Friday, 14 December 2007

The Russian in the Crypt

The only lay person buried in Westminster Cathedral is Count Alexander Benckendorff, and yesterday we received a surprise visit from his grandaughter. Count Benckendorff's story - and how he came to be buried in the crypt at Westminster Cathedral - is extraordinary.

Count Alexander Benckendorff arrived in London in 1903; although having been born in Berlin, he became roving Ambassador to the Tsar of Russia. the SPY cartoon above from vanity Fair was published soon after his arrival. A great anglophile, he was isntrumental in arranging the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1907 which, together with France, resulted in the Triple Entente.

He was a favourite on the social scene; above is his portrait drawn by John Singer Sargeant in 1911. Count Benckendorff encouraged the teaching of Russian at English universities and was Honorary President of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce. Even more unusually, he was a Roman Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism.
s In 1914 came the great War and, in its wake, turmoil in Russia. Early in the war, Benckendroff's son was killed fighting on the Prussian front. Meanwhile, a several influenza epidemic was sweeping across Europe, and one of its first victims in London was Count Benckendorff. Before his death he told his daughter of his wish to be buried in Westminster Cathedral, where he had worshipped weekly.
This raised considerable problems; international communications during the War were difficult. It proved impossible to get permission from Russia, and that required from Rome was obtained only after much effort. Meanwhile, the Count's Requiem took place in the Cathedral, attended by the Tsar's brother, and members of both the Russian and British Royal families. Soon afterward, permission was granted by Cardinal Bourne, and the Count was buried in a simple service in the crypt.
The Count's daughter commissioned Eric Gill (then working on the Stations of the Cross in the Cathedral) to produce the memorial slab which lies above the Ambassador's tomb. It was finally installed in 1939, and the inscription, in Russian and Latin (the latter provided by Mgr Ronald Knox), reads: Count Alexander Philip Constantine Ludovic Benckendorff, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotenitary from the Emperor of Russia to the Court of St James. August 1 1849 - January 11 1917. May he rest in peace.

Yesterday we received a visit from Mrs Humphrey Brooke, grand-daughter of Count Benckendorff, and took her to see the tomb. There had been already an extraordinary occasion, two years ago, when the current Russian Ambassador and the Russian Archbishop in London came and prayed at the tomb. This was a more intimate moment - below, Fr Michael Seed points out the inscription to Mrs Brooke.

1 comment:

DdB said...

How to I find contact information for Mrs Humphrey Brooke, grand-daughter of Count Benckendorff.