Today (October 10) in London History – the greatest fortune in London

On October 10, 1677 a 12-year-old heiress married a 20-year-old baronet. That wedding shaped the feature of London. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Five points.

1. The bride was 12 years old. 

2. Imagine owning 500 acres of the best land in London. 

3. Women were property.

4. The bride’s benefactor, a distant relative, was infinitely rich.

5. The bride was declared a lunatic. 

What do you think? Do we have the ingredients for a fine, very tasty stew of a story?

A London story. A London story awash with great London locations.

Ok, so let’s start narrowing in. Let’s peel those months off the calendar.

5,349 months to be exact. Or if you want it in days, 162,807 days ago.

1577 is our starter year. Good Queen Bess has been on the throne 18 years. William Shakespeare is a wide-eyed, very bright pimply 13-year-old up in Stratford. Francis Drake has just set sail on his three-year-round-the-world voyage.

People have gaped in awe at a comet that’ll never come back.

And we’ve got the birth, in London, of a baby boy, who’s going to grow up to be a very nasty piece of work.

The tyke’s name is Hugh Audley.

He’s the tenth of the eleven children of John Audley, a London mercer, and his wife Margaret. He’s baptised at St Michael, Wood Street.  That’s the first pin we can put in the London map. When he’s a pimply teenager himself, sixteen years old, he’s admitted to the Inner Temple. 

A year later – this is some doing for a teenager – he becomes a clerk of the court of wards and liveries. What that meant was he looked after the inheritance of minors who’d been orphaned. Looked after their fortune until they reached their majority. That was a lot of pies to have your spoon in. And you can guess, there was a lot of sharp practice going on. Hugh Audley had a colleague whose career in the court was exactly contemporaneous with Audley’s. The colleague dedicated himself scrupulously to his duty. The colleague died in poverty. Hugh Audley became infinitely rich. In the words of Jordan Belfont in The Wolf of Wall Street, Hugh Audley diversified. Became a moneylender. And a seriously big landowner. For starters, he bought the manor of Ebury in Westminster. Basically much of Victoria – see Ebury Street just west of Victoria station – and Belgravia and parts of Knightsbridge. To that he added land in today’s Mayfair and St. James’s. Audley Street and the Hugh Audley pub in Mayfair are of course to other tell-tale clues to this history. So what we’re talking about is the most exclusive, the most eye-wateringly expensive land in today’s London. I guide through there, I gesture to any of those houses and I say, “the twenty of us could live like millionaires sharing – five percent each – the rent on any one of these properties.” 

And at the centre of the web, infinitely rich – the hardest of hard men – Hugh Audley. Describing his life and the way he operated, a contemporary said, “a life of intricacies and misteries, wherein he walked as in a maze; and went on as in a labyrinth with the clue of a resolved mind, which made plain to him all the rough passages he met with; he with a round and solid mind fashioned his own fate, fixed and unmoveable in the great tumults and stir of business, the hard rock in the midst of waves.”

Well, we have a tendency to be awe-struck by – to wonder at – vast wealth – what we don’t see –unless we’re an artist or a poet – what we don’t see is the trouble and sorrow brought to the men and women the likes of Hugh Audley squeezed, the men and women he profited from.

Poets see it. Some poets. I’m thinking of Blake’s great poem, “London” – especially the line, “the soldier’s sigh runs in blood down palace walls.”

Usually, the shorthand is the saying, “behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” I think in Audley’s case that could probably be amended to behind every great fortune lies a great many crimes.

Anyway, time to put another pin in the London map. Three pins, actually. Hugh Audley died in 1577 in the house of the rector of St Clement Danes. He’s buried in Temple church. Hugh Audley never married. He didn’t have any family of his own. His vast fortune went to a 12-year-old girl, his great neice, Mary Davies. 

Everybody knew she was going to inherit a vast fortune. And that fortune would effectively become her husband’s property. So the little girl had already been betrothed when she was seven years old. 

That engagement didn’t pan out.

But she did wed when she was 12. 

Twenty-year-old Thomas Grosvenor. They got married in St. Clement Danes. Got married on this day, October 10th, 1677. And just like that, there’s another pin in the map for you. Mary Davies’ London is beginning to come into view. And Mary Davies’ London – the London of 1677 – effectively shaped, well, her inheritance shaped, today’s London. 

There was certainly drama in the bridegroom’s family. Thomas Grosvenor’s father had been killed in a duel when the boy Grosvenor was six years old. Thomas Grosvenor succeeded to his grandfather’s baronetcy when he was nine years old.

Three years later he was a groom. Already a very wealthy young man his wealth went up exponentially thanks to the estates – the wealthiest 500 acres in London, remember – his 12-year-bride brought to his holdings. 

The couple had five sons. Thomas Grosvenor died when he was 45. His widow travelled abroad and married Edward Fenwick, the brother of her Catholic chaplain. That marriage was a stick in a hornet’s nest. First of all, there was a great deal of anti-Catholic feeling. 

And of course the financial implications of that second marriage were a huge threat to the Grosvenors. 

Remember, Mary Davies – Lady Grosvenor as she was by this time – was effectively property –goods and chattel. A property that had to be secured. On the strength of a declaration that she was not compos mentis the marriage was annulled. Subsequently she was declared a lunatic.

So maybe let some of that history run through your mind the next time you pass St Clement Danes or the Temple Church or Belgravia or 

Victoria or – I’m quoting now – that “large holding between Tyburn Brook and Park Lane and south of the Oxford Road. Mayfair in other words.

At no little risk of belabouring the obvious, this is why you go with a great guide, he or she sees all of that, will open it up to view for you.

The guide sees so much more than you do.

And a today in London recommendation, every Tuesday at one o’clock St Clement Danes hosts superb free lunchtime concerts. Concerts put on by young professional musicians from the Royal College of Music, the Royal Academy of Music, and the Guildhall School of Music. 

And when you’re in a reverie – the music washing over you – in that beautiful Wren interior – it was brand new when that 12-year-old bride walked down the aisle – maybe spare a thought for that child bride and the ride she had, batted about like a shuttlecock by the men in her life.

And to borrow a bit of baseball parlance – hey, the world series is going over there – let’s make this one a doubleheader. A second Today in London recommendation has to be Peter or Richard III’s Mayfair Walk. I guarantee you Mary Davies will be along on that walk.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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