Having spent most of my life in Mayfair St James’s, bringing up two husbands three children and writing thirteen bestsellers, I devoted myself to researching the untold history of the area.
Having uncovered the secret truth behind the origins of my beloved urban village I embarked on writing a character history, an expose of the untold story surrounding five extraordinary women of the 17th Century who transformed the Catholic Killing Fields of London into a luxurious enclave for artisans, artists, authors, eccentrics, authors, composers, Royals, spies, Catholics, dandies, & dandizettes.
Mayfair was built on land owned by a woman; Dame Mary Grosvenor nee Davis, yet nowhere in this area is there any statue to commemorate her essential contribution. Adding to the scandal is the truth that in 1700, soon after her husband Sir Thomas Grosvenor died, she was confined in an asylum for converting to Catholicism.
The mansions, glass-fronted arcades, churches and garden squares of Mayfair and St James’s was designed by the world’s first woman architect, Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham. Again there is no statue to commemorate her extraordinary achievements in defining the London Skyline.
Proprietary forced Lady Wilbraham to credit her work to her pet pupil Christopher Wren in her lifetime, though he had not even commenced his study by the time she had designed the spires and domes of London’s unique skyline.
The cost of building the sybaritic enclave of Mayfair St James’s was met by the eccentric cross-dressing lover of subversive theatre, Queen Catherine of Braganza. Once more it is hard not to note that there is no statue or monument to this extraordinary and much loved English Queen who gave us our national drink and bequeathed us the Port cities of Bombay and Tangiers which enabled The British East India Company to expand the empire. By her death in 1700 London was the wealthiest and largest city in Europe due to her.
The inspiration for London’s uniquely secular area of Mayfair St James’s was ignited by two of the 1660’s blue-stocking courtiers; the salonier – Mad Madge – The Duchess of Newcastle who wrote the first science fiction book The Blazing World. Margaret -Mad Madge – Cavendish blazed across the restoration court actively campaigning for the education of women and anti-vivisection. She was the matriarch of Restoration London having been instrumental in overseeing King Charles II’s and his brother James II’s education before and during their exile in the continent.
The Duchess had impressed upon the young kings in waiting the importance of valuing women for their minds as much as their body. This revolutionary notion clearly took root in the princes for upon his return to England to rule he immediately employed a woman architect and women spies and permitted women to act on stage for the first time in history. Sadly there is no monument to the achievements of this remarkable Restoration Mavin.
Nor is there any monument to Aphra Behn the wit of Restoration England, and first woman in history to make her living solely through her writing.
Aphra Behn was a spy for the Stuart court (Agent160/Astrea) famous across the kingdom for her acts of derringer-do. Aphra’s Behn inspired the ladies of London to dream and expand their horizons beyond the domestic. They did this by hosting salons in the newly built Mansions of Piccadilly and St James’s.
One of Aphra’s more magnificent achievements was leading a slave rebellion in Dutch Guinea. Yet it was as a playwright that she defined the era. Aphra Behn had more plays staged in the West End than her greatest fan, Dryden. It was through her 1667 play The Rover in which she wrote the immortal words “she stoops to conquer” that ordinary Londoners first heard of the extraordinarily luxurious appointments and controversial discourse held in these blue stocking salons being hosted in the hitherto unimagined decadence in the mansions of Mayfair and St James’s. However despite her remarkable achievements, no monument bears witness to the area she inspired. The words inscribed on her tomb in Westminster state ” here lies proof the wit is no defence against mortality!”
I would argue that these five women were immortalised by the part they played in the creation of Mayfair and St James’s.
The landowner; Dame Mary Grosvenor nee Davies, the architect; Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham, the financier; Queen Catherine of Braganza and the two eccentrics; the playwright and spy Aphra Behn and the feminist philosopher and author the Duchess of Newcastle (Mad Madge).
These five exquisites not only breathed life into the notion that women could do anything, but between them they defined the quintessential qualities of the British Character: tea, tradition, wit, tolerance, their love of theatre, literature and eccentric fashion and their passion for horses, spaniels and ducks. Perhaps most definitively they defined what it means to be British in their love of “masques” – masques were a form of ball in that there was dancing and laughter and lashings of champagne but at the heat of the masque was a transgressive form of theatre in which women dressed up as and satirised men and the men laughed. The notion that powerful men would not only tolerate a tease but laugh at it was a concept foreign visitors struggled with! It remains at the heart of British humour and the British character, the ability to laugh at oneself which combined with a jolly good knees up we have five exquisite Maverick Mavins of Fashion to thank!