When Lady Johanna St John wrote her will in 1703 she left personal bequests to her son Henry and daughters Johanna Chute and Anne Cholmondeley. She had outlived all but three of her thirteen children, including Barbara who had died three years earlier.
Barbara St John was born in about 1667, most probably at the St John’s Battersea home. Sir Walter & Lady Johanna’s brood made frequent visits to the family’s country seat in Wiltshire, evident in the letters Lady Johanna writes to her steward Thomas Hardyman enquiring about their well being. The children were sent to Lydiard Park to recover from childhood illnesses and to escape the summer pestilence in London.
An advantageous marriage was a must for the daughters of the 17th century aristocracy and with their royal connections and political presence the St John’s had access to the great and the good. This begs the question why on earth did they chose Sir John Toppe as a husband for their young daughter Barbara?
Aged 21 at the time of the betrothal, John had already attained his inheritance and with property in Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire perhaps on paper Sir John looked like a good prospect.
In 1684 Sir Walter and Lady Johanna watched their 17 year old daughter walk down the aisle at St Margaret’s, Westminster into the arms of Sir John, described at best as a very weak character and at worse ‘almost a lunatic.’
Nothing is known about Barbara’s sixteen year marriage. The couple had two daughters, St John and Elizabeth, but no surviving male heirs. Subsequent events would lead one to suspect the union was probably difficult.
For starters Sir John’s father Francis had died in 1670, leaving insufficient funds to fulfill the bequests he made in his will. The trouble began when Sir John’s sister Frances married Charles Stanhope four years after her father’s death and the shortfall in his finances was discovered. Her mother managed to stump up the £2,000 portion by begging and borrowing from friends, but the debt proved to be an insurmountable burden.
In 1684 Barbara brought to the marriage a portion amounting to £4,250, intended to provide for the younger children of the union in the event of Sir John’s death. But it was following her death in 1700 that Sir John’s life fell apart when his mother persuaded him to move in with her at Mansfield where she lived with her daughter Frances and son in law Charles Stanhope.
Sir John was supposedly pleased with this arrangement and agreed to pay Charles Stanhope £240 a year to cover the cost of his board and lodging and that of two servants and for the upkeep of a coach and two horses.
But Barbara’s extended St John family were up for the challenge. Soon after Barbara’s death her Bernard cousins, descendants of her mother’s sister Elizabeth, entered the fray, taking possession of Sir John’s estate which they claimed he had conveyed to them by deed. Sir John’s family sprang into action beginning a legal process that would remain in the courts for more than twenty years.
Dame Elizabeth and her son in law Charles set about recovering Sir John’s estate from Barbara’s relatives, which involved several law suits and a fair bit of expense for Mr Stanhope. He obviously thought this a good investment as the family then set about the recovery of the £2,000 Elizabeth had paid out of her own pocket twenty six years earlier by plundering Sir John’s inheritance.
Elizabeth would receive all the rents from her sons properties during her lifetime until the £2,000 plus interest was paid. This income would then revert back to Sir John and eventually to his heir, Barbara’s daughter St John.
If he died before the £2,000, plus interest, was paid, the rents were to go to his sister Frances and the lucrative advowson of St Mary Magdelene in Tormarton, Gloucestershire would go to her son Dr Michael Stanhope.
Elizabeth died in 1702 having never received any of the £2,000 plus interest, nor the rents. A generous person might describe Sir John’s mother Elizabeth as overly protective of her vulnerable son but sister Frances was a whole different kettle of fish.
Next on the scene were Sir John’s two daughters, anxious to get their hands on Barbara’s money, although they were not entitled to it until after the death of their father. Charles Stanhope, upon the instruction of Sir John, managed to get them access but spent a considerable amount of money in so doing. The girl’s inheritance amounted to approximately £9,000, but Sir John, like his father, had overstretched himself making provisions for his daughters.
In gratitude Sir John signed over the income from rents to his sister until that persistently pesky £2,000 and inherent interest was cleared and agreed that as soon as the ‘church became void’ her son Dr Michael Stanhope should take over the advowson.
Somehow, while still under the surveillance of his scheming sister, Sir John managed to meet and marry Sarah Charlton, another young wife but a canny girl who would ultimately prove to be his salvation. Sir John instructed his nephew Dr Stanhope to draw up a settlement making provision for his new wife and the couple set up home in Tormarton.
Unhappy with the document Dr Stanhope produced, Sir John and Sarah made alterations, conveying parts of the Nottingham estate to trustees for their use. Well this proved to be a catalytic move, which then saw the Stanhopes take legal action for the recovery of their expenses over the years of looking after Sir John’s estate.
Frances moved that her brother was incapable of handling his own affairs claiming he ‘was a person of weak capacity and understanding.’ She and her son ‘denied all fraud and imposition’ and compelled her brother to come to an account.
On February 24, 1718 both causes were heard before Lord Chancellor Parker who found that all the transference of deeds and titles during the previous eighteen years had been ‘obtained by fraud circumvention and imposition’ and furthermore that the £240 a year Sir John had paid for board and lodging had been unreasonable.
Frances counter attacked, denying all the charges and discrediting the evidence of Sir John’s attorney Hicks.
The court found that Sir John was a very weak person and easily imposed upon and that Frances and the Stanhopes ‘had taken a very unjust advantage of his situation, and used the most indirect means and artifices, to get him and his estate in to their power, and create misunderstandings between him and his children’ and the deeds obtained by Frances and her son from Sir John’s estate were got by ‘the greatest fraud and imposition.’
It was pointed out that the demand for £2,000 plus interest, which by then amounted to about £7,000, was nearly as much as the estate was worth and that anyway, it had been paid 46 years earlier.
The court found that Sir John had gone along with decisions out of his affection for his sister and that he had been ‘prevailed upon by them to act so unnaturally towards his own children as to disinherit them of his whole estate.’ Sir John was reunited with his daughter St John who following her father’s death received her rightful inheritance.
Sir John, who was described as being in a flourishing condition when he came under the management of his sister, ‘would, in case their demands were allowed, be involved in such great debts and incumbances, that he must be utterly ruined, being by their contrivances, rendered incapable of raising any monies to discharge the same’ – that is to make provision for his children and settle his debts.
Frances’s claims on her brother’s wealth was thrown out of court and she was ordered to pay his legal costs of £100.
The court case serves only to highlight his failings but perhaps John had more about him. If second wife Sarah proved his salvation perhaps Barbara had been his protector against his avaricious family.
In death it was the quiet country parish church of St Mary, Lydiard Tregoze, next to the manor house where she had spent her childhood holidays, that Barbara chose as her final resting place. The entry of her death in the parish registers reads: Top Barbara Lady wife of Sir John Top Baronet of the Parish of Tormorton Glos. Buried in the church of Lydiard Tregoze 27th April 1700.
And twenty-seven years later Sir John was buried with his first wife, suggesting that the couple may have lived part of their time at Lydiard Park.
The inscription on his tombstone reads – Sr John Topp Barronette of Tormarton In Comitatu Gloucester Obt. the 29th of March 1727.
Images of Lady Johanna and Sir Walter St John are courtesy of Lydiard Park visit the website on www.lydiardpark.org.uk
Tombstone images is courtesy of Duncan and Mandy Ball visit the website on www.oodwooc.co.uk.