20 June 2023

Musings about royalty
in Montenegro and finding
imaginary parallels with
romantic revels in Ruritania

Ronald Coleman and Madeline Carroll in the 1937 Hollywood version of ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’

Patrick Comerford

I have been writing in recent days about Prince Milo Petrović-Njegoš (1889-1978) of Montenegro and his ‘wingman’ Major Marko Zekov Popović (1881-1934), who are buried in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

I was being interviewed in Christ Church Cathedral last week by Montenegrin television for an historical documentary about these dashing, debonair and swash-buckling Balkan aristocrats, and how their escapades captivated society in London and Dublin in the 1920s and 1930s.

My interviewers wondered how many people in Ireland know even a little about Montenegro. I suggested it may be difficult for the ordinary person on the street in Dublin to distinguish between Montenegro, Macedonia, Moldova and Moldavia. In a similar way, they might confuse or find it difficult to tell apart Budapest, Bucharest and Belgrade.

The common perception of Montenegro, until it recently became a desirable tourism and holiday destination, may have been of some Balkan Ruritania. Many might even have difficulty in pinning it on the map. Indeed, asking some people to place a pin on Ruritania might be as absurd as asking them to put their finger on Ruthenia.

As we talked about the comparisons between Montenegro and Ruritania, the crew decided to interview me separately about the meaning of Ruritania in English-speaking countries.

Ruritania first emerges in popular literature in 1894 as a centre of political and court intrigue in Anthony Hope’s novel The Prisoner of Zenda, ‘being the history of three months in the life of an English gentleman.’ It is set in the fictional Balkan kingdom of Ruritania, and the name ‘Ruritania’ has since entered the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the novelist’s and dramatist’s locale for court romances in a modern setting.’

Ruritania came into existence on an overcast day in November 1893, somewhere between Saint Martin’s Lane in Covent Garden and Brick Court in Middle Temple. Anthony Hope Hawkins, a young barrister who wrote light fiction under the name Anthony Hope, was sauntering back to his father’s vicarage from court when the outline came to him of a story of lookalikes set in a fictional Central European kingdom.

Out of this grew The Prisoner of Zenda, which Anthony Hope completed in his father’s vicarage. It is an adventurous tale about an aristocratic English tourist who bears a strong resemblance to the King of Ruritania and who is persuaded to impersonate him in order to foil a coup by his half-brother, Michael, Duke of Strelsau.

The Revd Edwards Comerford Hawkins (1827-1906): ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ was written in his vicarage

The novel captivated its first readers and became the publishing sensation of 1894. It went on to become a bestseller and inspired scores of tales of royal intrigue in pocket principalities.

The novel was a runaway success. Soon, stage versions of Zenda drew eager audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, it was made into plays that toured around for many years. In Britain, at St James’s Theatre, George Alexander transformed Edward Rose’s adaptation of Zenda into a sumptuous romantic spectacle and reinvented himself as a matinee idol.

By the early 1900s, Anthony Hope Hawkins’s street reverie had become the ‘Ruritanian romance’, an established subgenre on page and stage. It was well placed to conquer the new medium of film.

‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ was an instant success at its publication in 1894

There is a distant family connection, of course. Anthony Hope Hawkins was a son of the Revd Edwards Comerford Hawkins (1827-1906), a journalists’ parson and a writer with a strong Irish background, and the only son of a Hertfordshire doctor. Dr Frederick Hawkins of Hitchin, his sister Anne, and their cousin Susanna Hawkins all married into the Comerford-Casey family of Cork and Liverpool, their spouses being two sons and a daughter of Edwards Casey of Cahirgal and Elmgrove Grove, Cork, and his wife, Jane Comerford.

The Comerford-Casey family fortune came from the soap industry in Liverpool, but medicine and the law became the main professions of the family members, who moved with ease between their homes in Cork, Hitchin and Liverpool.

The foundations for Zenda and Ruritania may be found in early family stories of how there had been so many look-alike Comerford-Casey and Hawkins cousins that they often played at passing themselves off as each other.

It came as no surprise when Edwards Comerford Hawkins entered the ministry of the Church of England – four of his first cousins were ordained too: the Revd Henry Ernest Casey, the Revd George Edwards Comerford-Casey, the Revd William Henry Casey, and the Revd Henry Hawkins.

Edwards Comerford Hawkins became the headmaster of Saint John’s Foundation School in 1861, and by 1872, when Saint John’s moved to Leatherhead in Surrey, Hawkins had transformed it into an English public school.

Hawkins was also a well-known journalist and writer, contributing to Smith’s Dictionaries and publishing Spirit and Form in 1881. An invitation from the Dean of Westminster in 1883 to become Vicar of Saint Bride’s, the journalists’ church in Fleet Street, had obvious attractions.

The youngest Hawkins boy, Anthony Hope Hawkins, went to Saint John’s while his father was headmaster, before going on to Marlborough and Balliol College, Oxford. The Oxford reformer Benjamin Jowett was then Master of Balliol, and Hawkins’s contemporaries included Lord Curzon, future viceroy of India, and Edward Grey, later a leading Liberal politician. Among his more immediate circle at Balliol were LT Hobhouse, who became an academic and theorist of Liberalism, JA Spender, future editor of the Westminster Gazette, Cosmo Lang, later Archbishop of York and of Canterbury, and Sir Charles Mallet, liberal politician and Hawkins’s biographer.

For a while, Anthony Hope Hawkins practised at the bar and shared chambers with a future Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith. Despite a brief flirtation with politics – he failed as the Liberal candidate in Wycombe, South Buckinghamshire, in 1892 – young Hawkins found his real interest was in journalism and writing. He began contributing short stories and society sketches to the Westminster Gazette, and as he balanced wig and pen in Fleet Street Anthony lived with his widowed father at Saint Bride’s Vicarage.

From childhood, Anthony was fascinated with look-alikes and doubles. Later he followed the Titchborne case as his cousin, Sir Henry Hawkins, exposed the claimant to the title as a fraudster.

On the afternoon of 28 November 1893, after winning a case in Westminster County Court, Anthony was walking back to the Temple, playing in his mind with the word ‘suburb’ and the Latin phrase rus rur (countryside), entertaining thoughts of an unknown, unnamed foreign kingdom. As he walked on, two men passed him by separately, one after the other, both sharing uncannily similar features.

He wondered what might happen if they had the same name, swapped places and walked off, each in the other’s direction, passing himself off as his lookalike.

Back at his father’s vicarage, he began to create Ruritania, and within a month, using the name Anthony Hope, he had finished a new novel about two Rudolfs, The Prisoner of Zenda: being the history of three months in the life of an English Gentleman. When it was published in April 1894, The Prisoner of Zenda was an instant success. Hawkins made up his mind – he gave up the wig for the pen, and more Ruritanian novels followed, including The Heart of Princess Osra (1896), Rupert of Henzau (1898), The King’s Mirror (1899) and Quisanté (1900).

Hawkins married Elizabeth Somerville Sheldon, an American 22 years his junior, in 1903. A year later, Edwards Comerford Hawkins retired from Fleet Street, and died at 78 on 12 February 1906. Two years later, Anthony’s first cousin, Kenneth Grahame, published The Wind in the Willows in 1908.

For his wartime propaganda work, Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins was knighted in 1918. His writing career was waning, but he lived comfortably on the film rights and royalties from new editions of The Prisoner of Zenda until his death on 8 July 1933.

The first film versions of The Prisoner of Zenda were produced in 1913, 1915 and 1922. But the finest screen version was made in Hollywood in 1937, four years after the author’s death, and starred Ronald Colman, David Niven and Douglas Fairbanks.

Anthony Hope, the author of the Prisoner of Zenda, lived at 41 Bedford Square from 1903 to 1917 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I wondered last week about the coincidences that mark the popularity The Prisoner of Zenda and the appearance of Prince Milo and Major Popović in literary and social circles in London and Dublin.

When Milo moved to London in 1926, he took up a job as a bank cashier and a renting a basement room at No 44 Bedford Square in Bloomsbury. Three storeys up, in much higher society, lived the celebrity hostess Lady Ottoline Violet Anne Morrell (1873-1938), whose circle of literary and artistic friends included Aldous Huxley, Siegfried Sassoon, TS Eliot, DH Lawrence, Dora Carrington and Gilbert Spencer.

No 44 had once been the home of the former Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, with whom Anthony Hope Hawkins had once shared chambers. All must have known that Anthony Hope, author of The Prisoner of Zenda, had lived from 1903 to 1917 at 41 Bedford Square. He died on 8 July 1933.

Milo ran an antiques shop near Grosvenor Square with the half-Irish Doreen Powell. They spent many hours together in Claridge’s, the Ritz, the Connaught and the Savoy, and he even reacquainted himself with the flirtatious Wallis Simpson – they had first met in Shanghai.

When Milo moved to Dublin in the 1930s, The Prisoner of Zenda was finding popularity with a new generation through the release of the 1937 Hollywood version of the film starring Ronald Colman, David Niven and Douglas Fairbanks.

The film’s success may have been due in part to good timing: it was released only a year after the British abdication crisis, which also involved two look-alikes sitting on the throne within months of each other, Edward VIII and George VI, all because of Milo’s flirtatious friend Wallis Simpson. Continental Europe was beset by intrigues involving dark Teutonic forces, and Milo even claimed he had been offered – but declined – the throne of Montenegro when Mussolini tried to install a puppet monarchy.

Ruritania and The Prisoner of Zenda continue to conjure images of a romantic middle Europe and a mythical time when history wore a rose and politics still danced to the waltz. It could even be the Montenegro that Prince Milo wanted his social and literary circles to imagine.

But perhaps we should not forget the inspiration and motivation to write that the author first received from his father, the vicar-journalist Edwards Comerford Hawkins, or his Comerford and Casey family roots in Ireland.

Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins, author of ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’, had firm roots in the Comerford family

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (23) 20 June 2023

Aghia Triada in the suburban village of Platanias, on the eastern fringes of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the Second Sunday after Trinity (18 June 2023) and Father’s Day. The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today remembers Sundar Singh of India, Sadhu (holy man), Evangelist, Teacher of the Faith (1929).

Before the day begins, I am taking some time for prayer, reading and reflection.

Over these weeks after Trinity Sunday, I am reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at relevant images or stained glass window in a church, chapel or cathedral I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The iconostasis or icon screen in Aghia Triada Church in Platanias (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church of the Holy Trinity (Aghia Triada), Platanias,Rethymnon:

This week I am reflecting on Orthodox churches named after the Holy Trinity. These Trinity reflections continue this morning (20 June 2023) with photographs from the Church of the Holy Trinity or Aghia Triada in the suburban village of Platanias, on the eastern fringes of Rethymnon.

I have been visiting Rethymnon almost annually since the mid-1980s, and I have stayed in the suburban areas of Platanias and Tsesmes, east of Rethymnon, since 2015. This area is a mix of suburban, commercial, and slowly developing tourism.

The shops and supermarkets cater primarily for the local residents, but there is a number of small hotels and apartment blocks where I have stayed, including La Stella, Varvara’s Diamond, and Julia Apartments, and restaurants that I have become comfortable with and where I receive a warm welcome each time I return.

These two villages have merged almost seamlessly, and although they have two churches, they form one parish, served by one priest, Father Dimitrios Tsakpinis.

These churches are recently-built parish churches: the church in Platanias dates from 1959 and the church in Tsesmes from 1979. They are small, and in many ways, unremarkable churches, compared to the older, more historic churches in the old town of Rethymnon.

But when I am staying in Platanias and Tsesmes, I have seen them as my parish churches, and I have always been welcomed warmly.

The church in Platantias, just 100 metres south of long sandy beach that stretches for kilometres east of Rethymnon, is dedicated to the Holy Trinity (Αγία Τριάδα).

The Divine Liturgy in Aghia Triada Church in Platanias (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 5: 43-48 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

A Sunday morning in Aghia Triada Church in Platanias (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘The snowdrop that never bloomed.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (20 June 2023, World Refugee Day) invites us to pray:

We pray for refugees, displaced and stateless people. May we greet them with open arms and welcoming hearts, showing God’s love through our words and actions.


Lord, you have taught us
that all our doings without love are nothing worth:
send your Holy Spirit
and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love,
the true bond of peace and of all virtues,
without which whoever lives is counted dead before you.
Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Loving Father,
we thank you for feeding us at the supper of your Son:
sustain us with your Spirit,
that we may serve you here on earth
until our joy is complete in heaven,
and we share in the eternal banquet
with Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The bells of Aghia Triada Church in Platanias, which dates from 1959 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Sunset at Pavlos Beach behind Aghia Triada Church, with the Fortezza and Rethymnon to the west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)