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Glory and Gore – how the lives of your long-dead kin inspired your writing

Today’s guest, Elizabeth St.John, is a lady who can trace her ancestry several centuries backwards in time. I am a tad jealous about that: while Liz’ ancestors were leaving their marks on the actual events of the time, mine are anonymous peeps who probably kept their heads down and concentrated on scraping together a meagre living. Having all those ancestors – and access to various documents–has been a main source of inspiration for Liz, and I once asked her if it was difficult to write about your own flesh and blood. She replied that it was, because “I know what lies ahead in her life, but she does not. And therein lies the responsibility and joy of writing about my ancestors. Although I have a built-in timeline and structure to my story, I have to write “in the present”, keeping their future as a subtext to the main plot, for they act without knowledge of what lies ahead. “

I met Liz IRL in Oxford in 1216 when we did a walking tour of Oxford together, more specifically of the places central to Charles I and Henrietta Marie when they held court there during the Civil War. Liz lives in the US but visits the UK and Lydiard House, the ancestral St.John seat, regularly. Every time she gets to Lydiard, she spends time saying hello to her ancestors, stopping by their portraits to chat with them and bring them up to speed.

So, Liz, welcome back to my blog. How about you start by telling us just what it is that makes the 17th century so fascinating for you?

Liz: The 17th century chose me. I was researching my family genealogy, when I came across a reference to a Lucy St.John who had lived at our family home of Lydiard Park in the early 1600s. After further research, I discovered her daughter Lucy Hutchinson’s extraordinary account of the English Civil War, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson. I then was able to hold and read Lucy Hutchinson’s four-hundred-year-old notebooks archived in Nottingham Castle.  Her account started this way:

Lucy Hutchinson

“It was on the 29th day of January, in the year of our Lord 1619–20, that in the Tower of London I was at about four of the clock in the morning, brought forth to behold the ensuing light. My mother was Lucy the youngest daughter of Sir John St. John, of Lydiard Tregoze, in Wiltshire.”

A story was in the making.

Anna: Is there a particular event or person that/who has inspired your writing?

Liz: Yes, absolutely. After reading Lucy Hutchinson’s memoirs, which included a biographical fragment, I fell in love with her mother, Lucy St.John:

“She was of a noble family, being the youngest daughter of Sir John St. John, of Lidiard Tregooze in the county of Wilts; her father and mother died when she was not above five years of age, 8 and yet at her nurse’s, from whence she was carried to be brought up in the house of the Lord Grandison, her father’s youngest brother; an honourable and excellent person, but married to a lady so jealous of him, and so ill-natured in her jealous fits, to anything that was related to him, that her cruelties to my mother exceeded the stories of stepmothers.”

And so The Lady of the Tower, the first book in my trilogy The Lydiard Chronicles, was born.

The St.John family in the early 17th C.

Anna: Tell us a bit about your 17th Century books!

Liz: The Lydiard Chronicles, my historical fiction series, is named after Lydiard Park, the St.John ancestral home in Wiltshire. Full of portraits and memorials of my family, Lydiard House and the adjacent Church of St. Mary’s is a writer’s dream. Elizabethan monuments, Jacobean portraits and medieval wall paintings all provide a rich tapestry of images, calling across the ages for their stories to be told.

Writing about my own ancestors has been a remarkable journey. Holding their documents, sitting with their portraits, and reading their words of hope, dreams and sorrows is an emotional process. And, knowing what lies ahead as they share their thoughts can be very harrowing. But, as a writer, realizing that these people lived and loved much the same way as we do today can also give me great joy as I tell their stories. It is an honour to bring them alive for today’s readers and remind us that we all have the same dreams and desires, even with centuries between us.

The characters in The Lydiard Chronicles are all real people, and their stories are drawn from Lucy Hutchinson’s Memoirs of the Life of John Hutchinson. Lucy’s vivid story of her mother brought my ancestors to life, and I was determined to honour the truth of her account of my seventeenth century family. As I researched more, I made the decision to only use contemporary sources to inform my fiction, and so as I read letters, court pleadings, dispatches, their voices started to come alive. And, as I immersed myself more in their world, they became part of my life. Because they were real people, and connected to me, I felt I had an obligation to interpret their lives authentically, while at the same time describing human behaviours that transcend time and place.

The first in the series, The Lady of the Tower, takes place in the early 1600s. The Tower of London is infamous for the famous prisoners it housed, the horrific torture that took place within its walls, and the tragic executions witnessed on Tower Green. But along with the kept must be the keepers, and the story of my ancestress, Lucy St.John, is that of The Lady of the Tower – the wife of the Lieutenant of the Tower.


Anna: Are you planning on revisiting this time period? If yes, tell us more!

Liz: When I finished writing The Lydiard Chronicles, I felt quite empty and sad, for the trilogy has a natural beginning and end, and I thought I was saying goodbye. Now, almost a year later, I find the characters and their children continue to live with me and pop up to have a chat almost every day. Sigh. So, yes, I am beginning to think about revisiting them, now that Charles II is back on the throne and England is at peace. Or is it?…

Anna: What are you working on right now?

Liz: One day, not so long ago, I was procrastinating writing a blog post, and decided to play around with our digitised family tree. I entered my own name, and six Elizabeth St.Johns appeared. I picked one at random, who lived in the 15th Century. And then realized she was half-sister to Margaret Beaufort. Aunt to Henry VII. And godmother to the young “prince in the tower” Edward V. I think I may have a new heroine.
Anna: Oh, wow! *battling the green monster over here* But I do hope you’ll do the Charles II ones first!

Liz has chosen to feature an excerpt from the prologue of By Love Divided, the second novel of The Lydiard Chronicles, which is set against the backdrop of the English Civil War. It tells of the terrible toll the events took on the St.John family, and yet offers hope that love conquers all.

The fire is most fervent in a frosty season.
Luce Hutchinson, 21st August, 1642

 These were the times in which Lucy questioned if God had deserted her.

Around the table, her children gathered. When had they grown into men and women? Where went the innocent Allen, the child in Luce? These young people talked recklessly tonight.

Lucy shook the ghosts of yesteryear from her thoughts.

Be grateful for the hour at hand, the joy shared in this pleasing home.

Still, the doubts chattered in her mind. The past crept close tonight, the door ajar between dead and living.

This dinner was a happy occasion, a celebration of Allen’s knighthood. A fresh carp caught in their own fishponds graced the table. Elegant clothes were unpacked from trunks, dried lavender shaken from the skirts. Even Luce, always careless with her dress, wore a fine gown of blue watered silk, dotted with moonstones.

And then, as unpredictable as a summer storm, a lightning exchange heralded dispute.

For the king. Against the king. Favoured by Villiers. Betrayed by Parliament.

Those old arguments restored her husband’s memory, twelve years departed from this life. And now, their past disputes echoed in her children.

“Where lies your loyalty, Allen?” demanded Luce. “Your family deserves the truth.”

He shrugged, his broad shoulders strong under the fine holland shirt, the beautifully cut doublet. Court was good to her son.

“Why, Luce,” he replied, “As God is my witness, I am loyal to His Majesty and faithful to the Parliament. My heart lies with the men of this country, and their wish for peace.”

“By forming armed bands of Cavaliers?” cried Luce, her voice rising. “My heart is loyal and faithful too—loyal to the Parliament who represent the rights of men, faithful to the tradition of monarchy. Consider your own world order, not mine.”

Allen stood too, his soldier’s physique suddenly charging the atmosphere. His colour rose. “The king is as a father to the people of this nation. He knows what is best for them.”

“Is that why he commandeers our ammunition, leaves our towns defenseless, our woman and children vulnerable to any band of armed men?”

“Keep to your writing and notebooks, Sister, and leave the business of government to men.”

Lucy prayed for the storm to subside. Thus always ranged their arguments, until one caught the other’s eye, and a shared smile would appear, contagious and healing.

Please, God, let this night be no different.

“Tomorrow, we ride to Nottingham to attend King Charles,” she said. “He speaks to unite our country, to stand down the armies. Tonight, let not differences divide us.”

A mother knows what is best for her children. And still, they seek out their own destinies. Perhaps, once more, she could protect her children with a lie.

God save us. For again, the fate of my family and of England lies within this deceitful king’s hands. And if he cannot have his way, he will destroy us all.

 Anna: Powerful stuff, that

Author bio
Elizabeth St.John spends her time between California, England, and the past. To inspire her writing, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle to Lydiard Park, and Castle Fonmon to the Tower of London. Having spent a significant part of her life with her seventeenth century family while writing The Lydiard Chronicles trilogy and Counterpoint series, Elizabeth St.John is now discovering new family stories with her fifteenth century namesake Elysabeth St.John Scrope, and her half-sister, Margaret Beaufort.

Although the family has sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth’s ancestors still reside within them —in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their legacy. And the occasional ghost.  But that’s a different story …

Connect with Elizabeth! 


Elizabeth’s Amazon Page Elizabeth St.John

Follow me on Twitter @ElizStJohn

Join me on Facebook ElizabethJStJohn

Instagram @ElizabethJStJohn

By Love Divided Buy Links


Kobo | Apple | B&N:

I hope you didn’t miss Nicola’s post in the series! If yes, see it here! And next week, check in to spend time with Cryzza Bazos!

12 thoughts on “Glory and Gore – how the lives of your long-dead kin inspired your writing”

  1. Oh good … I need my annual St.John fix … the 17th century women you left us with at the end of “Written in their Stars” are so strong, and the times they are going into so fraught with fascinating cousins, I couldn’t believe you leave it at that. I still want to know why they didn’t finish the Lydiard make-over. Mind you, I’m happy we can still see some of the Tudor house … but someone lost a lot of money to have to stop half way through.

  2. Christina Courtenay

    I am also extremely jealous, Liz – how wonderful to have ancestors like that! Mine came from Dorset/Wiltshire too but are more likely to have been servants or tenants to yours :-) Thank you for a fascinating blog post Liz and Anna!

    1. Every family has stories of love, courage and loyalty, Christina. At our archives at Lydiard Park, so much of our history (especially from the 18th century on) is told through the eyes of tenants, farmers and those who lived within the parish. Equally fascinating in my eyes, and just as inspiring for their own set of hardships to overcome. The Wiltshire and Swindon Heritage Centre has some wonderful records on the county’s social history. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. Anna, our meander around the Oxford colleges is a memory I still cherish today. Thanks for having me on your blog – and thanks for generously sharing your knowledge and craft. You inspire me!

  4. Yay, Liz! Your adventures in research are so exciting. And, yes, I am also envious of how you can find all this information about your family—many of the archives in my parents’ country were burned in the 1970s (disastrous for us researchers!). Thanks for a lovely post!

  5. I adored the 17th century world you faithfully brought to life in the Lydiard Chronicles! What a blessing these ancestors have been. Having had a taste of the 15th century branch, I’m eager for more.

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