1980: HRH Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother Visits Wye College

The twenty-sixth of June 2020 marked the fortieth anniversary of the fourth and final visit of Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother to Wye College. The anniversary of that occasion was an altogether much quieter affair, not simply than the day it marked, but also in that which had been planned. The lockdown imposed because of Covid-19 meant that the streets of Wye were deserted and the intended display at the Latin School, itself transformed into her robing room and where sherry had been taken in the garden four decades earlier, had to be postponed. This then is the story of that day in 1980 and the background to her visit.

The Queen Mother’s visit to Wye 26 June 80

It is well known that Wye has had royal connections and visits since Saxon times. These were perpetuated by Cardinal John Kemp and with visits by King Henry VI, notably in September 1451, when it is highly probable that he inspected Kemp’s College of St Gregory & St Martin at Wye, which Henry himself had authorised some twenty years earlier and had then recently opened in 1447.

It was to be another five hundred years before another royal visit would come to pass. This was on 26 June 1951 for the Opening of the Hall of Residence at Withersdane by HRH Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, during the Annual Commemoration. The Earl of Athlone was himself Chancellor of London University, hence it was only natural that his successor in that role, HRH Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, should be invited to her first Annual Commemoration Day at Wye on 1 July 1958. Indeed, HRH Princess Alice had remarked about the dynamic energy of the Principal of Wye College, and Dunstan Skilbeck was not one to let an opportunity like this pass him by!

So began a succession of no less than four visits to Wye by the Queen Mother over the following decades. Her first was followed, seven years later, by one on 6 July 1965 when Dunstan Skilbeck was still in post as Principal. The third such visit, again for Commemoration Day, was on 28 June 1973, by which time Henry Darling had been appointed successor to Skilbeck. But it was perhaps her fourth and final visit on 26 June 1980, at the invitation of Principal Ian Lucas, that was to be perhaps her most triumphantoccurring as it did just thirty-eight days before her own eightieth birthday.   

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Chancellor of the University, arrived by helicopter on the village green in rain which stopped as her car reached the Latin School gate. Back in 1958 she had arrived at Wye station by train and for her subsequent two visits her helicopters had landed on Hollands Field at Withersdane. The weather stayed dry for her procession to Church together with that of the new Archbishop of Canterbury,Robert Runcie, whose presence added yet more dignity and colour. 

The Service itself was notable for fine choral music directed by Dr. Berkeley Hill and, as always, was the cornerstone of Commemoration. It began with a rousing rendition of Hubert Parry’s Psalm 122, “I was glad” by the choir, before all gathered in the Parish Church of St Gregory & St Martin at Wye sung the National Anthem. Later during the service, which was conducted by the College Chaplain, Canon David Marriott, “Lord of beauty, thine the splendour” was sung to the tune of Westminster Abbey was followed by psalm 84. The first lesson was read by the Provost, Mr. R M Older, before the choir sang the anthem Expectans expectavi, with the words of C H Sorley put to music by Charles Wood. The second lesson, read by the Vice-Chancellor was followed by that timeless hymn, “Come down, O Love divine”. The roof was raised for one final time before the Blessing with “God of Grace and God of glory” to the music of Heathlands.    

Afterwards Her Majesty was presented with the Old Book of Wye by the village and spoke to some of its most senior and junior citizens. Before lunch, on behalf of the College, she received from Mr. Michael Nightingale her Coat of Arms carved in stone and fixed in the Middle Quadrangle. The bill of fare for the Commemoration Luncheon, itself held in College, included chilled honeydew melon, followed by fresh Scotch salmon served with assorted Wye salads and new Kent potatoes and a desert of Wye strawberries and cream before being completed by coffee and petit fours. All was washed down with Vouvray, Cote du Rhone – Rose and Port! 

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Chancellor of the University, had most graciously honoured the College by accepting an invitation to become a Fellow and to be installed on Commemoration Day itself. During the afternoon installation ceremony in the marquees at Withersdane, The Provost called upon the Principal of the College to present the Citation of Admittance of the Chancellor. After the Citation Address the Provost admitted the Chancellor to the Fellowship and the Lord Northbourne welcomed the Chancellor into Fellowship. Her Majesty, as Chancellor and the newly admitted Fellow of Wye College, then addressed the Company. She was thanked by the Principal before all rose for the Chancellor’s Procession to leave. Her Majesty was then shown the garden that had been created in her honour within the courtyard of Withersdane, entering it from near the doorway that in 1951 had been graced by Princess Alice. Afterwards Her Majesty had tea with a group of students before joining garden-party guests on the lawn. The sun by now was bright and warm, but later when the helicopter was due to take off from Hollands Field, very black clouds gathered, and Her Majesty had no sooner left than there was aterrific deluge. The weather’s timing had been impeccable throughout the day!

The final words regarding the occasion belong to Ian Lucas, the Principal, who describedthe pleasure of the Queen Mother’s visit to Wye at the start of a whole summer of national festivities and formalities to mark her eightieth birthday on the fourth of August that year. “The day was one of people. Few formal presentations – posies from the children – sherry in the Latin School Garden – marmalade for Clarence House from the “Wooden Spoon” – the ever-helpful police – lunchtime laughter with Archbishop and Provost – finding the Lady-in-Waiting’s student son – hats and introductions at the Garden Party – Her Majesty nearly lost among the guests – Sir Malcolm Gilliat (and ourselves) worried about impending rain – Queen Elizabeth not worried about impending rain. A very full day at Royal request. A very happy and memorable day for Wye and all who shared it.”

Mention must also be made of Dame Francis Campbell-Preston, nee Frances Olivia Grenfell, who accompanied the Queen Mother as her lady-in-waiting that day. Coincidentally her elder half-sister, Sybil Vera Grenfell had been Lady in Waiting to HRH Princess Alice between 1943 and 1945, just six years before the Countess of Athlone had herself had attended Withersdane to open the new Hall of Residence.

Dame Frances is also Joyce Grenfell’s sister-in-law, and her late husband, Patrick Campbell-Preston, was in Colditz with Douglas Bader. Indeed, it was his fellow prisoner-of-war, none other than Sir Martin Gilliat KCVO MBE LLD, the Queen Mother’s Private Secretary, that made all the arrangements for the day and who was also in attendance. Back in 1965 it had been Sir Martin who had asked Dame Frances to be a Woman of the Bedchamber, or lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother.

Furthermore, Grenfell Tower, built in 1974, was named after Grenfell Road, the Victorian street in which it stands. The street itself was named after another military Grenfell, Field Marshal Lord Grenfell (1841-1925), who had been Dame Frances’s great-uncle. Her extensive connections do not end there; William Waldegrave, the former Conservative Cabinet Minister, is her nephew and moreover she had a son at Wye! Dame Frances is also to be congratulated having celebrated her one hundred and second Birthday in September 2020.

© Michael D Payne 31 January 2021

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