What do rural Cheshire and the most fashionable neighbourhoods in West London have in common? Both have been part of the extensive portfolio of the Grosvenor family for centuries. The dukedom of Westminster may be relatively new (1874), but their development of Mayfair and Belgravia stretches back to the early 18th century, and their control of extensive estates in Cheshire much, much further, to the 12th century or before. As a dynastic history, their story is a good example of the enduring marriage between the English provincial gentry and the economic and political power of London. For centuries, the Grosvenors were not that different to the hundreds of county families who dominated the shires of England for most of its history; but due to a fortunate marriage in the late 17th century, and savvy business planning in the century that followed, they were drawn into the first rank of Britain’s power elite, so much so that—according to the legend—Queen Victoria felt compelled to make her richest subject a duke so that she would not be embarrassed sitting down with him for tea.
The connections between London and Cheshire are evident in the street names of Mayfair and Belgravia: Eaton Street in particular is named for the manor that has been the seat of the family since the middle of the 15th century. But the Grosvenors are not ‘native’ to Cheshire: the family name is unmistakably of Norman origin as descendants of the great (or fat) hunter, probably a master of the hunt in the service of the dukes of Normandy. But the precise details of their early years in Cheshire are hard to pin down. The great flat plain south of the River Mersey that had been dominated by the Roman military camp, or castrum, which gradually became the city of Chester was a key area the Normans wanted to control after their conquest in 1066. The earlier full name of the city, Castrum Deva, reflects the importance of the River Dee as a border between English and Welsh territories, and one of William the Conqueror’s chief lieutenants (and probable kinsmen), Hugh ‘Lupus’ (the wolf, or ‘le Gros’ the fat) was named Earl of Chester, with extensive military and administrative powers. According to tradition, the first Grosvenors descended from a nephew of this Hugh Lupus, and were given lands along the banks of the Dee to help keep it secure for Anglo-Norman rule, though the first records indicate their lands were at Little Budworth, a short distance to the east. It wasn’t until 1450 when Ralph Grosvenor married Joan Eaton and established his base at her estates at Eaton, on the west bank of the Dee a few miles south of Chester. Over the next century, the family married, as expected, with the major county families of Cheshire—Fitton, Stanley, Legh, Norris, Venables—but also across the Welsh border into Flintshire. They frequently acted as mayors of Chester, sheriffs of Cheshire, or members of Parliament for the county.
One of these, Richard Grosvenor, married three times within this social set; his wives had names familiar to those who live in the northwest: Cholmondeley, Wilbraham and Warbuton. His prominence in the House of Commons as MP for Chester earned him a baronetcy in 1622. He was a supporter of the Crown in the Northwest, and served as both Sheriff of Cheshire and Sheriff of Denbighshire, in Wales. His son continued the family’s royalist support when many others of the county were turning against Charles I, and he extended his influence westward into Wales through marriage to a Mosytn heiress, with lands in Flintshire. This was important, as the mineral resources (coal, lead, stone) in the mountains of North Wales became a great source of revenue for the Grosvenors in the later 17th century. This wealth allowed the 3rd Baronet, Thomas, to rebuild Eaton Hall in the 1670s, the first in a series of great houses built on the site.
His increased wealth and stature may also have encouraged him to pursue a marriage outside the normal spheres of the Cheshire gentry. Mary Davies was the daughter of a scrivener (scribe) and lawyer of London, who, at a young age, was already heiress to the Manor of Ebury, in Middlesex. Ebury was an ancient manor formerly held by the Abbey of Westminster; confiscated by the Crown in 1530s, it was given to various people in succession, including the Earl of Middlesex, who sold it to Hugh Audley, one of the richest men in England, who then passed it to his great-great-niece, Mary Davies. She married Sir Thomas Grosvenor in 1677, when she was only 12 (and he 21). The Ebury estate consisted of about 500 acres on the north bank of the Thames in what was then mostly undrained, swampy land west of the town of Westminster, through which ran the lower courses of the River Tyburn.
Mary Davies, Lady Grosvenor, is only normally noted in two other contexts in the histories of the family: one that she converted to Catholicism in about 1695, and the other, that she went mad about the same time—I suspect these are just two ways of telling the same story according to the biases of the time… In any case, she lived a long life, until 1730, by which time her three sons, Richard, Thomas and Robert (the 4th, 5th and 6th baronets in succession) had begun developing the northern parts of Ebury Manor into a new area of fashionable residence they called Mayfair, centred around Grosvenor Square. Several streets were laid out on what had been the site of the annual May Fair, and were given royal approval by the creation of a new parish and a new parish church, St. George’s Hanover Square, which became one of the most fashionable places to have a society wedding in the 18th century. Grosvenor Square was the site of many of London’s most prestigious mansions, and would be the home of the embassy of the United States from 1960 to 2018.
The son of the 6th Baronet, Richard Grosvenor, naturally became increasingly involved in politics as his interests in the affairs of London grew. The family MPs had traditionally been Tories, and Sir Richard was for the most part a supporter of the Tory ministries of the 1750s, though he supported the Whigs in their ambitious pursuit of a conclusion to the Seven Years War under Pitt the Elder, and was moved into the House of Lords as Baron Grosvenor of Eaton in 1761. Twenty years later, he again supported a Pitt (this time the Younger) and was again rewarded, now with an earldom, in 1784. The 1st Earl Grosvenor did not neglect his northern duties, however, and married a Vernon from Staffordshire, served as Mayor of Chester in 1759, and in the late 1760s acquired the manors of Belgrave and Eccleston which bordered his Eaton estate. The marriage was not long a happy one, and within five years Henrietta, Lady Grosvenor, was embroiled in a scandalous affair with the King’s younger brother, the Duke of Cumberland. Her husband sued the Duke and was given significant damages; the couple separated and she remained in London as part of the fashionable set while he returned to Cheshire to develop his estates, and in particular his passion for horses.
Their son, the 2nd Earl Grosvenor, would turn his attention once again to London, and develop the area a bit further to the west, named Belgravia in honour of the family’s newer property in Cheshire. As was seen in the recent television drama of the same name, this residential area designed by Thomas Cubitt became the centre of aristocratic life in the Regency period of the early 19th century. The new royal residence, Buckingham Palace, lay between Mayfair and Belgravia, and formed an effective beating heart of the new aristocratic quarter of west London. Further south, nearer the river, was Pimlico, developed as a residential area a bit later. The Earl moved his own London residence from Millbank House (on the Thames) in 1805 to Mayfair, to a house he purchased from the Duke of Gloucester which he renamed Grosvenor House. This is on Park Lane, the road bordering Hyde Park, one of the best addresses in the city. A massive colonnade was added later in the century, and in 1889 Grosvenor House became one of the first electrified buildings in the country. It was sold in the 1920s and mostly demolished, to be reborn as the Grosvenor House Hotel which remains today in all its splendour.
The 2nd Earl also turned to rebuilding Eaton Hall in Cheshire from about 1803, engaging one of the Prince of Wales’s favourite architects (notably in Brighton), William Porden, to build a neo-Gothic mansion of princely proportions—described by contemporaries as either epic and wondrous or in monstrously bad taste.
As a politician, the 2nd Earl also started out as a Tory then shifted towards the more reform-minded parties, supporting Catholic Emancipation and laws to benefit the poor, and as part of the coronation honours for William IV in 1831, was created Marquess of Westminster, recognising that his family was now a major player in London. The arms of the city of Westminster were added to his ancient coat-of-arms (a golden portcullis, the golden cross of St. Edward, and two Tudor roses). Nevertheless, the Marquess continued the family tradition of serving as Mayor of Chester, and for many years Lord Lieutenant of Flintshire. In 1794, he had married the heiress of one of the other leading aristocratic clans in the northwest, Lady Eleanor Egerton of Wilton, and their second son would later adopt the Egerton surname, and inherit the title Earl of Wilton and the estates centred on Heaton Park (now in Greater Manchester—see Dukes of Bridgewater).
The 1st Marquess of Westminster died in 1845 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Richard (who had been known for most of his life by the courtesy title ‘Viscount Belgrave’). He completed the family’s political transition to the Whig party and served in the government of Lord John Russell as Lord Steward of the Household in 1850. His younger brothers were also political, though divided: Thomas Egerton, Earl of Wilton as a Tory, and Lord Robert, a Whig who was passionate about solidifying the Church of England through reform (and consequently opposed Irish home rule). Lord Robert served different administrations in the 1830s-40s, as Comptroller then Treasurer of the Household, and was awarded his own barony in 1857, named for the family’s original London property, Ebury. The Ebury barons, with their seat at Moor Park in Hertfordshire, would continue into the 20th century, and inherited the Wilton earldom in 1999 (though today they live in Australia). Continuing the family’s spread of properties across England, the 2nd Marquess acquired and rebuilt Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, and he built schools in Cheshire and donated land in the city of Chester to form Grosvenor Park.
The 3rd Marquis of Westminster succeeded his father in 1869, and was soon after raised once more in the peerage, to the top rank, a dukedom, in the resignation honours requested by Gladstone in 1874. The 1st Duke of Westminster continued to develop his London properties and acquired a new rural residence to escape the filthy city—one of the most splendid of all, Cliveden, in Buckinghamshire, purchased from his mother-in-law (who was also his aunt), the widow of the 2nd Duke of Sutherland. Cliveden would become more famous in the 20th century as the country house of the Astors (and the setting for the Profumo Scandal in the 1960s). The marriage of Hugh Lupus Grosvenor—taking his name from the ancient family founder—to Lady Constance Leveson-Gower, his mother’s niece, is illustrative of the closing of ranks in the Victorian era—in fact the second son of the Leveson-Gower family had also inherited large estates from the Egerton family and taken the name. The powerful ducal families of northwest England wanted to ensure their wealth and power stayed within the extended family circle, which also included the Cavendishes in Derbyshire and Yorkshire, and the Percys further north. It thus seemed to make sense to move the Grosvenors up into this world of dukes, and it didn’t hurt that the 1st Duke of Westminster’s annual income had reached about £200,000 (about 25 million today).
Aside from his palatial residences at Grosvenor House in Mayfair and Cliveden, the 1st Duke yet again decided to rebuilt Eaton Hall in Cheshire. He employed a man locally grown and educated, Alfred Waterhouse, whose fame was established through his designs for the Manchester Town Hall, the Natural History Museum in London, and various university buildings in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. His designs were also inspired by the Gothic, but much more restrained than the previous building at Eaton, and were seen by most as a lot more tasteful, and certainly more austere (described in once source as ‘Wagnerian’). The buildings included a formal wing, a private wing, a clock tower, a private chapel, and stables that would rival those of any European monarch.
The Duke also built numerous smaller buildings on the estate—lodges, offices, a garden house, a riding school—and even a small railway line to transport supplies from the main line into Chester. He served as Lord Lieutenant of Cheshire and Lord Lieutenant of the newly formed County of London, from 1888. He supported government reforms and the movement for temperance (shutting down several of the pubs on his own estate), which may seem unusual considering that his other great passion was horse-racing (or maybe I am being judgy?). The 1st Duke of Westminster is known for his horses (and his only formal government appointment was in fact Master of the Horse, in 1880, though this was by now just a ceremonial role). His celebrated champion thoroughbreds won the Derby four times, including the most famous horse of the 19th century, ‘Bend Or’, who won in 1880.
This horse’s curious name recalls the most infamous lawsuit in the history of heraldry, from 1389, when two families, Grosvenor and Scrope (of Bolton Castle in West Yorkshire), both claimed the same simple coat-of-arms, a gold diagonal strip (a bend or) on a blue (or azure) field. The Scrope family won the lawsuit, forcing the Grosvenors to adopt their golden wheatsheaf (a ‘garb’ in heraldic language, an ancient symbol of Cheshire), but had fallen into obscurity, so in a way, this reclaiming of the bend or symbolism was a victory long in coming. The 1st Duke’s grandson, born the year before the Derby win, was always known by his nickname ‘Bendor’, and in recent years, another member of the family (from the Ebury line) who has moved into prominence is the presenter and art historian Bendor Grosvenor.
By the turn of the 20th century, the Westminster family was enormous—the 1st Duke had married twice and sired twelve children, and three of his sons had sons of their own. The heir, ‘Earl Grosvenor’, predeceased his father, so young ‘Bendor’ took over as 2nd Duke and ruled over the Grosvenor estates (estimated in 1900 at about 6 million pounds, or over 700 million in today’s money) for the next half-century. As a young man, he served in the Boer War and World War I, and was active in sport, notably competing in the 1908 Olympics in motorboat racing. In the 1920s, he had a highly visible ten-year affair with Coco Chanel, which took on a darker shade in the 1930s as his interests were increasingly drawn to the far right and anti-Semitism, and there were rumours of his attempts to use Chanel’s connections with the Nazis to broker a deal with Hitler in the midst of World War II.
The 2nd Duke died in 1953. Despite having married four times, he sired only one son who lived for five years, and two daughters. The elder, Lady Ursula, married twice and had children, but the younger, Lady Mary, never married, and despite the lack of a ducal title, managed to keep up the princely lifestyle of her forebears, as manager of large estates in Kenya, South Africa and the Scottish Highlands, until her death in 2000. She was like her father in her passion for sport, and was known as an accomplished racecar driver.
In 1953, the ducal title and the bulk of the estate therefore passed to William Grosvenor, already a man in his late fifties, who had lived with a caretaker all of his life due to brain damage incurred at birth. When he died in 1963, the title moved to still another branch of cousins, two brothers, Gerald and Robert, the 4th and 5th dukes. Gerald had had a long military career, as lieutenant-colonel, then a Yeoman of the Guard from 1952. Once he became duke he set about bringing the Grosvenor Estate more up to date—expanding holdings into North America and Australia and focusing attention on the decaying Waterhouse buildings at Eaton. It was decided to demolish most of the grand old buildings, leaving the clock tower, the chapel and the stables (which today houses the Grosvenor museum and a carriage museum), and building in its place a more modest house, though this was not built until the early 1970s, once the baton had passed from the 4th Duke to the 5th. This house, what I reckon is the fifth house on the site, was designed by the architect John Dennys, and was not seen as a success by those who viewed it, though I’d say credit should be given for trying to forge a new modern style for the English country house.
Waterhouse fans were outraged. This look did not last long, and the house would later be clad in a new pink façade in the 1980s, in what is described as ‘French château’ style (hmmm). The result is only a little better, especially with the stark contrast of the towering chapel and stable buildings. On its own, I suspect the current house would look cute, sort of bijou, but the juxtaposition of old and new struck me as quite incongruous when I visited on one of the rare open days (even then, only the gardens and the stable block are open).
The earlier life of the 5th Duke of Westminster gives a slightly different twist to this story so far: born in 1910, he was quite far down the line of succession, and concentrated his political interests on his mother’s estates in Northern Ireland, living at Ely Lodge on Lough Erne and serving as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, 1955-64, and High Sheriff of County Fermanagh. As a result, his son spoke with a Northern Irish accent which certainly made him stand out in Westminster. Nevertheless, the young 6th Duke, who took over from his father in 1979, firmly established himself in London and in the Northwest—in fact more so than most of his predecessors, acting as chairman of a number of local charities in Cheshire and Liverpool, and chancellor of two of the newest universities in the country, first of Manchester Metropolitan (where I work) from its inception as a full-fledged university in 1992, then of Chester University when it too attained university status in 2005. He also headed up the committee that organised the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, and presided over a number of organisations concerned with regulating the hunt and preserving the environment. He also added to the family’s landholdings in the north by acquiring the Abbeystead estate, near Lancaster, with 18,000 acres bordering on the Forest of Bowland. It was quite unexpected when he died suddenly there in August 2016.
The 6th Duke had reconnected the Grosvenor family with the Northwest of England, but he and his two sisters also connected their family more closely with the higher aristocracy (since several of his predecessors had married young when they were still mere ‘gentlemen’, the now numerous dowager duchesses—there were three in 1979—came from more modest backgrounds; the 2nd Duke’s widow Anne outlasted them all, passing away in 2003!). One sister married the Duke of Roxburghe, and the other married the Queen’s first cousin, the Earl of Lichfield, the photographer. The Duke’s own wife, Natalia Phillips, while herself untitled, is a close relative of the Mountbattens, through their shared Romanov descent. The children of the 6th Duke and Duchess were therefore raised in close proximity the royal family, and there are various godparentages in both directions. One of the families brought into close contact this way are the Van Cutsems, one of whom married the Duke’s eldest child, Tamara, in 2004. The second daughter married media royalty, history presenter Dan Snow, while the much younger two children, Hugh and Viola remain unmarried. It was Hugh who at the tender young age of 25 suddenly became the 7th Duke of Westminster, and one of the richest men in the world, with a fortune estimated at about 10 billion pounds. Much of this fortune is still based in London and Cheshire properties, but the Grosvenor Group has expanded globally, and includes a surprising number of office towers in San Francisco and Vancouver, and shopping malls in Sweden, France, Shanghai and Liverpool. The blending of aristocracy and commerce continues.
(images from Wikimedia Commons or my own photos)