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.’

Katherine St John, Lady Mompesson

Intriguing and frustrating in equal measure is the paucity of information available about some of these Good Gentlewomen. At least there is a portrait of Katherine St John on the magnificent St John polyptych, believed to have been painted by that Tudor ‘Curtain and Carpets’ master William Larkin.

The six St John sisters. Katherine is picture far right

The six St John sisters. Katherine is picture far right

Katherine is believed to have been born around 1585, the eldest daughter of Sir John St John and his wife Lucy Hungerford. Katherine and her siblings spent their early childhood at the medieval mansion in Lydiard Park.

Following their father’s death in 1594 Katherine’s two brothers Walter and John were made Wards of Court. Although Lucy quickly remarried it appears that not all her children remained with her. Some of the girls at least were sent to live at Battersea with their uncle Oliver St John – a pretty unhappy time for them according to Katherine’s niece Lucy Hutchinson.

Katherine married Giles Mompesson, the son of Thomas Mempesson from Great Bedwyn, in 1606/7 at St John’s Church, Hackney. Katherine could have been as young as 13 although this would not have been considered exceptionally young – her sister in law Anne Leighton was this age when she married Katherine’s brother John at the same church the following year. However it is believed that Anne and John did not live as man and wife for several years; the fate of Katherine is not known. Life at Battersea might not have been a barrel of laughs but I’d wager a purse full of gold and silver thread that it was preferable to living with Sir Giles.

In 1621 he was described as ‘a litle black man of a black swart complection with a litle black beard’ but perhaps after eighteen years of marriage Katherine had stopped noticing – there were far more pressing problems for her to cope with by then. Sir Giles was – how can I put it – entrepreneurial. No, that’s not quite the right word. Avaricious, a miscreant, probably quite loathsome I would imagine, that’s more like it.

The St John family, along with most other aristocrats of the day, were quick to exploit their advantages and Sir Giles had one hugely influential in-law. Katherine’s sister Barbara was married to Sir Edward Villiers, half brother to royal favourite George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, who was close to the ear (and other anatomical features) of King James I.

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham

Through Buckingham Sir Giles managed to land a few plum positions. By 1620 Sir Giles had been appointed Commissioner to grant Licences to Keepers of Inns and Alehouses, a hugely lucrative job if you knew how to play it. Sir Giles charged exorbitant fees – £5-£10 and those that couldn’t afford to pay up he prosecuted, approximately 4,000 people. But that wasn’t all. Sir Giles procured the patent and exclusive right to manufacture gold and silver thread. Apparently the process was incredibly dangerous. Wiltshire antiquarian John Aubrey records those involved in the production suffered badly – ‘they rotted their heads and arms and brought lameness on those that wrought it, some losing their eyes and many their lives by the venom of the vapours that came from it.’

This caused such uproar that the King called in the patent, but it was Mompesson’s abuse of his role as Alehouse Commissioner that really got him into trouble. Sir Giles was stripped of his knighthood, fined £10,000 and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, he had already done a flit overseas by the time the judgement came in so his sentence was commuted to perpetual banishment. Wiley Sir Giles lay low in France where Katherine joined him, and returned when all the fuss had died down.

The general opinion was that James came down so heavily on Sir Giles to appease a people that hated the royal favourite. George Villiers, an extremely unpopular figure, was eventually stabbed to death in a Portsmouth pub on August 23, 1628 by Army Officer John Felton.

So where did Katherine figure in this right old who ha? The fine paid by her husband was returned to her in a roundabout way. The King granted that the £10,000 be placed in the hands of Katherine’s brother Sir John St John and her younger half brother Edward Hungerford ‘in trust to the use of Lady Mompesson and her child.’

Sir Giles and Lady Katherine Mompesson

Sir Giles and Lady Katherine Mompesson

Katherine died in 1633 aged approximately 48. Her reprehensible husband erected a monument to her memory in the church of St Mary’s and outlived her by a further eighteen years.

A translation of the Latin inscription on the tomb reads:

Sacred to the memory of the best of women, the lady Katherine Mompesson, peerless in beauty, chastity, constancy, piety, and every form of virtue, the eldest sister of John St John of Lydiard Tregoze, Baronet, and dearest wife of Giles Mompesson of the ancient family of Bathampton in the County of Wiltshire, knight. This Giles, fully mindful of twenty-six years of happy married life (being still alive) has made this tomb, where he has given orders for his ashed to be laid (when the day shall come). She died on 28 March, 1633.

Stay, traveller, not to damage these effigies made by the sculptor’s hand.

Read in full the ways of those now dead.