Royal title and a license to sell alcohol. The Exchange had 150 shops on an upper floor – mainly catering for well-off women – which gives it some claim to have been Britain’s first shopping mall. It was said you could find more coaches parked there than outside church doors.
At least half of the traders and others who operated there came from Holland, France and Germany, wresting financial supremacy from Antwerp. This transplanting of a major industry laid foundations for London’s future dominance. Perhaps the City would have prospered anyway, but it is difficult to believe all the successes of subsequent centuries would have happened without Gresham’s vision.
The second great thing Gresham did can be appreciated today by anyone. After his only son died in a riding accident in 1564 he decided to leave a lasting legacy in the form of Gresham College, an institution of higher learning providing Londoners with free educational lectures.
It was eventually opened much later, in 1597, by the executors of his will on the site of his grand mansion (shown above) which stretched from Bishopsgate to Broad Street. Early speakers included Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren. Initially, lectures were given once a week on subjects including divinity, astronomy, music, geometry, law, medicine and rhetoric.
The amazing thing is that the college is still giving free lectures today, despite higher education having become a paid-for luxury practically everywhere. They are delivered in person, usually at the college’s main building at Barnard’s Inn Hall in Holborn, and anyone can attend. Since going online in 2001 the lectures have received over 40 million views and there is still scope for growth as lots of people simply don’t know about them.
How was it financed? By another bit of Gresham chicanery. Shortly before he died, to the surprise of the Mercers’ Company which had been expecting to be the beneficiary of his will, he decided to leave his assets and income from the Royal Exchange and Gresham House to fund the college.
For all Gresham’s brilliance there is a darker side to him which has only come to light comparatively recently and challenges Burgon’s assessment that Gresham died “with unsullied honour and integrity”. Questions have arisen about the extent to which his activities were linked to the slave trade.
In his Gresham lecture John Guy described plenty of duplicity and a controversial private life but no mention of slavery. Yet in another Gresham lecture Professor Richard Drayton of King’s College argues, among other things, that the Antwerp model of finance Gresham imported into London had close links to the slave trade. If this is proven it will change attitudes to Gresham’s otherwise stunning achievements.
London’s links to the slave trade are part of a wider inquiry the City is engaged in about its past and what should be done about it. It is entirely appropriate that Gresham lectures should contribute to that exercise.
This is the fourteenth article in a series of 20 by Vic Keegan about locations of historical interest in the Eastern City part of the City of London, kindly supported by EC BID, which serves that area. All the previous articles are here. On London’s policy on “supported content” can be read here.