March 12, 2015

Finest Hour 159, Summer 2013

Page 08

By Hugh Axton

“He was Swifter Than the Eagle. He was Braver than a Lion.”

About fifteen years ago I was staying near Cuckfield, Sussex, when I remembered a reference in Martin Gilbert’s official biography, Winston S. Churchill, that Ralph Wigram’s funeral took place there on 4 January 1937. Wigram was the foreign office informant who, at great personal risk, had kept Churchill informed in detail on German rearmament during the 1930s (FH 157: 24). I tracked the venue to Cuckfield’s Holy Trinity Church, which had probably been chosen by Ralph’s widow Ava: her father’s grave, with an almost identical marker, is only twenty yards away.

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Arriving on a damp September day, I wondered how I could find Wigram’s grave in this inordinately vast village churchyard. But as I walked round the perimeter path, I came to a corner with a headstone in the form of a cross, and could just spot the words: Ralph Wigram CMG. The inscription was a little difficult to read, but this was clearly what I was looking for. I was surprised that the grave of such an important figure was not in better repair.

A few years later I saw the television production, “The Gathering Storm” staring Albert Finney as Churchill (FH 115, Summer 2002), in which Ralph Wigram was a central character. In 2009 I visited Cuckfield again. In the lovely church, I found a flyer offering a new church history, which I obtained from the author, Joyce Donoghue. There was no mention of Ralph Wigram’s funeral—a surprise, since it had been attended by such luminaries as Churchill, Lord Vansittart, Anthony Eden, and various peers and knights.  Among them was Churchill’s longtime friend Brendan Bracken, Ralph Wigram’s near neighbour in Lord North Street, who had, in fact, arranged for Wigram to rent his house there. In the film, Clementine Churchill (Vanessa Redgrave) was depicted as attending. In fact she was away on holiday, and Churchill had written her eloquently about Wigram’s untimely death, voicing his grief and mentioning arrangements to allow Ava Wigram to get over her immense despair.

Although a mine of information about Cuckfield and the church, Joyce Donoghue did not know of Wigram and his significance in the Churchill story; nor was it likely that anyone else in Cuckfield was still alive who knew him or Ava. Sadly I realised that this brave soul was more or less forgotten, yet Cuckfield has a fascinating museum and a very active historical society. Mrs. Donoghue was keen to learn more about him and I sent what information I had. She subsequently wrote about Wigram’s key role:

“After the funeral, Churchill took a distraught Ava and her young Down’s Syndrome son back with him to Chartwell. In 1941 she married Sir John Anderson, Home Secretary in 1939-40, whose name was applied to the ‘Anderson shelters’ in which city dwellers passed their nights during the Blitz.

“Without the information Churchill received from Ralph Wigram, and others in those years of appeasement, he would not have been as effective in his quest for rearmament. For Wigram, his colleagues and successors, faced with where their duty lay, it was a matter of conscience: their political masters or their country. Theirs was the greater loyalty.”

Wigram was descended from William the Conqueror. His mother, a Fitzroy, was descended from the only one of Henry VIII’s illegitimate children whom the King recognised and treated as a son: Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, born June 1519 to Elizabeth Blount. Fitzroy was the ward of Cardinal Wolsey.

I have now visited Cuckfield many times and met Richard Constable, the local historian.  Ava and the Wigrams’ son Charles are buried in the same plot. The headstone in the adjoining grave belongs to Charles’s nanny: clearly she was a much-loved friend of the family. One may wonder if Churchill had a hand in Wigram’s inscription: the eagle and lion lines are redolent of his style. The gravemarker is now restored, as befits the roles of those it memorializes, and the inscriptions may all be clearly read:

Winston Churchill paid poignant tribute to Wigram in The Gathering Storm: “He saw as clearly as I did, but with more certain information, the awful peril which was closing upon us. This drew us together.  Often we met at his little house in North Street, and he and Mrs. Wigram came to stay with us at Chartwell.”

Churchill added, “My friend took it too much to heart.  After all one can always go on doing what one believes to be his duty, and running ever greater risks till knocked out. Wigram’s profound comprehension reacted on a sensitive nature unduly.  His untimely death in December 1936 was an irreparable loss to the Foreign Office, and played its part in the miserable decline in our fortunes.”

Mr. Axton ([email protected]) of Walmer, Kent, is a longtime member of The Churchill Centre, UK. He is responsible, together with local historian Richard Constable, for restoring the gravemarker to its present pristine condition.

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