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…

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.

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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.’

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!