In the first of a new Wednesday series looking at historic London garden squares, we take a look at what next to Trafalgar Square, is the most famous square in the entire city – Leicester Square.

Located in the heart of the West End, Leicester Square’s history finds its origins back in the 17th history when Robert Sidney, the 2nd Earl of Leicester acquired property on the site where the square now stands. Then known as St Martin’s Field and located within the parish of St Martin’s, Sidney purchased four acres in 1630 and constructed Leicester House on land now located at the square’s northern end.

Leicester-SquareThe earl raised the ire of locals, however, when – having subsequently fenced off the land to prevent people from wandering on to his property – he enclosed what had previously been common land.

The people appealed to King Charles I who appointed three members of the Privy Council to look at the issue. Their decision? That the earl keep a section of his land open for the use of the parishioners of St Martin’s.

First known as Leicester Field, it was this land which later became known as Leicester Square. Fine homes were built around the square (its proximity to the Royal Court and centre of government made it a desirable place to live for the well-to-do and those seeking influence) with the centre enclosed with rails (it’s pictured here in 1750).

The square’s reputation also had a royal boost when, in 1717/1718, Leicester House became home to Prince George (later King George II) and his wife Princess Caroline along with their court after the prince fell out with his father King George I and was banished from St James’ Palace (this story is recounted in marvellous detail in Lucy Worsley’s terrific book, Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court).

The prince remained at the house for 10 years and was proclaimed King George II after his father’s death at its gate. Interestingly, King George II’s eldest son, Prince Frederick, also lived here for a time after he too fell out with his father (King George II). Apparently their relationship was even worse than the previous generation’s had been.

Despite its royal attractions, even at this stage the square apparently had it’s darker side with some less than savoury characters attending the hotels and livery stables that were built there. But things were to get worse as the wealthy moved out – a situation not helped when Leicester House was demolished in the 1790s.

Leicester Square became known as an entertainment venue in the 19th century (among attractions was the short-lived Royal Panopticon of Science and Art which showcased the best in science and art and Wyld’s Great Globe which contained a gigantic model of the earth) and received a new injection of life when theatres and music halls moved in, bringing the crowds back with them.

Shakespeare-StatueMeanwhile, the status of the square – and whether it could be built upon – remained a matter of debate well into the 19th century. That ended in 1874 when businessman Albert Grant bought the freehold of the land, had the garden created upon it and then donated it to the Metropolitan Board of Works as a gift to the city.

Responsibility for the management of the square now rests with the City of Westminster. The square area – which is now known for hosting film premieres as well as the tourists who inevitably gather there – was pedestrianised in the 1980s and has just undergone a redevelopment and modernisation which was unveiled last year.

Meanwhile, work to restore the 19th century Shakespeare statue and fountain in the square’s centre is about to be completed (pictured). The square also contains a statue of actor Charlie Chaplin in the square as well as busts of scientist Sir Isaac Newton, painter and first president of the royal Academy Sir Joshua Reynolds, 18th century pioneer surgeon John Hunter, and painter William Hogarth.

The tradition of the entertainment continues in the modern era through the cinemas which now stand in the square and regularly host film premieres (an interesting, if oft-repeated, film-related anecdote connected to the square is that it was in a phone booth located at the square that during the 1960s a young actor Maurice Micklewhite saw a poster for The Caine Mutiny and decided to change his name to Michael Caine).

PICTURES (top) Wikipedia and (below) City of Westminster.

Located at 20 Devereux Court, just off the Strand in the area of London known as Temple, The Devereux takes its name from Elizabethan Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, whose mansion, Essex House, once occupied the site on which it stands.

Devereux, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, inherited the mansion from his step-father, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, in 1588 (the house was originally called Leicester House). A spectacular fall from favor which culminated in an abortive coup, however, led to Devereux’s beheading in 1601 (interestingly, he was the last person to be executed inside the Tower of London – the tower where he is held was named after him).

Used by other members of Devereux’s family following his death, a plaque outside the pub explains that the property was sold to property developer, Nicholas Barbon (also noted as the founder of fire insurance), in 1674, and that he had it demolished soon after.

The present building is said to date from 1676 and was originally two houses. Soon after its construction, it became the premises of the famous Grecian Coffee House which had moved from Wapping Old Stairs.

Noted as a meeting place for prominent Whigs, it was also frequented by members of the Royal Society such as Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Hans Sloane and Dr Edmund Halley as well as writer, poet and politician Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, editor of The Tatler (who gave the coffee house as the magazine’s postal address).

The early 1840s, the premises was into lawyers’ chambers and then later into the public house which now occupies it.

There’s a bust of Essex on the facade beneath which is written the inscription, “Devereux Court, 1676”. The pub is these days part of the Taylor-Walker group. For more, see www.taylor-walker.co.uk/pub-food/devereux-temple/pid-C7177.

For a great book on London’s pubs, take a look at London’s Best Pubs: A Guide to London’s Most Interesting & Unusual Pubs.

At one time the grandest of medieval townhouses in London, the history of the Savoy Palace, also known as the Palace of the Savoy, goes back to at least the 13th century.

A mansion was built here by Simon de Montfort, the ill-fated Earl of Leicester, in 1245. Following his death, it and the land between the Strand and the Thames were gifted by King Henry III to Peter, Count of Savoy, and it was renamed the Savoy Palace (apparently originally spelt Savoie).

The uncle of the king’s young wife Eleanor of Provence, Peter had accompanied his niece to London for her wedding to the king at Canterbury Cathedral on 14th January, 1236, and decided to stay. In 1241, the king named him the Earl of Richmond and in 1246 granted him the land upon which the property was built.

After being briefly given to a religious order, Queen Eleanor gifted the property to Prince Edmund (“Edmund Crouchback” – a term referring to his entitlement to wear a crusader’s cross, not a hunchback), the 1st Earl of Lancaster and younger brother to King Edward I.

It was subsequently occupied by Edmund’s successor earls and, later, dukes. Among the ‘guests’ to visit the palace during the 14th century were the French King Jean (John) II, held there for three years following his capture by the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers during the Hundred Years War in 1356.

Interestingly, as the property of the Dukes of Lancaster, the precinct around the palace was considered part of County Palatine of Lancaster (created in 1351), meaning that the rule of the dukes was applied here instead of that of the king – a situation which remained in place until the 1800s.

The palace eventually became the property of John of Gaunt, the 2nd Duke of Lancaster and third son of King Edward III. The richest and most powerful man in the kingdom (he was all but king in name during the younger years of King Richard II in whose name he ruled), Gaunt’s home was said to be sumptuous.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that it become a focus of the rebels during the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 (it had been attacked unsuccessfully a few years earlier). They attacked and destroyed the property, razing it to the ground. (The story includes the tale that 32 men drank themselves to death after becoming trapped in the cellar while the palace burned).

The site, however, continued to be referred to as that of the Savoy and in the early sixteenth century King Henry VII, by order of his will, financed the founding of the Savoy Hospital on the site for the poor people (the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy is a relic of this building – see our earlier post here). The hospital closed in 1702 and was later demolished (we’ll deal with this in more detail in a later Lost London post).

The site, which stands on the north side of the Thames just west of Waterloo Bridge,  is now occupied by the salubrious Savoy Hotel (the entrance of which is pictured above) and the Savoy Theatre, which, like the hotel, was founded by impressario Richard d’Oyly in the 1880s (the theatre was the first building in the country to be entirely lit by electric lighting).

The name of the Savoy Palace is also remembered in street names around the site including Savoy Street, Savoy Hill, Savoy Steps, Savoy Way and Savoy Place.

• Leicester Square officially reopened last night following a £15.3 million transformation which has seen every paving stone replaced, new plants, and 40 new water jets placed around the Grade II listed fountain and statue of William Shakespeare. The 17 month makeover also included new lighting, new seating and a refurb of the underground toilets. The square – which owes its name to Robert Sidney, the 2nd Earl of Leicester, who purchased this land in 1630 and, after building himself a mansion, kept aside part of the land for public use – now welcomes as many as 250,000 tourists a day and is known as one of the world’s premiere sites for the release of new films.

• The Royal Academy of Arts is marking the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with a new exhibition opening tomorrow which features a selection of paintings by Royal Academicians elected during the early part of the Queen’s reign. The Queen’s Artists will include works by Jean Cooke, Frederick Gore and Ruskin Spear and will be displayed in the Reynolds and Council Rooms. Meanwhile The Saloon will house a collection of sculptures, paintings and drawings prepared by Royal Academicians for British coins and royal seals on loan from the Royal Mint Museum. The collection includes portraits of the Queen by Edward Bawden and Sir Charles Wheeler which have never before been shown in public, and Sir Anthony Caro’s new coin design of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Over in the Tennant Gallery, The King’s Artist’s George III’s Academy, will look at the king’s role in the foundation of the academy in 1768 and his influence in selecting the first artists. Highlights include portraits of King George III (pictured) and Queen Charlotte painted by the academy’s first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.royalacademy.org.uk. PICTURE: Copyright Royal Academy of Arts, London/John Hammond.

• A new exhibition focusing on Londoners and their treasured souvenirs commemorating Queen Elizabeth II opens tomorrow at the Museum of London. At Home with the Queen features 12 photographic portraits of Londoners at home with their mementos as well as a selection of royal commemorative objects from the museum’s collection. The latter include trinkets produced for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, official Coronation Day street decorations, Silver Jubilee paper tableware and souvenirs relating to the current Diamond Jubilee. Runs until 28th October. Admission is free. For more (including a series of events running on conjunction with the exhibition), see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

The Royal Parks’ Shire horse, Jed, retired last week after a decade of service working in Richmond Park. The Queen presented a commemorative retirement rosette to Jed who was born in 1993 and joined the Royal Parks from Bass Brewery in Burton upon Trent almost 10 years ago. Horses have been used in Richmond Park since it was enclosed by King Charles I in 1637. The horses took a break in 1954 but the Shires were reintroduced in 1993 as a way to sustainably manage the parkland. For more on Richmond Park, see www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/richmond-park.

On Now: The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot. This major free exhibition at the British Museum is part of the august institution’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and traces the history of the horse from domestication around 3,500 BC through to present day, with a particular focus on Britain’s equestrian tradition, from the introduction of the Arabian breed in the 18th century to events like Royal Ascot. Highlights include one of the earliest known depictions of horse and rider – a terracotta mould found in Mesopotamia dating from around 2000 to 1800 BC, a cylinder seal of Darius dating from 522 to 486 BC depicting the king hunting lions in a chariot, a 14th century Furusiyya manuscript, an Arabian manual of horsemanship, and the 19th century Abbas Pasha manuscript, the primary source of information about the lineage of purebred Arabian horses acquired by Abbas Pasha (mid-nineteenth century viceroy of Egypt). The exhibition is being held in Room 35. Runs until 30th September. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.