1902 Encyclopedia > Sir Thomas Gresham

Sir Thomas Gresham
English financier
(1519-79)




SIR THOMAS GRESHAM, (1519-1579), a London merchant, the founder of the Royal Exchange and of Gresham College, London, was born in 1519. Descended from an old Norfolk family, he was the only son of Sir Richard Gresham, a leading London merchant, who for some time held the office of lord mayor and for his services as agent of Henry VIII. in negotiating loans with foreign merchants received the honour of knighthood. Though his father intended him to follow his own profession, he nevertheless sent him for some time to Cains College, Cambridge, but there is no information as to the duration of his residence. It is uncertain also whether it was before or after this that he was apprenticed to his uncle Sir John Gresham, who was also a merchant, but we have his own testimony that he served an apprenticeship of eight years. In 1543 at the age of twenty-four he was admitted a member of the Mercers' Company, 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. 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, Gresham was called in to give his advice, and chosen to carry out his own proposals. Their leading feature was 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 it was so successful that in a few years nearly all King Edward's debts were discharged. The advice of Gresham was likewise sought by the Government in all their money difficulties, and he was also frequently employed in various diplomatic missions. He had no stated salary, but in reward of his services received from Edward various grants of lands, the annual value of which at that time was ultimately about £400 a year. On the accession of Mary the council resolved on his recall, but before the letter was sent they changed their opinion; 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, but besides his salary of twenty shillings per diem he received grants of church lands to the yearly value of £200. Under Queen Elizabeth, besides continuing to act as financial agent of the crown, he was for some time ambassador at the court of the duchess of Parma. In 1559 he received the honour of knighthood. By the outbreak of the war in the Low Countries he was compelled to leave Antwerp on the 19th 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. Elizabeth also found him useful in a great variety of other ways, among which was that of acting as jailer to Lady Mary 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, 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 £6700 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, 21st November 1579. His only son predeceased him, and his illegitimate daughter Anne he married to Sir Nicolas Bacon, brother of the great Lord Bacon. With the exception of a number of small sums bequeathed to the support of various charities, the bulk of his property, consisting of estates in various parts of England of the annual value of more than £2300, was bequeathed 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. The lectures were begun in 1597, and were delivered in the original building until 1768, when, on the ground that the trustees were losers by the gift, it was made over to the crown for a yearly rent of £500, and converted into an excise office. From that time a room in the Royal Exchange was used for the lectures until in 1843 the present building was erected at a cost of £7000. It contains a large library, professors' rooms, and a theatre capable of holding 500 persons.

A notice of Gresham is contained in Fuller's Worthies and Ward's Gresham Professors; but the fullest account of him, as well as of the history of the Exchange and Gresham College is that by J. M. Burgon in his Life and Times of Sir Thomas Gresham, 2 vols., 1839. See also a Brief Memoir of Sir Thomas Gresham, 1833 ; and The Life of Sir Thomas Gresham, Founder of the Royal Exchange, 1845.








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