Memoirs from the Tower of London – Elizabeth St. John

Today Elizabeth St. John, author of The Lady of the Tower and By Love Divided, gives us Memoirs from the Tower of London.

“All the time she dwelt in the Tower, if any were sick she made (the prisoners) broths and restoratives with her own hands, visited and took care of them, and provided them all necessaries; if any were afflicted she comforted them, so that they felt not the inconvenience of a prison who were in that place.” Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson – Lucy Hutchinson, the daughter of Lucy St.John, wrote the memoir and told of her mother’s life.

Gazing from the parlor window of the Queen’s House within the walls of the Tower of London, I could see the chapel of St. Peter, the iconic White Tower…and the site of the executioner’s block. Knowing that I shared this view with my ancestress, Lucy St.John, who occupied this house four hundred years earlier, made me shiver with excitement.

Lucy St.John lived in the Tower of London for thirteen years from 1617 to 1630; not as a prisoner, but as Mistress of the Tower.  I stumbled upon the above-quoted biographical fragment from Lucy Hutchinson’s notebook in Nottingham Castle, and I knew I must find out more about her mother. The Memoirs give tantalizing glimpses of Lucy St.John’s life, and further research on the position of Lieutenant of the Tower, Lucy’s husband, Sir Allen Apsley, revealed much more. A book was starting to take shape.

The Lieutenant’s Lodging

Growing up in England within a family that celebrated history and spent more time researching dead ancestors than talking to living relatives, it was crucial that my fiction writing be informed by fact. I also wanted my readers to feel the same thrill of connecting with the past that I do, and to meet and understand my family and their lives as if the centuries did not separate us.

When I decided that Lucy would be the subject of my novel, The Lady of the Tower, I contacted Her Majesty’s Royal Palaces (HRP) and asked if I could possibly visit some of the private locations within the Tower. The Queen’s House is the family home of the Governor, just as it was for Lucy when she moved there in 1617. They readily gave their permission and kindly offered a Yeoman Warder as a guide.

View of Tower Green from Lucy’s Parlour

I was excited to arrive early one winter’s morning, before the crowds, and walk along the old quay by Traitor’s Gate. Peeking over the massive stone walls were the gabled roofs of Lucy’s home – a curious juxtaposition of domesticity and fortress. I used that view and sensation to set the opening scene of my novel, for I could only imagine Lucy’s trepidation upon entering the Tower, and seeing her future home.

As I met my Beefeater, we quickly found a common love of history, and together we entered the Queen’s House. What I didn’t anticipate was the visceral reaction of walking through Lucy’s rooms, standing in her kitchen, looking through her parlor window – just as she had done. The emotional response to treading in her footsteps inspired so much of my work within The Lady of the Tower, and so many small details found their way into my writing.

The house was used for administrative offices too, and as I explored the warren of rooms (the plans to which, alas, are missing), I came across a small corridor. Just a few feet from Lucy’s front hall, great blocks of stone took over from the domesticity of plaster, and in another pace or two, I was standing within the twelfth century Bell Tower. The ambiance was mournful, and it was not at all difficult to think of Thomas More, John Fisher, and the young Princess Elizabeth imprisoned in this bleak chamber. Their view from the narrow slit windows was the same as Lucy’s from her parlor – the execution block.

The Queen’s House from the River Thames

My inspiration from the Tower continued as I walked outside. Lucy was a great herbalist, and her medicinals no doubt eased the lives of many of the prisoners she nursed. In another part of the memoirs, her daughter refers to Lucy’s generosity with her hen-house – she allowed Sir Walter Raleigh to make free use of it to conduct his alchemy experiments when he was under her care and lodging in the Bloody Tower. Needless to say, this took me in another whole research direction.

The Victorians built over Lucy’s garden, but it is still easy to see the old levels of where her gardens were, and how she would access them from her home. She grew up in country houses where it would have been her responsibility to learn simple herbal cures and recipes, and I had a wonderful time researching recipes and including them within my novel. I was even more fortunate that another family member, her niece Johanna, collated a vast collection of remedies in a book that is now in the Wellcome Library in London. Recipes were precious, and freely exchanged between friends and family, so it was no stretch to think that Johanna sourced some of her remedies from her aunt. I liberally borrowed from those recipes to embellish The Lady of the Tower.

Raleigh, of course, was also a great gardener. I couldn’t resist some interactions between him and Lucy involving some “Virginia Potatoes” as they were known. That is the joy of writing historical fiction – we can have these flights of fancy, as long as they are based in a foundation of solid research.

Lucy’s husband is buried within the Tower at St. Peter ad Vincula, and as I explored the chapel, and saw the stone commemorating Anne Boleyn’s burial, so many emotions flooded my thoughts. Although the Tower is a world tourist attraction, and millions of people walk through its environs every year, I feel such a personal connection, knowing that my family lived and worked within its walls. A small votive to Sir Thomas Moore is still kept burning in the Yeoman’s private chapel, and that was an important detail for me to include in my book.

In Lucy’s time, the Liberty of the Tower housed over a thousand families, all of which came under her husband’s jurisdiction. It really was its own small city, for it lay outside of the laws of the City of London (which caused some friction on many occasions). I like to think of Lucy ministering to the citizens of the Tower as well as the prisoners, walking not just in the areas where her aristocratic prisoners were lodged, but among the houses and gardens of the residents who all helped this important institution run smoothly.

The Tower of London played a crucial role in inspiring my first novel, which has become a best-seller in both the US and the UK. One of the most exciting achievements was the day Her Majesty’s Royal Palaces asked if they could stock The Lady of the Tower in the Tower’s gift shop. Two years later, we are still on sale within the White Tower. In her own special way, Lucy has returned home.

Many thanks, Liz for sharing your inspiration and some of your fascinating family history.

Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. She has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, to Castle Fonmon and The Tower of London to inspire her writing. Although her ancestors sold a few mansions 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.

The Lady of the Tower, Elizabeth’s first novel, a Discovered Diamond and a B.R.A.G. Medallion winner, is on sale on Amazon, and at the Tower of London. Elizabeth’s award-winning second book, By Love Divided, is also an Amazon best-seller and follows the lives of Lucy and her children during the English Civil War. Currently working on the third in The Lydiard Chronicles series, Elizabeth is also releasing the audio book of The Lady of the Tower in May, 2018. You can reach Elizabeth at her website on Amazon, Twitter @ElizStJohn and Facebook

Photos: © Elizabeth St.John 2018

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Truth or Dare

A few months ago, I read The Lady of the Tower by Elizabeth St. John, a wonderful story set during the time of James I. Today, Elizabeth weighs the balance of truth and fiction in historical fiction. Welcome to A Writer of History, Elizabeth.


“The trade of the historical novelist doesn’t seem so reprehensible or dubious; the only requirement is for conjecture to be plausible and grounded in the best facts one can get…Every time the author writes, “He thought that . . .” or “She felt that . . .”, she’s making it up. We never know what people thought or felt, unless they kept frank and full journals. And the world is full of people who lie to their own diaries.” – Hilary Mantel

When I first approached writing an historical fiction novel based on an ancestress’s diary fragment, my biggest challenge was not in the prose (that came later!) but in establishing which parts of the work would be truth, and which I would dare to fictionalize. After re-reading some of my favorite historical fiction authors (Hilary Mantel, Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, George Garrett, Margaret George) I felt I had a good handle on how to navigate those dangerous waters. What I didn’t want, more than anything, was to be caught in an obvious fabrication of the facts, twisted to suit my own needs.

So, truth based in fact, and dare to be bold in interpreting emotions, motive and outcomes. That was a rule I established and scrutinized my writing against every day. Going a step further, I decided that I would approach my research from two perspectives. Firstly, immersively, where I would read any and every fiction and non-fiction book that caught my eye that was relevant to the period. I was fairly widely read in the preceding 16th century, but most of the action in The Lady of the Tower takes place in the 17th century. I needed to brush up on my Stuarts. This involved a voracious consumption of the driest text books (try Divine Right and Democracy – An Anthology on Political Writing in Stuart England) to the wonderful biographies of Antonia Fraser, Anne Somerset, Paul Sellin, and Roger Lockyer, to reams of good (and not so good) fiction.

What was most fascinating to me were the footnotes, for from there emerged the original source documents. That was my second research methodology – going deep into the contemporary documents of the times. Subscribing to British History Online and the National Archives opened up the world of digitalized manuscripts; and Google Books unlocked the Calendars of State Papers. Now I was humming! The hunt was on for every single character that would be making an appearance in my book, and the riches provided by these online sources were boundless. I quickly realized the need to have a pretty accessible filing system to be able to store and retrieve all the documents that were emerging – letters, pleadings, court appearances, dispatches. Some were written by my characters; others mentioned them in passing. Each provided a clue to the personality and motivation of the people of my book.

The six St. John sisters who feature in The Lady of the Tower, from a Polyptych at St. Mary's Church, Lydiard Park
The six St. John sisters who feature in The Lady of the Tower, from a Polyptych at St. Mary’s Church, Lydiard Park

Now I could read their own words, or speeches that had been transcribed by clerks, and plot their character arcs. I could start to see why one married another, or how Barbara would always be a survivor, and Eleanor was a sweetheart. I was fortunate to have access to family portraits, and as I wrote, I chose desktops and images to constantly rotate on my computer to inspire me. Each day, they became more real, and their voices more insistent to be heard. The research that I had done fell into the background, a foundational knowledge that dared me to now allow my imagination to take flight, knowing that I had solid groundwork in accurate fact.

Next – the landscapes. I am fortunate inasmuch as having been brought up in England, so my sense of the countryside and climate are innate. But, I still didn’t know how long it would take to ride from Swindon to Castle Fonmon, and the route, and the scenery along the way. This is where Google Maps came in so handy – sitting at my desk in San Diego, I could drop into a footpath in Wiltshire and know exactly how my heroine would have seen the land.

More than anything I felt I owed it to my distant family to bring them to life in an honest account that would retain the atmosphere of the time, without making the writing too inaccessible to the modern reader. This is where, after several false starts, I determined Point of View (First) and a reading / language level that would appeal to my potential audience. I knew I wasn’t writing romance (although there are love stories intertwined), and I didn’t want twenty-first century attitudes and language to creep in. I settled in on…Jane Eyre. Although written a couple of centuries later than The Lady of the Tower, I felt the sentence structure helped convey a sense of an earlier time, while the restrained passion in the writing and the heroine’s character make us relate completely to her and her plight. Of course, lengthy run-on sentences suffered greatly in the editing, but they were fun to write in the first draft.

Finally, I have a confession. Back to the original diary fragment, I had a big problem. Mention is made of the heroine’s first love in the following way…describing his arrival as such… “all the suitors that came turned their addresses to her, which she in her youthful innocency neglected, till one of greater name, estate and reputation than the rest happened to fall deeply in love with her, and to manage it so discreetly that my mother could not but entertain him…”. The problem – his name was never mentioned. So I had a pivotal plot point in the book, but no character’s name. Back out came the research, and after a few weeks of digging around, I found an estate (Charlton Park) close by the location of my work, and a young man (Theophilus Howard, future Duke of Suffolk) that could match the hero. Then, I found that two of his children married into my heroine’s family. That, to return to Hilary Mantel’s credo, was enough fact to establish plausible conjecture. And thus, “Theo” was born.

To summarize, writing this work of historical fiction has been a glorious journey. I’ve read extraordinary books, delved into personal correspondence and diaries, visited their houses, castles, graves, and gardens, and gazed at portraits, daring the sitters to walk out of their frames and talk to me. And, during the three years that it took to write, edit and prepare The Lady of the Tower for publication, I felt that I had honored my ancestors and written a piece that brought them to life. As I say in my summary for the book … it may have been four hundred years ago, but they are not so different from you and me.

The-Lady-Of-The-Tower-by-Elizabeth-St-JohnThe Lady of the Tower by Elizabeth St. John – 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.

Many thanks, Elizabeth. I can attest to your ability to create the sense of time and place so crucial to successful historical fiction. Your characters truly came alive for me.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website