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.’

Alice St John, Lady Morley

The St John family has several close connections with Royalty.  Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine had a whole nursery full of Charles II’s babies while her cousin John Wilmot, Lord Rochester also got up to some jolly japes with Old Rowley.

But one hundred and fifty years earlier Alice St John could claim an equally close connection with Royalty.  Alice’s father Sir John St John of Bletsoe was Henry VII’s first cousin.

As the monarch’s mother, Margaret Beaufort spread the love to her St John kin.  She made her nephew John, son of her half brother Oliver, Chamberlain of her household and for her little great niece Alice, her other half brother John’s granddaughter, she found a place at Court.  And even better then that – she found her a husband as well.

In the early 1500s Alice married Henry Parker who had grown up in the household of Alice’s great-aunt Margaret Beaufort.  Margaret obviously had a soft spot for young Henry as she paid his new stepfather, Sir Edward Howard, 500 marks when he married Henry’s mother to make sure the boy kept some land.  At the death of his mother in 1518, Henry became the 10th Baron Morley with homes at Mark Hall, Essex and Great Hallingbury, Herfordshire.

As second cousin to Henry VIII, Alice got to go on some good trips too.  In 1520 she was a member of the Queen’s entourage when the Court shipped out to probably the biggest gig of the 16th century, the Field of the Cloth of Gold.  Masterminded by Cardinal Wolsey, this extravagant display of oneupmanship between English King Henry VIII and French King Francis I involved – well just about the entire ruling class on both sides of the Channel.

Damien Lewis as Henry VIII in the BBC drama Wolf Hall

Damien Lewis as Henry VIII in the BBC drama Wolf Hall

 

Alice also appears in Royal records in the procession at Anne Boleyn’s coronation, by which time she was also related to this dangerous to know family.  Alice’s eldest daughter Jane had married Anne Boleyn’s brother George in 1524/5.  But this was not a match made in heaven.

George, Lord Rochford made the most of being in with the in crowd.  He partied hard and enjoyed female, and possibly male company, if court gossips were to be believed.

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn

When the whole Royal marriage came crashing down it was even said he had enjoyed carnal knowledge of his sister Anne.  Most of the evidence produced against Anne and George had been obtained under torture, apart, that is from Jane’s contribution.

Unhappy, lonely and jealous, Jane helped to seal her errant husband’s fate, although biographer Julia Fox states that Jane buckled under relentless questioning by Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas Cromwell played by Mark Rylance in the BBC  drama Wolf Hall

Thomas Cromwell played by Mark Rylance in the BBC drama Wolf Hall

These were perilous times for both Alice and Jane.  You might have thought that Jane would count her blessings and keep far away her second cousin once removed series of bedroom farces.  But within a year of the death of Anne and George Boleyn, Jane was back at court, a lady in waiting to Queen Jane Seymour.

Following the Queen’s death Jane retained her position as lady in waiting to the teenage Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife.  And now you really do have to wonder what she was up to.  Instead of passing on the tips and wrinkles she had acquired through her pretty tumultuous court career, Jane instead arranged secret assignations between Catherine and handsome courtier Thomas Culpeper.

Jane’s part in the young Queen’s affair was discovered and while Catherine was detained in Syon House, Jane was dispatched to the Tower.  Kept prisoner for several months Jane eventually broke down and was declared insane.  On February 13, 1542 she was taken out onto Tower Green and beheaded on the block where the executioner had just chopped off the head of Catherine Howard.

Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford played by Jessica Raine in the BBC drama Wolf Hall.

Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford played by Jessica Raine in the BBC drama Wolf Hall.

 

But what about Alice.  Did she visit Jane in the Tower?  Did she stand in the crowd that cold February morning in 1542 and weep as her daughter died, mourning the innocent little girl who had played in the gardens at Hallingbury Place?  Or had she already disowned Jane in fear of reprisals?  In 1542 Alice paid part of the cost of a new bell for the church in Great Hallingbury, possibly in Jane’s memory.

Alice died in 1552/3 aged 66.  She had seen it all – the best and the worst of those terrible Tudor times.

Image of Margaret Beaufort’s tomb in Westminister Abbey http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Margaret_Beaufort_2.jpg

Jessica Raine plays Jane Rochford in the BBC drama Wolf Hall