Dr Lavinia BraunDavenport is a scholar in South African literature, the wife of the British diplomat Michael Davenport, recently back from Cairo, and the mother of three children.
In her family tradition, Lavinia was “brought up with the knowledge that my grandmother’s great-uncle, Fr Cyril Forster, had converted the King of England to Catholicism on his deathbed”. The king was Edward VII, who died in 1910.
Fr Cyril Forster, born about 1840 and chaplain to the Irish Guards, was, it has been suggested, taken by Sir Ernest Cassell, the King’s best friend and a Catholic convert himself, to see the sovereign as he lay dying. And there, it is claimed, Edward accepted the Roman Catholic faith.
Lavinia’s grandmother left a note saying that Edward’s conversion was “a ‘Family Secret’ – the Old Rake’s Repentance!” It was treated discreetly, but the lore was passed down through the Forster family just the same.
Who can prove this claim? Even if it took place as described, what passed between the King and Fr Cyril would carry the seal of the confessional.
So there is no proof: but we can still look at likelihood and probability.
It is established that Edward VII was comfortable in the company of Catholics. Besides Sir Ernest Cassell (a Jewish convert and grandfather of Edwina Mountbatten), his other close friend was the Portuguese Catholic the Marquess de Soveral.
He was also friendly with the monks of Tepl at Marienbad, and, as I disclose in my book Crown and Shamrock – Love and Hate between Ireland and the British Monarchy (published by New Island Books, Dublin, this month), the King paid a prayerful visit to Lourdes barely a fortnight before he died. He entered the grotto and apparently prayed at La Roque church there. So Edward might have had the disposition to become a Catholic.
It is also noted in all the standard biographies that Sir Ernest Cassell was the King’s last visitor. Would he have brought along Fr Cyril? Some biographies also suggest it is possible.
And was Fr Cyril Forster a reliable witness, if, without betraying the confessional secret, he did not deny it to his own family? Apparently he was a man of respected integrity. And he was already well known to the King, and trusted by him.
Sir Shane Leslie (a cousin of Winston Churchill and also a Catholic convert) described Fr Forster, in 1964, as “a gentleman of the old school, hating cant and advertisement ... courageous, old-fashioned and transparently honest...
“The public never heard his name, but as the Royal residences lay in his parish, he had become a friend of King Edward VII, whom, it was supposed, he had at last received into the Catholic fold.” When Edward (as Prince of Wales) had Catholic guests at Marlborough house, Fr Cyril was invited to bring them the Sacrament. “On such occasions the Prince and Princess of Wales ... always met him at the door and conducted him upstairs with lighted tapers to the bedside of their guest.” Dr Lavinia Braun-Davenport – whose own father, the painter Valentine Braun-Dusemond, was a German Jew who converted to Catholicism when interned East Africa – is still researching the family story about Fr Cyril Forster, and if anyone can add any more pieces to this jigsaw, we’d all be very keen hear from them.
Some secularists have been expressing exasperation over the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux going to Wormwood Scrubs prison.
Matthew Parris in the Times and Minette Marrin in the Sunday Times have both written that this reaches just about the limit of their tolerance. Such limits are clearly neither very elastic nor very tolerant. Not to mention very imaginative or very compassionate.
Minette thinks it a scandal that public money should be spent in this way. As if it didn’t already cost more public money to keep a prisoner in the Scrubs than to keep a boy at Eton!
And for heaven’s sake, have a measure of pity for prisoners banged up in choky, some facing long stretches of porridge for their sins. If the relics of St Thérèse bring them some comfort – then secularists should live with it. Ever heard of live and let live?
Carolyn Savage really passes the Judgment of Solomon heroic mother test. Pregnant after IVF, she was then informed that the wrong embryo had been implanted and was offered an abortion.
Devastated at the news of the error, she nonetheless refused an abortion and has carried the baby to term: when the boy is born in two weeks’ time, she will hand him over to his biological parents. She and her husband decided to “look on it as a gift for this family”.
Now that is what I call Mother Courage.