The family originally came from the village of Gresham in North Norfolk, and must have got their Grasshopper crest from being the village squires in the middle ages. The similarity of sound suggests as much. James Gresham is referred to as the local agent of the Paston family in the Paston Letters. In the mid-fifteenth century they migrated all of five miles to the market town of Holt. Richard Gresham was born there in 1485; he was apprenticed to the Worshipful Company of Mercers of London in the last years of Henry VII’s reign. He later went into partnership with his brothers John and William and between them they began to make money hand over fist.
Mercers were dealers in textiles, and this formed the principal part of their trade, but the Gresham brothers were interested in anything which would turn them a profit. As well as exports of woollen cloth they imported grain from Germany, wine from France and exotic goods from Turkey and Russia. All were handled by ships belonging or lent to the Greshams.
Richard became especially close to his fellow East Anglian Cardinal Wolsey, and did much to find the continental wall hangings that decorated his new palace at Hampton Court. When the Cardinal was on his death-bed, abandoned, alone and charged with High Treason, he wrote of his ‘fast-friend’, Richard Gresham. Richard paid for the funeral of Wolsey, although this was a muted affair at Leicester Abbey, where the Cardinal was interred without ceremony or memorial.
Richard and John were influential in the City Corporation of London, both becoming Lords Mayor, Richard in 1537 and John ten years later. Both were knighted in recognition of their services. The brothers were not ashamed to indulge in dubious financial arrangements; these would be regarded as sharp practices today, and even in the sixteenth century these actions got them many enemies. But their great wealth protected them; the government was permanently short of money and the Gresham brothers were experts at negotiating foreign loans. Richard was elected MP in the mid 1530s, and served again in the Parliament of 1545; both he and John acquired titles in the Royal Household.
Richard’s son Thomas went on to even greater heights during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He was apprenticed to his uncle John and was admitted to the livery of the Mercers’ Company in 1543. As their agent in the Low Countries Thomas became adept at financial arrangements and was able to rescue the pound from impending disaster. For this the government was extremely grateful and rewarded him with grants of land. All the Greshams benefited enormously from the Reformation, as plenty of the Church’s former lands came their way, either as gifts from the Crown or by purchase. Thomas Gresham provided the capital needed for the Royal Exchange building, which was officially opened in 1571. It was modelled on the Antwep bourse and became the focus of London’s burgeoning importance as a financial centre, a position that it still retains. A few years before his death in 1579 he established the first successful paper mill in England, on the river Brent in Middlesex. Before this corn mill was converted to produce paper all the books printed in this country had to use imported material. This paper had to come from the Low Countries, where Gresham would have got the skilled workers the mill needed.
For all the ruthless business practices displayed by these family members, they all had an abiding interest in education. Richard sent his son Thomas to university at Cambridge, a highly unusual course of action for someone destined for a life in trade. They bequeathed much of their wealth in endowments that have provided for education in England down the centuries. Sir Thomas left instructions to establish Gresham College in London, which was to provide lectures on academic subjects. These lectures are free to all members of the public; the college has no formal students and awards no degrees. It is a highly democratic institute of Higher Education, and is unique in its constitution. This opened in 1597 and has been giving lectures ever since.
It is assumed that the brothers Richard and John Gresham were educated by the Augustinian canons at Beeston Regis Priory near Sheringham. This school closed as the result of the seizure of Church lands by Henry VIII. To address the ensuing shortage of educational facilities in North Norfolk Sir John established a Grammar School in Holt. In 1546 he began to purchase land around Holt with a view to endowing the school. As a younger son he had not inherited the Manor at Holt, and so he had to buy the property that was to form the basis of the school. He passed this endowment to the Fishmongers’ Company shortly before his death in 1556, and they still govern the school today. For more than three centuries this country Grammar School provided a modest education for the sons of the local gentry, sending one or two scholar every now and then to Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, from which they would emerge as doctors, lawyers or clergymen. But in the last years of the nineteenth century it was transformed into a Public School of national acclaim. A number of leases on property in central London had fallen due for renewal, and this provided the huge sums of money that were invested in the school. New boarding houses and a chapel were built. Just one pupil of the old foundation remained. The recently opened Holt railway station became a magnet for pupils from across the land. Since the refoundation of the school Gresham’s has produced such figures as the Scot Lord Reith, founder of the BBC, the Yorkshire born poet W. H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten and inventor Sir James Dyson. Although most pupils of the Public School are the sons (and since the latter part of the twentieth century the daughters) of the wealthy, the school provides scholarships to members of the local community who have the wish and ability to benefit from the education provided. This in the spirit of the original Free Grammar School, which would educate any suitable candidates from the Holt area gratis, although the boarders had to pay.
Widely despised during their lifetimes, the Greshams have been responsible for much good done since their deaths.