Mary O’Brien, 3rd Countess of Orkney

There’s nothing that excites me more than finding a family with multiple links to the St Johns of Lydiard Park – I know, very sad and I probably should get out more!

The Good Gentlewoman featured today is Mary O’Brien, 3rd Countess of Orkney whose portrait (below) this may or may not be.

Mary O'Brien, 3rd Countess of Orkney

Mary O’Brien, 3rd Countess of Orkney

Some say it is of her daughter also named Mary, 4th Countess of Orkney. If any reader has the definitive answer perhaps they would like to add it to the comments below. Meanwhile I’ll continue.

Mary was born c1720, the daughter of Anne and William O’Brien, 4th Earl of Inchiquin. As the eldest daughter of George Hamilton 1st Earl of Orkney, Anne inherited the title in her own right, as did her only child, daughter Mary.

Mary was born deaf and her marriage to her cousin Murrough O’Brien on March 5, 1753 at Duke Street Chapel, Story’s Gate, St James’s Park was conducted by signs.

After the ceremony the couple returned to their home Rostellan Castle on the west coast of Ireland, although Murrough spent much of his time in London where he had many mistresses.

Rostellan Castle

When Mary’s daughter was born in 1755 her greatest concern was that the child might also be deaf. The story goes that Mary crept into the nursery where her baby daughter was asleep in the care of her nursemaid. As she gazed into the baby’s cradle she pulled out a large stone from beneath her shawl. The young nursemaid jumped to her feet, terrified that the Countess planned to crush the child. As she rushed to take the stone from the Countess, Mary threw it to the floor, creating a loud noise. The baby awoke and began to cry and the mother sank to her knees ‘in a transport of joy’ relieved that the child was able to hear.

This account was recalled 75 years later in the obituary of that baby, the 4th Countess of Orkney published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1830.

Sadly there is a somewhat disturbing postscript to this poignant tale.

“She (the 3rd Countess) exhibited on many other occasions similar proofs of intelligence, but none so interesting.”

Along with the title Mary also held property of her own. Her grandfather George,Hamilton, 1st Earl of Orkney, bought Taplow Manor in around 1700. It was here that George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham built his 17th century palatial manor house. The lodges, temple and pavilions were later additions completed by Mary’s grandfather and the whole shebang was enjoyed by, among others, Frederick Prince of Wales, father of George III, who leased the property for several years.

Sadly Buckingham’s pile was razed to the ground in 1795. The property better known today as Cliveden House was built on the site in 1851,



Cliveden was later owned by the Astor family. American born Nancy, Lady Astor was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, elected Tory MP for Plymouth South in 1919.

The Victorian mansion later provided the backdrop for the notorious 1960s Profumo Affair featuring Christine Keeler and John Profumo, Conservative MP for Kettering and Secretary of State of War. Their brief affair ruined Profumo’s reputation and political career and even toppled the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

Nancy Aston by John Singer Sargent

Nancy Aston by John Singer Sargent

Even though Lady Astor has no connection (well, none so far discovered) to the St John family I couldn’t resist including this beautiful portrait by John Singer Sargent.

Mary died at Rostellan Castle in May 1790. Some accounts say she was buried at Cloyne Cathedral in County Cork others at Taplow in Buckinghamshire. My research continues.

So what is the connection between Mary O’Brien, 3rd Countess of Orkney and the St John family at Lydiard Park. Well, if I told you that the maiden name of both her grandmothers’ was Villiers, would that help? Elizabeth Villiers, the former mistress of William III, married George Hamilton, 1st Earl of Orkney. Her daughter Anne was Mary’s mother. Mary Villiers married William O’Brien, 3rd Earl of Inchiquin and their son William O’Brien, 4th Earl of Inchiquin was Mary’s father. Mary and Elizabeth Villiers were the daughters of Sir Edward Villiers and Frances Howard. Sir Edward was the youngest son of Sir Edward Villiers and his wife Barbara St John, born at Lydiard House c1590.

And there’s more … but let’s save that for another day.

Lady Methuen of Corsham Court

When the three St John Mildmay sisters married in the early nineteenth century, they each acquired a country residence within a stone’s throw of one another.

Jane Dorothea St John Mildmay

Jane Dorothea St John Mildmay

Eldest sister Jane Dorothea moved into Corsham Court following her marriage to Paul Methuen in 1810. Younger sister Maria married a distant cousin, Henry St John 4th Viscount Bolingbroke, in 1812 and inherited the rapidly deteriorating Lydiard House, while Anne married William Pleydell Bouverie in 1814 and as the Countess of Radnor was mistress of Coleshill House across the Wiltshire border in neighbouring Berkshire.

The manor of Corsham appears in the Domesday book as the property of King Edward the Confessor and ‘the great house at Corsham’ dates back to Elizabethan times, the work of Customer Smyth in 1582.

South Front - Corsham Court

South Front – Corsham Court

The property had been in the Methuen family for more than 60 years when Jane married Paul, and three generations had already left their mark.  In 1760 another Paul, the first owner, commissioned that celebrity landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to weave his magic and transform the Corsham estate.  Brown planted numerous trees including the Oriental Plane, which still survives today and has entered the record books on account of its dimensions.

Paul’s son, Paul Cobb Methuen, commissioned architect John Nash to create a new North Front on the gothic lines of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill home. The work included the building of an Octagonal Saloon and a music room for use as a picture gallery to house his father’s extensive collection.  A huge undertaking and fraught with problems, most of the North Front was subsequently demolished a mere forty years after it was finished.

A keen gardener, Lady Jane turned her attention to the formal gardens.  High walls with climbing plants enclose long herbaceous borders, a lily pond and garden statuary, reflecting her taste to the present day.

In 1846 Jane’s husband Paul 1st Baron Methuen brought in Thomas Bellamy to remodel the North Front, a project she would not live to see completed.

Thomas Bellamy's North Front - Corsham Court

Thomas Bellamy’s North Front – Corsham Court

Paul Methuen served as MP for Wiltshire 1812-1819, High Sheriff of Wiltshire 1831-32 and MP for North Wilts 1833-1837 and in 1838 he was created Baron Methuen. The couple had four children – heir Paul Mildmay who died in 1837 aged just 23, a daughter Jane Matilda, Frederick Henry Paul 2nd Baron Methuen and St John George Paul. The family divided its time between Corsham Court and their London home in Park Street where Jane died on March 15, 1846.  Her body was returned to Wiltshire for burial.

So how do the Mildmay sisters’ properties fare today?

The Grade I listed Corsham Court is still owned by the Methuen family and is open to the public.  It is also used by Bath Spa University as a post graduate centre and for the study of arts and humanities.

A 1930s postcard view of Coleshill House

A 1930s postcard view of Coleshill House

Anne’s stately pile at Coleshill is sadly no more.  An accident with a blow lamp during restoration work in the 1950s saw the property gutted by fire.  What remained of the building was later demolished.

Perhaps the surprise success is the survival of Lydiard House.  By the 1830s even Maria and Henry declined to live there, renting it out to Maria’s distant cousin Julia and her husband Sir George Orby Wombwell.

Lydiard House

Lydiard House

When Lady Bolingbroke, Maria’s daughter in law and a former housekeeper at Lydiard, died in 1940 the estate was mortgaged to the hilt and the house all but derelict.  Bought by Swindon Corporation in 1943 deputy Borough Architect Mr Flack would later write that “the whole roof was held in place by its own weight, the friction between the tiles and spiders; webs.”

During a period when country houses were being demolished at an alarming rate, Lydiard House was rescued and restored and today is also open to the public.