Catherine Bailey, author of “The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, & a Family Secret” has unraveled a mystery at the heart of one of England’s most noble families.
I could see it ahead: a fairy-tale castle, all turrets and towers, standing majestically on the ridge.
I had arranged to meet Mr. Granger, the Duke of Rutland’s archivist, in the castle’s Muniment Rooms. Then, I knew nothing of that sad day in April 1940; I did not know that John, the 9th Duke, had died in the rooms that I was about to see, or that they had been sealed after his death. Nor did I know that his servants had once called them the ‘Secret Rooms’. I had come to research a different book entirely.
An award-winning television producer and director, Bailey had gained access to Leiscestershire’s Belvoir Castle and its archives in order to research a book about the role that county played in World War I. Instead, she found a mystery with century-old roots.
John, Marquis of Granby (who later became the 9th Duke of Rutland), has served in the war from the start. Bailey found a puzzling gap – from 7 July 1915 to 5 December 1915 -- in the otherwise robust wartime correspondence between John and his family. As she began to find out what had happened during this time, she discovered that John had also excised correspondence from 1894, the year that his older brother died and from 1909, when he was serving as an honorary attaché to the British Embassy in Rome. Somehow, she sensed these gaps were related.
John’s older brother Haddon had died in a tragic accident, as Bailey eventually discovered. The child’s death forever changed the course of the family’s history. Eight-year-old John – who was now in line to become Duke -- was packed off immediately after the funeral by his distraught parents, Henry and Violet, to live with his uncle Charles Lindsay.
It wasn’t the absence of a loving relationship with him that mattered to Violet and Henry: their overriding concern was to bludgeon him into becoming the son they wanted him to become. They had not moved on from the death of their beloved Haddon. John could never replace him: he had failed to come up to their expectations.
Charles was a stalwart support of John, even as his parents – among the richest families in England -- tried to “browbeat” him into submission over the contested sale of estate property to offset its debts. Bailey uncovered and decoded a series of encrypted letters from 1909 that tell this story. “Time after time, Charlie had tried to persuade them that there was nothing wrong with their son,” Bailey writes after discovering a hidden cache of Violet’s letters that John was in the process of excising at the time of his death. John had gained the expertise to become a dealer in rare manuscripts and medieval ceramics – a desire that condemned him to being a “loafer” in the eyes of his father. This was not a happy family.
Yet, when war broke out Violet was driven by a single goal: to prevent John from seeing active battle. Motivated less by love than by what she saw as the very real need to ensure the continuation of the family line – and to keep the estate in the family – she stopped at nothing. The missing archival gap, it turns out, details the shocking efforts Violet made to enlist the support of highly placed generals and War Office personnel to keep John away from the front. Charlie, perhaps the one person in his family who had earned his trust, secretly colluded with his sister Violet in these efforts. Bailey meticulously unravels every strand of the web of intrigue woven by Violet.
To say more, would spoil “The Secret Rooms,” which is a page-turner of a true-life mystery story. Bailey writes with flair and a passion for the subject matter. The 356-room Belvoir Castle, it turns out, has more than its fair share of secret rooms.
“The Secret Room” is available at amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.