Elizabeth St John and The Lady of the Tower

The highlight of this year’s Swindon Festival of Literature for me was meeting Elizabeth St. John.

Elizabeth travelled from her 21st century home in California to her ancestral home at Lydiard Park to deliver a sell out talk about her book The Lady of the Tower.

In the majestic Grand Hall in Lydiard House, Elizabeth talked about writing historical fiction and how she crafted her novel about Lucy St John, the youngest sister depicted in the St John family portrait at the centre of the polyptych. Then in the gathering twilight we were treated to a private viewing of the memorial in St Mary’s Church, where Elizabeth and her daughter were photographed alongside their ancestors.

Elizabeth St John and her daughter Emma.
Photo published courtesy of Richard Wintle Calyx Multimedia

Elizabeth’s book, the first in a series, has been a labour of love which had its beginnings in an article Elizabeth wrote entitled The Influence of the Villiers Connection on the First Baronet and his Sisters, published in 1987 in the Friends of Lydiard Tregoz Report No 22.

Meticulously researched, Elizabeth sets the scene as the 16th century draws to a close. With the death of Sir John St John and his wife, the former Lucy Hungerford, what is to become of their only surviving son John and their six daughters Katherine, Jane, Anne, Eleanor, Barbara and Lucy?

In the Lady of the Tower Elizabeth follows the fortunes of youngest daughter Lucy, but in this earlier article she explores the wheeling and dealings of Barbara St John’s husband Edward Villiers and his half brother George, the King’s favourite, created Earl of Buckingham in 1618 (raised to Duke of Buckingham in 1624).

Sir John St John, First Baronet, returns to Lydiard shortly after his marriage to Anne Leighton where he is reunited with his sisters. These were the Golden Years when the family coffers were full and the St John star rising.

Elizabeth writes:

“Amidst all the turbulence of seventeenth century political manoeuvring, power broking, financial scheming and friendship trading, the First Baronet appears as a haven of imperturbability. He seems to have been content to stay close to home, father his children, manage his estates and devote himself to increasing the splendour of his Church and home. His life could never have been dull, though with the constant stream of family crises that his sisters encountered. His willingness to support them through their problems shines through, and Lydiard must have been a welcome retreat from the harsh realities of day-to-day life for all of the the family.”

Elizabeth is American Ambassador for the Friends of Lydiard Park and can be contacted through the website.

The Lady of the Tower by Elizabeth St John

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

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

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

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

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

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

St John polyptych

St John polyptych

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth St John

Elizabeth St John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth’s novel has received critical acclaim:

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

Historical Novel Society

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

Lady of the Tower Final ebook cover large

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

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

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