I have always enjoyed ancestry programmes like Who Do You Think You Are?, but sadly I know that my family has no royal connections. This Ashenden is descended from a line of smugglers, pirates and (latterly) lawyers and writers. My most exalted ancestor was almost certainly Sir William Ashenden. He was a Romney Marsh manorial second son; most likely a smuggler, he turned pirate, and ended up being knighted after the Battle of Cadiz.
That Ashenden did his pirating under Sir Walter Raleigh, and was one of his captains. In the 1590s Raleigh and his sailors preyed on Spanish shipping, outside the law. In 1596, however, Raleigh morphed from privateer to Royal Navy admiral and led the siege of Cadiz. The battle was astonishingly successful, and produced such political and royal favour that Elizabeth I knighted all Raleigh’s captains in honour of the spectacular victory. And so it was that William Ashenden – who ran away to sea to join Raleigh, having grown tired of farming and smuggling in the Romney Marsh – returned home as “Sir William”, bearing a new coat of arms.
I suppose that would have been that, had not my father, Michael Ashenden, followed my grandfather into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, where during the Second World War he found himself with the rank of lieutenant on a Flower-class corvette, guarding the North Sea convoys. His accounts of the terrifying storms on the convoy route to northern Russia, and the cat-and-mouse life-or-death escapades with U-boats were part of the drama of my childhood.
He would describe the bone-numbing cold when – beyond a certain northern latitude – frozen sailors were put to work permanently removing the ice that accrued on the upper decks, to maintain stability. One corvette was lost; when being seen to turn turtle, she capsized and sank as the weight of the frozen ice above the water line fatally heeled her over. From that moment on, squads of ratings spent hours in rotation chipping off the ice during daylight hours. The race against the gathering ice above decks was part of the struggle to survive.
In Murmansk, the officers from the Russian convoys had time to kill after delivering their goods. Before the return journey they drank vodka and played cards with each other and with their shore-based compatriots. In the same setting, resting after the dangerous and demanding journey, Dad found a friendship being forged with Philip, the officer with whom he shared the bridge. In between journeys to Murmansk, there were periods of training; my father spent one particular and memorable week at a Guards’ training camp at Pirbright, in Surrey.
Philip was there, too, and an overbearing and pugnaciously superior soldier in charge of putting the naval officers through their paces took an immediate dislike to him, and decided to bring him down a peg or three. It was within the rules to string together as many obscene and demeaning adjectives as he liked, so long as he ended the sentence with “Sah!” Over the course of the week this Guards instructor became increasingly colourful and inventive.
Philip was widely respected as a first-rate officer, and in the evening the two men drew breath and reflected on the verbal ingenuity of his tormentor, while during the days they presented as dignified a united naval front as they could in the face of the virtuosity of invective. “Between the memory of downing vodka in the corvette’s Ward Room moored in Murmansk,” my father once mused, “and chasing U-boats in circles off Iceland, that week in Pirbright sticks out like a sore thumb.”
“Tell you what, dear boy,” he went on, “should circumstances ever throw you and my old shipmate Philip together, make sure you send him my best wishes and ask him if he has recovered from that verbal flogging from the uppity guardsman at Pirbright.” Not long afterwards, I remembered his words in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. The Queen had just welcomed me as one of her chaplains with her usual charm and personable kindness; the Prince of Wales had been generous and pleasant; the Duchess of Cornwall and my wife, Helen, had started talking about gardening.
The Duke of Edinburgh had been left to make polite conversation with the latest recruit. After the customary niceties I led with “Lieutenant Michael Ashenden sends his regards, Sir.” A royal eyebrow shot up inquisitively; his eyes flashed with their trademark twinkle. “Oh yes?” replied Philip (for of course it was he). “He wonders,” I went on, “if you have fond memories of Pirbright.” “Pirbright?!” HRH barked back, before mouthing silently, “f***ing Pirbright!” He had not forgotten.
I recalled the story with a smile as I recently made my way through the new edition of Robert Hardman’s Queen of Our Times: The Life of Elizabeth II, which Macmillan has brought out in time for the Platinum Jubilee; other reminiscences came from my time, while I was still an Anglican, as a member of the Royal Ecclesiastical Household. As an institution it goes back a long way; much of what we know about the Battle of Agincourt was written up by a (then-Catholic) royal chaplain from the vantage point of Henry V’s baggage train.
After the Reformation, membership of the Household became increasingly an honour rather than a function. Each of the 33 chaplains had their Sunday to preach in one of the Royal Chapels at the Court of St James. During garden parties at Buckingham Palace the uninitiated would sometimes confuse the scarlet-cassocked chaplains for Catholic cardinals. It occasionally seemed as if it might take too much time and energy to provide the kind of history lesson that would provide a satisfactory explanation.
Being invited regularly to receptions and events at the various royal residences – as well as the formal appointments to preach – led to many conversations with a wide variety of people. I remember one sad episode where a member of staff who was very close to the Queen was being bullied and harassed by a senior official. We mulled over different ways of getting help, including slipping a note asking for help into the Queen’s handbag.
More happily, I once mistook the Countess of Wessex for a waitress. It was in the course of a particularly jolly reception at Windsor Castle; in my defence, she was wearing a very smart black number and was assiduously helping the staff by handing round drinks to the guests. We found ourselves talking about a number of topics, and I asked her in passing if she ever got mistaken for Sophie Wessex. Frequently, she admitted, but partly because she was Sophie Wessex.
Perhaps inevitably, during my nine years as a royal chaplain I increasingly found the press coming to me for comments about the relationship of Islam to European culture and to Christianity. My observations – at least as they were reported in the press – were not uniformly welcomed. One morning, with the date of my next engagement to preach at the Chapel Royal at St James’ Palace fast approaching, I got a phone call from “Buck House”.
“I’m sorry to tell you that we are going to have to cancel your next visit here”, intoned the voice at the other end of the line. “Why’s that?” I asked. “MI5 have been in touch to say that they have picked up news of an Islamist threat towards you on your next visit.”
“I’m not prepared to have my duty to Her Majesty cancelled because of a rumour,” I insisted.
“The Queen is not prepared to have to clean her carpets if they go through with it,” came the response, “but if the internet chatter dies down in the next few weeks, they may consider stepping up security and allowing your visit to go ahead.”
Elizabeth II came to the throne two years before I was born, and three-and-a-half centuries after her namesake knighted my wayward ancestor. Throughout my life she has exemplified Christian virtues of duty, selflessness, faith, integrity and sacrifice; it was the crowning honour of my Anglican ministry, such as it was, to serve as one of her chaplains. When the letter inviting me to accept the appointment to the Royal Ecclesiastical Household arrived, I went to see my spiritual director.
“I had better refuse this”, I told Fr Gregory. “Honours are dangerous to the soul.”
“Nonsense,” the venerable abbot replied. “That is false humility masquerading as piety. Any opportunity to serve Her Majesty must be taken with gratitude and diligently put into practice.”
As always, he was right.
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