The Lydiard Ladies – Barbara Villiers

Catch up with Barbara Villiers, Lucy Apsley’s reprehensible sister, who appears in the recently published By Love Divided, the second novel in the Lydiard Chronicles by Elizabeth St. John.

On September 3, 1672 Barbara Villiers signed her will. Just thirteen days later she was buried in the north ambulatory near St Paul’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey.

Barbara had lived through the reign of four monarchs and a Lord Protector. She had seen the union of the English & Scottish crowns and the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, the devastation of the Civil War, the beheading of Charles I, the institution of the Commonwealth and The Restoration Settlement.

She had married into one of the most influential families of the age and had been at the centre of court life for more than sixty years, yet surprisingly little is known about the woman herself.

Barbara was born in the early 1590s, probably at Lydiard House, the 5th daughter of Sir John St. John and his wife Lucy Hungerford.

Following the death of Sir John in 1594 Lucy married a distant cousin, Sir Anthony Hungerford, and had a further three children before dying in 1598.

The family was divided by their mother’s premature death. The two young orphaned St John brothers, Walter and John became firstly wards of the Crown and then later of Sir Thomas Leighton whose daughter John would eventually marry. Lucy and Barbara, who were still very young at the time of their parents deaths, were placed in the care of their uncle Sir Oliver St. John at the Battersea estate.

With the marriage of their brother John to Anne Leighton, the unmarried sisters returned to the family home at Lydiard where John set about immortalising his ancestors and himself in a number of breathtaking memorials.

Barbara appears in the magnificent St John polyptych in St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze, commissioned by her brother. The family portrait was painted in 1615, more than 15 years after the deaths of the parents who take centre stage. Barbara stands between her sisters Lucy and Eleanor. Only Lucy, the youngest is unmarried.

Barbara married Edward Villiers in 1611 in what might not have appeared at first as a particular advantageous liaison. That is until Edward’s half brother George caught the eye of King James and rapidly secured the position of King’s favourite. George was made first a Knight of the Garter, then Viscount Villiers, and eventually Duke of Buckingham. And he took his Villiers and St John family with him on his rapid ascent at the court of King James.

Barbara’s husband did very nicely out of it all as well. First he was knighted, then in 1616 given the lucrative post of Master of the Mint. In 1618 he was made Comptroller of the Wards and in 1620 Ambassador to Munster and MP for Westminster.

So did her childhood guardian Uncle Oliver. In 1623 Sir Oliver St John was created Viscount Grandison of Limerick, largely due to his Villiers connection at Court. With no sons to succeed him Sir Oliver’s title went to his niece Barbara by special remainder and subsequently to her eldest son William and his two younger brothers in turn.

But what of Barbara the woman? There was little she hadn’t seen or coped with during her long life. Her eldest son William, 2nd Viscount Grandison, was wounded at the siege of Bristol on July 26, 1643 and died the following month at Oxford. Her youngest son Edward was wounded at the 1st Battle of Newbury in 1643 but recovered and like Barbara, lived to see the restoration of the monarchy.

Her husband’s mercurial good fortune saw him temporarily flee the country in 1621, embroiled in controversy concerning a patent for the licensing of gold and silver thread.

And her daughter Eleanor, a maid of honour at Queen Henrietta Maria’s court, spent time in the Tower of London in 1633 following her affair with the Queen’s favourite Henry Jermyn. The Villiers family called upon the King to force Jermyn to marry the pregnant girl and both were sent to the Tower where Eleanor admitted there had been no promise of marriage between them.

How did others see Barbara? George Ayliffe, her sister Anne’s husband, left a bequest in his will to her calling her “my dearest and best friend that ever I found in the world, my Ladie Villiers, my dearest sister, £20 for a diamond ring, in memorie of me her poor brother, who ever truly loved her and honoured her even to death …”

Sir Edward Villiers died on September 7, 1626 at his official residence in the college of Youghal and was buried at St. Mary’s, Youghal in County Cork, Ireland. Barbara never remarried. Fourteen years after Edward’s death details of her pension in 1640 revealed she received £1,122 8s 10d, two pence in the pound weight of all silver coins minted in the Tower of London, one of the perks of being the widow of a former Master of the Mint.

And when the time came to make her will she left her money and possessions to her family, friends, and her servants.

Her maid Alice Barrett received £30 and the pick of her wardrobe. Her servant George was left £40 while Thomas Smith, a footman received £15 and all in her employ took home a Quarters wages over and above.

To the poor of the parish where she died she left £3 and to the poor of the parish where she was buried she left £5.

To her granddaughter Barbara, Duchess of Castlemaine, the mistress of Charles II, she left a ring. And to ‘my deare Grandchild Charles Earle of Southampton,’ one of the children of this union, she left ‘a Ring of the value of Twenty pounds to be paid to him when he arriveth att the age of Twelve yeare.’

Barbara left her unmarried daughter Eleanor, disgraced as a young woman by Henry Jermyn, £250 a year plus an equal share of the remains of the estate after all the bequests had been paid. Eleanor was appointed as one of the executors of her mother’s will along with her brothers George, Viscount Grandison and Edward Villiers.

Barbara’s portrait, painted c1630, hangs in the State Bedroom at Lydiard House.


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