Episode 37: Bridgerton and Regency London

Bridgerton is the latest Netflix original series produced by Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes. This period drama is based on Julia Quinn’s novels set in Regency London. Even if you haven’t read the books or even like the idea of a love child of Nanny McPhee and a wedding decorator, the true stars of the series are the filming locations themselves, many of them in London.

Hazel Baker shares with you and little bit of the Regency London history from the places mentioned in Bridgerton, either in the books or the latest TV series. Don’t worry. You don’t have to be familiar with the work at all. Just sit back and let me take you back to Regency London.

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Show Notes:

Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike. 

Don’t forget our blog is regularly updated with posts written by our passionate team of qualified travel guides and there are hundreds to choose from, all absolutely free. 

Bridgerton is the latest Netflix original series produced by Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes. This period drama is based on Julia Quinn’s novels set in Regency London. Even if you haven’t read the books or even like the idea of a love child of Nanny McPhee and a wedding decorator, the true stars of the series are the buildings themselves. So I thought I’d share with you and little bit of the Regency London history from the places mentioned in Bridgerton either in the books or the latest TV series. Don’t worry. You don’t have to be familiar with the work at all. Just sit back and let me take you back to Regency London. 

The Regency period dating between 1811 and 1820 was, well for the upper levels of society at least, a time of high fashion and fast living and was what some people may consider the high point of English sophistication. It was most certainly an exciting time for the aristocratic ton who would venture to London from their country states for what was known as ‘the season’. And in Bridgerton, we have the two main families; the Featherington’s and also the Bridgertons, both coming to London and having resided in Grosvenor Square.

It’s very different now, you got the really big oppressive buildings rather grand. But it wasn’t like that in 1813. Grosvenor Square covers about two and a half hectares and was originally constructed by Sir Richard Grosvenor in the early 18th century, and this was supposed to be a private square, but by the end of the 18th century had become a public space.

The first garden on the site was laid out by William Kent around 1725, and then it was simplified in the early 19th century. Architectural names such as John Soane, John Adams, Jeffrey Wyatt, or them becomes a Jeffery Wyattville and also Samuel Wyatt all have a go at reshaping the face of Grosvenor Square. But in 1813, it was very different. The houses were no more than three stories high, rather low, and a little bit less in your face as the ones that you see now. And that is why when you having a look at the Bridgerton, you might notice that where the Bridgertons live isn’t in Grosvenor square at all, no, it is the gorgeous Ranger’s House in Greenwich.

The Ranger’s House
The Ranger’s House

It’s a beautiful Georgian villa on the edge of Greenwich Park. Ivy and wisteria have been added to the front to add a dewy sort of romanticism. The house itself was built in 1723 and later became the residents for the rangers of Greenwich Park and it remained home to aristocrats and royals until 1902 and we have two blog posts actually, which you might enjoy on that score; one about Queen Caroline, who was married to the Prince Regent, and also the Queen’s House in Greenwich Park, built by Indigo Jones. And that links to the second part, I suppose, of, of Greenwich being used in the filming of Bridgerton and the Queens house is used as Somerset House. So they say some of us at house, but the show you Queen’s house, which is a very famous building in Greenwich.

It was the first neo-classical building, the country you’d ever seen, like Indigo Jones. And, they use that as the scene for not only some of that house, but also when the Duke of Hastings beats up Lord Berbrooke and that’s under the arch of the Queens House which used to be a public road.

What brought all these society families into London at the same time? Well, it was the season of course. And the season was a way of, let’s just say, bringing the right sort of people together. And this was an endless whirlwind of festivities and parties and pleasures and excess all whilst providing the perfect setting for the largest marriage market in the world. This is where young women would “come out” as if released into a fashionable society during what was called this season. And generally speaking, this is when the young girls would reach the age of 18 and therefore prime marriageable age. Coming out wasn’t for every family. Don’t forget. If you think of the Bennett sisters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. All five daughters are out at the same time and none of them were presented at court. Incidentally, Miss Anne de Bourgh, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s daughter hadn’t been presented at court either, but this time it was due to her ill health.  Miss Anne de Bourgh had already been sort of promised to Mr. Darcy, even though we know he has other ideas. 

One really tough question to answer is when was the season? Because there are naturally no set dates as to when this happened. The season sort of fell between two rules, one of the general rule and the other one of actually following it through the actual practical rule.

Now the season is linked generally to correlate with the parliamentary season. Logic states that when an ability plan to be in town for parliamentary sessions, then dinners and balls will be planned to a scale that suited the expected influx of the bon ton. The actual dates that the King opened and closed parliament each year are available from Hansard 1810 to 1811 was “the year with no Christmas” when members of parliament were in ad hoc meetings over the King’s illness. And those meetings were going well into December. And also in 1813 when Bridgerton is first set, this is when parliament opened in late November.

Sport and holidays had to be considered as well. The hunting season, for example, grouse hunting started in August when the aristocracy was usually on their country estates for the summer and fox hunting season was from about November through to March which may have contributed to the main London season during the Regency period being delayed until after Easter. 

And also ladies were presented to court on two dates before Easter and two dates after Easter and the proper kick-off to a season might have delayed them coming out until then. And you might hear the term ‘debutantes’ has being presented at court, but this was a term that was used a lot late 

A dress for coming out could have cost up to £500 before you add on the other expenses of the carriage and the jewels and the lace, my goodness, the lace and the balls. So you add all of that up, moving out to afford all of this with the dresses, it was only the wealthy that could throw the best balls, hence the season. Saying all that though, the height of the London season fell between early may and the end of July. 

In the first episode of Bridgerton. The first couple of seconds actually gives you a bird’s-eye view of Regency London. And first thing you see is this expansive green, which is indeed Hyde Park.

The land of Hyde Park originally belonged to Westminster Abbey and then was acquired by Henry VIII during the Reformation. And that’s where he enclosed the land, and stocked it with deer to form yet another private hunting ground. And then in 1689, William and Mary bought Kensington palace, which is on the far side of Hyde Park to the West.

And they, he made that their London residence and the King created a direct route through Hyde Park to his new palace and lit it. With 300 oil lamps that must’ve looked amazing. And this was known as the Kings Road, and this was the very first artificially lit roadway in the whole of England. During the reign of George II Hyde Park changed dramatically. Some 200 acres of the original 395 acres were added to Kensington Gardens and Queen Caroline employed Charles Bridgman to help redesign the two Parks. Bridgman damned the Westbourne river and  formed the Serpentine. And that leads us all the way up to the Regency era.

 Bridgeton starts in 1813. And that is exactly when the picture of London writes this about Hyde Park. 

“One of the most delightful scenes belonging to this great metropolis and that which most displays its opulence and splendours is formed by the company in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens in fine weather. Chiefly on Sundays from February till June spacious gravel road within the Park are on a fine Sunday covered with horsemen and carriages from two till five o’clock in the afternoon.

A broad footpath that runs from Hyde Park Corner to  Kensington Gardens is frequently so crowded during the same hours with well-dressed people passing to or returning from the gardens. That it is difficult to proceed. A mobile walk stretching from North and South in Kensington gardens. At the Eastern boundary, we did gay company completes this interesting scene numbers of people, of fashion mingled with a great multitude of well-dressed persons of various ranks crowd to walk for many hours together before the stranger enters Kensington gardens.

We recommend him to pause on some spot in Hyde Park from which he’s I can command the entire picture of carriages, horsemen and foot passengers in the Park, all eager to push forward in various directions. And on the more composed scene of the company, sauntering in the gardens and such a spot will present itself to the intensive observer more than once as he walks through the Park.

But perhaps the best situation for this purpose is the broad walk at the foot of the base. As it may be called of the river, where it falls into a narrower channel, it has been computed, that 50,000 people have been seen taking the air at one time in Hyde Park and the gardens. Nor is this a modern practice for this spot has been equally resorted to for 200 years past.”

Remember the Kings Road I mentioned about being lit by 300 oil lamps during the reign of William and Mary? Well, its name changed to Kings old road and then lump road, and then became known as rotten row. That’s most probably from a corruption of the French for Kings Road, Rue de Roit. But we can’t know for certain. What we do know is that rotten row was a fashionable place to ride your horse in London. And this famous stretch of road in Hyde Park was notorious for speed demons on horseback.    In the prologue to his play Pizarro (1799), Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote: 

Hors’d in Cheapside, scarce yet the gayer spark Achieves the Sunday triumph of the Park; Scarce yet you see him, dreading to be late, Scour the New Road, and dash thro’ Grosvenor-gate:- Anxious – yet timorous too! – his steed to show, The hack Bucephalus of Rotten-row.

It must have been absolutely exhausting spending several hours on display for the world or the least society to see.

And you were able to get refreshments as well from the keepers lodge. It’s sometimes called the cake house and this had been built in 1637 on the North side of the serpentine. And it was where you could buy refreshments such as a nice glass of fresh milk or a syllabub and also cheesecakes. The keeper’s lodge survived all the way until it was demolished in 1826.

Hyde Park was also used for military reviews and its list of amusements for in March. The picture of London for 1813 wrote “Towards the end of this month and during most of the spring and summer. Are to be seen reviews and other military spectacles in Hyde Park, generally two or three mornings in the week.

Notice of these may maybe had at the offices of the commander in chief or of the adjutant general. To the horse guards, Whitehall

Other military themed events that happened in Hyde Park during the Regency period include a mock Naval battle. And that was staged actually on the serpentine depicting the British defeat of the French, which ended with the French fleet being set on fire.

A firework display and water rockets followed this. And then there was a grand fair, which lasted all week. This was part of the festivities and rejoicing that took place in Hyde Park at the consequences of the peace in 1814, and the visit of the allied sovereigns. Mr. Sarvis Reddings describes with the pen of an eyewitness, the review of the Scott’s Greys in Hyde Park, in the presence of the majesties.

“It was amusing to see the activity of the other princes and of the juke of Wellington and their movements and the incapacity of the Prince Regent to keep up with them. Already grown, unwieldy and bloated. He was generally left behind in the Royal excursions being too bulky and too fallstaff-like to move about as they did.

Destmus Burton gave Hyde Park a make-over in the 1820s, and it hasn’t really changed very much then. The end of the Regency officially ended with the coronation of George IV. The Prince Regent had now been promoted to King. And that was in the 19th of July, 1821. And in Hyde Park, there was a regatta and boat race on the serpentine followed by illuminations by coloured lamps and Chinese Lanterns and a huge firework display.

Duelling was illegal. And had been from the early 17 hundreds and Hyde Park was one of the most popular venues in the 18th century, for settling affairs of honour, as they were described, you might remember that in Poldark ; Ross Poldark has a duel with Monk Adderly in Hyde park, in the autumn. And that was the late 18th century.

And now we have a duel in Bridgerton against the Earl of Hastings and Daphne’s oldest brother, the rake, Anthony Bridgerton.  In ‘The Romance of Duelling in All Times and Countries” in 1868, Andrew Steiman writes about Hyde Park like this: 

“The park was notorious as a place where footpads crowd and where duels took place without much danger of observation or interference.”

In both Poldark and Bridgerton return, we see duels using pistols, and that was quite common from the late 18th century in England and pistols and fencing duels continued to co-exist throughout the 19th century and these jewels were holding up based on a code of honour, really. They were for not so much as to kill the opponent, but to gain, and I quote, ‘satisfaction’ and that’s to restore one’s honour by demonstrating a willingness to risk one’s life for it. Duelling had originally been reserved for male members of nobility. But then it kind of moved to the upper classes by the time that we’re talking about. And indeed the mania for duelling had all but died out.

It was in its main height, I suppose, during the reigns of Charles I and James II and that’s because gentlemen wore their swords in everyday life. 

Hopefully that it’s given you a taste of Regency London. I know I haven’t included pleasure gardens or theatre, all those fabulous balls, but there’s only so much you can squeeze into 20 minutes.

Plus it gives us something to talk about next time. And the latest stats show that we are now number 18 in the list of travel podcasts in the UK. Don’t forget to share this podcast with any of your friends and family who you think would find interesting. That’s all for now. See you next week.

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