Coventry v St John

When it comes to family tombs, St Mary’s, Lydiard Park has the daddy of them all.

The St John alabaster, black limestone and clunch ‘bedstead’ tomb, a monument to Anne Leighton, first wife of Sir John St John 1st Bart was commissioned by Sir John some thirteen years before his death. In style and quality the tomb has been compared to work by Nicholas Stone, a leading 17th century sculptor. It was made in London and transported to Lydiard Tregoze in sections where it was reassembled in St Mary’s Church.

During a recent visit to Croome Court I discovered a Coventry family tomb with similarities and a family connection to the St John one.

In 1751 George William 6th Earl of Coventry, inherited Croome Court and one of the first things he did was demolish the medieval church which he considered to be too close to the house for his grand design.

He did, however, strip the church of much of its interior masonry and timbers which were reused in the new build on the hill. He also transferred the bodies of a few ancestors and had them reinterred in a vault beneath the church. He re-installed some magnificent memorials in the new church of St Mary Magdalene, consecrated on June 29, 1763.

One of the memorials that moved up the hill was that of Mary Craven, the wife of Thomas Coventry, 2nd Baron Coventry of Aylesborough.

Mary was baptised at the Church of St Antholin in the City of London, on October 17,1602 the daughter of Sir William Craven and Elizabeth Whitmore and immediately we have a family connection to the St John memorial.

Mary’s mother Elizabeth Whitmore was the elder sister of Margaret Whitmore, second wife of Sir John St John, whose effigy lies on his right hand side.

And if you want another local connection, Mary Craven was the sister of Sir William Craven who built Ashdown House for Elizabeth of Bohemia and is the subject of Nicola Cornick’s time slip novel, House of Shadows.

Mary was a wealthy woman in her own right and a most suitable wife for the 2nd Baron. The couple were married at St Andrew Undershaft, (a church which now stands in the shadow of the ‘Gherkin’ in the City of London) on April 2, 1627. A son and heir, George Coventry 3rd Baron Coventry of Aylesborough was born in 1628 followed by a second son Thomas who later became the 1st Earl. Two daughters died in infancy and a third son, depicted on the monument in Mary’s arms, died at birth.

Mary died on October 18, 1634 ‘in her 29th year.’ She is depicted on the monument dressed in sumptuous bedclothes, reclining on a bed, a baby in her arms. Two children kneel at Mary’s feet, possibly her two sons, who would have been aged 6 and 5 at her death.

The Latin inscription on Mary’s monument translated reads:

In Memory of

That most illustrious Lady Maria, devoted wife of Thomas Coventry, eldest son of Thomas Baron Coventry of Allesborough, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England. A truly most admirable woman, upon whom God lavished beauty, and what is rarer in her sex, virtue, her loveliness surpassing any woman’s, her generosity surpassing any man’s, of unblemished reputation and purity of life, with a lively mind, strong judgment, an easy eloquence and pleasant speech, calmly in control of her feelings, and finally not just a wise but a calm mistress of all these gifts. A fertile mother of four children, she arrived at the last fatal confinement, bringing forth a son, against nature, rather to death than to life, so that even while trying to share out her life, she lost it, and herself yielded to fate, a short time after her child, amid general lamentation.

Anne Leighton also holds her last and 13th child in her arms on the St John monument, but we know this child, a son named Henry, lived to adulthood. Anne lies alongside her husband and his second wife Margaret Whitmore. At her head kneel Anne’s five surviving sons and at her feet her three surviving daughters. Two sons and two daughters who died young are depicted at the base of the monument.

The inscription reads: 

Anne was the daughter of Thomas Leighton, Knight, by his wife Elizabeth of the Knowles family and of the kindred of Queen Elizabeth, as blessed in character as in connection. She lived for thirty seven years, endowed with noble gifts of mind, body, and manner, a rare example of virtue and piety; she was the mother of thirteen surviving children; in the end, long worn down by the painful agonies of her last confinement and at last overcome, she fled to heaven on the 19th September, 1638.

The date is incorrectly recorded and should read 1628.

The Coventry tomb is big and bold, but I have to say the St John one is more finely carved and superior, even with an error in the inscription. Well I would, wouldn’t I?

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The Coventry monument

 

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Mary Craven and child

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The St John tomb

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Margaret Whitmore, Mary Craven’s aunt

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Croome Court

“Welcome to my office,” said Joe as he led the Friends of Lydiard Park group from the visitor’s centre along a winding pathway which opened up on to this breath-taking view.

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Croome Court has been a work in progress for more than 260 years as restoration continues today. The 6th Earl of Coventry’s £400,000 (worth £35 million in today’s money) project began in 1751 with the building of a Palladian mansion and a landscaped parkland and work continued throughout the 18th centuries. Croome Court was sold in 1948 following the death of the 10th Earl at Dunkirk in 1940.

The National Trust acquired 670 acres of the Park in 1996 and in 2007 the Croome Heritage Trust bought Croome Court and leased it to the National Trust on a 999 year lease. The house opened to the public on September 26, 2009.

The 6th Earl of Coventry inherited Croome Court in 1751 when he was 28 years old, but he already had a vision for his family home. He engaged Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (who designed first the house and then the grounds) and Robert Adam neoclassical architect, interior and furniture designer, to fulfil his ambitions.

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At my first glimpse of Joe’s ‘office’ I could see many similarities to Lydiard House. Admittedly on a larger scale, well yes a MUCH larger scale, but then John St John probably didn’t have £400,000 at his disposal.

Joe walked us past the Georgian Gothic church, built when the 6th Earl demolished the medieval church which stood too close to the house, pointing out the world’s most impressive greenhouse in the distance and up to the stairs on the north front where we met volunteer guide Rosie who gave us a most fascinating and comprehensive tour of the house.

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Most exciting for me was visiting the apartments occupied by the 6th Earl’s 2nd wife Barbara St John.  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 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.

The Earl’s second marriage was much more successful than his first to the actress and society beauty, the stunning Maria Gunning. The teenage Maria and her sister Elizabeth 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.

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In his second wife Barbara the 6th Earl 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.

Barbara’s rooms at Croome Court were among those re-decorated by one of the more recent owners of the property who gave her elegant bedroom a bathroom makeover. Quite what happens to this room is still up for debate as the National Trust occupancy is still relatively recent and there is an awful lot of work still to do.

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So what were the best bits of my day – well, I loved standing in Barbara St John’s rooms, and the attic rooms, oh and the Church where I discovered the grave of William Dean (more of that to follow) but I didn’t have time to explore the parkland with its numerous follies or visit all the rooms in the house, or the walled garden not to mention the RAF Defford Museum where radar was developed.

 

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Croome Court most definitely requires a second visit…

The Lady of the Tower by Elizabeth St John

The stunning St John polyptych at St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Park, will be open next weekend 22 – 24 July to celebrate the 401st anniversary of its installation.

A view of the South Door at St Mary's Church, Lydiard Tregoze, through which the funeral cortege would have entered.

A view of the South Door at St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze, through which the funeral cortege would have entered.

At the centre of this multi panelled genealogical masterpiece is a family portrait. Believed to have been painted by William Larkin (portraitist at the court of James I and known as ‘The Curtain Master’ for his predilection for including draped curtains and oriental carpets in his paintings) the St John portrait pays homage to the parents of Sir John St John, 1st Baronet.

Sir John and Lady Lucy St John kneel in prayer on a sarcophagus beneath which lie three coffins representing three of their children who died before the painting of the portrait.

Their son, Sir John (1st Baronet) and his wife, Anne Leighton stand on the left of the portrait and on the right are their six daughters.

St John polyptych

St John polyptych

The 17th century St John family lived through turbulent times about which a vast amount of academic and populist historical works exist. The life of Sir John (1585-1648) is also well documented but what do we know about his six sisters?

As Brian Carne writes in the recently reprinted Curiously Painted: “Little has been discovered about the lives of the six sisters: they existed in the shadows of their husbands.”

Lucy St John was born in 1589. She married Sir Allen Apsley, Lieutenant of the Tower of London, at the church of St Ann’s, Blackfriars on October 23, 1615. Following his death she had a second, short lived marriage to Sir Leventhorpe Francke and she died in 1659 aged 70 years.

The little that is known about youngest sister Lucy, comes from the writings of her daughter Lucy Apsley.

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Elizabeth St John

Not a lot to be going on with for the historical biographer, but for the historical novelist an absolute gift! It was from this position that Elizabeth St John began writing The Lady of the Tower.

Elizabeth St John is a direct descendant of the senior Bletsoe branch of the St John family and the 13th great granddaughter of Margaret Beauchamp (Henry VII’s grandmother).

Elizabeth, who grew up in England but now lives in California, first visited Lydiard about thirty-five years ago, and has returned almost every year since.

‘I remember the first time I visited, walking through the house and seeing all the portraits. It was as if part of me had come home – perhaps it’s because I inherited the St. John nose, and there was a sense of familiarity!’

Elizabeth’s novel has been a long time in the writing and began as an article published in The Friends of Lydiard Tregoz Report 1987 as The Influence of the Villiers Connection on the First Baronet and his Sisters.

‘The story stayed with me, and it’s been a lifetime dream to write a book about them.’

Elizabeth has undertaken extensive research and skilfully interweaves fact and fiction, including authentic 17th century cures and recipes borrowed from her kinswoman Lady Johanna St John’s Booke.

Elizabeth’s novel has received critical acclaim:

Few authors tackle this period, opting for the more popular eras, but Elizabeth St John has brought the early Stuart Court in the years before the English Civil War vividly to life. She weaves together the known facts of Lucy’s life with colourful scenes of fictional imagination, drawing on innocent romance and bleak deception to create a believable heroine, and an intriguing plot.

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But perhaps one of the greatest endorsements is that The Lady of the Tower is now on sale in the Tower of London bookshop.

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But if you can’t pop into the Tower, the book is available online from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle (where it is now in the Kindle Best Sellers for Historical Fiction in both the US and UK).

The Lady of the Tower leaves the story in 1630 with Lucy recently widowed and homeless. Elizabeth is currently writing a second book, which has the working title ‘By Love Divided’ and follows the story of Lucy’s two children.

‘Lucy Hutchinson and Allen Apsley, fought on opposing sides of the Civil War. This book explores their lives, and those of their extended family, through their eyes. The conflict that drove their beliefs was often blurred and confused, and throughout the wars they remained extremely close. It’s a fascinating time in our history, and one that not much is written about.’