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Episode 094: Gresham, The Royal Exchange, and England’s First Mall

Episode 094 of the Renaissance English History Podcast was on Thomas Gresham and the Royal Exchange, England’s first shopping mall.

(remember, if you like this show, there are a few ways you can help it succeed. The easiest – and free – is to leave a rating on iTunes. It really makes a difference in helping new people find the show. Next up, you could buy a gift from my awesome – if I do say so myself – collection of cool stuff, like Tudor Leggings, Elizabeth mugs, and other gifts at TudorFair.com, which is my online shop. Finally, you can consider becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1/episode.)

Drawings of the first Royal Exchange building. Notice the grasshopper on the bell tower.

Gresham’s Law:
“In economicsGresham’s law is a monetary principle stating that “bad money drives out good”. For example, if there are two forms of commodity money in circulation, which are accepted by law as having similar face value, the more valuable commodity will disappear from circulation.”


The Queen’s Merchant – the Life and Times of Thomas Gresham by Jim Jordan
The Golden Grasshopper A Story of the Days of Sir Thomas Gresham by William Henry Giles

Visit the Royal Exchange now



(remember, if you like this show, there are a few ways you can help it succeed. The easiest – and free – is to leave a rating on iTunes. It really makes a difference in helping new people find the show. Next up, you could buy a gift from my awesome – if I do say so myself – collection of cool stuff, like Tudor Leggings, Elizabeth mugs, and other gifts at TudorFair.com, which is my online shop. Finally, you can consider becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1/episode.)

Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast, a part of the Agora Podcast Network. I’m your host, Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe, and being more deeply in touch with our own humanity. This is episode 94 – Thomas Gresham and the Royal Exchange. I need to do an announcement on the Agora Podcast of the Month, which is the History of Westeros. If you love George RR Martin, you need to check out this podcast. History of Westeros creates podcasts for those who want to get more out of the story. Check it out at HistoryofWesteros.com.

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So today I want to talk about shopping. Because it is that time of the year, and I always like to do a sort of lighthearted piece around this time of year. Because it’s just fun. So this time I’m going to talk about shopping. In the days before there were malls that looked exactly alike in every city, how did people go about getting both their needs, as well as the occasional fun thing? And were there fun things? And what were they? Where *did* people go before Target?

In 1563, Thomas Gresham, a wealthy London merchant and trader with close ties to Antwerp, offered to the city of London that he would build a trading floor similar to that in Antwerp where merchants could get together and do business, exchange news on ships and good, and meet with each other to discuss contracts. At this point, there were no office towers and no shared office space. If you wanted to do deals, you did them either at each others’ homes, or at a public space. Later on in the 17th century, coffee houses would be popular places for merchants to meet up, but the first coffee house in London didn’t open up until the 1660’s. As a side note, I love the fact that people would meet up in coffee houses to work. It reinforces my idea that, as much as we think things change, we are all much more connected to the past than we might think. When people are working at their local coffee house or having meetings there, they are participating in a ritual that is four hundred years old.


If businesses wanted to take it to the next level, they could apply for a charter and become a livery company. That meant they had a headquarters, and had ceremonial robes. They are always referred to as the Worshipful Company Of … so the worshipful company of Mercers or tailors or skinners.


In the 16th century, the Lord Mayor ranked the guilds in order of importance. The top 12 were allowed to parade in the annual Lord Mayor’s march. There was always an argument between the tailor’s guild and the skinner’s guild over precedence. In the end the lord mayor decided to alternate them, and each year they would change positions. That’s where the term being at sixes and sevens comes from.


So back to Thomas and his idea for a merchant space. Gresham was, in addition to being a trader, a master economist. He came from an old Norfolk family of merchants. He was born around 1517 or 1518, the younger son of the merchant Sir Richard Gresham, who was also elected the Lord Mayor in 1537. He did go to university, but left early, and was apprenticed to the mercer’s trade under his uncle John. He spent much of his seven years as an apprentice on the Continent. He learned French and Flemish, and he took over much of the work of his family business. He began to be noticed by Thomas Cromwell, who began putting trade work his way. One of the first mentions of him is in 1543 when he applied to Margaret, the Regent of the Low Countries, to export gunpowder to England for Henry, who was preparing for his war in France at the time. This would become the famous siege of Boulogne.


He served Henry, and all of his children. He was, in addition to being a trader, masterful at understanding the economy, and he put forth several practices to increase the value of the currency, helping to essentially eliminate all of Edward VI’s debts to Antwerp, which had been about 250,000 pounds, in the span of a year. He avoided much of the religious turbulence of this period by simply keeping his head down, and making money for his monarch. He was making money for himself and his family’s business too, of course. In 1549 he inherited some lands, and earlier he had made an advantageous marriage to an heiress, and so he was rising personally, as well as professionally.


We see evidence of his smuggling for Mary in an incident when there were new restrictions on exporting from Antwerp. He wrote a letter to the Duke of Northumberland explaining a plan to save England £20,000.  We see him smuggling money into England packed up in suits of armor, and rewarding the customs officer with a gift of black velvet cloth. He had access to the cloth as part of the Mercer’s Company – the Mercers sent between 50 and 60 ships to Antwerp each year, and imported back nearly every luxury good that London had.


Gresham was one of the first people to visit Queen Elizabeth when she became Queen.. She gave him her hand to kiss, and told him that she would always keep one ear ready to hear him. Gresham said that  “made me a young man again, and caused me to enter on my present charge with heart and courage.”


In 1564 his only legitimate son died, and many people believe that that’s when he began to think about how he would disperse of his fortune, and his legacy when he died. He and his father had both believed that London needed a trading floor similar to that in Antwerp. Merchants had long congregated on Lombard Street to do deals – they had to duck into shops, or, when they couldn’t get into taverns, just stand in the street, exposed to all weather. As early as 1535 the merchants had said they wanted a trading floor, and had proposed a space on Leadenhall Street.


In 1565 Gresham proposed to finally build this new center of commerce, and said he would fund it all himself, in exchange for part of the profits. He purchased land in Cornhill, around three alleys, for around 3700 pounds. He also bought materials for 500 pounds. 750 citizens and the Ironmongers Company all contributed to the expense – the Ironmongers Company gave 75 pounds, and citizens covered much of the rest. Thomas laid the first brick in 1566, with a Flemish architect supervising the building. Much of the building materials came from Flanders, ensuring that it would really be modeled after Gresham’s dream space.


It was a long building with four stories, and a high balcony with a bell tower that was crowned by a huge Grasshopper, which was Gresham’s emblem. There’s a legend that when he was a baby, Thomas Gresham was abandoned in a cornfield. He was only discovered becasue a lady nearby heard a grasshopper chirping and find him. So even now there’s a grasshopper on the top of the royal exchange building.  The bell rang every day at 12pm and 6pm to summon the merchants and business men to come and take care of their work. There were covered piazzas and statues of English kings, and a statue of Gresham himself at the northern end of the western piazza. A hundred years later, after the great fire in 1666, the diarist Samuel Pepys noted that the statue of Gresham was the only thing left of the building.


What made Gresham’s exchange unique, though, were the 100 small shops above the trading floor, to draw in shopping. The idea of shopping as a leisure activity was starting to become popular, especially with a growing middle class that had some disposable income, and wanted to have the luxury goods that they had been denied for so long. An example of women stereotypically enjoying shopping comes to us in 1572 in France, when Catherine de Medici and Jeanne d’Albret met to negotiate a marriage that was going to end the French wars of religion. They stopped their discussions, disguised themselves, and went for a day of shopping around the boutiques of Paris.


So we’ve got this new building with trading floor on the ground floor, and then shops open above. This was, really, the first shopping mall in England. A German traveller called Hentzner, visiting in 1598, remarked on the stateliness of the building, and how wonderful it was to see so many different nationalities together, as well as so much merchandise available for purchase.

This was all new. There had been shops before, but those shops were in the front of workshops. What was new, in the royal exchange were that these were retails shops.


In 1570 Queen Elizabeth visited. Up until that point, the shops had remained unlet. When Queen Elizabeth visited, Gresham obviously wanted to make sure that everything was perfect, and he went around to all of the shops that were there, and offered them all the shops they wanted that they would light up with wax and furnish for free for an entire year. At the time there still weren’t enough shops that were ready to go, so Sir Thomas had to keep moving the goods in the Royal Exchange around, to make it appear that there were enough shops that were furnished.


But as a result of his deal making with the merchants, in two years Gresham was able to raise the rent from 40s. a year to four marks, and then quickly after to £4 10s. The milliners’ shops, in Gresham’s time, sold mousetraps, birdcages, and shoeing-horns. There were also shops selling armour, there were apothecaries, booksellers, goldsmiths, and glass-sellers; but the shops soon grew richer and more fashionable, so that in 1631 the editor of John Stow’s survey writes, “Unto which place, on January 23, 1570, Queen Elizabeth came from Somerset House through Fleet Street past the north side to Sir Thomas Gresham’s house in Bishopsgate Street, and there dined. After the banquet she entered the Exchange on the south side, viewed every part; especially she caused the building, by herald’s trumpet, to be proclaimed ‘the Royal Exchange,’ so to be called from henceforth, and not otherwise.”


The new Exchange soon became a place where the homeless and idle people would congregate. In the Inquest Book of Cornhill Ward from 1574, there is some writing against the Exchange, because on Sundays and holidays great numbers of boys, children, and “young rogues,” meet there, and shout, so that honest citizens cannot quietly walk there, and the parishioners of St. Bartholomew could not hear the sermon. In 1590 some women were prosecuted for selling apples and oranges at the Exchange gate in Cornhill, and “amusing themselves in cursing and swearing, to the great annoyance and grief of the inhabitants and passers-by.”  In 1622 complaint was made of the rat-catchers, and sellers of dogs, birds, plants, &c., who stayed around the south gate, especially at exchange time. It was also seriously complained of that the bear-wards, in Southwark, before special bull or bear baitings, would parade around the Exchange, in business hours, and announce the entertainments for that night, which caused excitement, and drew mobs together. It was usual on these occasions to have a monkey riding on the bear’s back, and several minstrels, so you can imagine how noisy it would have been.  They created some rules around visiting – no one was allowed to wear any weapon, and in 1579 it was ordered that no one should walk in the Exchange after ten p.m. in summer, and nine p.m. in winter.


Gresham died before the Exchange was fully furnished, and he died quite suddenly. His will left the Exchange jointly to the Mercers Company and the City of London after his wife’s death, but she seemed heartbroken at the idea of losing all of the money after she died, and she contested the will. The Exchange began to fall into disrepair. In his Survey of London, John Stow called the Exchange the Eye of London, and says it became a vast bazaar where fashionable ladies went to shop. Donald Lupton, in a little work called “London and the Country Carbonadoed and Quartered into Severall Characters,” published in 1632, says of the Exchange:—”Here are usually more coaches attendant than at church doors. The merchants should keep their wives from visiting the upper rooms too often, lest they tire their purses by attiring themselves.”


Thomas Gresham also founded Gresham College, because he wanted a university in London to rival those of Oxford and Cambridge. The building itself was destroyed in the Great Fire, as I said, in 1666. The Lord Mayor opened it again three years later, and it filled up quickly with merchants and brokers including the insurance market Llods of London. Stockbrokers were banned because of offensive behavior, other brokers needed a government license to trade, and numbers were controlled. The Royal Exchange provided the beginnings of a regulated stock market. That building was destroyed by fire in 1838.


The present Royal Exchange building, opened by Queen Victoria in 1844, was designed by the English architect Sir William Tite. It kept to the original 16th century layout of a four-sided building surrounding a central courtyard, and the design included an imposing eight-column portico. Inside, there are 24 large panel paintings depicting the history of trade in Britain from early times including an illustration showing the Phoenicians trading with ancient Britons on the coast of Cornwall.

Today you can still visit the Royal Exchange – it was extensivelly remodeled in 2001, and now has a retail center with cafes, restaurants, and over 30 luxury brands.


So there we have it. The links and resources are at the Show Notes at Englandcast.com. Remember to check out TudorFair.com to see the gorgeous 2018 Tudor Planner, and consider supporting the show on patreon. And you can get in touch with me through the listener support line at 801 6TEYSKO or through twitter @teysko or facebook.com/englandcast. Thanks so much for listening, and I’ll be back in a week or so with the Tudor Times Person of the Month, which is Robert Dudley, so stay tuned for that.



(remember, if you like this show, there are a few ways you can help it succeed. The easiest – and free – is to leave a rating on iTunes. It really makes a difference in helping new people find the show. Next up, you could buy a gift from my awesome – if I do say so myself – collection of cool stuff, like Tudor Leggings, Elizabeth mugs, and other gifts at TudorFair.com, which is my online shop. Finally, you can consider becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1/episode.)