Hyde Park

Though Hyde Park sat at some distance from urban centers in 1600, as London in expanded westward more and more people began to use the park for recreation. By the 1620s, playwrights and other authors begin to refer to Hyde Park as a fashionable destination for London residents. In 1632, James Shirley’s comedy Hyde Park was produced, documenting the entertainments visitors might expect to find there. Over the course of the three acts set in the park, well-mannered men and women flirt with one another, drink wine mixed with cream, dance, and take long walks to nowhere in particular. The play also contains rather lengthy – and, as far as the plot is concerned, utterly irrelevant – depictions of park-goers placing wagers on a foot-race and a horse race. (Samuel Pepys refers in his diary to having seen a revival of Shirley’s play in 1668 that featured actual horses led across the stage.) Gambling, dancing, drinking, and promenading: during the reign of Charles 1, these were some of the pleasures of wealthy Londoners and their hangers-on. Hyde Park provided an open stage upon which they acted out their social aspirations.  A ballad written a shortly after Shirley's play also celebrated the park as a place for amorous encounters.

During the Protectorate, Hyde Park was divided up into three parts and sold to private investors, at least one of whom seems to have charged an admission fee: John Evelyn complained in 1659 about a “Publicane” who placed “Porters and long Staves” a the entrance to the park (A Character of England, 1659, C7). The interruption in monarchic governance, however, seems to have done little to disrupt Londoners’ desire to spend time in the park; there are news reports from the 1650s of ball games being played before large crowds and, more dramatically, of Cromwell becoming entangled in his horses’ harnessing during a ride in the park, and being dragged along the ground.

By the 1660’s, aristocrats and other wealthy Londoners who considered themselves to be the city’s beau monde – among them Margaret Cavendish, Samuel Pepys, and King Charles II himself – made it a habit to visit the park in horse-drawn carriages and coaches simply to lay eyes on one another. A circular path known as “The Ring” was a popular spot on the eastern edge of the park. Coaches would drive around it in opposite directions, and their occupants would greet (or not greet) one another with subtle gestures. Cakes and syllabubs (the aforementioned drink of wine mixed with cream) were sold from a repurposed deer-keeper’s lodge now known as the Banqueting House: this seems to have been Hyde Park’s first concession stand. With it, the modernizing commercial culture that was coming to define London itself made its way into what had been only 50 years earlier a royal hunting ground. Though it still was home to a few deer kept in a fenced off region, Hyde Park, like the nearby St. James Park and the Spring Garden, was becoming a space owned by the Crown, but not entirely controlled by it. And while the history of London’s parks in the 17th century has been dominated by the stories told by the wealthy, literate city-dwellers who left behind records of their own more-or-less scandalous experiences (see, on the scandalous end of the spectrum, the Earl of Rochester’s poem “A Ramble in St. James Park”), it is important to remember that Hyde Park, Marylebone Park (later re-named Regents Park) and the other Crown holdings in Middlesex could have been visited by anyone at all in our period, regardless of rank, class, or profession. By the early 18th century, satirists began to complain in print that lowly apprentices and lawyer’s clerks were promenading in Hyde Park. Its fashionable patina of exclusivity was clearly wearing off. But this was absolutely for the best. The notion of a truly public city park slowly became possible as Hyde Park became one of London’s favorite common grounds.

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