The miracle of Thomas Becket’s elbow and Robert Donat’s voice

12 Dec

On 29 December 1170, four knights loyal to King Henry II of England murdered Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the city’s cathedral.

More than eight centuries later, a bone fragment believed to be from Becket’s elbow was temporarily brought from Esztergom Basilica in Hungary, where it had been kept for centuries, to the site of his assassination.

Henry II appointed Becket Archbishop of Canterbury in 1161 because he wanted an ally in his disputes with the church. But, by the end of the decade, Becket had become overly pious, wearing a sackcloth shirt, consuming only bread and water, spurning riches and staunchly defending the faith. The poet T. S. Eliot explored that transformation in his play Murder in the Cathedral, first performed in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral on 19 June 1935.

Becket and the king clashed over the supremacy of church and state (premonitions here of the later argument between Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey) and Becket went into exile in France after being accused of treachery. In 1170, he returned to England but soon angered Henry by excommunicating the Archbishop of York, who had sided with the king against Rome. It was then that Henry is supposed to have shouted, “What sluggards, what cowards have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

Carrow-Psalter.jpgOn 29 December, four knights entered Canterbury Cathedral and hacked Becket to death in front of the high altar. Edward Grim, a monk, observed the attack from a hiding place and later wrote down what he saw. Two years later Becket was canonised and his shrine began attracting pilgrims from across Europe. Becket’s martyrdom is depicted in the mid-13th century Carrow Psalter, held at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1220 Becket was reburied and relics from his body, said to bring about miracles, were dispersed across Europe, with part of his elbow ending up in Esztergom. Three centuries later, during the Reformation, Henry VIII – upstaged by the cult of St Thomas – ordered his shrine to be destroyed and his remains obliterated.

On its recent journey, the fragment of Becket’s miraculous elbow was temporarily reunited with a piece of  his skull – kept at Stonyhurst College in northern England – before stopping at Rochester Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral. It was then returned to Hungary.

Donat-BecketEliot’s verse drama Murder in the Cathedral was commissioned for the 1935 Canterbury Festival. Eliot must have read Edward Grim’s eyewitness account of the murder, since he uses some its language in his play. In 1953, the Old Vic Theatre in London invited one of Britain’s finest actors, Robert Donat, to play the part of Becket in a new production directed by Robert Helpmann. It was an enormous challenge for the ailing actor, who had long suffered from crippling bouts of asthma and who would die five years later from a brain tumour after collapsing on the set of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

On the first night, unknown to the audience, there were two oxygen tanks in the wings just in case, but they were not needed. Donat’s appearance on stage was greeted with a wild burst of cheering and, after what everyone agreed was an astonishing performance, there were twenty curtain-calls. Ironically, Becket’s opening lines include:

“They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
They know and do not know, that action is suffering
And suffering is action.”

Donat’s celebrated performance was recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios in May 1953. The original tapes were remastered and issued on CD by EMI in 2006. The recording, well worth seeking out, captures what The Daily Telegraph critic, Campbell Dixon, called “A voice of magical charm and effortless authority which only a clod could hear unmoved.”

By Philip Lee, at whose excellent blog Quintessential Ruminations this piece was originally published. We’d like to thank Philip for giving permission to re-publish his article here.

Renée Asherson (19 May 1915 – 30 October 2014)

5 Nov

41ovMfW3TYL._SY300_We are sad to report the passing of Renée Asherson, aged 99, on 30 October.

Renée was Robert Donat’s second wife. They married in 1953 and remained married, though separated, until he died in 1958. Renée never re-married.

Renée was born in London during the First World War (19 May, 1915), and studied acting at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. Her first stage role was a walk on in John Gielgud’s Romeo and Juliet in 1935.

In 1945, she appeared as Millie Southern opposite Robert Donat in Walter Greenwood’s northern comedy, The Cure for Love. In 1947, RD and Renée appeared as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and in 1949 in RD’s film version of The Cure for Love. By now, they were a couple. Renée and RD worked together only once more, in The Magic Box in 1951.


Robert and Renée in The Cure for Love

In 1953, after RD’s triumph on stage in Murder in the Cathedral, he and Renée were married.

After RD’s death in 1958, Renée continued to work both on stage and screen. Her last film appearance was in The Others in 2001.

Renée Asherson is perhaps best known for her exquisite performance as Princess Katherine in Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V.

A stand-out in her later career came in Memento Mori in 1992, opposite Maggie Smith, Michael Hordern, Thora Hird, Cyril Cusack and Maurice Denham.

mori 2

We send our deepest sympathies to all who are mourning Renée.

Priscilla and Robert

17 Jan

Priscilla, 1945 © Nicholas Shakespeare

Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France by Nicholas Shakespeare, which some of you may have been enjoying in abridged form on BBC Radio 4, is the astonishing true story of a young woman’s adventures, and misadventures, in the dangerous world of Nazi-occupied France.

Priscilla’s adventures involve our very own Robert Donat. Readers of both J C Trewin and Kenneth Barrow’s biographies of Robert will find no mention of Priscilla, but amongst his late aunt’s papers, Nicholas Shakespeare found a number of passionate letters to her from Robert, written between January and May 1945.

Robert had been introduced to Priscilla by her closest friend, Gillian Sutro.

On that evening, Priscilla had never been so alluring or so alone. She stood by the Sutros’ fireplace in her Schiaperelli ivory silk dress that left her neck bare. Donat looked into her ‘mild wild eyes, like a pregnant faun’, and was, he afterwards confessed, ‘enchanted’. They talked and the other guests receded.

The Germans banned English films in Paris, but Priscilla knew who Donat was. His hold on the public imagination is hard to exaggerate, even if his name does not register today …

… An unaccompanied young woman in a humdrum job, reclining in her velvet seat, might with Donat’s assistance shrug off the anxiety of the V bombs and for ninety minutes imagine herself playing opposite a man who, in the opinion of one critic, ‘can make you feel like he is in love with somebody, which few actors can’.

The problem was that the thirty-nine-year-old Donat could not spark in himself the same emotion. In 1940, concerned for their safety, his wife Ella had taken their children to Los Angeles. On his own for four years, Donat had rarely been so unhappy as on the evening he encountered Priscilla. He telephoned her the following morning at the Sutros, shaken by what she had unloosed.

Priscilla in 1945

Priscilla in 1945 © Nicholas Shakespeare

During the war and Ella’s absence, Robert had been pondering the future of their marriage, returning to his youthful notion of The Ideal Woman. Relationships with Rosamund John and Deborah Kerr had not tempted him to divorce Ella. Priscilla might have been ‘the one’.

‘I swore I would never again take any woman seriously – and here you are beginning to nestle down snugly under my skin, bother and confound you’.

But all did not go well, despite Robert’s many adoring letters. Priscilla deserted him to write a book, and Ella returned to England.

‘Darling,’ Donat wrote to Priscilla. ‘We have come to the end of our tether and don’t like to admit it to one another. Isn’t that the truth? It is only sensible to end it now before it becomes too hurtful.’

As we know, Robert would go on to divorce Ella and later, marry Renée Asherson. It is fascinating to catch a glimpse of a part of Robert’s life previously hidden, and the excerpts from his letters to Priscilla are a delight.

The story of his aunt Priscilla’s remarkable life is beautifully and tenderly recounted by Nicholas Shakespeare. Please read the book to find out more about Priscilla and Robert, and to discover what made Priscilla and her life so extraordinary. My father served in WW2, and for him the war was a matter of good versus evil, duty and serving your country. Priscilla lived in the shades of grey where one did what one could to survive. What would I have done? And you?

15. unblemished in wedding veil

Priscilla on her wedding day, 1938 © Nicholas Shakespeare

A pin-sharp biography which unfurls like gripping fiction… wonderful, haunting, thought-provoking
– The Times

I have not read a better portrait of the moral impossibility of that time and place for people, like Priscilla, who found themselves trapped in it
– Daily Telegraph

A tantalisingly original perspective of the Second World War…Shakespeare shines a moving, intriguing light on the moral quandaries faced by ordinary civilians
– Sunday Times


Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France by Nicholas Shakespeare is published by Harvill Secker, part of Vintage Publishing.

Nicholas Shakespeare was born in Worcester in 1957 and grew up in the Far East and Latin America. He is a prize-winning novelist and biographer and Priscilla draws on his talents in both genres.
My thanks to Nicholas Shakespeare for his co-operation and for providing images of his aunt.
As always, my thanks to Brian Donat for his help and support.
All images and text excerpts copyright © Nicholas Shakespeare 2013

Gill Fraser Lee