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The title of Duke of Westminster is of comparatively recent origin within the British peerage, having been created in favour of the Grosvenor family in 1874, which as it turns out was the last time that a non-royal was raised to the dignity of a dukedom. However what the Grosvenors lack in terms of precedence, they possess in terms of wealth, as the Dukes of Westminster are undoubtedly the richest peers in the country, being worth billions.

The origins of the Grosvenors

The family of Grosvenor were of Norman origin and can trace their origins back to a Richard le Grosvenor who was granted the manor of Budworth in Cheshire by the Earl of Chester in 1160. The Grosvenors later made attempts to embellish this origin by claiming that Richard was descended from a Gilbert le Gros Veneur, chief huntsman to William the Conqueror and nephew to Hugh Lupus or Hugh of Avranches, the Earl of Chester, but this has long since been proven to be a pure invention. It was rather the case that the Grosvenors were very much minor gentry, and the descendants of Richard le Grosvenor settled down to a steady if unspectacular progress as they gradually accumulated landed wealth generally by the means of marrying suitably rich heiresses.

The most exciting thing that happened to them was the dispute in the fourteenth century with the Scropes of Bolton over who had the right to display the arms of 'azure, a bend or'. The Scropes won, a decision that has rankled with the Grosvenors ever since, not that it ever deflected them from the business of getting richer. In 1450 Raufe Grosvenor carried on the family tradition and obtained possession of Eaton in Chester by means of marrying the heiress, and from that time onwards the family made Eaton their home, whilst by the seventeenth century the family were sufficiently well off to be able to purchase themselves a baronetcy in 1622.

Ebury and the Grosvenor Baronets

The manor of Ebury was part of the estates of Westminster Abbey which fell into the hands of Henry VIII as a result of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The king kept the best part and turned it into a deer park (now better known as Hyde Park) whilst James I later sold the remainder in 1623 for the sum of £1,151 15s. The purchasers however had no interest in keeping the property and sold it the very next day for £1,501 15s to the Lord Treasurer Lionel Cranfield, later the Earl of Middlesex. Cranfield however soon got into financial difficulties, largely because he was impeached and fined £50,000, and was therefore forced to offload the manor three years later at the bargain price of £9,400.

The purchaser was a certain lawyer named Hugh Audley who served as the clerk of the Court of Wards and Liveries (at least until it was abolished in 1646), a position which he ruthlessly exploited for personal gain, largely by utilising the money entrusted to the court to support his own business as a moneylender. However although Audley became "infinitely rich", he had no children of his own, and so with his death on the 15th November 1662 he dispersed his estates to a variety of friends and relations. As Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary, "I hear to-day how old rich Audley is lately dead, and left a very great estate, and made a great many poor familys rich, not all to one. Among others, one Davis, my old school-fellow at Paul's, and since a bookseller in Paul's Church Yard."

As it happened a certain John Davies had married one of Audley's nieces, leaving two sons named Thomas Davies (being the bookseller and Pepys's old school friend), and his younger brother Alexander Davies. Thomas received some eighteen acres of land in Millbank, whilst it was Alexander, who was employed by Audley as a scrivener, that received possession of Ebury. As things turned out Alexander did not have long to enjoy his good fortune as he died of the plague in 1665, leaving as his only heir an infant daughter by the name of Mary. As it was, Mary Davies was by no means a valuable heiress, as all she had to her name was four hundred acres or so of mostly tidal river swamp together with some debts. Her family were therefore pleased to be able to marry her off to the undoubtedly wealthy if rather provincial Grosvenor family. And so on the 8th October 1677 Thomas Grosvenor, the 3rd Baronet married Mary Davies and sold off a portion of her estates in order to settle the outstanding debts. After Thomas died in 1700 Mary almost lost her property to an unscrupulous Jesuit priest named Lodowick Fenwick and his brother Edward. The latter claimed to have married Mary and thus claimed Ebury, but a court later that Mary was non compos mentis at the time, and ruled that any marriage was invalid.

As it was Mary Davies, or the Lady Grosvenor as she became, left three sons. The eldest Richard Grosvenor, 4th Baronet died without issue on the 13th July 1732, whilst Thomas Grosvenor, 5th Baronet died unmarried on the 4th February 1733. However her youngest son Robert Grosvenor (1695-1755), 6th Baronet, managed to keep up the family tradition by marrying another heiress in Jane, the only surviving child of Thomas Warre of Shepton Beauchamp and Swell Court in Somerset, and also produced two sons of his own.

The Earls Grosvenor

Ownership of Ebury thus passed from Mary to her grandson Richard Grosvenor, 7th Baronet who added to the property by buying the nearby Eccelston estates as well. Richard Grosvenor was the Member of Parliament for Chester between 1754 and 1761 during which time he was Grenvillite Whig, although he subsequently became a supporter of the elder William Pitt on whose recommendation he was created the Baron Grosvenor of Eaton on the 8th April 1761, whilst he subsequently served as the cupbearer at the coronation of George III later that year. Then on the 5th July 1784 he was created the Earl Grosvenor and the Viscount Belgrave, this time on the recommendation of William Pitt the younger, despite the fact that he had earlier in 1770 won damages of £10,000 as a result of an action for criminal conversation against the king's younger brother, Henry Frederick Hanover, Duke of Cumberland whom he had caught in flagrante delicto with his wife Henrietta Vernon.

The family's tenacity in holding on to Ebury was eventually to be rewarded. The northern part was first developed in the eighteenth century and became known as Mayfair, whilst there was one small corner of Ebury that was not in the possession of the Grosvenors, which became the site for a succession of houses, most notably that of the Duke of Buckingham who built himself a home known as Buckingham House. This was acquired by George III in 1761 for his wife Queen Charlotte, and his son George IV subsequently decided to convert this into the sovereign's London residence, namely Buckingham Palace. Excited by the prospect of a royal neighbour, in 1826 the 2nd Earl Robert Grosvenor secured an Act of Parliament and proceeded to drain the southern part of Ebury, strip off the clay subsoil (which could conveniently be manufactured into bricks) and build on the gravel bed that lay beneath the clay. Thus was born the London suburbs of Belgravia and Pimlico, a process which transformed the Grosvenors from being merely very well off into being extremely rich indeed, and it was this wealth that propelled the Grosvenors upwards through the ranks of the peerage.

The 1st Earl died a considerably richer man on the 5th August 1802 and was succeeded by his eldest son Robert. The 2nd Earl had been the Member of Parliament for East Looe in 1788-1790 and Chester 1790-1802 before succeeding his father, and had served as both a Lord of the Admiralty in 1789-1791 and a Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1793-1801. Like his father, he was a follower of Pitt, although after 1806 he left the Tories and joined the Whigs and was created the Marquess of Westminster at the coronation of William IV on the 13th September 1831. As the Marquess he was bearer of the Third Sword at the coronation of Victoria in 1838 and died on the 17th February 1845. The Marquessate naturally passed to his eldest son Richard, whilst his two younger sons also obtained titles of their own. The elder Thomas, who later adopted the name of Egerton, succeeded his maternal grandfather as 2nd Earl of Wilton, and the younger Robert Grosvenor was later created the Baron Ebury in 1857.

The 2nd Marquess had previously been the Liberal Member of Parliament for Chester 1818-1830, Cheshire 1830-1832, and South Cheshire 1832-1835, and subsequently served as the Lord Steward of the Household in the years 1850 to 1852. He was said to have been in possession of a "shirt-collar of such extraordinary dimensions as to denote the most prodigal disregard of the cost of French cambric", but nevertheless displayed "reserved habits" and devoted much of his life to the careful management of his estates and various philanthropic gestures such as giving Chester a "fine park". He married Elizabeth Leveson-Gower, the second daughter of the Duke of Sunderland, won the St Ledger with Touchstone in 1834, and died on the 31st October 1869 leaving everything to his only surviving son Hugh Lupus.

The Dukes of Westminster

The story is that Queen Victoria felt obliged to make Hugh Lupus a duke because he had more money than she did. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that the Grosvenors were better off than the monarch, it was William Gladstone who recommended Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, the 3rd Marquess for a dukedom in the dissolution honours list occasioned by his resignation in 1874. The fact that Hugh Lupus was rich probably helped as did the fact that he was supporter of the Liberal Party, although he later broke with the Liberals over the issue of Home Rule for Ireland in 1886.

Nevertheless it was the case that Hugh Lupus Grosvenor the former Liberal Member of Parliament for Chester in 1847-1869, was created the Duke of Westminster on the 27th February 1874. He later served as the Master of the Horse between 1880 and 1885, and was appointed Yeoman Aide-de-Camp to Queen Victoria in 1881, Lord-Lieutenant of Cheshire in 1883, High Steward of Westminster in 1884, and became the very first Lord-Lieutenant of the County of London when the London County Council was created in 1888; all four offices which he held until his death in 1899. A noted patron of the Turf who won the Derby four times in 1880, 1882, 1886, and 1899, he also devoted himself to the continuing development of the family's property holdings and under his care the ground rents on the Grosvenor estates in Mayfair and Belgravia grew from about £115,000 a year to some £250,000 a year between 1870 and 1899, which meant that his annual income from this source alone increased from roughly in the order of £10 million to £20 million in terms of today's prices.

Hugh Lupus's eldest son, Victor Alexander was an epileptic with a passion for engineering who died of congestion of the lungs on the 22nd January 1884, and so with the 1st Duke's death on the 22nd December 1899, he was succeeded by his grandson, Hugh Richard. The 2nd Duke was known to his family as 'Bender' because the golden curls that he sported as an infant reminded them of 'Bend Or', their Derby winning racehorse of 1880, and was thus "known to his intimates" as 'Bend Or' thereafter, although his first wife called him 'Shelagh'. He was an aide-de-camp to Lord Roberts during the Boer War in 1900-1901 during which time he was mentioned in despatches and later served in France and North Africa during World War I and was again mentioned in despatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Described as "a mixture of Henry VIII and Lorenzo il Magnifico" he went through four wives, as well as having a succession of mistresses including Coco Chanel, whilst he was also an active member of the Conservative Party and stood well on the right of the party. He was an active supporter of the Right Club, the main object of which was "to oppose and expose the activities of Organized Jewry" and the Peace Aims Group, an organisation that supported the idea of a negotiated peace settlement with Nazi Germany. Outside politics he developed Grosvenor Estates into a diversified property empire as it acquired much property in Australia as well as Annacis Island in British Columbia.

However wealth has its down side and on his death on the 19th July 1953 the estate was clobbered for £20 million in death duties, and obliged to sell the Pimlico estate to meet the liability. The Inland Revenue is said to have created a whole department simply to deal with the matter. However the 2nd Duke's will also created a twenty part trust fund which dispersed the ownership of Grosvenor Estates across the generations in order to mitigate the future effect of the taxman's avarice. The 2nd Duke was also aware, since his only son and heir Edward George had died at the age of four in 1909 after an operation for appendicitis, that the title would pass to his cousin William Grosvenor, a son of the 1st Duke's third son. Of the 3rd Duke little needs to be said (his obituary notice in The Times amounted to a mere three lines) for the simple reason that he was quite mad, although entirely harmless and spent most of his life in a small house near Brighton where he apparently devoted himself to the breeding of ducks. Whilst the 3rd Duke amused himself on the south coast the trustees were therefore able to continue with business as usual.

The 3rd Duke died unmarried on the 22nd February 1963, at which point the title passed to Gerald Hugh, the son of the 1st Duke's sixth son Hugh William Grosvenor. The 4th Duke had been badly wounded during World War II and never fully recovered from his injuries and died without issue a few years later on the 25th February 1967. He was succeeded by his younger brother Robert George, or 'Pud' as he was known to his friends. The 5th Duke had earlier served as Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Artillery during World War II, and regarded Northern Ireland as home, being the Unionist Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone between 1955 and 1964, following which he was a Northern Ireland Senator until 1967, when he succeeded to the title. He later died on the 19th February 1979, and was succeeded by his only son.

Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor is the present and 6th Duke of Westminster and also the holds the titles of the Marquess of Westminster, Earl Grosvenor, Viscount Belgrave, and Baron Grosvenor of Eaton, as well as being a Baronet. He formally resides at Eaton Hall, which has been the family home since the fifteenth century, although the old Eaton Hall was pulled down in the years 1961 to 1963, and the rebuilding which began in 1971 produced what Burke's Peerage referred to as a "graceless building", although it has since been clad in "rose-coloured sandstone" with the addition of a pitched roof to disguise the concrete structure put up in the 1970s.

Mr Grosvenor is a seriously wealthy man and is by far the richest member of the British peerage. Indeed he was at one time regarded as the richest man in the country, although these days he has been relegated to the number three spot, as according to the Sunday Times Rich List for 2008 he has been overtaken by both Lakshmi Mittal (£27.7 billion) and Roman Abramovich (£11.7 billion) as the Duke is worth a mere £7 billion. Some of this money is tied up in the Grosvenor Group, which is now a multinational property company that owns a large portfolio of commercial and residential properties scattered across the globe, and some of it comes from the substantial estates the Grosvenor family trusts own in Lancashire, Cheshire and Scotland. However the bulk of the Duke's wealth remains based on the two hundred acres of prime residential real estate he controls in Belgravia and another hundred acres in Mayfair, which are together worth about £4 billion, all of which derives from that one fortuitous marriage to little Mary Davies.

Such wealth means that the Duke is at the forefront of what might be termed Society, and when his daughter Tamara Grosvenor was married to Edward van Cutsem in 2004, the venue was Chester Cathedral, the guests included Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, whilst the Princes William and Harry served as ushers. However Gerald Grosvenor is something of an unconventional aristocrat. He once had ambitions to be a professional footballer and had a trial with Fulham FC (his father put a stop to such ideas) and enlisted as a Territorial Army trooper in the Queen's Own Yeomanry. Of course being the Duke of Westminster he didn't stay a trooper very long, and having worked his way up through the ranks, between 2004 and 2007 he held the post of Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Reserves and Cadets) with the rank of Major-General and was therefore in command of the entire Territorial Army. He also refused to send his children to public school on the grounds that he didn't see the point of having children if you didn't see them.

The Duke's only son and heir apparent is Hugh Richard Louis Grosvenor, who is known by his courtesy title of the Earl Grosvenor. Born in 1991 he might be regarded as Britain's most eligible bachelor, although he is, after his father, the last of the male line of the 1st Duke and the survival of the title will therefore depend on his ability to produce the required male heirs in due course. Should he fail to do so the older title of Marquess of Westminster will nevertheless survive and pass to his Grosvenor cousins who hold the title of Earl of Wilton and appear to have a sufficiency of male heirs.


THE DUKES OF WESTMINSTER
including the Barons and Earls of Grosvenor and Marquesses of Westminster

GROSVENOR

As the Baron Grosvenor

  • Richard Grosvenor, 1st Baron Grosvenor (1761-1784)

As the Earl Grosvenor

As the Marquess of Westminster

As the Duke of Westminster


SOURCES

  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for WESTMINSTER, MARQUESSES AND DUKES OF
  • The entries for Grosvenor, Richard, first Earl Grosvenor (1731–1802), Grosvenor, Robert, first marquess of Westminster (1767–1845), Grosvenor, Richard, second marquess of Westminster (1795–1869), Grosvenor, Hugh Lupus, first duke of Westminster (1825–1899), from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • George Edward Cokayne, Vicary Gibbs, et al, The Complete Peerage (St Catherine's Press, 1910-1959)
  • The entry for WESTMINSTER from Burke's Peerage and Baronetage 107th Edition
  • Brian Masters The Dukes: The Origins, Ennoblement and History of 26 Families (Blond and Briggs, 1975)
  • E.S. Turner Amazing Grace: The Great Days of Dukes (Sutton Publishing, 2003)
  • The Sunday Times Rich List: The Duke of Westminster, April 27, 2008
    http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/specials/rich_list/article3795416.ece
  • Royals attend top society wedding, 6 November, 2004
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3987875.stm

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