07 November 2023

Famous weddings
that did, or did not,
take place in
Camden Town Hall

Camden Town Hall on Judd Street, off Euston Road, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I suppose I am like most historians when I wonder – even briefly – at different momentous occasions in my life about who in the past has done the same thing I am doing and in the same place.

Last Friday afternoon, I was told that the writers Adeline Virginia Stephen (1882-1941), better known as Viriginia Woolf, and Leonard Woolf (1880-1969) were married in 1912 in Saint Pancras Town Hall.

Half a century later, the photographer David Bailey and the Frech actor Catherine Deneuve were married there in 1965, the year it became known as Camden Town Hall.

In the film Shadowlands, CS Lewis and Joy Gresham are shown being married in Camden Town Hall, on Judd Street off Euston Road. In fact, they were married not once but twice, and not in Camden Town Hall: the civil marriage took place at the Oxford Registry Office at 42 St Giles (now a dental practice), on 23 April 1956, and they were married once again almost year later in a church wedding on her hospital bed on 21 March 1957.

Indeed, the story of those two weddings is far more interesting than the detail of whether they were married in Camden Town Hall or the Registry Office in Oxford.

Helen Joy Davidman Gresham (1915-1960) was an American poet and writer. She first met the Belfast-born CS Lewis (1898-1963) in August 1952, who taught as a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, for nearly 30 years, from 1925 to 1954. He moved to Cambridge in 1954 as the first Professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance English and a fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge. However, he never had the same impact on Cambridge as he had on Oxford, and at weekends he returned to his home in Oxford.

Meanwhile, the British Government refused to renew Joy’s work visa in 1956, and she faced deportation. CS Lewis came to her rescue by agreeing to marry her in a civil ceremony, not in Camden Town Hall, not in Cambridge, but in Oxford on 23 April 1956; he was then 58 and she was 41.

Neither of them regarded it as a ‘real’ marriage; it was merely a legal arrangement to enable her to become a British citizen. He continued to live in Oxford and Cambridge as a bachelor and she in London as a single mother.

Later in 1956, however, Joy fell ill with what was to be diagnosed as bone cancer, and she was coming to the end of her life.

Lewis had never acknowledged their civil marriage was in fact a valid marriage at all. After all, it was a mere expediency to prevent Joy from being deported. But faced with Joy’s now critical health he asked his friend Father Peter Bide to visit them in Oxford.

Father Peter had been taught English literature by Lewis at Magdalen College from 1936 to 1939 and they had stayed in touch after World War II. He had been the Parish Priest of Saint Helen’s Church, Hangleton, near Hove, since 1955, the first parish priest appointed there in over 400 years.

Lewis had heard the stories that Father Peter had once healed a dying child in Hove – Michael Gallagher, a young boy in an Irfish family. Now Lewis wanted him to anoint Joy. After the Service of Extreme Unction, Lewis immediately asked Father Peter to marry them as it was Joy’s dying wish to be married in church.

Lewis had previously asked several Oxford college chaplains to do this, but Harry Carpenter, Bishop of Oxford, had decreed that the Church’s prohibition of remarriage for divorcees should be upheld in his diocese.

Father Peter carefully considered the request and, since he was not under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Oxford, went ahead and administered the Sacraments of Holy Matrimony and Holy Communion in the hospital ward the following day, 21 March 1957.

Father Peter later reflected: ‘I had no jurisdiction in the Diocese of Oxford. The example of my fellow priests showed that I should be guilty of a grave breach of Church law. I asked Jack (CS Lewis) to leave me alone for a while and I considered the matter. In the end there seemed only one Court of Appeal. I asked myself what He would have done – and that somehow finished the argument …’

The Bishop of Oxford was furious and severely reprimanded Father Peter for performing the marriage, and reported the matter to the Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, who gently rebuked the priest and immediately removed him from Hangleton. He then followed this action by appointing Father Peter as Vicar of the larger parish of Goring by Sea.

After Extreme Unction and her marriage, Joy made an apparently miraculous recovery. Although she was essentially released from the hospital in order to die at home, the cancer went in to remission, much to everyone’s surprise. Lewis, in his late 50s, was experiencing the bliss of married love that he had long assumed had bypassed him for good.

Joy’s cancer returned in 1959. In the end, Lewis’s heart’s desire was to have a ‘real’ marriage to Joy, one blessed by the church, so that the two of them could live together as man and wife. She and Lewis had three years of idyllic happiness until her death on 13 July 1960. From then on, Lewis took care of her sons, Douglas and David Gresham.

Joy’s death led to one of his most remarkable writings, A Grief Observed, in 1960. He died three years later on the 22 November 1963.

As for Father Peter, he later became Vicar of Saint Luke, Battersea, where he was immersed in "South Bank religion" associated with Southwark Cathedral and the Diocese of Southwark. He subsequently returned to Oxford as as chaplain and tutor in Theology at Lady Margaret Hall for 13 years, including the last two years as a fellow. He also spent two years as Canon Precentor of Christ Church Cathedral.

He said many years later: ‘I’ve known some wonderful people in my life, and Jack Lewis and George Bell were two of the greatest.’ He was 90 when he died in 2003.

The late Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who died earlier this year, once spoke in a lecture in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, of how CS Lewis liked to make things clear, with sharp contrasts.

In that lecture in 2009 at the summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Metropolitan Kallistos looked at Lewis and his writings on love. His book The Four Loves (1960) is a late book, written in his last days at Cambridge. He identifies the four loves as: affection (storge, στοργή), which he calls the humblest love and is unmerited; friendship (philia, φιλία); eros (ἔρως); and caritas (agape, ἀγάπη).

‘Love is a fundamental stance or attitude, which, with every level of our human nature, we affirm the other as the centre of our own personhood,’ Metropolitan Kallistos said. ‘We are to love with our emotions, will and imagination, our rational and visionary intellect. We are not imaginative enough.’

He told us that you cannot love others unless you have some sense of your own value as a person. We exist not just for the self, but for the other. To love is to be eccentric – we displace ourselves from the centre. Love implies freedom. To love is to allow the other to be, and to be other.

The staircase in Camden Town Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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