To the family historian who has found a skeleton in the cupboard or a shady character from the past, spare a thought for Canon St. John.
When Sir Henry St. John, 5th Viscount Bolingbroke died in 1899, Canon St. John was first in line to inherit three titles and the country estate of Lydiard Park, or so he thought.
The Reverend St. John made his claim as the grandson of the 3rd Viscount Bolingbroke, Sir George Richard St. John and his wife Baroness Hompesch.
However, after the funeral at St. Mary's Church, the family solicitor, H Bevir made a surprise announcement, as reported in the Advertiser.
"The late Viscount married late in life and leaves a widow and son, the Hon. Vernon Henry St. John who succeeds to the title as Viscount Bolingbroke. The announcements made in some quarters that Canon St. John is heir, have been made from want of knowledge of the true circumstances.”
Sir Henry St. John led a life shrouded in secrecy and deception. He claimed to have married a Belgian woman by the name of Ellen Medex in 1869 yet there appears to be no official record of this marriage, later declared void. The couple had one surviving child, a daughter named Ellen although Sir Henry declared that two sons born in 1882 and 1885 were also those of Miss Medex.
By the 1880s Sir Henry was spending little time at his Lydiard estate. The house was in poor repair and he preferred to live in Bath. Hardly surprising as by now he had entered into a liaison with Bessie Howard, nearly 40 years his junior and the granddaughter of his gamekeeper.
Mary Emily Elizabeth Howard was born in 1859 in Lydiard Millicent to Robert and Susannah Howard. Robert was the son of the village blacksmith Thomas Howard and Susannah was the daughter of gamekeeper Robert Hiscocks, born at Brook, on the Lydiard Park estate.
Apparently Bessie entered the Lydiard Park establishment as housekeeper but soon embarked upon a much more intimate relationship with Sir Henry.
The couple eventually married this day, on January 5, 1893 at the Registry Office in Bath and a son, Vernon Henry was born three years later, their only legitimate child. The two sons Henry had claimed were Ellen Medex's were in fact Bessie's.
After Henry's death, Bessie, now no longer sworn to secrecy, returned to Lydiard Park and assumed the duties and privileges of her recently acknowledged status as Lady Mary Bolingbroke.
However all this was obviously news to the Canon and his legal team continued to fight his cause until Vernon's succession was confirmed in 1926.
With the Palladian country house in a state of dilapidation and the estate mortgaged up to the hilt, it could be said that the Canon had a lucky escape!
Financial constraints forced Lady Bolingbroke to sell off most of the Lydiard estate in 1930. The Advertiser described the auction of 57 lots as "one of the largest sales held in Swindon for many years."
Lady Bolingbroke died in 1940. By now Lydiard House was in such a poor state of repair that Vernon moved into Brook Cottage, the former gamekeepers cottage where his grandmother Susannah Hiscocks was born. Swindon Corporation bought Lydiard Park in 1943.
When Vernon died in 1974 the titles passed to Kenneth Oliver Musgrave St. John, the great grandson of Canon St. John.
|Henry 5th Viscount Bolingbroke|
|Lady Mary Bolingbroke, the former Bessie Howard|
|Vernon, 6th Viscount Bolingbroke|