All that Glisters is not Gold

All that Glisters is not Gold

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The City of London has been a key centre of trading since its foundation by the Romans.  As part of our special season of Shakespeare walks to mark the 400th anniversary of his death, David Charnick explores how one aspect of this defining characteristic influenced Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists.

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A Moroccan prince, faced with three caskets – one of gold, one of silver, one of lead – has to choose one of them in hopes of winning a beautiful and intelligent wife. Selecting the golden casket, he finds out that he has chosen wrongly when he reads an enclosed rhyme which begins, ‘All that glisters is not gold’.

Goldsmiths HallThis scene is played out in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, dating from 1594, but the warning held within the golden casket recalls the necessity of the assay, or the assessment of precious metals.

This assessment is fundamental to the purpose, past and present, of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, one of The City of London’s livery companies.

The Assay

In 1279 Edward I of England withdrew all existing silver pennies and had them reminted to improve their quality. This was a king concerned about currency; he also moved the London Mint into the Tower of London, and introduced measures to guard against coin clipping. In 1300 he enacted a statute requiring that all silver articles must meet the sterling standard (92.5% pure silver), and that such articles were to be marked with the royal symbol of the leopard’s head.

Leopard's headThe four wardens of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths (established in 1327) were required to visit the City’s goldsmiths (who worked in gold and silver) and to test their wares.

In time however the wardens found it impractical to visit London’s increasing number of goldsmiths, and so in 1478 the Assay Office was created at Goldsmiths’ Hall, where items made of precious metal had to be brought to be tested. In fact, the office is still there, and is thus the oldest company in Britain still to be trading from its original address.

In 1544 the London Assay Office was allowed to adopt the leopard’s head as its mark, to distinguish it from the other assay offices which were to be established in England. The device features on the Company’s arms, and has been incorporated into the gateway to the former churchyard of St John Zachary on Gresham Street, across from the Hall. The other three remaining Assay Offices in the United Kingdom are identified by the anchor (Birmingham), the Yorkshire rose (Sheffield) and the castle (Edinburgh).

True or False?

Eastward HoeThe ability or otherwise to assess authenticity defines the portrayal of the goldsmith in the City comedies of the Shakespearean period, as is illustrated by Touchstone, the goldsmith at the heart of Eastward Ho! This comedy dates from 1605, and was co-authored by Ben Jonson, George Chapman and John Marston (it was usual for plays of the period to be co-written by two or more authors).

Touchstone’s name invokes an assaying tool which has been used since ancient times: a small tablet of stone such as slate which takes a visible trace when stroked with a soft metal such as gold. This trace can be tested to reveal how pure the gold is, and indeed whether it is actually genuine. Thus, early in the play, Touchstone is able to assess the respective worth of his two apprentices, Quicksilver and Golding.

By contrast, the goldsmith at the centre of Thomas Middleton’s 1613 comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is easily deceived.

Chast Mayd in CheapsideYellowhammer is not able to see the deceptions all too apparent to the audience because, as his name suggests, he does not look below the surface. Yellowhammer’s name invokes the practice of gilding.

In the days before plating with gold (or silver) had been developed, the usual technique used to make items look like gold was to gild them. A piece of gold would be hammered out until a very fine foil, which could be applied to an item of a less valuable metal. Most frequently this would be silver, which was then called silver gilt, but the technique could be applied to bronze. Indeed the same technique could be used on wood, as in the manufacture of picture frames.

Yellowhammer’s name reflects the gold residue on the hammer used for gilding, and so suggests his preoccupation with surface appearances. As a result he is deceived over and again. Indeed his prospective son-in-law, Sir Walter Whorehound, refers to the process when speaking to the Welsh prostitute he has brought with him. He tells her how he will make her socially respectable by marrying her to a goldsmith’s son: ‘I bring thee up to turn thee into gold, wench’. Gilded objects look like gold, though they aren’t gold.

The Bankers

When Yellowhammer disrupts his daughter’s clandestine marriage, he announces his stern intention to keep her secure: ‘I shall lock up this baggage / As carefully as my gold’.

The security of their premises meant that, by the sixteenth century, London’s goldsmiths were looking after deposits of money for London’s wealthier citizens – for a consideration. It is therefore among the goldsmiths that private banking developed, noticeably on Lombard Street, traditionally the home of Italian bankers from the thirteenth century.

The western half of 67-70 Lombard Street is decorated with a number of grasshoppers, noticeably a giant gilded grasshopper perching at first-floor level and looking down at the passers by. This 1932 building covers the site of a Gresham's Grasshopperhouse, 68 Lombard Street, which is known to have been occupied in 1560 by Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of the Royal Exchange. In the days before numbering (Lombard Street was not numbered until 1770) buildings were identified by signs, and the grasshopper identified Gresham’s house, the family device of the Greshams being the grasshopper.

The inscription above the giant insect reads ‘15 · TG · 63’. Gresham, though a mercer, is believed to have started a goldsmith’s practice here in 1563. In fact, Sir Randolph Heal’s 1935 survey The London Goldsmiths 1200-1800 lists him living here as a goldsmith between 1549 and 1579 (the year Gresham died).

The tenancy was taken in 1584 by Richard Martin, called to the livery of the Goldsmiths in 1558 and designated by Heal as ‘goldsmith & banker’. One of generations of goldsmiths, Richard appears to have laid the foundations for the family’s private bank, which grew from 68 Lombard Street when in 1703 Thomas Martin entered into partnership there with Andrew Stone, whose clerk he had been since 1699.


Martin’s Bank (later Martins Bank, without the apostrophe) operated in various forms until it was swallowed by the Barclays Group in 1969. Its Lombard Street branch is now serviced offices. Indeed Lombard Street itself, once the heart of banking where the poet T.S. Eliot and humorist P.G. Wodehouse once worked, is such no longer, the bulk of the commercial banking industry having moved east in the 1980s to the enterprise zone established on the Isle of Dogs.

TouchstoneHowever, the Company of Goldsmiths remains at the heart of the world of precious metals. As has been mentioned, the Assay Office still operates from Goldsmith’s Hall, which has occupied the site since 1339.

In 1975 the Goldsmiths also became responsible for assaying items made of platinum, and in 2010 palladium.

Another function performed by the Company is the Trial of the Pyx, which they have carried out since appointed to do so by the 1870 Coinage Act. One of the longest established judicial procedures in this country, the Trial was established in the twelfth century and involves examining coins produced at the Royal Mint to ensure that they meet statutory requirements.


Much Ado About Trading is just one of the walks David will be running as part of our April Shakespeare season, check his walks page for his full schedule and booking details.

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