Anne and the Cholmondeley dilemma

Category: 17th century women’s history

In which Anne fulfills a prophecy and saves a dynasty.

Lady Johanna St John

Anne St John was baptised at St Mary’s Church, Battersea on December 8, 1650 the first of Sir Walter and Lady Johanna St John’s thirteen children.  She grew up at the manor house in Battersea, spending summer holidays at the family’s country seat in Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire.

Sir Walter St John

On May 20, 1684 Anne married Thomas Cholmondeley at the Charterhouse Chapel in London and left for her new home at Vale Royal, a former abbey founded by Edward I on the River Weave in Delamare Forest, Cheshire.

Anne, Thomas’s second wife, was described as being ‘a lady not esteemed very young,’ which was a bit of a problem for the Cholmondeley family, as Thomas was in dire need of a male heir.  His first wife Jane, daughter of Sir Lionel Tollemache had produced 12 children, but all five sons died during their father’s lifetime.

Enter stage left, Robert Nixon, plough boy, driveller and dullard.  A sometimes violent character, strange looking and with a prodigious appetite, Nixon was well known in the Vale Royal area where he worked for local farmers until he wore out his welcome.  He was also in the habit of falling into a trance like state behind the plough, standing there for up to an hour.  Sometimes he would recover and carry on as if nothing had happened, sometimes he would speak in incomprehensible words and sometimes he would come out with something quite extraordinary.

Thomas Cholmondeley took pity on Nixon and brought him into his household, perhaps before the prophetic announcement or most likely after it?

James II

To set the scene – Charles II had died in 1685 leaving no legitimate heir to inherit.  His eldest bastard son James, Duke of Monmouth was a pretty popular contender but playing by the rules the crown had to to to Charles’s brother Catholic James II.  The Stuart family had long struggled with a private committment to Catholicism in conflict with the monarch’s role of head of the Protestant church in England.  The country would have rather had a Protestant King, but James’s heir was his Protestant daughter Mary, so everyone was prepared to see how it all panned out.  But then in 1688 James’s second wife, Catholic Mary of Modena, produced a son and everything was all up in the air again.

Mary of Modena

The 1680s were tremulous times – the Civil Wars still a vivid memory, the scars on the countryside still healing, the absences in families still mourned.

And then along came Robert Nixon with his amazing prophecy.  When a raven should build in a stone lion’s mouth on the top of a church in Cheshire, then a King of England shall be driven out of his kingdom, and never return more, he declared. A miller named Peter shall be born with two heels on one foot and would be instrumental in delivering the nation. There was more stuff about fallen walls and a pond running with blood but most pertinent for Thomas was Nixon’s prophecy that when an eagle shall sit on the top of the house, then an heir shall be born to the Cholmondeley’s family.

Well how likely was that to happen?

Then in January 1685 Anne went into labour and lo and behold the eagle appeared.  ‘The largest bird she ever saw,’ her sister Johanna reported who stood in the crowd outside Vale Royal, watching and waiting.  Throughout the several days Anne laboured to give birth the bird sat in one of the windows despite all efforts to drive it away.  When little Charles Cholmoneley took his first breath the eagle flew to a nearby tree where it stayed for three days before disappearing into the night.  Johanna also confirmed the fall of a wall on the Cholmondeley estate, which Nixon claimed foretold of the future invasion of England and that young Charles would live to fight bravely for his king and country.

William of Orange

In 1688 William of Orange headed The Glorious Revolution, a reasonably bloodless invasion of England, although in Ireland and Scotland where fierce fighting took place it was quite a different story.  James II fled to France, which parliament constituted an abdication and William and Mary were crowned joint monarchs in February 1689.

Mary – joint monarch with William

Three year old Charles may have played little part in the struggle for the throne, but he did save the Cholmondeley family from extinction – or rather, Anne did.

Vale Royal

Today the Grade II listed Vale Royal Abbey has been converted into apartments and includes the Club House and amenities of the vale Royal Golf Course.