Barbara St John – Countess of Coventry

Maria Gunning must have been a tough act for Barbara St. John to follow.

The five famous Gunning sisters were born in Hemingford Grey, Cambridgeshire, the daughters of genteel but impoverished Irish parents.  When the going got even tougher the family temporarily returned to Ireland but Mrs G had aspirations for her daughters, especially the devastatingly lovely Elizabeth and Maria.  Following the girls headlining debut at Viscountess Petersham’s ball held at Dublin Castle in 1748 the family returned to England.  Elizabeth and Maria launched a brief career on the London stage, the first step to getting noticed in Georgian high society.  Their arrival created something little short of a phenomenon and every appearance they made saw crowds of swooning men and women in attendance.

The teenage sisters were presented at Court to George II in December 1750 and in little over a year they were both married.  Elizabeth to the 6th Duke of Hamilton and on March 5, 1752 19 year old Maria married George William 6th Earl of Coventry.

The marriage was not a particularly happy one; Maria was described as beautiful but rather silly, just how Frederick St John liked his women. Yes, Maria had dallied with the disreputable Frederick, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke.

Maria and George had a son George William who became the 7th Earl and three daughters, Elizabeth Anne, Mary Alicia and Anne Margaret raised at the new family home Croome Court, a Palladian mansion in Worcestershire designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

Sadly it was Maria’s preoccupation with her looks and her love of dangerous lead and arsenic based Georgian make up that eventually killed her in 1760.  Ten thousand people reportedly turned out to watch her funeral at St Mary Magdalene Church, Croome d’Abitot.

Four years later George was ready to take a second wife and married Barbara St John in September 1764.  Barbara was the fourth daughter of John St John, Baron St John of Bletsoe and his wife Elizabeth Crowley.

Barbara was no slouch in the beauty stakes herself as is evident from her portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds around the time of her marriage.  Today the portrait is part of the Faringdon Collection and is on display at Buscot Park.

Other artists were keen to catch a likeness of the second Countess of Coventry and produced mezzotints in the style of Sir Joshua.

The Earl’s second marriage was much more successful and in Barbara he found a soulmate, a meeting of like minds.  She was interested in birds and animals and George created a menagerie and a model dairy and farm for her.  Boating parties took place on the lake with firework displays to entertain their guests.

Two sons survived to adulthood, the Hon John Coventry and the Hon Thomas William Coventry.

Barbara died in 1804 and George five years later in 1809.

Isabella Frances St John

Who would live in a house like this?

Well apart from Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII and other assorted monarchs, during the Victorian period there were one hundred residents, plus servants, including the Hon Lady Isabella Frances St John and her daughter Antonia; their needs attended to by a footman, a ladies maid, a cook and a housemaid according to the census of 1861.

When George III decided he would rather live elsewhere, Hampton Court Palace was opened up to an elite set of residents – people who had performed some great service for Crown and Country.

The average apartment consisted of 12-14 spacious rooms.  Conditions of tenure included a minimum six months residency each year in the Palace, no subletting, no boarders and definitely no dogs. But despite the desirable address there were disadvantages; the apartments lacked basic 19th century mod cons and were damp and difficult to heat.

When it came to her credentials, Isabella had an unqualified claim to one of the grace and favour apartments.  Her pedigree was impeccable, if awash with illegitimate ancestors, including a direct line to Charles II and by a quirk of history, to a St John ancestor as well.

Isabella Frances Fitzroy was born on May 6, 1792, the daughter of George Henry Fitzroy, 4th Duke of Grafton and Charlotte Maria Waldegrave.  Her great-great-great-grandfather was Henry Fitzroy, 1st Duke of Grafton, the son of Charles II and Barbara Villiers, Countess Castlemaine.

Apparently Charles had initially been reluctant to claim the boy as his own – Barbara’s infidelities were well known to him.  However by the time Henry was nearly ten years old Charles suddenly noticed a family resemblance and in 1672 acknowledged the boy as his natural son.

Her maternal line was also well connected, if illicitly so.  Isabella’s grandmother Maria was one of Sir Edward Walpole’s three illegitimate daughters by his mistress Dorothy Clement.  Isabella’s mother and her two sisters – the Ladies Waldegrave – were famously painted by Joshua Reynolds.

The Ladies Waldegrave

Isabella’s mother was well acquainted with Hampton Court Palace when in 1764 Maria, Lady Waldegrave moved into apartment 47 in The Pavilions following the death of her first husband.  The suite of rooms had recently been vacated by Princess Amelia, second daughter of George II and Queen Charlotte.  Lady Waldegrave subsequently married William Henry, Duke of Gloucester, George III’s brother.

In 1829 Isabella married Henry Joseph St John at St George’s, Hanover Square to whom, by one of the vagaries of history, she was related.  Both could trace their ancestry back to Sir John St John and Lucy Hungerford, making them 6th cousins once removed.

Poor Henry was no stranger to scandal and subterfuge.  His father George Richard, 3rd Viscount Bolingbroke deserted his first wife Charlotte Collins and their three children to take up with his half sister Mary Beauclerk. Four sons later George Richard ran out on this family too.  Henry Joseph’s mother Isabella Hompesch thought she was legally married to George Richard only to find, pregnant with her seventh child, that she wasn’t.

George Richard 3rd Viscount Bolingbroke

Henry Joseph was born in Elizabeth Town, New Jersey in 1799.  In family records he is often called Joseph to distinguish him from an elder brother also called Henry.  Following his parents marriage the family returned to Lydiard House in Wiltshire in 1806 and in 1812 he was admitted to Sandhurst. His name appears in the Waterloo Medal Book where he served as an Ensign in the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards in Lieutenant Colonel West’s Company, supposedly the youngest officer to serve at the battle.

Lady Isabella’s own tenure at Hampton Court Palace dates from June 4, 1839 when she took up residence in Apartment 19 (Suite XII).  This suite of rooms, the Lord Chamberlains Lodgings, overlooks Base Court, the largest of the interior courtyards at the Palace.  In Tudor times Base Court contained 44 lodgings for Henry’s guest.

published courtesy of Jonathan Foyle

Henry was with his wife and daughter Antonia at Hampton Court Palace when he died in 1857.  He was buried on January 8 at St Mary’s Church, Hampton.

Isabella continued to reside in the Palace for another 18 years until her death on August 27, 1875 at the age of 83.  Her burial took place in the churchyard of Hampton St Mary on September 1.

Anne and the Cholmondeley dilemma

In which Anne fulfills a prophecy and saves a dynasty.

Lady Johanna St John

Anne St John was baptised at St Mary’s Church, Battersea on December 8, 1650 the first of Sir Walter and Lady Johanna St John’s thirteen children.  She grew up at the manor house in Battersea, spending summer holidays at the family’s country seat in Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire.

Sir Walter St John

On May 20, 1684 Anne married Thomas Cholmondeley at the Charterhouse Chapel in London and left for her new home at Vale Royal, a former abbey founded by Edward I on the River Weave in Delamare Forest, Cheshire.

Anne, Thomas’s second wife, was described as being ‘a lady not esteemed very young,’ which was a bit of a problem for the Cholmondeley family, as Thomas was in dire need of a male heir.  His first wife Jane, daughter of Sir Lionel Tollemache had produced 12 children, but all five sons died during their father’s lifetime.

Enter stage left, Robert Nixon, plough boy, driveller and dullard.  A sometimes violent character, strange looking and with a prodigious appetite, Nixon was well known in the Vale Royal area where he worked for local farmers until he wore out his welcome.  He was also in the habit of falling into a trance like state behind the plough, standing there for up to an hour.  Sometimes he would recover and carry on as if nothing had happened, sometimes he would speak in incomprehensible words and sometimes he would come out with something quite extraordinary.

Thomas Cholmondeley took pity on Nixon and brought him into his household, perhaps before the prophetic announcement or most likely after it?

James II

To set the scene – Charles II had died in 1685 leaving no legitimate heir to inherit.  His eldest bastard son James, Duke of Monmouth was a pretty popular contender but playing by the rules the crown had to to to Charles’s brother Catholic James II.  The Stuart family had long struggled with a private committment to Catholicism in conflict with the monarch’s role of head of the Protestant church in England.  The country would have rather had a Protestant King, but James’s heir was his Protestant daughter Mary, so everyone was prepared to see how it all panned out.  But then in 1688 James’s second wife, Catholic Mary of Modena, produced a son and everything was all up in the air again.

Mary of Modena

The 1680s were tremulous times – the Civil Wars still a vivid memory, the scars on the countryside still healing, the absences in families still mourned.

And then along came Robert Nixon with his amazing prophecy.  When a raven should build in a stone lion’s mouth on the top of a church in Cheshire, then a King of England shall be driven out of his kingdom, and never return more, he declared. A miller named Peter shall be born with two heels on one foot and would be instrumental in delivering the nation. There was more stuff about fallen walls and a pond running with blood but most pertinent for Thomas was Nixon’s prophecy that when an eagle shall sit on the top of the house, then an heir shall be born to the Cholmondeley’s family.

Well how likely was that to happen?

Then in January 1685 Anne went into labour and lo and behold the eagle appeared.  ‘The largest bird she ever saw,’ her sister Johanna reported who stood in the crowd outside Vale Royal, watching and waiting.  Throughout the several days Anne laboured to give birth the bird sat in one of the windows despite all efforts to drive it away.  When little Charles Cholmoneley took his first breath the eagle flew to a nearby tree where it stayed for three days before disappearing into the night.  Johanna also confirmed the fall of a wall on the Cholmondeley estate, which Nixon claimed foretold of the future invasion of England and that young Charles would live to fight bravely for his king and country.

William of Orange

In 1688 William of Orange headed The Glorious Revolution, a reasonably bloodless invasion of England, although in Ireland and Scotland where fierce fighting took place it was quite a different story.  James II fled to France, which parliament constituted an abdication and William and Mary were crowned joint monarchs in February 1689.

Mary – joint monarch with William

Three year old Charles may have played little part in the struggle for the throne, but he did save the Cholmondeley family from extinction – or rather, Anne did.

Vale Royal

Today the Grade II listed Vale Royal Abbey has been converted into apartments and includes the Club House and amenities of the vale Royal Golf Course.

Elizabeth Barbara St John, Lady Halford

When Charles I’s coffin was opened during building work in St George’s Chapel in 1813, Royal physician Sir Henry Halford purloined part of the 4th cervical vertebrae, just where the axeman struck his blow.  Did Sir Henry keep his acquisition in a curiosity cabinet, for the eyes of special friends only?

“Don’t get that flippin’ thing out again,” you can almost hear his beleaguered wife Elizabeth complain.

Or perhaps he kept it on the mantelpiece for all to see, gathering dust and creeping out the housemaids. Does anyone in the said Halford family possess the grisly relic today, one wonders?  Imagine discovering a dearly departed relative had left you a piece of Charles I’s severed neck in their will?

Henry began his medical career in Edinburgh following this with a stint in practice with his father in Leicester.  In 1793 he was elected physician to the Middlesex hospital and that same year he was appointed physician extraordinary to the King, the youngest doctor to hold the title.

When Elizabeth Barbara St John married Sir Henry in 1795 he was plain old Dr. Henry Vaughan.  He changed his name to Halford in 1809 in the expectation of a sizeable inheritance from Lady Denbigh, widow of his mother’s cousin and was created a Baronet in the same year.

Elizabeth Barbara St John was born on February 22, 1762, the third daughter of John St John, Baron St John of Bletsoe and his wealthy wife Susanne Louise Simond, the daughter of a London based French Huguenot merchant.  Henry and Elizabeth had two surviving children – a son Henry who became 2nd Baronet Halford, and a daughter Louisa who married a distant cousin, Frederick Coventry.

Such was Sir Henry’s reputation within the Royals that he became physician in ordinary, attending almost every member of the family across the years.  There is no denying he enjoyed an illustrious career, even if some accused him of having airs and graces.  James Wardrop, appointed surgeon to the King in 1828, called him ‘the eel backed baronet,’ in reference to the deep and frequent bows he made when in the Royal presence.

With so many professional commitments one wonders how much time Henry and Elizabeth actually spent together. The Court circular published in the Times contains frequent references to Sir Henry in his professional capacity, but there is no mention of Elizabeth.

In 1814 Henry came into his inheritance and moved his family into the 17th century Wistow Hall.  The Leicestershire property, which had received little attention during Lady Denbigh’s watch, was in a perilous condition and Henry quickly instituted a major makeover, perhaps supervised by Elizabeth.  Henry meanwhile remained at his Curzon Street home within close reach of his Royal patients.

Elizabeth died at Wistow Hall on June 17, 1833 and was buried in the Halford family vault in St Wistan’s.  The remodelled 18th century church is stuffed full of Vaughan and Halford memorials.  The earliest is a black and white marble monument with an alabaster effigy of Sir Richard Halford in armour who died in 1658.  Sir Henry and Elizabeth’s paired monuments are on the north wall of the nave.

“To the memory of the Honourable Elizabeth Barbara daughter of John, eleventh Lord St John of Bletsoe and wife to Sir Henry Halford of Wistow, Baronet. Distinguished by the graces and accomplishments which become a descent from a long line of noble ancestors. She was exemplary in the discharge of all her duties, studious to promote the welfare and happiness of all around her.  Remarkable for sincerity of character, humble before God, charitable to mankind, a most affectionate wife and tender mother.  Born February 22nd 1762 Died June 17th 1833.  “Favour is deceitful and beauty vain but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.” Prov XXXI 30.

Following the death of George IV in 1830 Henry was presented with a clock surmounted by a bust of the late King.  The inscription reads – “of their esteem and regard, and in testimony of the high sense they entertain of his professional abilities and unwearied attention to their late beloved sister the Princess Amelia, her late Majesty Queen Charlotte, his late Majesty King George III, his late royal highness the Duke of York, and lastly, to his Majesty George IV.”

A much more desirable inheritance than the vertebrae of poor King Charles.

Catherine St John

It’s tempting to ponder on how differently things might have panned out had Jane Seymour not been on the marriage market in 1536.

Jane Seymour

A young, loved up Jane Seymour was once engaged to Sir William Dormer until William’s parents decided she wasn’t good enough for him and ended the engagement.  Bet Jane had a good old laugh about that when she became Queen of England.

William went on to marry firstly Mary Sidney by whom he had two surviving daughters and two sons that died in infancy. His second wife was Dorothy Catesby and they had six daughters and two sons.

Sir William and his second wife Dorothy, All Saints Church, Wing

When William’s fifth daughter Catherine married John, Baron St John of Bletsoe she found herself on the periphery of the tussle for the Tudor throne, but it was her sister Jane who was firmly centre stage.

Little is known of Catherine’s childhood.  She probably grew up in the family home at Eythrope in Buckinghamshire while Jane was raised by her maternal grandparents.  The two sisters possibly had little to do with each other, but kinship was everything in the 16th century.

Jane Dormer

A fervent Roman Catholic, sixteen year old Jane served as lady in waiting to Mary, Henry’s daughter by his first wife Katherine of Aragon.   Although some twenty years younger than the Queen, Jane was one of her closest friends and confidantes.  It was Jane who nursed the Queen through her last illness and was entrusted with passing on various jewels to Elizabeth.

Following the Queen’s death in 1558 Jane married Spanish nobleman Don Gomez Suarez de Figueroe, adviser to Mary’s husband Philip, and left England for Spain.

Jane must have been quite a character – Machiavellian or motivational – who knows?  She managed to remain on good terms with the English court while helping exiled English Catholics and lending her support to the accession of Mary Queen of Scots.  Meanwhile  half sister Catherine sat firmly in the other camp.

Catherine’s husband Baron St John of Bletsoe was appointed the keeper of Tutbury Castle, Staffordshire during the incarceration there of the Scottish Queen.  But that’s not the end of this sister’s familial problems.  While Jane and her husband sought to aid the imprisoned Queen, Catherine’s husband along with the Earls of Derby, Warwick and Worcester, were among the peers on Elizabeth’s commission at the trial of Mary at Fotheringhay Castle in 1586.  Mary Queen of Scots was executed at Fotheringhay on February 8, 1587.  The new King James, Elizabeth’s successor and Mary’s son, invited Jane to return to England to be one of his wife’s ladies in waiting, but she declined the offer.

Mary Queen of Scots

Jane died in Spain in  1612.  Her much younger sister Catherine outlived her by just two years.

Catherine’s alabaster memorial in St Michael’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey included the figures of her two children Oliver and Anne kneeling beside her reclining figure.  The broken monument was removed in 1723 but was restored to its original place during the 19th century.

A translation of the Latin inscription reads:

“Sacred to the memory of Catherine Lady St John, daughter of William Dormer of Eithrope, Knight.  The widow of John, Baron St John of Bletso, to whome she born Oliver, a little son who died at a tender age, and Anne the wife of William Lord Howard of Effingham, the eldest son of Charles Earl of Nottingham, ruler of the seas of England.  Since death is certain, and the care of those who come after uncertain, remembering death and in certain hope of resurrection in Christ, she placed a monument here to herself while alive.  She died 23rd march in the year of grace 1614.”

Catherine’s memorial in Westminster Abbey

Catherine is one of at least three St John gentlewomen buried in Westminster Abbey.

For more images of the Dormer memorial visit

The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned

Summer visitors to London still have plenty of time to catch The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned exhibition at Hampton Court Palace, a breath taking collection of 17th century portraiture assembled in Queen Mary II’s apartments.

Portraits of 17th century pin ups are sumptuously arranged in flounced and swagged ribbons – and with subdued lighting and a Tracey Erminesque tousled bed, this exhibition is all about how to get ahead in the raucous Restoration period.

In the 1660s Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, commissioned Peter Lely to capture in oils the images of ten court lovelies, later known as the Windsor Beauties.  Among the sitters were Frances Stuart, the face of Britannia on British coinage; the two Brooke sisters Frances and Margaret about whom it was written “both formed by nature to excite love in others as well as to be susceptible of it themselves” and the indomitable Barbara Villiers, Countess Castlemaine, Charles II’s mistress and mother of five of his illegitimate children.

Barbara, along with her equally bad and bawdy cousin John Wilmot, 2nd Duke of Rochester, are two of the St John family links with this exhibition.  The third has rather more of a circuitous connection.

Thirty years after the Lely commission his successor Godfrey Kneller performed the same exercise for Anne’s daughter Mary.  The second series of eight portraits were painted specifically to be  hung in the Water Gallery at the Palace and became known as the Hampton Court Beauties.

In contrast to the decadent courtesans in dishabille Diana, daughter and sole heiress of Aubrey de Vere 20th Earl of Oxford and his second wife Diana Kirke, has a winsome appeal.  One of the Queen’s train bearers at her Coronation in 1689, Diana was also Mary’s maid of honour.

With only an approximate birth date available it appears that the delectable Diana was married off at an early age.  She was possibly still a young teenager when she married Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St Albans, the illegitimate son of Charles II and Nell Gwyn.  Charles and Diana had twelve children, their fifth son Sidney became a Privy Councillor and Vice Chamberlain of the Royal Household and was the father of Topham Beauclerk.  The convoluted St John connection comes via Topham who became the second husband of Lady Diana Spencer following her divorce from Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke.

Charles Beauclerk died on May 10, 1726 aged 56 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.  Former court beauty Diana outlived him by 16 years.  She died on January 20, 1742 and is buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned remains at Hampton Court Palace until September 30.  For more details visit the website on