Signs and Symbols: The Mercers’ Maiden
Images of a crowned and robed maiden can be spotted all over central London, including at The Royal Exchange. Discover the meaning behind them
It isn’t very often that one recommends visiting a building when it is shut, but it is worth taking a look at The Royal Exchange after-hours, because that is when the gates are closed. This is the time to examine them properly (without blocking anyone’s way).
The less dramatic access on the Threadneedle Street side is a good place to begin. It may lack the porticoed grandeur of the main entrance, but it has its own story to tell. The highly ornate gates were cast by the foundry of H. and M.D. Grissell of Regent’s Canal Ironworks on Eagle Wharf Road, Hoxton.
Henry (aka ‘Iron Henry’) and his brother Martin were also responsible for the railings at Buckingham Palace and the British Museum, as well as many iron bridges around the country and abroad and cast-iron lighthouses for The Bahamas and Russia. The company’s name can be seen at the bottom of the gates.
In the centre of each half-gate is a twin red-and-white disc depicting what is known as a Mercer Maiden. The Worshipful Company of Mercers (basically merchants, initially specialising in exotic fabrics such as silk) was one of the City’s great livery companies, or guilds, which were effectively trade associations. Its charter goes back to 1394. Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of The Royal Exchange, was a member and bequeathed to the company the land on which the Exchange stands and which is still owned by the Mercers (which now acts primarily as a philanthropic organisation, raising money from its property portfolio) to this day.
But what of the Maiden? Well, variations of this symbol of a female wearing a crown, and sometimes a necklace, with expensive clothes of good fabric (of course) and long flowing hair can be spotted all over central London, especially around Covent Garden. She indicates an association, past or present, with the livery company. Sadly, the Maiden’s origins as part of the Mercers’ visual identity are unknown, although she first appears as a seal on a document as long ago as 1425 – but it wasn’t until 1911 that the Maiden was officially incorporated into the company’s’ coats of arms.
Moving to the gates behind the columns at the main entrance, at the apex is the crest of Gresham College (a place of learning founded 1597 in Sir Thomas’s old mansion in Bishopsgate) and below is the image of the man himself, holding a sword and mace, symbols of the City of London. His intertwined initials, TG, can be seen in the lower third of each gate, which are, again, the work of Iron Henry, as are the boot scrapes, still extant on either side. The two coats of arms (Plantagenet on the left; Royal Standard on the right) in the centre of each half of the gates is a reminder to the visitor that they are about to enter The Royal Exchange.
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 450 Years site, 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.
We look forward to welcoming you during 2021, for a considered shopping and dining experience in spectacular and historic surroundings. Please visit our boutiques page for regular updates on our retailers’ opening information and hours, as well as details about virtual appointments and click and collect services.