London: Origins of a Modern City

Leo Hollis

What role did tragedy, marriage, poisoning and accusations of lunacy play in the evolution of London’s identity in the 17th century?
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London: Origins of a Modern City

If there ever was a revolution in 17th century Britain, it did not occur on the battlefields of the 1640s between the forces of the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. It was a slower, more evolutionary transformation that spanned a whole generation, sparking in the mid-century and only coming to fruition in the 1690s. For Marxist historians, this was the germination of the ‘bourgeois revolution’, the dialectical transition from aristocratic rule to the emerging merchant classes, and it found fertile ground in London soil.

This longer revolution is the focus of my first book, Phoenix: The Men Who Made Modern London, which charts the trajectory of the lives of the generation that grew up during the tumult of the Civil Wars, and came to adulthood during the Restoration. I tell this story through five men; architect and astronomer Sir Christopher Wren, polymath Robert Hooke, aesthete John Evelyn, political philosopher John Locke, and speculator Nicholas Barbon, who came to London and changed the worlds of politics, philosophy, science, taste, finance, trade and architecture. In particular, the book shows how from the ashes of the 1666 Great Fire, this generation of extraordinary men changed London, and set the foundations of the modern world.

Taking into account the pneumatic air pump, the engineering of St Paul’s Cathedral, the street plan of the West End, the formation of knowledge, the manufacture of luxury goods (such as the pendulum clock), the terms of trade that propelled the emerging Empire, elegant volumes of arguments for a truly English culture, and the mathematical universe, the book asked what was so modern about the 17th century city.

First, is the question of size. In 1600 the city’s population was 200,000; by 1700, it was over 500,000, possibly the largest city in the world. In terms of scale, the metropolis had exploded in size, reaching from the docks in the east, to Westminster in the west. The rebuilding program following the 1666 conflagration galvanised many different parts of the city’s genius, including: new rules of urban planning, innovations in construction trades and speculative developments, streets and squares rising out of the rural hinterlands of the old city to create new neighbourhoods, and new ways of living.

But modernity means more than just the topography of the city. The ideas that flowed through the city also revived byways, from the means of negotiations and trade, the philosophical and political questions that determined how to see the world, and to each other. In one way, these traumatising events of their childhood and early adulthood forced a new set of questions upon this generation: who has the right to power? What is profit? Where is God? How do you measure time? What is man’s obligation to his fellow man? These are the same questions we ask ourselves today, and we continue to return to their first articulations in order to launch our own search.

My new book, Inheritance, looks at the same period, and observes the formation of the modern metropolis, but through an entirely different lens. Firstly, it is the story of a woman, Mary Davies. Therefore, it raises questions of gender and class, existential differences that complicate and enrich our understanding of the historic city. Secondly, while the first book looks at the dealings of men within the spaces of the city, Inheritance looks at the question of land, in particular property, a thoroughly modern commodity that we overlook too often when we are considering the past.

My interest in this story is present-centred. I began my research with a completely different question: who owns London today? I had originally been looking at the housing crisis and how, when we think about so many parts of the modern city, we look at the buildings and the infrastructure flows of the urban environment. It is often assumed that housing is concerned only with the supply and distribution of houses. But this is not true. The question of land is indelibly linked to the question of the form and functions of the city. This convinced me of the obvious but overlooked fact that whoever owns the land, controls the city.

Sir Thomas Grosvenor

Inheritance is the story of an heiress, Mary Davies, and her estate, the Manor of Ebury, a plot of land west of the capital that became the compass of her life. It is a narrative of tragedy, leaseholds, marriage negotiations, long journeys across Europe, court cases, poisoning and accusations of lunacy. It is the narrative of a woman and her right to own property in a century where new ideas of ownership were formulated, and the notion of private property was sanctified as the bedrock of modern politics.

One can still find the delineation of the Great Estates in London today. The names of the distinguished landowners, who have made their fortunes from developing and speculating upon the ground beneath our feet, are etched into urban spaces: grand houses, street names, neighbourhoods. Some aristocratic landlords have risen, others have collapsed, but the overbearing power of private property has remained constant. It is London’s north star.

It is surprising how much of a life one can glean from a bundle of legal documents. Other than a scattering of letters written in her own hand, Mary Davies’ biography is solely written in deeds, covenants, leases and contracts. There is also a brief description of her life written by her mother, but this was as a justification of her duty of care, rather than a true picture of the young girl’s upbringing. A single painted portrait from the middle of her life shows the viewer how she saw herself. Court papers accumulate evidence of her tragedy. These are the raw materials at hand when attempting to restore Mary’s story and the history of her inheritance. Each contract tells of a place, and an exchange of obligations, but also acts as a crystallisation of a moment. Together, these documents chart the pathways of a life like boundary markers along the route.

Property and marriage are the warp and weft through which Mary’s tapestry is woven. Thus, the truth of her life, and much of the drama, was attached to the inheritance that weighed upon her every move, informing the intentions of those around her: her mother, suitors, her husband, confidantes and confident men.

Most histories of London tell the story of Mary as a scrivener’s daughter, who inherited a large swathe of land to the west of the city after her father’s death during the Great Plague of 1665. This inheritance makes the young heiress a valuable commodity on the marriage market, and her mother first negotiates a deal with Lord Berkeley when Mary is only ten years old, only for the deal to fall through. Nonetheless, a new husband is found two years later. Mary, now 12, approaches the altar at St Clements Dane, the church where her grandfather is vicar, and marries Sir Thomas Grosvenor, a member of the Cheshire gentry, recently returned from the grand tour. Mary finally travels to her new home when she is 15 and becomes a wife and mistress of the recently rebuilt Eaton Hall. Over the next 15 years, she has six children.

In most accounts, the story skips at least 20 years to the second decade of the next century, and the development of Mary’s inheritance by her three sons, who create the illustrious address of Grosvenor Square and the wider neighbourhood of Mayfair. This has remained some of the most expensive real estate in the world. The story is told often to reveal three things. First, the union of the city with the gentry, the meeting of urban power and rural class, and a significant post-Civil War social mixing that indicated the rise of the urban merchant class. Second, the salacious revelations of teenage marriage, and how young Mary was effectively sold off by her mother on the marriage market. Third, the seeming inevitability of the development of her estate from farmland to square from 1720 onwards, and the city we see today.

But this standard account misses out a dramatic court case, one that the family usually covers under the shroud of ‘the tragedy’, and one that could have changed the course of London history. In 1700, Mary was 35, a mother to three boys with another on the way, and living in Eaton Hall. However, the world changed with the death of Sir Thomas, and Mary’s fatal decision in the following months to go with her chaplain, Lodowick Fenwick, to Paris and Rome. And so, in June 1701, she turned up at the Hotel Castille on Rue St Dominique on the left bank of the Seine. Over the course of the following week she was poisoned, drugged, and bled. On the morning of Saturday 18 June, 1701, Mary found herself in bed with the Chaplain’s brother, Edward Fenwick, where, depending on whose story you believe, they were legally married by lunch.

Within a month, Mary had returned to London and taken refuge first with her mother in Westminster, and then at the family home in Chester. Edward returned soon after, and started to behave as if the estate was now his property. The Grosvenor family were likely to lose everything if they did not do something immediately, and a legal battle ensued on many fronts. It culminated in a trial at the Queens’ Bench in April, 1703. What was a recently widowed woman doing, leaving her children behind for a reckless trip to Europe? Why was she alone with these men on that Saturday night? Was she drugged, and failed to remember what happened in that hotel room? Was the marriage legitimate, albeit unwilling, or too hasty, and swiftly regretted? For 14 hours, the debate went back and forth. The jury only took half an hour to return a verdict that the marriage was legitimate, and that Fenwick had a right to the estate.

To cut a convoluted story short, the case was appealed and the verdict reversed. However, in order to protect the estate for the future, Mary was declared a lunatic so that she could not be allowed to marry again, or take control of her estate. The land was now back in the hands of the Grosvenor Estate, and within a decade the ground had been broken and new squares and streets started to emerge. In 1725, Daniel Defoe visited the site and observed, ‘I passed an amazing Scene of new Foundations, not of Houses only, but as I might say of new Cities. New Towns, new Squares, and fine Buildings, the like of which no City, no Town, nay, no Place in the World can shew’. The development that emerged produced some of the most elegant dwellings in the city, and remains today, some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

This story is a reminder that the modern city is a place, quite literally the ground beneath our feet, and this has its own history. The question of property is often assumed to be universal, as we assume that private property has always existed. But both ‘private’ and ‘property’ are volatile notions that have evolved and mutated over centuries. Few in the 17th century had any concept of what ‘private’ meant, like we do today. Charting these intellectual struggles through the story of the inheritance of Mary Davies reveals the foundations of our own times to be based on an anxious, historical contingency.

This is a reminder that the questions that were first being formed 300 years ago in the aftermath of Civil War, religious division, and fire, were a revolution that did not necessarily end in the 1690s, but one that we are still living through today.

Leo Hollis is a historian of London and author of two acclaimed books, The Phoenix and The Stones of London. His latest book is Inheritance: The Lost History of Mary Davies.

Aspects of History Issue 8 is out now.