Author Elizabeth St John recently posted this portrait of Lucy Hungerford on her Facebook page. Elizabeth says: I love this portrait of the Lady Lucy St.John. I like to think it was painted to honor the occasion when Elizabeth I visited Lydiard and knighted John St.John. Beautiful jewels, gown and I especially like the girdle book.
Read more about the disreputable Hungerford family and the incorruptible Lucy.
Upwardly mobile Thomas Hungerford, the first Speaker of the House of Commons, bought the Manor House at Farleigh on the Somerset/Wiltshire border in 1370 and soon set about turning it into a castle.
It was here that Lucy Hungerford (later to become Lady Lucy St John) was born in c1560. Lucy’s parents, Sir Walter and his second wife Anne Dormer, had a turbulent relationship. In 1568 Walter accused Anne of adultery and also of trying to poison him in 1564, presumably unsuccessfully as he waited four years to point the finger.
Anne was acquitted but Walter was a sore loser and refused to pay his legal costs which saw him incarcerated in the Fleet Prison. Anne settled in Belgium where she petitioned for her children, concerned that her revengeful husband would disinherit them. Following the death of his son, Walter left his property to his brother Sir Edward with remainder to his sons by his mistress.
But the Hungerford’s domestic was nothing compared to the shenanigans of Walter’s father, Walter 1st Baron Hungerford of Heytesbury. Former squire of the body to Henry VIII, Lucy’s grandfather was attainted by act of parliament in 1540. Walter was charged with an involvement in various seditious plots against the King and also with ‘committing unnatural offences.’ He was beheaded at Tyburn on July 28, 1540 gaining the dubious distinction of being the first person to be executed under the Buggery Act of 1533. Sir Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s favourite henchman, lost his head alongside Walter that same day.
Lucy Hungerford married John St John in about 1584 and there was never any suggestion that their marriage was anything other than harmonious.
Their only surviving son Sir John St John, 1st Baronet, went to great pains to revere his ancestry, and especially the memory of his parents in the magnificent polyptych in St. Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze.
The portrait is an idealized view of the St John family, gathered around their devout parents. When the painting was completed in 1615 John had been dead for 21 years and Lucy for more than fifteen.
A second portrait of Lucy painted in c1590, when she was about thirty, hangs above the Drawing Room doors in Lydiard House in which she appears as the very model of respectability in her richly embroidered but sombre dress accessorized with some impressive pieces of jewellery. Perhaps she felt the spectre of those riotous ancestors at her shoulder.
In 2002 Janet Backhouse, former Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Museum Library, examined the portrait anew and drew attention to the girdle book hanging from Lucy’s waist. Particularly popular in the 16th century, the girdle book contained either a religious text or collection of prayers, further emphasizing Lucy’s impeccable character.
Following John’s death in 1594, Lucy married a distant cousin Sir Anthony Hungerford and gave birth to three more children, bringing her combined family up to a count of thirteen children.
Two of her six St John daughters married into the most prestigious families of the day, the Villiers and the Apsleys while Bridget Hungerford married Sir Alexander Cheeke the King’s Proctor.
Her eldest son Sir John St John, 1st Baronet, supported the Royalist cause during the English Civil Wars in which three of his sons were killed. Sir Edward Hungerford, her son by her second marriage was on the opposing side and commanded the local forces of Wiltshire for the Parliamentarians in 1642-45.