The owners of Wanstead Park 1784–1812 (part II)

Wanstead House by Richard Westall (1765-1836) Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon CollectionWanstead House by Richard Westall (1765-1836) Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

In the 18th of a series of monthly articles looking at the owners of Wanstead Park through history, Richard Arnopp tells how a member of the French Royal Family chose it as his place of exile following the Revolution.

By 1802, Wanstead House had stood empty for nearly four decades. However, in February of that year it was let, for the first time, to a tenant. Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, was 66 years old. He was the head of a cadet branch of the French Royal Family, ranked as a Prince of the Blood, and had held a series of civil and military offices, culminating in that of Grand Master of France, making him head of the Royal Household.

The Prince had left France in 1789, following the fall of the Bastille, and became one of the principal military leaders of the counter-revolutionary movement. The "Army of Condé" initially fought against the new French Republic in conjunction with the Austrians. Later, it served under British and Russian command, and was finally disbanded only in 1801, after which the prince moved to England. A few weeks after taking possession of Wanstead, Condé wrote to his daughter: "I am now well established in my new estate. It is better described as beautiful than pretty, and I would have desired something less large, but by a combination of extraordinary circumstances, it proved cheaper to rent than eight or ten much smaller ones that I had seen. Given my situation, that was the deciding factor, and indeed it costs me less than the little perch I occupied in London. I do not use more than about half of the house. The remainder consists of two immense apartments, arranged for entertainment, and absolutely devoid of all French conveniences. They are decorated in old-fashioned style, and are never used, even though they are richly furnished. They resemble the apartments of the King and Queen at home in Chantilly, so that is no real hardship. The two parks are all lawns and woods, with two ponds, a river which has no cascades or running water, but in very nice surroundings. There is a shell grotto worthy of Chantilly, on the edge of a river. I have pleasant views around me, with surroundings made charming by the gentle slopes, hillsides, and many beautiful houses. The approach to mine is by a wide avenue, divided by a large body of water. The house is of twenty-one bays, with a portico of six columns in the centre, and is extremely beautiful in its own right. The stable-block is separate, and there are some fine kitchen gardens. These are the details you asked for, my dear child, and I think you have enough for now. All this cost me eight thousand in French francs, and my London house cost me ten thousand."

The annual rent paid by Condé for the Wanstead estate was £350 in British money, perhaps the equivalent of £40,000 or so in terms of present-day purchasing power.

A bust of the Prince of Condé in ChantillyA bust of the Prince of Condé in ChantillyCondé was quickly joined by Maria Caterina Brignole, his mistress of more than 30 years. Born into a noble Genoese family, Maria Caterina had formerly been married to Prince Honoré III of Monaco. However, in 1769 she left him for Condé, who was then a widower of 33, and fled Monaco in circumstances of high melodrama, initially taking refuge in a convent. Divorced by her husband, but unable to remarry during his lifetime (he died only in 1795), she continued to be generally known as the Princess, and later Dowager Princess, of Monaco. Condé and Maria Caterina were only finally married in 1808, at Wanstead, by Dr George Glasse, Rector of Hanwell. It seems they did so mainly to solve an awkward problem of etiquette for Condé's Royal cousins, the titular King Louis XVIII and Queen Marie Joséphine, who were also exiles in England at the time. Barrè Roberts wrote shortly afterward concerning the: "...very curious paper which Mr. Glasse shewed me yesterday – the record or register of the marriage of the Prince de Condé. He officiated at Wanstead on the occasion. The contrast of the Prince's enumeration of his own titles, with the license for 'Louis Joseph de Bourbon, of the parish of Wanstead', is truly curious. The witnesses are all Ducs et Pairs, with most gorgeous titles, and Mr Glasse said he never beheld so interesting a sight as these 'très hauts, très puissans, et très excellens Seigneurs,' descending four or five together from a hackney coach. The Prince owns to seventy-two, and the object of his marriage is only to enable the Queen of France to visit the Princess of Monaco".

In a letter to his mother, Edward Jerningham provides a vivid glimpse of life at Wanstead after Dr Glasse's ministrations had restored the Prince and Princess de Condé to respectability, and the King and Queen of France became regular visitors: "On Saturday last, having heard that the King left Wanstead this week, I ordered a pair of post horses to my chaise, and reached Tilney House at twelve o'clock – I immediately saw the Prince of Condé who said that the King was gone out, but desired I would stay for dinner, and be presented to the Queen... At dinner I sat facing the King and Queen... The Queen ate meagre, the King grâs. After dinner, coffee in the drawing room, and immediately after most of the men went into the adjoining room for billiards, leaving the King, Queen, Prince de Condé, Duke de Bourbon, Madame de Narbonne, Madame de Reuilly, Monsieur de Barantin and myself in a circle. Here we sat half an hour, the King reading aloud the English papers in French, as if it had been in the latter language. At eight o'clock the King looked at his watch and said: 'II est huit heures,' upon which the whole party retired upstairs to their respective apartments."

Next month we shall see how Wanstead's Royal exiles were visited by tragedy, as the Prince de Condé's only grandson was kidnapped and shot on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Friends of Wanstead Parklands is a community group that campaigns for the preservation and improvement of Wanstead Park. For more information on the history of the area, visit

blog comments powered by Disqus