The 17th century English Civil War set neighbour against neighbour, friend against friend and divided families. Throughout this turbulent period the St John family suffered similarly, and most frequently it was the women who straddled the difficult political divide with diplomacy, skill and in some cases, cunning.
Anne St John, who lost three brothers to the Royalist cause, befriended the Parliamentarians to safeguard her family’s fortunes, while her sister in law Lady Johanna St John, daughter of the Cromwellian supporter Sir Oliver St John, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, learned how to play the perfect hostess to Charles II.
But when Lady Johanna and Sir Walter St John sought a suitable wife for their wayward son Henry, they turned to a family with an immaculate Parliamentarian pedigree.
Lady Mary Rich was the granddaughter of staunch Puritan, Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick. In 1642 Robert had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Essex and Lord High Admiral, and secured the Navy for the Parliamentarians at the outbreak of war.
Born in around 1652, Mary was one of the 3rd Earl’s three daughters by his wife the former Anne Cheek (pictured in white). Robert died in 1659 and on his deathbed entrusted the care of his three young daughters, Mary, Anne and Essex, to his brother Charles.
Charles and his Irish born wife Mary had no surviving children of their own. A baby daughter had died as the result of being tossed between two nursemaids and their only son died aged 21. An attempt to start a second family later in their married life had proved unsuccessful, and they seemed the perfect choice to take charge of the young sisters.
Charles’ devout Puritan wife Mary raised the girls ‘as a mother,’ at the family home of Leighs Priory, Felsted near Chelmsford, Essex and negotiated the marriages of all three nieces.
Following visits between the two families, Sir Walter settled the Lydiard estate on his son Henry in advance of the nuptials and the wedding took place at Leighs on December 11, 1673.
Satisfied with her matchmaking, Mary, Countess of Warwick recorded in her diary “because it was a very orderly and realidgious family, and ther was a very good estate, and the young gentellman she mared Mr Henry St Johns was very good natured and viceless and his Good father and Mother …were very eminent for owning and practising of Realidgeon.” The Countesses diary, in which she leaves an intimate account of her day to day life and her religious observances, is held at the British Library.
There is evidence that theirs was a happy marriage, equal in affection given and received. Mary St John quickly fell pregnant but miscarried in early 1674. With a London home in Bury Street, Westminster, the young couple also made frequent use of their Wiltshire country estate. Three more children were born, a daughter Mary and two sons named Walter, all buried at Battersea in 1675 and 1677.
In 1678 Mary was pregnant yet again. She retired to Lydiard for her confinement and on September 16 was delivered of a healthy boy. Sadly just weeks later Mary died and was buried at the neighbouring parish church of St Mary’s, Lydiard Tregoze on October 2. She was 26 years old. Her son was christened eight days later on October 10 at the church in Battersea.
Mary was not one of the big players on the St John stage. She left no known imprint on the Lydiard estate and no written record such as her stepmother’s diary. If Mary supervised planting in Johanna’s garden, we don’t know of it, if she was a dutiful daughter in law, a sisterly confidante, we don’t know of that either.
Mary’s legacy is that she was the mother of Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, Secretary at War to Queen Anne, friend of Swift and Pope, who ducked and dived throughout a tumultuous political career.
The portrait of Mary with her sister Lady Anne Barrington painted by Henri Gascard in around 1670, probably before her marriage, is held by a private collector.
In 2010 a portrait of Mary’s father, Robert Rich, 3rd Earl of Warwick (1611-1659) made a return to Lydiard House. Sold during the great dispersal of the estate in the 1940s, the portrait was purchased from a private collector with the aid of grant support from the MLA/Victoria & Albert Purchase Grant Fund, the Art Fund, the Friends of Lydiard Park, and private donations to the house through the Treasure for Ever scheme.
The portrait of Mary St John’s mother Anne Cheek (right) with her sister Essex Cheek, attributed to Van Dyck.