The Lady of the Tower by Elizabeth St John and the St John polyptych

The stunning St John polyptych at St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Park, will be open this weekend from Friday July 21 to Sunday July 23, 2017 to celebrate the 402nd anniversary of its installation.

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St John polyptych

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 Sir John and Lady Lucy’s six daughters.

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The outer panels detail the St John family history including a panel dedicated to their Tudor connections.

As Brian Carne writes in the recently reprinted Curiously Painted:

‘It can properly be assumed that Sir John St. John, 1st Baronet, drew on Sir Richard’s [St George] competence as an Officer of the College of Arms and his genealogical and heraldic knowledge for the heraldry on the central display and the pedigree on panels 4a and 8a (1616-25)’.  Sir Richard St George, Norroy King of Arms and later Clarenceux King of Arms, was married to Sir John’s aunt Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of Nicholas and Elizabeth St John.

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?

Brian Carne writes: “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.

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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.’

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The St John polyptych will be open at the following times:

Friday July 21 – 11 am – 4.30 pm

Saturday July 22 – 12 noon – 4 pm

Sunday July 23 –  2.30 pm – 5 pm 

Elizabeth Knollys, Lady Leighton

Pippa Middleton, the younger sister of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, married her millionaire fiance James Matthews today at St Mark’s Church, Englefield in Berkshire in what is already being described as Britain’s wedding of the year.

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The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s two children, three year old Prince George and his little sister Princess Charlotte 2, were among the eight attendants.

When Catherine Middleton became engaged to Prince William in 2010 a family tree was published purporting that both Catherine and William could trace their common ancestry to Elizabeth Knollys, Lady Leighton and her husband Sir Thomas. William descended from their younger daughter Anne who married Sir John St John 1st Baronet and Catherine from the elder one Elizabeth. (The story of Anne Leighton, who married Sir John St John 1st Baronet in 1604, is told here.)

Unfortunately, in a pamphlet written in 1890 by an over zealous family historian, Canon James Davenport, who jumped to one too many conclusions, as it is so easy to do, and traced the Davenport family through the Talbots to the elder Leighton daughter. Then in 2010 it was republished all over again, this time in the Daily Mail, and I for one became very excited – a second, sideways link from the young Royals to Lydiard House and the St John family.

Sadly the error was quickly exposed – but the good news is there still remains a St John, Lydiard Park link between William and Anne!

The Knollys family were about as close to Elizabeth I as it was possible to be.

Katherine Knollys was her first cousin, the daughter of Mary Boleyn, and possibly even her half sister. There is a much disputed rumour that Katherine was the product of her mother’s affair with Henry VIII. The King, however, did not acknowledge Katherine as his daughter, but he did put a lot of opportunities and wealth in her way. Perhaps neither Mary nor the King could be entirely sure, but there is no denying a strong physical resemblance.

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Katherine, Lady Knollys

Katherine’s husband Sir Francis Knollys served three Tudor monarchs in roles varying from Privy Councillor to Governor of Portsmouth and guardian of Mary, Queen of Scots. A staunch puritan, he worked tirelessly for Elizabeth I at great personal sacrifice.

Katherine served in the young Princess Elizabeth’s household before she acceded to the throne and records reveal that Katherine and her husband Francis took part in the ceremony and celebrations for Elizabeth’s coronation and that coronation livery was granted to Lettice and another sister, Elizabeth Knollys. From 1558 Katherine served as a Lady of the Bedchamber, accompanied by her daughters, including young Elizabeth Knollys, then aged just nine years old, who served as a Maid of the Chamber.

The Queen’s relationship with the couples children was also close and complicated and in the case of their daughter Lettice, well quite frankly, a little weird.

Lettice Knollys

Lettice Knollys

Lettice had an affair with and later married the Queen’s favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Essex, causing the Queen to call her a She-Wolf, among other insults, and to banish her from Court.

At the end of her life the Queen’s last favourite was none other than Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and Lettice’s son, by her first husband Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex. I know, bizarre, and the Queen never forgave the beautiful red head who bore a passing resemblance to herself.

But let’s return to the life and times of Katherine’s seventh child and fourth daughter, Elizabeth born upon ‘trynte even’ 1549. Henry VIII’s 12 year old son was on the throne, although the boy’s uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was Protector and called all the royal shots.

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Elizabeth Leighton formerly Knollys

Sir Francis was a Justice of the Peace in Oxfordshire at this time, so it is most likely Elizabeth was born at the Knollys family home Rotherfield Greys. In 1557, during the reign of Mary Tudor, Katherine left the country to join her husband in religious exile in Germany, taking her five youngest children with her; most probably Elizabeth, Robert, Richard, Francis and Anne.

A year later the family returned – Katherine was appointed Chief Lady of the Privy Chamber and the future looked safe – well as safe as it ever looked in Tudor times.

Elizabeth spent pretty much her whole life in the confines of the claustrophobic court where the women employed to care for the Queen’s every need had to apply for a licence to be absent from court for more than two weeks.

Positions at court were all about status with the top posts reserved for ladies from the upper echelons of society.

By 1566 Elizabeth was one of the Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, the day room where the Queen spent much of her time. Elizabeth had daily access to the Queen, to confide in and to influence her and it is known that she was involved in privy council business and decision making.

In 1578 Elizabeth married Thomas Leighton; a somewhat late marriage for both of them. she was 28 and he was 43.

Thomas had been a Gentleman of the Household for ten years before which he had served as a soldier and had seen service at the Seige of Rouen in 1562 and in defence of the garrison at Le Havre a year later. In 1569 he had commanded 500 harquebusiers during the Northern Rebellion and in 1570 he was appointed Governor of Jersey and Guernsey.

Elizabeth, however, remained at court for most of their married life. She had three children, a son Thomas and two daughters, Elizabeth born in 1583 and Anne in 1587.

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Anne St John formerly Leighton

 

And curiouser and curiouser I will soon be revealing yet another link between the modern Royals, little Prince George and the St John family from Lydiard Park.

 

 

 

Croome Court

“Welcome to my office,” said Joe as he led the Friends of Lydiard Park group from the visitor’s centre along a winding pathway which opened up on to this breath-taking view.

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Croome Court has been a work in progress for more than 260 years as restoration continues today. The 6th Earl of Coventry’s £400,000 (worth £35 million in today’s money) project began in 1751 with the building of a Palladian mansion and a landscaped parkland and work continued throughout the 18th centuries. Croome Court was sold in 1948 following the death of the 10th Earl at Dunkirk in 1940.

The National Trust acquired 670 acres of the Park in 1996 and in 2007 the Croome Heritage Trust bought Croome Court and leased it to the National Trust on a 999 year lease. The house opened to the public on September 26, 2009.

The 6th Earl of Coventry inherited Croome Court in 1751 when he was 28 years old, but he already had a vision for his family home. He engaged Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (who designed first the house and then the grounds) and Robert Adam neoclassical architect, interior and furniture designer, to fulfil his ambitions.

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At my first glimpse of Joe’s ‘office’ I could see many similarities to Lydiard House. Admittedly on a larger scale, well yes a MUCH larger scale, but then John St John probably didn’t have £400,000 at his disposal.

Joe walked us past the Georgian Gothic church, built when the 6th Earl demolished the medieval church which stood too close to the house, pointing out the world’s most impressive greenhouse in the distance and up to the stairs on the north front where we met volunteer guide Rosie who gave us a most fascinating and comprehensive tour of the house.

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Most exciting for me was visiting the apartments occupied by the 6th Earl’s 2nd wife Barbara St John.  Barbara was the fourth daughter of John St John, Baron St John of Bletsoe and his wife Elizabeth Crowley.

Barbara was no slouch in the beauty stakes as is evident from her portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds around the time of her marriage.  Today the portrait is part of the Faringdon Collection and is on display at Buscot Park.

The Earl’s second marriage was much more successful than his first to the actress and society beauty, the stunning Maria Gunning. The teenage Maria and her sister Elizabeth were presented at Court to George II in December 1750 and in little over a year they were both married.  Elizabeth to the 6th Duke of Hamilton and on March 5, 1752 19-year-old Maria married George William 6th Earl of Coventry.

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In his second wife Barbara the 6th Earl found a soulmate, a meeting of like minds.  She was interested in birds and animals and George created a menagerie and a model dairy and farm for her.  Boating parties took place on the lake with firework displays to entertain their guests.

Barbara’s rooms at Croome Court were among those re-decorated by one of the more recent owners of the property who gave her elegant bedroom a bathroom makeover. Quite what happens to this room is still up for debate as the National Trust occupancy is still relatively recent and there is an awful lot of work still to do.

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So what were the best bits of my day – well, I loved standing in Barbara St John’s rooms, and the attic rooms, oh and the Church where I discovered the grave of William Dean (more of that to follow) but I didn’t have time to explore the parkland with its numerous follies or visit all the rooms in the house, or the walled garden not to mention the RAF Defford Museum where radar was developed.

 

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Croome Court most definitely requires a second visit…

Some right royal St John connections

If you’ve ever wondered just how many royal connections the St John family has, I can tell you the answer – loads!

But what is so exciting and worth shouting out about is that there is a direct line of descent from the Lydiard Park St John family to Queen Elizabeth II and the three heirs to the throne, Charles, Prince of Wales; William, Duke of Cambridge and baby Prince George.

William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George.

William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George.

And this is how …

Cecilia Nina Cavendish Bentinck was born on September 11, 1862 the eldest daughter of the Rev Charles William Frederick Cavendish Bentinck and his second wife Caroline Louisa Burnaby. The Rev Charles, a grandson of former Prime Minister William Henry Cavendish Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland, was Vicar at Ridgmont in Bedfordshire, today a small village close to Junction 13 of the M1.

Cecilia Nina Cavendish Bentinck

Cecilia Nina Cavendish Bentinck

Twin daughters Ann Violet and Hyacinth were born to the couple in 1864 but the following year the girls’ father died, aged just 47.

The widowed Caroline married Harry Warren Scott in 1870 at St George’s, Hanover Square and the three sisters grew up at Forbes House in Ham and at their parents London residence, 45 Grosvenor Place.

Cecilia married Claude George Bowes-Lyon, Lord Glamis at St Peter & All Saints Church, Petersham on July 16, 1881. Claude, a Lieutenant in the 2nd Life Guards, was 26, Cecilia was 18 years old.

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Their first child, a daughter named Violet Hyacinth after Cecilia’s twin sisters, was born at their London home on April 17, 1882; the couple had another nine children. Four of Cecilia’s sons fought in the Great War, her fourth son Fergus, was killed in action during the Battle of the Hohenzollern Redoubt in the Battle of Loos on September 26, 1915.

But it would be their youngest daughter, Elizabeth Angela Marguerite who became known world wide and who remained in the affection of the British people for more than 79 years.

In 1904 Cecilia’s husband inherited the title 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne and she became chatelaine of three grand houses, Glamis Castle, St Paul’s Walden Bury and Streatlam Castle in County Durham.

A keen gardener Cecilia designed the Italinate gardens at Glamis. Described as deeply religious and a very private person, Cecilia preferred a quiet life, something that came under threat when her youngest daughter Elizabeth married Prince Albert, Duke of York in 1923 and became Queen Consort in 1936.

26th April 1923:  King George V of Great Britain (right) and Queen Mary on the wedding day of their son George, later King George VI, to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (1900 - 2002). With them are the Earl and Countess of Strathmore (left)

26th April 1923: King George V of Great Britain (right) and Queen Mary on the wedding day of their son George, later King George VI, to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (1900 – 2002). With them are the Earl and Countess of Strathmore (left)

In April 1938 Cecilia suffered a heart attack during the wedding of her granddaughter, Anne Bowes Lyon to Thomas, Viscount Anson. She died 8 weeks later on June 23 at 38 Cumberland Mansion, London W1. Her body was buried at Glamis Castle on June 27.

So what does all this mean for the St John family spotter?

Cecilia traces her family back through the Cavendish Bentinck family to the 1st Earl of Portland, Hans William Bentinck, friend, diplomat and advisor to William III, who married Anne Villiers. Anne was the granddaughter of Sir Edward Villiers and his wife Barbara St John, who grew up at Lydiard House. Barbara’s portrait hangs in the State Bedroom in Lydiard House and she appears on the magnificent St John polyptych in St Mary’s Church.

Barbara St John, wife of Sir Edward Villiers

Barbara St John, wife of Sir Edward Villiers

So, to be precise, Barbara St John is the 10x great grandmother of William, Duke of Cambridge. Come on Swindon, let’s shout it out!