The rise and fall of the Duke of Chandos

We are going to have an exhibition in Taunton next year and we need to provide some background to the society. So I googled (not for the first time) our namesake, and thought somebody might be interested!
The rise and fall of HENRY JAMES BRYDGES, first duke of Chandos, provides as worthy a subject as any for a film or television drama. Within the space of ten years, from 1710 to 1720, he rose to fame and riches, only to descend into relative obscurity following the loss of his wealth which was equally as dramatic as the gaining of it. Along the way he created one of baroque London’s most palatial mansions, and was responsible for bequeathing to posterity the inestimable gift of Handel’s Chandos Anthems.

Born in 1673 the son of a Herefordshire squire, in 1696 he married his cousin, Mary Lake (c.1666-1712), who brought to the marriage the manor known as Canons as part of her dowry.

Two years after his marriage to Mary Lake, Brydges became Member of Parliament for Hereford. He rose by force of personality, administrative ability and the favour of the Duke of Marlborough to become Paymaster of the Forces Abroad during the War of the Spanish Succession.

As  Paymaster he  was able to speculate with the monies he received, and by the time he left the post in 1713 Brydges had accumulated a fortune estimated at £600,000 (equivalent to £53m today.

In 1717 Brydges was created first Duke of Chandos, the same year in which he . secured the services of Handel. The Duke maintained an excellent musical establishment of up to thirty first-class players among whom were named Francesco Scarlatti, brother of Alessandro, and Johann Christoph Bach, cousin of J.S.

The Church of St. Lawrence on the Canons Estate had been almost entirely rebuilt in 1715 by Brydges.  A lavish patron of the arts, Brydges employed the fashionable artists of his day to decorate his great mansion of Canons, and those same artists – Antonio Bellucci, Louis Laguerre, Francesco Sleter – created the dramatic interior of the church. The splendid woodwork included an organ case carved by Grinling Gibbons, and Handel would certainly have played on this organ.

It seems likely that the Duke  would have called upon Handel to provide suitable music for church performance, for Handel began work almost immediately on the Chandos Anthems (HWV 245-56)

When the South Sea Company had been set up in 1711, it was granted a monopoly on trade with all Spanish territories, South America and the west coast of North America. In 1720, the government encouraged investors to trade government stocks for South Sea Company shares and as these boomed, more and more people speculated in them, forcing the share price higher.

In much the same way as many internet stocks today, the price was “talked up” based on nebulous, largely unfounded future prospects, and the price of nominal £100 shares rose to almost £1,000. In July 1720, with company shares at a vastly inflated, unrealistic and unsustainable level, confidence collapsed, and with it the share price. Investors, including Brydges,  lost considerable amounts and some even committed suicide.

Chandos himself survived, though in greatly reduced circumstances.  However James Brydges acquired the manor and lordship of Bridgwater in 1721. From then until   about 1735, the Duke attempted to establish Bridgwater as an important industrial centre. Amongst his ventures was the building of Castle Street home of Bridgwater Arts Centre today)  with its fine rows of early Georgian houses, a distillery, a soap factory and the glassworks. However he lost money on all these projects.

The glories of Canons barely survived its creator’s death in 1744. The Palace was demolished in 1747 after the second Duke had sold off the great house and its effects in order to pay the accumulated family debts. The materials were auctioned for architectural salvage: the original colonnade now stands in front of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London, and the gates at New College, Oxford.The Canons church of St Lawrence however remains today, its frescoes fully restored. And the musical legacy of Handel at Canons is ours to enjoy.

In my research I alighted first on Brydge’s son Henry  and found an intriguing tale:

Henry’s elder brother died without male issue in 1727 and Henry became heir to the dukedom.

On 21 December 1728 he married Lady Mary Bruce. She died 10 years later.

The Duke’s second marriage was unconventional. In 1744 he married Anne Wells, a former chambermaid from Newbury in Berkshire. They had met a few years earlier in circumstances described by a witness as follows:

‘The Duke of Chandos and a companion dined at the Pelican, Newbury, on the way to London. A stir in the Inn yard led to their being told that a man was going to.sell his wife, and they are leading her up with a halter  around her neck. They went to see. The Duke was smitten with her beauty and patient acquiescence in a process which would (as then supposed) free her from a harsh and ill-conditioned husband. He bought her, and subsequently married her on  Christmas Day, 1744.’

So…did Thomas Hardy know of the account when he wrote ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’? That, as they say, is another story.

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3 Responses to The rise and fall of the Duke of Chandos

  1. Quite a fascinating piece of history

  2. geoffrey bailey says:

    What a wonderful find! I was fascinated, and the sting in the tail is a tease!

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