The Bedstead Tomb

It was the year 1615 and Sir John St John began commissioning a series of quite astounding monuments to immortalise his family in the parish church of St Mary’s, Lydiard Tregoze.

St Mary's Church, Lydiard Tregoze

St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze

The first memorial was the quite extraordinary polyptych complete with a pedigree painted on the outer panels. Next came the remodelling of the south chapel in 1633 followed by the Bedstead Tomb, a monument to his first wife Anne who died in 1628 and their thirteen children, and his second Margaret Whitmore, Lady Grobham, who still had four years to run on her clock.

Sir John himself would die in 1648 at his Battersea home, but not before three sons perished fighting for the Royalists in the English Civil War.

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Skip 300 years or so and by 1977 ‘the Bedstead tomb’ was in desperate need of restoration and repair. For some time the magnificent memorial made of alabaster, black carboniferous limestone and clunch, a hard, compact grey chalk, had been supported by a cradle of scaffolding and awaiting attention by conservator John Green.

Sir John St John 1st Bt

Sir John St John 1st Bt

In style and quality the tomb has been compared to work by Nicholas Stone, a leading 17th century sculptor. It was made in London and transported to Lydiard Tregoze in sections where it was reassembled in St Mary’s Church.

Anne Leighton

Anne Leighton

By the 1970s the monument was in a sorry state with rising damp and water damage to the plinth and the entablature. Part of the structure had already collapsed, including the heraldic cartouche which had fallen and smashed into pieces on the church floor while figures on the upper canopy were also in a perilous condition.

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John Green set to work on the monument with his assistant Michael Bayley. First it was completely dismantled, then cleaned, repaired and a damp proof membrane was inserted.

Margaret Whitmore, Lady Grobham

Margaret Whitmore, Lady Grobham

The monument measures approximately 4 metres long, 2 metres wide and stands nearly 4.5 metres tall. The tremendous weight of the monument required considerable support beneath the church floor and during the restoration work a pile of 17th century bricks was discovered to be doing just this.

The historical and architectural importance of St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze was recognised in Simon Jenkin’s book ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches,’ published in 1999. Sir Simon said of St. Mary’s: “Were the South Chapel to be removed lock, stock and barrel to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, it would cause a sensation.”

Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Countess Kildare

On February 3, 1537 five brothers, Sir James, Sir John, Oliver, Richard and Walter Fitzgerald, were taken from the Tower of London where they had been incarcerated for 11 long months.They were most probably fastened to a hurdle or wooden panel and drawn behind a horse the five miles from the Tower to the terrible Tyburn gallows – here they were hung, drawn and quartered.

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The Fitzgerald family, Earls of Kildare, had been Yorkist supporters during the War of the Roses and Henry VIII was wont to keep a close eye on them. In 1533 he summoned Gerald Fitzgerald, 9th Earl of Kildare to London. This was a pretty big year for Henry. He married and crowned Anne Boleyn, his daughter Elizabeth was born and he was excommunicated by Pope Clement VII. So a bit up and down!

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Thomas Fitzgerald, Lord Offaly, the Earl’s 21 year old son, was left in charge back home in Ireland.

However, news reached Thomas that his father had been beheaded in the Tower. Unaware that this was a ploy by the family’s enemies to provoke the young heir, Thomas rallied his followers and rampaged through the streets of Dublin to the Chapter House of St Mary’s Abbey where the King’s Council awaited him. Silken Thomas, so called on account of the silk his followers wore on their helmets, threw down his Sword of State and renounced his allegiance to the King.

Thomas 'Silken' Fitzgerald, Lord Offaly

Thomas ‘Silken’ Fitzgerald, Lord Offaly

Thomas then went all out to bring Dublin to its knees. The ironic twist in this sad story is that when the Earl heard what his son had done, he took to his bed in the Tower and died.

Back home things went from bad to worse. Great swathes of Kildare and Meath were burned; the people who survived the conflagration were driven out. The new deputy sent by Henry to quell the rebellion was Sir William Skeffingdon who laid siege to the Fitzgerald’s stronghold, Maynooth Castle.

Maynooth Castle pictured in 1898

Maynooth Castle pictured in 1898

It was all over. Thomas surrendered to Lord Grey who promptly packed him off to the Tower and soon after his arrest his five uncles were also captured, even though three of them had openly and publicly disproved of their nephew’s actions.

Men in their 30s and 40s at the time of their execution, it is impossible to imagine sustaining the loss of five sons, brothers, uncles – kinsmen with a large extended family left to mourn them.

So where is the Good Gentlewoman in this story, I hear you ask, and what is the St John connection?

Here comes the family history bit.

Thomas ‘Silken’ Fitzgerald 10th Earl of Kildare, was the son of Gerald Fitzgerald 9th Earl who was the son of another Gerald, the 8th Earl and his first wife.

The 8th Earl of Kildare had a large family of 14 children, seven by his first wife and seven by his second. His first wife was Alison FitzEustace.

His second wife, the mother of the five sons hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, was Elizabeth St John, the daughter of Oliver St John and his wife Elizabeth Scrope of Lydiard Tregoze.

Following the death of the 8th Earl in 1513 Elizabeth married Sir John Wallop, a soldier and diplomat and considerably younger than Elizabeth, possibly as much as 20 years younger.

Elizabeth died on June 28, 1516. Further research is necessary to discover her place of burial.

Eleanor St John wife of Thomas Grey 2nd Marquess of Dorset

Sometimes the fleeting good gentlewoman passes almost without trace, leaving us to marvel at her wondrous ancestry and her influential husband.  If we are fortunate her progeny lead us down the centuries to engage with yet more talented and influential generations.

Only known image of the three St John sisters

Only known image of the three St John sisters

But sadly not so in the case of Eleanor St John who passes through the ether with barely a disturbance, her birthday unknown, her date of death unrecorded.

It is believed that Eleanor was born circa 1480, the daughter of Oliver St John and Elizabeth Scrope, at Lydiard Tregoze, the property conveyed to her father by his mother Margaret Beauchamp.

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The War of the Roses between the rival Royal houses of Lancaster and York raged on and off for thirty years between 1455 – 1485.  Eleanor was still a young child when her cousin Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and seized the crown.  Henry promptly sealed the succession with his marriage to Elizabeth of York in 1486, aligning himself with the defeated Royal household.

Henry VII

Henry VII

Enter Thomas Grey, whose impressive CV would read Privy Councillor, Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, Lord Warden of the Scottish Marches, Justice of the Forest south of Trent and joint Constable of Warwick Castle to go with his title 2nd Marquess of Dorset, Lord Ferrers of Groby and Astley.

Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset

Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset

Thomas was the grandson of Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s Queen Consort, and her first husband Sir John Grey of Groby.  Following his stepfather’s death in 1483, Thomas’s fortunes rose and fell.  Imprisoned during the rebellion of Lambert Simnel in 1487, Thomas was made a knight of the Bath in 1494 and a knight of the garter in 1501 before ending up in the Tower of London in 1508, again under suspicion of conspiracy.

It is thought that Thomas married Eleanor in 1500.  Despite her equally close Royal connections she wasn’t even his first choice of bride as in 1483 he was contracted to marry wealthy heiress Anne St Leger, but this marriage never took place.

The marriage was a relatively short one.  The couple had no children and by 1509 Eleanor was dead and Thomas was remarrying.  His second wife was Margaret Wotton, the widow of William Medley.

Margaret Wotton

Margaret Wotton

The Grey family fortunes continued to ebb and flow and in 1533 Thomas’s son Henry married Lady Frances Brandon, Henry VII’s grand daughter.  However there was no happy ending here either as Henry was beheaded in 1554 shortly after his daughter Lady Jane Grey who had reigned as Queen for just nine days.

The execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche

The execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche

Thomas was one of the richest men in England when he died on October 10, 1530.  He was buried at the Collegiate Church of St Mary the Virgin, Astley, Warwickshire. Unfortunately the 14th century church was pretty much demolished and rebuilt by 1608. Out of nine alabaster effigies to the Grey family only three survived into the 1950s; that of Sir Edward Grey who died in 1457, Elizabeth Talbot d.c. 1483 and one believed to be Cecily Bonville, wife of Thomas Grey, 1st Marquess of Dorset.

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Of Eleanor there is no mention.  Unless this effigy might not be Cecily Bonville after all, but maybe that of the St John girl from Lydiard Tregoze.

Elizabeth St John, Lady Bernard

For those who really like a challenge, try following the intermarriages between the St John, Cromwell and Bernard families.

Oliver St John – Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas

Elizabeth St John was born in c1638.  Her father was the celebrated Oliver St John, Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas who had successfully defended John Hampden’s refusal to pay Charles I’s contentious Ship Tax.  Her mother was Elizabeth Cromwell, Oliver St John’s second wife and the daughter of Henry Cromwell of Upwood, Oliver Cromwell’s uncle.  Elizabeth’s elder siblings by Oliver St John’s first wife Johanna Altham were brother Francis and sisters Johanna and Catherine, who married their cousins Walter and Henry St John of Lydiard Tregoze.

Oliver St John commissioned the construction of the opulent Thorpe Hall at Longthorpe in Peterborough between 1653-1656, said by 17th century diarist John Evelyn to have been built out of the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace and cloisters.  It’s doubtful that Elizabeth spent much time at her father’s new home as she was married off in 1655 while still in her teens.

The parish registers at St Andrew’s, Enfield record that ‘The trulie worthy John Bernarde Esq of Huntingdon and Mrs Eliz. St John, d to the rt. hon. Oliver St John, lord chiefe justice of the Common Pleas, were married before her said father, and by him declared man and wife, February 26, 1655, coram testibus non paucis venerabilibus egreglis et fide dignis.’

The newly weds returned to Sir John’s estate at Brampton, two miles from Huntingdon in Cromwell heartland. Described as a domineering landlord, Sir John apparently drove the smaller freeholders off his land. He served as MP for Huntingdon in the First Protectorate Parliament and was re-elected in 1656 and 1659.  He also served in the 1660 Convention parliament.

Although her two elder sisters married when Elizabeth was a child, kinship ties were strong following the tumultuous times of the civil war and Johanna was particularly close to her younger sister. Elizabeth gave birth to nine children but only three survived to adulthood and in 1663 Johanna was in attendance when the pregnant Elizabeth took ill and miscarried.  Johanna writes from Elizabeth’s home at Brampton to Thomas Hardyman, her steward at Lydiard Park – ‘My sis Bernard has her Ague stil wch has caused her to miscary of her 5 girl 3 weeks before her time.’

Johanna St John

Sadly this is the last reference we have to Elizabeth and no further trace of her can, at present, be found.  Elizabeth had a fifth daughter whom she named Johanna after her much loved elder sister.  She must have therefore died after 1664 and before Sir John’s second marriage in 1670.

But just to complicate the ‘who married whom’ saga. Elizabeth’s grandson Sir John Bernard 4th Baronet married Mary St John, the daughter of her brother Francis.  And I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Cromwellian connections.