Lady Methuen of Corsham Court

When the three St John Mildmay sisters married in the early nineteenth century, they each acquired a country residence within a stone’s throw of one another.

Jane Dorothea St John Mildmay

Jane Dorothea St John Mildmay

Eldest sister Jane Dorothea moved into Corsham Court following her marriage to Paul Methuen in 1810. Younger sister Maria married a distant cousin, Henry St John 4th Viscount Bolingbroke, in 1812 and inherited the rapidly deteriorating Lydiard House, while Anne married William Pleydell Bouverie in 1814 and as the Countess of Radnor was mistress of Coleshill House across the Wiltshire border in neighbouring Berkshire.

The manor of Corsham appears in the Domesday book as the property of King Edward the Confessor and ‘the great house at Corsham’ dates back to Elizabethan times, the work of Customer Smyth in 1582.

South Front - Corsham Court

South Front – Corsham Court

The property had been in the Methuen family for more than 60 years when Jane married Paul, and three generations had already left their mark.  In 1760 another Paul, the first owner, commissioned that celebrity landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to weave his magic and transform the Corsham estate.  Brown planted numerous trees including the Oriental Plane, which still survives today and has entered the record books on account of its dimensions.

Paul’s son, Paul Cobb Methuen, commissioned architect John Nash to create a new North Front on the gothic lines of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill home. The work included the building of an Octagonal Saloon and a music room for use as a picture gallery to house his father’s extensive collection.  A huge undertaking and fraught with problems, most of the North Front was subsequently demolished a mere forty years after it was finished.

A keen gardener, Lady Jane turned her attention to the formal gardens.  High walls with climbing plants enclose long herbaceous borders, a lily pond and garden statuary, reflecting her taste to the present day.

In 1846 Jane’s husband Paul 1st Baron Methuen brought in Thomas Bellamy to remodel the North Front, a project she would not live to see completed.

Thomas Bellamy's North Front - Corsham Court

Thomas Bellamy’s North Front – Corsham Court

Paul Methuen served as MP for Wiltshire 1812-1819, High Sheriff of Wiltshire 1831-32 and MP for North Wilts 1833-1837 and in 1838 he was created Baron Methuen. The couple had four children – heir Paul Mildmay who died in 1837 aged just 23, a daughter Jane Matilda, Frederick Henry Paul 2nd Baron Methuen and St John George Paul. The family divided its time between Corsham Court and their London home in Park Street where Jane died on March 15, 1846.  Her body was returned to Wiltshire for burial.

So how do the Mildmay sisters’ properties fare today?

The Grade I listed Corsham Court is still owned by the Methuen family and is open to the public.  It is also used by Bath Spa University as a post graduate centre and for the study of arts and humanities.

A 1930s postcard view of Coleshill House

A 1930s postcard view of Coleshill House

Anne’s stately pile at Coleshill is sadly no more.  An accident with a blow lamp during restoration work in the 1950s saw the property gutted by fire.  What remained of the building was later demolished.

Perhaps the surprise success is the survival of Lydiard House.  By the 1830s even Maria and Henry declined to live there, renting it out to Maria’s distant cousin Julia and her husband Sir George Orby Wombwell.

Lydiard House

Lydiard House

When Lady Bolingbroke, Maria’s daughter in law and a former housekeeper at Lydiard, died in 1940 the estate was mortgaged to the hilt and the house all but derelict.  Bought by Swindon Corporation in 1943 deputy Borough Architect Mr Flack would later write that “the whole roof was held in place by its own weight, the friction between the tiles and spiders; webs.”

During a period when country houses were being demolished at an alarming rate, Lydiard House was rescued and restored and today is also open to the public.

Three literary sisters

Antonia Fraser, Judith Kazantzis and Rachel Billington are three sisters who have made their mark on the literary scene during a combined career of more than 120 years.

The three literary siblings are the daughters of politician, writer and prison reformer Francis Aungier Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford and his wife Elizabeth.  Lord ‘Frank’ Longford was the author of the 1972 Pornography Report but is probably better remembered for his sustained, and unsuccessful, campaign for the release of Moors Murderer Myra Hindley.

Francis 'Frank' Aungier Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford

Francis ‘Frank’ Aungier Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford

Antonia Fraser, born in 1932, is the author of numerous historical biographies including Mary, Queen of Scots and Cromwell, Our Chief of Men, and has also written the Jemima Shore series of detective novels.

Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser

Second sister, born in 1940 is Judith Kazantzis, poet, painter and printmaker who in 2007 was awarded the Society of Authors’ Cholmondeley Award for poetic achievement.

Judith Kazantzis

Judith Kazantzis

And third sister born in 1942 is Rachel Billington who in a prolific career has written more than 30 novels for both adults and children, journalism for UK and US newspapers and plays for TV and radio.

Rachel Billington

With a wealth of literary prizes, a CBE, an OBE and a DBE between them these three women come from an illustrious line of feisty females.  Their father, Frank Pakenham was the second son of Brigadier General Thomas Pakenham, 5th Earl of Longford and his wife Lady Mary Julia Child Villiers. There’s that name again!

The Villiers family liked to keep ever close to the throne; from George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, favourite of King James VI and I, to Queen Anne’s best friend Barbara Villiers and three Royal mistresses – Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Castlemaine, mother to five of Charles II’s illegitimate children; Elizabeth Villiers ‘Squinty eyed Betty’ William III’s squeeze and Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey and mistress of George IV. The Villiers women (and men) were not a little manipulative; intelligent, entertaining and ever so slightly interfering, once they got their foot in the door there was no stopping them. Through  Restoration romps to Georgian extravaganzas, the Villiers’ were never very far away.

The three Pakenham sisters can trace their ancestry back eleven generations to Sir Edward Villiers and his wife Barbara St John, one of another family of influential sisters pictured on the magnificent St John polyptych in St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze.


It seems quite fitting, therefore, that Antonia Fraser has done such a lot of Royal record keeping, including a biography on Charles II in which her ancestor features prominently.  Now if only Barbara had stopped her meddling and put pen to paper we could have read a first hand account.

Eleanor St John wife of Thomas Grey 2nd Marquess of Dorset

Sometimes the fleeting good gentlewoman passes almost without trace, leaving us to marvel at her wondrous ancestry and her influential husband.  If we are fortunate her progeny lead us down the centuries to engage with yet more talented and influential generations.

Only known image of the three St John sisters

Only known image of the three St John sisters

But sadly not so in the case of Eleanor St John who passes through the ether with barely a disturbance, her birthday unknown, her date of death unrecorded.

It is believed that Eleanor was born circa 1480, the daughter of Oliver St John and Elizabeth Scrope, at Lydiard Tregoze, the property conveyed to her father by his mother Margaret Beauchamp.

Feb 11th 2012 (42)

The War of the Roses between the rival Royal houses of Lancaster and York raged on and off for thirty years between 1455 – 1485.  Eleanor was still a young child when her cousin Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and seized the crown.  Henry promptly sealed the succession with his marriage to Elizabeth of York in 1486, aligning himself with the defeated Royal household.

Henry VII

Henry VII

Enter Thomas Grey, whose impressive CV would read Privy Councillor, Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, Lord Warden of the Scottish Marches, Justice of the Forest south of Trent and joint Constable of Warwick Castle to go with his title 2nd Marquess of Dorset, Lord Ferrers of Groby and Astley.

Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset

Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset

Thomas was the grandson of Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s Queen Consort, and her first husband Sir John Grey of Groby.  Following his stepfather’s death in 1483, Thomas’s fortunes rose and fell.  Imprisoned during the rebellion of Lambert Simnel in 1487, Thomas was made a knight of the Bath in 1494 and a knight of the garter in 1501 before ending up in the Tower of London in 1508, again under suspicion of conspiracy.

It is thought that Thomas married Eleanor in 1500.  Despite her equally close Royal connections she wasn’t even his first choice of bride as in 1483 he was contracted to marry wealthy heiress Anne St Leger, but this marriage never took place.

The marriage was a relatively short one.  The couple had no children and by 1509 Eleanor was dead and Thomas was remarrying.  His second wife was Margaret Wotton, the widow of William Medley.

Margaret Wotton

Margaret Wotton

The Grey family fortunes continued to ebb and flow and in 1533 Thomas’s son Henry married Lady Frances Brandon, Henry VII’s grand daughter.  However there was no happy ending here either as Henry was beheaded in 1554 shortly after his daughter Lady Jane Grey who had reigned as Queen for just nine days.

The execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche

The execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche

Thomas was one of the richest men in England when he died on October 10, 1530.  He was buried at the Collegiate Church of St Mary the Virgin, Astley, Warwickshire. Unfortunately the 14th century church was pretty much demolished and rebuilt by 1608. Out of nine alabaster effigies to the Grey family only three survived into the 1950s; that of Sir Edward Grey who died in 1457, Elizabeth Talbot d.c. 1483 and one believed to be Cecily Bonville, wife of Thomas Grey, 1st Marquess of Dorset.


Of Eleanor there is no mention.  Unless this effigy might not be Cecily Bonville after all, but maybe that of the St John girl from Lydiard Tregoze.