Philip Larkin once wrote, about his childhood home, that ‘nothing, like something, happens everywhere’. Why is it so fascinating, then, to find places where you might think nothing happened, but where (in fact) a whole collection of somethings did? You have to get off that well-beaten track, to look for the odd corners of England – let’s just stick to England, for the moment, if nobody minds – and I’ve found that you can’t look for those places, you can only find them; stumbling around, but with your eyes open. (As the screenwriter and author Ben Hecht put it, writing about himself : I was… ‘ just walking down the road when [I] bumped into history.’) My favourite of these rare discoveries is a village called Swinbrook, in the countryside where the Cotswold hills begin to rise, about fifteen or twenty miles to the west of Oxford, and a more likely place to find nothing happening it would be hard to find.
There is nothing spectacular about Swinbrook. You reach it by leaving the A40, driving (or walking) down a steep single track road and over a small stone bridge that crosses the little river Windrush. It’s a very quiet hamlet, just a pub, a few honey-coloured stone cottages and the village church. Asthall, down the valley, has a rambling old manor house; Burford, five or so miles away, has the teashops, the antiques, and its striking church, ‘the Cathedral of the Cotswolds’, where Cromwell’s troops cornered and shot some Leveller rebels. Swinbrook’s much more modest church is medieval in origin with some Victorian additions. To me, though, St Mary’s strange collection of signs and plaques and memorials are a scrapbook of English history, a Facebook wall of English eccentricity with the status Not Quite Forgotten. Everywhere you look in this church there is a story, and very weird some of them are.
There is a famous family connected to Swinbrook, of course, and they haven’t begun to be forgotten yet. The Mitford children, offspring of Lord Redesdale, were both glamorous and notorious in the 1930s, a godsend to the Press and a burden to their long-suffering parents. Their story is one of high society, high jinks and scandals, of healthy rebellion that endorsed disastrous revolutions, and beyond the comedy and the lip-smacking details, the divorces and elopements and the punch-ups in Hyde Park, it has plenty of dark and tragic sides.
There were six Mitford sisters, of whom only the youngest, Deborah, still survives*. They lived at Swinbrook House, a mile or so up the hill from the village itself, with a home in Kensington which they used as a base for the London ‘Season’. Lady Sydney Freeman-Mitford, their mother, was by all accounts a vague and slightly dotty woman, sat on by her overbearing husband and increasingly bewildered, as the 1930s wore on, by the antics of her ever-temperamental brood. There is an interesting snippet about Sydney, who was the daughter of a well-known Victorian MP : as a small child she was photographed naked by an earlier and more famous English eccentric, Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland. (The jury is still out on whether or not Carroll had paedophile tendencies. It was a big Victorian pastime, portraying undressed children.)
‘Muv’, as her children called her, had the usual concerns about good marriages and good standing in the upper class circles in which those children moved, a world which by the early Thirties was already fraying at the edges. Her own eccentricity was a slightly cracked theory of natural health revolving around a self-healing, intrinsically wise entity that she called The Good Body. The Good Body always knew best, better than the doctors, and would throw off illness if left to its own devices. Lady Mitford, although she would call for help for her children if she had to, never trusted the medical profession. She would take plaster casts off broken limbs and flush medicines down the toilet almost as soon as the doctor had closed the front door; she force fed typhoid sufferers on chocolate and cake against all medical advice, and refused vaccinations on the grounds that it was wrong to introduce ‘nasty germs’ into the Good Body. Fortunately her daughters, and her single son, survived her ministrations, although it must often have been by the skin of their teeth.
Of the Mitford sisters, Pamela and Debo never troubled the nation’s psyche; but the other four were famous (or infamous). Anywhere there were lines to be crossed, the Mitfords crossed them with joyous abandon. Diana, society beauty, married the English Fascist leader Oswald Mosley, and was interned by the authorities during the war as a result. Jessica, the left-leaning younger daughter, became a Communist and raged against the Fascist Diana; she eloped with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s nephew, and went to the Spanish Civil War, at the age of sixteen, fully prepared to fight for the Republic (although it didn’t come to that).The eldest and most talented sibling, Nancy, satirised her family, hardly even thinly disguised, in a series of witty and popular novels. But one sister out-scandalised the rest : she went to Nuremburg, fell in love with Hitler, and became his most famous cheerleader in England.
The story of Diana’s shadow, the Wagnerian-sounding Unity Valkyrie Mitford, begins as a bit of a lark and then becomes the darkest of all the Mitford biographies. A maverick and a rebel from childhood, terror of governesses, releaser of rodents onto the dance floors at debutante balls, Unity thought it would provoke her parents (enough reason for her to do anything) if she joined Oswald Mosley’s crackpot but still dangerous ‘British Union of Fascists’. She began by selling the Fascist magazine Blackshirt in the streets of Oxford, and impressed the leaders of the movement with her dedication. When she went to Germany as part of the BUF delegation to the 1933 Nuremburg Rally, she was completely won over to the new Nazi utopia and most of all to the person of the Fuehrer himself. Unity sat in Hitler’s favourite eating house in Munich every day over a cream cake or two, waiting for him to appear. Finally, as he could hardly help doing, Hitler noticed her and sent an adjutant over to see who was. The plan had worked. From that moment on, for the rest of the 1930s, this tall, porcelain-skinned blonde had as much access as any woman did to the Fuehrer.
Adolf was charmed by Unity and later on by her sister Diana, reportedly telling someone else that they were perfect specimens of Aryan womanhood. Unity, smitten by Hitler, worked hard and successfully to become his friend and confidante. There was almost certainly no actual love affair between them, but Eva Braun, who became Hitler’s mistress after a similar campaign of trying to get past his defences, was jealous of Fraulein Mitford: she supposedly said the English girl was rather plump – Hitler’s favourite physical female type – but that the stresses of chasing him would soon make her as skinny as the rest of the girls who adored him. Hitler, declaring that he was married first of all to the Fatherland, always played a bit hard to get with the ladies.
Unity went over to the Nazis without any kind of reservation. ‘I want everyone to know I am a Jew-hater,’ she wrote to the Nazi rag, Der Sturmer, and back in England she did everything she could to trumpet the wonderful new regime, from fighting with trades union demonstrators in Hyde Park to greeting the gobsmacked village postmistress in Swinbrook with a ringing ‘Heil Hitler.’ She was at the Wagner opera season at Bayreuth, she slobbered over young Aryan stormtroopers and once, bizarrely, visited a labour camp dressed up to the nines and carrying a small puppy called Fluffy. She came to Hitler’s mountain retreat and had his ear during the Munich crisis; chatting merrily away in his hearing about Britain’s unpreparedness for war. The level of access she had to Hitler personally is astounding, and almost certainly made the upper echelons of the Nazi party very uneasy. If British intelligence had been a bit more on the ball, they could have fed her all kinds of misinformation to pass on to Hitler, who might have taken it seriously, but that sort of black ops was in its infancy in those days (and in any case was probably beyond the hapless chinless wonders who ran Britain’s foreign policy between the wars).
Unity seems to have hoped for a triumphant, almost operatic union of the great Aryan peoples, English and German. She dreamed of a National Socialist England, presumably under Sir Oswald Mosley, who was a real force for much of the 1930s. At some point after Munich, her state of denial about the way things were going must have broken down. When Hitler invaded Poland, and England declared war on Hitler, she took a small pistol (possibly given her by Hitler himself), went to her favourite spot, the English Garden in Munich, and shot herself in the head. Discovered unconscious by passers-by, she was taken to a nearby hospital, where Hitler himself saw to it that she had the best of care and medical attention. When it became clear that she was going to live, the Nazis arranged her a safe passage to England through neutral Switzerland. It was at around this point that a rumour began that Unity was going to have Hitler’s baby.
Pregnant or (almost certainly) not, Unity lived out the rest of her days in a kind of twilight existence, incontinent and at least partly brain damaged. (The doctors judged the bullet too dangerous to remove, and it stayed in her head.) Unity finished her life being cared for by her mother on a remote Scottish Island, Inchkenneth in the Hebrides, which Lord Redesdale had bought a few years before. She died in 1947, aged 31, and was brought back to Swinbrook to be buried, under a headstone that records her dates and then, starkly, a single line of poetry : ‘Say not that the struggle naught availeth.’
The rest of Arthur Hugh Clough’s rousing poem might have been appropriate: [Say not that] The labour and the wounds are vain, / The enemy faints not, nor faileth, / And as things have been they remain. As the epitaph seems to acknowledge despite itself, Unity’s was a wasted life, and maybe she caused actual evil in the world. It’s not impossible that Hitler’s contact with hero-worshipping English girls like Unity – and there were others, chic upper class debs who were besotted with Nazism – may have gone some way to convincing him, until it was too late, that when it came to it the British would side with their fellow-Aryans and not really risk everything for Poland. Perhaps Unity’s brain damage, and that half life she lived after trying to end her full one, was merciful. Maybe she was lucky in not having to fully face up to the consequences of the world she played a tiny part in bringing about.
Back in the quiet country church near the home where Unity grew up you can see traces of the consequences and ironies of her strange story. On the evening of September the 26th, 1940, a German land mine, with a parachute attached, was dropped in a field between the church and the river. The explosion didn’t hurt anyone but shattered windows in the church and some nearby houses. One of the stained glass windows in the church consists of fragments of glass and lead; a nearby plaque in the wall of the church relates the bomb story and then goes on: This inscription was placed here in thankfulness to GOD for our merciful deliverance, and in memory of William Grenville Boyd, Vicar 1938 – 41 , who collected and began arranging this old glass.
History rarely has tidy chains of cause and effect, and Cotswold villages were never a target for the Luftwaffe: the Swinbrook ‘raid’ must have been the result of a German aircrew ridding themselves of unused bombs before the return flight. Hard to escape the irony, though: all Unity and Diana’s trips to Germany, the Mitfords (including Muv and Farve) being feted by the Nazis, driven around in an open top Mercedes, meeting Goebbels and Streicher and the film director Leni Riefenstahl, treated as if they were real power-wielders in Britain and not just rather irrelevant aristos making fools of themselves – and somewhere down the line a bomb falling in a muddy field by the river Windrush, shattering medieval glass and scaring some sheep. The villagers and the Vicar thought themselves lucky, and the glass was replaced in the window as a further memorial to God’s strange mercy.
God, or war, was not always so merciful to Swinbrook. On another wall of the church a marble plaque records the death of a young son of the parish: To the honoured memory of the officers and ship’s company of H.M. submarine P514 which was run down and sunk at 3 a.m. in a thick fog by an unwarned convoy off the coast of Newfoundland 21 June 1942 and especially of her commanding officer Lieutenant Walter Augustus Phillimore, Royal Navy. Son of Charles Augustus and Alice Phillimore of the Old Farm in this parish in his 27th year. It takes a moment’s reflection to realise that this memorial is for every single sailor on board the P514, which was presumably went straight to the bottom of the sea. The other dead of 1939-45 are recorded on a plain wooden plaque, added almost as a footnote to the much longer list of villagers who died as cannon fodder in the First World War.
The church is full of memorials, and the richer and more powerful the clan, the more they invested in being remembered. The nave end of the church is lined with marble effigies of the males of the old aristocratic Swinbrook family, the Fettiplaces, their likenesses lying in their niches one above the other, like tourists in a sleeping compartment on a train. Each one is propped up on one elbow, a faint smile on the lips; over the span of the 17th Century the hairstyles change, the clothes, even the grammar of the inscriptions, but not the solidness of the marble, nor the ostentation of their costly statues. Four hundred years later, they’ve certainly trumped the Mitfords so far in their quest to become immortal.
The Fettiplaces would have believed in an afterlife, as everyone did until the day before yesterday, but they were quite clear that those still in this Vale of tears were going to be reminded constantly of the ones that had gone on ahead. They expressed it all rather elegantly, though. One of the earliest tombs commemorates Sir Edmund Fettiplace: ‘A knight right worthy of his rank and race, it gushes : … blessed in soule, in bodie, goods and name’. His widow is remembered, touchingly, on a stone slab in the floor :
‘A most vertuous Dame, who with his heire as to his worth still debter
Built him this tomb but in her heart a better.’ We are almost back in the land of Philip Larkin, who wrote the line, on seeing similar marble effigies in another church, …what will survive of us is love.
Sentimentality aside, it is worth remembering, too, that the aristocracy weren’t always effete and decadent. Judging by the Anglo-French name, this family came over with William the Conqueror; the family existed in Swinbrook to the middle of the 18th Century at least, and the original Fettiplaces, beyond any doubt hard faced and tyrannical Norman lords, must have won and kept their lands with a grip of iron. Their memorials and the information about the later Fettiplaces, scattered around the church, also gives you an idea of what the Mitfords, decaying and hard-up aristocracy if there ever was such, had decayed from.
The Fettiplaces were still the local great family in the eighteenth century, when charity and good works were part of the duties of the Lords of the Manor, along with autocracy, religious observance, and going to war. The Table of Benefactors, in the belfry at the nave end of the church, records that in 1743 Sir George Fettiplace, Bar/t. gave £13 a year to be distributed in ten sixpenny loaves every Sunday immediately after divine service (among the poor of Swinbrook and three other local villages) in rotation, who must be present to receive it. I’m sure the poor of the parish were glad to have it, and it would have encouraged church attendance, which was probably the point. Sir George also gave £6 a year to purchase six green coats, to the poor of Swinbrook and Widford in rotation. The Baronet was shoring up his place in heaven, as well as getting some earthly kickback from grateful peasantry, warm in their new coats. (Irresistible too, that the Table of Benefactors also tells you that In 1748 Mrs Susannah Warren of Swinbrook gave £10, the interest of which to be given to the poor. Then comes the punchline, in blunt eighteenth century style : This money is lost.)
What will survive of any of us, especially those without marble monuments or fading scandals? Answering that question might take you along the Windrush valley from Swinbrook to the tiny hamlet of Widford, a scattering of houses and a simple church, with bare plaster walls almost like a hermit’s cell. Around the church, though you would need an archaeologist in the family to see it, are the remnants of a deserted medieval village, now just lines and tumps under the grass, properly visible only from the air. Most of the people, the farm workers, the peasants and sheep-herders who lived in Widford and in Swinbrook over the centuries, lived and died unrecorded. We know less than nothing of their births, lives or deaths; the ones in Swinbrook churchyard are the real privileged, those who were remembered at all.
You might also ask what history will say of the Mitfords, what its final verdict will be on the Fettiplaces’ successors as the Swinbrook aristocracy. It would be tempting to dismiss them, despite their huge personalities, as silly, sheltered Bright Young Things, never called to account for their actions, who flirted with fashionable dictatorships, seduced by the uniforms, the clear uncomplicated faces, the stirring music, all those images that Leni Riefenstahl captured in her treacherously beautiful film, The Triumph of the Will. But you cannot deny that this family, by choice, chance, and accident of history, was firmly in the firing line. Jessica, who never renounced Communism any more than Unity renounced Hitler, went to the Spanish Civil War and her husband Esmond Romilly died while serving in the Canadian Air Force. Diana had to slum it in the women’s Prison at Holloway on the grounds, perhaps not completely unfounded, that she and Sir Oswald might still pose a risk to the nation’s security. And on the wall of the bell-tower in St Mary’s church you see the simple memorial to Tom Mitford, David and Sydney’s only son, who was killed fighting the Japanese in Burma, a few months before the end of the war. (Apparently Unity felt relieved that her brother had not died fighting fellow Aryans.)
Tom, who alone of all the Mitfords didn’t take part in their endless feuding, never married. He died childless. He never got to inherit the Swinbrook Estate, which in any case passed out of the family in the mid 1930s, nor did he have a chance to succeed his father as Lord Redesdale. Born into wealth and privilege, he was swept up in the pro-Hitler hysteria, like so many older and supposedly wiser people than he. But when the time came he went to war, and he died for this peaceful place or for freedom or his country or whatever he thought he was fighting for. Thomas Mitford was never notorious, and left behind him nothing but memories and a plaque in the Church. By all accounts he died bravely; he should be remembered too, like all the wartime dead, and his simple epitaph can speak for itself:
Thomas David Freeman-Mitford. ‘A very perfect son and brother’. The Queen’s Westminsters. Died in Burma Good Friday March 30th 1945, attached as second in command to the Devonshire Regiment. Aged 36. God careth for us.
* Deborah, youngest of the Mitford sisters, died in September 2014.