Guy deals sensitively with a treasure-house of new information about Gresham’s private life, darkened by the death of his only legitimate son, which made him redouble his efforts to secure his posthumous reputation at minimum cost to himself. John Guy reveals much of that effort as “smoke and mirrors”; much ended in disappointment and toxic human cost. All of which shows how effectively Gresham pioneered a new world economic order enduring to our own era.
Guy steers the reader through the dizzying world of Gresham’s financial and commercial transactions with the lightest touch he can muster. And this important biography deserves a wide readership, as the story of Gresham’s career in the service of the crown presents a new optic on the famous events of the mid-Tudor age, allowing us to view them from the perspective of the City rather than Whitehall. Gresham knew – and performed services for – almost everyone significant at court. We observe him personally delivering a jewel shaped like a Habsburg eagle to Queen Mary and sourcing silk, tapestries, clocks, shirts, stockings, maps, velvet chairs and sausages for Elizabeth’s chief ministers Robert Dudley and William Cecil. At the famous moment of Elizabeth’s accession, when would-be statesmen and courtiers were racing to pay homage to the new queen at Hatfield, Gresham was pelting back from Antwerp to join the scrum, arriving splattered in mud but nevertheless securing reappointment as the crown’s banker at the first meeting of the new Privy Council.
Guy’s handling of this story offers an often vivid picture of the private world in which Gresham moved. But it is difficult not to feel that, when it comes to discussing Gresham’s career, he is thwarted by the aridity of his subject’s profession, as when he (almost comically) alerts us to the revelation that Gresham’s journal is (steady yourself) “the earliest example from anywhere in the British Isles of double-entry book-keeping”. Equally difficult to ignore is the relentlessly cliched texture of Guy’s prose: “The fact that she received his letter in stony silence should have sounded alarm bells”; “he was exhilarated by the sheer cut and thrust of the markets. He had his finger on their pulse”.
This is a pity, for within the onslaught of infelicities the patient reader will find much in these pages that overturns our prevailing assumptions about the true nature and significance of a man the Victorians sought to sanctify.
But Guy makes this unappealing character and his dry account books come to life as he hustles back and forth between London and Antwerp. He captures the excitement and danger of liquid markets, rigging rates and closing deals, showing that Tudor kings and queens were nothing without their bankers.
Guy has had access to many previously unseen Gresham-related documents, and through the mists of time a picture of the man does emerge. For a financial wizard, his own business records were uncommonly muddled, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest he could be quite tiresome...The subject matter is often dry, entailing detailed discussion of interest and exchange rates, but Guy presents it with clarity and authority, and seeing how Gresham trained his ingenuity and cunning on every problem is really something to behold.
Gresham’s Law is 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. In Gresham’s Law, the man finally emerges from the mists of Victorian myth.