Intriguing and frustrating in equal measure is the paucity of information available about some of these Good Gentlewomen. At least there is a portrait of Katherine St John on the magnificent St John polyptych, believed to have been painted by that Tudor ‘Curtain and Carpets’ master William Larkin.
Katherine is believed to have been born around 1585, the eldest daughter of Sir John St John and his wife Lucy Hungerford. Katherine and her siblings spent their early childhood at the medieval mansion in Lydiard Park.
Following their father’s death in 1594 Katherine’s two brothers Walter and John were made Wards of Court. Although Lucy quickly remarried it appears that not all her children remained with her. Some of the girls at least were sent to live at Battersea with their uncle Oliver St John – a pretty unhappy time for them according to Katherine’s niece Lucy Hutchinson.
Katherine married Giles Mompesson, the son of Thomas Mempesson from Great Bedwyn, in 1606/7 at St John’s Church, Hackney. Katherine could have been as young as 13 although this would not have been considered exceptionally young – her sister in law Anne Leighton was this age when she married Katherine’s brother John at the same church the following year. However it is believed that Anne and John did not live as man and wife for several years; the fate of Katherine is not known. Life at Battersea might not have been a barrel of laughs but I’d wager a purse full of gold and silver thread that it was preferable to living with Sir Giles.
In 1621 he was described as ‘a litle black man of a black swart complection with a litle black beard’ but perhaps after eighteen years of marriage Katherine had stopped noticing – there were far more pressing problems for her to cope with by then. Sir Giles was – how can I put it – entrepreneurial. No, that’s not quite the right word. Avaricious, a miscreant, probably quite loathsome I would imagine, that’s more like it.
The St John family, along with most other aristocrats of the day, were quick to exploit their advantages and Sir Giles had one hugely influential in-law. Katherine’s sister Barbara was married to Sir Edward Villiers, half brother to royal favourite George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, who was close to the ear (and other anatomical features) of King James I.
Through Buckingham Sir Giles managed to land a few plum positions. By 1620 Sir Giles had been appointed Commissioner to grant Licences to Keepers of Inns and Alehouses, a hugely lucrative job if you knew how to play it. Sir Giles charged exorbitant fees – £5-£10 and those that couldn’t afford to pay up he prosecuted, approximately 4,000 people. But that wasn’t all. Sir Giles procured the patent and exclusive right to manufacture gold and silver thread. Apparently the process was incredibly dangerous. Wiltshire antiquarian John Aubrey records those involved in the production suffered badly – ‘they rotted their heads and arms and brought lameness on those that wrought it, some losing their eyes and many their lives by the venom of the vapours that came from it.’
This caused such uproar that the King called in the patent, but it was Mompesson’s abuse of his role as Alehouse Commissioner that really got him into trouble. Sir Giles was stripped of his knighthood, fined £10,000 and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, he had already done a flit overseas by the time the judgement came in so his sentence was commuted to perpetual banishment. Wily Sir Giles lay low in France where Katherine joined him, and returned when all the fuss had died down.
The general opinion was that James came down so heavily on Sir Giles to appease a people that hated the royal favourite. George Villiers, an extremely unpopular figure, was eventually stabbed to death in a Portsmouth pub on August 23, 1628 by Army Officer John Felton.
So where did Katherine figure in this right old hoo ha? The fine paid by her husband was returned to her in a roundabout way. The King granted that the £10,000 be placed in the hands of Katherine’s brother Sir John St John and her younger half brother Edward Hungerford ‘in trust to the use of Lady Mompesson and her child.’
Katherine died in 1633 aged approximately 48. Her reprehensible husband erected a monument to her memory in the church of St Mary’s and outlived her by a further eighteen years.
A translation of the Latin inscription on the tomb reads:
Sacred to the memory of the best of women, the lady Katherine Mompesson, peerless in beauty, chastity, constancy, piety, and every form of virtue, the eldest sister of John St John of Lydiard Tregoze, Baronet, and dearest wife of Giles Mompesson of the ancient family of Bathampton in the County of Wiltshire, knight. This Giles, fully mindful of twenty-six years of happy married life (being still alive) has made this tomb, where he has given orders for his ashed to be laid (when the day shall come). She died on 28 March, 1633.
Stay, traveller, not to damage these effigies made by the sculptor’s hand.
Read in full the ways of those now dead.