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Celebrating 450 years of The Royal Exchange

A look back on the triumphs and tribulations of The Royal Exchange as we commemorate a milestone in the history of this iconic City of London building

450 years of The Royal Exchange

On 23 January 1571, with a jubilant crowd at her feet, Queen Elizabeth I officially opened The Royal Exchange. With the royal seal of approval, and an all-important license to sell alcohol and valuable goods, merchant Sir Thomas Gresham’s ambitious vision was finally realised. Almost half a millennia on, having endured world wars, plague and devastating fires, The Royal Exchange still stands

Gresham, a well-known merchant to the crown – who is sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of English Banking’ – was inspired to create a London exchange by his many business trips to Antwerp, the financial hub of North-West Europe at the time.

‘His [Gresham’s] view was that, if London had somewhere like the Bourse in Antwerp, that would help the merchants do their business,’ explains Vanessa Harding, professor of London History at Birkbeck University. ‘What’s interesting, and slightly ironic, is the changes that took place over the next century that Gresham couldn’t possibly have foreseen, which is the expansion into a world economy and a shift away from the close continental links. That’s really what makes The Royal Exchange such a vital place in the growth of the City of London.’

"The fact that The Royal Exchange has been rebuilt from scratch twice suggests the importance that people attach to it"

Professor Vanessa Harding

Gresham may have had to forsake hanging his own name above the door (as it were) in favour of a regal title, but his integral role as the founder of The Royal Exchange is commemorated in the form of a golden grasshopper weathervane, taken from the Gresham family crest, that sits on top of the building.

The City of London during Gresham’s time was a busy place; far more domestic than we would recognise it today, with a mixture of classes, tradesmen and merchants. It was also undergoing a population explosion. The expansion of London during this time was due to people migrating from the countryside to the prosperous capital. But as the City of London — i.e. the original ‘London’ — grew exponentially, Greater London, (as we know it now) had to expand beyond the literal walls of the City. The City Square Mile, as it’s sometimes referred to, has always maintained a unique identity and idiosyncratic rules, such as having its own police force and representation in parliament. Professor Harding describes the City as being ‘left behind’ as London expanded, but very much ‘by its own choice’.

Queen Elizabeth I officially opened The Royal Exchange in 1571 Queen Elizabeth I officially opened The Royal Exchange in 1571

Before The Royal Exchange was established, Lombard Street and its environs were full of merchants undertaking business, but this central new hub meant they had a place to convene. Gresham’s vision was directly taken from the Bourse in Antwerp, and he enlisted the services of renowned Flemish architect Hans Hendrik van Paesschen to design it with his signature Classical flair. But Gresham’s real stroke of genius was adding two floors above the bustling trading floor (now the Courtyard), filled with around 100 retailers selling luxury goods. This meant that The Royal Exchange attracted regular folk alongside merchants and brokers, in much the same way that shoppers and professionals congregate under its ornate roof today. Not only was The Royal Exchange the first purpose-built trading floor in the country, it was also Britain’s first covered shopping mall.

Trading was the beating heart of The Royal Exchange for centuries, with stock and insurance brokers positioning themselves in and around the building. ‘For a very long period it was absolutely where you would go to get information and to meet the people you needed to meet,’ says Professor Harding. ‘It’s the information centre of the City and that’s really important.’

"Not only was The Royal Exchange the first purpose-built trading floor in the country, it was also Britain's first covered shopping mall"

Inevitably, catastrophe and conflict are also major factors in the story of The Royal Exchange. Gresham’s original building was destroyed 95 years after it opened — along with one-third of the city — in the Great Fire of London. Three years later, City surveyor Edward Jerman launched a second, Baroque-style building on the same site, but in a dramatic twist of irony, this also burned to the ground in 1838.

The third (and, hopefully, final) Royal Exchange opened in 1844. Architect Sir William Tite’s design harks back to Gresham’s original building but with the addition of a grand eight-column entrance, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. Queen Victoria officially opened the building in October 1844 and, to this day, royal proclamations are made on these stately steps.

The architecture of The Royal Exchange is one of its defining features. As its surroundings evolve with the changing times — fusing architectural relics with shiny new skyscrapers — it stands proud and imposing at the heart of the action. It is, of course, a historically significant building, but Professor Harding points out that it is also an early example of ‘business architecture’; a Victorian interpretation of a Classical style that has been replicated around the world, from Sydney to Shanghai.

‘The fact that they had the opportunity to rebuild [The Royal Exchange] in the 1840s means they had the opportunity to ask, “what does a Royal Exchange look like?”,’ explains Harding. ‘That was a real moment in which the City and Mercers could agree on the face they wanted to present. The fact that it has been rebuilt from scratch twice suggests the importance that people attach to it. They don’t think, “Oh well, it’s burned down, let’s do something different.” It’s basically, we want the same but we want it in the way that represents the City now.’

The third (and current) iteration of The Royal Exchange was opened in 1844 by Queen Victoria The third (and current) iteration of The Royal Exchange was opened in 1844 by Queen Victoria

Having endured two world wars, The Royal Exchange went through prolonged abandonment and something of an identity crisis in the 20th century. In 1953 it even became the temporary home of The Mermaid Theatre, hosting productions in the Courtyard. It wasn’t until 2001 that the Grade I-listed building had a much-needed renaissance when it was reimagined as a luxury shopping and dining destination. As home to niche and high-end artisans, architects Aukett Swanke paid homage to the building’s heritage in their sensitive redesign. The addition of Fortnum & Mason to the central Courtyard in late 2018 was the icing on the cake.

The past 450 years have been triumphant and tumultuous. As The Royal Exchange celebrates its momentous anniversary, it does so in the midst of one of its greatest challenges to date, with the ongoing global pandemic. But as both a pioneer and a survivor, it serves as a reflection of the changing City it calls home, and an icon of heritage, style and excellence.

Professor Vanessa Harding is a professor of London history, with a specialist interest in medieval and early modern London, and the interaction of social life and physical environment. She is based at the department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London.

Officially opened by HRH Queen Elizabeth I in 1571, The Royal Exchange celebrates its 450th anniversary this year. Visit our heritage page to learn more about the history of The Royal Exchange and keep an eye on our Journal and Instagram for more fascinating facts and insights about The Royal Exchange’s past and present