18 November 2023

From Geoffrey Chaucer to
Graham Greene, finding
the literary and cultural
legacy of Berkhamsted

From Geoffrey Chaucer to Graham Greene, Berkhamsted has a rich literary and cultural heritage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

There was so much to see in Berkhamsted during my visit earlier this month that I returned again this week. Apart from the castle and Saint Peter’s Church, which I described in a blog posting earlier this week, I was interested to learn more about the town’s many literary and cultural associations, from Geoffrey Chaucer and the ‘Physician’s Tale’ to Maria Edgeworth, William Cowper and Peter Pan, and to Graham Greene, Claud Cockburn and the early days of the BBC.

Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of the Canterbury Tales, is said to have visited Berkhamsted in 1389 to oversee renovations at the castle after he was appointed the clerk of the king’s works. During his time in office, Chaucer organised most of the king's building projects, including repairs to Westminster Palace and Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor, and work on the wharf at the Tower of London.

It is not known whether Chaucer spent much time working at Berkhamsted Castle. It is claimed by some sourves that while Chaucer was at Berkhamsted he got to know – or least know of – John of Gaddesden, who lived nearby in Little Gaddesden and who became the model for the Doctor of Phisick in the Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400.

Berkhamsted Castle … did Geoffrey Chaucer ever spend any time working there? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

However, Chaucer could never have met John of Gaddesden (1280-1361), who died almost a generation before Chaucer is said to have visited Berkhamsted. Indeed, the ‘Physician’s Tale’ is usually seen as an early work by Chaucer, probably written before much of the rest of the Canterbury Tales. The long digression possibly alludes to an historical event that may date it to 1386, three years before Chaucer is said to have visited Berkhamsted.

John of Gaddesden was a writer in his own right too. He was born near Berkhamsted, but spent most of his academic life in Oxford. He was the author of Rosa Medicinae (‘The Rose of Medicine’), or Rosa Anglica (‘The English Rose’). It was written between 1304 and 1317, and regarded as the first English textbook of medicine.

John of Gaddesden was a theologian, a fellow at Merton College, Oxford, a physician to kings and princes, and the most celebrated medical authorities of his day. It is said his medical works, alongside those of Gilbertus Anglicus, formed part of the core curriculum that underpinned the practice of medicine for the next 400 years.

The hymn writer William Cowper (1731-1800) was born in Berkhamsted Rectory, where his father, the Revd John Cowper, was the Rector, and was baptised in Saint Peter’s Church.

Although William Cowper moved from Berkhamsted when was still a boy, there are frequent references to the town in his poems and letters, and two windows in Saint Peter’s Church commemorate his life and writing. His popular hymns include ‘Oh! for a closer walk with God,’ and he give the English language the phrase ‘God moves in a mysterious way.’

Cowper was an active abolitionist in the anti-slavery movement. In the Victorian era, Cowper became a cult figure and Berkhamsted was a place of pilgrimage. He was quoted by the Revd Martin Luther King in his protest speeches in the 1960s.

Dean Thomas Charles Fry was the headmaster of Berkhamsted School for almost quarter of a century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), a prolific writer of adults’ and children’s literature, was a significant figure in the evolution of the novel in Europe. She lived in Berkhamsted as a child in the 18th century. She spent her early years with her mother’s family, living at The Limes, now known as Edgeworth House, in Northchurch, Berkhamsted.

Her mother died in 1773 when Maria was five. Later that year, her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817) from Lichfield, married his second wife Honora Sneyd, and Maria went with them to live on his Irish estate af Edgeworthstown, Co Longford.

Between 1904 and 1907, the five Llewelyn Davies boys were the inspiration for the author and playwright JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. Their grandfather, the Revd John Llewelyn Davies, was outspoken on social issues like poverty and inequality, and active in Christian socialist groups.

Their parents, Sylvia (1866-1910) and Arthur Llewelyn Davies (1863-1907), moved out of London and went to live in Egerton House, an Elizabethan mansion in Berkhamsted, in 1904, the year when Barrie’s play had its debut. The brothers were first cousins of the writer Daphne du Maurier.

The Revd Dr Thomas Charles Fry (1846-1930), was the headmaster of Berkhamsted School in 1887-1910. He was one of the pioneers in the work of the Christian Social Union, and was the author of Old Testament History for Schools, Social Policy for the Church and Sermons on Social Subjects. Later, as the Dean of Lincoln (1910-1930), Fry worked devotedly to raise funds for the restoration of the cathedral.

Saint John’s House, Berkhamsted … the birthplace of Graham Greene (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

While Fry was headmaster of Berkhamsted, his wife’s cousin, Charles Henry Greene (1865-1942), was second master and the housemaster at Saint John’s House. When Fry became Dean of Lincoln in 1910, Greene succeeded him as headmaster of Berkhamsted.

Greene’s brother, Edward Greene, once a highly successful coffee merchant in Brazil, also moved to Berkhamsted, and lived in some splendour at the Hall or Berkhamsted Hall, near the Rectory. Edward Greene bought the house in 1917 and was the last private resident there. The Hall was used by Berkhamsted School as a prep school from 1928, while the former gardens were sold off for housing development. By then, however, the house was suffering from dry rot, and finally it was demolished in 1937.

Both Charles Greene and Edward Grene each had six children and this influential generation of cousins were key figures in literary and cultural life in 20th century.

Graham Greene (1904-1991), one of the ‘School House’ Greenes, is the best known of these cousins. He was a bestselling novelist by the age of 28 and he was often tipped for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was also known as a politically contrarian, anti-American, a Catholic convert, a sometime publisher, a spy and a friend of Kim Philby.

In The Human Factor (1978), Graham Greene describes a scene in Saint Peter’s Church, Berkhamsted, when a sonic boom suddenly ‘shook the old glass of the west window and rattled the crusader’s helmet which hung on a pillar.’ The helmet is that of Sir Adolphus Carey – who lived 300 years after the crusades.

Sir Hugh Carleton Greene (1910-1987), Graham Greene’s youngest brother, first made his name as a journalist in pre-war Nazi Germany. During World War II, he was in charge of BBC broadcasting to Germany. He later became the director general of the BBC from 1960 to 1969, modernising the BBC at a time of great social change.

After retiring from the BBC, Greene published several books, including a collaboration with his brother Graham Greene, and made television programmes both for the BBC and ITV.

Their oldest brother, Herbert Greene, is often seen as the ‘black sheep’ in the family, and he became the model for several of Graham Greene’s antiheroes, such as Anthony Farrant in England Made Me.

Another brother, Dr Raymond Greene (1901-1982), was a doctor and mountaineer who took part in two Everest expeditions. He chaired Heinemann Medical Books from 1960 to 1980, and his autobiography, Moments of Being, was published in 1974.

The ‘Hall’ Greene cousins included the journalist Felix Greene (1909-1985), a creative figure in the early history of the BBC who set up its American offices in the 1930s. He first visited China for the BBC in 1957, and he was one of the first Western reporters to visit North Vietnam when he travelled there for the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1960s. He published books on China, Vietnam in 1960s and 1970s.

His brother Ben Greene (1901-1978) was a fellow pacifist, a Quaker and a key figure in the pre-war Labour Party. But he moved to the far-right politically, and during World War II he was imprisoned without trial along with the fascist Oswald Mosley.

The literary contemporaries of the Greene cousins at Berkhamsted School included Claud Cockburn (1904-1981), who lived later at Myrtle Grove in Youghal, Co Cork, from 1947, and in Ardmore, Co Waterford, in 1980. For many years, Claud Cockburn was a columnist with The Irish Times while I worked there, and some of his sons, including Patrick Cockburn, also contributed to The Irish Times.

Other writers and literary figures in school with the Greenes at Berkhamsted include Sir Peter Quennell (1905-1993); the diplomat Humphrey Trevelyan (1905-1985), who wrote a number of books about his career, including The India We Left and The Middle East in Revolution; and the diplomat and writer Sir Cecil Parrott (1909-1984), known for his translation of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk and The Red Commissar, his biography of Hašek, The Bad Bohemian, and his autobiographical books, The Tightrope and The Serpent and the Nightingale.

The children’s authors HE Todd, author of the Bobby Brewster books, and Hilda van Stockum have also lived in Berkhamsted.

Greene's Court … place names are reminders of the literary legacy of Berkhamsted (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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