A Moment in London’s History – The opening of the Royal Exchange…

This month marks the 450th anniversary of the opening of London’s Royal Exchange, a complex created to act as a commercial centre in the City of London.

The Royal Exchange in London as built by Thomas Gresham by Wenceslaus Hollar (etching, probably mid 17th century) NPG D25432 © National Portrait Gallery, London (licensed under Creative Commons)

The exchange was built on the orders – and with the funds – of the merchant Sir Thomas Gresham at a site on the junction of Cornhill and Threadneedle streets which was – and still is – jointly owned by the City of London Corporation and the Worshipful Company of Mercers.

Drawing inspiration from the Antwerp Bourse, credited as the oldest financial exchange in the world (and where Sir Thomas had served as an agent of the crown), the Royal Exchange was built in ranges around a central courtyard and designed by an architect from Antwerp.

It was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth I on 23rd January, 1571. The Queen, who was lodging in Somerset House at the time, reportedly took a detailed look at the premises – which had apparently been completed a few years earlier.

At the close of her visit, she awarded the exchange the use of the word ‘Royal’ in its title (an honour announced by a herald and with the sound of a trumpet). She also granted it a license to sell alcohol and other luxury goods.

Earlier in the day, the Queen had dined at Sir Thomas’ own house in Bishopsgate. She was later to return to Somerset House.

Gresham’s original building – to which two floors of retail had been added in 1660, creating what is said to have been England’s first shopping mall – was sadly destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

It was replaced by a second complex, this time designed by Edward Jarman, in 1669, but this too succumbed to fire, this time on 10th January, 1838. The building which now stands on the site – and is now an upmarket retail centre – was designed by Sir William Tite and was opened by another Queen, Victoria, in 1844.

Gresham’s contribution is remembered by the building’s weathervane which features a golden grasshopper – an insect featured on Sir Thomas’ crest.

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