PHILIP ZIEGLER'S blockbuster biography of Mountbatten burst yesterday into the bookshops of Britain. It is a masterpiece. In the sumptuous serenity of Broadlands in Hampshire — complete with its massive family archives — Mountbatten spent his last, rather lonely, years. I once visited him there when researching the life of his grandmother, Princess Alice, Queen Victoria's second daughter.
Alice, a carrier of haemophilia, passed it on from tier mother, with whom , it originated to cause the devastation of several European Royal families. It was the great curse — exacerbated by the sinister Rasputin — which overshadowed the life of Alice's fourth daughter, Alexandra, Czarina of Russia.
Mountbatten, gazing out through Broadland's long drawing room windows, eulogised over his maternal grandmother, Alice, and in a foreword to the eventual book, claimed that she was the most gifted of all Queen Victoria's children.
He also spoke movingly of his aunt Elizabeth, usually known as Ella, an older sister of Alexandra, the ill-fated Emperor of all the Russias.
Ella's life was that of a Cinderella in reverse. Having, at 20, married the fearsome Grand Duke Serge of Russia she entered St Petersburg in a glass coach. She ended her life in a mineshaft, hurled to her death by revolutionaries.
Serge became governor of Moscow but so earned the hatred of its population that he was blown up by an anarchist's bomb in a Kremlin square a few feet from is wife's room. Ella rushed out to find the gruesomely scattered remains of her husband's body at her feet. The assassin was a fanatic called Kalajew whom Ella visited in prison imploring him to repent before execution. lie refused. All this happened in 905.
Elizabeth thereafter devoted herself entirely to good works and founded an active order of nuns, something hitherto unknown in the Russian Orthodox Church.
One of its later members was Princess Andrew of Greece, mother of the Duke of Edinburgh.
While her sister Alexandra, come the Revolution, died with her family at Ekaterinberg, Ella suffered her own no less violent death.
A faithful priest brought her undecomposed body, via Peking, from the Siberian mine into which she had been thrown, to an Orthodox Church in Jerusalem which Ella herself had dedicated in earlier, happpier times.
Mountbatten's favourite part of the story was that it was his parents, Prince Louis pf Battenberg and Victoria (Ella's sister) who had arranged for this macabre and tortuous journey. They personally received the body in Jerusalem and attended the final committal to the ground of the gentle and saintly Elizabeth.
At this point Lord Mountbatten put down his tea cup and suggested that we should look round the house before it got too dark.
ANOTHER Battenberg carrier of haemophilia, who later engaged my biographical efforts, was Ena, Spain's English Queen. After many sadnesses she died (in 1969) in the happy knowledge that the monarchy would be restored in Spain.
In that same year, indeed, Franco nominated her grandson, Juan Carlos, to be his "successor," the former having proclaimed Spain a "kingdom"
How King Juan Carlos became the central figure in the moving forward of his country to democratic, constitutional monarchy k a key part of The Transformation of Spain — a brilliant analysis of the whole saga by David Gilmour, published by Quartet Books.
Suarez, a crucial appointment for the country's premiership by the courageous and adroit young King, is described as a clever man but one who was accused of never finishing a book.
Ironically, at that very point in this book, the pagination becomes so erratic that an impatient reader such as Suarez might well get discouraged.
Apart from this minor blemish the book is enthralling and particularly interesting on the changing Church in a changing Spain. In 1939 Pius XII publicly thanked God for "Spain's Catholic victory."
In 1971 the majority of Spain's first joint assembly of bishops and priests voted for a resolution proclaiming that "we humbly recognise and regret the fact that we did not play our true role as ministers of reconciliation among our people when they were divided by a fratricidal civil war."
A gentle Tan
EAMONN has given his own inimitable tribute to Noel Purcell, to which I would add my own.
Noel was a giant with the famous bushy white beard; a man with a handshake of steel and a heart of gold.
He was an apparent extrovert but a sombre thinker; sometimes sad. A frequent visitor to Lourdes I once met him when 1 was with a blind friend. The latter was convinced that something miraculous was in store for him.
As we were walking one afternoon toward the grotto I suddenly spotted the massive figure of Noel who rushed up and crushed my hand in his aforesaid steely grip. He did the same with Len, my blind friend, and from that moment a great rapport sprang up between the two.
Noel had latent doubts about certain aspects of the Lourdes phenomenon. Len, having read a lesson at Mass in braille, later gave so vivid a picture of his idea
of Our Lady of Lourdes that those who heard him were momentarily stunned.
Noel Purcell, in his becoming voice, said "Begob Len, you can see better than I can! You've opened my eyes to what this place is all about. May God bless you for it!" (Another steely handshake).
Len, who died shortly afterwards, cried with joy.
It was a sort of miracle.
Back to the Hook
WHEN WRITING last week about Michael Wilson, I carelessly omitted to mention that he had been made a Knight of Saint Gregory by the Pope before leaving Rome for his work as a writer on Church affairs and other activities. (Not every "Rome correspondent" is so honoured!) 1 was also given some further information about Wexford's Hook Lighthouse, Europe's oldest. It was built, apparently, on the site of one of the original "light-fires" tended by the monks of the fifth century.
Those who have visited the area more recently than myself also tell me that skuba diving has now become a popular local sport while many anglers go a little off course in their boats to
visit the nearby Saltec Islands, internationally famous as a bird sanctuary.
The "summer season" begins with St Patrick's Day — next week.
A daughter of Sion
IT WAS extremely sad to hear of the sudden (but peaceful) death of Sr Charlotte Klein of the Sisters of Sion whose house of studies she opened at 17 Chepstow Villas in London in 1955.
She had had a most remarkable career, having been born, in 1915, in Berlin of orthodox Jewish parents.
In 1938 she escaped to Italy, became a Catholic and moved on to Palestine where she worked for British Intelligence during the war. While still in Jerusalem she joined the Sion order and opened their English School there at what is now famous as the • Ecce Homo Convent in the Via Dolorosa.
She later became a familiar figure in academic circles particularly in the field of Catholic-Jewish understanding. In this field she was the great pioneer on the English Catholic side and lived to see a long overdue revolution in Catholic theology on the whole subject of Judaism.
But it was a great burden on her psychologically. There were always, one felt, inner conflicts and misunderstandings. For those with intense feelings, such conflicts are inevitable.
Her book Anti-Judaism in Christian Theology has become a rich source for future scholars. She was uncompromising in her "fight" to bring Jews and Christians closer together and this made her seem, at times, belligerent when crossed. But her belligerence was never against persons; only against ignorance.
She spent much of her last years counselling those with alcoholic problems in an organisation called "Accept." This brought out her innate gentleness and sensitivity and gave her deep consolation.
Her funeral was intensely moving with several prominent Rabis leading the congregation in Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning.
She was a Doctor of Philosophy, a brilliant linguist, a profound historian and, just as you thought she was about to say something crushing or severe, she would burst into laughter with an example of her own very special brand of humour.
She could never resist jokes against herself — provided they came from friends.
The modern world, some complain, is obsessed with sex. So, said a certain Bishop recently (in private), is the Church — in its own way. He felt that the wave of neopuritanism billowing in some areas was having distressful counter-productive effects among the young. He criticised the self-righteous "piosity" of those who, he claimed, were secretly afraid of sex, to say nothing of celibates who still seemed under the spell of the Church's ancient mistrust of women. Harsh words? Perhaps. Ronnie Knox had similar sentiments and often quoted the index-entry of a moral theology manual then is use, which read "Women — see Scandal."
IT was most heartening to find Cardinal Willebrands — on his visit to England this week — as young and fresh looking as when I first met him many years ago at Lambeth Palace. Long may he enjoy "eternal youth"!