Royal treasures found in Norfolk attic
PUBLISHED: 11:27 08 October 2020 | UPDATED: 12:46 09 October 2020
Lost papers discovered in a locked trunk alongside a phial of oil from the Queen’s coronation reveal a story hidden for more than half a century
Alan Don was chaplain to four monarchs, an Archbishop of Canterbury and two speakers of the House of Commons.
During his time as chaplain and confidante to kings he kept diaries revealing his thoughts on the abdication crisis, the rise of Hitler and even Norfolk’s famous defrocked vicar of Stiffkey who was mauled to death by a circus lion.
When Alan died, childless, in 1966, his Norfolk nephew and godson Robin Don cleared his house, sorted through his possessions, and brought a trunk full of papers and photographs back to his home in North Elmham, near Dereham.
And there they stayed, locked in the tin trunk, for more than half a century, until another priest, and historian, the Rev Dr Robert Beaken, heard about them.
“Five years ago, a letter in unfamiliar handwriting with a Norfolk postmark unexpectedly dropped onto my doormat,” said Robert. “It turned out to be from someone called Robin Don: I immediately recognised the surname.”
He had come across Alan Don while researching a book about Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1929 to 1942. Alan had been chaplain to the Archbishop Lang and began writing a diary on his journey from his native Scotland to London to take up the job. “It was the start of a glittering career which saw him become chaplain to George V, Edward VIII, George VI and Elizabeth II,” said Robert. He eventually became Dean of Westminster.
Robert became increasingly interested in Alan’s life and intrigued by Robin’s recollection of a trunk of papers in the attic. “During one of my visits to Norfolk, we went in search of it, but only encountered cobwebs,” he said.
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“Robin sadly died in 2018. The following year his daughter Jo telephoned me unexpectedly to say they had finally located the trunk. The key was long lost, but they had managed to open the lock with a grinding machine. I drove up to Norfolk, expecting it to be something of a wild goose chase. In the event, I had rather a surprise. The trunk smelled a bit musty, but was full to the brim with papers and documents of all kinds.”
There were letters from the Royal Household, 10 Downing Street and Parliamentary figures, plus photographs, “And a small phial of anointing oil from the Queen’s coronation that had turned over the years into gingery granules, like brown sugar.”
“The documents in the trunk also brought him vividly to life,” said Robert. “They revealed a very kind man, whose own unhappy domestic circumstances meant he was especially sensitive to the sufferings of others.”
Alan and his wife had no children and led separate lives after the Second World War.
His great-nieces Joanna Fitzalan Howard, and her sister, Hetty Burdon, still live in North Elmham. Both were christened by Alan and Joanna remembers him visiting frequently. “He was a lovely, gentle man,” she said. “When we opened the trunk we found lots of his old school caps, and pictures of him and his brothers as children, and lots of information from the coronation – and the really quite extraordinary phial of oil.” Hetty said: “I am thrilled that Alan Don’s diaries are being published as I was less than a year old when he died. I am looking forward to finding out more about his character and reading his insights into a tumultuous time in British history.”
Robert said: “Because he straddled so many worlds – ecclesiastical, royal, political, and social – his diaries are not narrowly churchy, but provide a fascinating picture of Britain and her élite. A great array of personalities pass through the pages – bishops, priests, kings and queens, members of the British and foreign royal families, prime ministers, politicians, viceroys of India, musicians, portrait painters, soldiers, diplomats including Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi ambassador to London, and an assortment of scamps and scallywags such as Harold Davidson, the unfrocked rector of Stiffkey who was mauled to death by a circus lion.”
Faithful Witness, The Confidential Diaries of Alan Don, Chaplain to the King, the Archbishop and the Speaker, 1931-1946, edited by Robert Beaken, is published by SPCK, with an introduction by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.