Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The murderous Viscount St John.

Councillors faced a barrage of questions about the future of Lydiard House and Park at a packed West Swindon Locality Meeting at the Link Centre Library on Monday evening.

Cllr Tim Swinyard (Lydiard & Freshbrook) – ‘History loving, Swindon Town FC watching, Conservative Councillor’ (twitter profile) was in the hot seat.

Starters comprised a lengthy debate about road surfacing projects, leaves and potential flooding issues, litter and recycling until we eventually arrived at the main course – the leasing out of Lydiard House and Park. There was no dessert!

I still believe that the Council could have come up with some in-house initiatives before calling in independent property advisor Bilfinger GVA to do the job for them.

Car parking charges is one obvious suggestion, but councillors seem loathe to grasp this particular nettle. My guess is that any new partner will bring this charge in straight away.

Councillors admitted that the local authority is not very good at running a commercial enterprise, a confession I found alarming.

A suggestion from the floor was that we embrace and promote Swindon’s heritage – something blindingly obvious to the audience but apparently a bit of a revelation to the panel.

So on that note – I intend to do just that, with the story of Henry 1st Viscount St John – now here’s a story to bring in the visitors.

You know how it happens - a group of lads out on the town, everyone's having a good laugh and then one bloke has a drink too many.  And before you've worked out who said what to whom, someone's got their rapier out.

Born in 1652 Henry St John was the second child and eldest son of Sir Walter and Lady Johanna.  He grew up at the Battersea Manor House under the stern eye of his Puritan mother during the austere post war years of the Commonwealth.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 it could be fairly said that Henry entered into the spirit of the new age.  Anxious to save him from his worst excesses, Sir Walter and Lady Johanna swiftly married him off in 1673 to Mary Rich, the daughter of the Earl of Warwick.  Sir Walter settled the Lydiard estate on his eldest son and the newly weds divided their time between Battersea and Wiltshire.

But in 1684 Henry was between marriages.  His first wife Mary had died in 1678 following the birth of their only surviving child and his second wife to be, Angelica Pelissary had just arrived in England bethrothed to her first husband Philip Wharton.

Temporarily let off the marital leash, Henry fully indulged his predilection for partying, gambling and racing.  It was during a night out with the boys in that popular watering hole, the Devil Tavern, Fleet Street, that the talk turned to who owned the best horses.

Along with Sir William Estcott, MP for Malmesbury, and Henry's cousin Edmund Richmond-Webb, the group left the Devil and moved on to the Globe, round the corner in Shoe Lane.  A Tryal of Racing between Henry and Sir William was proposed with a bet of £100 - but then it all got rather out of hand.  Some insults were bandied about - Henry called Escott an ass who replied that Henry was a fool.

Out came the weapons and before you could say 'calm down boys' Estcott lay dead on the tavern floor.  Henry and Edmund were committed to Newgate prison to await their appearance at the Old Bailey where they were jointly charged with murder and manslaughter.

On December 13 the two men were sentenced to death; their estates seized by the crown. But Henry and Edmund had friends and family in high places.  Henry's cousin Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine, long time mistress of the King and mother of five of his illegitimate children, interceded for them.

Just eleven days later Charles II issued a warrant that the sentences should be quashed and their forfeited estates restored - albeit at a price.  It is believed that an estimated £16,000 was paid to secure their reprieve, with Henry's portion paid by Sir Walter and Lady Johanna.

Henry decided a move abroad might be advisable, but he wasn't gone long.  By March 1685 he was back in England where he was returned as MP for the family seat at Wootton Bassett.

Did he see the error of his ways?  It's doubtful, but he never killed anyone else - well not as far as is known.  He went on to marry Angelica Pelissary on January 1, 1686/7 although he never did quite fit the bill as family man, and his eldest son, the statesman Henry Viscount Bolingbroke, loathed him.

Unlike poor Sir William, whose family line was wiped out when he died aged 30, Henry lived another 58 years.  He died in 1742 aged 89 and was buried at St Mary's Church, Battersea.

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