A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 12, Chelsea. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2004.
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Sir Thomas More, lawyer and king's secretary, built up an important estate in Chelsea as his career at court developed. (fn. 1) In 1524 he acquired a house, garden, 7 a. arable and ½ a. meadow in Chelsea and Kensington from Andrew and Joan Hickes and John and Margaret Fletcher, and 24 a. arable and 3 a. meadow in Chelsea from John and Lettice Greenfield. (fn. 2) At about the same time he purchased a house with a wharf and little close adjoining, and Butts close of c.2½ from Thomas Keyle, citizen and mercer of London, (fn. 3) and evidently made other acquisitions, as his estate in 1538 consisted of the mansion and grounds where he lived, a messuage called the Farm with 77 a. arable and 12½ a. meadow, a substantial messuage in Brompton, another 28 a. 3 r. of arable in Chelsea, and 7 other messuages in Chelsea; (fn. 4) this excluded a house and Butts close given to William and Margaret Roper in 1534. (fn. 5) More was evidently living in Chelsea by the beginning of 1525 when he was appointed to search for suspected persons in the area, presumably as a justice of the peace. (fn. 6) There has always been considerable doubt about the exact location of More's house, and of the new building which he built containing his chapel, library and gallery, (fn. 7) as extensive building by his successor in the property, William Paulet, marquess of Winchester, has obscured the location of the house and the layout of More's property. It seems most likely that More's mansion was a medieval house close to the riverside, and that it was More's new building in the grounds behind which formed the site of the mansion known later as Beaufort House. (fn. 8) He also built a tomb for himself and his wives in the parish church. (fn. 9) He farmed directly at least some of his land, as a fire destroyed his corn-filled barns c.1529; (fn. 10) the previous year he had reported under the commission on corn that he had wheat, barley, and oats of his own to supply his daily household of 100. (fn. 11)
More became lord chancellor in 1529, and conducted some state business at his Chelsea house, including hearing petitions and examining heretics. In 1532 he resigned the chancellorship as he could not support the king's policy regarding the Church, and retired to Chelsea. (fn. 12) According to William Roper, More made a settlement of his estates on himself for life with remainders of part to his wife, part as a jointure for his daughter-in-law, and part to his daughter Margaret and her husband William Roper, but shortly afterwards More reinforced this settlement by an outright grant in possession to the Ropers. (fn. 13) Before being committed to the Tower in 1534, More granted all his estates in Chelsea to feoffees for uses he had previously indicated, but on his attainder all his estates were taken into the king's hands except for the portion given to the Ropers. (fn. 14) More's deed of feoffment was annulled by an Act in 1536, (fn. 15) following More's execution in 1535. However, although the king granted More's chief house to Sir William Paulet to hold at the king's will, (fn. 16) contrary to tradition More's family retained life interests in some of the Chelsea estate much in accordance with More's settlement, and were assessed for taxation under Chelsea from 1535-6 until 1547. (fn. 17) In 1540-1, for example, Sir Thomas's widow Alice was assessed in Chelsea at £50 for lands and fees held for life, his son John at £60 for lands held in his wife's right for life, presumably her jointure, and William Roper at £10 for lands, office, and fees for life. (fn. 18) Roper was listed as a free tenant of the manor in 1543, (fn. 19) and in 1547 he was said to hold for life a house and close called Butts close, with houses built there, a barn, and garden rent-free by gift of Sir Thomas More. The property was supposed to revert to the main estate after Roper's death, (fn. 20) but did not apparently do so, and it remained a separate estate. Its later history is traced below under the Earl of Lincoln's other estate and Sloane Stanley. (fn. 21)
In 1547 Edward VI granted More's estate with other lands in fee to Sir William Paulet, Lord St John and later marquess of Winchester, Lord Treasurer from 1550; the estate was as described in 1538 (above) plus Roper's property. (fn. 22) In 1566 Winchester enlarged the estate when he acquired the parsonage and 14 a. adjoining it, which lay on the west side of his lands and farm, and 3 a. in Eastfield, by an exchange in which he gave the rector a newly-built house and 18 a. on the east side of Church Lane; (fn. 23) there is an indication that this land may have been granted to Winchester from the manorial demesne. (fn. 24) In 1567 he leased most of the estate to Nicholas Holborne and his wife Catherine for 50 years at £13 6s. 8d. a year, including the farmhouse in Chelsea, which lay on the south-west side of Winchester's grounds, a quill of water to the farmhouse, 130 a. of land in Chelsea and Kensington, and the mansion formerly called the parsonage with its land. (fn. 25) Winchester evidently put up new buildings at his Chelsea estate before he died in 1572, as that year the property was described as his 'new buildings, chief mansion, capital messuage and manor house' in Chelsea, (fn. 26) and that, the case brought by his grandson indicating heavy expenditure, (fn. 27) and the design of the house itself are a good indications that the house shown in the Cecil survey plan of c.1595, and later known as Beaufort House, was built by Winchester and not by Sir Thomas More. (fn. 28)
The estate passed to Winchester's son John (d. 1576), 2nd marquess, who sold the whole estate, described in the fine as 20 messuages, 20 cottages, 10 gardens, 10 orchards, 40 a. land, 40 a. meadow, 200 a. pasture, 40 a. wood, and 200 a. waste and briar in Chelsea and Kensington, to his wife's daughter, Anne Sackville, and her husband Gregory Fiennes, Lord Dacre, in 1575, (fn. 29) leading his son William, 3rd marquess, to accuse his father's widow of selling the house at Chelsea, costing £14,000, with its lands worth another £1,400, to the Dacres for barely a fifth of its value. (fn. 30)
Dacre was listed among the free tenants of Chelsea in 1587 for a capital messuage, various cottages and 119 acres, for which he paid the lord of the manor 4s. a year. (fn. 31) He died in 1594 and his wife, who died a few months later, by will proved 1595 bequeathed the estate to William Cecil (d. 1598), Lord Burghley, for life, with remainder to his son Sir Robert and the latter's wife Elizabeth, 'my dear friend'. (fn. 32) Sir Robert Cecil had plans drawn up to enlarge the main house, (fn. 33) and was having building done there by 1597, (fn. 34) though apparently the extant plans, of a significantly different character to that shown in the survey plan, were not carried out. The house was remodelled into a broadened version of an H-type with short wings, of which the plan drawn by John Thorpe c. 1620 seems to be an accurate record. (fn. 35) The description of the house in 1652 gives some indication of its character. (fn. 36) However, the cost and the burden of Cecil's other houses, as well as the death of his wife in 1597, may have led to his decision to sell the estate, and in 1599 for £6,000 he conveyed it to Henry Clinton alias Fiennes, 2nd earl of Lincoln (d. 1616), and Sir Arthur Gorges with a settlement on Lincoln for life, then successive remainders to Gorges and his wife Elizabeth, Lincoln's daughter, for their lives, their children, and in default of issue to Elizabeth Gorges's heirs, or to Edward Fiennes, Lincoln's 2nd son. (fn. 37) The purchase may have been part of a dowry for Elizabeth: when Lincoln tried to change the settlement Gorges accused him of meanness towards his only daughter. The same settlement was expressed in the licence to alienate granted to Cecil when he sold to them the Kensington land included in the estate. (fn. 38)
Lincoln was notorious for his miserliness and bad behaviour towards his second wife, his son, his brother, his tenants, and his neighbours, as well as towards his sovereign. (fn. 39) Despite having paid £500 down for the estate, he threatened not to go ahead with the purchase, claiming it would cost him £100 more a year than he would make out of it, and insisting on the inclusion of various furnishings: the table, carpet, curtains, and hangings in the great chamber, and the chair canopy and cushions in the withdrawing chamber. (fn. 40) He had severe financial problems and his attitude may have stemmed from a discovery too late that all the property except the house and grounds and a couple of dwellings was let to Holborne until 1617 and could not be exploited financially: he apparently carried out a campaign of harassment against Holborne and his subtenants, (fn. 41) perhaps hoping they would surrender the lease. In addition, he was prevented from selling any of the property by the settlement on Arthur and Elizabeth Gorges, who refused to release their interests, and Lincoln later brought an unsuccessful case in Chancery c. 1609 against Gorges to try to get the estate resettled. (fn. 42)
On Lincoln's death in 1616 the estate duly passed to Sir Arthur and Lady Elizabeth Gorges, and in 1617 they presumably also took possession of the farmhouse, former parsonage, and land leased to Holborne; it was most likely at this time that Sir Arthur built Gorges House just south of the stables of the main house. (fn. 43) In 1618 they began negotiations to sell some of the estate, to provide dowries for their daughters, (fn. 44) and in the course of the next 50 years the whole estate was divided up or sold by Sir Arthur and Lady Elizabeth or their heirs. (fn. 45) In 1619 the marriage settlement between the Gorges's eldest daughter, Dudley, and Sir Robert Lane involved the 'great and fair house' at Chelsea which Lady Elizabeth intended to sell towards her daughters' portions, (fn. 46) presumably referring to the principal mansion, which with its grounds, Dovehouse Close (5 a.), and Brickbarn Close (10 a.), was sold in 1620 to Lionel Cranfield. Its later history is covered below under Beaufort House. In 1622 Sir Arthur and Lady Elizabeth Gorges settled four houses and other property to give two of their daughters life interests: one was the Farmhouse, with a wharf and common of pasture, held for life by Edward Cecil and his wife, which was settled after their deaths on Gorges's daughter Frances, or Gorges's heirs; the other houses were settled on their daughter Elizabeth. (fn. 47) Frances seems to have died before her father, as she is not mentioned in his will, (fn. 48) and the Farmhouse, later the site of Lindsey House, was apparently conveyed in fee in 1638 to Sir Theodore de Mayerne; its later history is covered below under Lindsey House. The other property seems to have remained with Gorges House.
Sir Arthur died in 1625 and the Chelsea estate passed to his widow, Lady Elizabeth, who also received Gorges House for life under Sir Arthur's will. (fn. 49) By 1630 Dudley Lane, now a widow, had bought from her mother a little house called the Brickills with 6 a., and held other land in Westfield; the house was later the property of another daughter, Elizabeth, widow of Sir Robert Stanley. (fn. 50) In 1630 Sir Arthur Gorges of Surrey, son and heir of Sir Arthur and Lady Elizabeth, and his wife Elizabeth settled lands in Chelsea and Kensington on themselves for life and then to each of their sons in tail. (fn. 51) In her will, which was proved in July 1643 but not registered, (fn. 52) his mother Lady Elizabeth gave several houses in Chelsea to Sir Arthur's four children for their lives, with remainder to Sir Arthur, on condition he did not try to claim Brickills from Elizabeth Stanley. (fn. 53) On the death of his mother Sir Arthur's property at Chelsea was sequestered and he compounded for it. It then comprised a life interest in 133 acres in Chelsea and Kensington, in the house where he lived and in 6 tenements in Chelsea, and the freehold of the 13 houses in Chelsea given to his children for life by his mother. Apparently built along Duke Street near the river, the last produced an annual rent of £43 8s. (fn. 54)
In 1646 Sir Arthur leased a house and lands in Chelsea and Kensington for 21 years as security for debts, which seem to have caused increasing difficulties. (fn. 55) The same year he, his wife, and their son Arthur, to whom the estate would eventually pass, joined in leasing a brick barn and ground, possibly the site of the former parsonage, to William Cox to rebuild as dwelling houses. (fn. 56) In 1647, probably to settle some of their more pressing debts, they joined in a sale of 4 a. in Eastfield, by the river, to Edward Cheyne, merchant taylor of London. (fn. 57) In 1649 they mortgaged and then in 1650 sold 11½ a. by Fulham Road called the Flatts to Henry White of Putney. (fn. 58) In 1650 they also disposed of a house in Little Chelsea together with barns and stables, 9 a. arable in Westfield and ½ a. meadow near Hobgate, (fn. 59) and another house, together with barn and stable, 14 a. in Kensington, and c.31 a. of meadow in Chelsea, (fn. 60) 9 a. of Parsonage Close and 3 a. of meadow in Westfield. (fn. 61) In 1651 the Gorges family, Henry White, and the mortgagees conveyed the 2 messuages, the 11½ a., and all the mortgaged land, except the 12 a. in Parsonage Close and Westfield, to Sir Michael Warton of Beverley (Yorks.). (fn. 62)
From 1657 to 1662 several creditors brought suits to get their debts settled out of the estate: at least two of the houses left by Lady Elizabeth were resettled and sold, then another five, the rest being settled on Elizabeth Gorges, Lady Elizabeth's granddaughter. (fn. 63) Sir Arthur Gorges died in 1661, shortly after his wife, and the remainder of the Chelsea estate, consisting of Gorges House and grounds, Parsonage Close, and 3 a. meadow in Westfield passed to his eldest son Arthur. The latter sold all the remaining property to Thomas Pritchard and Richard Spoure in 1664. (fn. 64)