Oliver was the second son of Nicholas St. John (d. 1589) of Lydiard Tregoz in Wiltshire, by his wife Elizabeth (d. 1587), the daughter of Sir Richard Blount of Mapledurham in Oxfordshire. His mother was distantly related to Charles Blount, Earl of Devonshire, and on the father's side he was descended through a female line from the Grandisons, and was related to the St. Johns, Barons of Bletsho. Although Lydiard was the familyís major estate, Oliverís father preferred his second home, Purley Park in Berkshire, just across the river from his in-laws, and this is where the future lord deputy grew up. He was educated at Oxford, matriculating from Trinity College on 20th December 1577 and graduating as a BA on 26th June following. He entered the legal profession and, in 1580, was admitted a student of Lincoln's Inn. However, about March 1584, he killed George Best, the navigator, in a duel, and was compelled to flee the country.
St. John now sought his fortunes as a soldier abroad, and served with distinction in Flanders and in France. Before 1591, he had attained the rank of captain and, in the autumn of that year, commanded Essex's horse at the Siege of Rouen. "He served very valiantly, namely, the first day of the Siege of Rouen, when he had his horse killed in a charge, which he performed very well". In 1592, he returned to England and was elected member for Cirencester in the parliament summoned to meet on 19th February 1593. In the March, he was placed on a commission for the relief of maimed soldiers and mariners, and made several speeches during the session. However, parliament was dissolved in the April and, soon afterwards, Essex recommended St. John to Cecil as "a leader of horse fit to be employed". He again sought service in the Netherlands and was present at the Battle of Nieuport on 2nd July 1600.
Meanwhile, Tyrone's Rebellion necessitated the presence of experienced soldiers in Ireland and St. John accompanied Mountjoy thither in February 1601. He was knighted by Mountjoy at Dublin on 28th of that month and was given command of two hundred men. He took a prominent part in the Siege of Kinsale in the Autumn, repulsing a night attack of the Spaniards on 2nd December, when he was wounded. On 13th December, he left the camp to carry despatches to Queen Elizabeth and inform her of the state of Ireland. In November 1602, he was back in Ireland commanding twenty-five horse and 150 foot in Connaught, under Sir George Carew, and, in the same year, he was recommended by Cecil for the office of vice-president of that province. The arrangement does not seem to have been carried out however. From 1604 to 1607, he sat in the English parliament as member for Portsmouth. On 12th December 1605, he was made master of the ordnance in Ireland with a salary of £200 a year, and sworn of the Irish Privy Council. Several of his reports on arms and ammunition in Ireland are preserved among the state papers.
From this time, St. John became the most trusted adviser to Arthur Chichester, the Lord Deputy of Ireland. Early in 1608, he was named a commissioner for the plantation of Ulster. In that capacity, he drew up a scheme for the plantation of the province and accompanied Chichester in his progress through Ulster in 1609. As an 'undertaker,' he had grants of fifteen hundred acres at Ballymore in co. Armagh and a thousand acres in 'Keernan.' He advised that no grants of the lands of the banished earls should be made, but that they should be let to natives at a high rent. Early in 1609, Chichester sent him to England and he drew up a report of the commissioners' proceedings for the benefit of the Earl of Salisbury. In 1613, he was elected member of the Irish parliament for co. Roscommon and took an important part in the dispute about the speakership. Speaking from his experience of the English House of Commons, he urged that the first business of the house was to elect a speaker and that the proper method of voting was to leave the house and be counted in a lobby. Sir John Everard's supporters, however, refused and, during the absence of their opponents, placed Everard in the chair, from which he was then forcibly ejected by the majority. St. John was one of the members sent to lay the matter before King James I. In December 1614, he resigned the Mastership of the Ordnance, being highly commended for his conduct in that office. He was in England during October 1615 when the Earl of Somerset was committed to his custody.
On 2nd July 1616, St. John was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland. He received the Sword of State on 30th August. His appointment was partly due to his connection with George Villiers (afterwards Duke of Buckingham), and his administration was marked by a vigorous persecution of the recusants (those not conforming to the Church of England). By proclamation, he banished all monks and friars educated abroad and thought it would be a good thing if a hundred thousand native Irish could be sent to enlist in foreign countries. He also prosecuted the colonization of Ulster and the plantation of co. Longford, in 1618, was followed, the next year, by that of co. Leitrim. His "intolerable severity" against the recusants created many enemies and the fact that he owed his appointment to Villiers made him unpopular with many of his council. Early in 1621, they urged his recall and, though James commended him and protested against involving him in disgrace, he was finally commanded to deliver up the Sword of State to Loftus on 18th April 1622. St. John left Ireland on 4th May.
Oliver St. John still remained in favour at court. On 28th June 1622, he was sworn onto the English Privy Council and, on 23rd June the next year, he was created Viscount Grandison of Limerick in the Peerage of Ireland. In 1624, he was placed on the Council of War and served on various other commissions. On 16th August 1625, he was made Lord High Treasurer of Ireland and, on 20th May 1626, was raised to the English Peerage as Baron Tregoz of Highworth in Wiltshire. Perhaps this put him in a generous mood for, in the same year, he is believed to have financed the rebuilding of the church tower in his childhood home of Purley. As well as domestic issues, St. John also interested himself in foreign and colonial affairs, frequently corresponding with his nephew, Sir Thomas Roe. In 1627, he bought the manors of Wandsworth and Battersea, where he had had a house since 1600. His health failing, he sought the advice of Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne. After a visit to Ireland in 1630 to settle his estates there, he returned to Battersea, where he died on 30th December in the same year. He was buried there on 12th January 1631.
St. John had married Joan, daughter and heiress of John Roydon of Battersea, and widow of Sir William Holcroft. She was buried at Battersea on 10th March 1631. They had no children. The Barony of Tregoz became extinct. Grandison's manors, Wandsworth and Battersea, passed to his St. John nephew. The Viscounty of Grandison, however, passed, in accordance with the limitation of the patent, to his grand-nephew, William Villiers, son of Sir Edward Villiers, brother of the Duke of Buckingham, by his wife Barbara, younger daughter of Sir John St. John, Grandison's elder brother.
Edited from Sidney Lee's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1897).
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