Sample

The carriage arrived at the Hotel Castile, on the Rue Saint-Dominique, deep in the night of Sunday, 12 June 1701. There was great activity as soon as the horses came to a halt, and as the party of English travellers uneasily stepped down to the street. This troupe included Lodowick Fenwick, a Benedictine monk. As a Catholic persecuted for his faith in Britain he often wore secular clothes in order to dissemble his true vocation. Beside him, looking frail and in distress, came Dame Mary Grosvenor, who was rushed into the house and her rooms on the first floor, with a view to the garden beyond. She was followed by a flurry of servants, who had accompanied her on the arduous journey. The owners of the hotel, Madame Dufief and her husband, had already prepared rooms and now busied themselves in settling the guests in.

Dame Mary, exhausted by the journey, took to her bed immediately. She had been ill when they had departed Rome a few weeks before and her condition had not improved despite a break in the itinerary for rest in Lyon. This respite included a succession of doctors’ visits, and a regime of bleeding and dosing. There had been reports of her behaving strangely in Italy, of talking in agitation during a concert, and other unexpected conduct encouraging gossip and concern. Perhaps she was still in the depths of mourning, following the death of her husband eleven months before. Others interpreted her eruptions as something more disturbing: a mental instability manifesting itself in public. From the scenes that night and over the coming week, it appeared the days in a cramped carriage, exposed to the elements, had dramatically worsened her condition.

The exact location of the Hotel Castile is unknown. It is not identified on the detailed Turgot map drawn thirty years later, illustrating each house, garden and churchyard in the city. On this plan, Rue Saint-Dominique sweeps into the city from the south west, following the bend of the Seine, and emptying out into the bustling St Germain. Until the 1630s the route was known as the Rue Des Vaches, a cattle path into the city markets. However, the establishment of the Dominican monastery and the elegantly Baroque Eglise Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin demanded a more tempting identity for the emerging bourgeois neighbourhood.

It was a suitable location for respectable British travellers to find a resting place in the city. Fine stone buildings, in the latest modern styles, lined both sides of the street, making it a desirable enclave. More importantly, this was close to the exiled English community that clustered around the eclipsed star of the banished former monarch James II, at St Germain-en-Laye. This court-in-exile attracted all sorts of Catholics, chancers and spies, which fixed an additional layer of intrigue to Dame Mary’s story.

The rooms in the hotel had been arranged days before by Dame Mary’s Paris banker, Mr Arthur, and Fr Fenwick’s brother, Edward. Dame Mary had been in touch with Mr Arthur often to ensure her affairs were in order, and to share some gossip. On the other hand, Edward had met Dame Mary only twice before. During the previous summer, they had been introduced at the Fenwick family home in Essex, where the two seemingly made a connection; and then a few weeks later, again in London, just before the group had set out on their travels. The brief encounters had made an impression on both.

That same summer, Michael Dahl, a fashionable portraitist amongst conservative grandees, painted Dame Mary in his studio on Leicester Square. Mary is in her widow’s clothes, a simple black corset and dress, a white lace collar and sleeves offering contrast. There is no background scenery, nor any object of contemplation in her hands. No rings on her fingers. It is as if she is looking into the future with nothing to guide her. She wears a white veil that frames her face; it appears like a Spanish mantilla with an intricate fringe. Her face is plain, without expression. Her eyes are heavily lidded. It is as if the portrait were meant to display rather than record the person.

Here was a woman, who now faced the world alone. She was only thirty-five years old, a mother of four children – three boys and a seven-month old daughter. As the child heir of an extensive plot of land to the west of the city, she had been marked out as an heiress of considerable fortune. As a child she had been a prize in the marriage market, the subject of negotiations with aristocrats and grandees. And finally a wife, married before her thirteenth birthday and, possibly, a mother still in her teens. As a widow, this inheritance was now hers once again, held on behalf of her children and future generations. She was already taking control of the management of the estate and, while in London, had signed a contract concerning a lease. This was the first legal agreement that she had signed in her own name. For reasons we will see, it turned out to be her last.

Something about those two short meetings in Essex and London had encouraged Edward Fenwick to follow on to Paris some months later. His cousin, Francis Radcliffe, had encouraged him to ‘pursue his courtship’, yet Edward had arrived in Paris three days after his brother and Dame Mary had left for Rome and he was forced to linger there for their return. In the meantime he had taken the position as a tutor to a young aristocrat. However, once Dame Mary had arrived back in the city, Edward’s attentions again turned to the ailing widow.

Over the next week Dame Mary kept to her rooms at the Hotel Castile. Edward, and other visitors, were allowed to visit on Tuesday. There were solicitations after her health, as well as opinions sought and discussions on who were the best doctors amongst the English community in Paris. On the following day, Dr Ayres, recommended by Mr Arthur, was called for and Dame Mary was given an emetic to purge her malady. Despite the unpleasant vomiting, which weakened her body, the antimony did not seem to have had the desired effect. And on Thursday the doctor prescribed opium pills. By Friday, the symptoms had not altered and the doctor returned to bleed the patient as she lay in her bed. She was also dosed with opium. The bleeding intended to release a surfeit of blood that caused the hot fever, but this only weakened her further.

On the following morning, Saturday 18th, gossip started to thread through the English community in Paris. Her name began to circulate with the news that Mary had woken up that morning with Mr Fenwick in her bed, and the widow had taken the sacred oath of marriage. There seemed to be no other witnesses than the couple, Fr Fenwick, who conducted the service, and two servants. Could it be true?

Immediately, whispers of foul play swirled. Mr Lewis, secretary to the British Ambassador, noted that he had heard ‘particularly in the chocolate and coffee houses, that Dame Mary Grosvenor had lately received ill-usage from Lodowick Fenwick, and persons about her’.[i] The Ambassador himself contacted London in order to get word to Mary’s family. He feared that she was being trapped, and that they might lose her estate through this misadventure.

Nearly three weeks later, Mary found her way back to London, and to her mother’s house at Millbank, overlooking the Thames. Here, still in an anxious mania, she denied her marriage to Fenwick, swearing that it never happened. At the same time she wrote: ‘I positively deny it, and so will swear, and shall never own any such thing, it being absolutely false; for I never saw book, nor heard marriage words, nor said any.’[ii]

The close family were fearful that Fenwick might soon follow on from Paris to claim his property; and so he did. The supposed-husband arrived in the capital three weeks later and immediately started to behave like the rightful owner of Dame Mary’s birthright. He began contacting the tenants who leased lands from her estate, demanding rents to be paid directly to him, while threatening eviction to others.

He then made his way to Millbank. When the widow’s mother, his apparent mother-in-law, refused to receive him, he demanded that the servants show him to his wife. Instead, he was handed a note stating that Mary was not there and, furthermore, she was not betrothed. Forced to leave empty-handed, he was nevertheless not dissuaded from his course. And so on 12 August his representatives returned to Milbank and served Dame Mary with a legal demand from the Spiritual Court of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster that questioned why Edward Fenwick should not have ‘the benefit of his conjugal rights’.[iii] On the following day, 13 August, in fear that Fenwick now had the legal means to take control of his new wife, the family decided to send her away to the Grosvenor family estate in Cheshire.

These disputes cumulated, over two years later, in a legal case in front of the highest court in the land in Westminster Hall. The building, over six hundred years old, had been the theatre for political drama, revels, and regicides, and home to the court of the Queen’s Bench. Above the hubbub, the elegant vaulted ceilings gave a sense of serene, structured order. Along the walls, fifteen statues of English monarchs stood in niches looking down upon the milling crowd below. A visitor or a petitioner might think that here, upon the flagstones, was the forum of the nation: where the law met power, and the business of the city. Within the throng, everything had its price, including justice. Along one side of the room, according to one 1700 observer, was ‘occupied by the stalls of seamstresses, milliners, law stationers, and secondhand booksellers, and even publishers’,[iv] while in the west corner of the room sat the Queen’s Bench, where Dame Mary’s fate was to be decided.

This came to a head in the early hours of the morning of 4 February, 1703, when, after fourteen hours of deliberations, pleas and cross-examinations Lord Chief Justice Holt, the leading judge in the country, turned to the jury of twelve men and asked them to adjudicate upon a legal case that had scandalised London for the last two years. Witnesses had been called from across the Channel to bear testimony to what actually happened in that hotel on Rue Saint-Dominique on 18 June. Over the previous day and night of questions and witness statements, many disturbing tales were revealed in public about what had gone on. There were accounts of how the husband’s family had laced glasses of wine with laudanum, and sprinkled strawberries with ‘black grains’ of salt prunello. Alternatively, the jury was informed that Dame Mary had fallen in love too fast, and then had had regrets. That she was turned against her new husband by her family who cared not for her heart, but only about her fortune.

Whatever the reasons, there was more at stake than the desires of a woman who had been treated as a commodity all her life. One can only imagine the gossip bubbling through the public gallery. What was a recently-widowed woman doing, leaving her children behind for a reckless trip to Europe? Why was she alone with these men on that Saturday night? Was she drugged, and failed to remember what happened in that hotel room? Was the marriage legitimate, albeit unwilling? Or too hasty, and swiftly regretted?

Such hearsay and legal wrangling came to determine not only the lives of Dame Mary and her supposed husband, Edward Fenwick, but her whole family: her mother, Mrs Tregonwell, and her own brood from her first marriage. And, in time, their family, for many generations to come. Furthermore, it is fair to say that the future of London itself was also in the balance as the judge made his ruling on the legitimacy of the wedding:

Gentlemen of the jury, it is supposed and admitted on all hands to be the estates of the Lady Grosvenor Mr Edward Fenwick does endeavour to make out his title to… On this account, that he was married to her (as he says), and that, Gentlemen, is the only question you are to try. If so be Mr Fenwick be the husband of Mary Grosvenor, then he hath a good title to the estate; if he is not married to her, that he hath not. The jury took only half an hour to make their decision


[i] Gatty, C. T., ‘Mary Davies and the Manor of Ebury, Vol. 2’ The Waverley Book Company, Ltd, 1921. p69

[ii] Ibid p.70

[iii] ibid p.72

[iv] Walter Thornbury, ‘New Palace Yard and Westminster Hall’, in Old and New London: Volume 3 (London, 1878), pp. 536-544.


Follow My Blog

Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.

%d bloggers like this: