Friday, May 20, 2016

The Six Lady St. Johns and their influence on the Court of King James I

By Elizabeth St. John

On July 20th, 1615, the six St.John sisters stood proudly commemorated in the polyptych portrait at St. Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze, in Wiltshire. According to Lucy Hutchinson, author of Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, there were not in those days so many beautiful women found in any family as these.” She went on to say, “but my mother was by the most judgments preferred before all her elder sisters, who, something envious at it, used her unkindly.”

(L to R) Lucy, Barbara, Eleanor, Jane, Anne and Katherine

Her mother was Lucy St.John, the youngest of the six sisters, and one who would perhaps lead the most adventurous life of all of them. As a generation of women who were central to the Stuart milieu of patronage and influence, the portrait also celebrated their husbands, for at the foot of each woman rests a tablet with the coat of arms of the men they married. Only Lucy’s lozenge is blank, for although she had met her future husband, Sir Allen Apsley, they were not yet married. And yet, he arguably promoted Lucy to one of the most influential of the sisters, for shortly after the marriage he was appointed Lieutenant of the Tower of London, and they moved into The Queen’s House overlooking Tower Green.

The Queen's House, the Tower of London
For the next thirteen years, Lucy St.John looked after the prisoners and raised her children within the confines of the Tower of London. Sir Allen was generous, and gave her “a noble allowance of £300 for her own private use.” She certainly put this to good use, for her daughter goes on to say, 
“Sir Walter Raleigh and Mr. Ruthin being prisoners in the Tower, and addicting themselves to chemistry, she suffered them to make their rare experiments at her cost, partly to comfort and divert the poor prisoners, and partly to gain the knowledge of their experiments, and the medicines to help such poor people as were not able to seek physicians.”
Sir Allen Apsley did not attain his appointment a Tower on his own merit, however. Lucy St.John’s sister, Barbara, married Edward Villiers, the fatherless second son of a Leicestershire squire. However, five years later, his older half-brother, George Villiers, was made Knight of the Garter, after being “discovered” by James I. Once knighted, George Villiers ascended rapidly, a comet at the court of King James with a multitude of relatives and supporters trailing in his tail. One of these was Allen Apsley. According to contemporary court papers, Sir Allen was given the option of securing the lucrative position of Lieutenant of the Tower because of his wife’s relationship to George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. For a mere £3,000 (£500,000 in today’s money), the job was his. 

The view from Lucy's parlour, overlooking Tower Green
Unfortunately, the close friendship that evolved between Sir Allen and the Duke did not end in harmony. Sir Allen also held the position of Victualler of the Navy, and Buckingham’s frequent forays overseas to engage in foreign wars strained the nation’s finances immensely, and placed a huge personal burden on Sir Allen as he struggled to provision a Navy that was poor on men, ships and supplies. At the time of Buckingham’s assassination in 1628, Sir Allen was almost £100,000 (£9,000,000) in debt, putting his own credit and that of others on the line to support his patron. The money was never recovered, and Lucy and her children were hauled through the courts for decades after his death in 1630 in attempts to recover funds. 

Riches and perquisites for the Ladies St.John did not stop here, however. Katherine St.John, the eldest of the sisters, married a gentleman of shrewd business acumen but shaky character, Sir Giles Mompesson. He devised a scheme of licensing inns that enabled his patron – the Duke of Buckingham – to secure thousands of pounds worth of fines to satisfy his very expensive habit of acquiring Italian artwork. Sir Giles’s method of extracting fines left a lot to be desired and in his resulting prosecution he was forced to leave the country in a hurry. However, no shrinking violet was Katherine, for when the attempt to arrest Sir Giles was made in his chambers, his escape was orchestrated by Katherine, her brother-in-law Sir William St.John, and her half-brother Sir Edward Hungerford. The St.John women were obviously very persuasive.



      
Barbara St. John Villiers

And what of Barbara, the sister who married Edward Villiers? She, along with her husband, nearly caused the downfall of the Duke of Buckingham through his tacit endorsement and granting of gold and silver thread monopolies. Sir Edward (he was knighted around the same time as George started his rise to fame) was involved in this scheme up to his neck, and when he forced the Attorney General to imprison several gold and silver makers for not paying fees to him, there was an immediate uproar. The House of Commons were out for blood, and although they were told that Buckingham had given his half-brother no encouragement in the matter, the reaction was such that it was felt an example should be made of Buckingham. Monopolists such as George and Edward Villiers were “bloodsuckers of the kingdom and vipers of the commonwealth,” and the furor nearly brought down the Duke.

Interestingly, Barbara maintained a secure hold on the gold and silver thread monopolies long after her husband’s death. It is quite possible that income from this lucrative opportunity could have funded the education and lifestyle of her granddaughter, another Barbara Villiers – future Countess of Castlemaine and mistress of King Charles II.

The remaining older sisters, Anne and Jane, appeared to lead fairly quiet lives, although without a doubt they observed the antics of their sisters at Whitehall. However, they were not immune from the influences of court – Anne’s husband Sir George Ayliffe left this rather touching bequest in his will:

“…to my dearest and best friend that ever I found in the world, my Ladie Villiers, my dear sister, £20 for a diamond ring, in memories of me her poor brother, who ever truly loved her and honour her even to death…”

And what of the younger sister, Eleanor? The tablet at her feet reveals she married a distant cousin, Sir William St.John of Highlight in Wales (the same gentleman who arranged the escape of Giles Mompesson). A soldier, a pirate, and a commander of the King’s Ships, Sir William was a good friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, and tragically was instructed by the Duke to arrest him in his final escape attempt before being executed.

It is fascinating to contemplate the effort required to survive and prosper during the time this generation of St.John sisters were alive. Not only were they facing the daily threat of contagion, disease and childbirth, they faced the continual challenge of relying on others to look after their interests. Thus, their life must have been an intricate dance where partners changed daily and the steps were never the same. More than four hundred years later we can look back and admire these women for their courage and dexterity.
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Photos © 2016 Anthony St.John and Elizabeth St.John

Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. In the course of writing her best-selling debut novel, The Lady of the Tower, she has tracked down family papers and sites from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, and the British Library to Castle Fonmon and The Tower of London. Although the family sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it's hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth's family still occupy them - in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost. But that's a different story...


For more information about Elizabeth visit her website at elizabethjstjohn.com, or for more information about her novel, visit Lady of the Tower.

The novel The Lady of the Tower is available through Amazon






7 comments:

  1. Fascinating - I didn't know of Barbara as anything other than Villiers. And how wonderful to have such a family history. Really enjoyed this post, thank you.

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    2. Thanks Annie! Barbara lived a long and eventful life, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. Two of her children married Theophilus Howard's (The Duke of Suffolk) which I used as a plot device in my novel. It is wonderful to have such a well-documented and extensive family history - but very distracting during researching, when trying to stay on course!

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  2. Thank you Elizabeth for sharing this with us. What rich material you have.

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    1. I'm fortunate that so much has been assembled by The Friends of Lydiard Tregoz, and that the current Friends have made much of the research accessible. They have a comprehensive website with much information about my family: www.lydiardparkfriends.org
      The Reports are remarkable in the historical detail that's available.

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  3. Your details and examples put life into these historical characters. We think we live in fraught times ... 17th Century England puts our politics to shame. Thank you for putting the spotlight on these wonderful women and their contributions to the general mayhem.

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  4. You're right! Although it was interesting - when I was researching this generation of my family in preparation for my novel, it was during the aftermath of the 2001 crash. I found myself intentionally writing in many similarities of greed, corruption, favouritism that steered the actions during these recent times. Perhaps we're not so different after all. These women were remarkable, and a fuller story of Lucy St.John can be found in her daughter's book, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson. The original of this is in Nottingham Castle archives, and it was there, when I found it, that the spark for telling Lucy's story first ignited.

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