Updated: Aug 25, 2020
Guest post by Elizabeth St.John
Researching and Writing Historical Fiction from my Family’s Letters, Diaries and Papers
“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.”
While researching my family history, 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. I was hooked. Not only was this a period of history that I found fascinating, but this woman was born in the Tower of London—and her mother, Lucy St.John, was an ancestor of mine. Lucy Hutchinson’s autobiography is just a fragment within her rich Memoirs, but it was enough to fire my imagination. Her writing was remarkably clear and well-preserved, and the more I read, the more excited I became.
Here Lucy continues to describe 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, 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 Tower of London, an orphan and a wicked stepmother. Now I was truly hooked. And so began my journey, researching and reconstructing the characters in my first novel, The Lady of the Tower. To stay true to the story of Lucy St.John, so faithfully penned by her daughter, I committed to using primary sources for the evidence of their lives; however, I did weave fiction between the facts. Lucy Hutchinson’s memoirs were such a rich resource that I continued to use it for my second and third novels in The Lydiard Chronicles: my Civil War epic By Love Divided, and my novel of women spies during the Restoration, Written in their Stars. Lucy Hutchinson’s memoirs helped inform and animate the story of my ancestors four hundred years ago.
I visited Lydiard Park—Lucy St.John’s ancestral home in Wiltshire. The portraits there of Lucy’s brother John, his wife (Lucy’s best friend) Anne, and her sister Barbara were 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, was a writer’s dream. It helped me put faces to my words.
My research was a long and complicated journey. I visited the National Archives, combed online scholarly sources, and spent countless hours transcribing wills, court documents, letters and other written evidence. I had some exciting finds:
a letter mentioning Will St.John’s pirating escapade
a family tree depicting Barbara’s children marrying Theo’s children
Sir Allen Apsley’s will and testament (one of the first original documents I found in the British Library) where he declares his love for his wife, Lucy St.John
Touching his signature, I felt such an emotional connection to Lucy St.John and all that she was to him. Here’s a heart-wrenching and loving extract from Sir Allen Apsley’s 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. Sir Allen Apsley’s Calvinist testament clearly afforded him the means to make his apology for the challenges he imposed on his beloved Lucy.
Lucy was documented as an herbalist who treated the prisoners of the Tower with her curatives, so I also included many medicinal recipes in The Lady of the Tower. These recipes originated 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 might be 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 as I’ve married my passion for history and joy of writing, I’m always conscious of the ties binding me to these people who lived so long ago. Ancestors whose words, deeds and lives I now share with my readers.
Elizabeth St.John spends her time between California, England, and the past. To inform her writing, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle to Lydiard Park, and Castle Fonmon to the Tower of London. 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 there—in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost. But that’s a different story …
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