Buried – The Lady Ellinor Roberts Widd

When war raged across England in the 17th century the St. John family, like so many others, were divided by the conflict. Sir John St. John 1st Baronet, lost three sons to the Royalist cause while his two younger boys fought on the Parliamentarian side. His sister Lucy St. John watched her son Allen Apsley join his Cavalier cousins in battle while her daughter Lucy supported her regicide husband John Hutchinson.*

And yet another of those sisters portrayed on the St. John polyptych had to reconcile her Royalist background with the  sympathies of a Parliamentarian; William Roberts, a friend of Oliver Cromwell and her son in law.

When Jane’s husband Robert Atye died in 1612 he left his family well provided for. Following the death of his son Arthur his daughter Eleanor (spelling varies) became a wealthy heiress and a desirable marriage prospect.

Eleanor was about 16 years old when she married her near neighbour in Willesden, William Roberts in 1624, the year in which he was knighted by James I at Greenwich. The newly weds moved into Neasden House, the Roberts family home built by Thomas Roberts in the reign of Henry VIII. During William and Eleanor’s occupancy it became one of the largest houses in Willesden. It needed to be as the babies soon began to arrive, some sources say as many as 15.

A son, Edmund Roberts was baptised at St Mary’s, Willesden on July 23, 1625. After that they arrived at fairly regular intervals – William 1628, Mary 1629, John 1631, Jane 1634, Frances 1634/5, William 1637, Elizabeth 1639, Eleanor 1641, Edward (date of birth unknown). And during the Civil War Eleanor took three sons to St. Mary’s, Willesden to be baptised – Thomas on July 6, 1645, Francis on November 29, 1646 and Richard on April 9, 1648.

Sir William Roberts served on various commissions under Charles I but he soon revealed his Parliamentarian credentials. In 1644 he was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant for Middlesex and ordered to muster 300 trained men to suppress an uprising at Windsor.

Roberts was one of 135 nominated commissioners chosen to attend the trial of Charles I but it is unlikely he took an active role, unlike Lucy St. John’s son in law, John Hutchinson who was among those that signed the King’s death warrant.

A powerful character, Sir William dominated the parish of Willesden. He even conducted marriages at his house and took charge of the parish registers during the Interregnum, his signature frequently appearing within the pages.

Sir William’s post war career proved equally busy and very lucrative. He was first appointed as one of the contractors who arranged for the sale of episcopal land. By 1652 his role was extended to include the sale of crown and royalist land. Raised to the peerage in 1658, Lord Roberts took his seat in Cromwell’s ‘upper house.’

Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 Roberts managed to hang on to his wealth. He died on September 19, 1662 and was buried at St. Mary’s Church, Willesden.

So, as usual plenty of information can be found about Sir William, but what about Eleanor. Yes, it’s the same old story – I can’t even find a will as yet, although I’m convinced she must have left one.

Soon after her husband’s death Eleanor and her eldest son Sir William Roberts 1st Baronet ended up in a battle in the Court of Chancery. William challenged his mother’s right to sell 120 acres of land in Willesden and Hendon to Edward Nelthorpe. She meanwhile counter claimed that William was treating as his own land in Willesden, Kilburn and Hampstead that should have gone to a younger son, Edward.

There is one other intriguing reference to Eleanor. In an attempt to calm the religious turmoil that continued following the Restoration, Charles II issued the Royal Declaration of Indulgence in 1672. This was an attempt to allow greater religious freedom for Catholics and non-conformists. Lady Eleanor Roberts of Willesden is recorded as requesting a licence for a non-conformist minister to serve at St. Mary’s, Willesden.

Eleanor died in 1678 and was buried at St. Mary’s, Willesden on November 22.

*And if you find the St. John family and the 17th century fascinating (and quite frankly, who wouldn’t) then you are sure to enjoy the Lydiard Chronicles, a series of three historical novels by Elizabeth St. John – The Lady of the Tower, By Love Divided and Written in their Stars, with the companion Counterpoint series, Theo, Earl of Suffolk, Barbara, Lady Villiers and Henry, the King’s Cavalier.

Lydiard Chronicles


Novels by Elizabeth St. John


William Roberts Knight


Entry of a marriage ‘approved’ by William Roberts in 1653.



St. Mary’s, Willesden.

polyptychThe St. John polyptych

DSC03418Eleanor’s mother Jane St. John, third from right.

Three literary sisters

Antonia Fraser, Judith Kazantzis and Rachel Billington are three sisters who have made their mark on the literary scene during a combined career of more than 120 years.

The three literary siblings are the daughters of politician, writer and prison reformer Francis Aungier Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford and his wife Elizabeth.  Lord ‘Frank’ Longford was the author of the 1972 Pornography Report but is probably better remembered for his sustained, and unsuccessful, campaign for the release of Moors Murderer Myra Hindley.

Francis 'Frank' Aungier Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford

Francis ‘Frank’ Aungier Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford

Antonia Fraser, born in 1932, is the author of numerous historical biographies including Mary, Queen of Scots and Cromwell, Our Chief of Men, and has also written the Jemima Shore series of detective novels.

Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser

Second sister, born in 1940 is Judith Kazantzis, poet, painter and printmaker who in 2007 was awarded the Society of Authors’ Cholmondeley Award for poetic achievement.

Judith Kazantzis

Judith Kazantzis

And third sister born in 1942 is Rachel Billington who in a prolific career has written more than 30 novels for both adults and children, journalism for UK and US newspapers and plays for TV and radio.

Rachel Billington

With a wealth of literary prizes, a CBE, an OBE and a DBE between them these three women come from an illustrious line of feisty females.  Their father, Frank Pakenham was the second son of Brigadier General Thomas Pakenham, 5th Earl of Longford and his wife Lady Mary Julia Child Villiers. There’s that name again!

The Villiers family liked to keep ever close to the throne; from George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, favourite of King James VI and I, to Queen Anne’s best friend Barbara Villiers and three Royal mistresses – Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Castlemaine, mother to five of Charles II’s illegitimate children; Elizabeth Villiers ‘Squinty eyed Betty’ William III’s squeeze and Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey and mistress of George IV. The Villiers women (and men) were not a little manipulative; intelligent, entertaining and ever so slightly interfering, once they got their foot in the door there was no stopping them. Through  Restoration romps to Georgian extravaganzas, the Villiers’ were never very far away.

The three Pakenham sisters can trace their ancestry back eleven generations to Sir Edward Villiers and his wife Barbara St John, one of another family of influential sisters pictured on the magnificent St John polyptych in St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze.


It seems quite fitting, therefore, that Antonia Fraser has done such a lot of Royal record keeping, including a biography on Charles II in which her ancestor features prominently.  Now if only Barbara had stopped her meddling and put pen to paper we could have read a first hand account.

Katherine Fitzgerald Villiers, Viscountess Grandison

In the 1660s the war torn medieval castle of Dromana high above the River Blackwater in County Waterford commanded stunning views across oak woodlands.  The vast estate had been the seat of the Fitzgerald family for more than four hundred years and when Sir John Fitzgerald died without a male heir in 1664, all eyes were on his three year old orphaned daughter Katherine.

Katherine became first the ward of Charles II and then of her ambitious uncle Richard Le Power.  Keen to extend his land holdings and increase his wealth, Baron Le Power married Katherine to his son John. The ceremony was performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury Gilbert Sheldon in his chapel at Lambeth Palace on May 20, 1673.  Katherine was just short of her 13th birthday and her groom was eight years old.

But Katherine was no pushover.  Two years later, still only 15 years old, she appealed to the Archbishop for an annulment, citing that she had been married against her consent due to ‘immoderate importunity, threats, fear and the false suggestion of losing her estate.’ Power’s father in law, Lord Anglesey, who had been instrumental in arranging the marriage, described Katherine as a ‘jadish viper, fair flirt, wicked urchin,’ in other words – a girl who would not be messed with. 

And two years after this she eloped with the man of her choice dashing guardsman Edward Villiers, eldest son of George Villiers, 4th Viscount Grandison of Limerick, who would rise to the rank of Brigadier General in The Queen’s Bays.

Oliver St John, 1st Viscount Grandison

The Grandison title had come into the Villiers family via the marriage of Edward’s grandparents, Sir Edward Villiers and Barbara St John, one of the six daughters of Sir John St John and Lucy Hungerford of Lydiard House.  The viscountcy was created in 1620 for Sir Oliver St John, Lord Deputy of Ireland, with special remainder to the male issue of his niece Barbara.  First to inherit the title was Barbara’s eldest son William, father of the Royal mistress Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine.  Upon his death in 1659 it went to her second son John who died in 1659 when Barbara’s third son became 4th Viscount Grandison.


Memorial to Oliver St John, 1st Viscount Grandison in St Mary’s Church, Battersea – David Conway

Edward and Katherine had six children, Mary, Katherine, Harriott, Elizabeth, William and John who became the 5th Viscount and 1st Earl Grandison. Following Edward’s death in 1693 Katherine set about providing for herself and her children.  In a letter to the Rt Hon Thomas Keightley, Vice Treasurer of Ireland, Katherine accuses Lord Grandison and the Villiers family of ill treatment. In a direct challenge to her father in law, George 4th Viscount Grandison, plucky Katherine obtained a patent from King William granting her the privilege to enjoy the same title and precedence ‘as if her husband had survived his father.’  Through a private act of parliament Katherine established her rights, provided for her younger children and regulated the descent of the family estates.

Having secured her family’s fortune, Katherine married again.  Her third husband was William Steuart, MP for Waterford, Privy Councillor in Ireland and commander in chief of the army during the Duke of Ormonde’s absence.

Katherine died in 1725 aged 64 according to some accounts, insane.  She was buried in Westminster Abbey with other members of the Villiers family.  Her last husband William joined her there a year later.

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.

St John Sisters

When William Cobbett visited Lydiard Tregoze on his fact finding tour of 1826 he observed that the estate had once been a noble place.

“The land is some of the finest in the whole country; the trees show that the land is excellent,’ he writes, ‘but, all, except the church, is in a state of irrepair and apparent neglect, if not abandonment.’

By the beginning of the 19th century the St John money was pretty much gone.  There was no longer any disposable income to spend on Sevres porcelain or racehorses and there was certainly no money for grand portraits in oil painted by royal favourites.

Displayed in the Morning Room at Lydiard House are drawings of the daughters of Henry 4th Viscount Bolingbroke and his wife Maria St John Mildmay, but no portraits of the parents survive.  There are examples of Maria’s needlework – an embroidered panel of a negro boy with two dogs – and two chair seats, an occasional chair in the drawing room and another on a Jacobean style oak chair in the library.

Following the marriage of Henry 4th Viscount Bolingbroke and Maria St John Mildmay at St George’s, Hanover Square in 1812 the young couple didn’t immediately make their home at Lydiard House.  George Richard, the father who had deserted Henry as an infant, was back in residence with his second wife Isabella Hompesch and a whole brood of children.  Henry and his family didn’t move in until after George Richard’s death in 1824.  He did, however, bring his two little daughters to be baptised at St Mary’s – Maria Louisa in 1813 and Anne Jane Charlotte in 1815.

Eldest sister Maria married John Lauriston Kneller, a customs clerk, on March 11, 1839, and produced a family of ten children.  John’s work apparently kept the family on the move.  The children’s birthplaces are recorded as Ireland, France, Liverpool, Cheshire and London.  Baptismal records reveal that even when in London they were still on the move, living at addresses in Grove Terrace, Chiswick, Mornington Road and Clapton Common, Hackney.  Maria died on June 2, 1861.

Her sister Anne married Lawrence Robert Shawe, an officer in the 5th Dragoons.  He appears to have sold his commission at the time of his marriage as he fails to appear in the army lists of 1840.  The Shawe family also led a fairly nomadic lifestyle.  Three of their seven children were born in Devon, one in Cheltenham, one in Hereford and two in Scotland.

Anne, more frequently known as Charlotte, is the only one of the sisters to appear at Lydiard House on one of the Victorian census returns.  No longer able to rent out the dilapidated mansion house to paying tenants, Henry returns to live there himself.  Charlotte and her youngest daughter Montague are visiting at the time of the 1861 census.

Anne outlived her husband by nearly twenty years.  She died on April 24, 1881 at Stanfield House in Southsea, the home of her son. The administration of her Personal Estate valued at £315 19s 10d was granted to her son Lawrence Paulet  Shawe-Storey.

Alongside the modest portrait of a middle aged 5th Viscount Bolingbroke in the Morning Room at Lydiard House is a silhouette portrait of the four sisters and Henry executed in Brighton by Mr Gapp. Youngest brother Spencer is not included – perhaps he couldn’t stand still for long enough.

The tradition of silhouette portraiture where a likeness is cut from black paper and pasted on a light background, dates from the mid 18th century.  John Gapp was the first silhouette artist on The Chain Pier in Brighton working from 1823 when the pier opened until about 1835.

Youngest sister Emily Arabella St John was born on August 18, 1817. She married William Corbet Smith at St Mary’s Church, St  Marylebone on June 24, 1840 and they had one son, Corbet. William died in 1847 and in 1852 Emily married Frederick Geldart Webbe Horlock. Emily died just three years later in 1855.

Now I don’t know what it is about Frederick that I find objectionable.  Maybe it’s his often quoted four names – slightly ostentatious.  Maybe it’s his lack of profession or occupation and the ubiquitous title ‘gentleman’ that rings alarm bells.  In 1860 Frederick fathers a child by his dead wife’s sister Isabella Letitia and then takes more than three years before he gets around to marrying her.

On the death of their father in 1851 the girls’ only surviving brother Henry Mildmay inherited several titles, a crumbling mansion and the Lydiard Estate with a mortgage of £47,000.

Images of portraits in the Morning Room are courtesy of Lydiard House – visit the website on www.lydiardpark.org.uk