Gresham’s Law: The Life and World of Queen Elizabeth I’s Banker

Sir Thomas Gresham, c.1563; oil on panel by Anthonis Mor © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Thomas Gresham was arguably the first true wizard of global finance. He rose through the mercantile worlds of London and Antwerp to become the hidden power behind three of the five Tudor monarchs. Today his name is remembered in economic doctrines, in the institutions he founded (the Royal Exchange, Gresham College) and in the City of London’s position at the economic centre of the Earth.

Without Gresham, England truly might have become a vassal state. His manoeuvring released Elizabeth from a crushing burden of debt and allowed for vital military preparations during the wars of religion that set Europe ablaze. Yet his deepest loyalties have remained enigmatic, until now.

Drawing on vast new research and several startling discoveries, the great Tudor historian John Guy recreates Gresham’s life and singular personality with astonishing intimacy. He reveals a survivor, flexible enough to do business with merchants and potentates no matter their religious or ideological convictions. Gresham’s mind was a calculating engine, yet his personal relationships were disturbingly transactional. Smuggler and arms dealer, extortioner backed by royal authority, he was a figure of cold unsentimentality even to members of his own family.

Elizabeth, England’s steely young queen, increasingly found herself at odds with Gresham’s ambitions. In their collisions and wary accommodations, we see our own conflicts between national sovereignty and global capital foreshadowed. A story of adventure and jeopardy, greed and cunning, loyalties divided, mistaken or betrayed, this is a biography fit for a merchant prince. Five hundred years after Gresham’s birth, now is the time to reckon up his legacy.

Published 20th May 2019
Profile Books

A serious, but entertaining study built on exceptional scholarship and deep-mining of the archival records. The text is never bone dry, and detailed explanation of the research on finance is matched at all times with crystal clear writing and an eye for human interest… Guy has produced a riveting account of the life and legacy of a significant figure.

Iain Martin, The Times

As John Guy points out in his definitive biography, Gresham’s “law” was an inaccurate Victorian invention that misunderstood the true brilliance of Gresham’s ability over nearly four decades to manipulate exchange rates, settle his sovereigns’ debts and smuggle just about every commodity, from bullion to munitions, across the Low Countries, Spain and even Muslim Morocco in an attempt to keep the state afloat — while also lining his own pockets.

Jerry Brotton, The Financial Times

In light of Gresham’s Victorian celebrity, it is remarkable that John Guy’s impressive new biography of him, written to mark the quincentenary of his birth, is the first to appear since Burgon’s life of 1839 .… Guy’s portrait is of a man single-mindedly motivated by a desire to enrich himself and advance his family socially, whose financial dealings involved skulduggery and deception, who exploited his father’s will to the detriment of his aggrieved siblings, stripped the assets of his stepchildren’s estates and tried to swindle his illegitimate daughter out of her marriage portion.

Alexandra Gajda, The Literary Review

As Guy’s carefully researched biography reveals, Gresham’s was a position of particular risk. In addition to the standard precarity of Tudor power-proximity, he courted all the dangers involved in the ups and downs of quasi-legal smuggling activities and vast-scale high-jinks on the international currency markets …. Guy, with some 10 books on the period under his belt, is an expert guide, and a capable storyteller too.

Tim Smith-Laing, The Daily Telegraph

John Guy’s fine and learned biography, ‘Gresham’s Law,’ reminds us how much has changed about finance in 500 years … Gresham’s story, in Mr. Guy’s expert hands, is the chronicle of the stirrings of modern finance in a time of religious and political upheaval.

James Grant, Wall Street Journal
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