Survey of London: Volume 18, St Martin-in-The-Fields II: the Strand. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1937.
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CHAPTER 6: YORK HOUSE
The York Water Gate (see pp. 59–60) in the Victoria Embankment Gardens is now almost the sole surviving relic of the great houses which in the mediæval and Renaissance periods bordered the Strand between the Temple and Charing Cross. (fn. n1) York House, to which the York Water Gate formed the river approach, was originally the town house of the Bishops of Norwich and, like its easterly neighbour, Durham House, it fronted the river. The earliest reference to Norwich Inn which has been found is an order issued in 1237 to the Bishop to repair the Quay. (fn. 188) Little is known about the house during the mediaeval period, (fn. n2) but it is probable that the street frontage was built on at quite an early date, for the inquisition post mortem on Bishop William Alnewick in 1437 states that he held five cottages in addition to his "hospicium" in Westminster. (fn. 189) These cottages formed the nucleus of what became known as Norwich Rents (see p. 58).
In 1536, the King, after providing the Bishop of Norwich with a house in Cannon Row, Westminster, granted (fn. 190) Norwich Place to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, in exchange for the Duke's house in Southwark. This grant preserved the rights of William Hale, Richard Hale and "Katheryn," his wife, to the office of "kepying of … the Bysshop of Norwyche place … with the profightes of the gardeyns there." The Duke had already a London residence in Barbican, and he seems to have used the Strand house only occasionally. (fn. n3) Early in 1556 the Duke's heirs surrendered (fn. 191) it to the Queen, by whom (fn. 192) it was almost immediately granted to Nicholas Heath, Archbishop of York, under the description of "the capital messuage commonly called Suffolke Place alias Norwiche place with the appurtenances and 50 messuages, 10 cottages, 4 stables and 7 gardens in the parish of St. Martin in the Fields." Thenceforward "Suffolk Place" became "York House," but the Archbishop seems to have lived there only during the reign of Mary. In December, 1558, he gave up the charge of the Great Seal to Nicholas (afterwards Sir Nicholas) Bacon, who also took possession of York House, and during the greater part of the next 70 years the house was in lease to successive lord keepers.
From the accession of Elizabeth until his death in 1579, Sir Nicholas Bacon played a prominent part in affairs of state. He had married, as his second wife, Ann, the learned daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, whose sister, Mildred, had become the second wife of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Francis Bacon, the second son of Nicholas by this marriage, was born at York House on 22nd January, 1561, (fn. 193) and lived there during his early years when the family was in town. Sir Nicholas won golden opinions from his contemporaries, one of whom described him as "a man of great diligence and ability in his place, whose goodnesse preserved his greatnesse from suspicion, envye and hate." (fn. 194) The unwieldiness of his body is frequently the subject of amusing comment in his own letters. As Elizabeth said of him, "his soul lodged well." (fn. 195) He died at York House on 20th February, 1578–9, "about eight in the morning," (fn. 196) and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. He left all his "intereste in Yorke House" to his wife. (fn. 197)
Sir Thomas Bromley succeeded Bacon as Lord Keeper, but no direct evidence has been found that he lived at York House, though several of his letters among the State papers are dated from Charing Cross.
In his introduction to the Speculi Brittanniæ Pars, published in 1594, Norden stated that, "Her Highnis hath now committed [York House] unto the right honorable Earl of Essex." (fn. n4) Essex was certainly there several years prior to this date, (fn. 198) but his tenure came to an end soon after, for on 2nd December, 1594, Sir John Puckering, the Lord Keeper, wrote to Matthew Hutton, "Understanding her Majestie's gracious resolution … to call you to the see of York … I am therby occasioned to make a request unto you concerning this house wherein I now dwell, belonging to that See which, as the Archbishop that first purchased it did … purposely destine … for a dwelling house for thoes that shuld have the charge of the great seale … I so desier to hold it of your Lordship [not] as a badd tenant (which I have not hitherto ben, for I have in this litle time bestowed above 200l in reparations about the house) but either to have it by leasse for some certein terme at a reasonable rent, as the late Lord Keeper had it, or otherwise by promis from your Lordship to enjoy it for your time mainteyning the house in due reparations and furnishing you with a convenient house for your owne use when you shall have occasion to be here at London." (fn. 199)
Apparently Puckering obtained a short lease, for after his death in 1596 the Archbishop wrote (fn. 200) to Sir Thomas Egerton, then Lord Keeper, who had also asked for the use of the house, that "My Ladie Puckering hathe a state in it for one yere after her husbands death." (fn. n5) Egerton took possession in 1596. In January, 1596–7, he wrote to the Earl of Essex, with whom he was on friendly terms, that he proposed to take a few days' holiday in the country "to air both myself and my house." (fn. 201) When Essex returned from his ill-fated expedition to Ireland in October, 1597, he was committed to Egerton's custody and lodged at York House, where his trial before the Privy Council took place. In December Essex fell sick, but he remained a prisoner, in spite of the petitions of his friends that he might be "removed to a better air, for he is somewhat straitly lodged in respect the Lord Keeper's household is not great." (fn. n6) (fn. 202) Lady Egerton died in January, 1599–1600, and Rowland Whyte commented that: "My Lord Keeper sorrows more than so great a man ought. He is discontented that his house is made a prison of so long continuance." (fn. 202) In the following month there was a report that the mother and friends of Essex had gained access to a house overlooking "York garden where he uses to walk" and had "saluted" him there. (fn. 202) In March, Egerton wrote to Sir Robert Cecil praying to be relieved of his charge, for "my indisposition of health increases, and the physicians promise me small comfort in this unsavoury house." (fn. 201) When Essex was finally removed from his custody Egerton was as grateful for his "liberty" as if he himself had been the prisoner.
On 9th June, 1600, Essex was again brought before the Lords of the Council, and was at York House from "8 of the clock in the morning until almost 9 at night without either meat or drink." (fn. 196) He was finally sentenced to dismissal from all his offices and to remain a prisoner at Essex House. In August he was again summoned to York House and was given his liberty, but a bare pardon was insufficient for him, and when his efforts to press his claims at court failed he resorted to force. On 7th February, 1600–1, he tried, with a small band of followers, to raise the citizens of London in his cause. The attempt failed, and Essex was beheaded as a traitor within the Tower of London on 25th February.
In 1600 Egerton had married as his third wife, Alice, daughter of Sir John Spencer of Althorpe, and widow of Ferdinando, 5th Earl of Derby. She was a well-known parton of English literature and added a number of books to the large library at Bridgewater House, which Egerton founded. At the accession of James I, Egerton was reappointed Lord Keeper, and was given the title of Baron Ellesmere. (fn. n7) He continued to reside at York House until his death there on 15th March, 1616–7. On the 20th of that month his widow wrote to Sir Edward Montagu, asking for a lease of a house in "Little Brytayne," (fn. 204) and Sir Francis Bacon, who succeeded Ellesmere in office, seems to have moved into York House as soon as it was vacated, for on 25th July he applied to the City authorities for a supply of water to be laid on there. (fn. 62)
In January, 1619–20, Bacon was created Viscount St. Albans, and
on the 22nd of that month the new Viscount celebrated his sixtieth birthday
by giving a banquet at York House, at which Ben Jonson saluted him with
some very bad verse beginning:
"Hail happy genius of this Ancient Pile,
How is it all things so about thee Smile?" (fn. 205)
Three months later fortune's smile was turned to a frown, for Bacon was arraigned before the House of Lords on a charge of corruption. In May he was sentenced to a fine of £40,000, was imprisoned during the King's pleasure, and was disabled from sitting in Parliament and from coming within the verge of the court. The greater part of this sentence was remitted soon after, but the King's favourite, George, Duke of Buckingham, coveted possession of York House, and it was not until the spring of 1622, when Bacon consented to give it up, that he was allowed to come to London.
Buckingham took possession of his new residence at once, but did not obtain a formal grant of it until 1624, when the compliance of the Archbishop had been obtained by means of a promise that "lands of greater profit" (fn. 93) should be granted to the see in exchange. (fn. n8) Prince Charles and Buckingham repaired to York House on their return from their unsuccessful visit to Spain in October, 1623, and in the following month the Duke entertained the Spanish and Austrian ambassadors to a supper at which both King and Prince were present. (fn. 93) It is usually stated that as soon as Buckingham gained possession of York House he set about rebuilding it, but Sir Balthazar Gerbier, in his Discourse concerning the … Principles of Magnificent Building, suggests that the Duke was so impatient to make use of York House that he waited neither for the completion of his title nor for a systematic repair of the fabric, but that he had the buttresses removed from the "old rotten decayed walls … the Seelings of Roomes supported with Iron-bolts, Belconies clapt up in the old wall, daubed over with finishing Morter; and all this (as a Toadestoole groweth in a night) to serve until a Model for a Solid Building (to stand even with the Street) were made, and to be built of such stone as the Portico or Water-Gate at the River side is; and this was done on a Moorish Ground, whereon no New Building could stand any time without Proppings." Gerbier was in Buckingham's employ and should therefore have known the truth of the matter, but the statement quoted above was written many years after Buckingham's death, and it must be accepted with caution, since by that time Gerbier had developed a grudge against the whole family of Villiers. The facts that York House was certainly in use at frequent intervals during the years 1624–8, (fn. n9) and that the Duke was invariably out of funds (his wife, Katherine, daughter of the Earl of Rutland, wrote to her cousin in July, 1625, wondering how they should "redeem themselves out of debt" (fn. 93)), make it unlikely that building operations on a large scale were carried out. On the other hand, the view of York House given by Norden (Plate 1b) shows a very different building from that represented by Hollar (Plate 2b), though both represent the house in the same position—i.e. set back from the river and to the west of the main waterstairs, with a garden or orchard on the east side. In the Norden view there is a one-storey structure on the riverside of the main building which seems to be absent in the Hollar view. The latter shows the main building with a battlemented parapet and projecting wings at either end. The only definite evidence that has come to light in support of the rebuilding theory is the fact that James I gave Buckingham 2,000 tons of Portland stone for that purpose, (fn. 206) and only 200 tons at the outside could have been used for the Water Gate. It is probable that Buckingham having built the Water Gate (fn. n10) contented himself with patching up the rest of the building. (fn. n11)
Bassompierre relates that on Sunday, 15th November, 1626, "he went to the King at Withal (Whitehall), who placed me in his barge and took me to the Duke's at Jorschau (York House). The King supped at one table with the queen and me, which was served by a complete ballet at each course, with sundry representations, changes of scenery, tables and music. The Duke waited on the King at table, the Earl of Carlile on the Queen, and the Earl of Hollande on me. After supper the king and we were led into another room where the assembly was, and one entered it by a kind of turnstile as in convents, without any confusion, where there was a magnificent ballet, in which the Duke danced: and afterwards we set to and danced country-dances till four in the morning, thence we were shown into vaulted apartments where there were five different collations." (fn. 209)
During the few years that Buckingham possessed York House he collected a large number of art treasures there. Peacham in The Compleat Gentleman, published in 1634, says, "the Galleries and Roomes are ennobled with the possession of those Romane Heads and Statues, which lately belonged to Sir Peter Paul Rubens Knight, that exquisit painter of Antwerp: and the Garden will bee renowned so long as John de Bolognas Cain and Abel stand erected there, a peece of wondrous Art and Workemanship. The King of Spaine gave it his majestie at his being there, who bestowed it on the late Duke of Buckingham." (fn. n12) Gentileschi painted several of the ceilings, one of which was moved to Buckingham House, in St. James's Park, when York House was dismantled. (fn. 210)
On 23rd August, 1628, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, was murdered by John Felton, and with his death all schemes for the rebuilding of York (or Buckingham) House were at an end. His widow, Katherine, continued to occupy the house, and on 28th July, 1631, wrote to Secretary Dorchester asking that the painter, Gentileschi, might be paid the money due to him from the King so that "he could leave England, and be gone into his own country," and she could "have York House free to herself, for want whereof she is constrained to keep a family at Chelsea to look after her laundry." (fn. 93) The Duke had granted Gentileschi lodginges adjoining Gerbier's house, which was on the east side of the gatehouse to the Strand. (fn. n13) The Duchess also tried to expel Gerbier from his house on the ground that he was an alien, but the attempt seems to have failed. (fn. n14)
In August, 1637, Mary, daughter of the 1st Duke of Buckingham, and widow (at the age of 11) of Charles, Lord Herbert, was married to James Stuart, 4th Duke of Lennox and 1st Duke of Richmond. The wedding dinner was held at York House. where there were said to be "more cooks than guests." (fn. 196) (fn. n15) Two years previously Buckingham's widow had married Randal Macdonnell, 2nd Earl and 1st Marquess of Antrim, who lived in magnificent style and contracted enormous debts. He supported the Royalist cause in the Civil War, and his possessions, including the York House property, which he held during the life of his wife, were sequestrated. The Dowager Duchess of Buckingham died in November, 1649, and York House devolved upon her son, George, 2nd Duke of Buckingham. As, however, the latter was also a "delinquent" the property remained in sequestration. Several informations were laid concerning the "picktures and other Rich goods" (fn. 213) in York House, but nothing was done to claim them for the Commonwealth until 1649, by which time a large proportion had been sent secretly by a faithful servant to the young Duke of Buckingham in Antwerp. (fn. 214) In that year the house was granted to Thomas, Lord Fairfax, (fn. 215) inrecongnition of his services to Parliament, and during the next few years the 19 houses along the Strand frontage known as York Rents were granted to various purchasers (see p. 59).
In the summer of 1657 Buckingham, who was tired of exile and out of favour with King Charles, returned to England and courted Fairfax's only daughter. Mary Fairfax had been promised to the Earl of Chesterfield, and the banns had been read at St. Martin-in-the-Fields for the second time, but Buckingham proved irresistible, and in September his wedding with Mary took place at Bolton Percy in Yorkshire. (fn. 119) The Council ordered that Buckingham should be arrested, but Fairfax interceded for his son-in-law, and Cromwell allowed him to live in honourable confinement at York House. Buckingham soon found this restraint irksome and broke his parole, with the result that he was sent to the Tower. He was released in February, 1658–9, on condition that he promised not to aid the enemies of the Commonwealth, a promise which did not prevent his taking the field with Fairfax against Lambert in January, 1660. All his estates were restored to him after the return of Charles II, and he resumed his father's practice of living at Wallingford House when in town and using York House only for ceremonial occasions, as e.g., in June, 1671, when he was fromally installed there as Chancellor of Cambridge University. (fn. 93) The house was hired in turn by the Spanish, the Russian, the Danish, the French and the Portuguese Ambassadors, but so much had to be spent in reparis to keep the place habitable, that Buckingham found he was out of pocket, even when he charged £450 a year rent for it, (fn. 216) and since, although he was reputed the richest man in England, he was always in debt, he decided to sell or lease the property for building.
Owing to the fact that the ground was mortgaged two or three deep the transactions which led up to the sale of York House and its garden in building plots, were very involved. (fn. n16) Sir Philip Matthews, Matthias Bowman and Sir Anthony Deane respectively seem to have bought the largest shares, but their purchases were in the form of separate plots scattered over the estate, and not in compact blocks. Many purchasers bought only one site (or one house, for in some cases the plots were built on before they were sold). Edward Christian appears to have been responsible for the erection of a large number of the houses. The streets seem to have been laid out during 1674, their names being taken from the name and title of their erstwhile owner, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. The original names have been retained, except in the case of George Street, which was renamed York Buildings circa 1852, and Of Alley, which is now York Place. A Terrace Walk was formed with the York Water Gate in the centre, and until well on in the nineteenth century leases or sales of houses on the estate always contained a clause granting the right to use both terrace and gate. Long before the erection of the Victoria Embankment the river frontage must have been offensive at low tide, for, as can be seen on the plan reproduced on Plate 28, embankments and piers had been built out on either side, leaving a muddy foreshore in front of the terrace, on which rubbish of all kinds could accumulate.
The Strand Frontage of York House (Nos. 31–53, Strand).
The Strand Gate of Norwich Inn (afterwards York House) lay at the western end of the Strand frontage, and from it a passage led to the hall of the inn. Probably there were some servants' lodgings over and adjoining the gate in the mediæval period as there were later. To the east of the gatehouse were five tenements, which from the fifteenth century onwards were let on lease. In 1520 these five tenements were rebuilt as seven, and they and the "void" ground between them and Durham Place were leased to Robert Hale and Alice, his wife, and 12 new houses were built on the extra ground. (fn. n17) The 19 tenements became known as Norwich Rents. For a short time after 1536 they were called the Duke of Suffolk's Rents, and, later, York Rents. Robert Wyer, printer, set up his press in Norwich Rents in 1529–30, his device (shown here) being a representation of St. John seated on the Isle of Patmos writing, with an eagle holding his inkhorn. The earliest dated book printed there was Whytford's Golden Pystle, which was published in 1531. (fn. n18) Robert Wyer was succeeded at this house after 1559 by two other printers, Nicholas Wyer and Thomas Colwell, who used many of Robert Wyer's blocks and ornaments.
In 1596 Edward Coppinger obtained a lease from the Archbishop of York of a strip of ground at the back of York Rents in York House garden, containing "in length from Durham wall at ye east end of ye said ground unto ye wall wch did goe alonge ye greate and uttermost gate of ye said Capitall messuage untill ye hall dore of ye same at ye west end of ye same ground three H (undred feet) and in breadth from … yorke rents scytuate upon ye North side of ye said ground unto a greene Apple tree then growing in ye upper parte of ye greate gardein of ye said Capitall messuage Southward from ye said tenements. … Threescore and ten foote." Coppinger divided this ground into plots corresponding with the tenements in the Rents, and sublet it to the occupiers there. Previously these tenements had only been about 20 feet in depth, and in most cases part of the additional ground was used to increase the accommodation of the houses. (fn. n19)
York Rents were, of course, sequestrated with the rest of York House during the Commonwealth period. Purchasers could more readily be found for these small premises than for larger properties, and they were therefore sold off in lots of two or more in 1653. The house abutting on the New Exchange was in the tenure of James Livingstone and contained "two cellers wth one yard levell wth the said cellers. In the house, one Shopp and one kitchin; in the first story two Chambers; in the second story one Chamber and a Closett in the said yard, and a shed covered with Pann Tyles conteyning in length fifty and one foote … and in breadth ten foote and an halfe … the Upper parte of which said shedd is used for a Long Walke or gallery the under parte whereof is one little roome and the rest lyeth open to the yard. … Which said messuage conteyneth in breadth thirteene foote and an halfe." (fn. 100) Similar descriptions are given of the other houses in the indentures of sale.
When the site of York House was cut up into building plots circa 1674, York Rents were also broken up. Most of if not all the houses seem to have been rebuilt, and entrances were made from the Strand into Villiers Street, Buckingham Street and George Alley (now George Court).
Two of the seventeenth-century shop fronts which survived into the nineteenth century are illustrated in this volume. Plate 27b shows No. 31, Strand, at the west corner of Villiers Street, where William Richardson sold prints from 1796 to 1813. Plate 57c represents No. 50, Strand, which was occupied in 1793–1814 by Timothy Sheldrake, a maker of surgical appliances. The Royal Arms above the window are those of George III, who granted him a patent in 1797 for "a method of curing all the deformities of Children or others which arise from Distortion in the form or combination of Bones that exist in the deformed part."
The York Water Gate.
The York Water Gate embodies in itself more than the common freakishness of such survivals. It was built for the Duke of Buckingham in 1626, two years after York House had ceased to belong to the Archbishop of York; it was built to form a suitable approach to the new residence which Buckingham planned to erect on the site of York House, but it is the only part of that edifice which we can be quite certain really materialised, and after serving for many years as a water approach to the houses on the Buckingham estate, it is now left high and dry 150 yards from the river.
The gateway is generally acknowledged to be a most successful architectural composition, but its present setting in the Embankment Gardens does not show it to the best advantage. It is of Portland stone, and is usually said to have been erected from the designs of Inigo Jones, though some doubt is cast on this statement by an entry in the note-book of Nocholas Stone under the heading "Some of the Eminent Workes that my uncle Mr. Nickolas Stone Senior did in England …"; "The water Gate att Yorke House hee desined and built, and the Right hand Lion hee did frontting the Thames, Mr. Kearne a Jarman, his brother by marying his sister did the shee Lion." (fn. 220)
The structure on plan comprises three bays, the centre containing the passageway with steps leading down from York Terrace to the level of the old landing-stage by the water's edge (Plates 29, 33. The lateral walls to the side bays are each pierced by arched openings and further divided by a central column between a balustrading formed of turned-wood balusters. The south or river front, which has a rusticated surface, consists of a central archway between two small openings and is divided by attached banded Doric columns supporting the entablature. The central portion, which is raised and treated as a segmental pediment with an escallop contains a carved cartouche bearing the arms of the Villiers family, encircled by the riband of the Garter and surmounted by a ducal coronet. Above each of the side bays is seated a lion holding a carved shield with an anchor representing Buckingham's admiralship. The north front has a plain ashlar face divided by four pilasters supporting the entablature and surmounted by large spheres on pedestals. The Villiers' motto" "Fidei coticula curx" is inscribed upon the frieze, while the key stones to the three arched openings contain carved cartouches extending to the frieze. The middle one bears the arms of Villiers impaling Manners, and the other two a representation of an anchor. The side elevations have banded columns and general surface treatment in conformity with the south front.