ST. JOHN, Sir John (by 1495-1558), of Bletsoe, Beds.
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Family and Education
b. by 1495, 1st s. of Sir John St. John of Bletsoe by Sybil, da. of Rhys ap Morgan. m. (1) by 1521, Margaret, da. of Sir William Waldegrave of Smallbridge, Suff., 5s. inc. John and Oliver 4da.; (2) Anne, da. of Thomas Neville of Cotterstock, Northants., 1s. 4da. illegit. bef. m. suc. fa. 30 Mar. 1525. Kntd. Feb./Nov. 1526.3
Commr. subsidy, Beds. 1523, 1546, musters 1539, 1546, benevolence 1544/45, chantries, Beds. and Bucks. 1546, 1548, relief, Beds. and Hunts. 1550, goods of churches and fraternities, Beds. 1553; other commissions 1530-54; j.p. Beds. 1528-d., Hunts. 1528-47; sheriff, Beds. and Bucks. 1529-30, 1534-5, 1549-50, knight of the body by 1533; ‘custos’ to Princess Mary in 1536; yeoman forester, Farming Woods, Northants. 1539-44; chamberlain, household of Princess Elizabeth date unknown.4
Head of the senior branch of his family, Sir John St. John could trace his descent to Normandy before the Conquest, although there is no firm evidence of settlement in England until after 1100. His great-grandmother, Margaret Beauchamp, had considerably increased the family’s wealth by her inheritance of the manors of Lydiard Tregoz, Wiltshire, and Bletsoe, Bedfordshire, and its standing by her second marriage to John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, thus linking the St. Johns with the house of Tudor. The Wiltshire property descended to the junior branch of the family.5
St. John’s monumental inscription is probably correct in stating that he was brought up by Margaret Beaufort, and as he was on the threshold of manhood when she died in 1509 his entry to the court of her grandson would have been a natural sequel. In 1521 he was among 50 gentlemen who accompanied Wolsey to Calais. In the same year his father made a marriage settlement of the greater part of his inheritance—the manors of Bletsoe and Keysoe, Bedfordshire, and Paulerspury, Northamptonshire—to the use of St. John and his wife: its annual value was estimated in 1525 at £130. In 1526 St. John leased his other freehold property, a Dorset manor worth £13 a year, to William Uvedale for 21 years.6
St. John was knighted at some time between February 1526 and the following autumn, when he was nominated, but not pricked, sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. In July 1527 he again accompanied Wolsey to Calais. His inclusion in the commissions of the peace for Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire in 1528 marks the beginning of his continuous participation in local affairs. He was pricked sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire in 1529, after the election of knights of the shire for which, if he had cherished any hope of being chosen, he had evidently been passed over. Either St. John or John Gostwick, whose son married St. John’s daughter Margaret, may have been by-elected in place of George Acworth, who died in 1530; their names appear against Bedfordshire in a list of vacancies which had occurred between the opening of Parliament and the second half of 1532. As St. John was to be nominated sheriff in 1533 and 1534, and pricked on the second occasion, it may well have been he who succeeded Acworth, although the ‘Mr. St. John’ included in a list of Members drawn up by Cromwell probably in December 1534 is more likely to have been John St. John of Lydiard Tregoz. If St. John did join the Parliament of 1529 he was probably also returned to that of 1536, for which the King requested the return of the previous Members. In the meantime he had been discharging the honourable duties of his station, accompanying the King to Calais in 1532 and attending Anne Boleyn at her coronation in 1533 as a servitor of the dresser. In 1532 he purchased the manor of Lawrence in Riseley, Bedfordshire.7
St. John was to be described on his tomb as at one time ‘custos’ to Princess Mary. No record of this appointment has been found but it appears to be corroborated by a letter written immediately after the death of Catherine of Aragon on 7 Jan. 1536. Addressed to Cromwell by ‘John St. John’, the letter contains a request to the King to excuse the writer’s wife from being a mourner at the ex-Queen’s funeral, both because she was recovering from a pregnancy and because the writer, ‘being in service with my Lady Princess’, could not furnish the horses and servants needed for the occasion. Although Princess Mary had been officially deprived of that title since 1533, there can be little doubt that the reference is to her and not to her mother: if the writer had been attendant on Catherine at Kimbolton he could readily have brought his wife from nearby Bletsoe, whereas this would have been more difficult to arrange from Eltham where Mary was staying. It thus appears that St. John was discharging this duty at the beginning of 1536, but since when he had done so, and how long he continued to, are alike unknown: it is, however, probable that the assignment interfered to some extent with his attendance in Parliament.8
St. John took a leading part in putting down the northern rebellion of 1536. He was appointed to attend the King personally with a retinue of 100 men, and with Sir Francis Bryan and Sir William Parr he led the ‘best’ men of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire northwards. He appears to have acted as a liaison between the Duke of Suffolk and others who were helping to put down the rebellion. That St. John was an able soldier is suggested by his appointment in July 1543 as one of four counsellors to Sir John Wallop for his expedition against the French; a letter of 13 Aug. from Wallop and others to Henry VIII, describing their actions in the Netherlands, bears St. John’s signature. He was again abroad in the following July when he signed a letter from the 3rd Duke of Norfolk to the Council, giving details of the war. In both campaigns he supplied men for the army.9
His martial prowess notwithstanding, St. John was, in Bryan’s words, ‘a man of gentle nature’. In a letter to Cromwell of October 1537 Bryan asked that St. John might have the manor of Bushmead, which the King had already leased to him. The request came too late, for Sir William Gascoigne had already been granted the reversion of Bushmead, but St. John retained his 21-year lease of the property at a rent of £21. He prospered greatly by the Dissolution. In 1540 he paid £305 for the manor of Keysoe and Keysoe Grange, as well as other property in the neighbourhood. In the following year he paid £469 and surrendered his manor and advowson of Paulerspury, Northamptonshire, for three manors in Huntingdonshire, one manor in Bedfordshire, some land in Glamorganshire, and a London house. He quickly alienated the Glamorganshire property and in 1543 settled the rest on the marriage of his eldest son Oliver.10
In October 1537 St. John had attended Prince Edward’s christening and, in the following month, the funeral of Queen Jane Seymour. In December he was suspected with two others of hunting without permission in the 5th Lord Mountjoy’s park at Abthorpe, Northamptonshire, which lay near his own manor of Paulerspury: among Cromwell’s remembrances are notes ‘to examine St. John and Sir Henry Parker for hunting’ and ‘to speak for’ them. Whatever the outcome, St. John’s career does not appear to have suffered: he was reappointed to the commission of the peace for Huntingdonshire in 1538, helped to receive Anne of Cleves in 1539 and in 1546 was one of four Bedfordshire representatives summoned to court to welcome the French ambassador. His return to the Parliament of 1539 may have owed something to Cromwell, but if so he must have retained the seat three years later by reason of his position at court and his standing in the county. He probably procured his son Oliver’s knighthood of the shire in 1547 by standing down himself. If so, it was his last success in the parliamentary sphere, for he was not to be returned again nor any of his near kin elected until after his death.11
The last ten years of St. John’s life are only occasionally illuminated. Their most interesting episode dates from the beginning of 1553, when he and Lewis Dyve were recommended by the Privy Council to the sheriff of Bedfordshire as suitable for election as knights of the shire in the forthcoming Parliament: Dyve was elected, but St. John was not, the second seat going to Sir Humphrey Radcliffe. Why St. John was nominated is less hard to explain than why he was passed over. His earlier custody of Mary suggests that he already veered towards the Protestantism which can be read between the lines of his will, a tendency which may well have been strengthened by his daughter’s marriage some years before to Francis Russell, heir to the earldom of Bedford. Russell was himself to be summoned to the Lords in the Parliament of March 1553, and his father, a leading Councillor, could well have taken the lead in St. John’s nomination: for his part St. John seems to have stood well with John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, the chief ‘manager’ of the elections, having served with Dudley against the Norfolk rebels in 1549 and been pricked sheriff immediately after Dudley overthrew the Protector Somerset in the following autumn. Why so well befriended a man, who had already represented the shire in Parliament, should have had to yield to one 20 years his junior and a stranger to the House is a mystery: if it smacks of local resentment at the Council’s intervention there remains the question why it was St. John, and only he, who was given the rebuff.12
Whereas both the 1st Earl of Bedford and his son Francis were implicated in the succession crisis which followed, there is nothing to show that St. John took any part in it. He did figure in a local disturbance in August 1553, when it appears that a group of anti-enclosure rioters tried without success to enlist his support: it is not clear whether the eight prisoners in Bedford gaol (including a woman committed for seditious words against the Queen) whom St. John and the 1st Lord Mordaunt were commissioned on 26 Aug. to deal with had taken part in the affair, but St. John’s employment on this occasion, like his reappointment to the Bedfordshire bench in the following February, implies that the new Queen had nothing against him save perhaps a lingering grudge for his earlier role as her custodian. None the less, if the testimony of his monumental inscription is once again to be accepted, it was not to Queen Mary but to Princess Elizabeth that he was to be most directly attached during these years, for he is there described as having been camerarius to Elizabeth both as Princess and Queen. As with the custody of Mary no evidence has come to light of St. John’s appointment to Elizabeth’s household nor, in this case, is there any reference to him in this capacity: perhaps, like John Thynne, he was one of those whom she named in 1555 but who did not in practice serve her. His death within a month of her accession may have robbed him of the reward he might have expected, but the speedy ennoblement of his son Oliver was perhaps a mark of royal gratitude.13
St. John made his will on 6 Apr. 1558. After commending his soul to God, he appointed as executors his second wife Anne, his sons Oliver and John, and a son-in-law Edmund Elmes, and as overseers his son-in-law Bedford, Henry 11th Lord Morley and John Zouche, the last perhaps the knight of the shire for Derbyshire at the time. From the profits of his manors of Fonmon and Penmark, spread over a period of 12 years, the executors were to pay sums of money totalling £372 to his children and grandchildren, to provide rings for his daughters, to give £27 to the parishes within two miles of Bletsoe and to give what was left over from £480 to his heir Oliver St. John. Two of his daughters were to receive goods and money worth altogether 400 marks, his son John was to have his gold chain, and his plate was to be shared equally between Anne and Oliver. St. John died on 19 Dec. 1558 and the will was proved on 27 Feb. 1559. The annual value of all his Bedfordshire property, excluding that settled on Oliver in 1543, was reckoned in his inquisition to be £226.14
Ref Volumes: 1509-1558
Author: S. R. Johnson
- 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament; LP Hen. VIII, vii. 56 citing SP1/82, ff. 59-62.
- 2. E159/319, brev. ret. Mich. r. [1-2].
- 3. Date of birth estimated from age at fa.’s i.p.m., C142/44/160, 161. Vis. Beds. (Harl. Soc. xix), 53; PCC 45 Welles; LP Hen. VIII, iv; CPR, 1550-3, p. 410. This biography owes much to information from F. T. Smallwood transmitted personally and in Rep. Friends of Lydiard Tregoz, vii. 1-86 passim; x. 24-31. A biography of St. John in Sel. Cases St. Ch. (Selden Soc. xxv), 25-27 confuses his father and grandfather and supposes him to have died in the reign of Edw. VI.
- 4. LP Hen. VIII, ii-v, vii, x, xi, xiii-xxi; CPR, 1547-8, pp. 75, 76, 80, 85; 1548-9, p. 137; 1550-3, pp. 140, 393; 1553, pp. 339, 351, 354; 1553-4, pp. 17, 29.
- 5. J. G. Taylor, Our Lady of Batersey, 142 seq.; CP, xi. 333-4.
- 6. C142/43/16, 44/160-1; LP Hen. VIII, ii; Chron. Calais (Cam. Soc. xxxv), 98; CPR, 1550-3, p. 410.
- 7. LP Hen. VIII, ii-iv, vi, vii. 56, 1522(ii); VCH Beds. iii. 158; Vis. Beds. 53; Chron. Calais, 39, 42.
- 8. LP Hen. VIII, x.
- 9. Ibid. xi, xvii-xix.
- 10. Ibid. xii, xv-xviii, xxi; CPR, 1553-4, p. 252; VCH Beds. iii. 125; Sel. Cases Ct. Requests (Selden Soc. xii), 64 seq.; St.Ch.3/3/22, 7/34.
- 11. LP Hen. VIII, xii-xiv, xxi.
- 12. CPR, 1548-9, p. 137; 1550-3, p. 393; APC, v. 66, 242.
- 13. Chron. Q. Jane and Q. Mary (Cam. Soc. xlviii), 15; APC, iv. 332; CPR, 1553-4, pp. 17, 29.
- 14. PCC 45 Welles; C142/120/12.