Sir Thomas Gresham was one of the great figures of Tudor England. He was a mercer, trading in woolen cloth, silks, velvets and tapestries between England and Flanders but also acted as royal agent in the Netherlands between 1551-1564, managing the foreign debt of the English crown. Gresham's success in reducing the debts of the monarch brought him a knighthood in 1559 and considerable personal profit. He cemented his reputation with a project to build London's first bourse for merchants, the Royal Exchange. He also founded Gresham College, an educational establishment which provided seven professors to lecture to students free of charge, one on each day of the week.
Gresham's badge was the grasshopper and this can be seen, brightly enamelled on the backs of a group of seven rings, one of which is in the Museum's collection. Each ring bears the coat of arms of a distinguished figure engraved in hardstone which has been painted and gilded on the reverse to show the arms in their proper colours. The Lee ring was given to the military engineer Sir Richard Lee by Thomas Gresham. Lee is chiefly remembered for his role in improving the British fortifications of Calais and Boulogne but also the siege of Edinburgh and subsequent sack of the city.
Robert Taylor, one of the Tellers of the Exchequer was another recipient of a Gresham ring. When Taylor received his grasshopper ring, he was at the peak of his fortune and influence. Using the considerable funds he had acquired through his work at the Exchequer, he bought the manor of Great Abington from the Earl of Oxford and in 1580, built a great mansion at Babraham Place. By 1588, he had lost most of his fortune after being held responsible for the embezzlement of £7500 from a locked chest at the Exchequer by this servant William Raven. Although he was eventually pardoned by Elizabeth I, he sold Babraham Place to Sir Horatio Palavicino and never regained his former standing.
We do not know exactly why Gresham presented these rings. They appear to have been made by different goldsmiths over a period of twenty years, from the earliest ring, dated 1557 to the latest surviving ring which was dated 1575. They were expensive and highly fashionable gifts - perhaps the sight of the ring with its secret grasshopper badge served to remind the recipients of Gresham and their ties to him?