While higher education may something we generally associate with more recent historical eras, London’s oldest higher educational institution in fact was founded in the dying years of the 16th century.

Thomas-GreshamGresham College was founded in 1597 by Sir Thomas Gresham (pictured, right) – son of Lord Mayor Sir Richard Gresham and the man behind the construction of the Royal Exchange (see our earlier post on Sir Thomas Gresham here) – according to instructions in his will (Sir Thomas died in 1579).

Under the terms of the will, part of his estate was left to the City of London Corporation and the Mercer’s Company and it is these who founded the organisation according to his request and still operate via the Joint Grand Gresham Committee.

According to the will’s terms, the corporation were to appoint professors in divinity, astronomy, geometry and music while the Mercer’s Company were given the responsibility of appointing professors in law, physic and rhetoric (a chair in commerce was added in 1985). There are also currently a number of visiting professorships.

The college – which was founded to provide free public lectures on subjects of scientific interest – is  governed by a council with the Lord Mayor of London as its president.

Sir Thomas’ mansion in Bishopsgate (now the site of what was formerly known as the NatWest Tower) was the college’s first home. Professors, whose salaries were met by rental income from the Royal Exchange, continued giving lectures there until 1768.

Various locations around the city were later used for the college before the opening of a new college building in Gresham Street in 1842. It moved again in 1991 and is now based at Barnard’s Inn Hall in Holborn.

Among the professors who have held chairs at the college are architects Sir Christopher Wren (astronomy) and Robert Hooke (geometry) as well as Richard Chartres, current Bishop of London (divinity).

The college, which doesn’t enrol students as such and doesn’t award degrees, continues to provide more than 100 free public lectures every year and is also involved in running seminars and conferences and other initiatives.

For a detailed history of Gresham College, check out Richard Chartres’ and David Vermont’s book on the college’s history – www.gresham.ac.uk/greshamftp/historygreshm_bk2.pdf. For more on the college and its programme of events, see www.gresham.ac.uk. Lectures are available online.

Remembered primarily for having founded the Royal Exchange as a centre for commerce in London and Gresham College, Sir Thomas Gresham was one of London’s leading merchants and financiers and an important advisor to successive monarchs during the sixteenth century.

Gresham was born in Milk Lane, London, to merchant Sir Richard Gresham (himself Lord Mayor of London in 1537-38) around 1518-19. He studied at Cambridge before being apprenticed to learn the family trade with his uncle, Sir John Gresham.

In 1543, he was admitted to the Mercers’ Company and subsequently spent time in the Low Countries, residing principally in Antwerp and acting as an agent for King Henry VIII. In 1544 he married Anne Fernley, widow of another London merchant. He also had a house in Lombard Street at this time.

Sir Thomas became an important advisor  to King Edward VI, helping him alleviate financial concerns, a role he continued to play during the successive reigns of Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I (although he spent some time out of favor during Mary’s reign).

Knighted for his services to the crown in 1559, he proposed to built his ‘exchange’ in 1565, offering to pay for it himself if the City of London and Mercers’ Company provided the land. Modelled on the bourse in Antwerp with a trading floor and shops and offices set around a large central courtyard, it was officially awarded the title ‘royal’ by Queen Elizabeth I in 1571.

Sir Thomas died suddenly in 1579, apparently of a heart attack, and left the majority of his wealth to his widow but included clauses in his will stating that after her death rents from the Royal Exchange be used to create a college which would see seven professors offer free lecturers on subjects ranging from astronomy and geometry to rhetoric and divinity.

Known as Gresham College, it became the first institution of higher education in London when it was founded in 1597 and was initially based at Sir Thomas’ mansion in Bishopsgate (it’s now based in Barnard’s Inn Hall and, as it has for the past 400 years, still offers free public lectures).

In 1666, Sir Thomas’ Royal Exchange burnt down along with much of London but it was rebuilt immediately afterward (King Charles II laid the foundation stone of the new building) and rebuilt again following another fire in 1838 (at the time the building was largely occupied by two insurance companies, one of which was Lloyds of London).

It’s this third building, designed by Sir Thomas Tite to resemble the original plan, which stands on the site today. While trading has long since ceased there – it’s now a luxury-end shopping centre – Sir Thomas’s symbol, the gold ‘Gresham Grasshopper’, can still be seen on the weathervane. For more information on the Royal Exchange, see www.theroyalexchange.co.uk.