To Top

Men of Means: The Dukes of Westminster and the Maid of Ebury

The 6th Duke of Westminster, Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, who died on 9th August 2016,  was famously one of Britain’s richest landowners.  Apart from his country house, Eaton Hall in Cheshire, and estates in Lancaster, Scotland and elsewhere, the Grosvenor family estate owns prime land in central London – Mayfair and part of Oxford Street, and 190 acres in Belgravia, near Buckingham Palace. His son Hugh, aged 25, becomes not only the youngest non-royal duke in Britain but its richest person under the age of 30; his father once said he would rather not have been born wealthy but never thought of giving it up: ‘I can’t sell.  It doesn’t belong to me.’

The family’s wealth was established long before the dukedom. The titles of non-royal dukes – that is, those who are not members of the royal family – were awarded for personal service to the monarch.  In the Grosvenors’ case it was Queen Victoria who conferred the dukedom in 1874 upon Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, then the Marquess of Westminster; the reason supposedly was that he was wealthier than she. Although the dukedom was the second most recent to be created (the last was Fife in 1900), the family’s ancestry stretches back to William the Conqueror, who gave them their surname: William’s Chief Huntsman was Gilbert le Gros Veneur.

Their acquisition of wealth began around 1160, when Robert le Grosvenor received a grant of land from the Earl of Chester at Budworth in Cheshire, where the family settled and has remained. But it is the hugely valuable London lands with which the Grosvenors are most often associated.  They came into the family through a young ancestor, Mary Davies.

By the late 17th century the Grosvenors were rich but their property was all provincial.  They were not well known in the south of the country and needed a London base.  As was so often the case with wealthy families who wanted to remain that way, a solution was found in the form of a suitable marriage.  In 1677 Sir Thomas Grosvenor,  MP for Chester and also its Mayor, married Mary Davies, an heiress. Thomas was 21, Mary just 12.  Her father had died of the plague in 1665 when she was a baby, leaving her the manor of Ebury, 500 acres suitably close to London: Mary’s youth upon her marriage earned her the soubriquet ‘the Maid of Ebury’.  With the keen eye of a developer, Sir Thomas saw promise in the swamp, orchard and poor pasture and the Grosvenors’ London portfolio began. The Ebury estate developed, to become Belgravia, Pimlico and Mayfair.

Unsurprisingly it was not all plain sailing. Early on, the Grosvenors nearly lost everything when Mary fell under the influence of two unscrupulous brothers. Sir Thomas died in 1700, aged 44, leaving Dame Mary, as she was then known, with three sons under 12; a daughter was born a month later.  During her husband’s illness Mary had shown signs of mental instability, no doubt exacerbated by his death. Her extreme behaviour included wearing feathers on her sleeve thinking she could fly, and locking people in cupboards.  She also became extremely religious and took into her household Father Lodowick Fenwick, a Roman Catholic chaplain, through whom she met his brother, Edward.

In 1701 Mary insisted on going on a sightseeing tour of Paris, taking her daughter, some of her staff and – to the concern of her friends –  Father Fenwick. They stayed in the Hotel Castile, where Edward Fenwick visited her. One night she was taken ill and a doctor was called.  Soon afterwards Edward, supported by his brother, claimed that he and Mary had been married on 18 June and that Edward was therefore the legal owner of her property. Four years of legal dispute followed, which London watched with interest.

Edward claimed Mary had taken ‘a wondrous fancy’ to him, and that he was entitled to her fortune of ‘£30,000 at least, and an interest in lands in Cheshire, Westminster and Chelsea, and a great personal estate, mortgages, bonds, plate….’ . Despite the evidence in her favour, including testimony that opium had been placed in her food, the Queen’s Bench initially found that the marriage, though forced, was valid.  Fortunately the verdict was overturned by the Court of Delegates in 1705.  Mary was adjudged to be insane and the supposed marriage was annulled.

Mary was committed to the care of Francis Cholmondeley, whom her husband  had appointed a guardian to their children under his will.  She died in 1730 aged 65, without regaining her faculties. The revenues from her estate were paid into the Court of Chancery to be used for her benefit, and no dealing with her land was to be allowed without the Court’s permission. In 1784 her grandson, Richard Grosvenor, became the first in the family to be raised to the peerage, as Earl Grosvenor. When his son, another Robert Grosvenor, saw Buckingham House rebuilt as a royal palace in 1825, he saw the possibility for further development. Six years and an Act of Parliament later, Belgravia was born. As a reward, in 1831 Robert was created 1st Marquess of Westminster.

The family’s contribution to London’s development continued for generations, for whose origins the 7th Duke can look back to his ancestor Mary, the Maid of Ebury.

Jane Dismore is the author of Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain (pub. Blink Books, Sept. 2014)

More in Other