The Grasshopper and The Queen
March 28, 2015Posted by on
Thomas Gresham had served three Tudor monarchs as their Royal Merchant¹ in Antwerp and had grown rich acting on their behalf. However, his success in arranging England’s financial transactions with bankers and money lenders was not always favourably received. It had also made him enemies in both financial and political circles. Some believed that he would often quite deliberately manipulate the money markets — cleverly duping them in his games of thimblerig² — disadvantaging them financially and often politically. Knowing that his activities in Antwerp and elsewhere had made him these enemies, Gresham had an awareness of danger when confronted by it. This was obviously no chance encounter with a stranger who called himself Frances Walsingham. Not only had he identified Gresham in the crowded Antwerp bourse, he had addressed him by name and acknowledged by name his two factors Clough and Spritwell. The significance of this was not lost on Gresham nor was Walsingham’s demeanour, which was that of a dangerous man who it would be unwise to cross. Hoping that his alarm was not apparent, Gresham enquired if he could be of any assistance. Speaking in a low voice, almost a whisper, Walsingham told Gresham that he was under instructions to deliver a message to him only and that they should find somewhere quiet where they be could be certain of privacy.
This Englishman is an agent acting on someone’s behalf but for what purpose? Gresham thought, and why did he say that he came to Antwerp from Padua? Gresham tried to think of anyone he had business with in Padua but no one came to mind. Playing for time, he suggested they should meet later that evening at St-Francis his home in the Lange Nieuwstraat. Walsingham’s expression was enough to tell him that this was not an option. Clough and Spritwell were now viewing the two of them apprehensively and he thought it wise to stop them taking any action that might inflame the situation, ‘Master Clough stay here and attend to business! Master Spritwell, there is a matter that I must discuss in private with this gentleman, follow us up to the galleries and ensure that we are not disturbed.’
Whatever it was that Walsingham wanted of him, it was unlikely to be life threatening if they completed their business in the galleries surrounding the bourse. Should Walsingham protest more could be read into his intent perhaps, but to Gresham’s relief he accepted the proposal. So with Spritwell following at a discrete distance, Gresham led Walsingham to a quiet spot in the galleries where their privacy could be assured. Gresham’s grim expression turned into an impulsive sardonic smile, provoking a threatening response from Walsingham.
‘If you have brought me up here to mock me, I would advise against it Sir.’
‘If I offended you, I apologise Master Walsingham. Our clandestine meeting brought to mind Thomas Cromwell, a friend to my father and a mentor to me in my youth. I think the circumstances of our meeting would have amused him greatly. Cromwell was a loyal advisor to King Henry in a clandestine world where death was not uncommon — even his own. If Cromwell were to wish you dead . . . .’ The sentence, unfinished, hung there between them as an unanswered question.
‘Had those I represent wished you dead Sir, it would have already been done.’
Gresham never doubted this curt response for a moment, any more than he doubted that his life may still hang by the thread of Walsingham’s mission to seek him out. Despite the situation he found himself in, he put on a display of bravado.
‘That I am still alive is of some relief to me then Sir, though it seems to be of little consequence to you. Now! What business do you have with me Sir?’.
‘I am requested by Sir William Cecil to escort you back to England for a meeting with him in London. Queen Mary is dying and Sir William is acting on behalf of her Royal Highness the Princess Elizabeth.’
Gresham knew that Cecil was not in favour with his employer Queen Mary, but why he hadn’t written directly to him was disconcerting. Until now he had always assumed that he and Sir William were friends, sending someone to escort him back to England now brought this friendship into question. Wondering if Walsingham was telling the truth or simply trying to trap him into revealing his loyalties, Gresham decided to question him further.
‘What shall I do if agents loyal to Queen Mary of Scotland approach me seeking my services? There are those who think she has a legitimate claim to the English crown.’
‘Sir William holds you in high regard Master Gresham and says that you are a good Protestant. Have no fear of other agents, I am the only one you will encounter. The Queen of Scotland will find little support in England, a country soon to be free of Rome has no need of foreign interlopers. I hope that Sir William’s trust in you is not misplaced and that you are not guided by your late uncle in support of Bloody Bonner’s Marian³ flames at Smithfield.’
Walsingham spoke with such vehemence that Gresham was convinced he represented Sir William Cecil. His response had also revealed that he knew something of Gresham’s family in England and probably had knowledge of his family in Antwerp. Walsingham may have revealed where his own loyalties lay but his last remark was taken as a veiled threat. As if to reinforce his own authority, Walsingham handed Gresham an unopened letter on which he recognised the seal and the hand of Sir William Cecil. It was a polite request that he attend a meeting in London to discuss his services as the Royal Merchant in Antwerp when the Royal Princess Elizabeth became the Queen. Walsingham was to accompany him to ensure his safe passage. The manner of the letter’s delivery was also clear to Gresham, he could not refuse Walsingham’s escort duties any more than he could refuse to attend the meeting. Such refusals would be taken as an indication of his loyalty, the consequences of which he preferred not to think about. With a sigh of resignation he said, ‘How soon do we leave?’
¹ Royal Merchant — a merchant acting on behalf of the monarch
² Thimblerig – a sleight of hand where contestants having to spot which of three thimbles has a pea underneath
³ Marian — a supporter of Mary Queen of England
At Sir William Cecil’s London house on Canon Row, Thomas Parry impatiently continued his grumblings, ‘This Gresham is as wily as the rest of his family! Where is he now and why do we need him? I have always taken care of Her Majesty Elizabeth’s finances.’
As much as Parry irked him, he was a kinsman and was unswervingly loyal to the Queen Elizabeth, whom they both served. In an attempt to placate him Cecil said, ‘Queen Mary’s death has given us much to do but now that Gresham and Walsingham are in London I thought it proper that we should both hear what Gresham has to say. As the monarch’s merchant in Antwerp he has successfully raised loans for the Crown and we have need of them again. I have sent for them both and they will be here shortly, then Gresham can advise us on what proposals should be put before Her Majesty Elizabeth at Hatfield House tomorrow.’
But Parry continued to rail against Gresham, ‘For all of Gresham’s machinations, we are still a nation in debt!’ adding, ‘And Walsingham! Who is this Walsingham? What’s his involvement?’.
Cecil could contain himself no longer, ‘Dammit Master Parry! Religious factions divide England, we must pray that the Bishop of London’s Marian fires have converted more to the Protestant cause than Tyndale’s Bible. As we must that the French army remains in Scotland and the Scottish Queen remains in France. Believe me, Her Majesty will have need of men like Walsingham. As for needing Gresham, did you learn nothing in the service of Thomas Cromwell! A man brought down by the intrigues of those who would replace him, who themselves met a similar fate. You well know of Sir William Dansell and Alderman William Dauntsey, whose failures as the Royal Merchant in Antwerp saw them both replaced by Gresham. Her Majesty is about to be crowned the Queen of a country destitute and in debt. Repairing the finances of a nation is not the same as being the cofferer¹ to a royal princess at Hatfield House.’
Cowed by Cecil’s outburst Parry became morose, falling silent at last. Cecil again sought to placate him, ‘Sir, I’m sorry for that outburst, we are both under a great deal of stress at this difficult time. No one has been more loyal to the Her Majesty Elizabeth than you. Your devotion to her cause is known to all. Without your military preparations to secure her person our venture would be doubly uncertain. But we have a duty to see that Her Majesty is well counselled in all matters.’
If Cecil had smoothed Parry’s truculence, he had not suppressed his sarcasm. When the arrival of Gresham and Walsingham was announced to them Parry exclaimed, ‘Ah! The golden grasshopper² has arrived at last!’.
Following their polite introductions and for Parry’s benefit, Gresham said that he would have willingly come had he been asked directly. Cecil assured him that he didn’t doubt it for one moment but a dying monarch made for dangerous times and the need for secrecy was paramount. He also wished to make sure of Gresham’s safe return to England.
The pleasantries over Parry immediately rounding on Gresham, ignoring Walsingham and any intent Cecil may have had for the conduct of their meeting, ‘You have grown wealthy in the service of three monarchs Master Gresham and yet England has become impoverished by the greed of bankers and merchants. Is this to continue?’.
Gresham replied more politely than the question was posed, ‘England has been impoverished by costly wars overseas Sir. The Court of Augmentations³ filled the royal coffers thanks to the advice of Thomas Cromwell, something that I believe you are aware of Sir. Had Cromwell lived we may not have found ourselves having to meet like this, the loss of advisors such as Cromwell remains with us. If England’s finances are in a parlous state, it may be from lack of sound advice or ignoring that which is given.’
An ‘Harrumph’ from Parry was once more followed by a morose silence.
At this, Cecil made no attempt to placate Parry. He was thinking instead, Well said Master Gresham! You, Master Parry, gravely underestimates the Queen’s resolve in these financial matters.
However, they now needed to act quickly and Cecil knew that the Queen could not casually discard so loyal a subject as Parry. For the moment at least, his loyalty to her had to be rewarded. Knowing Parry to be a vain man who would grasp any opportunity for self-aggrandisement, Cecil invited him to tell them of tomorrow’s meeting arrangements at Hatfield House. Smugly self-confident, Parry addressed them all, taking pleasure in telling Walsingham that he had not been invited to attend upon the Queen. This was met with apparent indifference by Walsingham, a response that clearly upset Parry. Quickly turning his attention to Gresham, he directed him to disclose as much as he knew about the state of England’s finances and the advice he proposed should be given to the Queen.
Gresham exchanged glances with Walsingham, and for a brief moment the exchange suggested that they shared something in common — disdain for Thomas Parry. Parry was too puffed up by his own conceit to notice anything amiss, he could only think of the knowledge that Gresham was about to deliver into his hands. Knowledge that he would put to his own advantage when they met with the Queen tomorrow. He would show her that managing England’s finances was well within his understanding. Master Parry indeed Sir William, so you think me a mere cofferer. We shall see tomorrow who is to be the master, such thoughts brought a self-satisfied smile to Parry’s face.
¹ cofferer — financial manager
² golden grasshopper — the symbol used by Thomas Gresham
³ The Court of Augmentations was both a court and a department of revenue.
Parry was pleased with the account he had just delivered to the Queen on England’s financial state and the actions that he would take to put them on a sound footing. He was sure that she could be in no doubt now that his role as her cofferer over many years, while proving his loyalty, had constrained his talents on matters of finance. That he had repeated much of what Gresham had told him the day before at Canon Row did not concern him, any more than the seemingly interminable boredom the assembly at Hatfield House had just been subjected to.
Elizabeth appeared to be quite genuine when she said to Parry, ‘I had no idea that you had any wish to be the Queen’s Agent in Antwerp Thomas. I was hoping that you would accept the appointments of a Privy Counsellor and Comptroller of the Household. But you have been my most loyal servant and if that is what you wish for you shall have it. I’m sure that Master Gresham will relinquish his position in your favour.’
That was not the answer Parry was expecting and he wondered how this young Queen could have so misunderstood him. He had no wish to go to Antwerp. He had expected to be made her Chancellor of the Exchequer, perhaps even her Secretary of State, Comptroller of the Household hardly elevated him from the position he already now held as her cofferer at Hatfield House. Desperately trying to collect his wits together for a response that would extricate him from the proposal he glanced at Cecil. In return Cecil offered him a bland smile, which concealed his thoughts that Parry was a vainglorious fool who now found himself hoisted on his own petard and who better choose his next words very carefully indeed.
Parry bowed again to Elizabeth, ‘Your Majesty is most gracious, any personal wishes I may hold will always be subordinate to those of your Majesty. It will be a privilege to serve as a Privy Counsellor and Comptroller of your Household.’
That his speech to the Queen was pure self-aggrandisement never occurred to Parry. He reconciled his disappointment with a belief in the high regard the Queen obviously had for him and confirmed by his appointment as a privy counsellor. The Queen’s misunderstanding, and her failure to appoint him to a higher office, could only be due to her being misled by the advice he had gleaned from Gresham. He now began to suspect an intrigue between Gresham and his kinsman Cecil prior to the meeting at Canon Row. If the notion of such an intrigue upset him, he gave no thoughts to his own. Despite such thoughts, he couldn’t fathom what it was that Gresham had not disclosed to him.
Elizabeth beckoned to Gresham, ‘What do you say Master Gresham, should we send you back to Antwerp as the Queen’s Merchant will we find an answer to our financial situation there?’
‘Your Majesty, our financial difficulties are largely of our own doing, the debasement of our coinage has brought about rampant inflation. If we make foreign bankers and money lenders richer by the day, it is in part because your subjects grind acorns for flour and have no money to pay taxes. England must constantly seek loans abroad as a source of revenue and in doing so finds that it must rob Peter to pay Paul’.
‘You speak frankly Master Gresham. I trust that you will always do so, though I’m grateful that you did not call my father Old Coppernose¹.’
The assembly at Hatfield were unsure whether the Queen’s remark about her father was a joke or a threat and waited in silence for Gresham to respond. Gresham smiled, he had immediately recognised someone who, like him, understood money.
‘England has many enemies You Majesty, but in banking circles it is a valued client that does not repudiate its debts. However the problem of servicing such debts and the need for further borrowing, is compounded when the exchange rate of our coinage is unfavourable compared to other specie². One of the first things we must do Your Majesty is repair our coinage.’
‘Meanwhile Master Gresham the debt remains, as does the oppression endured by my subjects. I have no wish to oppress them further with punitive taxes. I fear that I must issue more bonds if England is the raise the money it now needs.’
‘Your Majesty’s bonds are held in high esteem abroad but there would be a greater benefit if their source of finance were here in England. As for taxes Your Majesty, there is little point in taxing those who have nothing to give, nor in impoverishing those that have. Taxes will become readily available where financial opportunity exists.’
‘We must think hard on your advice Master Gresham and you can be assured that I shall always seek it in the future.’
Gresham bowed graciously to the monarch and backed away towards the gathered assembly. Knowing he was to meet later with Sir William Cecil to receive further instructions he glanced towards him. Sir William nodded and smiled, returning his smile Gresham was surprised to see Francis Walsingham there and even more surprised when Walsingham also nodded and smiled at him. Gresham thought, It seems that we may now be friends. Non of them saw the animosity with which Thomas Parry viewed them all.
¹ Old Coppernose – The layer of silver on debased coins wore off, revealing the nose of King Henry VIII in the copper base metal.
² Specie – coinage only