Mayfair History 13th – 17th Century

Fortnums on Piccadilly

By ©Tyne O’Connell

MAYFAIR HISTORY

Before the Restoration, Mayfair was largely referred to as The Hundred Acres in reference to the dowry of Mary Davies. Once the area was developed, it took on the name of Mayfair after the extraordinary annual fair that had been held in May since Edward I gave his permission in the 13th Century.

Mary Davies was the only daughter of a family of wealthy scribes. Using their valuable parcel of land, which included an area framed by Park Lane, Regent Street Oxford Street and Piccadilly, they sought to lure an aristocrat. 

After an arranged marriage to Lord Berkeley when she was 9 years old failed to come off, Mary Davies by now 12 years old (and her Hundred Acres) were eventually married to the baronet, Sir Thomas Grosvenor in 1677.  By this time the enormous building programme which was to create Mayfair as the residential and retail heartland of Restoration Society was already underway. 


Mayfair’s proximity to St James’s Palace which was built in 1531 had already made it a desirable place to live and set up shops. The gentry and aristocracy have always centred their lives and residences around court life.


Before the 16th Century, Mayfair had been largely swamp land, but Mayfair’s proximity to St James’s Palace which was built in 1531 had already made it a desirable place to live and set up shops. 

TYNE AT THE PALACE

The gentry and aristocracy have always centred their lives and residences around court life. Mayfair History has always been linked closely with the Royal family. A large building program of mansions and retail streets had already started such as Berkeley House on Piccadilly. It was in fact the lavish outlay of this which had prevented Lord Berkeley’s marriage to Mary proceeding.  

Under the Puritanical tyranny of Cromwell, drinking, theatre, dancing, games, music, and even Christmas festivities were banned. When King Charles II was restored to his throne in 1660 he lifted all Cromwell’s Banned Fun and ushered in an age of religious tolerance, romance, intellectual salons, music, art and theatre. 

Women were particularly delighted by the new Restoration court. Under Charles II, women were not only free to express themselves, but for the first time in English History they could perform on stage and host intellectual salons. With the coming of the Restoration, London was ready to throw off its Puritan uniform to party! 

Previously Mayfair had been best known throughout England for the annual fair of freak shows and oddities held during May – although Pepys and others refer to the fair as The St James’s Fair due to its proximity to St James’s Palace. 

The fair was widely written about by diarists and historians including Pepys and some of the acts were painted by Hogarth.

“It was held,” Mr Frost writes in his book The London Showman, “on the north side of Piccadilly, in Shepherd’s Market, Shepherd’s Court, White Horse Street, Sun Court, Market Court, and on the open space westwards, Chapel Street and Hertford Street, as far as Tyburn (now Park Lane). The ground-floor of the Market House, usually occupied by butchers’ stalls, was appropriated during the fair to the sale of toys and gingerbread, and the upper portion was converted into a theatre.

The open space westwards was covered with the booths of jugglers, fencers, and boxers, the stands of mountebanks, swings, roundabouts, &c.; while the sides of the streets were occupied by sausage-stalls and gambling-tables. The first-floor windows were also, in some instances, made to serve as the proscenia of puppet-shows.”

The infamous fair was held every year in May without exception (apart from during Cromwell’s tyranny) right up until the area’s gentrified residents protested at the unruly and lewd acts of the fair. In 1735 the fair formally ended when the retail developer, Edward Shepherd transformed the site between Curzon Street and Piccadilly into a retail area to service the aristocratic residents that had made Mayfair their home. 



The area upon which the May Fair was held is now known as Shepherd Market in deference to the builder who, in 1735, developed the area into the retail paradise it is now. Mr Shepherd was at no time a shepherd and no sheep were sold at the fair held in May.  


Mayfair was also infamous for the hole in the wall marriages at Curzon St Chapel performed by the eccentric Mr Keith. From 1730 until 1753 when the Marriage Act came into effect, preventing clandestine marriages, he performed hundreds of unions of couples where there were family objections or some other obstacle to the marriage. Some of the more scandalous marriages he performed included that between Duke of Chandos and Anne Jeffrey in 1744, Lord Strange and Lucy Smith in 1746, Lord Kensington and Rachel Hill in 1749, Sewellis Shirley and Margaret Rolle (widow of the Earl of Oxford in 1751), the Duke of Hamilton and Miss Gunning in 1752 and Lord Bentinck and Mary Davies in 1753.

 

Aphra Behn by Peter Lely c1670

Aphra Behn by Peter Lely c1670

He was eventually imprisoned but he continued to be in the news for his outrageous publicity stunts one of which was to keep his wife embalmed on South Audley Street during his incarceration so that he could perform her burial service himself. 

Unlike anywhere else in London, Mayfair retains the same charm and vibrant energy as it did in the Restoration Era when Mary Davies and Sir Edward Grosvenor made their strategic marriage in 1677. The Grosvenor estate has never broken up the original dowry of Mary Davies, in effect crystallising the essence of Restoration England in this unique urban village. 

The Restoration was an era of unparalleled energy and enthusiasm especially for women. For the first time, women could dream and write and act on stage. Aphra Behn an inspirational Restoration Woman wrote more plays than Dryden and saw them produced to acclaim in her lifetime – she acted in many more. Most importantly, the Restoration was a time when women could have ideas and express those ideas and have them listened to by men.

If I could I bottle that energy I would, and I would call it Mayfair. 

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