The Lydiard Women: True Life Stories that Inspired Historical Fiction

Within The Lydiard Chronicles historical fiction novels lies true life stories from17th-century England, where the St. John sisters held court with their beauty, wit, and intelligence. In the polyptych portrait at St. Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire, painted in 1617, these six remarkable women are immortalised, each with a story as captivating as the next.
At the centre of this tale is Lucy St. John, the youngest sister, whose marriage to Sir Allen Apsley secured her a place at the Tower of London as the wife of the Lieutenant. Here, she not only cared for the wellbeing of the prisoners, but also funded scientific experiments for inmates like Sir Walter Raleigh. Lucy became an experienced herbalist and created a well-documented physick garden within the Tower.
Katherine St. John, the eldest, married Sir Giles Mompesson, a man of dubious character but shrewd business sense. Sir Giles devised a scheme to profit from licensing inns, with the Duke of Buckingham as his patron. When the scheme backfired and Sir Giles was arrested, Katherine orchestrated her husband’s escape, proving her mettle in the face of adversity.
Barbara St. John, another sister, nearly brought down the Duke of Buckingham with her involvement in gold and silver thread monopolies. Her husband, Sir Edward Villiers (the duke’s half-brother), was deeply embroiled in the scandal, which nearly cost Buckingham his reputation and power. Through the scandal, Barbara maintained her position at court, and even after her husband’s death, was able to hold on to the monopolies—and their rich revenues.
Two other sisters, Anne and Jane, led quieter lives but mentions of them in wills and letters show that all the sisters remained closely in touch with each other. Anne’s husband left a touching bequest to Barbara, highlighting the close bond between the sisters.
Eleanor St. John, the youngest sister, married Sir William St. John of Highlight, Wales, a man of many talents, including soldiering and piracy. He even had to arrest Sir Walter Raleigh in his final escape attempt before execution, showcasing the intertwining lives of these sisters with historical events — and the difficult decisions some had to make between family and royal loyalty.
The St. John sisters’ lives were a testament to the complexities of survival and prosperity in Stuart England. Despite facing the uncertainty of disease, childbirth — and conflicting loyalties — they navigated the treacherous waters of court politics with grace and resilience. Their stories remind us of the remarkable women who shaped history, often behind the scenes but with lasting impact. As the true life historical fiction heroines of The Lydiard Chronicles, the hardest decision was choosing which sister’s story to include, and which to leave out.

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