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Royal Exchange

Opened in 1569, the Royal Exchange was London’s bid to become a major player in international trade. It was an uneasy partnership of private enterprise and public good, involving the city, the monarchy, and an individual developer. Its architecture mimicked that of the Bourse in the Dutch city of Antwerp. Antwerp was Europe’s leading merchant center and England’s closest trading partner. The Exchange’s daily trading sessions took place in an open courtyard. Above were two levels of “pawn” shops where one could buy the luxury goods that international trade produced.

Chapman. Sir Thomas Gresham. Stipple engraving, 1806

Wenceslaus Hollar. Byrsa Londinensis vulgo the Royal Exchange. Etching, ca. 1644

Stephen Harrison. The arch’s of triumph erected in honor of the high and mighty prince. London, 1613

Heywood. If you know not me, you know no bodie. London, 1606

Georg von Schwartzstät. Diary. Manuscript, 1609

Wenceslaus Hollar. Winter. Etching, 1643

 Sir Thomas Gresham was a member of the Mercers’ guild who represented the crown in trade with the Dutch. Gresham arranged for the city to purchase land for the Exchange, and he paid for the building himself. Gresham imported materials and workers from Holland, leading to friction with London’s bricklayers. After his death, the city, which had been led to believe that it would inherit control over the Exchange, was surprised to find that Gresham had left partial control to the Mercers’ Company in his will.


 In Wenceslaus Hollar's etching, the Royal Exchange teems with life. The image depicts the arcaded courtyard during the daily sessions that were opened by the ringing of a bell. Hollar has carefully included some distinctive foreign traders in the scene: a pair of Muscovites on the left, notable by their fur hats. Two turbans in the center distinguish Turkish traders. The encroachment of other activity is also suggested by the woman hawking wares in the foreground.


The Dutch were the largest immigrant community in London. The Dutch merchant community sponsored one of the pageants for James I’s coronation procession, and they set it in front of the Royal Exchange. Stephen Harrison designed the highly decorative arches that were constructed for the occasion and he published a showy book of engravings. The seventeen figures representing the Dutch provinces alongside the English heroes of Protestantism, including Edward VI, remind viewers that the Dutch and English were partners in both trade and religion.


Thomas Heywood’s play, If you know not me, you know no bodie, commented on current events. Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Thomas Gresham are characters in this play, with scenes set at Elizabeth’s visit to the Exchange in 1571. But the play does not indicate what John Stow had reported: for Elizabeth’s visit, Gresham offered the few shopkeepers in the Pawn a year’s free rent if they would light up all the empty shops around them. In granting Gresham the privilege to call the building the “Royal” Exchange, Elizabeth deprived both Gresham and the city of naming rights.


Georg von Schwartzstät was a German merchant who created a diary of his travels through Europe. He illustrated his commentary with a number of cut-out engravings, maps, and — in the section on England — excerpts from Camden’s Britannia. He admired the Royal Exchange as “the ornament of the city.” He also noted the “beauty of the women who sell their goods,” a reminder of the age-old practice of using feminine beauty as a sales pitch.


In fact, the tower of the Royal Exchange looms in the background of an etching of fashionable women’s dress. Part of Wenceslaus Hollar's series of etchings of "seasons," this one is a  personification of winter. Hollar’s fine craftsmanship is apparent in the textures of dress and, especially, the fur. The inclusion of the Exchange as a winter setting suggests that its indoor shops could be a cold-weather destination.

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