Two portraits of Frances Winchcombe hang in the Drawing Room at Lydiard House and it is easy to see why she was described as one of the great beauties of her day. With finely modelled features in an oval face and a rather serious expression, Frances has an air of patient resilience, something she would have much need of during her marriage to Henry St John.
Henry, statesman, writer and libertine was undoubtedly the most brilliant and probably one of the most notorious members of the St. John family. He served as Queen Anne’s Secretary At War from 1704-1708 and Secretary of State from 1710-1714 and numbered satirist Jonathan Swift and the poet Alexander Pope among a wide, eclectic group of friends.
Henry was raised at the St John Battersea home by his puritanical grandmother Johanna. Anxious to curb her grandsons’ excesses, Johanna sought a beautiful, compliant, wealthy wife and Frances Winchcombe fitted the bill perfectly. Sadly no match for the unscrupulous Henry St. John, poor Frances fell in love with Henry and that proved her undoing.
The eldest of Henry Winchcombe and Elizabeth Hungerford’s three daughters, Frances was born in 1679 and spent her childhood on the Berkshire family estate at Bucklebury.
Henry and Frances were married on May 22, 1701 at St Dunstan’s in the East. Frances was twenty-two and Henry a year older. The marriage register reveals the young couple were both of the parish of St James’s, Westminster and that they were married by licence. Following the ceremony the newlyweds drove through London to Chelsea where they were rowed across the river to start their married life at the St John Battersea home under the watchful eye of Lady Johanna.
Frances’ grandmother, Lady Frances Winchcombe, owned two properties in Golden Square, Westminster and in 1702 the young married couple moved into number 21, dividing their time between town and the Winchcombe country estate at Bucklebury.
At her London home Frances led a life typical of women of her status in the early 18th century, although it was said she seldom moved in fashionable society and did not appear to have any very intimate female friends.
It is doubtful Henry gave up his debauched ways upon marriage and a letter to his partner in crime, Thomas Coke, reveal that in 1705 he was still up to his old tricks. Dated May 28 Henry wrote to Thomas who was taking the waters at Bath following the spring election.
“I am glad your election is over, your fever gone and your worship is again upon the hunt: for what the devil can carry you to Bath at this time but a whore? ….Really Tom, you are missed: whoring flags without you …”
Frances remained forever on the periphery of her illustrious husband’s life, appearing only briefly when he entertained at Golden Square. Totally in awe of him, she would appear to have had little knowledge of his licentious lifestyle, at least not at the beginning of their relationship. Perhaps her solitary existence following their marriage protected her from the society gossips.
In 1708, following Secretary of State, Robert Harley’s fall from grace, Henry along with Sir Thomas Mansell and Sir Simon Harcourt resigned from the Tory administration. In an ensuing argument with his father, Henry was also forced to give up his Wootton Bassett parliamentary seat. He returned to Bucklebury and his wife to rethink his career.
Perhaps Frances and Henry’s mismatched marriage might have stood a chance, had it not been for the fluctuating fortunes of his political career. Following a visit to Bucklebury Jonathan Swift wrote, “Mr Secretary was a perfect country gentleman at Bucklebury; he smoked tobacco with one or two neighbours; he enquired after the wheat in such a field; he went to visit his hounds, and knew all their names; he and his lady saw me to my chamber just in the country fashion.”
But Henry’s star was yet again on the ascent, elected Member of Parliament for Berkshire and appointed Secretary of State following the return to power of the Tory party in 1710.
Instrumental in negotiating the Treaty of Utrecht which helped to end the War of the Spanish Succession Henry was created Viscount Bolingbroke, a huge disappointment as he was hoping for the earldom. However, Henry made the most of his celebrity status and his liaisons became even more flagrant. His treatment of Frances shocked his friends and damaged his reputation with the Queen.
In London he was known to ‘visit’ Mrs Breton, the wife of Brigadier-General Breton and while finalising the Utretch Treaty in France he kept the company of sisters Mesdames de Ferriol and de Tencin.
In 1714, with the Queen desperately ill and fading fast, Henry rapidly allied himself with the Jacobites and the Queen’s Catholic half brother James, the Old Pretender. Henry plotted with the Pretender while taking the oath of allegiance to the Hanovarian successor. However, the new King George, hammered the final nail in Henry’s political coffin, informing Henry that his services were no longer required. Henry walked to the Cockpit accompanied by the Duke of Shrewsbury and Lord Cowper to watch the sealing of his papers. It was, quite obviously, all over. On March 27, 1715, Henry set sail for exile in France.
Before his escape, Henry had returned the property Frances had conveyed to him earlier in their marriage with instructions that she must hand it over to Sir William Wyndham and Lord Stawell to prevent its seizure by the Crown.
Preserved in the British Museum is a list of items Frances sold in order to send money to the husband she believed to be destitute. The list is titled “An Account of Several Things Left by Lord Bolingbroke in His Lady’s Hands When He Went Abroad in March 1714-5.”
Apart from a diamond ring, a present to Henry from the King of France, the items of jewellery on the list were all Frances’ own, given to her by her mother and grandmother. Henry had, in fact, managed to secure £13,000 which he took with him the night he fled, and was hardly penniless.
Back at the neglected Bucklebury where she had been forced to dismiss her servants, Frances received the shocking news that not only had her husband been impeached but that he had entered the service of the Pretender.
Tormented by fear for Henry following the Pretender’s arrival in Scotland and with further arrests made during the Autumn of 1715, Frances took ill.
“I have been so ill that nobody expected my life,” she wrote to Henry’s half brother Jack St. John. “I have been horribly frightened with the reports of drowning & I know not what, I am joy’d ‘tis false,” she continued having just received news that Henry was safe.
Frances travelled to London where she stayed with the St John family at Battersea while she petitioned the King to look sympathetically upon her impoverished plight. Eventually a clause signed by the King allowed Frances some access to the estate that had originally been hers. At last able to keep the house at Bucklebury in better order, Frances continued to plan for Henry’s return, until gossip from France eventually broke her spirit.
Henry had taken the Marquise de Villette as his mistress and was living openly with her in her chateau at Marcilly.
This was the final blow that broke poor Frances’ heart. Following increasingly long bouts of ill health, she eventually stopped eating.
Her doctor saw her on September 24 when he wrote, “She just tasted a little for two or three days of some odd salt meats, but her stomach flagged again, and now it will only bear asses milk. She keeps her bed altogether and I do not think that she can last three weeks longer.”
Frances died at 8am on the morning of Friday October 24, 1718 aged 39. She left what remained of her fortune to her nephew, Winchcombe Packer, her sister Mary’s son.
On hearing this news Henry wrote in a letter to his former mistress Madame de Ferriol, “ she [Frances] has no right to dispose of anything, in virtue of the deed of gift that I made, and the withdrawal of the forfeiture on the personal estate which the King has given her on my behalf. My bad fortune seldom flags ….”
Henry never once expressed any regret or sadness at the death of his devoted wife.