About Good Gentlewoman

I am a local historian and writer researching the history of Radnor Street Cemetery in Swindon. My other interests include Lydiard House and the life and times of the St John family. I have written two books - Struggle and Suffrage in Swindon published by Pen and Sword and The Ladies of Lydiard published by Hobnob Press.

Some right royal St John connections

If you’ve ever wondered just how many royal connections the St John family has, I can tell you the answer – loads!

But what is so exciting and worth shouting out about is that there is a direct line of descent from the Lydiard Park St John family to Queen Elizabeth II and the three heirs to the throne, Charles, Prince of Wales; William, Duke of Cambridge and baby Prince George.

William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George.

William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George.

And this is how …

Cecilia Nina Cavendish Bentinck was born on September 11, 1862 the eldest daughter of the Rev Charles William Frederick Cavendish Bentinck and his second wife Caroline Louisa Burnaby. The Rev Charles, a grandson of former Prime Minister William Henry Cavendish Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland, was Vicar at Ridgmont in Bedfordshire, today a small village close to Junction 13 of the M1.

Cecilia Nina Cavendish Bentinck

Cecilia Nina Cavendish Bentinck

Twin daughters Ann Violet and Hyacinth were born to the couple in 1864 but the following year the girls’ father died, aged just 47.

The widowed Caroline married Harry Warren Scott in 1870 at St George’s, Hanover Square and the three sisters grew up at Forbes House in Ham and at their parents London residence, 45 Grosvenor Place.

Cecilia married Claude George Bowes-Lyon, Lord Glamis at St Peter & All Saints Church, Petersham on July 16, 1881. Claude, a Lieutenant in the 2nd Life Guards, was 26, Cecilia was 18 years old.


Their first child, a daughter named Violet Hyacinth after Cecilia’s twin sisters, was born at their London home on April 17, 1882; the couple had another nine children. Four of Cecilia’s sons fought in the Great War, her fourth son Fergus, was killed in action during the Battle of the Hohenzollern Redoubt in the Battle of Loos on September 26, 1915.

But it would be their youngest daughter, Elizabeth Angela Marguerite who became known world wide and who remained in the affection of the British people for more than 79 years.

In 1904 Cecilia’s husband inherited the title 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne and she became chatelaine of three grand houses, Glamis Castle, St Paul’s Walden Bury and Streatlam Castle in County Durham.

A keen gardener Cecilia designed the Italinate gardens at Glamis. Described as deeply religious and a very private person, Cecilia preferred a quiet life, something that came under threat when her youngest daughter Elizabeth married Prince Albert, Duke of York in 1923 and became Queen Consort in 1936.

26th April 1923:  King George V of Great Britain (right) and Queen Mary on the wedding day of their son George, later King George VI, to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (1900 - 2002). With them are the Earl and Countess of Strathmore (left)

26th April 1923: King George V of Great Britain (right) and Queen Mary on the wedding day of their son George, later King George VI, to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (1900 – 2002). With them are the Earl and Countess of Strathmore (left)

In April 1938 Cecilia suffered a heart attack during the wedding of her granddaughter, Anne Bowes Lyon to Thomas, Viscount Anson. She died 8 weeks later on June 23 at 38 Cumberland Mansion, London W1. Her body was buried at Glamis Castle on June 27.

So what does all this mean for the St John family spotter?

Cecilia traces her family back through the Cavendish Bentinck family to the 1st Earl of Portland, Hans William Bentinck, friend, diplomat and advisor to William III, who married Anne Villiers. Anne was the granddaughter of Sir Edward Villiers and his wife Barbara St John, who grew up at Lydiard House. Barbara’s portrait hangs in the State Bedroom in Lydiard House and she appears on the magnificent St John polyptych in St Mary’s Church.

Barbara St John, wife of Sir Edward Villiers

Barbara St John, wife of Sir Edward Villiers

So, to be precise, Barbara St John is the 10x great grandmother of William, Duke of Cambridge. Come on Swindon, let’s shout it out!

Lady Anne Clifford

Don’t you just love the St John women – intelligent, feisty, and brave? From Anne St John, Countess of Rochester who juggled her estates, protecting her family fortunes during the English Civil War, to Anne Douglas, Lady Dalkeith who laid her life on the line to protect baby Princess Henrietta Maria, the 17th century St John women showed their mettle.

And here is the story of another, earlier, Anne – Anne Clifford, whose ancestry can be traced back to two St John women on both the maternal and paternal sides of her family.

In 2013 a lost portrait of Anne was discovered in a private European collection and purchased by the National Portrait Gallery – but the story of Anne is far from lost and her name appears in scholarly works and books by eminent historians such as Professor R.T. Spence and Lady Antonia Fraser.

Anne Clifford

Anne Clifford

Anne was born on January 30, 1590 at Skipton Castle, Yorkshire, the Clifford family seat. As the third child and only daughter of George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, and his wife the former Lady Margaret Russell, Anne’s future was pretty much mapped out for her.

However with the death of her two elder brothers Anne became heiress to the title Baroness Clifford suo jure and extensive land and property in the north of England – but claiming her inheritance would be far from plain sailing.

The death of their two sons coupled with the de rigueur bad behaviour of the 3rd Earl, saw Anne’s parents drift apart and for much of her childhood the couple lived separately. Anne grew up with her mother’s family at the great Russell owned mansions Chenies in Buckinghamshire and North Hall in Northaw and was at the very centre of court life. When the Queen died in 1603 thirteen year old Anne wrote in her diary:

‘When the corpse of Queen Elizabeth had continued at Whitehall as long as the Council had thought fit, it was carried from thence with great solemnity to Westminster, the Lords and Ladies going on foot to attend it, my mother and my aunt of Warwick being mourners, but I was not allowed to be one, because I was not high enough, which did not trouble me then, but yet I stood in the church at Westminster to see the solemnity performed.’

 Surrounded by her intellectual relatives and all the big names on the 17th century arts scene, Anne grew up well educated.Throughout her lifetime she was a great reader with Chaucer a particular favourite. Anne could also be found swotting up on Turkish history and there was nothing she enjoyed more than being read to.

But then in 1605 her father died and Anne’s long battle to secure her inheritance began.

In his will George Clifford left his daughter a useful £15,000 portion but the extensive estates in the north he bequeathed to his brother Francis.

Anne’s mother, Lady Margaret, rapidly took up the legal cudgels on behalf of her 15 year old daughter and secured occupancy of the Skipton properties, although Francis retained possession of these and the rest of the estates. It would take more than 40 years of litigation and the death of Francis and his son Henry, before Anne could claim her rightful inheritance.

Before that she weathered two pretty unhappy marriages. The first to Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset in 1609 who was dubbed ‘one of the 17th century’s most accomplished gamblers and wastrels.’ The couple had five children, three sons who died young and two daughters.

Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset

Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset

Dorset was openly unfaithful to his wife and even brought his mistress, Lady Penistone, to live at the family home of Knole House.

Even worse, Dorset involved himself in Anne’s inheritance battle, complicating the situation and winding up Anne at the same time. In 1615 the couple were told they could either have the Skipton and Westmorland estates or the £15,000 portion but not both. Dorset’s interference led to all the estates going to Francis and his male heirs while Anne received £17,000 in compensation which Dorset promptly snaffled.

Despite an injection of wealth on the death of Dorset in 1624 life didn’t get any easier.

The first thing Anne did was to buy from the crown the wardships of her two daughters Margaret and Isabella before securing her own future with a marriage to Charles I’s Lord Chamberlain, Philip Herbert, Earl of Mongomery and Pembroke in 1630.

Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery and Pembroke

Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery and Pembroke

Now in her forties Anne was not prepared to stand for any nonsense and as soon as he started with the ‘I want Skipton Castle …’ malarkey she left him to it. Taking her younger daughter Isabella with her, Anne divided her time between Pembroke’s Wiltshire homes until the outbreak of the Civil War, by which time he had moved across to the Parliamentarian side and needed her to guard his treasures at his London home, Baynard’s Castle.

Following Pembroke’s death in 1649 Anne spent her last years doing – well, exactly what she wanted to. She restored numerous castles on her estates between which she progressed with royal like splendour. She built properties and almshouses for her retainers and commissioned works of art and monuments. A generous friend she bought books in bulk, mainly of a devotional nature, to give as presents.

Lady Anne Clifford in later life

Lady Anne Clifford in later life

Anne died on March 22, 1676 in Brougham Castle aged 86 – one of the wealthiest noblewomen of her time – and was interred in St Lawrence Church, Appleby.

Anne Clifford's monument in St Lawrence Church, Appleby.

Anne Clifford’s monument in St Lawrence Church, Appleby.

The recently recovered portrait was painted by William Larkin in about 1616 when Anne was 26/28. Anne’s description of herself – ‘The colour of mine eyes was black like my father’s and the form and aspect of them was quicke and lively like my mother’s. The hair of my head was brown and very thick … with a peak of hair on my forehead and a dimple in my chin’ was one of the contributory factors when it came to identifying the portrait.

On her paternal side Anne’s 3x great grandmother was Anne St John, the daughter of Sir John St John and Alice Bradslaugh. Sir John was the elder son of Oliver St John and Margaret Beauchamp and headed the senior, Bletsoe branch of the St John family. He was half brother to Margaret Beaufort and therefore uncle to Henry VII.

On her maternal side Anne’s grandmother was Margaret St John, the daughter of Sir John St John and Margaret Waldegrave. This Sir John was the grandson of Sir John and Alice – I know, it’s tricky keeping tabs on everyone.


The Great Picture tells of Lady Anne’s family history and was commissioned by her in 1646. It hung in Appleby Castle for more than 300 years and today is on show at Abbot Hall Art Gallery.Visit the website to learn more about the picture.

In 1615 St John St John 1st Baronet of Lydiard House, Wiltshire commissioned something very similar to commemorate his family history. The polyptych in St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze, will be open on the weekend of July 25 and 26 to celebrate its 400th anniversary.

St John polyptych

St John polyptych

For more about the history of Lydiard House see Status, Scandal and Subterfuge.

Alice St John, Lady Morley

Did you catch Jane, Lady Rochford in last night’s episode of Wolf Hall?

Good Gentlewoman

The St John family has several close connections with Royalty.  Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine had a whole nursery full of Charles II’s babies while her cousin John Wilmot, Lord Rochester also got up to some jolly japes with Old Rowley.

But one hundred and fifty years earlier Alice St John could claim an equally close connection with Royalty.  Alice’s father Sir John St John of Bletsoe was Henry VII’s first cousin.

As the monarch’s mother, Margaret Beaufort spread the love to her St John kin.  She made her nephew John, son of her half brother Oliver, Chamberlain of her household and for her little great niece Alice, her other half brother John’s granddaughter, she found a place at Court.  And even better then that – she found her a husband as well.

In the early 1500s Alice married Henry Parker who had grown up in the household of Alice’s great-aunt…

View original post 615 more words

Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Countess Kildare

On February 3, 1537 five brothers, Sir James, Sir John, Oliver, Richard and Walter Fitzgerald, were taken from the Tower of London where they had been incarcerated for 11 long months.They were most probably fastened to a hurdle or wooden panel and drawn behind a horse the five miles from the Tower to the terrible Tyburn gallows – here they were hung, drawn and quartered.


The Fitzgerald family, Earls of Kildare, had been Yorkist supporters during the War of the Roses and Henry VIII was wont to keep a close eye on them. In 1533 he summoned Gerald Fitzgerald, 9th Earl of Kildare to London. This was a pretty big year for Henry. He married and crowned Anne Boleyn, his daughter Elizabeth was born and he was excommunicated by Pope Clement VII. So a bit up and down!


Thomas Fitzgerald, Lord Offaly, the Earl’s 21 year old son, was left in charge back home in Ireland.

However, news reached Thomas that his father had been beheaded in the Tower. Unaware that this was a ploy by the family’s enemies to provoke the young heir, Thomas rallied his followers and rampaged through the streets of Dublin to the Chapter House of St Mary’s Abbey where the King’s Council awaited him. Silken Thomas, so called on account of the silk his followers wore on their helmets, threw down his Sword of State and renounced his allegiance to the King.

Thomas 'Silken' Fitzgerald, Lord Offaly

Thomas ‘Silken’ Fitzgerald, Lord Offaly

Thomas then went all out to bring Dublin to its knees. The ironic twist in this sad story is that when the Earl heard what his son had done, he took to his bed in the Tower and died.

Back home things went from bad to worse. Great swathes of Kildare and Meath were burned; the people who survived the conflagration were driven out. The new deputy sent by Henry to quell the rebellion was Sir William Skeffingdon who laid siege to the Fitzgerald’s stronghold, Maynooth Castle.

Maynooth Castle pictured in 1898

Maynooth Castle pictured in 1898

It was all over. Thomas surrendered to Lord Grey who promptly packed him off to the Tower and soon after his arrest his five uncles were also captured, even though three of them had openly and publicly disproved of their nephew’s actions.

Men in their 30s and 40s at the time of their execution, it is impossible to imagine sustaining the loss of five sons, brothers, uncles – kinsmen with a large extended family left to mourn them.

So where is the Good Gentlewoman in this story, I hear you ask, and what is the St John connection?

Here comes the family history bit.

Thomas ‘Silken’ Fitzgerald 10th Earl of Kildare, was the son of Gerald Fitzgerald 9th Earl who was the son of another Gerald, the 8th Earl and his first wife.

The 8th Earl of Kildare had a large family of 14 children, seven by his first wife and seven by his second. His first wife was Alison FitzEustace.

His second wife, the mother of the five sons hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, was Elizabeth St John, the daughter of Oliver St John and his wife Elizabeth Scrope of Lydiard Tregoze.

Following the death of the 8th Earl in 1513 Elizabeth married Sir John Wallop, a soldier and diplomat and considerably younger than Elizabeth, possibly as much as 20 years younger.

Elizabeth died on June 28, 1516. Further research is necessary to discover her place of burial.

Guest Article – Tudor Myths by Terry Breverton

An exclusive extract from the new book ‘Everything you Wanted to Know About The Tudors But Were Afraid to Ask’ by Terry Breverton.


Tudor Myths

HENRY VIII THREW BONES OVER HIS SHOULDER. Tudor etiquette at court and in the great houses was to place one’s leftovers in a common ‘voiding bowl.’ Dogs, to which the bones were allegedly thrown, were not allowed in court.

LADY JANE GREY WAS THE ‘NINE DAYS QUEEN’. She was the de facto ‘thirteen days queen’. Edward VI died 6 July but his death was not proclaimed until 10 July, when she was announced queen. The Privy Council changed sides and announced Mary I as queen upon 19 July 1553, but Jane had been queen since 6 July, or there was a period where England had no monarch.

GREENWICH PALACE WAS IN LONDON. The palace was in Kent until 1889 when the county of London was…

View original post 2,213 more words

Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland

If you enjoyed reading about Anne Dudley, Countess of Warwick I’d now like to introduce you to her younger sister Margaret, who is just as interesting!

Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland

Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland

Margaret was born on July 7, 1560 at Bedford House, Exeter. Her mother, the former Margaret St John died at Woburn from smallpox when Margaret was about a year old. The little girl was placed in the care of her mother’s younger sister Alice, wife of Edmund Elmes and spent the next seven years at their Manor House in Lilford, Northamptonshire.

An Elizabethan childhood was short and before she was 10 years old Margaret went to join her sister Anne as a Maid of Honour at the Queen’s court.

Margaret married a distant St John cousin, George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, on June 24 1577 at St Mary Overies, Southwark in a double wedding with George’s sister Frances to Philip, Lord Wharton in the presence of the Queen.

George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland

George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland

It hadn’t been exactly love at first sight for the teenage Margaret, but I suppose on paper it made good sense. The couple had two sons, Francis and Robert, and a daughter Anne (the subject of a soon-to-be-published blog post) but sadly the boys died young and the Ear sought solace in the ladies of the court.

Lady Anne Clifford

Lady Anne Clifford

Margaret wasn’t prepared to hang around and be humiliated so taking her daughter she upped and left the Clifford home, spending time at her brother’s estate in Cookham and with her widowed sister Anne in her property at Austin Friars. the former priory made even more famous by Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s right hand man.

Like all the women in her family (I like to think it’s those St John genes) Margaret had a love of learning. She was described as a pious, even zealous puritan and well read with a keen interest in alchemy and science. She distilled her own medicines (as did Lady Johanna St John from Lydiard House) and invested in lead mining on the Clifford estates at Craven, experimenting in the smelting of iron with coal.

Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland

Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland

The entry for Margaret in the Historical Memoirs of the House of Russell – Vol 1 reads as follows:

‘This Margaret Russell, Countess of Cumberland, was endowed with many perfections of mind and body. The was naturally of a high spirit, though she tempered it well by grace; having a very well favoured face, with sweet and quick grey eyes, and of a comely personage. She was of a graceful behaviour, which she increased the more by being civil and courteous to all ranks of people. She had a discerning spirit, both into the disposition of human creatures and natural causes, and into the affairs of the world. She had a great, sharp, natural wit so as there were few worthy sciences but she had some insight into them; for though she had no language but that her own yet were there few books of worth translated into English but she read them … She was dearly beloved by those of her friends and acquaintance that had excellent wits and were worthy and good; so as towards her latter end she would often say, that the kindness of her friends towards her had been one of the most comfortable parts of her life, and particularly of her husband’s two sisters. She was also very happy in the dear love and affection of her eldest and excellent sister, Anne Russell, Countess of Warwick (who being almost thirteen years older than herself, was a kind of mother to her), as well as in that of their middle sister, Countess of Bath for these three sisters in those times were the most remarkable ladies for their greatness and goodness of any three sisters in the kingdom.’

Margaret famously fought her daughter’s corner when George Clifford left his estates to his brother Francis. A tenacious family historian Margaret produced documentary evidence to undermine Francis’s claims to the Clifford estates in the north. Although Margaret’s findings proved insufficient to retain her daughter’s inheritance at the time they later came in good use when Anne Clifford took on the battle.

Anne Clifford's memorial to  mother Margaret, Countess  of Cumberland in St Lawrence's Church, Appleby.

Anne Clifford’s memorial to mother Margaret, Countess of Cumberland in St Lawrence’s Church, Appleby.

Mother and daughter enjoyed a close relationship. Following Margaret’s death at Brougham Castle on May 24, 1616, her grieving daughter erected a memorial – the Countess Pillar at the gateway to the castle where she last parted from her mother on April 2, 1616.

The Countess Pillar

The Countess Pillar

Ursula Pole, Baroness Stafford

Keeping one’s head in a crisis had a whole different connotation in the 16th century. And the more closely one was related to the King, the more difficult it became.


Believed to be – Ursula Pole, Baroness Stafford

Ursula was born in c1504 the daughter of Sir Richard Pole and Margaret Plantagenet, the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, brother of two Yorkist Kings Edward IV and Richard III. A close cousin to the Henry VIII (her grandmother Edith St John was half sister to his grandmother, Margaret Beaufort) you could be forgiven for thinking this would have stood the Pole family in good stead.

But despite her impeccable pedigree, Ursula Pole watched as member of her family fell like nine pins.

One of their problems was their continued adherence to the old religion and their allegiance to Catherine of Aragon and her daughter the Princess Mary.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII

And the other problem was they were just too darn royal. The Pole family were too close to the new Tudor crown for comfort and Henry VIII took every opportunity to weed them out.

As a member of the royal family, Ursula’s marriage was keenly debated. At one point the Duke of Milan was a possible contender but then a match with Henry Stafford, son of the Duke of Buckingham, was suggested by Cardinal Wolsey. The marriage took place on February 16, 1519 when Ursula was about 15 years old and Henry 18.

The couple set up home in her father in law’s household and remained at the centre of court life. Four months pregnant Ursula even joined the royal entourage at Henry’s big show off shindig at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham

Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham

But Ursula and Henry had been married barely two years when the first fall of the axe occurred. Henry’s father, Edward 3rd Duke of Buckingham, was charged with treason and executed on Tower Hill on May 17. His crime was his intention to kill the King, however it was more likely his descent from Katherine Woodville, the sister of Elizabeth, Edward IV’s Queen, that sealed his fate. Edward was posthumously attainted by an Act of Parliament and his title and estates, including the Duke’s fabulous castle at Thornbury, were seized by the crown.

Next for the chopping block was Henry Pole, Lord Montagu, Ursula’s eldest brother. On November 4, 1538 Henry, along with his various Neville in laws, was arrested for treason and beheaded on January 9 the following year.

That same year Ursula’s mother Margaret was arrested and charged with colluding with her treacherous sons Henry and Reginald. On May 27, 1541 she was also beheaded. An inexperienced executioner hacked to pieces the head and shoulders of the 68 year old Countess until the job was done.

Portrait of a woman said to be Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.

Portrait of a woman said to be Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.

And when it came to her 9th son Thomas Stafford, poor Ursula must have hung her head. At best a fantasist, Thomas considered himself to be a serious contender for the throne. In league with Wyatt, Thomas rebelled against Queen Mary and the Spanish marriage. Having lived in France for several years, Thomas sailed from Dieppe and on April 18 1557 seized Scarborough Castle, declaring himself Lord Protector. Ten days later he was captured and on May 28 was executed at Tyburn.

Ursula and Henry had 14 children and with the family estates rapidly disappearing they were kept on the move. There is evidence to suggest they lived in a property in Sussex and spent four years in an identified abbey property. They may even have lived in the castle at Stafford granted to them in 1531.

Mary Tudor

Mary Tudor

Henry continued to support Queen Mary and was later to reconvert to Catholicism, although whether Ursula followed him remains unknown.

Henry died on April 30, 1563 at Caus Castle, Shropshire and was buried at Worthen Church. Ursula died on August 12, 1570 – further research is required to establish where she was buried.

An enigmatic woman, it can be safely said that Ursula kept her head when all about her others were losing theirs.



Wolf Hall

Tudor fans this side of he pond are eagerly awaiting the launch of Wolf Hall, a major new BBC drama based on the Man Booker prize winning novels by Hilary Mantel, with the six week series due to air later this month.

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell

Wolf Hall, published in 2009 and the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies published in 2012 saw Hilary Mantel become the first woman to win the prestigious Man Booker prize twice. The Tudor trilogy tells of the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s right hand man, with the third volume, The Mirror and the Light, due out this year.

Damien Lewis as Henry VIII

Damien Lewis as Henry VIII

The TV series is written by Peter Straughan and directed by Peter Kosminsky. Mark Rylance plays the part of Thomas Cromwell while Damien Lewis is Henry VIII and Jonathan Price is Cardinal Wolsey. Joanne Whalley plays Hal’s unwanted wife Catherine of Aragon and Claire Foy plays Anne Boleyn.

Joanne Whalley as Catherine of Aragon

Joanne Whalley as Catherine of Aragon

Lucy Worsley, historian, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces and TV presenter assures us that the attention to detail is phenomenal. No sign of zips on costumes and down pipes on Palaces this time then.

American viewers will not have to wait too long either as the Public Broadcasting Service will be screening the series from April 2015. And for theatre goers the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage production begins a 15 week run on Broadway beginning March 20, 2015.

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn

For readers of this blog here is a reminder of some of the St John women who were on the scene around the same time.

Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII’s grandmother, lived long enough to see her grandson accede to the throne in 1509.

Alice St John, Lady Morley, got to go on that great Tudor gig, the Field of the Cloth of Gold, but her daughter Jane was less fortunate.

Then there was poor old Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury, who met her fate at the hands of Thomas Cromwell and what about Catherine St John and her artful sister Jane?

Those St John gals are pretty phenomenal themselves.


Hilary Mantel with Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel with Wolf Hall










Anne Dudley, Countess of Warwick

Chirk Castle has stood sentinel over the Welsh Marches for more than 700 years, one of a chain of 13th century fortresses built to suppress the pesky Welsh.

Chirk Castle

Chirk Castle

In 1282 Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, King of Wales, was eventually defeated by Edward I, King of England, who speedily began a programme of castle building along the Welsh bornders.

Work began on Chirk Castle in the last decades of the 13th century, one of three new lordship castles built by men in whom Edward placed considerable trust. The castle project at Chirk was executed by Roger Mortimer of Chirk probably under the guidance of master builder James of St George and with help from the King’s builders.

In 1563 Elizabeth I gave this desirable royal residence to her favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, but some 27 years later Chirk Castle became one big headache for the Countess of Warwick until a generous benefactor came to her rescue.

Anne Dudley, Countess of Warwick

Anne Russell was born c1548, the eldest of Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford’s seven children by his first wife Margaret St. John. Little is known of Anne’s childhood, but it is likely she spent her early years at the Russell family home Chenies in Buckinghamshire. She entered Elizabeth’s household whilst still a child and before the Princess acceded to the throne in 1558, possibly through the influence of her Bedford relatives or perhaps through the continuing Tudor/St John affiliation – Elizabeth and Anne were 4th cousins once removed and traced their joint ancestry back to Margaret Beauchamp.

Anne served first as a Maid of Honour and later as a Gentlewoman of the Queen’s Privy Chamber where it is said she was a ‘very effective advocate and medium for submitting petitions and letters’ and a pivotal woman in Elizabeth’s court.

In 1565, aged about 16, Anne was married to Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick in a match brokered by her father and the groom’s brother Robert Dudley.

The Dudley family had a long and close association with the Royal family – almost too close for comfort in the turbulent Tudor times.

John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, had attempted to place his daughter in law, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne following the death of Edward VI in July 1553.

This little scheme saw him end up in the Tower with five of his sons, including Ambrose, who, unlike his father, escaped execution. After a sweaty eighteen months in the London fortress, Ambrose was pardoned and released and soon returned to royal favour.

The wedding took place on November 11 in the Royal chapel at the Palace of Whitehall with the Queen in attendance and has been described as an extraordinary court event, complete with banquets and tournaments.

Anne was some 20 years younger than her husband and as his third wife, she was his last shot at producing an heir, something both Dudley brothers lacked, which is how more than 20 years later the childless Anne came to inherit Chirk Castle and a barrow load of Dudley debts.

Robert Dudley died in 1588 and Anne’s husband Ambrose in 1590 leaving her with a number of properties and £7,000 in debt, which adds up to about £15 million at today’s values.

Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick.

Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick.

And then along came Sir John St John, 2nd Lord St John of Bletsoe. Now the St John men haven’t always done the gentlemanly thing. Those from the cadet Lydiard Tregoze branch of the family have included a murderer, an attainted politician, gamblers, adulterers – well you get the picture. But here we meet Sir John, who like Anne hails from the senior Bletsoe branch of the family and seems to be a jolly good egg.

John and Anne were first cousins – Anne’s mother Margaret St John was the sister of John’s father Oliver St John.

John had served as MP for Bedfordshire in 1559 and again in 1563-67. In 1585 he was given the dubious honour of guarding Mary Queen of Scots during her incarceration at Tutbury Castle, an appointment which he fought against and only reluctantly accepted. (See, I said he was a good egg.)

Just as Anne was beginning to tear out her hair, along came John and bought Chirk Castle – I’m guessing the last thing on his Christmas wish list that year was a cash guzzling castle in North Wales. Anyway, he paid her £6,000, almost wiping out her debt at one fell swoop. Now was that a fair price I hear you ask? John sold it to Sir Thomas Myddelton in 1595 for £5,000, so in fact he lost out on the deal.

Huzzah – let’s hear it for at least one good St John man!

In 1602 Anne got shot of another property – a cottage and garden in Stratford upon Avon that she sold to one William Shakespeare.

Anne continued to live at court where she remained a close confident of the Queen’s and was with her when she died at Richmond Palace on March 24, 1603.

Following the Queen’s death Anne returned to the Dudley ancestral home at North Hall, Northaw approximately an hour down the M1 from her childhood home at Chenies across the Hertfordshire/Buckinghamshire border. She died there on February 9, 1604, having previously requested that she be interred with her ancestors in the Bedford Chapel in the parish church of St Michael, Chenies.

Bedford Chapel, St Michael, Chenies

Bedford Chapel, St Michael, Chenies

Many thanks to Sonia St John for her research into the Dudley debt and Chirk Castle

Visit the Friends of Lydiard Park website.