Johanna, Lady St John

“Bid them have a care of the children and not to let them pick ther noses nor doe any other thing for which I use to chide them,”  Lady Johanna St John wrote to Thomas Hardyman, her steward at Lydiard House. Like any other mother, Lady Johanna was anxious that her children behaved themselves – all thirteen of them.

Born in 1630, Johanna was the eldest of Oliver St. John’s four children by his first wife, Johanna Altham. Oliver St. John enjoyed a somewhat bumpy political career. Despite his defence of John Hampden, a Puritan landowner who refused to pay the contentious Ship Tax imposed by Charles I, Oliver St. John was appointed Solicitor General by the king in 1641.

However by the outbreak of the Civil War Oliver St. John had firmly aligned himself with Oliver Cromwell, and was recognised as a leading figure in the parliamentarian camp. Kinship ties with the Cromwell family remained strong. After the death of Johanna Altham, Oliver St. John went on to marry a further two wives, both of them related to the Lord Protector.

In 1648 Oliver St. John was appointed Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. The Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon described him “as a man reserved and of a dark and clouded countenance, very proud, conversing with very few and those men of his own humour and inclinations. He was very seldom known to smile.”

Soon after the birth of her young daughter, Oliver’s wife sought refuge at the home of her stepfather Sir William Masham in High Laver, Essex where the baby Johanna was baptised on January 27 1630/1. Johanna’s childhood was an unsettled one, lived out against the backdrop of a brutal civil war

In 1649, not yet out of her teens, Johanna married her cousin Walter. Johanna descended from the senior Bletsoe branch of the St. John family and Walter from the junior Lydiard Tregoze branch with both tracing their ancestry back to Sir Oliver St. John and his wife Margaret Beauchamp, grandmother of Henry VII through her second marriage.

The newlyweds made the Old Manor House at Battersea their main home, closer to parliament where Sir Walter served as Member for Wootton Bassett between 1661-1679 and for Wiltshire in 1656-1659, 1679-1685 and again in 1690-1695.

Walter’s father, Sir John St. John had acquired the property when he succeeded to the Lordship of the Manor of Battersea in 1630 on the death of his uncle, another Oliver St. John, Viscount Grandison. With forty rooms on either floor, the spacious house on the banks of the River Thames was, for some time, also home to Johanna’s sister Catherine who was married to Walter’s younger brother Henry.

Johanna’s first child Anne, was baptised at St. Mary’s, Battersea on December 8 1650. Henry, John, Johanna and a child who died young, were born during the 1650s with Oliver, Elizabeth, Barbara, Walter, John and William in the 1660s followed by Edward in 1670 and Francis in 1672/3.

Four of the children were baptised at St. Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze and therefore probably born in the parkland mansion house – Johanna in 1658, Walter 1666, John 1667 and William 1668.

Fortunately many of Lady Johanna’s letters to Hardyman survive, having escaped the 20th century cull of paperwork. Precious archival material was lost when Vernon, 6th Viscount Bolingbroke donated 2½ tons of paper to the Second World War salvage effort.

Johanna, with the help of Thomas Hardyman, kept a tight rein on Lydiard affairs, juggling the domestic arrangements of the Wiltshire household along with her Battersea home. In her letters to Hardyman Lady Johanna makes references not only to friends and family but neighbours and noble men, including the king who occasionally dined at Battersea.

The Lydiard estate produce was conveyed to the Battersea establishment and Lady Johanna’s housekeeping letters sometimes read more like a shopping list – “a brace of deer – som butter chees and rabbits.”  Although Lydiard Park was primarily the St. John’s summer home, it was also used to entertain Sir Walter’s political associates and in the summer of 1663 preparations for the visit of the Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon dominated Lady Johanna’s letters to Hardyman.

“Bid smith se the house scowered clean all the rooms and places and dusted downe and the task of employing staff eg Buttler, cooke, gardener,” Lady Johanna writes in a letter dated July 28.  “I might have had a very good servant who lived with my La Brown of oxFordsher bt I think he is a papist so I wil let him alone,” she informs Hardyman.

In the 17th century the manor house at Lydiard overlooked formal gardens where Joanna supervised the planting, and she is probably best remembered for her knowledge of plants and herbs and their healing properties.

Johanna made a record of the poultices, purges and potions she made and her Booke dated 1680 is now held at the Wellcome Library, a repository of books, manuscripts and archives recording the history of medicine.

Some of the remedies in Lady Johanna’s book are published with a personal recommendation. ‘For a Consumption cured my cos Fabian – muscadel a quart walnut water a pint the same of spirmint water a qtr of a pound of Loaf suger a pece of cinomon put all thes together into 2 grt Bottle shake it once a day for 8 days give a qtr of a pint morning & afternoon.’ 

Another tried and tested medicine was ‘A Wound Drink which a Friend procured me out of Holland it cured Sr John Mince who was run thurow the Lungs & had sore wounds in a Sea Fight.’

Among the contributors to Lady Johanna’s Booke were Sir Edward Spencer, my Lady Manchester and Lady Peterburough who all had remedies for sore eyes. And Sr Phillip Warwick who ‘commends Briony roote to weare in the pocket only’ to ward off an attack of the cramp.

Unfortunately the formal gardens were swept away by Johanna’s grandson John, 2nd Viscount St. John when he had the estate landscaped in the mid 18th century. However, the bricks were reused to create a new walled garden built behind the house where some of Johanna’s plants were transferred.

There are four portraits of Lady Johanna in Lydiard House. The two in the Drawing Room show her at very different periods of her life. Dressed in a silver gown and wearing a red sash about her shoulders, the portrait by John Michael Wright dates from around 1665 when Johanna was about 35 years old while the second one shows her as a much older woman, the epitome of a pious, puritan lady.

On March 7th 1703 Johanna signed the will she had written herself, three sides of foolscap folio paper complete with numerous additions and deletions which would result in probate being delayed.

The document contains several endearments giving a glimpse of the softer side of the strict, puritanical Lady Johanna. “To my old & Deare Friend the Countess of Lindsey I leave my Gold cupp wch Mrs Drax left me for a legesey,” she wrote. “And I wish I could leave her a Friend may love her as much & have more power to serve her then my selfe.”

“I desire if Sir Walter St. John out live me his old servants may be continued about him,” she continued, expressing concern for her elderly husband, “and that he may not be removed to Liddiard London or any other place from Battersea wher he has lived so long least it hasten his Death.”

Johanna died at her Battersea home aged 75. The memorial plate on her coffin declared, ‘Here lies the body of the Honble lady Johanna St. John late pious prudent Consort of Sr Walter St. John who exchanged this life for an immortal crown Jan 15th 1704 in the 56th year of her marriage.’

She was buried in St. Mary’s, Battersea in a coffin ‘quilt wth silk’ at a time when it was compulsory to be buried in wool. The family had to pay a 50s fine for this privilege.


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