The Other Boleyn Girl’s daughter

Does this good gentlewoman, Lady Katherine Knollys, remind you of anyone? Her mother was Mary Boleyn and her father William Carey – or was he?

Lady Katherine Knollys by Steven van der Meulen

Lady Katherine Knollys by Steven van der Meulen

Mary and Anne Boleyn were the daughters of the ambitious and greedy but loyal Tudor supporter Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire & Ormond. Thomas served as Esquire of the King’s Body along with many other prestigious and lucrative appointments, combining the role of ambassador, friend and royal entertainer – perhaps he overstretched himself just a tad.

Thomas’ two daughters both famously caught the eye of the King. The rise and fall of Anne is well documented, that of Mary, until recently less so, perhaps because her exit from the Royal scene was less dramatic.

There is no denying that Henry VIII was, how shall I put it, amorous, but it may come as some surprise to know that he was also extremely discreet when it came to his love affairs. This factor makes it difficult for historians to pin down exactly the date of his affair with Mary Boleyn, which has implications for establishing whether Katherine Carey was his bastard daughter or not.

There are no authenticated portraits of Mary Boleyn. This could be her ...

There are no authenticated portraits of Mary Boleyn. This could be her …

or this could be Mary Boleyn?

or this could be Mary Boleyn?

Numerous eminent historians have taken a stab as to when Henry’s affair with Mary began and ended. One has suggested it began as early as 1515 and another that it didn’t end until 1525, but the general consensus seems to be that the affair began after Mary’s marriage to William Carey in February 1520 and lasted, most probably, between 1522 and 1524. It was also generally thought that of Mary’s two children Henry was the elder and Katherine the younger, but opinion has changed there too, mainly to the discovery of a dictionary belonging to Sir Francis Knollys, but I I’ll come to that later.

Henry was unlikely to acknowledge Mary’s children as his own for one very important reason. To confess to an affair with her sister would complicate his marriage to Anne and his divorce proceedings with Katherine under the consanguinity laws.

In her book Mary Boleyn, Alison Weir states that any evidence to Katherine Carey being Henry’s daughter is ‘circumstantial and inferential’ and that ‘positive proof is lacking,’ but when all is said and done there are some tantalizing indicators.

Katherine was born in 1524 and just a couple of months after her birth a grant was made to William Carey which has been seen by some as a reward for being not only a compliant husband but for raising a royal bastard.

After William Carey’s death in 1528, Mary and her two young children returned to the Boleyn family home at Hever Castle. In December of that same year Henry assigned Mary an annuity of £100 worth somewhere in the region of £32,000 today. Was this to make provision for Katherine?

On September 7, 1533 Anne gave birth to a daughter. Alison Weir writes:

“It is possible that Katherine Carey, who was nine when the Princess Elizabeth was born, spent the next six years, until she was summoned to court, in her little cousin’s household, which was set up at Hatfield Palace, Hertfordshire.”

The two women were extremely close throughout their lives with Katherine known at court as the ‘kinswoman and good servant’ of the Queen on whom she served in constant attendance, from 1558 until her death in 1569.

And then there is the portrait …

Painted by Steven van der Meulan in 1562, the portrait shows a heavily pregnant Katherine Knollys described as being in her 38th year, which ties her birth to 1524 and fits in nicely with everything else we know.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII

She bears a striking resemblance to Henry VIII and also to his mother Elizabeth of York. Alison Weir points out that she has the same heavy lower eyelids and winged eyebrows and also the prominent chin and rounded jowls – and, of course that Tudor red hair (Mary’s hair colour is unknown and William Carey’s hair was brown)

Elizabeth of York

Elizabeth of York

On April 26, 1540 Katherine married Sir Francis Knollys, a Gentleman Pensioner in the King’s household – he was 26 years old, she was 16. A year later the first of at least 14 (most probably 16) babies was born.

It is difficult to pin down the couple’s whereabouts during the first years of their marriage.They may have lived at court or as members of Elizabeth’s household. Lettice, their third child, was born in 1543 at the family seat of Rotherfield Greys, Oxfordshire and it is more than likely some of their other children were born there too.

Protestant Sir Francis fled the country for Geneva in 1553 when Catholic Mary acceded to the throne and the Knollys couple lived apart for a couple of years, revealing a gap in the number of babies born to them.

When Katherine left court to join him, Elizabeth wrote her the following letter, signed Cor Rotto – broken hearted.

‘Relieve your sorrow for your far journey with joy of your short return and think this pilgrimage rather a proof of your friends than a leaving of your country. The lengthof time and distance of place separates not the love of friends nor deprives not the shew of goodwill. An old saying, when bale is lowest, boot is nearest,’ when your need shall be most, you shall find my friendship greaterest. Let other promise and I will do, in words not mo, in deeds as much. My power but small, my love as great as they whose gifts may tell their friendships’ tale. Let will supply all other want, and oft sending take the lieu of often sights. Your messengers shall not return empty nor yet your desires unaccomplished. Lethe’s flood hath here no course, good memory hath greatest stream, and to conclude – a word that hardly I can say, I am driven by need to write – farewell it is, which, in the sense one way I wish, the other way I grieve.

Your loving cousin and ready friend,

Cor rotto

Francis and Katherine spent sometime in Basel and Strasbourg and in 1557 they were living in Frankfurt Am Main with five of their children.

The couple returned to England upon Elizabeth’s accession to the throne in 1558 and both Katherine and Francis continued in the Queen’s service. On January 3, 1559 Katherine  was made Chief Lady of the Privy Chamber.

Occupying an influential position at court, Francis is recorded as being of a sombre character, committed to religious reform while Katherine was intelligent and known for the straightforward advice she gave to those who sought her opinion, including her cousin the Queen.

In 1565 Katherine became Chief Lady of the Bedchamber. Three years later Sir Francis was appointed guardian of Mary, Queen of Scots whom Elizabeth placed under arrest in Bolton Castle.

A combination of more than twenty years of childbearing and long hours in the Queen’s service saw Katherine’s health compromised and in 1568 she fell ill with fever. Sir Francis was refused permission to return to visit her, and when she rallied slightly and asked Elizabeth if she might travel to see her husband, this was also refused.

She died at Hampton Court on January 15, 1569, with the Queen in attendance in a reversal of roles.Elizabeth was inconsolable for many months.

Katherine’s funeral took place in April 1569 in St Edmund’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth had overseen the arrangements and paid the bill, an astronomical £640 2s 11d (more than £111,000 by today’s values).

Memorial to Katherine Knollys in Westminster Abbey

Memorial to Katherine Knollys in Westminster Abbey

Katherine was buried beneath the floor in the Chapel of St Edmund, Westminster Abbey and a plaque carries the following inscription:

“The Right Honorable Lady Katherin Knollys Cheeffe Lady of the Quenes Maties [Majesty’s] Beddechamber and wiffe to Sr. Frances Knollys Knight Tresorer [Treasurer] of her Highnes Howsholde. Departed this lyefe the 15. of January 1568. At Hampton Courte. And was honorably buried in the flower [floor] of this chappell. This Lady Knollys and the Lord Hundesdon her brother were the childeren of William Caree Esquyer, and of the Lady Mary his wiffe one of the doughters and heires to Thomas Bulleyne Erle of Wylshier [Wiltshire] and Ormond. Which Lady Mary was sister to Anne Quene of England wiffe to Kinge Henry the Eyght father and mother to Elizabeth Quene of England”.

Katherine’s date of death is recorded in the Old Style when Lady Day (March 25) marked the beginning of the New Year.

A Latin inscription below this is translated as follows:

“O, Francis, she who was thy wife, behold, Catherine Knolle lies dead under the chilly marble. I know well that she will never depart from thy soul, though dead. Whilst alive she was always loved by thee: living, she bore thee, her husband, sixteen children and was equally female and male (that is, both gentle and valiant). Would that she had lived many years with thee and thy wife was now an old lady. But God desired it not. But he willed that thou, O Catherine, should await thy husband in Heaven”.

In 2006 Sally Varlow wrote a paper about the discovery of a Latin dictionary that had belonged to Sir Francis Knollys’s and in which he had recorded the date of his marriage and the names and birthdates of fourteen children born to his wife Katherine, thereby helping to establish in turn the date of her own birth.

In 1605 Francis and Katherine’s second son and heir, William, erected a magnificent monument to his parents in the church of St Nicholas, Rotherfield Greys, near the family home Greys Court outside Henley on Thames. The monument includes seven female ‘weepers’ on one side of the memorial and seven male ‘weepers’ on the other, with a swaddled baby lying next to Katherine, presumably Dudley, the baby she is pregnant with in the van der Meulan portrait painted in 1562 and who died in infancy.

The Knollys monument at Rotherfield Greys

The Knollys monument at Rotherfield Greys

The procession of female figures is headed by Lettice Knollys who, although not the eldest daughter, married two Earls (Essex and Leicester) and therefore outranked her sisters. Historian Sally Varlow suggests that William’s wife Dorothy might also be included in the line up, which spoils my plan. Even allowing for Lettice jumping the queue, Elizabeth, born in 1549, would still be the fourth woman in the procession.

Could this be the face of Elizabeth Knollys and if so, why should she be of interest to the readers of Good Gentlewoman.

Could this be the face of Elizabeth Knollys, 3rd from front?

Could this be the face of Elizabeth Knollys, 3rd from right?

Elizabeth Knollys married Sir Thomas Leighton and had three surviving children. A son Thomas and two daughters Elizabeth and Anne.

ELIZABETH KNOLLYS, LADY LAYTON attributed to George Gower, 1577, 24 x 27 & 3/4 inches (61 x 70.5 cm) in the Dining Room at Montacute. Credit: Montacute, Sir Malcolm Stewart bequest, The National Trust.

Elizabeth Knollys, Lady Leighton.

Anne Leighton would go on to marry John St John, 1st Baronet and have her own large family. She is represented on the St John polyptych in St Mary’s Church and on the Bedstead tomb lying next to her husband and his second wife Margaret Whitmore, Lady Grobham. She died following the birth of her 13th child, a son Henry who survived her.

Now have a look at the portrait of Anne Leighton, that hangs in the dining room at Lydiard House and tell me, does she remind you of anyone?

Anne Leighton

Anne Leighton

Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir

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.



Pole Position

On this day in 1541 Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury was beheaded at the Tower of London. She was 67 years old and had already served two years imprisonment in the London fortress. She had arrived there another victim of Thomas Cromwell, but ironically he met his death before she faced hers.

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

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

Margaret was everything Henry VIII feared most. As the last Plantagenet she was more royal than he. She was cousin to his mother Elizabeth of York; she was wealthy, powerful and a staunch supporter of the Princess Mary, having served as a Lady in Waiting to Catherine of Aragon.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII

Although all of these factors were troubling, Henry could probably have turned a blind eye, until Margaret’s son Cardinal Reginald Pole started mouthing off.

From the safety of Padua, Reginald spoke out against the annulment of the King’s first marriage, then he waded in criticising Henry’s policies to reform the church in England. At that point Henry could no longer ignore the Pole problem.

Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell

Cromwell issued a Bill of Attainder against Margaret and despite a plea to her son to put a sock in it, she was whisked off to the Tower.

The poor lady’s execution was truly awful. Arranged in haste, the official executioner could not be found and an apprentice was called in to do the job. Lady Margaret continued to protest her innocence and unlawful imprisonment and some reports say she tried to run away. The stand-in executioner, no doubt unnerved by the whole affair, made a terrible botch of the job, landing eleven blows before he eventually managed to sever Lady Margaret’s head from her body.

So how was Lady Margaret Pole related to the St John family, I hear you ask? Well, in 1487 Margaret Plantagenet had become the second wife of Sir Richard Pole, who was the son of Geoffrey Pole Esquire and his first wife Edith St. John.

Geoffrey was a member of the Welsh supporters that followed Owen Tudor to England. With property in both England and Wales, Geoffrey was Constable of Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, councillor of Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke and brother of Edmund Tudor, Henry VII’s father, and he also served as Marshal of the great and petty sessions at Carmarthen and Cardigan, a position he held for life.

Margaret Beauchamp courtesy of Duncan and Mandy Ball

Margaret Beauchamp courtesy of Duncan and Mandy Ball

His wife Edith was the daughter of Margaret Beauchamp and her first husband Oliver St. John, and therefore half sister to Margaret Beaufort, the daughter of her mother’s second marriage to John Beaufort.

Margaret Beaufort was married off to Edmund Tudor at the tender age of 12 and a year later gave birth to a son who would become Henry VII. Geoffrey and Edith’s familial and royal connections were therefore close. Their son Sir Richard Pole, poor Margaret’s husband, was a cousin of the half blood to the new Tudor monarch.

Lady Margaret Beaufort

Lady Margaret Beaufort

The Pole family figure prominently during those terrifying Tudor times. And as if that’s not enough Pole family history Margaret Beaufort had been the ward of William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk following her father’s death. William, steward of the royal household, recognised a good marriage prospect when he saw one and married off the six year old Margaret to his seven year old son. But in 1453 Henry VI revoked the de la Pole wardship in favour of his two half brothers. He had the marriage between Margaret and John de la Pole dissolved, paving the way for a union with Margaret and his half brother Edmund Tudor.

Sadly and inevitably, little is know about Edith St John. She died in about 1459 and when Geoffrey made his will in October 1478 he requested that he be buried at Bisham Priory, Berkshire in the same grave as his first wife.

I have included in this post a portrait supposedly, but much disputed, of Margaret Pole. The painting is held by the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 2607) and is titled Unknown woman formerly known as Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury by Unknown artist.

In her biography of Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen Alison Weir writes about the execution of Margaret’s father, George, Duke of Clarence.

“Because the Duchess Cecily had protested against her son being executed in public, Clarence was put to death privately on 18 February 1478 in the Tower of London. It was said that, allowed to choose how he would die, he opted to be drowned in a butt of Malmsey (Madeira) wine. He left behind a three-year-old son, Edward, Earl of Warwick, who was barred by his father’s attainder from ever inheriting the throne or any of Clarence’s lands and titles; and a five-year-old daughter, Margaret, who would wear a tiny wooden wine butt on a bracelet all her life in commemoration of her father; it can be seen in her portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London.” And there it is!

The Mapledurham Portrait

You know how it is – you flip through the family photograph album and suddenly you come across that old snap, a woman standing in the back garden.  She’s definitely a relative – she’s got grandma’s nose and cousin Edith’s smile, but who is she?  Well the St John’s have just such a portrait.

The manor of Purley Magna came into the St John family as the result of a 16th century marriage between Jane Iwardeby and John St John.  When Jane died in 1553 her grandson Nicholas inherited the estate which came to him by right of settlement on his wife, the former Elizabeth Blount from neighbouring Mapledurham House.

The medieval Mapledurham manor house near Reading was partially demolished in the 17th century as successive members of the Blount family renovated and rebuilt the property but for more than 200 years a full length portrait of Lady St John of Bletso hung in the dining room.  Attributed to William Larkin, dubbed the ‘Curtain Master,’ for placing his sitters framed by shiny drapes and a carpet boarder, this Lady somewhat unusually stands against a woodland backdrop.

The Lady St John portrait arrived at Mapledurham in 1755 as part of the inheritance of Mary Agnes Blount from her father Sir Henry Joseph Tichbourne who died in 1743. A guide book available in the 1990s identified the sitter as ‘probably’ Catherine Dormer d.1615, the widow of John 2nd Baron St John of Bletso d. 1596, one of the peers who tried Mary, Queen of Scots.

In 1969/70 the portrait went on loan to the Tate Gallery for ‘The Elizabethan Image’ exhibition and in 1985 was part of the Treasure House of Britain exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  In the catalogue that accompanied that exhibition art historian Sir Roy Strong questioned the identity of the lady in black and suggested she might be Anne Leighton, first wife of Sir John St John, 1st Baronet.

Sir Roy compares the Mapledurham portrait with the representation of Anne on the St John polyptych, also thought to have been painted by William Larkin.

Unfortunately the polyptych has been subject to 400 years of fiddling and fussing and considerable overpainting with copious amounts of varnish applied to the portrait. Conservation work in the 1980s saw most of the damage reversed, but sadly the portrait of Anne had suffered the most.  She appears with a ghostly white face on the arm of her husband , but a comparison of the fashion bears up well to the Mapledurham matron.

What do you think? I think she has her mother’s eyes.

Catherine St John

It’s tempting to ponder on how differently things might have panned out had Jane Seymour not been on the marriage market in 1536.

Jane Seymour

A young, loved up Jane Seymour was once engaged to Sir William Dormer until William’s parents decided she wasn’t good enough for him and ended the engagement.  Bet Jane had a good old laugh about that when she became Queen of England.

William went on to marry firstly Mary Sidney by whom he had two surviving daughters and two sons that died in infancy. His second wife was Dorothy Catesby and they had six daughters and two sons.

Sir William and his second wife Dorothy, All Saints Church, Wing

When William’s fifth daughter Catherine married John, Baron St John of Bletsoe she found herself on the periphery of the tussle for the Tudor throne, but it was her sister Jane who was firmly centre stage.

Little is known of Catherine’s childhood.  She probably grew up in the family home at Eythrope in Buckinghamshire while Jane was raised by her maternal grandparents.  The two sisters possibly had little to do with each other, but kinship was everything in the 16th century.

Jane Dormer

A fervent Roman Catholic, sixteen year old Jane served as lady in waiting to Mary, Henry’s daughter by his first wife Katherine of Aragon.   Although some twenty years younger than the Queen, Jane was one of her closest friends and confidantes.  It was Jane who nursed the Queen through her last illness and was entrusted with passing on various jewels to Elizabeth.

Following the Queen’s death in 1558 Jane married Spanish nobleman Don Gomez Suarez de Figueroe, adviser to Mary’s husband Philip, and left England for Spain.

Jane must have been quite a character – Machiavellian or motivational – who knows?  She managed to remain on good terms with the English court while helping exiled English Catholics and lending her support to the accession of Mary Queen of Scots.  Meanwhile  half sister Catherine sat firmly in the other camp.

Catherine’s husband Baron St John of Bletsoe was appointed the keeper of Tutbury Castle, Staffordshire during the incarceration there of the Scottish Queen.  But that’s not the end of this sister’s familial problems.  While Jane and her husband sought to aid the imprisoned Queen, Catherine’s husband along with the Earls of Derby, Warwick and Worcester, were among the peers on Elizabeth’s commission at the trial of Mary at Fotheringhay Castle in 1586.  Mary Queen of Scots was executed at Fotheringhay on February 8, 1587.  The new King James, Elizabeth’s successor and Mary’s son, invited Jane to return to England to be one of his wife’s ladies in waiting, but she declined the offer.

Mary Queen of Scots

Jane died in Spain in  1612.  Her much younger sister Catherine outlived her by just two years.

Catherine’s alabaster memorial in St Michael’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey included the figures of her two children Oliver and Anne kneeling beside her reclining figure.  The broken monument was removed in 1723 but was restored to its original place during the 19th century.

A translation of the Latin inscription reads:

“Sacred to the memory of Catherine Lady St John, daughter of William Dormer of Eithrope, Knight.  The widow of John, Baron St John of Bletso, to whome she born Oliver, a little son who died at a tender age, and Anne the wife of William Lord Howard of Effingham, the eldest son of Charles Earl of Nottingham, ruler of the seas of England.  Since death is certain, and the care of those who come after uncertain, remembering death and in certain hope of resurrection in Christ, she placed a monument here to herself while alive.  She died 23rd march in the year of grace 1614.”

Catherine’s memorial in Westminster Abbey

Catherine is one of at least three St John gentlewomen buried in Westminster Abbey.

For more images of the Dormer memorial visit

Alice St John, Lady Morley

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 Margaret Beaufort.  Margaret obviously had a soft spot for young Henry as she paid his new stepfather, Sir Edward Howard, 500 marks when he married Henry’s mother to make sure the boy kept some land.  At the death of his mother in 1518, Henry became the 10th Baron Morley with homes at Mark Hall, Essex and Great Hallingbury, Herfordshire.

As second cousin to Henry VIII, Alice got to go on some good trips too.  In 1520 she was a member of the Queen’s entourage when the Court shipped out to probably the biggest gig of the 16th century, the Field of the Cloth of Gold.  Masterminded by Cardinal Wolsey, this extravagant display of oneupmanship between English King Henry VIII and French King Francis I involved – well just about the entire ruling class on both sides of the Channel.

Damien Lewis as Henry VIII in the BBC drama Wolf Hall

Damien Lewis as Henry VIII in the BBC drama Wolf Hall


Alice also appears in Royal records in the procession at Anne Boleyn’s coronation, by which time she was also related to this dangerous to know family.  Alice’s eldest daughter Jane had married Anne Boleyn’s brother George in 1524/5.  But this was not a match made in heaven.

George, Lord Rochford made the most of being in with the in crowd.  He partied hard and enjoyed female, and possibly male company, if court gossips were to be believed.

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn

When the whole Royal marriage came crashing down it was even said he had enjoyed carnal knowledge of his sister Anne.  Most of the evidence produced against Anne and George had been obtained under torture, apart, that is from Jane’s contribution.

Unhappy, lonely and jealous, Jane helped to seal her errant husband’s fate, although biographer Julia Fox states that Jane buckled under relentless questioning by Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas Cromwell played by Mark Rylance in the BBC drama Wolf Hall

Thomas Cromwell played by Mark Rylance in the BBC drama Wolf Hall

These were perilous times for both Alice and Jane.  You might have thought that Jane would count her blessings and keep far away her second cousin once removed series of bedroom farces.  But within a year of the death of Anne and George Boleyn, Jane was back at court, a lady in waiting to Queen Jane Seymour.

Following the Queen’s death Jane retained her position as lady in waiting to the teenage Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife.  And now you really do have to wonder what she was up to.  Instead of passing on the tips and wrinkles she had acquired through her pretty tumultuous court career, Jane instead arranged secret assignations between Catherine and handsome courtier Thomas Culpeper.

Jane’s part in the young Queen’s affair was discovered and while Catherine was detained in Syon House, Jane was dispatched to the Tower.  Kept prisoner for several months Jane eventually broke down and was declared insane.  On February 13, 1542 she was taken out onto Tower Green and beheaded on the block where the executioner had just chopped off the head of Catherine Howard.

Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford played by Jessica Raine in the BBC drama Wolf Hall.

Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford played by Jessica Raine in the BBC drama Wolf Hall.


But what about Alice.  Did she visit Jane in the Tower?  Did she stand in the crowd that cold February morning in 1542 and weep as her daughter died, mourning the innocent little girl who had played in the gardens at Hallingbury Place?  Or had she already disowned Jane in fear of reprisals?  In 1542 Alice paid part of the cost of a new bell for the church in Great Hallingbury, possibly in Jane’s memory.

Alice died in 1552/3 aged 66.  She had seen it all – the best and the worst of those terrible Tudor times.

Image of Margaret Beaufort’s tomb in Westminister Abbey

Jessica Raine plays Jane Rochford in the BBC drama Wolf Hall