Over the past week I’ve spent three days (day job) at the Royal Society of Chemistry’s HQ, Burlington House, in Piccadilly. The building is also the home of the Royal Academy of Arts, the Society of Antiquaries, the Linnean Society, the Geological Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. It is an amazing place: turning your back on the dust and roaring traffic of Piccadilly, you enter an archway and are immediately transported into an enchanted world that carries with it all the grace and serenity of the finest seventeenth-century architecture – a mini-Versailles in the heart of London.
Intrigued by its splendour, when I was there yesterday I asked if there were any record of its history. I was given several pamphlets and leaflets and discovered on the first page of one of them, The Story of Burlington House, by Dennis Arnold, that in earlier days it was the scene of what was almost certainly a domestic murder.
The original Burlington House was built by Sir John Denham, a wealthy lawyer and poet (he was also Surveyor General to the Crown) for his new bride, Margaret Brooke. She was eighteen and he was fifty (and apparently limped). Margaret very quickly became the mistress of James, Duke of York, who had attended their wedding (and was later to become King James II). Their affair was common knowledge, as certain salacious entries in Pepys’ diaries make clear.
Margaret was found dead at Burlington House, evidently from some kind of overdose. Everyone assumed that Sir John was responsible for her death, though he wasn’t brought to trial. Despite her infidelity, public feeling ran high and Sir John’s life was threatened by the mob if he tried to leave the building. He managed to achieve the complete about-turn of the populace’s emotion by providing Margaret with a magnificent funeral, with ‘four times as much burnt wine as had been drunk at any funeral in England.’
Sir John did not stay long at the house after his wife’s death, however. Perhaps he could not bear this constant reminder of the collapse of the domestic idyll that he had planned; perhaps he was haunted by guilt every time he saw the place where she died. In 1668, Burlington House was bought by the first Earl and Countess of Burlington, who gave it its name.
I’ve never considered writing historical fiction, even if it’s about crime, but this story has captured my imagination. Perhaps I’m destined to write about Lady Denham, who I’m sure would have had a great deal to say in her own defence – married as she was to a (probably nasty) old man and (probably) unable to refuse the overtures of a future king.
I’ll write some more about Burlington House in a future post. I’ve not yet even started to describe its wonderful literary legacy, or the fascinating new acquaintance whom I met there yesterday.