The Bedford Estate: The Bedford Estate from 1541 to 1627

Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1970.

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'The Bedford Estate: The Bedford Estate from 1541 to 1627', in Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden, (London, 1970) pp. 22-25. British History Online [accessed 11 April 2024]

The Bedford Estate from 1541 to 1627

Covent Garden was only a very small part of the enormous estates acquired by the Russell family during the sixteenth century. The founder of the family fortunes was John Russell (c. 1485– 1555), created Earl of Bedford in 1550, a native of Dorset where his family owned the manor of Berwick. (fn. 4) His great-grandfather, Henry Russell, sometimes called Henry Gascoigne, was a merchant who had represented Weymouth in the House of Commons and conducted a considerable trading business with France. (fn. 5) Possibly these antecedents gave rise to the tradition that the family originally came from France, and when in 1854 the seventh Duke of Bedford presented a bell to the church of Rosel in Normandy, it was in the belief that his ancestors had come from that area. (fn. 6) Another family tradition was that the young John Russell owed his position at court to the service which he rendered the Archduke Philip and his wife when the ship in which they were travelling was blown ashore near Weymouth in 1506. The story relates that Sir Thomas Trenchard received the royal couple at his house in Dorset and sent for Russell, who had a reputation as a linguist, to act as interpreter; that Russell accompanied the Archduke to court, and was subsequently appointed a gentleman usher to Henry VII. (fn. 7) Under Henry VIII he served with distinction both as a soldier and a diplomat, being first knighted and then raised to the peerage as Baron Russell of Chenies in Buckinghamshire. He had acquired this property with Thornhaugh in Northamptonshire on his marriage to Anne Jerningham, and made it his home. (fn. 8) He was further rewarded for his services to the King by grants of lands, mostly monastic, in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Devon, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and Suffolk; the most notable estates were those which had formerly belonged to the Abbeys of Tavistock, Thorney and Woburn, the last of which later superseded Chenies as the principal country seat of the head of the family. Later Russells added to these estates by advantageous marriages, and thus acquired properties in Hampshire, Wiltshire, Bloomsbury and Surrey. For over a century, from c. 1586 to 1700, the administrative centre of this huge private domain was in Covent Garden, at the Russells' London house on the north side of the Strand.

For some years before 1586 the family had occupied another house nearby. This had formerly been the London residence of the Bishops of Carlisle and stood on the south side of the Strand, in the parish of St. Clement Danes. It had been acquired by the future first Earl of Bedford in 1539, and was commonly known as Russell Place or House, though sometimes, after his elevation to the earldom in 1550, it was referred to as Bedford House. (fn. 9) When he took possession of Carlisle House all the southern frontage of the Strand was already occupied and there was therefore no room for expansion. Consequently, it may be conjectured, when property nearly opposite the house came into the King's hands through the suppression of Westminster Abbey, Russell made a request that it should be given to him. The two pieces of land called Friars Pyes, described above, were granted to him in 1541, and on the western piece either he or his son had a large stable built as a necessary appendage to the family mansion. When Russell, now Earl of Bedford, received a grant of Covent Garden and Long Acre in 1552, he probably saw his acquisition primarily as a means of providing pasture and fodder for his horses and dairy produce for his household. Indeed, from the time of its acquisition until building took place in the 1630's, Covent Garden was always described as pasture land. Nothing is known for certain about the first Earl's use of the estate, however, and not long after he became the owner, he died at Russell Place in 1555 and was succeeded by his son, Francis. (fn. 10)

During the lifetime of the second Earl the estate was let out to tenants. In 1567 the rents received were £30 for Covent Garden, £6 for Long Acre and £6 12s. for Friars Pyes. (fn. 11) The Earl had already sold off some small parts of the estate between 1560 and 1565, (fn. 12) but this did not represent a general policy, since the sales were made to oblige a powerful neighbour, Sir William Cecil, who was engaged in enlarging his house next the Earl's property on the north side of the Strand, to match his standing as the Queen's chief secretary. The Earl of Bedford also granted Cecil liberty to open a door or gate into Covent Garden in order that he and his family might walk there. (fn. 13) Certain other local inhabitants had similar privileges. (fn. 14)

In 1582 the convent garden, described as the great pasture and a 6-acre close on the southwest, was let for £66 a year to Humphrey Gosling, (fn. 15) vintner, who kept the White Hart on the north side of the Strand. Gosling was allowed to use half the loft over the Earl's stable in Friars Pyes for the storage of his hay, and, during the absence of the Earl from town, to use half the stable for his horses. (fn. 14) Gosling's epitaph, formerly in the Savoy Chapel, described him as 'a Neighbour of vertuous Behaviour, a very good Archer, and of honest Mirth, a good Company keeper', (fn. 16) but his behaviour as a tenant casts doubt on his virtue, for he was said to have cut down some of the elm trees growing in Covent Garden, which he had no right to do, and to have hidden the wood 'under the Haye Ryckes in his yerde'. (fn. 14)

In 1585 the second Earl of Bedford died at Russell Place. (fn. 10) His eldest surviving son, Francis, had died the day before, as a result of wounds received in an affray, so the earldom passed to Francis's son, Edward. He was a minor at the time of his father's death and was made a ward of the Crown, (fn. 14) but in 1586 the Queen granted his wardship to Ambrose, Earl of Warwick, and Anne, Countess of Warwick, Edward's aunt. (fn. 17)

In 1588 the estate was producing a yearly rental of £66 for Covent Garden, £6 for Long Acre and £5 10s. for houses in Friars Pyes. (fn. 18) Russell Place had not descended to the third Earl (fn. 10) (see page 205) so a new house was built for his future occupation on the north side of the Strand on the western piece of Friars Pyes. (fn. 19) At his coming of age in 1593 the estate was still let as it was when he had inherited it but during the next twenty-five years he increased its revenue from less than £80 to £500 (fn. 20) and established the features which were to govern its ultimate development.

A large portion of the estate was again granted on lease in 1599, this time to John Dauson, who was described as Widow Gosling's son (fn. 21) and had presumably succeeded Gosling at the White Hart. The area let to Dauson was almost certainly less than that let to Gosling, and was said to measure 28 acres within 'the Inward Pales'. The growing timber, which Gosling had misappropriated, was excluded from the lease; so was a 'Laundry howse' to which certain other people had access. The Earl retained the right to pasture 'eight mylche Kyne' in the close 'or in like pasture', with free access for his servants to enter 'for mylking fodering and other lyke occasions'. Dauson's annual rent was £51, plus 50s. when the 'mylch beasts' ceased to be pastured on his land; he was also required to keep in repair the two gates at the east and west ends of the close, the posts, rails and pales on the north side and to maintain a quickset hedge under the pales. The Earl reserved the right to repossess himself of the close on giving two months' notice, if he or his heirs wanted to make 'his or their aboade and keepe hospitalety with his famely at his house called Bedford house'. (fn. 22) The 'Inward Pales' mentioned in the lease probably stood about 131 feet east of St. Martin's Lane (fn. 23) and about 77 feet west of Drury Lane. (fn. 24) The east and west gates were probably situated in White Hart Yard and what was later called (Little) Chandos Street.

Between 1610 and 1613 the central close of pasture was again reduced by the erection of a brick wall within the former wooden fence. (fn. 25) This wall, whose position is shown on fig. I, both determined and confined the area available for building development in the 1630's and its effect upon the topography of the area has therefore survived to the present day.

In 1615, shortly after the wall was built, the third Earl carried out the first major development on the estate by laying out Long Acre in collaboration with the lessee of the Mercers' Company land on his northern boundary.

A rental of the Covent Garden property drawn up in 1618 (fn. 20) shows that only the 'great pasture', then let to Dauson's widow for three lives or ninety years (fn. 1) at a diminished rent of £40, was still open land. This open area was enclosed by the brick wall. The rest of the estate outside the wall (which was pierced by two gates giving access to Drury Lane and St. Martin's Lane by (Little) Russell and (Little) Chandos Streets respectively) was either built over or occupied as gardens. (fn. 26) The four blocks which lay outside the brick wall were described in the rental as the north, south, east and west 'sides'. The north, east and west sides fronted the main thoroughfares of Long Acre, Drury Lane and St. Martin's Lane, respectively. The south side was taken up by houses in Friars Pyes, Bedford House, and the plots on the south side of what later became Maiden Lane and Chandos Street (see Chapters VII to XII).

The making of the 1618 rental was a preparatory step in handing over the management of the estate to the Earl's cousin, Francis, Lord Russell. In order to see this event in perspective it is necessary to go back to 1585. Shortly before his death in that year, the second Earl had settled his estates on his eldest son, Francis, and his male heirs; on the failure of that line the estates were to devolve on the next heir to the earldom, that is Sir William Russell, the second Earl's brother, and on his male heirs. (fn. 27) It will be recalled that the second Earl's son had died before him and that he had been succeeded by his grandson. The third Earl's minority, with the debts and legacies left by his grandfather, was a heavy burden on the estates. The total revenue in 1586 was £2,053 (fn. 28) but a summary of encumbrances in 1589 showed that although liabilities of £5,740 had been discharged by that date, payment of £4,063 still remained due. (fn. 29) The Earl's situation deteriorated in 1601, when he was fined £10,000 for his complicity in the Earl of Essex's rebellion. He managed to pay off £7,000 before the outstanding balance was remitted by James I, but his financial position must nevertheless have been very precarious, (fn. 30) for he had begun (in his own words) 'unthriftilie' to sell off 'divers parts of my Inheritance which by my predecessors were left me'. (fn. 31) His heir apparent, Sir William Russell, now Baron Russell of Thornhaugh, intervened and compelled the Earl, 'upon deliberate and good advise', to bind himself 'in many Thowsand pounds for the not selling awaie anie more'. It was for this reason that in 1610 he refused Lord Salisbury's pressing offer to buy Covent Garden. (fn. 32) (fn. 2)

The Earl's low financial state continued and he had no son to inherit. His legal heir, after the death of the first Baron Russell in 1613, was therefore his cousin, Baron Russell's son, Francis. In 1617 the latter, now known as Lord Russell, agreed to discharge the bonds into which the Earl had entered with Sir William, and in return the Earl formally vested certain of his estates, including Covent Garden, in trustees for the benefit of Lord Russell after his own death (and after the death of any male heirs which he might yet produce). (fn. 33) But Lord Russell did not even have to wait for his cousin's death, for in 1619 the Earl, in exchange for an annuity of £1,695 8s., conveyed Bedford House, Friars Pyes, Covent Garden and Long Acre (with certain other properties) to him for his immediate possession. (fn. 34) On the same day Lord Russell let Bedford House to the Earl for so long as he should live. (fn. 35)

Thus for the rest of the third Earl's life, from 1619 to 1627, Francis Russell was in possession of the Covent Garden estate. The development of the four 'sides', outside the brick wall, including Bedfordbury, was, however, begun under the auspices of the third Earl. By 1618 he had already granted leases to a number of tenants (fn. 3) and had promised, if the tenants built, to renew their leases at the end of their terms. Lord Russell covenanted to honour these agreements, and to extend the original terms for a total of not more than thirty-one years. (fn. 34) The third Earl died in May 1627 and was succeeded by his cousin.


  • 1. A large number of leases in Covent Garden had been granted to tenants for three lives or for ninety years determinable upon three lives. This practice was unusual in the vicinity of London, except on estates owned by the Crown or by ecclesiastical and collegiate corporations, but it was common in the west country. The usage may therefore have been introduced in Covent Garden from the Russell estates in Devon and Cornwall. Livery of seisin was executed by the Earl's servants, usually his surveyor-general and bailiff.
  • 2. Had the first Earl of Salisbury succeeded in acquiring Covent Garden, most of the land between Drury Lane in the east and Whitcomb and Wardour Streets in the west would have been concentrated in the hands of two families linked by marriage. The Salisburys owned nearly all the land on the west side of St. Martin's Lane and the second Earl of Salisbury's daughter married the third Earl of Leicester, who owned all the ground in the neighbourhood of Leicester Square.
  • 3. Several tenants were royal servants or warrant-holders; one or two were in the Earl's employment.
  • 4. Gladys Scott Thomson, Family Background, 1949, pp. 204–14.
  • 5. Ibid., pp. 218–26.
  • 6. B.O.L., Annual Report, 1854, p. 10.
  • 7. Thomson, op. cit., pp. 200–1.
  • 8. Ibid., pp. 85–6.
  • 9. Survey of London, vol. XVIII, 1937, p. 120.
  • 10. P.R.O., C142/211, no. 183.
  • 11. Bedfordshire Record Office, Russell Papers, box 355.
  • 12. P.R.O., C54/571, no. 30; E/BER, Muniments of Title, Middlesex, E, nos. 1, 2; Northamptonshire Record Office, Burghley House MSS., 5/21.
  • 13. E/BER, Muniments of Title, Middlesex, E, no. 1.
  • 14. P.R.O., SP12/197, no. 41.
  • 15. Ibid.; Bedfordshire County Record Office, Russell Papers, box 355, 1588.
  • 16. John Strype, A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, 1720, vol. 11, bk. IV, p. 109.
  • 17. B.O.L., Muniment Register II, p. 1034, General Evidences Devon, bundle 1, no. 35.
  • 18. Bedfordshire Record Office, Russell Papers, box 355, rental, 1588.
  • 19. Ibid., box 355, rentals, 1592, 1593.
  • 20. E/BER, rental, 1618.
  • 21. P.R.O., SP12/199, no. 17.
  • 22. E/BER, lease of 2 July 1599 to J. Dauson.
  • 23. Ibid., St. Martin's Lane, lease of 1 April 1598 to W. Dawson.
  • 24. Ibid., Drury Lane, leases of 13 Dec. 1614 to F. Dod and Sir W. Slyngisbye.
  • 25. Ibid., Drury Lane, lease of 16 March 1615/16 to Sir E. Cecil; Maiden Lane, lease of 1 Dec. 1613 to R. Jones; Long Acre, lease of 26 Nov. 1618 to Sir H. Fane; Muniments of Title, Middlesex, E, no. 5; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1638–1639, p. 348.
  • 26. E/BER, Drury Lane, lease of 14 June 1635 to J. Hargrove; Survey, 1627.
  • 27. B.O.L., Muniment Register II, pp. 1035–6, General Evidences Devon, bundle 2, no. 13.
  • 28. P.R.O., SP12/195, no. 48.
  • 29. Bedfordshire Record Office, Russell Papers, box 355, rental, 1589.
  • 30. B.O.L., Letters Patent 30 July 1601 and 23 June 1603.
  • 31. P.R.O., SP14/53, no. 118.
  • 32. B.O.L., The effect of Lord Russell's request (N.D.); P.R.O., SP14/53, no. 118.
  • 33. Devonshire Record Office, 1258M/General Evidences, bundle 3, no. 15.
  • 34. Ibid., bundle 4, no. 17.
  • 35. E/BER, Muniments of Title, Middlesex, G, bundle 1, no. 14.