The History of Mayfair and St James’s
Mayfair began as a Woman’s Dowry, a parcel of land West of The City of London referred to as “The Hundred Acres”. It was the most famous bait in history ever used to marry middle class money into the aristocracy.
The part women have played in Mayfair’s history is cobbled throughout every street. The proliferation of blue plaques bearing the names of prominent women including poets, pioneers, scientists and politicians who have resided here speak to the role of women in Mayfair’s history. But it is the secrets and scandals that whisper through every building, palace and shop that truly confirm Mayfair’s place at the heart of women’s history. For it has been central to women both as place to shop and play and in the vital part Mayfair has played as the background in which women finally found their voice, and gained their right to education, to vote and take their place in the world as equals.
Mayfair and the part women and eccentrics have played in its history, began with the confluence of three events, The Restoration of the Stuart Dynasty to the throne in 1660, the writer Aphra Behn and the dowry of Mary Davies the only daughter of a respected family of Shrivners*.
“The Hundred Acres” the area we now know as Mayfair was discussed at length in all the great drawing rooms and courts of England at the dawn of Restoration but the average Londoner hadn’t thought much about Mayfair let alone imagined the dazzling magnet for taste and fashion it would become over the next twenty-five years before these two events came into play.
Pre-Restoration Mayfair was swamp land, not suitable for grazing and apart from the annual St James’s Fair also known as the May Fare, a two week fair of showmen and women held in Mayfair’s Shepard Market. The fair dated back before the Tudor reign when St James’s Palace was still the site of a colony of lepers and continued until Queen Anne ceded to Mayfair’s elegant resident’s request to put a stop to the rowdy event. Mayfair as a district though was not known to the average Londoner until the most famous playwright of the era Aphra Behn first referred to its glamorous and scandalous goings on in its parlours in her plays.
Mayfair’s beginnings as the most desirable place to live and shop began in the tolerant age of the Restoration when King Charles II son the Catholic King his father Charles I was restored to the throne after the Puritanical rule of the tyrant Cromwell who had banned dancing, drinking, Maypoles, makeup, fine clothes, toys for children and even celebrations of Christmas.
As King Charles II and his flamboyant Stuart Court returned from exile, riding through the streets of London on the 29th May 1660 the fountains flowed with wine, people threw rose petals on the streets as they danced and celebrated the return of the monarch. Their was a feverish excitement in the air. A match had been lit for change and it was into this unprecedented age of prosperity that Mayfair came into being thanks to a young girl’s dowry. For King Charles was deterred to embark on an unprecedented building plan to expand Britain both economically and as a power and Mayfair would be central to these plans.
The Stuart’s own Roman Catholic leanings ushered in an age of tolerance towards worship and Mayfair was soon at the heart of Roman Catholic London and the birthplace of Secular society in Britain, quickly establishing Mayfair’s roots as a hotbed of spies with a warren of underground tunnels between palaces parliament and a network of Papist bars – many still in use today.
Mayfair also became a magnet for authors, artists, eccentrics and people of exacting taste. It is worth noting that women outnumbered men in London at this time, with four women to every three men firmly establishing Mayfair’s unique place at the heart of the history of Women, the birthplace of feminism and home of Eccentrics – for it is they as much as the royals and aristocrats – who shaped this uniquely feminine urban village it remains today.
After King Charles II ascended to the throne on May 29th 1660, he took up part time residence in nearby St James’s Palace and embarked upon a grand building vision for a new London with Sir Christopher Wren and The First Duke of Albany – Sir Henry Jermyn as he was.
He was already expanding London Westwards with garden squares and spacious avenues before the fire of 1666 destroyed great parts of the Old City Of London behind the Roman Walls.
He had already created his magnificent park in St James’s with its fountains, bridges and ponds for his beloved ducks when Mary Davies dowry and all it symbolised finally came into play when she was ultimately married off – aged twelve – to Sir Thomas Grosvenor in 1677.
The grand families of England flocked to build residences around his vibrant new court on The Mall. A court where culture, women, literature, art and wit were celebrated.
King Charles ushered in a time of unprecedented religious tolerance and paved the way for a secular society. It was a very Catholic Court with rumours swirling that King Charles II was secretly a practising Catholic like with his wife Queen Catherine of Braganza and his brother James II who succeed him as king.
But if Charles was baptised, he never declared himself so but advocated tolerance of religion for all, which opened society up to new ideas, an unprecedented tolerance and trade which resulted in a wealth for the kingdom and a plethora of new ideas fashions, fads and ultimately The Enlightenment.
It was into this culturally rich and decadent atmosphere of the Restoration in which women were celebrated for their minds and wit as well as their bodies, that Mayfair had its nascent beginnings.
Mary Davies’ dowry, her “Hundred Acres” symbolised the start of an era in which women would rise to prominence in the arts, science and exploration, an era in which they would host salons – similar to the Salonaires of the continent to discuss science, poetry, art, the classics and “dangerous ideas” such as the education of young girls in Greek and Latin.
Later these Mayfair Salons became known as The Blue Stockings after Benjamin Stillingfleet declared he would love to attend one of these Mayfair Salons but could not afford the Black Silk Stockings worn by aristocrats. Margaret Cavendish reassured him that he would be “welcomed in his bluestockings”.
But while eccentric and open-minded men were welcome at these gatherings, they were hosted by, and largely attended by the wives, mistresses and friends of these two Restoration Kings; Charles II and James II and later the friends and confidents of the King James II’s daughter’s, Queen Mary and Queen Anne who succeeded the brothers.
By the end of the Stuart Reign in 1714, Mayfair was the most fashionable area of Britain and every Londoner knew of its existence. An invitation to dine in one of the grand houses of Mayfair symbolised the acme of sophistication.
By the end of King Charles II’s twenty-five year reign, St Paul’s towered over the biggest city in Europe a vibrant city of garden squares, parks and theatres. Covent Garden which had been built thirty years before was now at the heart of London rather than the edges. London was moving West as the great families and aristocrats of his kingdom set up large houses in Mayfair to be close to the thrilling court of the Stuart Kings and Queens.
As home to England’s grandest families, retail arcades, coffee shops and bars opened up in Mayfair to cater to its wealthy new residents. Women became more visible, free to wander the new parks and garden squares, attend the theatre and most thrillingly of all; shop.
For the growing prosperity of England and the proliferation of stylish women established shopping as a leisure activity for the first time in history.
Shops were no longer dark shuttered gloomy rooms but glass fronted showcases displaying tempting new goods from India and China. These Mayfair shopaholics were called “silk-worms” to describe the way they flittered from shop to shop their King Charles Spaniels in tow, urging shopkeepers to unfurl the array of new exotic luxury wares on offer from the Far East; silks and calicos, tea and fine bone china and of course the new eating implements King Charles introduced to court – the two pronged fork. Often of course they bought nothing but merely used the experience of examining the wares as an excuse to gossip. After all there was lots to gossip about in Restoration Mayfair.
London was becoming a city of women shopping and chatting and the grandest shopping arcades were in Mayfair. Ten million Pounds worth of goods were imported into London every year.
Many of Restoration Mayfair’s most famous cafes, bars retailers and restaurants are still trading today.
The average Londoner of the late 1600’s would have had no notion of this new area of Mayfair until Aphra Behn’s play The Rover ignited the imagination of average Londoners as to the goings on in this decadent hot-bed of luxurious decadence.
This first mention of Mayfair as a place where fashionable London romped about in unbridled extravagance came in Aprha Behn’s play, The Rover which is historic for many reasons not least because it was a play produced written and acted by women – all of which had been illegal before then.
In another play, Aphra Behn describes the “rich furnishings” of a house on Jermyn Street thereby whetting the appetites of ordinary Londoners who now began to visualise Mayfair as the place where grandeur and splendour of court life could be witnessed and possibly experienced first hand.
Aphra Behn was not only the most popular and prolific writer of her day – according to Pepys and Evelyn – holding both Dryden and the King in her thrall, but she was the first woman to ever act on stage in Britain and the first woman in the world to make her money entirely through her writing. She wrote plays, essays, poetry and translated works from French and Latin. The inscription on her tomb in Westminster Abbey reads, ”Here lies Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality.”
To Virginia Wolf, Aphra Behn’s life and writing symbolised the aspirations of all women.
In A Room Of One’s Own, Virginia wrote: “All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds… Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees, writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.”
Aphra Behn remains one of the most magnificently intriguing figures of history, both for her writing and her extraordinary achievement’s, not only as the greatest literary wit and satyrist of history but as a spy. For it was while acting for the Court of the Stuarts that Aphra Behn saved the British Fleet from destruction by the Dutch acting as their spy in Antwerp. Going by the name of Astrea she cunningly penned her coded messages in lemon juice over witty poems and letters to the King who is said to have roared with laughter at her bawdy wit.
King Charles II often read – or had others read aloud – her works at court. Her frequent lewd turns of phrase horrified some though she shrugged off any criticism, citing that had such verses been penned by a man they wouldn’t raise a brow. Before her role as court spy she had been famous for leading a slave revolt while still a young woman in Surinam – a Dutch colony on the North East Coast of South America – which she later wrote about in one of her more famous works “Oroonoko A True Story” penned in 1688.
This novel, like all her works would have been discussed in the salons of Mayfair during and after her death which occurred the year after its publication in 1689. Legions of poetry and verse were written to and about Aphra Behn by famous luminaries such as Mary Stuart, First Duchess of Richmond and Margaret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle.
Aphra Behn is important to Mayfair in that she was the first person to set the public imagination alight with stories of Mayfair as “the place to be”.
King Charles II and his brother King James’s II who succeeded him surrounded themselves with women – many of them mistresses, all of whom set up households in the area of St James’s & Mayfair. It was a time of decadence and a celebration of the arts and it was during this time in England’s history that Eccentrics began to be embraced and boasted of by the court and England’s grand families – thus rooting the eccentric at the heart of the British identity.
Unlike previous monarchs, the Stuart Brothers, truly valued women’s minds and took their council much to the annoyance of their ministerial advisers. Growing up in exile, they had been educated in Europe their education guided by the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle – the famous bluestocking, scientist author and feminist Margaret Cavendish – to honour women, not only for their bodies but their minds.
Everywhere one turns in Mayfair one sees evidence of the prominence of women’s part in shaping both Mayfair and England’s history as a tolerant society, interested in science, education and the arts.
Francis Stewart; The Second Duchess of Richmond – whom Pepys referred to as la Belle Stuart served as the model for the idealised Britannia. Her image as Britannia, representing the female embodiment of Britain’s strength is still imprinted on many coins in circulation today. She was painted by the celebrated Sir Peter Lely in his studio on Jermyn Street in the 1660’s, wearing a Corinthian helmut holding a Greek Hopite shield and trident to represent Britain’s naval superiority (thanks to Aphra Behn).
Mayfair was also the birthplace of Tea as the drink that defines Britain, perhaps more than any other. Tea was brought to England as part of the marriage dowry (along with the ports of Tangiers and Bombay) by King Charles II’s wife – Catherine of Braganza. Britain’s last Roman Catholic Queen introduced the fashion of tea parties ensuring tea was served in all the fashionable houses of England for the first time. Invitations to the tea parties of Mayfair were a mark that you’d made it in society. Since 1707 our royal family has purchased their tea in Mayfair at Fortnum & Masons on Piccadilly.
Tea drinking, like so many customs routed in the Restoration including shopping as leisure pursuit, and the celebration of eccentrics and larks and art as noble pursuits still continues today in Mayfair.