A personal and unpublished memoir by David Beattie, former British ambassador to Switzerland, written on 3 August 1963, slightly edited.
I had known of the existence of Fr Nicholas Gibbes for many years before I actually met him. As a monarchist and as one in touch with Orthodox circles I had always hoped and expected to meet him some day, but when the encounter finally took place it was unforeseen. In June 1961 I happened to be invited to tea at an Anglican vicarage in Bethnal Green. As we sat in the garden a strange figure appeared at the end of the path. This was Fr Nicholas, who was very friendly with my host and often used to drop in. A moment later, the long-awaited introduction had taken place. I realised that I had seen him before in the streets of Oxford and remembered that I had felt in my bones that this figure was probably Fr Nicholas.
I was introduced as one who had lately returned from Moscow, where I had been working for three weeks as an interpreter at a trade exhibition. He immediately devoted his attention to me, to the exclusion of the rest of the company. Without the slightest prompting he began to talk about the Russian Imperial Family. I was later told that this happened very rarely and that I had been “greatly honoured”, for the Family was something sacred to him and he did not lightly talk about it.
He told me that he lived very much with the Imperial Family at Tsarskoe Selo (although he used to go with the Heir to the Stavka (Military High Command) at Mogilev during the war). They led a simple life. The Emperor impressed him as a supremely good, kind man. The Empress too was always very kind, and very resolute about performing her family duties. It was a happy and devoted family, and it seems that Fr Nicholas was enchanted by them. He was especially fond of the Heir, the Tsarevich Alexey; “He was a very lively, delightful boy; I always felt sad when I was away from him.” He bore his illness with great courage, and in spite of his pain was high-spirited enough to be naughty and mischievous at times. He seems to have had considerable character and strength of will even at that early age.
Fr Nicholas said that the children were kind and considerate. On one occasion he was due to give an English lesson to the Grand Duchess Anastasia and (I think) the Grand Duchess Tatyana. He forgot about it. When he remembered, he had just enough time to rush over to the Palace, where he arrived breathless – and without a tie! To appear like that before a member of the Imperial House was of course a heinous crime, but the Grand Duchesses were so kind or well-trained that in spite of their youth they not only made no comment but even refrained from giggling. Nor did they mention it to anyone else, as they might well have done in a moment of thoughtless amusement, for Fr Nicholas heard no more about it. He was horrified when he returned to his rooms and there discovered his tielessness.
Fr Nicholas said that Rasputin was not much more than a name to him, although he had heard rumours and had caught glimpses of him in the corridors. He did not consider him particularly influential or harmful: he thought of him as an ordinary peasant, naively cunning, but endowed with healing powers. He did, however, tell one amusing story in this connection, in a style of self-deprecating irony. Gibbes’ status as a tutor was that of a Court Employee. His salary was very low, for it had been fixed in the time of Alexander II and the Empress, who as a German and a Victorian was very economical, refused to raise it. The uniform was as humble as the salary: “It was like a postman’s. I refused to wear it, and used to turn up in a tweedy English lounge suit.” Gibbes’ great ambition was to be appointed a Gentleman of the Court, a rank which carried with it a larger salary and a more resplendent uniform. “One day the Emperor came up to me and said, ‘Gibbes! You really must have dinner with Rasputin one day soon. Go and see him next Tuesday and arrange an appointment.’ I thought to myself, ‘Good! If I can get into Rasputin’s good books I will have enough influence to get myself made a Gentleman of the Court.’ But alas, Rasputin was murdered before I could dine with him and so I never got my uniform!”
At the moment when the Monarchy fell in March 1917 Fr Nicholas was in the town of Tsarskoe Selo. He immediately returned to the Palace, but was refused admittance. He would not return to England, but stayed in the neighbourhood of the Palace. In August the Family were moved to Tobolsk. Gibbes and the Swiss tutor Pierre Gilliard followed them and were at last allowed to join them there. Fr Nicholas said that the Emperor was particularly glad to see him, for he had been deserted by almost all his courtiers – the very men who should have been the most loyal.
Life at Tobolsk was not unpleasant. At times, however, sad thoughts would inevitably find expression. When this happened it was the Emperor who kept up everyone’s spirits. He would tell little jokes or stories and recall amusing incidents, such as the time when a little dog ran across the parade ground during a particularly solemn military ceremony. Fr Nicholas was impressed by the harmony of the Family. There was never a harsh word, and all were buoyed up by a profound religious faith.
Fr Nicholas then outlined his career after 1918. He took a post in the North China Customs and refused to return to England because of the shabby treatment which he felt it had meted out to the Emperor and his family. When he was ordained he took the name of Nicholas in memory of the Emperor. The new Sino-Japanese war forced him to leave China, and he came back to England in 1936. “I was sorry that I arrived after the death of George V; I am sure that he would have helped me.”
This conversation lasted for over an hour. Fr Nicholas was a short, thin, rather bent little man. He had very rosy cheeks, twinkling bright blue eyes and a snow-white beard, rather straggly and not thick, coming roughly to a point at the middle of his chest. Although he was not poor (he had at least a house in London, a house at Broadstairs and two tied cottages in Oxford) he seemed to be dressed in an extraordinary collection of rags. He dressed very humbly, in a threadbare old cassock. His right hand held a stick and on his left arm there hung a disreputable black shopping bag. He got about entirely by himself, albeit not very quickly. He was perfectly self-sufficient and his mind completely clear. He must then have been about 85. He was a lucid and witty talker, and a delight to listen to. He struck me as being at once simple and practical. His remarks about the Imperial Family were devoted and affectionate. His own faith seemed unquestioning, but he was no mystic. In spite of his appearance and past he was utterly English in his practical approach to mundane matters, and indeed in his humour. He was quite ready to look after his own interests, and in this respect his remarks on Rasputin and George V are illuminating. He was a man to be appreciated and not argued with.
My next meeting occurred on May 30th 1962, when I encountered him in St Giles at Oxford. It was very hot and sunny, and Fr Nicholas seemed rather more frail and hunched than before. I went up and made myself known, as he had instructed me to do at our previous meeting if ever I saw him again. He seemed pleased to see me, and we walked down to the Oxford Union together. He explained that he had come up to get rid of his cottages: because they were tied cottages the old widows who lived in them paid only eight shillings a week in rent and he could not screw it up any further. Then he asked me if I could get hold of a lorry to transport a mosaic icon weighing half a ton which he wanted to present to Walsingham. (I could not oblige.) Suddenly he asked, “Do you know how I keep so young?” (for in some ways he was a young man in spite of his physical appearance). “No, Father, I don’t”, I replied. “Well, I will tell you. Have you ever observed the ways of the serpent? He sheds his skin regularly, and that’s just what I do. In my flat in London I have a very strong electric fire and a very small cubicle. I turn on the fire and wait until the cubicle is very hot. Then I take off all my clothes, pour water all over myself, and go and sit in the cubicle. Very soon all my skin falls off and I come out young again. But do you know” (this with an amused and quizzical glance at me), “I can’t find any pupils to follow my example!”
The weather was so hot, and Fr Nicholas seemed so tired, that from time to time during the day I dropped into the Union to make sure that all was well with him.
The next day was Ascension Day, when several traditional ceremonies are performed at Lincoln College. As I entered the Quad shortly after lunch I saw the unearthly figure of Fr Nicholas standing there in the sunshine. He explained that he had mistakenly thought that term was over, and having seen me the previous day he thought that I was staying up to do some extra work. He had therefore come to Lincoln to find me and cheer me up in case I was feeling lonely. I thought this a kindly gesture.
Fr Nicholas told me that I could always visit him at London or Broadstairs; if the latter house was full there would always be room for me in the hay-loft! I was never able to take advantage of these invitations.
When I saw Fr Nicholas in May 1962 I realised that his physical strength was leaving him and I felt that it would be our last meeting. He died at St Pancras Hospital in London on March 24th 1963 at the age of 87. One could not feel regret at hearing of his death: that would have seemed strangely inappropriate. I remembered rather the great pleasure of talking with him, a pleasure all the greater because every one of our meetings was so unexpected. Above all there was the affection and respect which he inspired. How could one feel regret for him? For I am quite sure that in his simple, matter-of-fact way Nicholas Gibbes looked forward to seeing Alexey and the Family once again.
3 August 1963
First Afternote (originally typed soon after 3 August 1963)
Fr Nicholas and the Russian Churches in London
Archpriest Nicholas Popov (Manchester) told me in 1959 that Fr Nicholas Gibbes made his submission to Moscow because he felt that as the land of Russia must have a monarch, so must the Church of Russia have one ruler. I felt from our conversations that Fr Nicholas Gibbes was not entirely happy about Ennismore Gardens. He preferred the more homely and used appearance of Emperor’s Gate, and complained that Bishop Antony (Bloom) had a mania for polishing, gilding and burnishing anything that could be made to look new and smart. At the same time he resented the very natural annoyance felt by Emperor’s Gate about his change of jurisdiction. He said that Bishop Nikodim had been very rude not to invite him within the iconostasis when he was present on one occasion. He also remarked that “Nikodim had formerly been very arrogant, but more recent events had caused him to change his tune.” I do not know what he meant by this.
Second Afternote (based on a diary entry for 9 November 1963)
Fr Nicholas’s Papers
After Fr Nicholas’ death Timothy Ware (now Metropolitan Kallistos) and I were worried that his papers and effects might be dispersed and lost. We thought that every effort should be made to preserve them and perhaps use them for writing and publishing a memoir of him. These latter plans came to nothing because Timothy Ware soon afterwards went to Princeton University and the Foreign Office posted me to Moscow. But as a first step we asked to see George Gibbes, Fr Nicholas’ Russian adopted son. He received us at Fr Nicholas’ London home, 17 Robert Street, near Euston Station, at 2 15 pm on Saturday, 9 November 1963. Robert Street was at that time a rapidly decaying thoroughfare (it has since been demolished), but No. 17 was kept well enough.
George Gibbes had taken care to check our bona fides. He had even looked up Fr Nicholas’ note of my first meeting with him in June 1961, which he had carefully recorded in his diary and which George Gibbes showed me. George Gibbes was very reluctant that any account of Fr Nicholas should appear under a political imprint such as that of the Monarchist Press Association, and he also wanted a rather larger work than the MPA could have produced. He was in fact thinking of writing one himself.
The exciting thing was that Fr Nicholas had kept everything, including even correspondence with his tutor at Cambridge and such other items as his correspondence with the White Army government in Siberia. There were many photographs and boxes of documents. We were shown Fr Nicholas’ little cell, which was being kept exactly as it had been. As often happens with rooms which have been left undisturbed after someone has died, it felt as if Fr Nicholas was actually there in spirit. It was a tiny room, very simple and lined with books and icons, two photographs of the Tsarevich and one of the Empress. The books were curiously mixed: Bibles and theological works, together with the “Law Home Companion”. There was a very old (600 years) and worm-eaten icon which George Gibbes said had once been entirely obscure, but which during the last months of Fr Nicholas’ life had gradually regained its colours. On the day of his death the images of Our Lady and Child had glowed faintly as if illuminated by a spotlight. There was also an icon from the house at Tobolsk. We were told that other relics, including a chandelier from the Ipatiev house at Ekaterinburg, were safe in Oxford.
We left reassured about the fate of Fr Nicholas’ papers, at least for the time being. I believe that the chandelier and icons from the chapel at Marston Street, Oxford, later went to Luton Hoo. They are now said to be in safe storage, but I do not know where, nor in whose custody.
10 November 2018