Me and Joan Neville, Countess of Arundel

Joan Neville and I go back a long way. In fact, my love of history, stately homes and a predisposition to being nosey could well be attributed to our early acquaintance.

Joan Neville, Countess of Arundel

Joan Neville, Countess of Arundel

My parents weren’t big on history, but we did regularly go out on day trips and if there happened to be a stately home thereabouts, well sometimes we gave it a try! Not very often, I have to admit, but here is the photographic evidence that one day in the late 1950s we stormed the Castle Keep at Arundel.


We were on a day out with mum and dad’s friends known as ‘the Robos.’ I think their name was Robinson and I’m sure that aged 5ish I must have called them Uncle and Auntie something or other, but today I only remember them as ‘the Robos.’ How they fitted into our small family with an even smaller circle of friends, I don’t know. They had two sons, the younger of whom was called Eric and there is another photo of us three children standing fully clothed in a paddling pool at Caister Holiday Camp, but I digress.

These 6cm square, grainy, black and white photographs were taken at Arundel Castle, the marital home of Joan, Countess of Arundel. Situated some four miles north of Littlehampton the 11th century castle was built by Roger de Montgomery, one of the Conqueror’s principal counselors and most probably a cousin as well. His reward for keeping the home fires burning back in Normandy while William helped himself to ours was most of West Sussex and Shropshire and a handful of manors in Surrey, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Middlesex, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Cambridgeshire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire. Not bad going, eh!

A view from the Castle Keep across West Sussex

A view from the Castle Keep across West Sussex

When Joan Neville married William Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel in 1438 the castle was practically a new build, a mere 300 years old and owned by the Fitzalan family since the 13th century. Mary Fitzalan, their great great granddaughter would be the last member of the family to own the property. Mary became the 15 year old bride of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, whom she married in the spring of 1555. A son, Phillip, was born two years later but sadly Mary died just 8 weeks after his birth, aged 17. It has been written that “all who knew her could not but love and esteem her much.”


Jumping on 400 years and here I am pictured climbing the steps to the Castle Keep. Probably built by William d’Albini II towards the end of the 11th century, today the Keep is open to the elements although there is evidence of fireplaces on the inner walls and of an upper floor.


And here am I pictured astride the Coade stone horse that stands on duty on a bridge over the dry moat. This and the companion lion is representative of heraldic beasts on the Norfolk coat of arms. These two sculptures once stood on the Norfolk Bridge at Shoreham on Sea but when the bridge was demolished and rebuilt in 1922 they were brought up to the castle. I bet little children are not allowed to sit on them now – perhaps they weren’t in the 50s either – I do look a little bit smug!

With both Medieval and Victorian architecture the Castle has provided the back drop for a whole raft of period films and TV programmes, including The Young Victoria (2009) and Henry VIII (2003).

Mary Fitzalan, Joan's great great grandaughter.

Mary Fitzalan, Joan’s great great granddaughter.

Arundel Castle remains in the Norfolk family today and is open to the public from April-October. Visit the website for further details.

Three literary sisters

Antonia Fraser, Judith Kazantzis and Rachel Billington are three sisters who have made their mark on the literary scene during a combined career of more than 120 years.

The three literary siblings are the daughters of politician, writer and prison reformer Francis Aungier Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford and his wife Elizabeth.  Lord ‘Frank’ Longford was the author of the 1972 Pornography Report but is probably better remembered for his sustained, and unsuccessful, campaign for the release of Moors Murderer Myra Hindley.

Francis 'Frank' Aungier Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford

Francis ‘Frank’ Aungier Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford

Antonia Fraser, born in 1932, is the author of numerous historical biographies including Mary, Queen of Scots and Cromwell, Our Chief of Men, and has also written the Jemima Shore series of detective novels.

Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser

Second sister, born in 1940 is Judith Kazantzis, poet, painter and printmaker who in 2007 was awarded the Society of Authors’ Cholmondeley Award for poetic achievement.

Judith Kazantzis

Judith Kazantzis

And third sister born in 1942 is Rachel Billington who in a prolific career has written more than 30 novels for both adults and children, journalism for UK and US newspapers and plays for TV and radio.

Rachel Billington

With a wealth of literary prizes, a CBE, an OBE and a DBE between them these three women come from an illustrious line of feisty females.  Their father, Frank Pakenham was the second son of Brigadier General Thomas Pakenham, 5th Earl of Longford and his wife Lady Mary Julia Child Villiers. There’s that name again!

The Villiers family liked to keep ever close to the throne; from George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, favourite of King James VI and I, to Queen Anne’s best friend Barbara Villiers and three Royal mistresses – Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Castlemaine, mother to five of Charles II’s illegitimate children; Elizabeth Villiers ‘Squinty eyed Betty’ William III’s squeeze and Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey and mistress of George IV. The Villiers women (and men) were not a little manipulative; intelligent, entertaining and ever so slightly interfering, once they got their foot in the door there was no stopping them. Through  Restoration romps to Georgian extravaganzas, the Villiers’ were never very far away.

The three Pakenham sisters can trace their ancestry back eleven generations to Sir Edward Villiers and his wife Barbara St John, one of another family of influential sisters pictured on the magnificent St John polyptych in St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze.


It seems quite fitting, therefore, that Antonia Fraser has done such a lot of Royal record keeping, including a biography on Charles II in which her ancestor features prominently.  Now if only Barbara had stopped her meddling and put pen to paper we could have read a first hand account.

Lady Constance Lytton

Lady Constance Lytton will be a name familiar to anyone who has studied the Votes for Women campaign waged between 1903 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Her involvement came about by a meeting with that other famous Emmeline, Mrs Pethick-Lawrence.  Constance joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1909 and worked as a paid organiser for the Union. Soon she was lobbying Parliament and using her influential contacts on behalf of the cause.  Her membership of the militant wing came later.

Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer Lytton was born in Vienna on February 12, 1869 the daughter of diplomat Edward Robert Bulwer Lytton.  His wife, the former Edith Villiers, could trace her ancestry back to the parish of Lydiard Tregoze and her five times great grandmother Barbara St John who spent her childhood at Lydiard House. It was this aristocratic inheritance that would set Lady Constance on the dangerous path of militancy.

Throughout history the Villiers women proved to be notoriously single minded and despite her lack of confidence and ill health, Lady Constance followed true to form.  Having nailed her colours to the suffrage mast Constance defied the disapproval of society, her family’s consternation and common sense itself in her devotion to the cause.

Lady Constance spent her first prison sentence on the hospital ward at Holloway.  Her second one ended abruptly with her early release when doctors were alerted to her title and a pre existing heart condition.  Constance set about making  public the treatment suffragettes received and to reform prison conditions.  To do this she considered it necessary to have shared the same experience.  Dressed in dowdy clothes and with her hair cut and styled unflatteringly, Constance assumed the identity of Miss Jane Warton when she appeared at a protest outside Walton Gaol, Liverpool.  She was arrested but this time there was no special treatment and no medical examination.  She went on hunger strike with the other women and was forcibly fed eight times.

Lady Constance later wrote about her experiences.

Tuesday, January 18, I was visited again by the Senior Medical Officer, who asked me how long I had been without food. I said I had eaten a buttered scone and a banana sent in by friends to the police station on Friday at about midnight. He said, “Oh, then, this is the fourth day; that is too long, I shall have to feed you, I must feed you at once,” but he went out and nothing happened till about 6 o’clock in the evening, when he returned with, I think, five wardresses and the feeding apparatus. He urged me to take food voluntarily. I told him that was absolutely out of the question, that when our legislators ceased to resist enfranchising women then I should cease to resist taking food in prison. He did not examine my heart nor feel my pulse; he did not ask to do so, nor did I say anything which could possibly induce him to think I would refuse to be examined. I offered no resistance to being placed in position, but lay down voluntarily on the plank bed. Two of the wardresses took hold of my arms, one held my head and one my feet. One wardress helped to pour the food. The doctor leant on my knees as he stooped over my chest to get at my mouth. I shut my mouth and clenched my teeth. I had looked forward to this moment with so much anxiety lest my identity should be discovered beforehand, that I felt positively glad when the time had come. The sense of being overpowered by more force than I could possibly resist was complete, but I resisted nothing except with my mouth. The doctor offered me the choice of a wooden or steel gag; he explained elaborately, as he did on most subsequent occasions, that the steel gag would hurt and the wooden one not, and he urged me not to force him to use the steel gag. But I did not speak nor open my mouth, so that after playing about for a moment or two with the wooden one he finally had recourse to the steel. He seemed annoyed at my resistance and he broke into a temper as he plied my teeth with the steel implement. He found that on either side at the back I had false teeth mounted on a bridge which did not take out. The superintending wardress asked if I had any false teeth, if so, that they must be taken out; I made no answer and the process went on. He dug his instrument down on to the sham tooth, it pressed fearfully on the gum. He said if I resisted so much with my teeth, he would have to feed me through the nose. The pain of it was intense and at last I must have given way for he got the gag between my teeth, when he proceeded to turn it much more than necessary until my jaws were fastened wide apart, far more than they could go naturally. Then he put down my throat a tube which seemed to me much too wide and was something like four feet in length. The irritation of the tube was excessive. I choked the moment it touched my throat until it had got down. Then the food was poured in quickly; it made me sick a few seconds after it was down and the action of the sickness made my body and legs double up, but the wardresses instantly pressed back my head and the doctor leant on my knees. The horror of it was more than I can describe. I was sick over the doctor and wardresses, and it seemed a long time before they took the tube out. As the doctor left he gave me a slap on the cheek, not violently, but, as it were, to express his contemptuous disapproval, and he seemed to take for granted that my distress was assumed. At first it seemed such an utterly contemptible thing to have done that I could only laugh in my mind. Then suddenly I saw Jane Warton lying before me, and it seemed as if I were outside of her. She was the most despised, ignorant and helpless prisoner that I had seen. When she had served her time and was out of the prison, no one would believe anything she said, and the doctor when he had fed her by force and tortured her body, struck her on the cheek to show how he despised her! That was Jane Warton, and I had come to help her.

Upon her release from prison Constance continued to profess the different treatment she had received when her true identity was unknown.  The Times published a letter from Sir Edward Troup, permanent under secretary at the Home Office, challenging her version of events.  This was swiftly shot down in flames by Lady Constance’s brother Victor, Lord Lytton.

In 1911 Lady Constance suffered a slight stroke, but she soon returned to militant protest, taking part in a window smashing campaign.  A second stroke in May 1912 resulted in a partial paralysis down her right side.  No longer able to fight on the front line, she picked up her pen instead and with her left hand wrote about her experiences in Prisons and Prisoners published in 1914.

Lady Constance lived the rest of her life as an invalid, cared for by her mother.  She died on May 22, 1923 at her London home at Oxford Square.  She was 54 years old.

Ellen St John

Ellen St John visited Lydiard Park for her father’s funeral.  Whether this was the one and only time she ever saw her ancestral home remains unknown. In fact most of Ellen’s life is something of a mystery, living as she did on the periphery of St John family life.

Ellen’s life was shrouded in secrecy and even she once commented that she never knew her exact birth date. Difficult to locate on the Victorian census returns, Ellen could have become a mere footnote in the St John family history if it were not for a handful of letters that escaped the monumental clear out conducted by her half brother Vernon 6th Lord Bolingbroke, who donated 2½ tons of paper to the wartime salvage effort.

Ellen Rose was the only surviving child born to Ellen Medex and Henry Mildmay St John, 5th Viscount Bolingbroke, during a clandestine relationship which lasted over 30 years.

Despite Henry’s later protestations, it appears unlikely that he ever married Ellen Medex. However, following her death in 1885 she was buried in Highgate Cemetery where Henry declared her to be ‘Ellen, Viscountess Bolingbroke.’

Ellen Rose was born in 1863. Her parent’s nomadic lifestyle under various pseudonyms makes it difficult to locate the family on the 1871 and 1881 census records.

However, the 1891 census returns reveal that Ellen Rosie St John aged 29, occupied four rooms at 39 Cornwall Road close to Paddington Station, where she lived with her companion Minnie Breton on an income of private means, most probably money left to her by her mother.

At the time of the 1911 census Ellen had moved to the suburbs, a six roomed flat at 11 Babington Road, Streatham where she lived with her maid, Minnie Leonard.

By the 1930s Ellen, then in her late sixties, lived in a rented house at 13 Malvern Road, Thornton Heath, Surrey.

She appears to have owned another property that she rented out, meanwhile living in rented accommodation where she also let out several rooms.

Acting on behalf of the widowed Lady Bolingbroke, Harold Dale at H. Bevir & Son, long term solicitors to the St. John family, was the unfortunate recipient of Ellen’s letters, nine of which are held at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.

“I am writing this to ask you if Lady Bolingbroke is still at Lydiard as I have written to her & as she has not answered my letters I am wondering if she received them,” Ellen wrote to Harold Dale, at his Wootton Bassett office.

“She always sent me my rent etc through Mr Goodwyn & I have not had any cheque this month (due 11th). I don’t think he can realize what that means to me. I have not anything of my own & my mother’s money – which was not much was spent was little as everything was so expensive.”

While Mary, Lady Bolingbroke continued to battle the financial consequences of the extravagances of previous generations of St. Johns, her stepdaughter similarly suffered from the excesses of her ancestors’ lifestyles.

In 1922 Vernon Henry St. John, Ellen’s half brother, petitioned the government that he should be summoned to Parliament by the name and style of Viscount Bolingbroke, Viscount Saint John, Baron Saint John of Lydiard Tregoze, and Baron Saint John of Battersea.

The subsequent hearing received extensive press coverage and exposed the details of his father’s, Henry Mildmay, love affairs and subterfuge.

The successful petition enabled Vernon to take his seat in the House of Lords but for Ellen the outcome was less satisfactory.

Tainted by her father’s conduct and with her own illegitimate birth revealed, Ellen wrote to Harold Dale that “I have been here 30 years & the case in the House of Lords simply ruined me here as people have never been the same to me.”

In a letter dated July 3, 1930 Harold Dale outlines the full extent of the financial situation at Lydiard in an attempt to offer Ellen an explanation why he is unable to pay her an allowance. “I am really awfully sorry for you, and do appreciate the position you are in – but Lady Bolingbroke is in exactly the same position, and has no income whatever.

“She also does not know what to do, and she has such heavy expenses in connection with the house and there is nothing to meet them with.

“The position with regard to the future is still in the balance and a great deal depends upon whether any further sales of land take place.

“At the moment the mortgagees will require the whole income and Lady Bolingbroke is powerless in the matter.

“It is a most terrible situation for you.”

Perhaps still unappreciative of the real situation and revealing a little of her father’s autocratic attitude, Ellen replied:

“I cannot understand how it is that Lydiard has got into that terrible state. Lady Bolingbroke could let part of the house & people bring their own servants. That, would bring her a little.”

With the help of Harold Dale, Ellen applied for financial assistance from a variety of philanthropic societies, including the Guild of Aid for Gentlepeople.

“The Society you were kind enough to write to thought the case was not a suitable one so I managed to get a little from another society not permanent unfortunately,” Ellen informed him.

Following the unsuccessful application to the Guild of Aid for Gentlepeople, Ellen again appealed to the beleaguered Harold Dale.

“I hope you will not think me a terrible nuisance – I really don’t know how to go on & I do really dread the winter under these conditions.

“If you could manage to get ever so little a month it would be such a help to keep me going.” Wracked with worry an exasperated Ellen wrote again:  “What do you think I can exist upon? The Vicar & Dr. think it a most cruel and dreadful thing not to send me anything.”

Ellen possibly had some contact with the extended St John family, or perhaps she refers to her Medex relatives when she writes – “the family cannot believe such a thing. Father not being on friendly terms with them, had made it bad for me.”

On December 23, 1931 Mary, Lady Bolingbroke wrote to Harold Dale, “ I am enclosing a cheque for five pounds made out to you as I think it advisable it should be sent to her [Ellen] from you.”

Sadly, Ellen’s eventual rescue came at the expense of Mary’s death in 1940. In her will dated 1902 Mary’s first bequest was an annuity of £100 per annum to Ellen St John. In 1940 Ellen was herself 77 years old and in failing health. Her last address in 1942 was 58 Derby Road, Croydon where she rented two rooms. She died at the Mayday Hospital, Croydon in March of that year.

Ellen’s rooms contained very little furniture and were left in a terrible state according to her landlady where “mice jump out of the drawers.” Among her effects were several silver plated items and a model of a Chinese Junk in a glass case, which was described as being ‘very pretty.’

Ellen died owing £14 14s rent. Anxious to locate anything of value, Vernon was informed that the silver plated items were in the possession of the Local Authorities and would be sold to go towards the rent arrears.

Unlike Lady Bolingbroke whose funeral two years previously was attended by family, friends, tenants and estate workers at the parish church in Lydiard Park, Ellen was laid to rest, not in the St. John family vault, but in grave number 20642 plot F.5 in Croydon Cemetery, Mitcham Road.

It seems unlikely anyone other than the funeral director attended Ellen’s burial.

Photographs from top: Ellen St John; her mother Ellen Medex; her father Henry 5th Viscount Bolingbroke; her half brother Vernon 6th Viscount Bolingbroke and interior views of Lydiard House in the 1940s are courtesy of Lydiard Park.  The enclosed St John family vault in the churchyard at St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze.