This year’s Friends summer outing was to the magnificent Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, the Palladian mansion house built in the early 1720s for George Henry Lee, 2nd Earl of Lichfield.
First port of call for the Friends was an elegant light lunch at nearby Heythrop Park, a property built for Charles Talbot, 1st Duke of Shrewsbury at the beginning of the 18th century.
Then it was on to the main attraction …
Ditchley Park is less than 10 miles as the crow flies from Blenheim Palace and came in handy as a stopover for the guests of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. Another link with this most famous of families came during the Second World War when Winston Churchill relocated from Chequers to hold wartime working weekends on more than a dozen occasions. He was at Ditchley Park when Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess arrived in Scotland, supposedly on a peace mission.
Ditchley Park is of special interest to the Friends of Lydiard Park as there is a connection with the St John family. The 2nd Earl of Lichfield’s great grandmother was Anne St John, second child and eldest daughter of Sir John St John 1st Baronet and his wife Anne Leighton. Although there are no portraits of Anne in Lydiard House, she can be seen in St Mary’s Church, depicted as one of the kneeling daughters on the St John memorial.
Anne married Francis Henry Lee in 1632. Their marriage was sadly a short one as Francis died of smallpox in 1639, leaving Anne widowed with two young children and pregnant with a third.
A resourceful, resilient woman Anne married Royalist Henry Wilmot in 1644. Widowed for a second time she managed to negotiate the treacherous Civil War period and retain both the Lee and Wilmot estates. You will be able to read more about Anne and several of the other St John women in The Ladies of Lydiard by Frances Bevan, due for publication Spring 2020.
Ditchley Park contains some wonderful portraits (including one of Anne) among them several of Charles I and Charles II. The Earls of Lichfield trace their descent from Charlotte Fitzroy, the illegitimate daughter of Charles II and Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine who was for many years Charles II’s principle mistress and bore him several children. And here is another St John connection; Barbara was the granddaughter of Barbara St John; portraits of both women hang in the State Bedroom at Lydiard House.
Sadly, there is no evidence of the old Tudor mansion in which Anne lived and no definitive location for the property. One theory is that the present house stands on the site of the old one. Materials from the old property were incorporated into the new build.
Today Ditchley Park is owned by the Ditchley Foundation established in 1958 and hosts conferences covering political, economic, social, scientific and artistic topics. The house is not open to the public, except by special arrangement. The Friends tour was conducted by the Bursar Mike Montagu.