Hyde Park is one of a group of parks on the west side of Central London. They have been royal land since their seizure by Henry VIII in the 16th century to form a large private, rural hunting ground. For a long time entry was limited to the royal family, courtiers, and the upper echelons of society.
In the 11th century the small Manor of Hyde was part of the larger Manor of Eia. Eia was granted by William the Conqueror to Geoffrey de Mandeville, who in turn bequeathed it to the monks of Westminster in exchange for masses to be said for his soul. It was then still some way distant from the City of London, and left as woods and meadowland through which the Westbourne Brook flowed.
Hyde was seized by Henry VIII in 1536 during the great transfer of lands that took place at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He sold some of the manor but kept most to become part of a great uninterrupted private hunting ground, stretching west from Whitehall Palace to the village of Kensington. The brook was dammed to form watering holes for deer and royal hunts were organised for ambassadors and visiting dignitaries. Hunting continued during the reigns of Edward VI, Queen Elizabeth, and James I. In the centre of Hyde Park stood a banqueting hall to which everyone could retire after the hunt, which stood there until the creation of the Serpentine lake.
Hyde Park remained a private space exclusive to monarchs until 1637 during the reign of James I when limited access to the public was allowed. It soon became a place for high society to promenade, to see and be seen, and to show off the latest fashions. Charles I had a circular track created known as ‘The Ring’, sometimes referred to as ‘the Tour’, where members of the royal court could drive their carriages. It was situated north of where the Serpentine is today and partly obliterated with the creation of that artificial lake.
In the first decades of the 17th century the aristocracy and affluent came to Hyde Park to take the air and socialise. Races on horse and foot took place at the Ring and crowds came to witness them. Ladies refreshed themselves at the ‘Cheesecake House’, with syllabubs made from cream whipped with sugar and wine.
The aristocracy’s jollity in Hyde Park temporarily vanished during the Civil War of the 1640s. Forts and earthworks were built there by the Parliamentarians to defend London against Royalist troops. All parks were closed on Sundays, as well as fast and thanksgiving days from 1645. After the defeat of King Charles the Long Parliament put Hyde Park up for auction in three lots totalling 621 acres. The part bounded by Bayswater Road was described as well wooded, and the Kensington side as chiefly pasture. The third part included the Ring, the lodge and banqueting house, and a wooded area. This latter section was valued at more than double the other two parts. It was purchased by Anthony Dean, a ship-builder, who probably wanted the trees for building ships. He let out the ground and his tenant levied a toll on carriages entering the park. In April 1653 John Evelyn complained in his diary:
Went to take the aire in Hide Park, when every coach was made to pay a shilling, and every horse sixpence, by the sordid fellow who had purchas’d it of the State, as they were call’d.
Oliver Cromwell was fond of riding in the park and crowds came to watch as he galloped around the Ring. There was at least one assassination attempt on him during those occasions. He was also lucky to survive when a horse presented to him by the Duke of Holstein bolted and a pistol went off in his pocket.
Hyde Park was reclaimed by Charles II immediately after the Restoration. Almost as soon as he regained the throne, he and his brother, the Duke of York, began taking walks there, where they could socialise with the beautiful ladies of the court. Hyde Park and St. James’s Parks became the places for the upper classes to meet. In fashionable circles, it was simply enough to say “the park” or “the Ring” when referring to them. In his diaries, Samuel Pepys often mentioned being in ‘the park’. He first writes of seeing the King there on 9th June 1660, less than a fortnight after Charles arrived back in London from exile:
Found the King in the Park. There walked. Gallantly great.
The Frenchman Count Philibert de Gramont, living in exile in England, wrote:
Hyde Park, every one knows, is the promenade of London: nothing was so much in fashion, during the fine weather, as that promenade, which was the rendezvous of magnificence and beauty.