The Devil’s Advocate? Witches vs The Law


What images are conjured up by the word ‘witch’? Hags silhouetted against the night-sky performing aerial acrobatics on broomsticks or brewing strange potions in a cauldron? Strange old ladies accompanied by black cats? Or children with black pointed hats and painted faces hammering on your door at Halloween and demanding sweets with menaces?

For most of us, a witch is just a caricature, a figure of fun. However, history – and the law in particular – tell another story. Often poignant and frequently gory, legal records provide an insight into changing social attitudes to magic through the centuries.

What’s in a name?

Definitions are essential in legal documents so it seems appropriate to consider some of the words relating to witches and their pursuits:

Magic – thought to be derived from the Old Persian word “maqush” which means ‘to be able, to have power’. This formed the root of the Ancient Greek word ‘magike’ and the word ‘magos’ which referred to learned men of the priestly class. Remember the Magi or Wise Men in the Bible?

Necromancy – ultimately derived from Greek and referring to divination by communication with the dead. For example, the Biblical example of the Witch of Endor who conjured up the spirit of Samuel in order to answer King Saul’s questions about the outcome of a battle.

Sorcery – in Medieval Latin, the word sortiarius means “a teller of fortunes by lot”. The words for sorcery (sorcerie) and sorcerer (sorcier) first appeared in medieval French c. 1300.

Witch – from Old English ‘wicce’ a female magician or sorceress and ‘wicca’ a wizard who practised magic or witchcraft.

An ancient fear

Treated as a capital offence in Ancient Greece and Rome, necromancy was punishable by burning.

By comparison, the early legal codes of European tribes such as the Franks offered some less stringent forms of punishment including fines.

Dealing with the in-laws (and their loot)

In the Middle Ages, accusations of witchcraft were a useful means of discrediting otherwise guiltless parties and, more importantly, grabbing their assets. Two examples of this can be found in Henry V’s family. His stepmother, Joan of Navarre, had been endowed with a generous sum of 10,000 marks per annum – the largest amount granted to an English queen to date.


Joan of Navarre, Queen of England

Although Henry V enjoyed cordial relations with his stepmother, Joan had close French ties while Henry, pursuing expensive campaigns in France was casting covetous eyes on her income. The result? Joan was accused of trying to bring about Henry’s death by means of sorcery and witchcraft. She was arrested and her possessions seized. The benefit to Henry in just 14 months amounted to £8,000 (the modern equivalent of £3,754,800). Joan was never brought to trial and lived under a comfortable form of house arrest until she was pardoned a few weeks before Henry’s death. She now rests beside her husband, Henry IV, in Canterbury Cathedral.

Henry V’s sister-in-law, Eleanor of Cobham, was subjected to similar accusations although the outcome was less happy. The daughter of a low-ranking knight, Eleanor had made a love match with Henry’s popular brother, Humphrey duke of Gloucester. The couple amassed great wealth and created a glittering court at Greenwich.

Humphrey stood next in line to the throne if his nephew, Henry VI, died unmarried. In an attempt to assess her chances becoming queen, Eleanor consulted an astrologer. She also bought potions from Margery Jourdemayne, the witch of Eye, to help her conceive a child. Unfortunately, rumours of these activities began to circulate, playing into the hands of Humphrey’s enemies. Their first move was to have Eleanor accused of trying to poison the young king by witchcraft.

She was forced to divorce Humphrey and to do penance by walking barefoot through the streets of London holding a candle and dressed only in her shift. For the next eight years, Eleanor was imprisoned and moved around a succession of castles – all remote from London – until she died, abandoned and forgotten, at Beaumaris.

Leeds Castle where Joan and Eleanor were imprisoned

Leeds Castle where Joan and Eleanor were imprisoned

A bumpy ride

When King James VI returned to Scotland with his Danish bride in 1590, the royal fleet experienced such bad weather that it was forced to divert to Norway where it had to sit out the storm for several weeks. Possibly due to embarrassment and frustration, the Danish admiral blamed the bad weather on the wife of an official in Copenhagen. This resulted in a series of witch trials which began in Denmark and continued in Scotland with the encouragement of King James. So began an ugly two-year episode of accusations, torture, trials and executions at North Berwick. Even the Earl of Bothwell – the king’s cousin and something of a thorn in the royal side – was accused of treasonable necromancy.

Fortunately for Bothwell, he managed to force his way into the king’s bedchamber and plead his innocence. He was subsequently pardoned and acquitted at trial. Not so many of the other, humbler accused such as Agnes Sampson, healer and midwife, who was personally questioned by the king and confessed to sorcery under torture. She was garrotted and burned at the stake.

The North Berwick witch trials were the first major prosecutions in Scotland under the Witchcraft Act 1563 which treated both the practice of witchcraft and consulting of witches as capital offences. It seems likely that the North Berwick trials only whetted King James’s obsession with witches. In 1593, he wrote a book called Daemonologie a treatise on magic and witches which not only reveals James’s superstitions but also many of the classical sources on which he based his arguments.

17th century sport

The 17th century witnessed a spate of witch trials across Europe and America, including the infamous persecutions at Salem. However, while witch trials and hangings were still taking place in provincial Devon in 1682, the Capital seems to have lost its appetite for witch-hunting. Accusations of witchcraft against two elderly women – Jane Kent and Jane Dodson – were dismissed at the Old Bailey in 1682 and 1683.

In 1699, the case of Mary Poole indicated the future direction – and downgrading – of witchcraft laws. Poole was a gypsy who appears to have made her living by playing on people’s fears and using sleight of hand to steal their money. The Plaintiff claimed that she “showed him some Juggling Tricks, till she had Juggled away his Money”. Another witness told how she had caused his horse to fall down and had mysteriously appeared at a point in front of him in the road. However, the judge and jury were not taken in by Poole’s prophecies and tricks and found her guilty of grand larceny.

It is thought that the last person to be executed for witchcraft was Janet Horne at Dornoch, Scotland in 1727.

The triumph of Enlightenment

In 1735, a new Witchcraft Act was passed which, contrary to its title, marked a triumph in enlightened thinking and a shift in the law. At a stroke, the old laws based on a belief in the existence of witches became obsolete. Aiming to punish charlatans who conned gullible people out of their money, the new Act foreshadowed modern consumer law.

Helen_Duncan_fake_ectoplasm-blogsizeIt was even invoked in 1944 in the case of Helen Duncan, a medium whose ‘ectoplasm’ was revealed to be a long length of cheesecloth and who attracted the attention of the naval authorities in war-time by claiming to have had a message from a sailor drowned on HMS Barham. At the time, it was thought that few people knew of the Barham’s sinking, although subsequently it was shown that the news had circulated quite widely and that Duncan had probably picked up the information by listening to gossip. Fearing that she might betray secrets relating to the D-day landings, the military authorities used the Witchcraft Act to get Duncan jailed for 9 months in 1944.

In 1951 the Witchcraft Act was repealed and replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act which, in turn, was superseded in 2008 by new Consumer Protection Regulations based on an EU directive.

As far as the law is concerned, witches no longer exist!

Posted in Canterbury, Cathedrals, History, Law, Myth, Witches | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Procrastination? 10 Ways to Spot the Signs

Feeling crushed? Avoid distractions and face the challenge

Feeling crushed? Avoid distractions and face the challenge

I confess. I’ve been avoiding it. Returning to the section of my novel which I put aside a couple of years ago and to which I must return if I am going to finish the book.

Why has this taken so long?

Well, various things got in the way.

These included: publicising my first novel The Devil Dancers (after nine years of research and writing, I couldn’t just launch it and walk away); writing a book of short stories and publicising that (admittedly, I didn’t have to write that one, but it just happened); illness; the loss of a close family member and all that that entails.

Distractions have come thick and fast, each demanding attention and, in all honesty, I could not have avoided any of them.

Fortunately, it didn’t stop me writing. I didn’t abandon the second novel altogether, but took the wise advice of another writer who said that when life gets tricky, try to write sections rather than one, long continuous narrative.

Brilliant! It really worked. I concentrated on specific characters and wrote scenes from their lives which I could slot into the novel and I’ve got a lot of material.

But there’s still that section that I wrote several years ago, the core of the novel which I now know I am going to have to re-write. It’s going to involve a lot of work and, oh dear, I really don’t want to tackle it.

The trouble is, I’ve discovered that I have a great talent for procrastination. Here are the symptoms:

1) The sun is shining, I need to: go for a walk/do the washing/weed the garden

2) My husband/ cat/mother needs me. If I don’t pay them attention, I will be failing as a wife, pet-owner, daughter

3) I need to phone a long-lost friend (guaranteed to last 1 hour)

4) The oven needs cleaning

5) There’s a funny smell under the sink

6) I need to check the post. Better check the freebie newspapers, brochures, leaflets etc. before I chuck anything away – just in case!

7) Disaster! I’ve run out of milk/cat-food/chocolate. A trip to the shops is urgently required

8) I’m sitting at my desk but: my chair is uncomfortable – I need to change it/find a cushion; I need a glass of water or, even better, coffee and a biscuit

9) I’ve switched the computer on but first: I’m going to read my emails (there are two that need replies right now); catch up on social media (must maintain my author profile!)

10) Goodness, it’s lunch-time! I really can’t work on an empty stomach

I’m delighted to say that, after compiling my list of weaknesses, I finally tackled the piece of work that I had been dreading for so long.

It seems that the cure for procrastination is to teach yourself to spot the signs and, however much they tug at your conscience, learn to ignore them. It takes as much discipline not to do certain things as it does to tackle others. It’s just a matter of setting your goal and sticking to it – however bad the smell under the sink.

And, if anyone spots me slipping from the straight and narrow, please, just remind me to read this!

Posted in Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Venice’s Palazzi: Jewels of the Grand Canal

Beyond the Bridge of Sighs! The Ponte della Paglia is often crowded
Beyond the Bridge of Sighs! The Ponte della Paglia is often crowded

At Carnival and in summer, Venice is submerged. But not by the green waters of the lagoon. St Mark’s Square, the Rialto and the main shopping streets are flooded by a relentless human tide. Tourists pose for interminable photographs on historic bridges and the narrow streets, known as calli, resound with the incessant rattle and bump of wheeled cases.

One glimpse of the heaving mass on the Ponte della Paglia is enough to deter the faint-hearted. Yet beyond the mayhem lie quiet oases and historic sites that offer a more tranquil view of Venice’s unique heritage.

Strung along the Grand Canal like pearls on a necklace are the palazzi: grand houses, hundreds of years old, some dating back to the middle ages. Originally built as private dwellings for Venice’s wealthiest citizens, a number of the palazzi are now open to the public having been converted into museums and galleries.

Here are two that should not be missed:

Ca’ D’Oro

View of the Grand Canal from the Ca' D'Oro

View of the Grand Canal from the Ca’ D’Oro

A real gem, the Ca’ D’Oro, or Golden House, dates from the 15th century and derives its name from the gilding that once adorned the façade.

Built for the merchant Marino Contarini, the Ca’ D’Oro was created by a number of outstanding craftsmen whose names have been preserved for posterity in Contarini’s book of accounts.

While stone well-heads are a feature of Venice, the one in the Ca’ D’Oro’s tiny courtyard is special; not only because it was carved by leading sculptor Bartolommeo Bon but also because of its location.

The Ca' D'Oro's private well

The Ca’ D’Oro’s private well

Unlike the majority of Venetians, the owners of the Ca’ D’Oro did not have to rely on water drawn from public wells located in the campi or squares. They had their own private supply of fresh water; a priceless commodity in a city surrounded by brine.

A view from the first-floor loggia

A view from the first-floor loggia

Other outstanding architectural features of this building are the loggias; roofed open galleries on three floors which face onto the Grand Canal. Each has a delicate screen of carved stone which would allow the occupants a degree of privacy while allowing them to take the air and view the activity on the Grand Canal.

In the 19th century, the ground-floor loggia received a spectacular make-over from the Ca’ D’Oro’s owner, Baron Giorgio Franchetti.

Detail of the spectacular marble floor

Detail of the spectacular marble floor

The floors were paved with elaborate mosaics, resembling those of medieval churches and the walls were covered with a two-tone design of white and red marble. Classical statues have been carefully placed around this space to lighten its shady aspect, creating a retreat conducive to thought and meditation.

From this loggia, a door opens onto a landing stage with direct access to the Grand Canal. You can imagine what it must have been like to arrive by gondola at night and enter this sumptuous grotto lit by candlelight. In summer, it would also have provided a cool refuge from the crowded alleyways and stifling heat of the City.

Today, the Ca’D’Oro houses exquisite works of art which include a painting of St Sebastian by Mantegna and numerous bronzes and sculptures.

This collection, together with the house, was donated to the Italian State in 1916 by Baron Franchetti whose remains lie in the atrium.

A painting of the Madonna and child from Ca' D'Oro's collection
A painting of the Madonna and child from Ca’ D’Oro’s collection

 How to get there: Vaporetto, Linea 1, Ca’ D’Oro stop.

Accessibility: The entrance to the Ca’ D’Oro is just a few yards along the passage leading from the vaporetto stop. There is a lift inside to the upper floors. The public toilet is located at the top of a staircase. There are also some steps to the loggias and the bookshop.

Ticket price: Full ticket price 6 euros (more if this includes entrance to special exhibitions). Free entrance for European disabled people attended by a family member or care-worker. Check the Ca’ D’Oro website for reduced price tickets and concessions

Ca’ Rezzonico

A breath-taking example of an 18th century baroque palace, the Ca’ Rezzonico was designed by leading architect Baldassare Longhena who was also responsible for two other celebrated buildings on the Grand Canal: the palazzo Ca’ Pesaro and the famous plague church, Santa Maria della Salute.

One of the beautiful ceiling paintings at Ca' Rezzonico

One of the beautiful ceiling paintings at Ca’ Rezzonico

From a British point of view, one of the most interesting residents was the poet Robert Browning whose son ‘Pen’ bought the palazzo for his father. Unfortunately, Browning did not have long to enjoy it, dying from bronchitis in the year after he took up residence.

Within the inner courtyard is a stunning example of a historic Venetian gondola complete with a shuttered cabin for passengers and exquisitely carved panels.

From ground level, a magnificent staircase leads to the first floor – note the charming sculptures of cherubs representing winter and summer on the bannisters.

A cherub dressed as Winter greets guests on the main staircase

A cherub dressed as Winter greets guests on the main staircase

The size and magnificence of the ballroom/reception on the first floor is jaw-dropping – worth every euro of the ticket price on its own.

It is impossible to describe every detail of this extraordinary building because there is so much to see; sumptuous furnishings, beautiful paintings, works of art at every turn. Highlights include:

Exquisite wood carvings in ebony and boxwood by Andrea Brustolon. While many are described as vase stands and furnishings, they are works of art in their own right. There are over 40 examples of his work in this museum;

Works by Tiepolo include painted ceilings and a series of frescoes transferred from his home at Villa Zianigo. See the accompanying video which shows how modern craftsmen performed this extraordinary feat of removal;

One of the exquisite carved ebony figures from the ballroom

One of the exquisite carved ebony figures from the ballroom

Paintings by Pietro Longhi which show intimate scenes from 18th century Venetian life such as The Fortune-Teller, The Seller of Essences and The Hairdresser. The collection also includes the charming Rhinoceros;

Paintings by Canaletto including View of the Canal from San Vio Square;

Magnificent Murano chandeliers decorated with coloured glass flowers;

Collections of antique china.

The third floor is devoted to the Egidio Martini art collection and three rooms displaying the interior of the Ai Do San Marco pharmacy complete with chemist’s jars. If, by this time, you are too saturated to absorb any more art, it is worth visiting this floor just for the view of La Volta, the bend in the Grand Canal.

How to get there: Vaporetto, Linea 1, Ca’ Rezzonico stop.

N.B. The Ca’ Rezzonico is not well sign-posted from the vaporetto stop. Hopefully, the following directions will help:

At the end of the passage leading from the vaporetto stop, turn right past the front of San Barnaba church. Cross a small bridge and, at the bottom, turn immediately right along Fondamenta Rezzonico, a path which follows a small canal back towards the Grand Canal. The entrance to the Ca’Rezzonico is at the bottom of this path.

Accessibility: The bridge from Campo San Barnaba to the Fondamenta Rezzonico has shallow steps on either side. The ground floor facilities of the Ca’ Rezzonico are well laid out consisting of toilets, a cloakroom, ticket office and bookshop on one side and a café on the other. There is also a lift. The view of the Grand Canal from the third floor window is from a platform accessible by a few steps.

For those unable to get to the Ca’ Rezzonico, the excellent website offers a virtual tour and a video.

Ticket price: Full price 10 Euros. Free entrance for disabled people with helper. Check the Ca’ Rezzonico website for reduced price tickets and concessions

More to explore

Other palazzi which are open to the public include: Ca’ Pesaro (modern and oriental art); Palazzo Mocenigo (Museum of Textiles and Costume) and the Fontego dei Turchi (Natural History Museum. For information on these and other museums, click here

Even the remarkably modern-looking Guggenheim gallery consists of the ground-floor of an unfinished 18th century palazzo

If you read Italian, the Polo Museale Venezia website is a useful source of additional information.

Travelling by water is a good way to see the Grand Canal's pallazzi - and save your feet!

Travelling by water is a good way to see the Grand Canal’s pallazzi – and save your feet!

The best way to view palazzi on the Grand Canal is to take a trip on the Linea 1 vaporetto. This travels reasonably slowly and, if you are in the right position (especially at the back of the boat) will allow you to take some spectacular photographs.

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Murder, Martyrdom and the Quest for Bones

Stained glass portrait of St Thomas Becket from Canterbury Cathedral. Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Stained glass portrait of St Thomas Becket from Canterbury Cathedral. Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0.

As the sun was setting late in December, four armed men strode through the Cathedral precincts determined to arrest one of the country’s most powerful men – or, at least, teach him a lesson. They had probably been drinking and the sound of their voices and heavy footsteps echoed around the silent cloisters. They tried the latch of a heavy wooden door, discovering, to their surprise that it had not been barred.

Pushing the door open, they blinked, their eyes adjusting to the gloom. Candles dripped pools of light onto the stone floor and tall shadows danced among the vaults and pillars. The vast interior echoed with the voices of monks who had been celebrating Vespers, their breath hanging on the icy air like smoke.

A solitary figure was standing by a pillar. He had met the four men earlier in the day, refusing to break off his conversation with another visitor or rise to greet the intruders. After a heated exchange, the men had been forced to leave by the man’s attendants. Thwarted, they had plotted to return later and resolve the matter.

Meanwhile, the object of their hostility had been ushered into the Cathedral for his own protection, his followers believing that he would be safe there.

But now he was alone and unprotected.

Once more, the men tried to take him prisoner, one trying to lift him from the ground and sling him over the back of another accomplice. The captive resisted, fighting back. An arm was raised. A blow was struck. Then another. The man fell to the ground, his skull slashed open, his brains spilling onto the icy stone floor.

On 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, former Chancellor of England and erstwhile friend of the king, lay dead on the floor of the Cathedral. It was the end of a tumultuous career and the beginning of a legend.

Becket’s murder is so notorious that most of us assume that we know every detail. However, a closer examination of Becket’s life – and legacy – reveals some intriguing facts.

  • Becket was born in Cheapside, London, to Norman parents. His first language was French but his command of Latin – the language of bureaucracy, law and religion – was imperfect.
  • He loved hunting and hawking.
  • He initially earned his living keeping the accounts of a rich relation.
  • He became a favourite of King Henry II who appointed him Chancellor.
  • Becket participated in Henry’s military campaigns in France, taking an active part in the fighting and, on one occasion, commanding 700 knights.
  • Henry appointed Becket to the Archbishopric of Canterbury – an unpopular decision with both the English bishops and the monks of Canterbury, the latter regarding the election of the Archbishop as their prerogative.
  • Becket was not a priest when appointed to the See of Canterbury. He was ordained the day before his consecration as Archbishop.
  • He had a taste for the high life, accruing many wealthy livings. It was only after a meeting with the Pope that he became deeply committed to the Church, defending its rights and privileges against those of the State – a course of action that was to set him on a collision course with King Henry.
  • Henry II came to the throne after a period of civil war during which the rights of the crown had diminished while those of the Church had increased. He took particular exception to the fact that the Church protected ‘criminous clerks’ who would otherwise have been punished by secular courts.
  • Henry put Becket under pressure to agree to the Constitutions of Clarendon which sought to extend the Crown’s rights and privileges and redress the problem of criminal clergy. Becket initially agreed but later recanted.
  • Having incurred the King’s displeasure, Becket fled the country and lived on the Continent for four years, seeking the protection of both the Pope and King Louis of France, Henry’s rival.
  • Becket returned to England in 1170 but his truce with the King did not last. On Christmas Day, Becket excommunicated all those who had violated the rights of the Church. He also refused to lift sanctions against all those bishops who had supported the coronation of Henry’s younger son by the Archbishop of York, a ceremony usually performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Three of the bishops travelled to France where Henry was holding his Christmas court at Bayeux and complained of Becket’s conduct.
  • It is doubtful that Henry coined the famous phrase “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Rather, he is recorded as saying: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!”
  • An official mission was sent to England to arrest Becket. The four knights responsible for his murder appear to have acted independently.
  • Becket died on 29 December 1170. The first miracle attributed to him was reported on 4 January 1171.
  • Becket was canonized in 1173 and his shrine became one of the most popular sites for pilgrimage in Europe, almost certainly inspiring Rochester Cathedral to ‘discover’ its own saint William of Perth.
  • Becket’s remains were originally laid in a marble sarcophagus in the Cathedral crypt. They were transferred to a magnificent shrine in the Trinity Chapel in 1220.
  • Louis VII of France visited Becket’s tomb in 1179. He donated the Regale de France, an enormous ruby, which was incorporated into the shrine and which, following the Dissolution in 1538, was turned into a thumb-ring for King Henry VIII.
  • Becket’s bones were reportedly destroyed during the Dissolution. However, in subsequent centuries stories arose of the bones being rediscovered, a subject covered in “The Quest for Becket’s Bones” a fascinating book by John Butler.
  • In 1990, two former Foreign Legionnaires were arrested in the precincts. They were charged with going equipped to burgle the Cathedral. They claimed that they intended to show that the tomb of the Huguenot Odet de Coligny was actually the resting place for Becket’s bones.

Additional reading

Thomas Becket Frank Barlow

The Quest for Becket’s Bones John Butler

The Plantagenets David Wilson

Posted in Canterbury, Cathedrals, History, King Henry II, Plantagenets, Rochester, St Thomas Becket, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From Independence to Exile: The Extraordinary Story of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke (Part 3)

Life in Exile

Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, Governor General of Ceylon 1954 - 1962

Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, Governor General of Ceylon 1954 – 1962

Nine years of researching the background to my novel The Devil Dancers introduced me to some fascinating historical characters. One of the most remarkable was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, one of the key architects of Ceylon’s Independence and the first Ceylonese to hold the post of Governor-General. This is the last of three articles on one of the most brilliant statesman of his generation.

A New Home

Following his loss of office, Sir Oliver’s sudden departure from Ceylon and his final destination were matters of conjecture. A short paragraph in The Times noted his arrival in Paris along with a statement from Mr A. P. Jayasuriya, leader of the Senate, that Sir Oliver was “neither removed from office nor did he resign.” A remark that seems somewhat disingenuous in hindsight.

However, the mystery was soon resolved. England was Sir Oliver’s choice for his self-imposed exile. His friend Sir John Kotelawala had already taken up residence in the Kentish village of Biddenden following his failure to win the 1956 General Election.

Almost immediately, Sir Oliver was received into the highest levels of society. For instance, the Court and Social pages of The Times record a dinner party given “in honour of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke in honour of his relinquishing the office of Governor-General of Ceylon” by Sir Graham and Lady Rowlandson at 18 Grosvenor Square. Among the guests were the High Commissioner for Ceylon and Sir John Kotelawala.

Unlike his friend who enjoyed the tranquillity of a rural setting, Sir Oliver preferred the frenetic pace of the city, choosing to live near Hyde Park, at the heart of London. It is one of the city’s most select addresses, just over a mile from Buckingham Palace and with Apsley House, the home of the Dukes of Wellington, as a close neighbour.

Within days of Sir Oliver’s departure from Ceylon, The Times recorded a Troskyite MP questioning the House of Representatives with regard to the amount of money that the former Governor-General had been allowed to take out of the country. The sum in question was £7,000 when the normal travel allowance was only £150.

The delicate question of money resurfaced several months later when the House of Representatives raised 56,250 rupees (£4,000) to be paid to Sir Oliver in lieu of 10 months leave not taken by him when in office. A Government spokesman explained that this was to be sent to him in monthly instalments of £150, Sir Oliver having “told the British press recently that he was penniless because all his money was tied up in Ceylon.”

Doubtless, Sir Oliver had had to leave much of his wealth behind. However, just how penniless he was is open to question. Just two months after settling in England, he is recorded as having paid 1,500 guineas for a horse called Hippo at the Doncaster bloodstock sales.

Horse-racing was to be one of the many activities with which he diverted himself while abroad. He had already established himself as a leading member of the racing fraternity, being described by the Sporting Chronicle as one of the most popular and respected owners. He had raced his horses in England and France for many years, his two-year old Henrico having won the prestigious Prix de la Cascade at Longchamp in 1949. However, perhaps one of his proudest moments was being able to give the famous jockey Lester Piggott his first ride.

Despite his sadness at leaving Ceylon, Sir Oliver did not succumb to grief. Instead, he created a new life. He accepted various posts with companies related to Ceylon’s tea and rubber companies and achieved another ‘first’ when he became the first Asian underwriter at Lloyds.

He travelled extensively – especially during the English winter – paying annual visits to India. He also discovered domestic happiness after having spent many years as a widower since the death of his first wife Esther in 1931.

He first met his second wife Phyllis Miller when she visited Ceylon as secretary to the Soulbury Commission. After that, they stayed in close contact and, following his removal to London, she helped him with his business affairs. They married quietly in 1968, only announcing their marriage several months later.

However, his self-imposed exile did not guarantee immunity from deteriorating political conditions at home. Two years after Sir Oliver’s departure, Philip Gunawardena, head of the United Left Front, declared his belief that sinister forces were at play. His evidence? Recent visits to Ceylon by Lord Mountbatten, Lord Soulbury and Sir John Kotelawala, a trip to Madras by Sir Oliver and alleged telephone conversations between Sir Oliver and Dudley Senanayake.

They were flimsy threads from which to weave a plot but Mrs Bandaranaike took these claims seriously and invited Philip Gunawardena to her home for secret talks. The result was uproar with everyone accusing everyone else of betrayal and Dudley Senanayake complaining to the police that attempts were being made to establish a dictatorship. According to The Times “no one knew what was happening.”

By now, Parliament had been prorogued for a record four months and Mrs Bandaranaike was contemplating a coalition with the far Left. With an election looming the next year, the political atmosphere was rapidly becoming toxic, conspiracy was perceived everywhere and even elderly statesmen living thousands of miles away were caught up in the maelstrom.

Trial and Retribution

By the early 1970s, Ceylon had changed its name to Sri Lanka; Mrs Bandaranaike, having been temporarily been ousted by her rival Dudley Senanayake, was back in power and a new threat to stability had arisen: the JVP movement.

As part of the measures to deal with the JVP, the Government introduced the Criminal Justice Commissions Act. Under this, some 130 insurgents were jailed, including one of the JVP’s prime-movers Rohanna Wijeweera.

However, the Act had implications for several people unconnected with the JVP. It was extended to a handful of individuals accused of Exchange Control Offences – among them Sir Oliver Goonetilleke.

Aged 82, he was tried in absentia and sentenced to four years rigorous imprisonment and a fine of 950,000 rupees (£61,000).

While he could not be extradited, the sentence nevertheless had a discernible impact on his life. Having met and entertained the Queen on many State occasions, he was now banned from her presence. In a sense, he was doubly exiled. It must have been a stinging blow.

In 1977, Mrs Bandaranaike was defeated at the polls by Junius Jayewardene. He repealed the Act accusing the previous Government of having used it to destroy its opponents. Those who had been jailed under the provisions of the Act were released and an amnesty declared.

This sparked a flurry of communications between the British High Commission in Colombo and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. Due to their sensitive nature, these remained embargoed for 30 years.

Now available for public viewing, these documents reveal frantic activity by diplomats and civil servants in trying to establish the exact nature of Sir Oliver’s status under the amnesty.

The question is succinctly stated in a memo to Bob Dewar at the British High Commission, Colombo from R. E. Holloway, South Asian Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office:

“We are of course particularly interested in Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and need a full account of where he now stands under Sri Lankan law. As you probably know Sir Oliver has been under a cloud in London since he was convicted and sentenced for the Exchange Control Offences. He is no longer invited to Royal functions or to other occasions at which the Queen is present. We must now advise the Lord Chamberlain on whether, according to Sri Lankan law and in the eyes of the Sri Lankan Government, he is entirely redeemed.”

Other memos show that these concerns were due not only to the niceties of royal protocol but also to an anxiety “that the Sri Lanka Government might take it amiss if we were seen still to be treating him [Sir Oliver] as a distinguished elder statesman.”

Sir Oliver was eventually re-instated and his name cleared, allowing him to return home to Sri Lanka where he died a few months later at the age of 84. Sadly, this last chapter of his life does not reflect well on any of the individuals or authorities who had benefited from his years of devoted service. Some actively sought his final ignominy while others passively complied with it.

However, his contribution to Sri Lanka’s Independence is a lasting monument to his unique skills. In the words of his biographer, Sir Charles Jeffries: “If Ceylon makes it, this will largely be due to Oliver Goonetilleke. If she fails, it will not have been his fault.”

This article first appeared in the Colombo Telegraph on 6th December 2014.

Related Items:

Kent’s Illustrious Exiles: Sir John Kotelawala

An article on Sir Oliver’s friend and former Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala. This article, which appeared in the Colombo Telegraph, can also be found in the archive section of this blog under June 2014.

A Tangled Web: the Abbot, the widow, the Assassin and the Prime Minister

Read about the conspiracy that led to one of the most shocking political assassinations of the 20th century. Click here


O.E.G. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke – a biography by Sir Charles Jeffries

E.G.C. Ludowyk The Story of Ceylon, p 262 [cited in OEG p. 44]

Emergency ’58: Tarzie Vittachi

The Times digital archive

National Archives – ref: FCO 37/1922


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From Independence to Exile: The Extraordinary Story of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke (Part 2)

From Dawn to Dusk

Oliver_Goonetilleke-CT500Nine years of researching the background to my novel The Devil Dancers introduced me to some fascinating historical characters. One of the most remarkable was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, one of the key architects of Ceylon’s Independence and the first Ceylonese to hold the post of Governor-General. This is the second of three articles on one of the most brilliant statesman of his generation.

The road to Independence

On 26 September 1947, Ceylon’s first Cabinet was sworn in. Led by Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake, the list of 14 Ministers included figures that were to play a leading role in shaping the new nation.

For instance, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was both Minister for Health and Local Government as well as leader of the House of Representatives. Sir Oliver and John Kotelawala also held Cabinet positions: Sir Oliver as Minister for Home affairs and Kotelawala heading the Ministry for Transport and Works.

The Times provides an interesting breakdown of the constituent parts of that Cabinet. After coyly noting that “Mr Bandaranaike … is the son of the late Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike and was educated at Christ Church, Oxford”, it cited four “other university men” (that is, those who had attended British universities).

Further analysis of the Cabinet revealed nine lawyers, nine low-country Sinhalese (including Sir Oliver), two Kandyan Sinhalese, two Tamils and one Muslim. Ten of the ministers were Buddhist, two were Hindus, one was a Muslim and another – Sir Oliver – was a Christian.

Prior to this appointment, Sir Oliver had been Financial Secretary and, being the first native Ceylonese to assume this post, he again made history by becoming one of the ‘Officers of State’. In this role in 1946, he became unusually outspoken.

Taking a tough stance on trade, he hinted at a heavy duty to be levied on exports of tea, warning planters that they should not expect all of the increased profit to go into their pockets. He proposed a similarly strong line against UK and US with regard to duty on rubber exports.

Referring to a recent visit to the United Kingdom, he declared: “For the first time in history the Ceylon Board of Ministers stood up against Imperialism and vested interests.”

This may, of course, be regarded as part of the general manoeuvring prior to Independence – Sir Oliver’s moves were usually part of a broader strategy – but it is an interesting departure from the usual statesmanlike neutrality which usually marked his relationships with both foreign powers and those within his own country.

Back from the abyss

In 1954, Sir Oliver enjoyed another triumph, succeeding Lord Soulbury as the first Ceylonese to exercise vice-regal power as the country’s Governor-General. In this role, he provided invaluable support to four Prime Ministers, the first of which was his old friend, Sir John Kotelawala.

However, Sir Oliver rendered his greatest service during the civil riots of 1958. An already dangerous situation had been fatally mishandled by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who, in an address to the nation, had misrepresented both the manner in which the riots had started and the persons responsible. The result was a conflagration that threatened to engulf the whole country.

Tarzie Vittachi’s account of this episode “Emergency ‘58” portrays a Prime Minister virtually paralysed by his own inadequacy. It also describes how the Governor-General broke with tradition to visit the Prime Minister in his home to impress on him the need for a State of Emergency.

In fact, it was Sir Oliver who declared the State of Emergency and martialled the armed services to quell the rioting while the Prime Minister merged into the shadows. “The Prime Minister, for reasons never openly stated by him anywhere, took the unprecedented step of passing the buck back to the Governor-General—thus making Sir Oliver Goonetilleke virtual ruler of Ceylon.”

Although critical of Sir Oliver’s showmanship and theatricality – and his attempts to silence the press – Vittachi praised qualities that made the “old fox” a perfect choice for the job: “his razor-sharp mind, his adeptness at bluffing his way through the stickiest mess, his ability to visualize the opponent’s manoeuvres three moves ahead, his sweeping cynicism, his blasé attitude to scruples which would baulk another man over weighted with conscience.”

He also recounts an extraordinary episode which, if it had become public, could easily have tipped the balance, plunging the country into civil war.

A gang of goondas attacked the iconic Buddhist temple of Nagadipa on the island of Nainativu, causing extensive damage to the temple buildings and destroying a statue of Buddha that had been donated by the Burmese government to commemorate the recent Buddha Jayanti celebrations.

In an extraordinary operation led by the Governor-General, the disaster was kept secret, the temple was rebuilt and the statue restored in a period of just eight weeks: a remarkable achievement that doubtless saved many lives.

The bloodless coup

While Sir Oliver was largely responsible for restoring calm after the 1958 riots, further political trauma was to take place the following year. On 25 September 1959, Mr Bandaranaike was fatally shot in his home, the victim of a plot masterminded by his erstwhile supporter Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera.

Eight months later, Mr Bandaranaike’s wife Sirimavo was elected Prime Minister. Her incumbency marked a substantial shift from the more relaxed and liberal forms of government that preceded her premiership.

In the speech that opened the new Parliament, the Government announced its intention of taking over the newspapers. A few months later, the armed forces were sent into the Northern and Eastern provinces, the whole island was placed under a State of Emergency, press censorship and a curfew were imposed, the Federal Party was proscribed and 45 people, including MPs, were arrested.

In 1962, an article in The Times noted two more measures that had stirred up further opposition to the Government. These were: the taking over of private schools, many of them Roman Catholic which “was handled intemperately”; and a Bill which retrospectively imposed the death sentence for conspiracy and which “has brought the Ceylon Bar out in almost unanimous condemnation.”

A picture emerges of a Government that was beset with problems to which it responded with increasingly draconian solutions. Another brief item in The Times reported that “the Governor-General of Ceylon has extended the state of emergency, proclaimed last April, for another period.” It also noted the mutterings of Opposition MPs “alleging that the stage was being set for permanent military rule.”

Shortly afterwards, plans for a coup were discovered. The conspirators were a group of high-ranking police and army officers many of whom appear to have been Christian and were, possibly, motivated by the Government’s appropriation of faith schools.

While details of the conspiracy were vague, one of the leaders Colonel F.C. de Saram was reported to have said that, once the coup had taken place, the plotters had intended to force Sir Oliver to take over the Government. It was also claimed that both Sir John Kotelawala (at that time residing in England) and Dudley Senanayake had prior knowledge of the plot.

All of this was reported to the House of Representatives by Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and External affairs and close relative of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. While no evidence was adduced to substantiate these claims – and Felix Bandaranaike was careful to state that the Government had not made any allegations against the Governor-General – the damage was done. What is clear from newspaper reports is that Mr Bandaranaike never lost an opportunity to link Sir Oliver’s name with the attempted coup.

Sir Oliver offered to submit himself to investigation. However, his offer was not taken up and, without any reference to the Governor-General, the Prime Minister requested that the Queen replace him with a prominent Kandyan lawyer M.W. Gopallawa who had been Ceylonese ambassador to both Washington and Peking.

Viewed in retrospect, it looks as if the Government took advantage of the plot to mount its own counter-coup and rid itself of some ‘old-school’ politicians who it may have regarded as a threat to its own power due to their continuing influence within Ceylon and close ties with Britain.

Back in 1960, The Times had described Sir Oliver as standing “all-seeing, all-knowing” behind the interim Prime Minister Mr Dahanayake. It also made a prophetic comment: “These men have been accused of separately wishing to secure all power in their hands, but on the face of it this does not seem to be the case. At present no dictator, military or civilian, is in sight.”

Events two years later show that these fears had not been laid to rest, however groundless they may have been. With his wealth of experience, Sir Oliver was probably regarded by the executive as a potential threat to its own power, whatever his intentions.

Whatever the truth, it is clear that in his role as Governor-General, Sir Oliver had been living on borrowed time. Already by 1959, his customary 5-year period of tenure had been extended by two years and, beyond the end of that term, he had continued in office indefinitely pending the appointment of a successor.

Nonetheless, the circumstances which obliged him to leave office must have left a bad taste. It was a bitter irony that a man who had done everything to ensure his country’s stability should have been linked – however tenuously – to a coup.

Yet, despite the injustice of his treatment, he never made any public complaint or levelled any criticism at those who had sought his dismissal. According to his biographer Sir Charles Jeffries, Sir Oliver’s personal motto was ‘Service with humility’. This may well account for the dignity with which he faced the attack on his reputation.

A week after vacating the post of Governor-General, Sir Oliver quietly left Ceylon for an undisclosed destination. He was in his seventieth year and had completed 40 years of public service.

*This article first appeared in the Colombo Telegraph on 5th December 2014.

Next: Part 3 – Life in Exile

Related Items:

Kent’s Illustrious Exiles: Sir John Kotelawala

An article on Sir Oliver’s friend and former Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala. This article, which appeared in the Colombo Telegraph, can also be found in the archive section of this blog under June 2014.

A Tangled Web: the Abbot, the widow, the Assassin and the Prime Minister

Read about the conspiracy that led to one of the most shocking political assassinations of the 20th century. Click here

Posted in Ceylon, History, Independence, Sir John Kotelawala, Sri Lanka | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From Independence to Exile: The Extraordinary Story of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke (Part 1)

The Road to Independence


Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, Governor General of Ceylon 1954 – 1962

Nine years of researching the background to my novel The Devil Dancers introduced me to some fascinating historical characters. One of the most remarkable was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, one of the key architects of Ceylon’s Independence and the first Ceylonese to hold the post of Governor-General. This is the first of three articles on one of the most brilliant statesman of his generation.

Every so often, a clutch of papers is released by Britain’s National Archives following a 30 year embargo. While most historians and journalists dream of discovering a juicy scandal – perhaps some questionable relationship between a Cold War politician and a spy – many of these documents appear insignificant and the reasons for keeping them in ‘cold storage’ obscure.

Such might be the conclusion when viewing the few humble sheets of paper that relate to a brief diplomatic exchange in 1977 in which a flurry of memos passed between the British High Commission, Colombo and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London.

One report stated starkly: “All convicted under Criminal Justice Commission Act (including Exchange Control Offenders) have reportedly been granted freedom.”

The effect of this terse note was to poke a stick into the Whitehall ant-heap, raising awkward questions of royal protocol and Britain’s diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka.

The subject of all this activity? An 82 year-old ex-patriot, one of the most gifted politicians of his generation, who had been living in London in self-imposed exile for some 17 years.

Humble beginnings

At first glance, the curriculum vitae of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke appears somewhat pedestrian. The only son out of eight children, he came from a respectable middle-class family, his father holding various positions within the Postal Service. Brought up a Christian and educated at Wesley College, Oliver showed promise, yet lacked the vital impetus of wealth and status. His attempts to gain a scholarship to study in England failed and he was overtaken by wealthier contemporaries whose degrees from Oxford or Cambridge virtually guaranteed them a place on the fast-track to positions of influence and political power.

Behind the scenes, Sir Oliver assiduously forged his own path to the top working his way through a series of worthy, but unexciting-sounding posts, such as a sub-accountant at the Colombo Bank, assistant auditor in the government railway service and Colonial Auditor until, finally, he obtained the post of Financial Secretary of Ceylon.

Accountants rarely transform into super heroes. But Sir Oliver broke the mould. A good head for figures was just one of his many talents. He was also a consummate negotiator and political tactician who not only oversaw the safe transition of his country to independent status but who managed, on at least one occasion, to prevent the early onset of the ruinous civil war to which it finally succumbed.

He acquired many powerful friends who included fellow exile and former Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala. Their first meeting set the tone of their future relationship. Sir Oliver had returned to Wesley College as a teacher and was refereeing a soccer match with Royal College whose team captain was Kotelawala. Sir Oliver recounted how “not long after the match started, the rival captains forgot soccer and in the course of play started to rush at each other like two warring bull elephants.” Taking swift and decisive action, Sir Oliver sent both captains off the pitch.

On a subsequent occasion, his skills of diplomacy once more came into play when the hot-tempered Kotelawala, now honorary Secretary of the Orient Club, settled a dispute with his fists.

Heading off a move by outraged members to eject Kotelawala, Sir Oliver suggested he resign his post and remain as an ordinary member; a tactic that proved agreeable to all sides, ensuring Kotelawala’s continued membership and his future patronage of the Club. There was also a benefit for Sir Oliver who “consented to fill” the post from which he had persuaded his friend to resign.

The feisty Kotelawala was just one of a growing circle of powerful friends that Sir Oliver gathered around him. Others included D.S. Senanayake who was to become the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon and Lord Soulbury who lent his name to the new Constitution implemented in 1946.

Despite the lack of a glamourous public profile, Sir Oliver’s brilliance as an administrator brought him to the attention of the British during World War II when Ceylon was in imminent danger of attack from Japan. He was asked to lead the Civil Defence Department, an appointment that marked a significant departure from the norm.

According to Dr E.F.C. Ludowyk: “The choice of the quickest-witted Ceylonese of his generation for a position which would normally have gone to a top-ranking white bureaucrat showed how far things had changed from 1915 and even from 1931.”

Sir Oliver set about this new task with his usual energy and enthusiasm, drawing up plans for the construction of 60-foot wide fire-gaps in Colombo which necessitated the bull-dozing of many buildings and the relocation of their occupants.

However, he was to reflect bitterly on the tardiness of the compensation paid for these acts of destruction.

“My hope then was that after the war a new Colombo would arise … but looking at those neglected fire-gaps which have never been repaired, I cannot help but think that very often small nations who join their more powerful allies in a total war-effort are left to fend for themselves and, as in the case of Ceylon, do not get a farthing of reparations.”

Words which could be applied to similar arrangements elsewhere in the 21st century!

In fact, Sir Oliver’s role in Civil Defence had unexpected advantages when members of the Soulbury Commission visited Ceylon in 1944. Negotiations for the country’s independence had not progressed as quickly – or as far – as the Ceylonese had wished. However, instead of confrontation, Sir Oliver launched a charm offensive, using the civil-defence organisation to transport the Commission members around the island and ensure they had a memorable trip.

Throughout these critical negotiations, Sir Oliver employed his diplomatic skills to good effect, smoothing out disagreements and heading off destructive confrontation. He was not only a skilled negotiator, but appears to have had an uncanny knack for recognising people he could trust. One such was Lord Soulbury with whom he developed a warm friendship and who he judged, within minutes of their first meeting, to be a man who would “be fair and honourable in all his decisions.”

Sir Oliver’s partnership with D.S. Senanayake was another key element in the smooth transition to Independence. When Senanayake, frustrated by the shortcomings of the Soulbury Commission, threatened to push ahead without them regardless of the consequences, it was Sir Oliver who interceded, advising moderation.

The result of this hard work, based on goodwill and moderation, was a triumph for Senanayake in the State Council. After a speech in which he urged representatives not to “refuse bread merely because it is not cake”, the British scheme was passed by 51 to 3.

Observers, such as Sir Ivor Jennings, were in no doubt about the extraordinary achievement of the Senanayake-Goonetilleke partnership. Without them, he believed, Ceylon would have remained a Crown Colony. If so, who knows what it might otherwise have had to endure before gaining Independence?

This article was first published in the Colombo Telegraph on 4 December 2014

Next: Part 2 – From Dawn to Dusk


Related Items:

Kent’s Illustrious Exiles: Sir John Kotelawala

An article on Sir Oliver’s friend and former Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala. This article, which appeared in the Colombo Telegraph, can also be found in the archive section of this blog under June 2014.

A Tangled Web: the Abbot, the widow, the Assassin and the Prime Minister

Read about the conspiracy that led to one of the most shocking political assassinations of the 20th century. Click here

Posted in Ceylon, Exiles, History, Independence, Sri Lanka, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment