History Society Lectures

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In this section you will find lectures relating to the history of Gresham’s given by members of the History Department to the School’s History Society.


Shoveller of Human Manure

A talk on the Founder of Gresham’s given by Head of History, Simon Kinder

Ladies and gentleman, I need to start with some apologies. Mr Quartermain delivered the previous talk to this society on the subject of Erskine Childers – and it was one of the finest history lectures that it has been my privilege to hear. He brought the subject of his talk to life with drama, sympathy and a mastery of detail. Tonight I – and therefore you the listener – have a much tougher task. I am not sure that I like Sir John Gresham a great deal – you will soon see why – and that makes it difficult for me to deliver tonight’s talk with much enthusiasm or sympathy for my subject. There is another problem too – we know very little about Sir John Gresham and what we do know gives us very little insight into the man. He is a shadowy figure – indeed, by the eighteenth century there was no information about Sir John Gresham at the School and he was regularly confused with other more famous members of the Gresham family – his older brother Sir Richard Gresham and his nephew Sir Thomas Gresham – and indeed this error still creeps into books and inevitably websites to this day. Even the portrait of Sir John Gresham in Big School probably isn’t him! There is some suggestion that there are two surviving portraits of Sir John – one in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and another in Dunham Massey in Cheshire – but even those attributions are somewhat speculative.

So why on earth am I giving this talk about a man I don’t much care for and about whom we know relatively little? Well, it seems to me that you the pupils ought to know something at least of the man whose actions led to the creation of this School. The figure of George Howson towers over this School, and understandably so given the renaissance of Gresham’s from the early twentieth century – but we have perhaps lost our connection with our founder in all of this. Nothing that I am going to say tonight is particularly original. Almost everything I have to say is extracted from Martin Crossley Evans’s superb biography of Sir John Gresham – but unless you happen to have read Volume 41, Part IV of the 1993 journal Norfolk Archaeology you are unlikely to be familiar with this work. If you are, probably best to leave now.

I would like to address four very simple questions this evening. These are:

  • Who was Sir John Gresham?
  • How did he make sufficient money to be able to found a School?
  • Why did he found a Grammar School in Holt?
  • How did that School end up in the custody of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers?

The Gresham family were a family of knights and gentry landowners who had been settled in Norfolk for several centuries. They were an ancient family – descended from Ralph de Braunche who had fought with William the Conqueror at Hastings in 1066 and been granted lands in Norfolk after the Norman Conquest – but a pretty minor one. Their surname – in use from the time of Roger de Gresham in the late thirteenth century – appears to have been taken from the village of Gresham where the family held land and had become resident by 1360s. By the 1420s the family had settled in the market town of Holt, and were emerging as a more prominent local family.

Sir John Gresham’s birth date is unknown but it is believed that he was born in 1496 in the Manor House in Holt – now the site of the Pre-Prep School. He was the youngest of four sons. His father, also John Gresham, was already dividing time between Holt and London – a sign that the family was going places. Sir John Gresham’s three brothers all went on to have very prominent careers – William Gresham was Governor of the English merchants at Antwerp 1533-42, Sir Richard Gresham was like Sir John a leading trader and financier and indeed an even more important one than his younger brother, and Thomas Gresham was one of Henry VIII’s chaplains (the third son to the Church!).

So what of our Sir John? He made his mark like his older brother Sir Richard Gresham as a mercer – a trader and dealer of textiles. He was apprenticed to a London mercer, John Middleton, when just 14 years old, and was admitted to the Worshipful Company of Mercers in 1517 when just 21. He quickly rose through the ranks of the company, assisted no doubt by his brother Richard who served as Prime Warden. Sir John was Warden of the Mercers Company three times, and Master on four occasions. His trading interests were considerable and very international – his main work was the textile trade with the Low Countries, but he also imported grain from Germany to London, wine from Bordeaux, silks and spices from the Ottoman Empire, timber and skins from the Baltic and he also traded with Crete, Portugal and the eastern Mediterranean. Sir John also offered an apprenticeship to his nephew Sir Thomas Gresham – who went on to found the Royal Exchange, Gresham’s College in London and who Gresham’s Law is named after – and Sir Thomas claimed in later life that Sir John had been the reason he had proved to be such a successful businessman. Sir John also helped to finance the 1553 expedition of Willoughby and Chancellor to discover a north-east passage to China which produced instead the Muscovy Company which developed trade with Russia as an alternative to the declining Low Countries market.

Sir John’s involvement in the Mercers’ Company and the commercial world saw him play an important part in London politics. When Sir Richard became Lord Mayor of London in 1537, Sir John became Sheriff of London and Middlesex and was knighted. Sir John was elected to the Court of Aldermen in 1540 and served as Alderman of various London wards without a break until his death 16 years later. In 1547-48 Sir John became Lord Mayor of London and his time in office was marked by considerable splendour and the revival of lavish ancient pageants, such as the Marching Watch.

These trading and commercial activities also brought him into contact with some of the biggest fish in the Tudor pond of the 1520s and 1530s – Sir John became a trading agent for both Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Chief Ministers. At the time of his fall from power in 1529, Thomas Wolsey owed Sir John money for satins and cloth of gold. Sir John also emerged as a minor player at the court of Henry VIII – one of 250 or so Gentleman Pensioners who were allowed to attend Henry VIII’s Court and were given robes and occasional gifts of money from the King – a position he retained from 1526 until Henry VIII’s death in 1547. In 1543 his loyalty to Henry VIII was rewarded with an additional court title of Esquire to the Body. Indeed, Sir John began to be a bit player in the momentous events that were shaking Tudor England in the 1530s and 1540s as Henry VIII broke with Rome and carried out religious changes in England. Sir John played a small role in assisting commissioners in calculating the value of religious houses during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s – and took the opportunity to buy up lots of ex-monastic land, especially in Surrey. From 1534, Gresham took up residence in a great house at Titsey Place. He served as a juror on some of the treason trials of the 1530s and 1540s, such as those of Sir Nicholas Carewe, Lord William Howard (Queen Katherine Howard’s uncle) and Henry Howard Earl of Surrey, heir of the Duke of Norfolk. In 1541 Sir John and Sir Richard were both appointed Commissioners for Heresies and Offences Done Within the City of London – from which position they condemned several Protestants to burn on the fires of Smithfield. Sir John also played a role in valuing chantry chapels before they too were dissolved in the 1540s. Sir John attended the first meeting of Henry VIII with his new bride Anne of Cleves in 1539 and provided the accommodation for the ambassadors who travelled to England with her. As a Justice of the Peace for Surrey, he had responsibilities for raising taxes and troops for the King from the county.

In the 1540s Sir John achieved increased popularity with Henry VIII for his services in feeding Henry’s passion, war against France and Scotland. During the war with Scotland in 1542 Gresham provided wheat and provisions to supply Berwick-upon-Tweed in case of siege by the Scots. He provided men and arms for Henry’s force that invaded Boulogne in 1543-44, provided the King with canvas and buckram for tents and supplied money for building fortifications on the south coast at the Hurst and Portsmouth to guard against French raids. Gresham also financed and armed a ship, the Martin Bulley, which under license from the King attacked French and Scottish vessels – with Sir John pocketing a large share of the proceeds!

We know very little of Sir John’s personal life. In 1521, he married Mary Ipswell, with whom he had twelve children between 1522 and her death in 1538. In 1553 he married again to a fellow widower, Catherine Sampson, who died twenty years after Sir John in 1576.

We know much less about Sir John after the reign of Henry VIII – largely because the state papers are less full for this period. He spent his time divided between London and Flanders and continued his trading and financial transactions into the reigns of Edward VI and then Mary Tudor. In 1549 he witnessed the journey of the disgraced Protector Lord Somerset on his way to execution at the Tower of London, and he was a good friend of his successor Sir John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Under Mary, he served as a magistrate – and condemned men and women to death for rebelling against the Queen – and tried again to raise loans for the Crown on the international money markets, pocketing substantial sums in the process in his role of broker.

This all raises questions about Sir John’s religious sympathies. He profited from the Dissolution of the Monasteries and chantry chapels and was a good friend of London’s first Protestant Lord Mayor, Sir Rowland Hill, but he also sentenced Protestants to death and worked for Mary Tudor. Sir John was a man who had survived the unpredictable world of the court of Henry VIII, surviving the fall of Wolsey and Cromwell who had been his clients. He went on to remain a prominent figure under the sickly Protestant Edward VI and he would die in the reign of the Catholic Mary, without ever appearing to fall into serious danger. Perhaps he simply never allowed the details of religious affiliation to get in the way of a good business deal?

How did Sir John Gresham make sufficient money to be able to found a School?

Well, from what we have just learnt about Sir John’s business dealings it is not hard to see how he maximised his wealth. But in his own day he was chiefly known for usury – that is lending money at interest, and for providing King Henry VIII with the cash that he desperately needed. Essentially Sir John Gresham was a Tudor loan shark – and a very effective one at that, able to strike financial deals and to provide the Tudor monarchy with much needed credit.

Sir John was at his most effective – and ruthless – in the 1540s, a time in which Henry VIII was desperately short of cash. The Crown was effectively bankrupt – thanks to ruinously expensive wars against France and Scotland. Step forward Sir John Gresham. He helped to provide funds for Henry by raising expensive loans on the Antwerp money markets, debasing the English coinage (silver coins were watered down with copper – and Sir John actually purchased and shipped in the copper which was used to do this!) and selling off crown lands. Because the Crown was so in debt interest rates charges were sky-high – and Sir John exploited this situation to his own advantage. He loaned the King his own money in exchange for mortgages on large tracts of land. By 1546 it is reckoned Sir John had loaned Henry VIII £40,000. Sir John also profited from handling sales of royal monopolies of lead and alum.

Both Gresham brothers, Sir Richard and Sir John, were two of the most effective, ruthless, greedy and hated Tudor financiers. Sir John was accused of crafty business dealings as early as 1526, and in 1528 a German merchant accused both brothers of pursuing ‘Jewish arts’ in the financial dealings. (Jews had once performed all European usury, as lending money at interest was forbidden by Christians.) Sir John may have been the ‘Master Gresham’ who tried to bribe the new Lord Chancellor Thomas More with a New Year cup to find in his favour in a case that Gresham had pending in the Court of Chancery over which More presided. In 1532 an Antwerp merchant, Nicholuccio Vinnaciese, pleaded to Henry VIII for protection from the Gresham brothers who had had him wrongfully arrested and had attempted to destroy his credit rating amongst his fellow merchants. In 1535 Sir Francis Bigod wrote to Thomas Cromwell complaining that he ‘dare not come to London for fear of Mr. Gresham’. When Sir John Gresham died in 1556 his death was celebrated in verses which carried the following catchy Latin title – ‘The epitaph of that stupid and squalid usurer, John Gresham, a soldier who shovels human manure… who is buried in hell’. Similar verses had celebrated the demise of Sir Richard Gresham in 1549. Both men were seen as toadies of the monarchy who would undertake any act the King required of them, however ruthless or unsavoury it might be.

Why did Sir John Gresham found a Grammar School in Holt?

The important thing to remember is that Sir John was a leading member of the Worshipful Company of Mercers. This company already looked after four educational establishments, including St. Paul’s School in London, where Sir John sent his own son and heir William. So Sir John would already have been involved in the running of schools through the Mercers. Secondly, Sir John was Lord Mayor of London – and there was a strong tradition of Lord Mayors founding schools in the Tudor period – both Oundle and Bedford School were created in this way. Thirdly there was the example of two of Sir John’s closest business associates and friends, Sir Rowland Hill and Sir Andrew Judde who also founded schools and were named as overseers of Sir John’s will.

However, there were also strong local reasons for the foundation of a Grammar School in Holt. Education locally had been provided at Beeston Regis Priory by Augustinian canons – and this is where Sir John had himself almost certainly been educated. But Beeston Regis Priory was one of the last religious houses to be closed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 and that left a grammar school in Cromer as the nearest educational establishment to Holt. Sir John Gresham appears to have decided to fill that educational gap.

It was a slow birth. Sir John was clearly purchasing lands to endow a School from the mid-1540s onwards, but we know very little of this because the relevant papers were lost in the Great Fire of London of 1666. In 1546 he bought the Gresham family manor house in Holt from his brother William. Sir John’s many commitments meant that little progress was made until the early 1550s. Gresham’s dates its foundation from the Letters Patent from Queen Mary on 27th April 1555 which confirmed the endowment of a School at Holt – though building had already started attaching a School building to the Gresham family home in Holt, to aid the construction of which Sir John was already buying oak timbers.

However, Sir John would not see his School completed. In 1556 he developed the sweating sickness and died in his London home on 23 October 1556 – just seven days after he had completed the final arrangements establishing a School at Holt. He was buried two days later under a fine monument in St. Michael’s Bassishaw, his local parish church. His funeral was a lavish affair. As his burial took place on a fast day, the guests were all treated to a lavish fish supper. A later sixteenth account reported; ‘He was buried with a standard and enon of arms and a coat of armour of damask, and four pennons of arms; besides a helmet, a target and a sword, mantles and a crest, a goodly hearse and twelve dozens of escutcheons. He had four dozen of great staff torches, and a dozen of great long torches… The Church and the streets were all hung with black and arms in great store; and on the morrow three goodly masses were sung.’ He left money to the Mercers to hold a feast in his honour with the request ‘after dinner to have my soul in remembrance with their prayers’, and also more charitably left sums to fund poor maids’ marriages, purchase gowns for the elderly poor of London and made contributions to the upkeep of London prisons and hospitals. Sadly the church and splendid monument to Sir John were both entirely destroyed in the Great Fire of London 110 years later.

How did Gresham’s School end up controlled by the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers?

Sir John could not entrust his new School to the Mercers as it was too embroiled in his own affairs. Instead he opted for the Fishmongers – probably because as yet they had no schools to care for. At some point he enrolled as a fishmonger. The idea of leaving a School to the trust of a company was that it was less risky than leaving the enterprise to an individual. This was a wise decision. Sir John died suddenly and his affairs were in some chaos, especially those involving the endowment of the School which were not fully legal. The school probably opened at last in 1562 – and that was certainly when the first pupil is known to have entered the School, Edward Hammond.


I hope you emerge from this evening with a clearer picture of the founder of this School. I like to think that for all his ruthlessness – and he was hardly alone in that in the Tudor period – that his vision in creating a Grammar School in Holt atoned for some of his many sins, and that may in part have been his intention. It reminds us too that even in its creation over 500 years ago this School was never isolated in sleepy, backward Norfolk but was the product of the tempestuous world of Tudor politics, international trade and the murky world of finance. Sir John would I am sure be proud of what Gresham’s is today – but he might also be very much at home in credit crunch Britain.