It’s probably too late to invite Prince Harry and his fiancée Meghan Markle to the Friends of Lydiard Park Christmas event tomorrow. A shame as it would be nice to show his bride-to-be where Harry’s 10x great grandmother grew up.
Anne St John was born on November 5, 1614, the second child and eldest daughter of Sir John St John and his wife Anne Leighton. The magnificent St. John memorial in St. Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze depicts Anne as one of the three daughters kneeling at the feet of their parents. Sadly, Anne had no great fondness for the house at Lydiard describing it as ‘that dull place,’ much preferring her parent’s Battersea home.
In October 1632 Anne married Sir Francis Henry Lee, Baron of Ditchley. She was 18 years old and her young husband just sixteen. The marriage was said to be a happy one, producing three children, a daughter who died in infancy and two sons Henry, known as Harry, and Francis Henry called Frank. But in 1639 Sir Francis Henry contracted smallpox whilst travelling with Charles I to York. He died shortly after his return to Chelsea and it was said he refused to let his wife see him in case she also caught the disease.
Aged just twenty-five years old, the young widow was left to administer her husband’s will and oversee the family properties at Ditchley and Buckinghamshire. Although Anne turned to future Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde, a relation through marriage with the Villiers family, for advice, she was no helpless female.
Anne proved to be independent, determined and with an iron will. She was in no hurry to remarry, in part influenced by a clause in Sir Francis Henry’s will that would see her lose control of the Lee family properties if she took a second husband.
But in 1644, with the country in the grip of a brutal Civil War, Anne married professional soldier Henry Wilmot of Adderbury, Oxfordshire.
Henry had already earned Royal recognition following action at the Battle of Newcastle in 1640 and at Edgehill in 1642. In the tradition of her fiercely Royalist family Anne had also done her bit, supplying arms to the King’s men at the Battle of Edgehill and when Edward Hyde was forced to flee the Royalist headquarters at Oxford in 1642, Anne hid him at Ditchley before providing horses for his escape.
Anne and Henry Wilmot married in 1644 but soon after their marriage Henry was captured by the Parliamentarian Army and exiled to the Continent. Henry Wilmot accomplished a long list of daring deeds on behalf of the Royalist cause, including smuggling the young Prince Charles out of the country to safety. In 1652 he was created Earl of Rochester for his service to King and country. Following an unsuccessful uprising at Marston Moor in 1655, Wilmot fled the country, taking command of an English foot regiment in Bruges. He died at Sluys on February 19, 1656.
A Royalist hero, Henry Wilmot was viewed as a traitor by Cromwell and Anne fought a constant battle to hang on to both Lee and Wilmot lands, but she was a shrewd woman. With a keen business acumen and a somewhat flexible ethical stance, Anne managed to protect her Oxfordshire properties from the Puritan Committee for Compounding. Then she married off her son Harry to Ann Danvers, the daughter of prominent Puritan Sir John Danvers to further consolidate the family fortunes.
With the Parliamentarians losing popularity, Anne was quick to cut her ties and realign herself with the newly restored monarchy, cashing in on husband Henry’s loyal reputation. Anne was well up to the task in hand and carefully controlled both the Lee and Wilmot fortunes for more than 25 years. She made numerous petitions for royal favours and grants. She even called in a ‘loan’ made by her then deceased son Harry and his wife to Sir John Danvers, which she declared he had never repaid. Anne claimed the Danvers property as ‘restitution,’ and won.
Anne used her influence every which way she could. Through her cousin Barbara, Lady Castlemaine, senior among the King’s mistresses, Anne managed to secure the king’s favour on a match between her son John and wealthy heiress Elizabeth Mallet. She also secured a favourable if protracted marriage settlement after the couple’s impetuous elopement.
Her relationship with her youngest son, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, poet, rake and libertine was a difficult one and only resolved on his death bed. As Lord Rochester began his descent to a tortured death, the result of his licentious lifestyle, the devout Anne fought to save his soul and obtain a signature on a Remonstrance of Faith.
Anne died in 1696 at the age of 82 and is buried in the churchyard at All Saints Church, Spelsbury in Oxfordshire.
Harry traces his ancestry back through his mother, Lady Diana Spencer to John Wilmot and Anne St John.
Harry has already made a visit to Lydiard Park when he opened the Field of Remembrance in the Walled Garden in November 2010. It would be fantastic if he would make a return visit with Meghan, especially as the couple are rumoured to be looking for a country home in Wiltshire.