I have had the joy of knowing Frances for more years than I can count. Together, we’ve walked the ancient Lydiard parklands, scrambled over the ha-ha, explored the attic rooms of Lydiard House, peeking from the windows and imagining who’s looked out upon the medieval St. Mary’s Church over the centuries. We’ve let our tea get cold in the stable tearooms as we’ve talked for hours about Lydiard and the spell this beautiful place casts on all of us. Frances is a modest and brilliant historian, a skilled and creative writer, whose latest work, The Ladies of Lydiard, brings these remarkable women to life. In fact, I think I saw Anne St.John at the stables the last time I was there! My review is below – this truly is a fascinating insight into the “ladies of the manor.”
The Ladies of Lydiard
The St.John men were very adept at making influential marriages to wealthy women who brought property, money and profitable connections to the Welsh noblemen.
The Lydiard ladies lived under different conventions. They brought prestige and influence to their St.John marriages, but they enjoyed little independence, their inheritance immediately becoming the property of their husbands. They had no control over how their fortunes were spent or how they lived their lives. Or was that really what life was like for the Lydiard ladies?
Lydiard House and Park, near Swindon, have been in public ownership since 1943. Today around 700,000 visitors every year jog and cycle or just walk and meander around the 260 acres of beautiful parkland. In a history spanning a thousand years, the Lydiard estate has belonged to just five families. The men were adept at acquiring wealthy brides and spending their fortunes, while their wives were consigned to a private, passive life. Throughout the long history of the Lydiard estate the men have been in charge – or have they? From Margaret Beauchamp, the medieval matriarch who inherited the Lydiard estate as an 11-year-old, to Bessie Howard, the gamekeeper’s granddaughter, who staked her claim with a surprise revelation at the funeral of Henry St. John, 5th Viscount Bolingbroke, the Lydiard ladies have been a force to be reckoned with. Now, for the first time the story of the Ladies of Lydiard is told. The book is illustrated with stunning colour portraits, displayed at Lydiard, of many of the women described, alongside illustrations of the house and park.
Margaret Beaufort. Barbara Villiers. Diana Spencer. All were “Ladies of Lydiard” and all are beautifully, intimately portrayed in Frances Bevan’s fascinating compendium of wealthy brides, influential mistresses, unfaithful wives and aspiring ladies. I knew some of the history of the more well-known women, but Ms Bevan’s meticulous research raises stories that are absolutely un-putdownable. From medieval matriachs to the gamekeeper’s daughter, this truly is the upstairs, downstairs and between-stairs tell-all any historical reader will enjoy. A born story-teller, Ms Bevan brings gentle humour and a sympathetic eye to the Ladies of Lydiard. This book has a permanent place on my bedside table, to return to, again and again. Highly recommend.
A word from Frances:
(who as a shy person, chose Anne St.John, Countess of Rochester, as her favourite “Lady” who could stand in for her photo.)
When I moved to West Swindon with my young family 30 years ago it was all very new. Swindon was a rapidly developing town expanding into the Wiltshire countryside to the west. This large area of housing development was subdivided into smaller ‘village’ centres with names such as Toothill, Middleleaze and Freshbrook. I would soon learn these names were adopted from the rural past of the area and the ancient parish of Lydiard Tregoze.
For more than 500 years the St. John family owned the Lydiard Park estate and for the past 30 years I have been researching and writing about them. Most especially I have written about the women; the wives and mothers, sisters and daughters who have so often occupied a mere footnote in the Lydiard Park history.
One of my favourite places is the 18th century Walled Garden returned to its former beauty in a major restoration project begun in 2005. The garden is stunning in any season and here I can sit and imagine I see the ladies taking their daily stroll. Arm in arm, their skirts swishing along the gravel paths, if I listen carefully I may hear a snatch of their conversation, a shared confidence or maybe a whiff of gossip – there has been plenty of that down the years.
I have been a member of the Friends of Lydiard Park for many years and I now sit on the Board of Trustees. I have three adult children and a cluster of young grandchildren who all love Lydiard as much as I do.
Over the years, Frances has written fascinating articles about Lydiard Park, the surrounding parish of Lydiard Tregoze, and the families who have called it home.
Read more: The Friends of Lydiard Park | Good Gentlewomen