In 1940 John, the 9th duke of Rutland, died in the rooms where he locked himself in the months before his death. Five rooms on the servants floor, where nobody was admitted only the most trusted servants. Five rooms where all the family papers were kept and where the duke was doing important and secret work, or so it was said. When the duke died, the rooms were locked for more than sixty years.
In 2008 historian and writer Catherine Bailey, who wrote Black diamonds before, arrived at Belvoir castle. She had permission to search the family papers because she wanted to write a book about the consequences of WWI for the estate, since Henry, who was then the Duke and who was the father of John, persuaded so many men of his estate to join the army. John was also at the front as an officer.
Catherine was especially pleased when she found John’s diary, only to find out he did not write anything in the period between July 6 and December 15 1915. This was very strange since John did write about the war and his experiences in the weeks and months before that date. Even stranger was the fact that all the letters by members of the family from that period were taken from the archives.When she investigated further it seemed that 1915 was not the only blank period in the life of John, 9th duke of Rutland, papers and letters from 1894 and 1909 were also removed.
Catherine Bailey could not get the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of John and the blank periods in his life out of her head. Letters in code and tales of a strange break-in added to the mystery. Secrets enough and Catherine decided to let her original idea for a book go and concentrate on the 9th duke instead.
|John at his wedding in 1916|
What happened in 1894 was a horrible family tragedy, when John’s older brother died because of an accident. John was only eight years old at the time and his brother was one year older. Broken by the loss of their heir and precious son, John’s parents did not want John around. Directly after the funeral he went home with his uncle and was send to school. His parents hardly ever visited him and their letters were cold and distant. John grew up to be a lonely young man, who could never please his parents.
These horrible events are the key to what happened in the years after. The loss they suffered was held over John’s head every time to manipulate him into the direction his parents wanted him to go. His career, his marriage and every major decision was influenced by his parents and their power over him. In 1909 he was forced to agree to the sale of part of his inheritance and in 1915 the lies and the manipulation ended up in something so shameful, John would suffer under it for the rest of his life.
Catherine Bailey has to rely on the sources she can find for her investigations and she is in luck. Despite John’s efforts to remove all traces, he missed some letters and other documents. It was possible to reconstruct most of what happened.Some events remain unsolved, like the mysterious break-in right after John’s passing or the reason why John was so determined to have Belvoir castle used as the hiding place for the National Archives in 1940.
The secret rooms is written like a thriller, where a little pieces of the puzzle are shown. This does not only give you an insight into historical investigations, but also in the lives of one of the richest and most powerful families of England in the first half of the twentieth century.
The secret rooms is very well written, it is interesting and at times moving. You feel for John, the boy who lost his brother, but also his parents on the same day and who had to pay the prize for that loss for the rest of his life. What happened during WWI is sad and it is understandable this proved to be too much. Although he was born in a world of money and privileges, I do not think any of us would want to trade places with John.
Published in 2013Pages 425