Today I welcome fellow 17th century enthusiast, Elizabeth St. John, author of The Lady of the Tower. In her debut historical novel, Elizabeth tells the story of Lucy St. John, a woman who carves out her own path through the early Stuart decadent court.
Most intriguingly, there is a close connection between the author and heroine. In this interview, Elizabeth shares with us the nature of this connection and her passion for uncovering the past.
What drew you to the 17th Century in the first place?
Having grown up in England surrounded by history, I think of it as one long continuum rather than specific periods, especially since so much of my experience is in the context of my family. We trace our ancestors back directly to Alfred the Great, and have documented each generation in detail from the 11th century. Our family was quite successful during the 15th and 16th centuries (my maternal g-grandmother was Margaret Beauchamp, grandmother to Henry VII), but it was in the 17th century that so many of them rose to power. Then, when I discovered the relationship between Lucy St.John and Lucy Hutchinson, I set off to discover more!
Tell us about your connection to the heroine of The Lady of the Tower.
The St.John family have two branches, the senior (Bletsoe) and the junior (Lydiard) branch, which came into being with the division of property and titles from Margaret Beauchamp. I’m a descendent of the Lords of Bletsoe, and Lucy, my heroine in The Lady of the Tower, is from the Lydiard branch. I guess you could call us cousins – we shared a grandmother way back when.
Did you have any family documents or stories that you were able to draw from to write The Lady of the Tower?
Absolutely! In fact, it was in discovering Lucy Hutchinson’s Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson in Nottingham Castle many years ago that revealed Lucy St.John’s story. It is just a fragment in the Memoirs, but enough to fire my imagination. I remember reading the Memoirs and getting a shiver of excitement as I realized the story that was emerging. Lydiard Park, Lucy’s ancestral home in Wiltshire, has always been a place I’ve loved to visit, and the portraits there of Lucy’s brother John and her sister Barbara are quite lovely. And, of course, the polyptych in the Church of St. Mary’s with its unique portrait of all six sisters is any writer’s dream!
I was also able to include many medicinal recipes within the book (Lucy was documented as a herbalist who treated the prisoners of Tower with her curatives) that come from Lady Johanna St.John’s Recipe Book, which is part of the Wellcome Foundation collection in London. Lady Johanna was Lucy’s niece by marriage, and since so many recipes were handed down and exchanged, I felt it was no stretch of the imagination to think some may have been Lucy’s.
How did you approach your research?
Very carefully. More than anything, I only wanted to use primary resources to tell my story, so it was a long and complicated journey to embark on. I visited the National Archives, combed scholarly sources on line and spent countless hours transcribing wills, court documents, letters and other written evidence. Every so often, there would be such an exciting find – a letter that mentioned Will’s pirating escapade, or a family tree that depicted Barbara’s children marrying Theo’s, that I’d jump for joy and rush to share the news with my bewildered family. Most poignant was one of the first original documents I found in the British Library – Sir Allen’s will, which forms the pivot for the story. Touching his signature, I felt such an emotional connection to Lucy and all that she was to him, and how much he loved her.
What were some of the challenges to writing about one of your relatives? Did it influence your approach to the story, and if so, how?
The biggest challenge was wanting to create an entertaining book that people would read, while remaining true to the facts and respecting that these are people’s lives I am talking about, even though they are long dead. It took me a while to get started; to begin with I felt presumptuous writing in first person POV – but I found as the research supported my interpretation of their character and behaviour, I was able to write more freely. Soon, they took over quite happily, and I felt I was writing a faithful account of their lives.
Tell us about your next project.
I’ve just returned from a trip to the UK where I’ve been visiting the battlefields of the Civil War. My next project is a follow up to The Lady of the Tower – Lucy’s children fought on opposite sides of the Civil War, and there are some remarkable stories of their lives. I’m underway with the first draft now.
About The Lady of the Tower
A True Account of 17th Century Intrigue and Betrayal in the Tower of London
In the fascinating story of Lucy St.John, a young woman caught up in the drama, intrigues and machinations of 17th court life, her descendent, Elizabeth St.John, has skillfully woven together letters and memorabilia to produce a compelling work of historical fiction.
Orphaned Lucy St.John, described as “the most beautiful of all,” defies English society by carving her own path through the decadent Stuart court. She catches the eye of the Earl of Suffolk, but her envious sister Barbara is determined to ruin her happiness. Exiling herself from the court, Lucy has to find her own path through life, becoming mistress of the Tower of London. Riding the coattails of the king’s favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, the fortunes of the St.Johns rise to dizzying heights. But with great wealth comes betrayal, leaving Lucy to fight for her survival—and her honor—in a world of deceit and debauchery.
In The Lady of the Tower Ms St.John tells this dramatic story of love, betrayal, family bonds and loyalty through the eyes of her ancestor Lucy and her family’s surviving diaries, letters and court papers.
It’s an historically responsible account, very interesting in its arrangement, the skill behind Lucy’s language and idiom, and the remarkable plot, which deals with Lucy’s life from the accession of King James to the throne of England in 1603 to her departure from the Tower of London in May of 1630.
Professor Paul Sellin, UCLA
Treasure, Treason and the Tower
On sale now at Amazon and The Tower of London
About the Author:
Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. She has tracked down family papers and sites from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, and the British Library to Castle Fonmon and The Tower of London
Although the family sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going these days), Lucy and her family still occupy them – in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint.
- Lady Johanna St. John’s Recipe Book. The Library at Wellcome Collection, London. Ref: Saint John, Johanna. MS. 4338