At the bottom of Villiers Street, just next to Gordon’s Wine Bar, is a set of steps leading down to Watergate Walk, a pathway that cuts through to the Adelphi and doubles as a sort of pub garden for Gordon’s. If, lockdown notwithstanding, you fancy taking your glass of vintage Madeira outside you will find yourself staring at a marooned fragment of the lost riverside landscape that once characterized this area. This is York Watergate, a richly rusticated Renaissance structure, a stately gateway to nowhere. It was built in the 1620s as a private dock for York House, a mega-luxe townhouse that once stood on this spot: a relic of an era when the Strand was a district of palaces and a private water frontage a prerequisite for every Jacobean plutocrat (the 17th century equivalent of your own helicopter pad).
The Watergate was added to York House by George Villiers, the flamboyant, corrupt and generally ghastly 1st Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham had taken possession of the mansion after engineering the political demise of its previous owner, philosopher Francis Bacon, which seems to have been fairly characteristic behaviour on the Duke’s part. Buckingham pulled down Bacon’s beloved home (which had existed in various guises for several hundred years) and rebuilt York House in a manner more fitting to his own extrovert sensibility, furnishing it with luxuries and fine art. Despite his abrasive and thrusting unpleasantness, Buckingham was an inescapable personality in the courts of James 1st and Charles 1st, his considerable influence attributed to King James’s fondness for his profile. Whether or not the relationship between King and courtier was a full-blown affair is a matter of scholarly debate, but here’s James writing to Buckingham:
The Lord of Heaven send you a sweet and blithe wakening, all kind of comfort in your sanctified bed, and bless the fruits thereof that I may have sweet bedchamber boys to play me with, and this is my daily prayer, sweet heart.
Buckingham was a conspicuously terrible diplomat – the Spanish ambassador to London called for his execution following a mission to Madrid – a compulsive intriguer and an unsuccessful military leader, none of which hindered his political advancement. Buckingham continued his career under Charles 1st and York Watergate is festooned with carved anchors to advertise his status as an admiral, despite the fact that he oversaw one of the worst naval disasters of the era: a botched 1627 raid against the French at La Rochelle in which he lost 4,000 out of his 7,000 men. Drenched, as we would now say, in Teflon, Buckingham’s unstoppable progress was finally ended the following year, when a disgruntled soldier called Felton stabbed him to death in a Portsmouth pub. Buckingham’s unpopularity was such that his assassination was widely celebrated and Felton was acclaimed as a folk hero. During the Commonwealth York House belonged to Cromwell’s associate Thomas Fairfax, a period that saw the mansion stripped of its pictures, sold off because they offended Puritan sensibilities. After the Restoration York House was occupied by another Buckingham, the 2nd Duke and another George, who by means of smart dynastic gamesmanship happened to be married to Fairfax’s daughter (and sole heir).
George Jnr. proved to be no less reckless than his father; in fact, he was a sort of cartoon image of the Restoration rake: vastly rich and vastly profiligate, lecherous and bisexual, a lethal duellist and a minor poet of skill. The 2nd Duke ingratiated himself with the restored king and pursued a life of pristinely aggressive hedonism. One episode concerned Buckingham’s mistress, the Countess of Shrewsbury, who he had installed at another, up-river, Thames-side mansion. None of this played well with the Countess’s husband the Earl of Shrewsbury, who naively objected to the appropriation of his wife. Buckingham challenged the Shrewsbury to a duel, placing Shrewsbury at a considerable disadvantage, since the Duke’s skill with the epee was very widely admired. The duel took place in Barnes, perhaps the only exciting thing that has ever happened in Barnes, and – predictably – resulted in the deaths of Shrewsbury and another of his party, skewered on the end of Buckingham’s sword. Pepys reports on all this, drily noting that the countess is: ‘a whore to the Duke of Buckingham’ and that the Duke himself ‘is a fellow of no more sobriety than to fight about a whore’. (The Duchess of Shrewsbury had form. In 1662 two of her previous lovers fought a duel over her, leaving one seriously wounded and his ‘second’ stone dead.)
But although Buckingham was one of the richest shits in England he was permanently short of cash, and in 1672 he flogged York House to a developer for £30,000, who promptly pulled it down and built streets upon the site. One typically egocentric condition that Buckingham insisted on in the Deed of Sale was the provision that his name and full title should be commemorated in the new development: hence George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Buckingham Street and – wait for it – Of Alley. (In a nice turn of history, Pepys ended up living in one of the houses on the site, 12 Buckingham St.; but don’t go looking for Of Alley, it has been re-christened York Place.) After that, Buckingham, continued to lose money, fell out with Charles II, spent a spell as a prisoner in the Tower, and died, without heir and in reduced circumstances, in 1687. Anyway, as you sip your hypothetical glass of Madeira in that hypothetical future when you are allowed to visit Gordon’s pub garden, indeed any pub garden, you can stare at the sole survivor of York House and wonder which of London’s contemporary landmarks is due a similar fate.
As fate would have it, the 2nd Duke’s much re-built country seat, Cliveden (in Buckinghamshire, naturally), became the pivotal venue for The Profumo Affair, another salacious collision of power and socially transgressive sexual relations; but that’s fun for another time.
See also: The Poor Wee Drinkur.