Port and prejudice, history, and spies

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Gibbon painted by Joshua Reynolds

This day in London history: on 16 January 1794, the historian Edward Gibbon died at the age of 56 in London. Gibbon’s education was sketchy: he was a sickly child; his mother died when he was seven, his father neglected him and he was largely cared for by a fond aunt who instilled in him a love of reading – what Gibbon called “the pleasure and glory of my life”.

Gibbon’s father arranged for him to attend Oxford as a ‘gentleman commoner’, but the experience was an unpleasant one and, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, in his memoirs “Gibbon drew a damning picture of Oxford, as a university sunk in port and prejudice, and almost completely indifferent to its educational mission”.

Nevertheless, Gibbon went on to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a six- volume work that became a model for later historians because of its relative objectivity and extensive use of primary sources. Gibbon lived for 10 years at 7 Bentinck Street in Marylebone and there is a blue plaque there commemorating the fact; it was during this period that he began the massive project of the Decline and Fall. [Photo: Peter Clarke]

Edward Gibbon plaque
Photo: Peter Clarke

Bentinck Street was named for William Bentinck, second Duke of Portland. The duke’s grandfather, Hans Willem Bentinck, was the Dutch envoy famous for arranging the marriage of Prince William of Orange and Princess Mary, the future joint monarchs of England.

Other famous residents of the street include Sir James Mackenzie, a doctor who carried out a great deal of research into diseases of the heart and, ironically, died of angina pectoris. Charles Dickens had a 21st birthday party here and, most infamously, the street was also the home of Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, members of the Cambridge Spies, who shared a flat here during World War II. There were lavish parties in the flat, which was described by one visitor as having “the air of a rather high-class disorderly house”.

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A rebellion, a beheading and an oak tree

This day in London history: on 26 November 1688 King James II of England and James VII of Scotland, younger brother and heir of Charles II, retreated back to London. He had set out to meet and defeat William of Orange who, by invitation from English politicians, was invading England.

James had recently been provided with an heir in the form of his son James Francis Edward, who has gone down in history as ‘The Old Pretender’, and the political forces were strongly opposed to a Catholic monarch. William later became joint monarch with his wife and cousin Mary, thus providing England with a Protestant monarch.

One of James’s main opponents was his own nephew, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth and illegitimate son of Charles II. Monmouth had headed the Monmouth rebellion, losing his own head in the process.

There is an Allgood Street in London, formerly named Henrietta Street, and with somewhat scandalous associations. Henrietta Wentworth (1660-1686) was the 6th Baroness Wentworth and, though due to marry Richard Tufton, 5th Earl of Thanet, took up with the already-married Duke of Monmouth, and used her jewels and wealth to help fund Monmouth’s unsuccessful attempts to capture the throne.

Monmouth was beheaded in July 1685 and Henrietta died the following year, supposedly from a broken heart. Her mother had an elaborate monument built to Henrietta’s memory in the church at Toddington, the Wentworth’s estate in Bedfordshire. However, a more personal and touching memorial existed in the form of her name, carved by Monmouth, on an oak tree in the Toddington estate. The tree became known locally as the Monmouth Oak.

A royal wedding

Today in London’s history: On the 4th of November 1677, a tearful 15-year-old girl was married in St James’s Palace to her first cousin who was  older, shorter, and bisexual.

That girl was Mary II, eldest daughter of James, Duke of York, the future James II and her cousin was William III, William of Orange and grandson of Charles I, who turned 27 the same day. The couple later became joint sovereigns, much to the relief of anti-Catholics.

There is an Orange Street in London, near Leicester Square, which takes its name from William of Orange.

Famous names associated with the street include the actor Edmund Kean, who went to school here and who, coincidentally, shared a birthday with William – albeit 137 years apart.

Thomas Holcroft was born in Orange street in 1743, and in the late 18th century there was a small chapel in the street where Augustus Toplady – who wrote the hymn ‘Rock of Ages’ – was minister for a short time.