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Inheritance: the Lost History of Mary Davies by Leo Hollis. A guest post by London Historians member, Hannah Renier. 

inheritance coverInheritance is the fascinating origin story of the Dukes of Grosvenor. To this day they owe their prominence to ownership of great estates, most famously in London. I liked this book. I do, though, suspect that behind the action lies a conspiracy so far in the past that it will probably remain unexamined for ever.
Three Key Facts underlie the plot.

One is that before the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act, everything a woman owned was surrendered to the man upon their marriage. Only widows, and unmarried women over 21, had agency over their own money, land, and personal possessions.

Miss Mary Davies, heiress to large swathes of London land, was married aged twelve to 22-year-old Sir Thomas Grosvenor of Eaton Hall, near Chester. It was 1677; he was kind, handsome and well educated, and had recently returned from the Grand Tour. He was richer than she, from inherited lands and mines, and he paid her mother and stepfather generously to get her. He gained, not just a pleasant girl who would join him in Cheshire in three years’ time, but five hundred acres of farmland and marsh between today’s Oxford Street and Pimlico. Since fashionable London was inexorably settling further and further west, these acres would eventually become ripe for development.

The second key fact about the late seventeenth century is that Anglicanism was firmly established among the people and in Parliament. Their fear of a reversion to Catholicism was as much grounded in politics as religion; if Catholics took the crown, the ‘papist’ countries of Europe might invade without hindrance. Charles II had conceded some power to Parliament, and had at least claimed to be a devout Anglican, but his brother James, a known Catholic, felt entitled to rule without consultation and to flaunt his ‘popery’.

Families like the Grosvenors, and their friends the Myddeltons and Cholmondeleys, who dominated local politics around Chester and North Wales, were Royalists who avoided the taint of Catholicism. Sir Thomas became Chester’s MP in 1680, but not for long– probably because London was too far from the mines and farms that kept the family fortunes rising, and his agent in London could collect farm rents there.

Which brings me to the third key fact. The nobility and gentry of seventeenth-century England were intensely tribal, and that underlies every subsequent event.

From Lady Mary’s arrival in Cheshire in 1680 onwards, she played her part in local society. She was 15; an impressionable age. Among her new friends was William Massey, wild child of Cheshire’s Catholic gentry. He had been jailed for supporting Father Plessington, a priest convicted of conspiracy and executed. Maybe Mary was attracted by Catholicism because, to a girl only recently emerged from an over-protected existence, it signified rebellion. Or maybe she just had a crush. But from then on, she was openly sympathetic to Catholicism. This compromised her husband, who could be punished for such views. In London, 1683 would be the year of the alleged Popish Plot, and the Rye House Plot to kill the King and his brother, and the Bill of Attainder against Algernon Sidney for having written (but not published) anti-monarchist views. All three cases resulted in executions. It was extremely dangerous for a man of property to be overtly Catholic.


Lady Mary Davies.

However, Lady Mary had plenty of friends and an equable relationship with her husband most of the time. They travelled together to London, Bath and other places and in the twenty years of their relationship she gave birth to five children, among whom three boys survived, the oldest born in 1689. That was the year when the Protestant William and Mary ousted James II for good.

Lady Mary was sometimes hostile to her husband, who was patient with her. In general, if women argued or failed to conform, they were suspected of hysteria, of being unbalanced, “upset” – when in fact they might simply be infuriated because, as women, they were assumed to be irrational and silly. Their opinions were valueless. Should they be poor, wives or widows could be beaten or tried as witches, for Anglicanism had displaced Catholicism but not superstition. Rich angry women did best to remain meek, rather than be beaten or consigned to a lunatic asylum.

Hollis is clear enough on this, while gently confirming that Lady Mary Grosvenor really was sometimes delusional. There were many witnesses to her manic episodes. It wasn’t a constant thing, which is why he suggests that she may have been bipolar. Her oddness was well known. She was vulnerable, therefore, to exploitation.

Leo Hollis is not the first to tell Mary Davies’s story. Charles Gatty had access to the Grosvenor archives a hundred years ago, and published Mary Davies and the Manor of Ebury early in the 1920s. Hollis refers to the book as ‘eccentric’, but it’s entertaining and credible, if highly discursive. Like Hollis, Gatty takes himself seriously as an historian and holds back any impulse to embroider the facts.

The facts seem, though, shocking, and I finished Hollis’s book in full conspiracy-theory mode. Because what happened was this. In 1700 Sir Thomas, aged 45, died suddenly of ‘a fever.’ According to Hollis, Father Fenwick, a Benedictine monk, had probably looked after Lady Mary’s spiritual needs from her volatile period in the late 1690s onwards. According to Gatty, the monk’s dramatic entrance into the story is delayed until he arrives at Eaton Hall on the night before Sir Thomas was buried, and is immediately invited to stay.

I tend towards Hollis’s version, that Fenwick had been around for several years already. Hollis and Gatty probably read more or less the same notes in the archives although Hollis was under pressure of lockdown some of the time (while Gatty didn’t have access to the internet). But if Hollis is right, and Fenwick turned up around 1696, where had he come from? The local Benedictine monastery at Saighton had been wrecked at the Reformation.

He was a nephew of Sir John Fenwick, from strongly Catholic Northumberland. Sir John Fenwick had conspired to return James II to power, and had notoriously been executed by Bill of Attainder in 1696. Surely a close relation of that man would have been unwelcome at Eaton Hall in the year of that sensational trial in Parliament? Maybe Lady Mary was simply thoughtless.

Sir Thomas’s will, signed shortly before his death in the summer of 1700, includes a tacit warning to Fenwick. He makes it plain that the Cholmondeleys and Myddeltons will be trustees and guardians to Sir Richard, the heir, and his younger brothers, and they will be brought up as Anglicans. Lady Mary will have her widow’s third of the estate, including some of the lands she brought to the marriage; also her jointure (an assured income based on her husband’s) and the right to live at Eaton Hall and keep her coach and six there until Sir Richard marries. But her sons will not be influenced by priests.

When her husband died, Lady Mary was 35 years old and eight months pregnant. Within a month she gave birth to a daughter, Ann. After that, presumably with the encouragement of Father Fenwick, she decided to visit Paris, where James II was in exile. The baby was comfortably cared for by a wet-nurse, the boys were being educated, and off she rolled, in October 1700, with a small domestic entourage and Fenwick in mufti, to London. Once there, they made excursions to visit Fenwick’s relations -– Mrs Turnour, whom she already knew; Mrs Selby, who agreed to become her companion on the journey, and Fenwick’s older brother Edward. Father Fenwick was arranging their journey abroad. Neither Hollis nor Gatty reveals how a Benedictine monk came to be so sophisticated..

They sailed for France before Christmas; Fenwick got rid of the Eaton Hall servants before they reached Paris, and replaced them with his own people. The party lodged on the Left Bank at St Germain.

Neither Hollis nor Gatty show us how close this was to the Abbey of St Germain des Prés, an old Benedictine foundation. It seems to me highly likely that Fenwick knew the place well; he could have studied there. He certainly knew a lot of the local English Catholics. James, the Anglo-Scottish ex-king, stayed at St Germain en Laye, about twelve miles from the city, in a spare palace granted him by Louis XIV. Lady Mary was introduced to people from his circle, notably several from Northumberland families related to Fenwick.

Early in 1701 Fenwick seems to have bullied her into travelling on to Rome, to be present during a Papal Jubilee. They arrived late but stayed for several months. Although strangers observed that Dame Mary was a little mad, she was sane enough to write back to her banker in Paris and keep an eye on her finances. Only on the return journey was she seriously ill, both mentally and physically, and so much medicated that she complained of having been poisoned. Fenwick was in charge, not only of the journey but of dosing her with opiates and other potions prescribed by local doctors. She arrived in Paris in a terrible state. She tried and failed to contact the Ambassador. She was confined to her hotel room, visitors prohibited by Fenwick. And one night, after a loud three-way altercation overheard by the hotelier and his wife, she woke up and – still in bed – was married.

She was married by Father Fenwick to Edward Fenwick.

She didn’t confirm this. Later she fiercely denied it. But at the time, she didn’t speak of it and in public her relationship with the brothers seemed normal – although people remarked that Father Fenwick cracked the whip.

If she had married, she would be dispossessed of any property rights. I think Hollis has the answer here – something Gatty, in the 1920s, didn’t catch onto. She may have been raped, or have thought she was, on the night of the altercation, and have consented to be married afterwards in a muddled attempt to preserve her honour. To admit to having been raped would disgrace her and could lessen the ability of her oldest son, when the time came, to marry money and title.

Word got out that Lady Mary had married. There was gossip. Nonetheless Father Fenwick contrived to have her stay in Paris against her will. Edward was nowhere to be seen. When she did make her way back to London Edward was already there and trying to collect rent from tenants of her London estate.

Cue lawyers. Inevitably, dirty linen was washed in public, and the story of the two lawsuits which went on, in successive courts, until 1705 is fascinating. Hollis has meticulously extracted key statements from both sides and the stories of poisoning and bullying are sensational – as they were at the time. He doesn’t emphasise, though, the tribal nature of the fight. Lawyer William Docwra is called a ‘family friend’ but he was closely related by marriage to Mary. This wasn’t just Grosvenors and Cholmondeleys against Fenwicks and Radcliffes; Dame Mary’s grandfather, Dr Richard Dukeson, of St Clement Danes, had been a landowner and friend of Mary’s rich ancestor Audley. Fifteen of Dukeson’s children grew to adulthood; eleven or twelve of them were girls, and they duly married. William Docwra was an uncle.

The first, Westminster Hall court heard Dame Mary’s long-dead father Alexander Davies dismissed as a mere ‘scrivener.’ But in Alexander’s lifetime, decades before the Bank of England was founded, astute scriveners oiled the wheels of London trade. The City couldn’t exist without scriveners, bustling from one coffee-house to another, fully aware of who was in credit and who wasn’t and how to shift money. His older brother, a bookseller, became the Lord Mayor of London.

That case was lost because the all-male jury found the marriage valid. Edward Fenwick could collect the rents. Strangely, three years later, by the time of the second hearing in Sergeant’s Inn, which the Grosvenors easily won, he had not done so.

Hollis wonders why. Gatty wonders why. They are both historians, and careful. If I am allowed, as a reader, to make a wild guess, I’d say the Grosvenors had dug serious dirt on the Fenwicks and confronted them with proof of their conspiracy to harvest Mary’s London property and devote the money to restoring James Stuart (James II having died in 1701). If revealed, that would be treason, which meant a very bloody death.

Hollis doesn’t explore this, and he’s probably right because it’s sheer speculation.

The early development of Mayfair neatly ends the story. But I do have niggles. Hollis quotes Defoe’s fictional account of the Plague rather than Walter Bell’s excellent The Great Plague in London – with the British Library shut, you can get it on Abebooks. He doesn’t point us to Alexander Davies’s tomb at St Margaret’s on the south side of Parliament Square. There’s not enough sense of period: no sense of the discomfort of a long journey on terrible roads, for instance. I’d have liked more about Chester, the walled mediaeval city with a racecourse, and its close links to Wales; and more on the financial life of London, and the houses on Millbank… but there are deadlines, and better visuals might make Inheritance as discursive as Gatty’s book.

With the Fenwick conspiracy snuck into the story, it’d make a great costume drama in many episodes for TV. Here’s hoping.


Inheritance: The Lost History of Mary Davies: A Story of Property, Marriage and Madness (304 pp) by Leo Hollis is published in hardback by OneWorld Publications on 6 May 2020 with a cover price of £20.

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