A Short History of Fonmon and the families who have lived there

Cautionary Note

Almost all buildings of this antiquity have uncertainties about the history of both their construction, and of the families that have occupied them. To these get added myths, family stories, and plain mistakes. So that whilst what is set out below is ‘true’ as best we understand it, do not take it as ‘gospel’.

We always like to hear from anyone who spots an error, or even something like an omission, where your knowledge can add to ours. Please feel free to make contact, but please via letter, or e-mail, as telephone conversations are more likely to add to the confusion than shed clarity where it is needed.

At the beginning

No one quite knows when the site at Fonmon was first occupied. The legend that one Oliver St John came with Fitzhamon into Glamorgan around 1090, as one of the Twelve Knights, is clearly false, as can be seen from the following notes.

There is some evidence of a timber structure prior to the first indications of stone building dating from around 1180. The first stone castle was almost certainly raised by one Adam de Port (later, Adam de St John). The de Port’s were great lords under the early Normans. Adam’s great grandfather, Hugh de Port having come over in 1066, ended up Lord of Basing (as in Basingstoke) and held 53 other manors in Hampshire, 13 in Kent, and more back in Normandy.

Adam, as Lord of Basing, married Mabel the heiress to the French St. John family. They had three children Alice, William, and Robert. Alice was born in Pembroke so there was obviously a Welsh connection by then, and family history says that the Fonmon manor, amounting to 900 acres, was bought as a ‘knight’s fee’ for either William or Robert, the holding owing allegiance to the Umphreville’s, Lords of the neighboring manor of Penmark. Again without much evidence, the story is that Robert died young, so William inherited both Basing and Fonmon.

Adam de Port meanwhile had taken the surname of his wife, the St John heiress, so that Fonmon is more associated with the name St. John than de Port. The noble house of St. John is today represented by Anthony, 22nd Lord St John of Bletsoe; Henry, 8th Viscount Bolingbroke and 9th Viscount St. John of the Lydiard Tregoze branch, and Sir Walter St. John-Mildmay, 11th Baronet of Farley.

The stone castle initially consisted of a single block just 8m x 13m placed above a steep ravine, conveniently with water beneath. This would have likely been surrounded by further stone walls and timber outbuildings, to form a generally defensible whole.

Additions were then made in the early/mid 13th C including a square tower to the south and a round tower adjoining the main block. Eventually the curtain wall joining the north and south ranges was filled in to give an approximately ‘U’ shaped castle with a courtyard extending to the West beyond the hollow of the ‘U’. A substantial tithe barn was added, later converted for carriage storage, and used today as stables and garaging.

By the late 13th C. the St. Johns had lost Basing with William being noted as marrying Isobel Combmartin in 1266 at ‘Faumont’ in Wales, and their grandson being styled Sir John St. John, Castle Faumont, Glamorganshire. He made an advantageous marriage to Elizabeth Umfreville the heiress to Penmark, thus securing himself as the principal land holder in the area.

The family status and the castle itself, then remained very much unchanged for around 150 years.

From the Wars of the Roses to the Civil War

In 1425 Sir Oliver St. John married Margaret Beauchamp heiress to Bletsoe in Bedfordshire. After his death in 1437, Margaret married John Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset, grandson of John of Gaunt, 1stDuke of Lancaster. This catapulted the family (Margaret and Oliver had had six children) into the heart of the Wars of the Roses. By the end in 1485, her grandson Henry Tudor triumphed, becoming King Henry VII of England, with Margaret’s St. John children as his uncles and aunts, and their children as first cousins.

Sir John St John, Oliver and Margaret’s eldest son, eventually inherited Fonmon, Bletsoe and Lydiard Tregoze, the Beauchamp property in Wiltshire, so unsurprisingly ceased to live at Fonmon and the castle was occupied by tenants from amongst the Welsh gentry.

At some point in the early 16th century a short north wing was added built over a characteristic barrel vaulted semi-basement.

Perhaps more surprising given the turbulent times that followed, the St Johns maintained their status being enobled as Lords St John of Bletsoe in 1558 and created Earls of Bolingbroke in 1624. Despite their high rank they retained Fonmon, although by then it was the hands of junior branches of the family. The estate map of 1622 by Evans Mouse is dedicated to Sir Anthony St John 2nd son of the 3rdLord St John.

Sir Anthony having no male heir, Fonmon passed to his cousin Sir John St John of Lydiard Tregoze. With the advent of Civil War the St John family divided, those of Bletsoe largely backing Parliament and those of Lydiard Tregose backing the King. Sir John, having lost three sons in the King’s cause, then had to pay reparations (fines) to Parliament, and so sold the Welsh estate in 1656 thus bringing to an end nearly 500 years of ownership by his family.

The later 17th and the 18th century

Fonmon was bought by Colonel Philip Jones. Sometimes styled Colonel Lord Jones, Philip was one of Oliver Cromwell’s right hand men. Controller of the Lord Protector’s household, member of the council of nine, an MP and a Privy Councillor, godfather to Richard Cromwell, his influence increased as Cromwell’s health declined. It was no wonder that an English MP was heard to moan “We cannot longer have this country ruled from a small castle in Wales.”

As befitted a new owner of rising status, Colonel Philip and his son Sir Oliver Jones made addition to Fonmon. This took the form of a substantial north wing rising over three floors above cellars and a water cistern.

Colonel Philip survived both the Restoration and Impeachment largely through having had the good sense to refuse to sign King Charles I death warrant. He is listed on the ‘regicide’papers as being ‘absent upon his Welsh estates’. Being away at Fonmon stood him in good stead when Charles II regained the throne as the one group that Charles did not forgive were those who had actually signed his father’s death warrant.

The Jones’ then continued to occupy Fonmon largely unaltered for several decades. Instead, as with the St John’s, they married well into the local gentry. Sir Oliver to the Buttons of Dyffryn, then two Roberts to the Edwins of Llanvihangel and the Forests of Minehead.

After a third Robert married Jane Seys heiress to the Seys’ of Boverton, the estate had grown to nearly 8,000 acres stretching from Llantwit Major in the West to beyond Barry in the East; and from the sea to approaching Llantrisant in the north, although not all was contiguous. The Seys (or Sais) family were one of the oldest of Glamorgan with Jane’s father Evan claiming to be 21st in descent from Blethyn ap Maenarch and one Aeneas Seys said to have been ‘given to the Conqueror as hostage for the good behavior of the people of Glamorgan’.

Robert II was a religious man and he and his wife regularly welcomed John and Charles Wesley to Fonmon. He died when Robert III was but a child and his education was determined by Mrs. Jones and the Wesley brothers. This proved a hard schooling, and as soon as he was able the young man escaped to Paris which he greatly enjoyed.

He returned determined to put his wealth to improving his home. He pensioned off his mother and Charles Wesley recorded ‘Sadly our welcome at the Castle is not what it once was’; as Robert set to work to celebrate more earthly pursuits.

He employed Paty as Architect and Stocking as Plasterer to assist him in the modernization. The two rooms forming the original Norman first floor hall were combined to create a library/salon running the full width of the Castle East to West. This was then extravagantly decorated in the Rococco style and fitted with gilded mirrors from designs by Thomas Johnson.

Four rooms from the central range linking north to south were combined to make a new main hall, new staircases were installed and other rooms redesigned and redecorated. Finally he erected a sundial on the SE tower to celebrate the completion.

The fine work at this period has led Fonmon to have a Grade 1 listed status, if someone applied today to make similar alterations to a building dating from 1430 they would be turned down out of hand. He then remodeled the curtilage walls and raised the old Watch Tower in the SE corner of the grounds to be a folly tower alongside the carriage drive approach.

Finally Robert installed a new layout of gardens although sadly we retain no record of his plantings.

Unfortunately, as well as the excellent investment in Fonmon, Robert III also invested in racehorses and high living in London, with the inevitable result that he fell into debt and had to flee to France. Although he eventually returned to die peacefully at Fonmon, nevertheless large portions of the estate were sold and Fonmon has never really ‘had money’ since.

The modern era

Robert Jones III died in 1793. His son was a soldier who served in the Peninsular War and later as General Jones became Master of the Horse to the Duke of York. The castle, somewhat neglected, slipped into another 100 years of sleep. In 1880 the general’s son, Robert Jones IV made some minor further changes, adding two rooms to the South Wing; changing the principal entrance from the south front to the west ; and adding a new porch to the hall.

Robert IV’s son Oliver Henry had no children and the castle passed jointly to his nieces Beatrice and Clara Valpy. Beatrice never married so that Clara eventually become the sole heiress. She had married Sir Seymour Boothby and the castle was owned by Sir Brooke Boothby their grandson, until 2019.

Today the emphasis is on restoration, with the aim of bringing Fonmon back to the condition to which Robert Jones III raised it in 1762. 150 years of underinvestment, albeit with benign management, has left a huge backlog. Visitors coming to Fonmon and the wide range of activities now taking place either in the castle or on the estate are providing the revenue to make it possible.