Vic Keegan’s Lost London 239: Monmouth House

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 239: Monmouth House

Soho Square was built during the reign of Charles II and originally called King Square, though not in honour of the sovereign. It was named after Gregory King who, in the 17th century, was mainly responsible for laying out the streets and squares in an area previously known as Soho Fields.

This was a political square. If St James’s Square, close to St James’s Palace, the home of Charles’s younger brother James – the Duke of York and heir apparent – was Tory Town, packed with Tory supporters of a hereditary monarchy, then Soho Square was Whigsville.

It was intended to be a safe haven for the nobility, particularly the Whig nobility, who wanted a Protestant successor to Charles, not James, who had converted to Catholicism. Noble Whig families, such as the Bedfords, controlled much of the land in the area.

The most important building in Soho Square was Monmouth House. It was big, occupying the whole of the south side (arrowed below) and the land between what have been known since that time as Greek Street and Frith Street, which was named after Richard Frith, one of its builders. This extravaganza was created for James Scott, otherwise known as the charismatic but ill-fated Duke of Monmouth, the eldest and most senior of Charles’s 14 illegitimate children.

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Scott was very rich, a successful soldier and very popular, at least with Whigs and the populace at large. If the Whigs had succeeded in preventing James from succeeding Charles II – they failed, as in February 1685 he became James II – then Monmouth, though he never said so in public, would have been a candidate for King, or at least for the role of the most dominant noble despite his illegitimacy. He owed his wealth to lavish gifts bestowed on him by his father.

The Duke rarely lived at Monmouth House. He and his wife Anna had plenty of other places in which to linger, including Colman Hedge Close, a large estate nearby which was his domain as King Charles’s Master of the Horse. His main London residence was the original Palace of Westminster, off today’s Whitehall.

Further afield there was Windsor Castle, which he greatly expanded, plus Chiswick House and Moor House at Rickmansworth 14 miles away, which he restored. Oh, and he also bought a house in Bishopsgate in order to promote the Whig cause among the City’s businessmen.

Why on Earth with all these homes did he need Monmouth House as well, even though he got a surprisingly good deal out if it? The architectural historian Sir Simon Thirley points out that the house contained several large rooms that were constructed not as reception rooms but as meeting places for Whig sympathisers. It was all part of the geography of politics at that time.

After James’s accession it was all downhill for Monmouth. Having been linked to plots to seize the throne he’d been forced to flee abroad. Now, he did indeed attempt to become King. His small army landed at Lyme Regis with a handful of supporters. He attracted several thousand more as he marched hesitantly towards London, but they were poorly trained and on 6 July 1685. He was easily defeated by the Crown’s forces at the Battle of Sedgemoor near Bridgwater.

The captured Monmouth was brutally executed without trial on Tower Hill on 15 July 15, Parliament having passed an Act of Attainder sentencing him to death as a traitor. His followers were also sentenced to death or transported to distant lands by the notorious Judge Jeffries.

After Monmouth’s death his house in Soho Square entered a period of slow decline. Its various owners included his wife the Duchess who bought it outright  in 1698 only to sell it in 1716 to Sir James Bateman, Lord Mayor of London and sub governor of the South Sea Company.

Bateman died the following year but the house remained in his family, whose name is remembered thanks to Bateman’s Buildings, which stand on the site of the great house, and Bateman Street, which crosses Frith Street.

By 1770 Soho Square was in decline as fashionable people moved westwards. Monmouth House had become a white elephant and was dismantled in 1773 for redevelopment. It might have changed the course of history – but it didn’t.

All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here and a book containing many of them can be bought here. Follow Vic on Twitter and also as @LondonStreetWalker.

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Categories: Culture, Lost London

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