Elizabeth St John, Lady Bernard

For those who really like a challenge, try following the intermarriages between the St John, Cromwell and Bernard families.

Oliver St John – Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas

Elizabeth St John was born in c1638.  Her father was the celebrated Oliver St John, Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas who had successfully defended John Hampden’s refusal to pay Charles I’s contentious Ship Tax.  Her mother was Elizabeth Cromwell, Oliver St John’s second wife and the daughter of Henry Cromwell of Upwood, Oliver Cromwell’s uncle.  Elizabeth’s elder siblings by Oliver St John’s first wife Johanna Altham were brother Francis and sisters Johanna and Catherine, who married their cousins Walter and Henry St John of Lydiard Tregoze.

Oliver St John commissioned the construction of the opulent Thorpe Hall at Longthorpe in Peterborough between 1653-1656, said by 17th century diarist John Evelyn to have been built out of the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace and cloisters.  It’s doubtful that Elizabeth spent much time at her father’s new home as she was married off in 1655 while still in her teens.

The parish registers at St Andrew’s, Enfield record that ‘The trulie worthy John Bernarde Esq of Huntingdon and Mrs Eliz. St John, d to the rt. hon. Oliver St John, lord chiefe justice of the Common Pleas, were married before her said father, and by him declared man and wife, February 26, 1655, coram testibus non paucis venerabilibus egreglis et fide dignis.’

The newly weds returned to Sir John’s estate at Brampton, two miles from Huntingdon in Cromwell heartland. Described as a domineering landlord, Sir John apparently drove the smaller freeholders off his land. He served as MP for Huntingdon in the First Protectorate Parliament and was re-elected in 1656 and 1659.  He also served in the 1660 Convention parliament.

Although her two elder sisters married when Elizabeth was a child, kinship ties were strong following the tumultuous times of the civil war and Johanna was particularly close to her younger sister. Elizabeth gave birth to nine children but only three survived to adulthood and in 1663 Johanna was in attendance when the pregnant Elizabeth took ill and miscarried.  Johanna writes from Elizabeth’s home at Brampton to Thomas Hardyman, her steward at Lydiard Park – ‘My sis Bernard has her Ague stil wch has caused her to miscary of her 5 girl 3 weeks before her time.’

Johanna St John

Sadly this is the last reference we have to Elizabeth and no further trace of her can, at present, be found.  Elizabeth had a fifth daughter whom she named Johanna after her much loved elder sister.  She must have therefore died after 1664 and before Sir John’s second marriage in 1670.

But just to complicate the ‘who married whom’ saga. Elizabeth’s grandson Sir John Bernard 4th Baronet married Mary St John, the daughter of her brother Francis.  And I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Cromwellian connections.

The Codrington Divorce

Returning to our screens this weekend, Downton Abbey portraits an establishment where gentry and servants co-exist in a symbiotic relationship.  This may well be true and sometimes the social divide can become distinctly blurred, as in the case of ‘housekeeper’ Bessie Howard who eventually became Lady Mary Bolingbroke, the wife of Henry 5th Viscount Bolingbroke of Lydiard Park, Wiltshire.

You can guarantee that very little went on above stairs that the servants didn’t know about – and when the ugly spectre of divorce made an appearance the aggrieved spouse frequently turned to the domestics for the necessary evidence.

When the flaws in the Codrington marriage were exposed during the sensational mid 19th century divorce the co-respondent was named as Colonel David Anderson.  But if fellow miscreant Lieutenant Mildmay thought he had escaped detection, he was sadly mistaken.  In 1864 Henry Bolingbroke’s first cousin Herbert Alexander St John Mildmay discovered that the discreet staff at Admiralty House, Malta were more than keen to speak up.

Lieutenant Herbert Alexander St John Mildmay

Herbert was born in Cadiz, Spain in 1836, the son of naval officer George William St John Mildmay and his wife Mary.  His grandfather was Henry Paulet St John who readily agreed to change his surname when he married the wealthy Jane Mildmay.

Herbert entered the navy in 1849 at the age of 13 as a midshipman.  He later joined the Rifle Brigade and served as a Lieutenant in the Crimea in 1854.  Decorated with the Crimea Medal with Sebastopol clasp and the Turkish Crimea Medal, he later served on the North West Frontier of India but before this he joined the 3rd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade in Malta where he engaged in some extra curricular activity.

In the court for divorce and matrimonial causes on July 29, 1864 Helen Codrington’s apparently carnal character was exposed and vilified.  Her husband’s counsel called forth several servants to give evidence who had worked in their former home in Malta where Vice Admiral Codington had served as Admiral Superintendent of the Dockyard in 1858-1863.

George Duff, a footman employed by Codrington in 1856-1861 dredged his memory for every vestige of evidence.  Confirming he knew Lieutenant Mildmay Duff went on to say “He frequently visited at the house, both when the Admiral was there and when he was absent.  He used to come home with Mrs Codrington very late at night and early in the morning.  They used to return home in the gondola from Valetta.  The Admiral had private gondolas.  A servant generally accompanied her, but not always,”  reported The Times.  He told how it was Mrs Codrington’s habit to take Herbert into a sitting room known as ‘the office’ where they sat in the dark for sometimes an hour at a time.  Now what can two people possibly do sitting in the dark for up to an hour?

Rear Admiral Henry Codrington

Duff continued: “At the end of 1860 or the beginning of 1861 I once went into a passage leading into the office.  It was past 12 at night.  I knew Mr Mildmay was with my mistress in the ‘office.’  There was a sofa in it.  I was going to the Admiral’s room, as I generally did the last thing at night.  I saw Mr Mildmay in the corner of the passage with Mrs. Codrington.  His arm was round her neck.  I started back and went away.”

Returning tot he subject of the gondola Duff told the court – “I have come from Valetta with them more than once after they have been to operas and balls.   They came home in the gondola.  There is a small square of glass in the door of the cabin; but persons cannot see inside.  I have noticed the boat swaying on one side and the door shaking when they were in the cabin.  There was no room for me to sit, and I used to stand with my back to the door.  The boat hung on one side and the boatman had great trouble in rowing, and they sent me on the other side to make it balance.  There was no light in the cabin.  The light was in the bow of the boat.  It was about 20 minutes journey from Valetta to the Government House.”

There was further talk of a rustling of dresses, whispering, a drawing of breath and exclamations.   “The next morning I picked up a piece of her head-dress and a piece of her bodice at the bottom of the landing where I had heard the noises,” Duff concluded.

Mrs Sarah Nichols was first employed as cook at the Codrington’s London home and travelled out with them to Malta.  She also told how Lieutenant Mildmay was a frequent visitor at Admiralty House and how he had joined Helen and her parents on a trip to Cormayeur.

“Mr Mildmay joined the party there and stayed in the same hotel with us.  Mr and Mrs Smith occupied two bedrooms and a sitting room.   Mrs Codrington slept in the next room to one of the bedrooms.  Mr Mildmay slept in quite another part of the hotel.  I slept in Mrs Codrington’s bedroom.  She wrote letters in her bedroom before going to bed.  She asked me more than once to take letters to Mr Mildmay’s bedroom.  I have taken letters to him four or five times.  I then objected to take them, and she told me to call Mary, and she would take them.  she was always very particular about the doors between the rooms being locked,” said Sarah.

So was all this evidence enough to toll the death knell on the Codrington marriage? Actually no. In an attempt to discredit her husband, Helen had involved an old friend Emily Faithfull in the murky matter of her marriage.

Emily Faithfull

Emily, a clergyman’s daughter from Surrey, feminist campaigner and founder of the all female Victorian Press, lived with the Codrington family at Eccleston Square in the 1850s.  Helen claimed that whilst sharing a bed with her friend who was ill following an asthma attack, her husband had climbed in between them and attempted to force his attentions upon Emily.

Suddenly the whole shift of the divorce changed completely as Codrington fought back.  The emphasis on Helen’s lovers Anderson and the feckless Lieutenant Mildmay evaporated and all attention was on poor plain Emily. She reluctantly appeared in the witness box where her evidence was rapidly disproved, sparking rumours of bribery by Codrington’s legal team.

More damaging was the evidence given by Mrs Watson, a ‘friend’ of the Codrington couple who had been the confidante of both and who scoured her memory for tales of Helen’s confession and general bad behaviour.

Codrington was awarded his divorce.  The case received worldwide attention but not everyone was convinced of the validity of the evidence.  And the result of the whole is that, upon an accumulation of inadequate and doubtful, though very damaging, pieces of evidence, Admiral Codrington, who is rather the reverse of a model husband, is divorced from a wife whose affection he never had the good luck or good feeling to conciliate or retain, reported the Sydney Morning Herald, Friday February 3, 1865. It is not to be denied that, taken together, the pieces of evidence against Mrs Codrington are not only inconsistent with themselves, or with guilt, but present a definite picture of a wilful, passionate, ill-trained, and guilty woman.  All we say is that, taken separately, the proofs are legally weak.

Proceedings dragged on for another three years.  In September 1866 Colonel Anderson was called upon to pay the petitioner’s cost of £942 2s 4d and in January 1867 Codrington was ordered to pay his ex wife’s legal costs of £1,118 10s 0d.

Helen lost her reputation and her children.  Mildmay, who was serving in India at the time of the divorce proceedings and refused to give evidence, seems to have got off lightly.  He retired from the Army in 1880 as Lieutenant-Colonel and later joined the Corps of Gentlemen at Arms. He was on duty at Queen Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee celebrations and at the coronation of both King Edward VII and George V.  He died on October 21, 1922 at his London home, 31 Gloucester Street, aged 86 and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.


The Codrington divorce is the subject of best selling novel The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue published in 2008.

Abigail Masham

And just when you thought you had heard the last of the St John family at the court of Queen Anne – along comes Abigail Masham.

Queen Anne

Abigail, the daughter of Francis Hill, a merchant trading in the Levant, was cousin to two of the most influential people at the court of Queen Anne – and by her marriage related to a third.  Abigail’s mother was the former Elizabeth Jennings, aunt to Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough.  Robert Harley, Tory Minister and First Lord of the Treasury, was her second cousin on her father’s side.  And following her marriage to Samuel Masham she could count herself related to Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, the grandson of her husband’s first cousin once removed Johanna, Lady St John.  Let’s just say she was very well connected!  And it was thanks to these connections that Abigail achieved her powerful position, as it could have turned out very differently.

Sarah Jennings, Duchess of Marlborough

Following her father’s death shortly after declaring himself bankrupt, the Hill family was definitely on its uppers.  Ten year old Abigail entered the Chafford household of Sir George, 4th Baronet Rivers as a servant until her cousin Sarah came to the rescue, taking her into her own household and using her influence with the then Princess Anne.  Sarah asked her royal friend to reserve a place for her cousin Abigail as one of her bedchamber women when a vacancy next came up – a move she would come to bitterly regret.

By 1700 Abigail was ‘Mother of the Maids’ in the Royal household.  Upon Anne’s succession to the throne she became a woman of the bedchamber on a salary of £500 a year and this is when it all started to go wrong for Sarah.

Abigail soon made herself indispensable to the Queen and by 1705 was regarded as possibly the most influential of Anne’s servants.  A shift in the relationship of the three women saw Whig supporting Sarah on the wrong political side while Abigail and her cousin Harley whispered sweet Tory nothings into the Queen’s ear.

Abigail Masham

Rumours abounded concerning Abigail’s unmarried status and her sexual preferences, but it seems her lack of fortune and plain features contributed more to the absence of suitors.

Then along came Samuel, the eighth son of Sir Francis Masham, Groom of the Bedchamber to Anne’s husband, Prince George.  Samuel was several years younger than Abigail, but was not a reluctant bridegroom.  The betrothal was brokered by Abigail’s cousin Harley who no doubt emphasized the advantages of marrying a Royal favourite.  The marriage took place in 1707 and Abigail received 2000 guineas from the privy purse.

Abigail’s marriage and the Bishoprics Crisis of the same year  acted  as a catalyst in the bedchamber triumvirate.  Although increasingly weary of Sarah’s constant interference it would be another four years before  Anne eventually dismissed her.

Abigail turned her back on the cousin who had rescued her from penury.  But Sarah never missed an opportunity to call attention to Abigail’s less than comely appearance, describing her as being ‘hideously ugly,’ but then she did have an axe to grind.

Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford

In fact, Abigail was fair game for everyone to take a pot shot at.  Sir Arthur Maynwaring, journalist and politician, called her an ‘ugly hag’ with a ‘frightful face’ and ‘stinking breath.’   Harley supporter Sir William Legge, 1st Earl of Dartmouth described Abigail as ‘exceeding mean and vulgar in her manners, of a very unequal temper, childishly exceptious and passionate.’

Even her good friend Jonathan Swift had to admit she was ‘not very handsome.’  But he did add that she was ‘of a plain understanding, of great truth and sincerity …of an honest boldness and courage superior to her sex, firm and disinterested in her friendship and full of love, duty and veneration for the Queen her mistress.’

But with the ascendancy of Harley to the peerage, Abigail turned her allegiance to another kinsman, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke.  Probably not her wisest decision as he was also heading for a fall.  Bolingbroke, Lady Johanna St John’s brilliant grandson, was found guilty of treason following his flirtation with the Jacobite Pretender and had an Act of Attainder passed against him.

Abigail Masham

However, any doubt about Abigail’s true affections for the Queen were dispelled when Anne died in 1714, leaving her favourite heartbroken.  Even the toxic Sarah came to her cousin’s defence when Abigail was accused of making off with some of Anne’s jewels saying ‘I believed [Lady Masham] never rob’d any body but me.’

Her influence at court ended, Abigail retired to her home at Langley, near Windsor, although she remained on the royal guest list.  Following the death of Sir Francis Masham, Abigail and Samuel moved to the Masham family home at Otes in Essex.  Abigail died on December 6, 1734 after a long illness and was buried at All Saints Church, High Laver.

The Mapledurham Portrait

You know how it is – you flip through the family photograph album and suddenly you come across that old snap, a woman standing in the back garden.  She’s definitely a relative – she’s got grandma’s nose and cousin Edith’s smile, but who is she?  Well the St John’s have just such a portrait.

The manor of Purley Magna came into the St John family as the result of a 16th century marriage between Jane Iwardeby and John St John.  When Jane died in 1553 her grandson Nicholas inherited the estate which came to him by right of settlement on his wife, the former Elizabeth Blount from neighbouring Mapledurham House.

The medieval Mapledurham manor house near Reading was partially demolished in the 17th century as successive members of the Blount family renovated and rebuilt the property but for more than 200 years a full length portrait of Lady St John of Bletso hung in the dining room.  Attributed to William Larkin, dubbed the ‘Curtain Master,’ for placing his sitters framed by shiny drapes and a carpet boarder, this Lady somewhat unusually stands against a woodland backdrop.

The Lady St John portrait arrived at Mapledurham in 1755 as part of the inheritance of Mary Agnes Blount from her father Sir Henry Joseph Tichbourne who died in 1743. A guide book available in the 1990s identified the sitter as ‘probably’ Catherine Dormer d.1615, the widow of John 2nd Baron St John of Bletso d. 1596, one of the peers who tried Mary, Queen of Scots.

In 1969/70 the portrait went on loan to the Tate Gallery for ‘The Elizabethan Image’ exhibition and in 1985 was part of the Treasure House of Britain exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  In the catalogue that accompanied that exhibition art historian Sir Roy Strong questioned the identity of the lady in black and suggested she might be Anne Leighton, first wife of Sir John St John, 1st Baronet.

Sir Roy compares the Mapledurham portrait with the representation of Anne on the St John polyptych, also thought to have been painted by William Larkin.

Unfortunately the polyptych has been subject to 400 years of fiddling and fussing and considerable overpainting with copious amounts of varnish applied to the portrait. Conservation work in the 1980s saw most of the damage reversed, but sadly the portrait of Anne had suffered the most.  She appears with a ghostly white face on the arm of her husband , but a comparison of the fashion bears up well to the Mapledurham matron.

What do you think? I think she has her mother’s eyes.