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Sir Thomas Gresham
What was the link to Sir Thomas Gresham?
Sir Thomas Gresham (1518/9 – 1579) was a highly successful merchant and entrepreneur who served Henry VIII, Edward IV and Elizabeth I in a variety of roles chiefly concerned with finance. One of his many successes as Royal Agent in Antwerp was an ingenious way of raising the value of the pound sterling from 16 to 22 Flemish shillings to assist with the repayment of the Crown’s debts. Gresham also undertook diplomatic missions, such as ambassador to the Court of the Duchess of Parma. When Carols V placed a ban on the export of bullion from the Netherlands, Gresham adroitly moved into smuggling bullion disguised as cargoes of pepper and arms.
In 1564, he offered to build a currency exchange in London, if the Corporation of London and the Mercers Company would provide the site. The foundation stone for the first Exchange was laid in 1565 and the building completed in 1568. Elizabeth I visited the building in 1570 and thereafter it became known as the Royal Exchange.
The outbreak of war in the Low Countries compelled Gresham to leave Antwerp in 1567. His interest in the Weald iron industry is noted in 1570 when he was using the Mayfield Furnace, Sussex. He is named as the owner of the Mayfield furnace in 1574, the same year in which he was granted a licence to export guns to Denmark. Gresham leased a second furnace near Frant, Wadhurst, in 1574 and he was given a second licence to export armaments in 1578.
Bar iron is likely to have been another product of Sir Thomas Gresham’s furnaces. The bulk bar iron trade from the Weald was driven by large ironmongers based in London, with products being transported overland to the capital or by sea from the Port of Rye. The River Medway was also used as an export route, with Rochester being Gresham's usual port for exports. It is around this time (1560s) that Gillingham reach and the Medway became a recognised anchorage for the increasingly well-organised ‘Queen’s Navy’. Ship trades began to develop locally to support the fleet.
Throughout the 1570s, the Queen’s ministers were involved in forward planning. Surveys were commissioned listing all ships of 100 tons or more in England which could be utilised in time of war. Foundries and furnaces able to cast guns or shot were also identified, and along with all the shipmasters living along the Thames.
A new programme of shipbuilding for the Navy Royal also began in the 1570s concentrating on medium-sized and smaller ships. The 300-ton ship Foresight was built in 1570, and Dreadnought, Swiftsure, Achates and Handmaid all in 1573. Naval stores, masts and cordage were sought from the Baltic States by the Navy Board’s appointed ‘Baltic Merchant’. Iron and steel products were one of the highly desirable commodities being offered by English traders.
By February 1580, surviving parliamentary papers show that Elizabeth I’s advisors had begun to plan how Her Majesty’s ships should be stationed in the event of an attack from Spain. Eight years later that threat was realised in the form of the Spanish Armada.
See the portraits of Sir Thomas Gresham at the National Portrait Gallery website.