Lady Mary St John

Lady Mary Kerr married Frederick St John in December 1788. She had just celebrated her 21st birthday and he was soon to turn 25.

Mary was a member of the Scottish aristocracy whose family seat was the medieval Newbattle Abbey at Dalkeith. Mary was the 4th child and 3rd daughter of William John Kerr, 5th Marquess of Lothian and his wife Elizabeth Fortescue.


Elizabeth Fortescue – Lady Mary’s mother

Frederick St John was the younger of two sons born to the warring Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke and Lady Diana Spencer whose marriage ended spectacularly  in divorce in 1768.

Frederick Jnr joined the army in 1779 aged 14 as an ensign in the 85th Regiment of Foot and went on to become the second most senior general in the British Army. But in 1788 he had marriage on his mind and the young Lady Mary Kerr fitted the bill nicely.

Frederick St John

Frederick St John

Mary didn’t become pregnant immediately after the wedding, perhaps Frederick’s military duties took him away from home, but by February 1791 she was due to give birth to the couples’ first child. A son, Robert William, was born on February 5; the following day Mary died. She was 23 years old.

At first it seemed that this was about all the information I would be able to garner about Mary. Her death warranted a brief mention in the Annual Register, or a View of History, Politics and Literature for the Year 1791 – Lady Mary St John, lady of the honourable major Frederick St John. In The Gentleman’s Magazine the entry is equally brief 6 [February] at her house in Park Lane, Lady Mary St John, lady of Major St J. and daughter of the Marquis of Lothian.

Horace Walpole, Whig politician and friend of Frederick’s mother Lady Di, mentioned Mary’s death in a letter to Miss Berry, and that seemed to be that.

And then a visit to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre revealed a most fascinating document filed among the household bills of Henry Herbert, 10th Earl of Pembroke.

Frederick had close family ties to the Pembroke family. Henry Herbert, the 10th Earl, was married to Lady Elizabeth Spencer, the sister of Frederick’s mother, Lady Diana Spencer. Their son and Frederick’s cousin, George Augustus Herbert, who became the 11th Earl of Pembroke, married Elizabeth Beauclerk, Frederick’s sister by his mother’s second marriage to Topham Beauclerk.

However, I certainly didn’t expect to find the following in a box of Pembroke family papers:

2057/A6/18 Account for the funeral of Lady Mary St John at Lydiard Tregoze; to be paid by Lord Herbert.


A view of the South Door at St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze, through which the funeral cortege would have entered.

In fascinating detail this document recounts the cost of Lady Mary’s funeral, from the arrangements at her London home, the long journey to Wiltshire and the short one from the Hall in Lydiard House to the church at St Mary’s just footsteps away.

According to this document Lady Mary’s body was collected from her home in North Audley Street and she was buried on February 12 in the family vault at Lydiard Tregoze in Wiltshire by the order of the Hon. Lord Herbert.

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Details from the funeral account – Lady Mary St John died 1791

The first items to appear on the long list are:

Superfine Crape Shroud, headress & pillow neatly pink’d £2 2s

Large Superfine Crape Sheet to wrap the Body in £1 5s

An Elm Coffin lined with Superfine Crape, Quilted lining & a thick Mattress for the Bottom of the Coffin £1 11s 6d

Other expensive items include the outer lead coffin, inscription plate and brass handles, but it is the details of the journey which are especially interesting.

Feathers [ostrich] placed on the Corps in Audley Street & carried before the Funeral to the Stonesend, placed on the Corps at the Inn on the Road & place of Interment.

Travelling costs were expensive – Two men on Horseback as Porters to attend the Funeral to the place of Interment 6 days each cost £7 4s; a Hearse & 4 Horses £2 2s 6 days cost £12 12s and a coach & 4 Horses £2 2s 6 days cost £12 12s.

Rooms at the Inns on the Road for the Corps cost 17s 6d with a further 17s 6d for two men sitting up with the Corps.

As the funeral cortege neared Lydiard Tregoze a bell was tolled at Marlborough – 6s 8d and again at Swindon 5s.

At Lydiard Tregoze 8 Bearers were employed to carry the Corps from the Hall to the place of Interment by Mr Crooks appointment £2 2s.

The last item on the funeral account is the charge of Turnpikes £1 18s 6d.

The final bill came to £98 18s 8d.

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Details from the funeral account – Lady Mary St John died 1791

Sadly so little is known about the life of Lady Mary St John, but a great deal is known about her after her death.






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.


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.


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.”

Henrietta, Louisa and Elizabeth Molesworth

There appears to have been some confusion concerning the portraits of the three Molesworth sisters in the Springhill collection, County Londonderry.



This portrait is catalogued as being of the Hon Louisa Molesworth, Lady Ponsonby, later Countess Fitzwilliam who was born in 1749 and died in 1824. However it is now thought to most probably be a portrait of her elder sister Henrietta, later the Hon Mrs John Staples, who was born in 1745.


And this one called Louisa Staples, Lady Pakenham is now believed to be that of Elizabeth Molesworth born in 1751, the wife of James Stewart, Henrietta and Louisa’s younger sister.


Louisa Molesworth 2

A third portrait in pastel and graphite, supposedly of Louisa, has confusing inscriptions written on the back in two different hands, causing some doubt as to the sitter.

In recent years the identity of these three women has become confused, which is somewhat surprising as during their lifetime they were remembered as the survivors of a terrible family tragedy.

Henrietta, Louisa and Elizabeth Molesworth were the daughters of Richard Molesworth, 3rd Viscount Molesworth and his second wife Mary Jenney Ussher. Richard Molesworth was an Anglo Irish nobleman and politician who held extensive lands in Limerick. He had enjoyed an illustrious military career, serving alongside the Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Blenheim in August 1704 and was the Duke’s aide de camp during the War of the Spanish Succession two years later. Made Master General of the Ordnance in Ireland in 1740 Richard later became Commander in Chief of Ireland in 1751.

Richard, 3rd Viscount Molesworth

Richard, 3rd Viscount Molesworth

His wife, Mary Jenney Ussher, more than 45 years his junior, was the daughter of Rev. William Ussher, archdeacon of Clonfert. When the couple married in 1743/4 Mary was little more than 15, her husband 64 years old.

Mary Jenney Ussher

Mary Jenney Ussher

The couple’s first child, a daughter Mary, was born on September 24, 1744 and lived for just one day. The following year another daughter Henrietta, was born, followed by Melesina in 1746, Mary in 1747, a son and heir Richard Nassau Molesworth in 1748 followed by Louisa in 1749, Elizabeth in 1751 and Charlotte born in 1755 who died in 1757 aged 2 years old. The children were all born in Dublin, most probably in the family’s town house, 14 Henrietta Street.

The 3rd Viscount died in 1758 and in 1763 the family was in residence in London at No 49 Upper Brook Street, Hanover Square.

In the first week of May 1763 the house was full with family, servants and visitors, among them Lady Molesworth’s brother Royal Naval Commander Arthur Ussher and Dr Molesworth and his family. Only the young heir, 15 year old Richard, was away from home, studying at Westminster School.

Louisa Molesworth

Louisa Molesworth

In the early hours of May 6, 1763 fire broke out. An extract from a letter dated London 7th May 1763 was published in Faulkner’s Dublin Journal and gives a vivid description.

“It is with the utmost horror that I relate to you the dismal catastrophe which befel poor Lady Molesworth and her family yesterday morning about 5 o’clock, when a fire suddenly broke forth in her house by the carelessness of a servant in the nursery, in which she herself, two of her daughters, her brother, who was Capt of a Man of War, the children’s governess and two other maid servants perished. The other three daughters are indeed not consumed, but scarce in a condition preferable, the eldest jumping out of a 2nd floor window was caught upon the iron palisades, which tore her thigh so miserably that the surgeons were obliged to cut it off directly four inches above the knee.”

The report continued:

“The Hon Coote Molesworth and his wife, who, unluckily for them, happened to be her guests, have escaped. He had the presence of mind to throw his bedding out of the back windows, upon which his wife and two children fell, otherwise they must have been dashed to pieces, for the children came from the garret down to the back area, no less than four stories high. Mr Molesworth hung by an iron on the outside of the two pair of stair windows, till a neighbouring carpenter brought him a ladder. – List of saved; Lord Molesworth, fortunately at school; Miss Harriet’s [Henrietta] thigh cut off, and the other leg much torn with spikes; Miss Louisa thigh broke, near hip, but set and hopes of cure without amputation; head cut but not fractured. Mr & Mrs Molesworth, Miss Betty much bruised and scorched. Perished; Lady Molesworth; Miss Melesina; Miss Molly, Capt. Usher; Mrs Moselle, governess to the children; Mrs Patterson, Lady Molesworth’s woman; the young ladies maid, Capt Usher’s man, who got out, but perished by returning to save his master; and two black footman.”

That man of letters, Horace Walpole, wrote of the disaster to the Hon H.S. Conway.

“I must change this tone, to tell you of the most dismal calamity that ever happened. Lady Molesworth’s house, in Upper Brook Street, was burned to the ground between four and five this morning. She herself, two of her daughters, her brother and six servants, perished. Two other of the young ladies jumped out of the two pair of stairs and garret windows: one broke her thigh, the other (the eldest of all) broke her’s too, and has had it cut off. The fifth daughter is much burnt. The French governess leaped from the garret, and was dashed to pieces. Dr Molesworth and his wife, who were there on a visit, escaped; the wife by jumping from the two pair of stairs, and saving herself by a rail; he by hanging by his hands, till a second ladder was brought, after a first had proved too short. Nobody knows how or where the fire began, the catastrophe is shocking beyond what one ever heard; and poor Lady Molesworth, whose character and conduct were the most amiable in the world, is universally lamented. Your good hearts will feel this in the most lively manner.”

News of the tragedy reached the King who provided the surviving sisters with a fully furnished house at his expense. He made them a ‘handsome present’ and continued the pension previously settled on their mother, increasing it by £200 a year.

It is impossible to imagine how these girls coped with the trauma and the horrific injuries they sustained.

Yet all three went on to marry, Louisa twice, the second time when she was 73, and all three raised large families and lived long lives. Henrietta died in 1813 aged 68, Louisa was 74 when she died and Elizabeth was 83 years old when she died in 1835.



This is one of the more poignant stories to come from the extended St John family files. The three surviving Molesworth sisters were the great great granddaughters of Nicholas St John and his wife Elizabeth Blount whose monument stands in St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze. The girls’ descent is traced through the marriage of Nicholas and Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth who married Richard St George.

Nicholas St John and his wife Elizabeth Blount

Nicholas St John and his wife Elizabeth Blount

And the girls’ uncle, Major Edward Molesworth, their father’s brother, is the 5 x great grandfather of Sophie, Countess of Wessex, wife of Prince Edward.

Sophie, Countess of Wessex

Sophie, Countess of Wessex


Lady Eleanor Cave

When it come to memorials, whether in stained glass, marble or oil painting, no family does it better than the St John family.

The historic church of St Mary’s next door to the manor house in Lydiard Park, Wiltshire is stuffed to the rafters with them. Simon Jenkins writes in England’s Thousand Best Churches – “Were the South chapel to be removed lock, stock and barrel to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, it would cause a sensation.”

Nicholas St John, who died in 1589 and his wife Elizabeth Blount have a particularly impressive coloured memorial commissioned by their son John.

Nicholas St John and his wife Elizabeth

Nicholas not only owned the estate at Lydiard Tregoze but also the manors of Shrevenham, Salop, Compton Beauchamp and Stanford in the Vale as well as the ancient manor house at Purley Magna, which he rebuilt.  His third daughter Eleanor was born in c1560 probably at Purley where she grew up with her seven siblings.

Eleanor married in 1586 to Sir Thomas Cave who was the nephew of Elizabeth I’s powerful Lord Treasurer William Cecil, Lord Burghley.  The couple moved to the Cave ancestral home at Stanford on Avon where they raised five sons and three daughters.

When their eldest son Richard 19, died in Padua in 1606 while on his grand tour the couple made sure he had a fitting memorial in the 14th century parish church.

Thomas died in 1613, the date of Eleanor’s death is imprecise.  She was still alive in 1612 when she was engaged in a bitter dispute with her daughter Margaret’s father in law, Sir John Wynn 1st Baronet of Gwydir, Llanrwst. But by 1614 Margaret was a widow and her mother was dead as well.

Eleanor and her husband were buried together in the Stanford parish church of St Nicholas.  And like her parents at Lydiard Tregoze the couple left an impressive monument of their own, next to the one they erected for their son, as can been seen from these photographs.

The couples three daughters Eleanor, Margaret and Alice

And their five sons, Richard, Thomas, Oliver, John and an unnamed son who died in childhood.

The Mapledurham Portrait

You know how it is – you flip through the family photograph album and suddenly you come across that old snap, a woman standing in the back garden.  She’s definitely a relative – she’s got grandma’s nose and cousin Edith’s smile, but who is she?  Well the St John’s have just such a portrait.

The manor of Purley Magna came into the St John family as the result of a 16th century marriage between Jane Iwardeby and John St John.  When Jane died in 1553 her grandson Nicholas inherited the estate which came to him by right of settlement on his wife, the former Elizabeth Blount from neighbouring Mapledurham House.

The medieval Mapledurham manor house near Reading was partially demolished in the 17th century as successive members of the Blount family renovated and rebuilt the property but for more than 200 years a full length portrait of Lady St John of Bletso hung in the dining room.  Attributed to William Larkin, dubbed the ‘Curtain Master,’ for placing his sitters framed by shiny drapes and a carpet boarder, this Lady somewhat unusually stands against a woodland backdrop.

The Lady St John portrait arrived at Mapledurham in 1755 as part of the inheritance of Mary Agnes Blount from her father Sir Henry Joseph Tichbourne who died in 1743. A guide book available in the 1990s identified the sitter as ‘probably’ Catherine Dormer d.1615, the widow of John 2nd Baron St John of Bletso d. 1596, one of the peers who tried Mary, Queen of Scots.

In 1969/70 the portrait went on loan to the Tate Gallery for ‘The Elizabethan Image’ exhibition and in 1985 was part of the Treasure House of Britain exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  In the catalogue that accompanied that exhibition art historian Sir Roy Strong questioned the identity of the lady in black and suggested she might be Anne Leighton, first wife of Sir John St John, 1st Baronet.

Sir Roy compares the Mapledurham portrait with the representation of Anne on the St John polyptych, also thought to have been painted by William Larkin.

Unfortunately the polyptych has been subject to 400 years of fiddling and fussing and considerable overpainting with copious amounts of varnish applied to the portrait. Conservation work in the 1980s saw most of the damage reversed, but sadly the portrait of Anne had suffered the most.  She appears with a ghostly white face on the arm of her husband , but a comparison of the fashion bears up well to the Mapledurham matron.

What do you think? I think she has her mother’s eyes.

Ellen St John

Ellen St John visited Lydiard Park for her father’s funeral.  Whether this was the one and only time she ever saw her ancestral home remains unknown. In fact most of Ellen’s life is something of a mystery, living as she did on the periphery of St John family life.

Ellen’s life was shrouded in secrecy and even she once commented that she never knew her exact birth date. Difficult to locate on the Victorian census returns, Ellen could have become a mere footnote in the St John family history if it were not for a handful of letters that escaped the monumental clear out conducted by her half brother Vernon 6th Lord Bolingbroke, who donated 2½ tons of paper to the wartime salvage effort.

Ellen Rose was the only surviving child born to Ellen Medex and Henry Mildmay St John, 5th Viscount Bolingbroke, during a clandestine relationship which lasted over 30 years.

Despite Henry’s later protestations, it appears unlikely that he ever married Ellen Medex. However, following her death in 1885 she was buried in Highgate Cemetery where Henry declared her to be ‘Ellen, Viscountess Bolingbroke.’

Ellen Rose was born in 1863. Her parent’s nomadic lifestyle under various pseudonyms makes it difficult to locate the family on the 1871 and 1881 census records.

However, the 1891 census returns reveal that Ellen Rosie St John aged 29, occupied four rooms at 39 Cornwall Road close to Paddington Station, where she lived with her companion Minnie Breton on an income of private means, most probably money left to her by her mother.

At the time of the 1911 census Ellen had moved to the suburbs, a six roomed flat at 11 Babington Road, Streatham where she lived with her maid, Minnie Leonard.

By the 1930s Ellen, then in her late sixties, lived in a rented house at 13 Malvern Road, Thornton Heath, Surrey.

She appears to have owned another property that she rented out, meanwhile living in rented accommodation where she also let out several rooms.

Acting on behalf of the widowed Lady Bolingbroke, Harold Dale at H. Bevir & Son, long term solicitors to the St. John family, was the unfortunate recipient of Ellen’s letters, nine of which are held at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.

“I am writing this to ask you if Lady Bolingbroke is still at Lydiard as I have written to her & as she has not answered my letters I am wondering if she received them,” Ellen wrote to Harold Dale, at his Wootton Bassett office.

“She always sent me my rent etc through Mr Goodwyn & I have not had any cheque this month (due 11th). I don’t think he can realize what that means to me. I have not anything of my own & my mother’s money – which was not much was spent was little as everything was so expensive.”

While Mary, Lady Bolingbroke continued to battle the financial consequences of the extravagances of previous generations of St. Johns, her stepdaughter similarly suffered from the excesses of her ancestors’ lifestyles.

In 1922 Vernon Henry St. John, Ellen’s half brother, petitioned the government that he should be summoned to Parliament by the name and style of Viscount Bolingbroke, Viscount Saint John, Baron Saint John of Lydiard Tregoze, and Baron Saint John of Battersea.

The subsequent hearing received extensive press coverage and exposed the details of his father’s, Henry Mildmay, love affairs and subterfuge.

The successful petition enabled Vernon to take his seat in the House of Lords but for Ellen the outcome was less satisfactory.

Tainted by her father’s conduct and with her own illegitimate birth revealed, Ellen wrote to Harold Dale that “I have been here 30 years & the case in the House of Lords simply ruined me here as people have never been the same to me.”

In a letter dated July 3, 1930 Harold Dale outlines the full extent of the financial situation at Lydiard in an attempt to offer Ellen an explanation why he is unable to pay her an allowance. “I am really awfully sorry for you, and do appreciate the position you are in – but Lady Bolingbroke is in exactly the same position, and has no income whatever.

“She also does not know what to do, and she has such heavy expenses in connection with the house and there is nothing to meet them with.

“The position with regard to the future is still in the balance and a great deal depends upon whether any further sales of land take place.

“At the moment the mortgagees will require the whole income and Lady Bolingbroke is powerless in the matter.

“It is a most terrible situation for you.”

Perhaps still unappreciative of the real situation and revealing a little of her father’s autocratic attitude, Ellen replied:

“I cannot understand how it is that Lydiard has got into that terrible state. Lady Bolingbroke could let part of the house & people bring their own servants. That, would bring her a little.”

With the help of Harold Dale, Ellen applied for financial assistance from a variety of philanthropic societies, including the Guild of Aid for Gentlepeople.

“The Society you were kind enough to write to thought the case was not a suitable one so I managed to get a little from another society not permanent unfortunately,” Ellen informed him.

Following the unsuccessful application to the Guild of Aid for Gentlepeople, Ellen again appealed to the beleaguered Harold Dale.

“I hope you will not think me a terrible nuisance – I really don’t know how to go on & I do really dread the winter under these conditions.

“If you could manage to get ever so little a month it would be such a help to keep me going.” Wracked with worry an exasperated Ellen wrote again:  “What do you think I can exist upon? The Vicar & Dr. think it a most cruel and dreadful thing not to send me anything.”

Ellen possibly had some contact with the extended St John family, or perhaps she refers to her Medex relatives when she writes – “the family cannot believe such a thing. Father not being on friendly terms with them, had made it bad for me.”

On December 23, 1931 Mary, Lady Bolingbroke wrote to Harold Dale, “ I am enclosing a cheque for five pounds made out to you as I think it advisable it should be sent to her [Ellen] from you.”

Sadly, Ellen’s eventual rescue came at the expense of Mary’s death in 1940. In her will dated 1902 Mary’s first bequest was an annuity of £100 per annum to Ellen St John. In 1940 Ellen was herself 77 years old and in failing health. Her last address in 1942 was 58 Derby Road, Croydon where she rented two rooms. She died at the Mayday Hospital, Croydon in March of that year.

Ellen’s rooms contained very little furniture and were left in a terrible state according to her landlady where “mice jump out of the drawers.” Among her effects were several silver plated items and a model of a Chinese Junk in a glass case, which was described as being ‘very pretty.’

Ellen died owing £14 14s rent. Anxious to locate anything of value, Vernon was informed that the silver plated items were in the possession of the Local Authorities and would be sold to go towards the rent arrears.

Unlike Lady Bolingbroke whose funeral two years previously was attended by family, friends, tenants and estate workers at the parish church in Lydiard Park, Ellen was laid to rest, not in the St. John family vault, but in grave number 20642 plot F.5 in Croydon Cemetery, Mitcham Road.

It seems unlikely anyone other than the funeral director attended Ellen’s burial.

Photographs from top: Ellen St John; her mother Ellen Medex; her father Henry 5th Viscount Bolingbroke; her half brother Vernon 6th Viscount Bolingbroke and interior views of Lydiard House in the 1940s are courtesy of Lydiard Park.  The enclosed St John family vault in the churchyard at St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze.