Remembering the Two Jacks: CS Lewis and John F Kennedy

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My diary is usually a blank since Covid and becoming a Carer, apart from the inspiring reminders to ‘Put bins out’ or ‘Do food order’.  But that wasn’t the case on 22 November 2013.

It was the fiftieth anniversary of the deaths of author and Professor C S Lewis and author and President John F Kennedy.  All Lewis fans know that he died on the same day as the terrible assassination of Kennedy, and so the fact didn’t get much publicity at the time as a result.

That any of these events should have had an effect on my diary entries for 2013 seems increasingly strange as the years go by.  But it caused an unlikely clash: I was supposed to be in two places at once.

Firstly, I was invited to be part of the celebration of C S Lewis’ life at the inclusion of a memorial to him in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey in London. This was later to be published as:

Secondly, I was invited to the celebration of the life of President Kennedy being held on the same day at the memorial to Kennedy at Runnymede in Surrey.

The Kennedy Memorial Trust

Back in 1984 I had been awarded a scholarship to Harvard by the Kennedy Memorial Trust, and it was this Trust that had been set up in 1965 to acknowledge the British people’s huge outpouring of grief at the President’s death.  The two parts were to be a “memorial in landscape and stone” at Runnymede and a ”living memorial” in the form of the Scholarship programme for around ten postgraduates a year to go from the UK to Harvard or MIT.  There are now over five hundred of us. [1]

Runnymede near Windsor was the scene of the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the ‘Great Charter of Liberty’ extracted by the barons from King John, which meant even the king was to be subject to the law. In a sense it was the beginning of parliamentary government and the inspiration for ideas of political liberty around the world, and it was here the official memorial stone to the President was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1965.  The ceremony was attended by members of the Kennedy family, and the land that holds the memorial was granted to the American people in perpetuity.   The event was largely organised in 1965 by David Ormsby-Gore, Lord Harlech.  He had been one of Kennedy’s best friends and British Ambassador to America (and who, strangely enough, was to interview and then award me the Kennedy Scholarship in 1985 on the very day he too was to die tragically, in a car crash on the way home).

There is a video of the moving ceremony at Runnymede and the surrounding countryside: the walk through a wicket gate and then a wood and then the path to the seven ton block of Portland stone, which were all part of the memorial and designed to be like ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ for the visitor.

It reminded me of Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College Oxford where Lewis had his spiritual breakthrough in his talk with Tolkien and Dyson.

The two memorial stones are similar in some ways, including quotes from the men themselves, though on a different scale:

Lewis at Westminster Abbey

Of course I wanted to be at both events in 2013.  But since I’d been asked to be part of a panel discussing Lewis’s influence today, but would only have been a spectator at the Kennedy event, then it certainly made sense to be at Westminster Abbey.

Plus the fact that Lewis had influenced my spiritual and academic life to a far greater extent than Kennedy, although the scholarship to Harvard was fantastic and led me to spend four years in America as a result.

I tend to be reading books by or about CS Lewis most of the time, but by sheer coincidence I’ve just finished a different book that instead involved Kennedy, as it was the biography of his ‘forgotten’ sister Kathleen, known as ‘Kick’ [1]

Kick and Jack

When Kick was born in 1920, Jack was already two and a half.  They were to become best friends in a family of nine children and remained so throughout life, although Kick’s was to be cut short by tragedy even before her brother.  At her untimely death in a plane crash in 1948 she was already a widow.  She had married William ‘Billie’ Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington, the son of the Duke of Devonshire, but Billie had been killed in heroic circumstances in the Second World War.  She really could have wandered around the magnificent Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and whispered ‘Of all this I might have been mistress’, like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

  It was partly through her social success with the English upper classes, backed up by their father being the American ambassador to Britain, that mean Jack Kennedy had access to the rich and powerful in the UK.  I was interested to read how pro-British he was, especially in his admiration of Churchill, for example, studying his speeches.

Irish Roots

Of course Kennedy was also keen to explore his Irish roots in several Irish counties.  The fact that his sister had married into the Devonshires also meant that they had invitations to their Irish property, Lismore Castle in County Waterford, which also would have belonged to Kick’s husband, had not tragedy intervened.  The extent to which the Kennedys had woven themselves into British life before the War really surprised me.  It also made me think more about CS Lewis’ Irish roots in Belfast and the ‘pull’ that Ireland has for the many millions who have ancestry there, including my own via a grandmother and her family, the MacNabs.  For both CSL and JFK, Ireland was ‘home’.

The Devonshires and Chatsworth

I now realise that this makes sense of a photo I once saw.  It was of President Kennedy’s Inaugural parade in January 1961, and there right on the front row was Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire, right next to the President. The photo is in a book of Debo’s letters [2].

At the time everyone wondered who on earth this woman was.  But she, as Debo Mitford, had been great friends with Kick Kennedy when Kick had dated Billie, the Marquess of Hartington, and Debo had dated his younger brother Andrew, so they hung out as a foursome before the War.   When Billie was killed in 1944, Andrew inherited the title and therefore became the next Duke, and owner of Chatsworth and numerous other stunning properties.  If death hadn’t intervened for Kick in 1948, aged only 28, she would have been the ‘new’ Duchess, so in a sense Debo was a substitute for Kick at the Inauguration.

JFK had been so upset at the death of his sister that he only visited her grave at  Edensor near Chatsworth years later, just months before his own death.

The Two Jacks as Young Readers

But one of the things that surprised me the most was how similar the two Jacks had been in childhood and early youth, in the sense that both had been loners much of the time and voracious readers, and of course it was this that was to give them the edge in their subsequent careers, forming their main interests and pursuits.  I already knew about CSL’s reading habits, but was amazed at how frequently JFK had been ill and in hospital or bed bound whilst growing up and had therefore read so deeply.  Both had been deeply influenced by their boyhood reading on the history of Chivalry, for example.  And later on JFK’s father’s appointment as Ambassador to the Court of St James, and the political and aristocratic contacts that this provided in the UK, meant that Kennedy could as a young man meet the political and cultural heroes he had only encountered in his reading.

Christmas at Chatsworth

At Christmas I usually re-post my blogs about the wonderful Narnian ‘Christmas at Chatsworth’ event I also attended in 2013.   Of course the main focus of this is from the creative imagination of Jack Lewis, as each room at the stately home was magnificently decorated with characters and themes from the ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. 

But this year, as I look again at these Christmas photos, I will definitely be thinking of the Kennedy connection as well, of Kathleen and her younger brother Jack, who also wandered around Chatsworth in awe.  I will remember the future President, and Kick his sister who should have been a Duchess, and the events that forever link the two globally famous Irish Jacks, the Professor and the President.


[1]  For Kennedy Memorial Trust, see

[2]  Paula Byrne, Kick: The True Story of JFK’s Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth (HarperCollins, 2016)

[3]  For Debo & JFK, see

and (ed.) Charlotte Mosley, In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor (John Murray, 2008) re Inauguration.

For the short film about the Kennedy Memorial, see

For the Westminster Abbey Institute Symposium from 21 November 2013, see

A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part One

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A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part One

Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House

A few years ago I had such a marvellous time at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire seeing their Christmas decorations and nativity that I vowed to go again someday. Not only is the house one of the most beautiful in Britain, the huge Christmas trees in every room, the vintage swags on the staircases and fireplaces, and the nativity with real animals in the stableyard, meant that it had been an unforgettable treat, plus flaming torches lighting our way as we drove away in the dark. The house is the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and dates back to the sixteenth century, but it has also posed as Darcy’s Pemberley for ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in both the Keira Knightley/Matthew MacFadyen film version and now the TV adaptation of P D James’ ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’, so catnip for Jane Austen fans. And when they announced that this year the Christmas decorations would be themed around C S Lewis’ ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, it was obvious that this was the year to go to Chatsworth again. I have spoken on Lewis and Narnia at various venues and have seen several excellent and creative attempts to decorate places to give a Narnia ‘experience’, so what would such an immense house with so many resources be able to offer?

Chatsworth House So this week we made the hour’s drive from Nottingham to Bakewell in the Derbyshire Peak District. There was the obligatory ‘Brideshead’ moment as we approached the enormous building from the edge of the estate and saw the building’s magnificence at a distance. As you enter the Chatsworth itself you are greeted by an Air Raid Warden and scenes and music from the Second World War. This is because ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ of course is set at the beginning of the War and, as I’m sure you know, concerns the four Pevensie children who were evacuated to the countryside to avoid the bombing – very appropriate for Chatsworth as apparently a girls’ school called Penrhos College was evacuated here at that time too in reality, although sometimes it was so cold that their hot water bottles froze at night!

Christmas tree with London buses The first two Christmas trees that greet you in the entrance way are decorated with little London buses and there is a desk with 1940s items such as an old phone and newspaper which reminded me of Lewis’ desk at the Kilns. But then one walks through a doorway and into a short passage lined with fur coats and then… into Narnia!

Narnian Winter

Narnian Winter

A long corridor with spectacular white and silver and frosty trees and baubles, all leading up to –

The Lamp post

The Lamp post

what else – the lamp post. Small white furry woodland creatures are hiding in the undergrowth and one is lulled into a false sense of security when suddenly…

Maugrim the Wolf

Maugrim the Wolf

several enormous menacing wolves appear, one being Maugrim himself with the notice of the arrest of Mr Tumnus on the orders of the ‘Queen’.

Stone fountain

Stone fountain

There was an area for children to dress up in long dresses and furs and cloaks as characters from the story. This overlooked an inner courtyard with a fountain and animals that had been ‘turned’ into stone to show the witch’s power in Narnia at that point.

Trees in Chapel

Trees in Chapel

We then walked into the chapel, in itself a stunning place for worship filled with magnificent murals and statues and two of the biggest Christmas trees I’ve ever seen indoors. Christmas carols were playing in the background and people were standing around in awe at the sight.

Chairs in chapel

Chairs in chapel

The tapestry chairs on either side reminded me of the thrones for the kings and queens of Charn, waiting to be awoken by Digory striking the bell – not perhaps a happy recollection but by this point even the ‘ordinary’ furnishings and carvings in Chatsworth were taking on a Narnian significance.





Tea with Mr Tumnus

Tea with Mr Tumnus

We then turned left into the Oak Room, renamed Tumnus Towers, and found ourselves in Mr Tumnus’ living room all set out for tea. His kettle was whistling on the fire and a book entitled ‘Is Man a Myth?’ lay on the table, the cover photo looking suspiciously like the Duke of Devonshire! The man playing Mr Tumnus was probably rather old for the part, if he’ll forgive me saying, but did have magnificent furry trousers. But having tea with Mr Tumnus here was very appropriate as it was the Duchess of Devonshire in the 18th century who invented the habit of taking afternoon tea as a stop gap to tide one over as dinners were so late in the evening.  There were two trees in his room, both decorated with gingerbread men. I had read a newspaper account beforehand of what would be in this Narnian experience so I had been expecting Mr Tumnus, but not what we could see from the next room –


Mr and Mrs Beaver

Mr and Mrs Beaver

– right into the living room of Mr and Mrs Beaver! She is at her sewing machine and he is scrubbing his back in a bath in front of the fire (not sure where they got this from, but it was funny)! The walls made of logs was a nice touch and there were packets on a table such as wood chips for them to chew on and ‘incisor paste’ for cleaning their teeth, the old-fashioned packaging adding to a 1940s feel.

Father Christmas' sleigh

Father Christmas’ sleigh

One then walked out into the Chapel Corridor and was confronted by Father Christmas’ sleigh. Unfortunately he was not there in person (I probably would have fainted by this point) –

Father Christmas' reindeer

Father Christmas’ reindeer

– but the two reindeer were animatronic and moving as if they were about to eat the carrot and mince pie left out for them by children. Apparently each year, for over a hundred years, Chatsworth has a held Christmas party for the children of their estate workers during which Father Christmas really does come down the chimney! If we hadn’t realised it already, it was now obvious that here they can do things on a much bigger scale than the rest of us. And we were only at the beginning of our Narnian Christmas journey…


Part Two concerns Aslan, the White Witch and Turkish Delight.

Part Three concerns the victory of Aslan and the enthronement of the children at Cair Paravel.