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 Mary Villiers

Sometimes it seems as if the 17th century St John family is related to just about everyone of any note …or otherwise, actually!

For example, Lady Mary Villiers’s father was murdered by a relative of the husband of her first cousin once removed. Now how’s that for a coincidence.

NPG 711; The Duke of Buckingham and his Family after Gerrit van Honthorst

The Duke of Buckingham and his Family

Lady Mary Villiers was the eldest child and only daughter of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham and his wife Catherine Manners. George was one of those characters one either loved or loathed. James VI Scotland and I England obviously loved him – a lot. In her latest BBC 2 series Fit to Rule: How Royal Illness Changed History, Dr Lucy Worlsey looks at letters from the King to his favourite and reveals the complex relationship between the two men. Good looking, charming George played the role of lover, father, son, best friend, slave and dog, but perhaps we won’t delve into the ‘dog’ role too deeply.

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham

After the King’s death in 1625 Charles I kept George close to him, as friend and advisor, much to the exasperation of Charles’s ministers and his Queen. George definitely got in the way of not only the king’s parliamentary progress but procreation with his Queen as well.

When Lieutenant John Felton polished him off there were a lot of people who were none too sorry. Especially Queen Henrietta Maria who produced a son Charles James nine months later. But Charles did mourn his friend and took George’s three young children into his protection, raising them alongside his own family.

Lady Mary Villiers

Lady Mary Villiers

Consequently young Lady Mary became a desirable proposition in the marriage stakes. And in January 1634/5 she was wed to Charles, Lord Herbert of Shurland, the son of another of James’s favourites. Lady Mary was twelve years old and her groom fifteen. She appears with her husband to be and his family in a painting by Anthony van Dyck. However, the marriage was a brief one as young Charles contracted smallpox while on military service in Italy and died a year after the wedding.

Lady Mary Villiers 2

Lady Mary – posing as St Agnes

On August 3, 1637 Lady Mary married for a second time. Her new husband was a royal cousin, James Stuart 4th Duke of Lennox, and a marriage much favoured by Charles I who gave the bride away at the ceremony held in the Archbishop’s Chapel at Lambeth Palace.

Lady Mary’s second marriage lasted 18 years and produced two children, a son Esme born in 1649 and a daughter Mary born in 1651.


Lady Mary and her two children

James Stuart, Duke of Lennox and Duke of Richmond, died in 1655, impoverished by his long and faithful service to Charles I, £65,000 poorer and ostracized by the reigning Parliamentarians.

In 1668 Lady Mary married for the last time. Her third husband was Colonel the Hon Thomas Howard, Lieutenant of the Yeoman of the Guard, whom she outlived by seven years.


Lady Mary Villiers, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox

So was Lady Mary ever anything more than a very marriageable proposition?

Now we already know that the Villiers clan were pretty broadminded, and with a father like George it seems inevitable that Mary and her brothers would be pretty uninhibited.

Described as a ‘bisexual adventuress’ Lady Mary has been identified as Ephelia, an anonymous 17th century poet, whose work contained lesbian and bisexual references. And they say she liked to share a tipple with that legendary St John drinker John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. And she may have had a fling with the king’s handsome nephew Prince Rupert – oh, and she liked to wear men’s clothing and she enjoyed various ‘manly’ sports such as shooting and fencing. So she was quite a gal!

Lady Mary died in November 1685 and was buried in Westminster Abbey close to her father George and her aunt Barbara.

So how was she and her father’s murderer related to the St John family? Right – are you sure you’re ready for this?

Copyright Lydiard House / Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Barbara St John – wife of Sir Edward Villiers

Lady Mary’s father George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, had an elder half brother Sir Edward Villiers. Sir Edward married Barbara St John, the daughter of Sir John St John and Lucy Hungerford, who appear on the St John polypytch in St Mary’s Chruch Lydiard Tregoze. Their granddaughter Elizabeth Howard married Sir Thomas Felton, 4th Baronet of Playford Hall, Suffolk.

Now George was murdered by Lieutenant John Felton. Felton had taken part in Buckingham’s unsuccessful expeditions in Cadiz 1625 and the Isle of Rhe 1627. Overlooked for promotion and out of pocket, Felton harboured a grudge against Buckingham and decided it was his duty to rid the country of this menace. He bought a dagger for tenpence and walked to Portsmouth where Buckingham was preparing for an expedition to Rochelle. He gained entrance to Buckingham’s house and on August 23, 1628 stabbed him over the heart, killing him pretty much instantly. Felton was later hanged at Tyburn. John Felton was a member of the junior branch of the Playford Hall Feltons.

Ta – da *takes a step forward with arms outstretched.* Now please don’t ask me to go through all that again.

Barbara Villiers – Countess of Suffolk

This is the tale of yet another ambitious Villiers girl, and another Barbara to boot.  This Barbara was the eldest daughter of Sir Edward Villiers and Barbara St John, making her aunt to two Royal mistresses and a Royal favourite.

Barbara Villiers Countess of Suffolk

Baptised in Westminister Abbey on June 1, 1622, Barbara was on the celebrity A list from birth, thanks to George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, her father’s half brother and favourite of King James I.

A prized pawn in the matrimony market, Barbara was married off at a young age, although there appears to be some confusion over the identity of Barbara’s first husband.  The Westminster Abbey archives describe him as Thomas Wenman, son and heir of Philip third Viscount Wenman while other sources have him as Richard Wenman son of Thomas 2nd Viscount Wenman.  The marriage was most probably of short duration as Thomas/Richard died in 1646, aged 24 and leaving no issue.  By the age of 28 Barbara had seen off husband number two, Sir Richard Wentworth.

On February 13, 1650 Barbara married James Howard, 3rd Earl of Suffolk, her third marriage and his second. Then, with the King recently beheaded and the population collectively holding its breath waiting to see how this whole new Commonwealth thing was going to pan out, Barbara repaired to possibly one of the most palatial properties in the country, Audley End.

Built in 1140, this former Benedictine Priory close to the market town of Saffron Walden in Essex, was acquired by Lord Chancellor Walden, Sir Thomas Audley following the dissolution of the monasteries.  But it was his grandson, Thomas Howard Earl of Suffolk who set about transforming the old ancestral home in 1603.

Thomas went a bit overboard with his plans and the building work came in at a reputed £200,000.  He was later accused of embezzling the King and spent a spell in the Tower.  The house was to prove a huge financial burden and was sold to Charles II in 1666 as a stop over for the racing at Newmarket, however even the Royals couldn’t keep up the maintenance and it was eventually returned to the Howard family in 1701 when it was partly demolished and remodelled.

During the ten years of the interregnum James hung on to his estates while keeping his head below the parapets of Audley End.  A closet Royalist he knew it would all come good in the end.  With the restoration of the monarchy came a royal wedding and the arrival of the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza. The new Queen and the uncrowned one,  Countess of Castlemaine came head to head in the Lady of the Bedchamber crisis when poor Catherine was forced to accept her husband’s mistress – and the Lady’s aunt as well.

Queen Catherine of Braganza

But the Countess of Suffolk appears to have perfected the work/home life balance. When in July 1662 her niece insisted on giving her son by Charles II a Protestant christening at St Margaret’s, Westminster in addition to the Catholic one he had already received, Barbara acted as witness alongside the King himself.  However later that year when Catherine was dangerously ill and it was feared she might die, Barbara, Groom of the Stole to the Queen, was one of her closest attendants.

St Mary’s Church, Saffron Walden

Barbara died on December 13, 1681 of apoplexy – a 17th century term for what is today called a stroke. She was buried at the church of St Mary’s, Saffron Walden close to her old home at Audley End.  Her husband joined her there seven years later.

Elizabeth Villiers – another Royal mistress

William III is probably the last person one might expect to have a mistress.  In fact it has been suggested he was probably more inclined to take a male favourite than a female one, but those Villiers gals were darned determined.

King William III

The Villiers parents Sir Edward and Lady Frances had been entrusted by Charles II with the upbringing of his nieces Mary and Anne, daughters of his Catholic brother James, Duke of York.  Like his brother Charles had also wrestled with his religious beliefs but knowing full well his kingdom would not tolerate a Catholic monarch, Charles did what was necessary.  He always knew how far he could trust his luck in both his public and personal life.  James was a less compromising character – perhaps he had inherited a stronger dose of his father’s autocratic attitude and his mother’s religious fervour.

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham

From George Duke of Buckingham’s friendship with James I to Charles’s mistress Barbara Castlemaine, the Villiers family had always been on hand to support the Royal cause.  Unluckily when it came to Charles’s brother James the Villiers chose the Protestant candidate Prince William, Charles and James’s nephew.

Queen Mary II

But ahead of the grand upheaval and the Glorious Revolution Princess Mary was betrothed to her cousin William – and she wasn’t happy.  Apparently on receiving the news she cried all day and through the night.  The wedding took place in Mary’s apartments at St James’s Palace on November 4 1677; Mary was 17, her husband ten years older.  The heartbroken Princess left for her new life at The Hague on November 28 – but at least she had her Villiers playmates, sisters Elizabeth, Anne and Katherine, travelling with her.

After such an inauspicious start the marriage proved to be a happy one and when William took a mistress he was discretion itself, apart from his choice of candidate.  Unlike her cousin Barbara Castlemaine, Elizabeth was no beauty; a plain girl nicknamed Squinting Betty on account of a cast in one eye.  But like her sisters she was intelligent, witty and had a generous helping of good old fashioned Villiers ambition.

Like the average Royal mistress, Elizabeth did her fair share of political meddling, but she was a shrewd cookie, keeping her friends close and her enemies closer

It has been suggested that there was probably very little hanky panky in this most circumspect of Royal affairs but eventually news was leaked by members of the Orange household to Bevil Skelton, James’s ambassador, who was keen to upset the William and Mary marriage applecart.

Elizabeth was subsequently expelled from the royal household.  However the couple’s relationship, based on friendship and intellectual compatibility continued until Mary’s death in 1694 when pressure was brought to bear on the King to break all contact with Elizabeth.

George Hamilton, 1st Earl of Orkney

On November 25, 1695 Elizabeth married George Hamilton, Brigadier General of the Royal Scots, who was rapidly created Earl of Orkney, Viscount Kirkwall and Lord Dechmont and appointed Governor of Virginia, a lucrative appointment where he installed a deputy to attend to business so that he never need see the place.

Their marriage was apparently a happy one producing three daughters, Anne, Frances and Henrietta.  And like her promiscuous cousin Barbara who wrote to Charles in high dudgeon when her two daughters misbehaved, Elizabeth took exception to her daughter Henrietta’s father in law Charles Boyle, 4th Earl of Orrey and his mistress – a good old fashioned case of pot calling the kettle black.

Elizabeth continued to remain at the centre of royal activities and entertained both George I and George II at her country seat of Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, a 160 acre estate acquired by her kinsman George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham in 1666.

King George II

In 1727 she was present at the coronation of George II.  By then aged 70 she was still the subject of derisory comments.  Mary Wortley Montague, fellow aristocrat and rapacious letter writer, described her as a ‘mixture of fat and wrinkes’ with a ‘considerable pair of bubbys a good deal withered, a great belly that preceded her.’  She writes of ‘the inimitable roll of her eyes, and her grey hair which by good fortune stood directly upright.’

Elizabeth died on April 19, 1733 at her home in Albemarle Street, London and was buried at Taplow, Buckinghamshire.