Signs and Symbols: Gresham’s grasshopper
Thomas Gresham’s golden grasshopper weathervane, perched atop The Royal Exchange, was just one of many symbolising his stamp on the City
When Sir Thomas Gresham’s long-cherished idea of a Royal Exchange finally opened in 1571, there were many grasshoppers in place, a veritable swarm of them in fact. There was a Corinthian column topped with one outside the north entrance, another perched above the belltower acting as a weathervane, with carvings of the insects at each corner of the building and petite versions adorning every dormer window.
This noisy hopper was selected as the Exchange’s motif because it forms part of the Gresham coat of arms. It is possible it became a family symbol because in the English language of the time gres was the term for grass. However, there is a legend that a certain Roger de Gresham was a 13th-century foundling, abandoned in the long grass of the Norfolk marshes and was only discovered by a passing woman who was attracted by the chirping of some grasshoppers. He went on to found the bloodline that led to Sir Thomas and always honoured the little animals that saved his young life.
Whatever the truth, it isn’t such a strange device to adopt as part of the Gresham crest – in heraldry, the inclusion of a grasshopper symbolises nobility and wisdom. When the original Royal Exchange was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, the orthopteran weather vane was incinerated.
A new, larger version was incorporated into the second incarnation of the Exchange – along with smaller siblings decorating each roof rib – a building which itself fell victim to a conflagration in 1838. Still, that eleven-foot-long gilded copper grasshopper is nothing if not a survivor and it now sits proudly on the roof of the current building, having weathered that particular firestorm.
Interestingly, there are other grasshoppers in the area – on the façade of The Royal Exchange itself, along Change St, on the site of Garroway’s Coffee House (mentioned by Dickens) and on a hanging sign on Lombard Street, marking the spot of a goldsmith’s owned by Gresham, which bears the date 1563, making it a contemporary of the very first one that perched atop The Royal Exchange all those years ago.
Officially opened by HRH Queen Elizabeth I in 1571, The Royal Exchange celebrates its 450th anniversary this year. Our Signs and Symbols series, by author and journalist Rob Ryan, explores the design secrets in and around The Royal Exchange’s magnificent façade.
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 as we commemorate this special milestone throughout the year ahead