Thursday, December 17, 2015

Two look-alike St John cousins

Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, leading member of the 18th century Tory party, must be spinning in his grave as Swindon Borough Council prepares to carve up his ancestral home at Lydiard Park...

The portrait of Henry Bolingbroke by Jonathan Richards the Elder hangs in the dining room at Lydiard House where he was born in 1678, the only surviving child of Henry St John and his first wife Lady Mary Rich.  His mother died within weeks of his birth upon which the infant Henry was moved from Lydiard to Battersea Manor where he was raised by his puritanical grandparents Sir Walter and Lady Johanna St. John.

Henry, statesman, writer and libertine was undoubtedly the most brilliant and probably one of the most notorious members of the St. John family. He served as Queen Anne’s Secretary At War from 1704-1708 and Secretary of State from 1710-1714 and numbered satirist Jonathan Swift and the poet Alexander Pope among a wide, eclectic group of friends.

Instrumental in negotiating the Treaty of Utrecht, which helped to end the War of the Spanish Succession Henry was created Viscount Bolingbroke, a huge disappointment as he was hoping for the earldom. 

In 1714, with the Queen desperately ill and fading fast, Henry rapidly allied himself with the Jacobites and the Queen’s Catholic half brother James, the Old Pretender. Henry plotted with the Pretender while taking the oath of allegiance to the Hanovarian successor. However, the new King George, hammered the final nail in Henry’s political coffin, informing Henry that his services were no longer required. Henry walked to the Cockpit accompanied by the Duke of Shrewsbury and Lord Cowper to watch the sealing of his papers. It was, quite obviously, all over. On March 27, 1715, Henry set sail for exile in France.

A Bill of Attainder was served upon Henry that same year charging him with privately negotiating a dishonourable and destructive peace with France while a Secretary of State for Queen Anne. Deprived of his title, his estates and his wealth, Henry was considered by many as a traitor twice over.

Henry married twice, firstly to Frances Winchcombe whom he deserted and secondly to Marie Claire de Marci whom he adored. He eventually returned to England and his childhood home at Battersea. He died on December 12, 1751 and was buried with his second wife in the parish church of St Mary's, Battersea.

Henry's younger cousin John Fitzgerald Villiers, 5th Viscount Grandison, was born at Dromana House in County Waterford in 1684, the son of Brig Gen Edward Villiers and wealthy Irish heiress Katherine Fitzerald. The two lookalikes were third cousins, tracing their ancestry back to Sir John St John and his wife Lucy Hungerford. In this portrait painted in 1743 by Allan Ramsay John could be sharing the same jacket as well as the same face as Henry.

John got off to a good start following his succession to the Grandison title and the Fitzgerald land. He transformed the Dromana estate, planting thousands of trees, building new stables and engaging in a modest bit of DIY on Dromana House.  His greatest achievement was probably the construction of Villierstown village to accommodate the workers in his newly instituted linen industry.  He built 24 houses, a schoolhouse, church, police barracks and a quay on the river.

But 'Good Earl John' found it difficult to live within his means - a common St John failing he would have appeared to inherited along with his features.

An account of the Villers-Stuart archive held at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland describes John as having a 'pride of ancestry' - shades of Henry 5th Viscount Bolingbroke here - and that his 'somewhat limited intelligence caused him to be ripped off by unscrupulous agents who flattered and deferred to him' when he was forced to sell some £50,000 worth of land.

John served briefly as MP for Old Sarum May-December 1705.  In 1721 he was made Privy Counsellor for Ireland when his title was upgraded to an earldom and in 1733 he was Governor of Waterford.  He married Frances Carey and they had five children.  John died on May 14, 1766 and was buried at Youghal, County Cork.

Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke

John Fitzgerald Villiers, 5th Viscount Grandison

In today's edition of the Swindon Advertiser, Cllr David Renard, Leader of Swindon Borough Council, reassures the people of Swindon that Lydiard House and Park will not be sold.

However, what the Council is proposing to do is to lease out parts of the estate and they have previously admitted they cannot guarantee unrestricted, free access will continue; this is because, so say, they do not yet know what ideas prospective private partners might come up with.

So what could be on the cards for this historic property, bought for the people of Swindon by a far sighted, philanthropic local authority in the middle of WWII - how challenging were the financial constraints then, one has to ask?

Meanwhile the people of Swindon have come up with a whole shed load of ideas that could generate a sustainable income and preserve the heritage of this Grade I listed Palladian mansion (set in a Grade II listed parkland) and the history of the fascinating St John family.
Visit the Friends of Lydiard Park petition

Swindon Borough Council has been criticised over an inadequate public consultation programme, not just at Lydiard Park but also regarding proposals for the new museum and art gallery - is it just a coincidence that the Adver's quote for today, printed opposite Cllr Renard's column, comes from author Ray Bradbury: "I never ask anyone else's opinion. They don't count."

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