Mayfair in London
How did Mayfair get its name? Many still erroneously believe that Mayfair was named after an annual fortnightly fair but in fact it was named for The Duke of Westminster’s Great Grand – in every sense of the word – Mother of the 1660’s. The fair, which later was refer to as the “May Fair” was originally called the “St. James’s Fayre” – even Pepys, Evelyn and other diarists and writers of the 17th Century were referring to the “St James’s Fayre” in 1668 by which time the area was already a massive construction site all the way up to Mount St (which was comprised of artist’s garrets, poor houses or boarding houses ).
The grand building project of Mayfair was overseen by the world’s first woman architect Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham and one of the Five Eccentric Women who were essential in transformation of Catholic Killing Fields into a sybaritic haven for Eccentrics to celebrate the Arts and beauty through shopping and the newly fashionable tea salons started by another Eccentric, integral to this modern urban village, the sensational, cross-dressing eccentric Queen Catherine of Braganza.
The confusion of the derivation of Mayfair probably arose because of the annual fortnightly St James’s Fayre held in Shepherd Market north of Piccadilly (then called Portuguese or Catherine Road in honour of the much loved Queen).
The “fayre” had been established by Edward I, in 1290 after he granted the monks and nuns of St James’s The Lessor to raise money, via the fair, for the St James’s Hospital in which they cared for a group of leprous maidens. The fair continued even after the monks and nuns and the leprous maidens they cared for were caste out by Henry VIII in 1536 to turn the Hospital into St James’s Palace (a love-nest for Henry VIII and his new bride Anne).
The St James’s Fayre was one of many travelling fairs of celebrity showmen and show women, that pitched up annually for a fortnight all over London well into the 19th Century.
The fairs were an array of and consisted of an array of celebrity entertainers and included puppet shows, fire-eaters and half-man half-woman styles of exhibit.
According to The London Archive’s Charter Rolls 1257–1300, p.353, King Edward I permitted the St James’s fair to be held “on the vigil, the feast and the morrow of St. James and the four days following” which is the 24–30 July.
Pepys and Evelyn and others were still referring to the Fayre held North of Piccadilly as the St James’s Fayre – which continued despite protest from the fashionable residents into the reign of Queen Anne as The St James’s Fayre by which time May Fair was firmly established as a retail wonderland of glass-fronted arcades and Mansions surrounding garden squares. All traces of the wet ashen fields where the Martyrs of the Catholic Pogrom had been obliterated although the gallows of Tyburn still stood on what is now Marble Arch as a dark reminder of the Religious Wars that had torn Britain apart since 1536.
The truth behind Mayfair’s name aptly came about due to the confluence of events that took place in the 1660’s. Firstly the Restoration of King Charles II, secondly his marriage to the richest heiress in Europe who introduced tea as our National drink when her ships sailed up the Thames laden with bushels of tea as part of her enormous dowry which included the port cities of Tangiers and Bombay; flooding the new glass fronted shopping arcades of Mayfair and St James’s with luxurious exotic goods.
It is astonishing to read in the British Archives that the streets north off Piccadilly were alive with glass-fronted arcades and magnificent mansions surrounding garden squares. London was growing rich thanks to Queen Catherine of Braganzas port cities of Bombay and Tangiers and her trade agreements with South America flooding London with new and exotic goods and bushels of tea. Evidence of this wealth was displayed in the speed in which Mayfair was built over what only months before was a site of torture and murder.
Upon his restoration on the 29th May 1660 of King Charles II, the fountains of London flowed with Champagne for a full fortnight and there was dancing and singing in the streets according to Pepys and Evelyn as the population celebrated the return of the Stuart Monarchy and the overthrow of Cromwell’s Brutal Tyranny. Prince William will be our first Stuart King since Queen Anne, Charles II’s niece was on the throne in the early 1700’s.
In the 1630’a King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Marie (nee De Medici) had build Covent Garden west of the medieval City of London. Upon his return from exile on the continent where he had been exposed to the wonders of his cousin The Sun King Louis XIV’s lavish court Charles II wanted to continue his parents legacy and pave over the burning ashes of Cromwell’s Catholic Killing Fields and transform the wounds of Cromwell’s legacy into a sybaritic retail and residential paradise where everything Cromwell loathed – namely art, beauty and fun could be celebrated.
Both Charles II’s mother, his brother James II and wife were Catholic as were many of his closest friends. It is believed Charles II was a Catholic but wisely made little of the fact. It may have seemed poetic justice to Charles II to transform the area which represented Cromwell and his Protestant Followers who outlawed fun and beauty into a luxurious retail and residential haven dedicated to sybarites, lovers of art and beauty and Eccentrics.
The Civil War and Cromwell’s Commonwealth may have been fuelled by religious argument but in actuality it had been a war of ethics. The Parliamentarian Roundheads believed Art and Beauty were the gateway to sin and hell while the Royalist Cavaliers believed Art and Beauty were the pathway to the Grace of God.
After murdering the Stuart King Charles I, The Commonwealth had outlawed beauty and fun, banning makeup for women, alcohol, dancing, singing, All the Arts, architecture, beauty, jewellery or decoration or beauty of any kind, the theatre, toys for children and even Christmas Festivities. Into a beautiful retail and residential haven dedicated to sybarites, lovers of art and beauty and eccentrics.
King Charles married his wealthy Catholic wife, Catherine in1662 and again the fountains flowed with champagne for a fortnight and there was much merriment for not only was she fully supportive his vision to create a haven devoted to fun and beauty but she had the funds to realise this vision. Catherine was devoted to making others happy, as a Catholic she believed fervently that a man or woman’s conscience was theirs alone to guard. As a cross-dressing eccentric she loved to throw masques and was renown for her love of subversive proto-feminist theatre.
The new queen was befriended by the other two other powerful and eccentric women of the age who with Catherine and the architect Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham formed the quintessential characteristics of the British Character, through the creation of Mayfair.
These two women were, Aphra Behn the famous spy who saved the British Fleet and led a slave rebellion in Surinam (Dutch Guinea) for the Stuart Monarchy and a prolific playwright who coined the phrase “she stoops to conquer in her 1667 play The Rover in which she was the first to mention the lavish luxury of the drawing rooms of this newly fashionable area going up on May Davies, famous Hundred Acres.
Mary Davies’ dowry’s had already come into play even before her birth – specifically the 100 Acres which constitute Mayfair and had been utterly worthless before the Restoration when it was the site of Cromwell’s murderous tyranny.
The Hundred Acres as Mayfair was then known, was a parcel of land which formed May’s dowry and was already a building site when she was born in 1665.
Before her birth Henry Jermyn whom the King had asked to oversee his sybaritic retail and residential vision, had been dealing with May’s father, Alexander who a shrivener or Latin scribe was responsible for drawing up legal documents which had put him into the position of picking up what had seemed in the 1640’s and 50’s worthless parcels of land.
Mary – May – Davies was five months old when her father died and within a week of his death she had become the most famous heiress of her age.
Her mother swiftly remarried and embarked on – what has gone down in history – as the most audacious and many thought tasteless advertising of her daughter’s dowry. At five months of age the infant May – dressed in a frothy virginal white wedding gown – was paraded about London in a glass carriage, pulled by six white feather plumed horses with a sign advertising her May’s Marriage Dowry.
It must have been an extraordinary sight. The glass carriage pulled by the White horses in their white feathered plumage became a phenomenon that was discussed from one end of the kingdom to the other and spoken of across Europe. There was not a man or woman in the Kingdom that was unaware of Mary May Davies and her Dowry.
By 1770 the area was already being referred to as May Fair. Given the spelling of Fayre as in the St James’s Fayre of Showmen and Show women which was held in July and Mary’s nick name of May, it seems suggestive that Londoners were already drawing a link between May’s dowry and the beautiful or “fair” fashionable area that arose within a few years like a phoenix from the soggy ashes of Cromwell’s Catholic Killing Fields. So quickly were mansions and glass-fronted retail arcades going up that by the time the fire of London raised most of the medieval Roman Walled City of London to the Ground, most of the Merchant Guilds such as Taylor’s, cordwainers etc had moved their retail premises west which resulted in far less loss of life than might have been expected five years prior.