Anne St John, Countess of Rochester

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Throughout a long life time, Anne held the reins of family power and property. She carefully protected and added to the inheritance acquired from two husbands but in the end her wheeling and dealings tore the two families apart.

Anne St John was born on November 5, 1614, the second child and eldest daughter of Sir John St John and his wife Anne Leighton. The magnificent St. John marble memorial in St. Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze depicts Anne as one of the three daughters kneeling at the feet of their parents. Sadly Anne had no great fondness for the house at Lydiard describing it as ‘that dull place,’ much preferring her parent’s Battersea home.

In October 1632 Anne married Sir Francis Henry Lee, Baron of Ditchley. She was 18 years old and her young husband just sixteen. The marriage was said to be a happy one, producing three children, a daughter who died in infancy and two sons Henry, known as Harry, and Francis Henry called Frank. But in 1639 Sir Francis Henry contracted smallpox whilst travelling with Charles I to York. He died shortly after his return to Chelsea and it was said he refused to let his wife see him in case she also caught the disease.

Aged just twenty five years old, the young widow was left to administer her husband’s will and oversee the family properties at Ditchley and Buckinghamshire. Although Anne turned to future Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde, a relation through marriage with the Villiers family, for advice, she was no helpless female.

Anne proved to be independent, determined and with an iron will. She was in no hurry to remarry, in part influenced by a clause in Sir Francis Henry’s will that would see her lose control of the Lee family properties if she took a second husband.

But in 1644, with the country in the grip of a brutal Civil War, Anne married professional soldier Henry Wilmot of Adderbury, Oxfordshire.

Henry had already earned Royal recognition following action at the Battle of Newcastle in 1640 and at Edgehill in 1642. In the tradition of her fiercely Royalist family Anne had also done her bit, supplying arms to the King’s men at the Battle of Edgehill and when Edward Hyde was forced to flee the Royalist headquarters at Oxford in 1642, Anne hid him at Ditchley before providing horses for his escape.

Anne and Henry Wilmot married in 1644 but soon after their marriage Henry was captured by the Parliamentarian Army and exiled to the Continent. Henry Wilmot accomplished a long list of daring deeds on behalf of the Royalist cause, including smuggling the young Prince Charles out of the country to safety. In 1652 he was created Earl of Rochester for his service to King and country. Following an unsuccessful uprising at Marston Moor in 1655, Wilmot fled the country, taking command of an English foot regiment in Bruges. He died at Sluys on February 19, 1656.

Although a Royalist hero, Henry Wilmot was viewed as a traitor by Cromwell and Anne fought a constant battle to hang on to both Lee and Wilmot lands, but she was a shrewd woman. With keen business acumen and a flexible ethical stance, Anne managed to protect her Oxfordshire properties from the Puritan Committee for Compounding. Then she married off her son Harry to Ann Danvers, the daughter of prominent Puritan Sir John Danvers to further consolidate the family fortunes.

On the death of Harry, Anne was left in charge of two young granddaughters Ellen and Anne Lee, in addition to caring for her own 13 year old son John Wilmot. Then following the death of her other son Frank Lee in 1667 Anne assumed guardianship of her two Lee grandsons Edward Henry and Francis.

With the Parliamentarians losing popularity, Anne was quick to cut her ties and realign herself with the newly restored monarchy, cashing in on Henry’s loyal reputation. Anne was well up to the task in hand and carefully controlled both the Lee and Wilmot fortunes for more than 25 years. She made numerous petitions for royal favours and grants. She even called in a ‘loan’ made by her late son Harry and his wife to Sir John Danvers which she claimed he had never repaid. Anne claimed the Danvers property as ‘restitution,’ and won.

Anne used her influence every which way she could. Through her cousin Barbara, Lady Castlemaine, favourite among the King’s mistresses, Anne managed to secure the king’s favour on a match between her son John and wealthy heiress Elizabeth Mallet. She also secured a favourable if protracted marriage settlement after the couple’s impetuous elopement.

Anne even used her grandchildren as pawns in the game of avarice she continued to play. With her eye set on his fortune, Anne offered up her granddaughter Anne Lee to Thomas Wharton, a notorious rake, receiving opposition from both her son John and the King.

In 1674 Anne managed to broker a marriage between her grandson Edward Henry Lee with Lady Charlotte Fitzroy, the illegitimate daughter of Charles II and Barbara, Lady Castlemaine. The eleven year old boy was created Earl of Lichfield and the pubescent couple married three years later aged 12 and 13 years old. The newlywed Earl and Countess of Lichfield set up home in a house on Horse Guards Parade, today better known as 10 Downing Street. A plan of a building in Whitehall, signed by Christopher Wren, is titled ‘A Mapp of the Grounds & Buildings thereone being part of St James Parke granted by his Majty to Sir Walter St. John & others.’ The young Earl was the ward of St. Walter St. John.

Anne negotiated her way through a minefield of financial dramas, at odds with friends, family members and particularly her surviving son John.

Her relationship with John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, poet, rake and libertine was a difficult one and only resolved on his death bed. As Lord Rochester began his descent to a tortured death, the result of his licentious lifestyle, the devout Anne fought to save his soul and obtain a signature on a Remonstrance of Faith. Following the death of John’s wife, Anne took on responsibility of raising his three daughters.

There are many similarities between Anne and that other indomitable matriarch Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. In 1757 Sarah’s great granddaughter Lady Diana Spencer would marry Anne’s great nephew Frederick 3rd Viscount St John and 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke.

In 1692 Anne left her home in Oxfordshire to settle in St. Anne’s, Soho. She died in 1696 at the age of 82.

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