The Beautiful Lady Craven

Ashdown House was the subject of a recent talk at Swindon Central Library by best selling author of historical romances Nicola Cornick. The former hunting lodge on the Berkshire and Oxfordshire borders was built in 1662 by the fabulously wealthy William Craven for the exiled Elizabeth of Bohemia, sister of Charles I.

Elizabeth of Bohemia

Elizabeth of Bohemia

The Purbeck stone floor in the entrance hall at Ashdown made from stone quarried in Swindon was just one of the local connections Nicola revealed. And even more interesting were a couple of St John family ones as well.

In 1714, Henry, Viscount Bolingbroke, politically adrift following the death of Queen Anne, holed up at Ashdown House where he plotted and planned to restore James II’s Catholic son to the English throne.

Among the Craven ladies Nicola mentioned was the colourful, self styled ‘beautiful’ Lady Craven.

Elizabeth Berkeley married William Craven, 6th Baron Craven, on May 30, 1767 at St Martin in the Fields, Westminster. Elizabeth would later describe her husband as fond and stupid while she was beautiful and clever. The marriage, which had begun happily enough, eventually failed after thirteen years and seven children. In her memoirs Elizabeth blamed the breakdown on her husband’s affair, but it might not have been quite so one sided as that.

The beautiful Lady Craven

The beautiful Lady Craven

The gutter press of the day delighted in the antics of the indiscreet Lady Craven. And in 1773 literary hostess Mrs Frances Boscawen wrote to that other literary lady, Mrs Mary Delany – “we talk much of Lady Craven and have a variety of stories which I shall not employ my pen to string for you…”

In 1780 Craven settled £1,500 a year upon his troublesome wife, sending her on her way. Taking her youngest son Richard Keppel Craven with her, Elizabeth set up home in a house at Versailles.

An intrepid traveller and prolific writer, Elizabeth’s oeuvre consisted of “sonnets, rebuses, charades, epilogues, and songs, and besides, not a few plays” according to a contemporary. Elizabeth numbered lexicographer Samuel Johnson among her devotees who described her as “the beautiful, gay, and fascinating, Lady Craven.”

William Craven died in 1791 leaving Elizabeth free to marry her longtime amour, also recently widowed, Alexander, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach and Bayreuth, a cousin of George III. Elizabeth and Alexander moved to England where they lived in some style at properties in Hammersmith and Berkshire.

Following Alexander’s death in 1806, Elizabeth returned to the continent. She died at her home, Craven Villa in Posillipo, Naples in 1828. She is buried in the English Cemetery at Naples.

And that all important St John connection? Elizabeth’s daughter Arabella Craven, born in 1774, married General Hon. Frederick St. John, second son of Frederick St John 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke, and Lady Diana Spencer. Ashdown House Today Ashdown House is owned by the National Trust and Nicola is a member of the team of volunteers who undertake guided tours of the property.

Elizabeth Countess of Portsmouth

If the family stories handed down to you included the fate of two first cousins twice removed, beheaded by a tyrannical King, you could be forgiven for being a bit anti-monarchist. Add into the sticky mix a great grandfather who was possibly the illegitimate son of the same red bearded, big cod piece wearing bully and a great great grandmother whose maiden name was Boleyn – well its enough to turn a good gentlewoman a bit, how shall we say, republican!

Elizabeth Howard - a miniature from the studio of John Hoskins the elder. Courtesy of Ham House, Surrey

Elizabeth Howard – a miniature from the studio of John Hoskins the elder. Courtesy of Ham House, Surrey

Elizabeth Howard was the only surviving child of William Howard and his wife Ann. It was William who could trace his lineage through his mother Katherine Carey, the daughter of Henry Carey who was the son of Mary Boleyn and, rumour has it, Henry VIII.

William’s father, Charles 1st Earl of Nottingham was the grandson of the powerful Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk and first cousin to Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s second and fifth wives.

Elizabeth Howard was born on January 19, 1603 at Arundel House, the London Howard family home – “a large and old built house, with a spacious yard for stabling towards the Strand, and with a gate to enclose it, where there was a porter’s lodge, and as large a garden towards the Thames near St Clement Danes.” (British History Online.)

Elizabeth divided her time between her father’s London home and Bletchingley Palace, a manor house given to the family by Queen Elizabeth and once belonging to her father’s fourth wife the unattractive, so say, but extremely fortunate Anne of Cleves.

The year 1603 was a momentous one. A year in which the old Tudor Queen Elizabeth died and James VI of Scotland added the English crown to his portfolio.

Elizabeth Howard by Anthony van Dyck

Elizabeth Howard by Anthony van Dyck

In 1620 Elizabeth married John Mordaunt, who had his own monarchical problems. John was the son of Henry Mordaunt, imprisoned in the Tower of London on suspicion of being involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Whether the Crown ever had a case against Henry remains up for debate. He was eventually released after a year in the fortress prison, during which time his son was removed from the family home and made a ward of the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbott.

Fortunately the handsome young Mordaunt heir had caught the eye of King James who had a weakness for a comely pair of male legs. In 1616 he made John a Knight of the Bath as part of the celebrations of the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales and on March 9, 1628 Charles himself created John 1st Earl of Peterborough. So everything was hunky dory on the royal front then?

However as an impending civil war loomed on the horizon, Elizabeth made no bones about whose side she was on, and it wasn’t the King’s.

Elizabeth and John had three surviving children, sons Henry and John and a daughter Elizabeth.

John died in 1642. Elizabeth outlived him by almost 30 years. She died at their Drayton home in Northamptonshire in 1671. Her body was interred in the churchyard at Chelsea Old Church alongside her father and grandmother Katherine Carey.

So I know you are waiting for the great St John reveal. Well the first connection is straightforward. Elizabeth’s mother was Ann St John of Bletsoe, the daughter of John 2nd Baron St John of Bletsoe and Catherine Dormer from the senior branch of the family descended from Margaret Beauchamp’s elder son John.

 

Anne Leighton

Anne Leighton

But there is another …

Remember Elizabeth’s father William Howard traced his ancestry back to Henry Carey, the son of Mary Boleyn, and possibly Henry VIII. Well Mary had a daughter Catherine who may also have been the daughter of Henry VIII. Catherine Carey married Francis Knollys by whom she had a daughter named Elizabeth. Elizabeth Knollys married Sir Thomas Leighton and their daughter Anne married Sir John St John 1st Baronet, whose magnificent alabaster memorial stands in St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze.

Fascinating, isn’t it!