Tuesday, 11 September 2018

In their own words: The Lydiard Chronicles. #amwriting #HistoricalFiction #TowerOfLondon @ElizStJohn

In their own words: The Lydiard Chronicles.
Writing historical fiction from my family’s letters, diaries and papers.

By Elizabeth St.John

“It was on the 29th day of January, in the year of our Lord 1619–20, that in the Tower of London, the principal city of the English isle, I was about four of the clock in the morning, brought forth to behold the ensuing light. My father was Sir Allen Apsley, lieutenant of the Tower of London; my mother, his third wife, was Lucy, the youngest daughter of Sir John St. John, of Lydiard Tregoze, in Wiltshire.”

An extract from a Chancery Court pleading from 1635, sworn by Lucy Apsley

I read this entry many years ago for the first time in Lucy Hutchinson’s 
Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson archived in Nottingham Castle and I was hooked. Not only was this a period of history that I found fascinating, this woman was for some reason born in the Tower of London—and her mother was an ancestor of mine. Lucy Apsley Hutchinson’s autobiography is just a fragment within her rich Memoirs, but was enough to fire my imagination. I continued reading (and her writing was remarkably clear and well-preserved) and got a shiver of excitement when I realized the extent of the story that was emerging. Here Lucy continues to describe her mother:
“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.”

The Lieutenant’s House within the Tower of London, birthplace of Lucy Hutchinson.

The Tower of London, an orphan and a wicked stepmother. Now I was truly hooked. And so began my journey reconstructing the characters in my first novel, The Lady of the Tower. Determined to stay true to the story of Lucy St.John so faithfully penned by her daughter, I committed to only using primary sources for the evidence of their lives, and to weave the fiction between the facts.  So rich a resource is Lucy Hutchinson’s Memoirs, I continued to use it as the inspiration for my second novel in The Lydiard Chronicles, the Civil War epic By Love Divided. Now, as I embark on the third and final book in this particular series, Lucy’s words and observations are echoing clearly through the centuries, informing and animating the story of my ancestors four hundred years ago.

A full-size portrait of Lucy St.John and her five sisters at St. Mary’s Church, Lydiard Park.

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, his wife (Lucy’s best friend) Anne, and her sister Barbara are quite lovely. And, of course, the unique and priceless polyptych in the Church of St. Mary’s with its unique portrait of all six sisters is any writer’s dream. Now I could put faces to the words.
Researching for my novel 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 St.’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 Apsley’s will, which forms the pivot for the story. Touching his signature, I felt such an emotional connection to Lucy St.John and all that she was to him, and how much he loved her. Here’s a heart wrenching and loving extract from his will and testament:

“If my deare wife (unto whom never man was more bound) take any distast I doe earnestly entreat her to forgive mee and I desire all the world should know that shee is a religious and vertuous lady a most kind wife.”
In those days, writing a will was also an opportunity to make peace with God and Sir Allen Apsley’s Calvinist testament clearly afforded him the means to make his apology.

The front page of Lady Johanna St.John’s Receipt Book, originating in 1672.

I was also able to include many medicinal recipes within The Lady of the Tower (Lucy was documented as an herbalist who treated the prisoners of Tower with her curatives) that originate 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.
I am truly fortunate that my family is one that left its mark on the pages of English history. In more ways than one following their paper trail, discovering their portraits and walking through the rooms they once inhabited has been a discovery of my own heritage and life. And as I’ve married my passion for history and joy of writing, I’m always conscious of the ties that bind me back to these people that lived so long ago, their words and deeds, and whose lives I now share with my readers.
The Lady of the Tower

Orphaned Lucy St.John, described as "the most beautiful of all," defies English society by carving her own path through the decadent Stuart court. In 1609, the early days of the rule of James I are a time of glittering pageantry and cutthroat ambition, when the most dangerous thing one can do is fall in love . . . or make an enemy of Frances Howard, the reigning court beauty.
Lucy 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.

Elizabeth 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.

By Love Divided

Fiercely independent, Luce Apsley rejects the dazzling English court and an entitled marriage arranged by her aristocratic family, and falls in love with a Roundhead soldier. Her mother follows the Puritan cause and yet her beloved brother, Sir Allen Apsley, chooses to fight for king and country. As England falls into bloody civil war, Luce embraces Parliament's radical views and confronts the very core of the family's beliefs. And when their influential Villiers cousins raise the stakes, King Charles demands loyalty. Allen and Luce face a devastating challenge. Will war unite or divide them? In the dawn of rebellion, love is the final battleground. 

Based on surviving memoirs, court papers and letters of Elizabeth St.John's family, By Love Divided continues the story of Lucy St.John, The Lady of the Tower. This powerfully emotional novel tells of England's great divide, and the heart-wrenching choices one family faces.

COUNTERPOINT: Theo, Earl of Suffolk

Theo Howard, Earl of Suffolk is torn. Betrothed to a child to satisfy his family dynasty, he longs for the freedom to make his own choice. And when he attends a lavish party at his family's newly-restored palace, he is immediately attracted to Lucy, a beautiful young lavender-seller. But in this enchanted world of Shakespeare's Midsummer's Night Dream, all is not as it appears. Theo's headstrong sister Frances is determined to sabotage her own arranged marriage, and aided by the cunning of Frances and her friend Barbara St.John, perhaps Theo can find his own path to happiness and true love.

When I wrote The Lady of the Tower, the story revealed itself in the narrative of my ancestress, Lucy St.John. But, as with all novels, other characters appeared, and their voices grew strong and insistent, demanding their own story be told. This novellete is Theo’s counterpoint to chapter six in the novel, in which Theo meets and falls in love with Lucy St.John.

A counterpoint is a melody played in conjunction with another, or an opposing viewpoint in an argument. Our lives are complex, and each one of us carries within us a counterpoint to another’s story. Here is one to Lucy St.John, the lady of the Tower.

COUNTERPOINT: Barbara, Lady Villiers

Barbara Villiers Palmer is one of the most famous courtesans in history. Mistress to Charles II and mother of five of his children, Lady Castlemaine's notoriety is legendary. This is the story of her namesake and grandmother, Barbara St.John Villiers. The apple did not fall far from the tree.

Barbara St.John Villiers has always despised her sister Lucy, and when Theo Howard, Earl of Suffolk, fell in love with her, Barbara thought she'd die of jealousy. Instead, she decided to get even by befriending someone even more scandalous than herself, Theo's sister, Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset. Unfortunately, Frances was then imprisoned in the Tower of London, accused of murder, and Barbara had to find a way to turn this to her advantage - and continue her vendetta against Lucy.

When I wrote The Lady of the Tower, the story revealed itself in the narrative of my ancestress, Lucy St.John. But, as with all novels, other characters appeared, and their voices grew strong and insistent, demanding their own story be told. This novellete is Barbara’s counterpoint to chapter thirty-one in the novel, in which Barbara manipulates Theo and his sister to gain much for herself.
A counterpoint is a melody played in conjunction with another, or an opposing viewpoint in an argument. Our lives are complex, and each one of us carries within us a counterpoint to another’s story. Here is one to Lucy St.John, the lady of the Tower.

Elizabeth St.John

Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. To inform her writing, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, and Castle Fonmon to 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), Elizabeth's family still occupy them - in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost.
Elizabeth’s debut novel, The Lady of the Tower, has been an Amazon best seller since its release in 2016, and has won numerous awards for historical fiction. By Love Divided, the second in The Lydiard Chronicles series, follows the fortunes of the St.John family during the English Civil War,  and was featured a the 2018 Swindon Festival of Literature as well as recognized with an “Editors’ Choice” by the Historical Novel Society.  Elizabeth’s currently working on the next in the series, telling of the lives of the St.John women after the Civil War and into the Restoration.

Elizabeth loves to hear from readers, you can find her: Website, Amazon Author Page, Twitter, Facebook


  1. Such an interesting post. You certainly had some wonderful ancestors!

  2. Thanks Mary Anne - they do keep me busy! And with more and more records being digitalised, there are new sources to search on a constant basis. Great fun!

  3. I've read both books, and they are very different. You've taken the family from a bullied younger sister to a group of dynamic courtiers. How do you decide what "voice" to use? How do you organize the priorities of the narrative?

  4. Thanks Sally, great question. I knew that when I wrote By Love Divided, the scale and varied locations would lend themselves better to third person Point of View. I took a lot of advice from my wonderful editor, Jenny Quinlan, and learned the techniques for writing in close third. This wasn't a lot different than first, and allowed me to give perspectives both from the characters, and those around them. Then, after developing the story arc and chapter arcs, I wrote each scene from the character best suited to move the story forward (usually the person who had the most to gain or lose). Once I got the hang of it, I was off. I may never return to first!

  5. How lovely to be able to write about your ancestors.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx