Friday 16 December 2011

The 12 Gays of Christmas

Out of Their Trees : No.4

Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973)

During a stereotypical Victorian December night on this day in 1899, with snow covering the cobbled streets of London, Mrs. Violet Coward gave birth to a son. Being born so close to Christmas he was christened Noël. He grew up to become one of England’s most talented and versatile actors and songwriters of the 20th century, Sir Noël Coward. Always putting himself across as quintessentially English he was, in fact, half Scottish and a quarter Irish.

Noëls’ musical talent was inherited from his father’s side of the family. His grandfather James was a chorister at Westminster Abbey, and later on an organist who wrote some of his own compositions.

Noël’s mother’s family had no great talent for music. They came from a long line of Scottish colonial types. Noël’s great-grandfather, Henry Veitch, was considered something of a black sheep. He was appointed Consul General to Madeira by King George III, and upset the British government by ignoring protocol and interfered with island politics (in particular the fight for Madeira’s independence from Portugal). Henry was recalled twice to England to keep him out of the way.

One of Noël Coward’s Veitch ancestors had a brother who emigrated to New England in 1651. From him descends a large American sub-clan which includes the Olympic swimmer, Gay Games and Outgames champion, and world masters record holder Daniel Veatch (different spelling, but the same family none the less).

The Veitch family can be traced way back into the 13th century lowlands of Scotland where they became the lairds of Dawyck Castle in Peeblesshire. They married into many of the Scottish clan families with aristocratic and royal blood. The most significant of these marriages came in the late 1500s with the marriage of John Veatch to Jane Stewart. As her name implies, Jane belonged to the great Stewart clan. She was the daughter of the laird of Traquhair and was descended from Sir James Stewart, known as the “Black Knight of Lorn”.

The Black Knight is central to one Scotland’s “what if” moments. In 1437 King James I Stewart of Scotland was assassinated and the Black Knight supported a regency for the boy-king James II Stewart. When the regent died the Black Knight joined a plot to depose the new one. At the same time he married the murdered king’s widow Joan. Whether he intended to take the throne and found his own royal dynasty isn’t certain. He had no royal Stewart blood, though he was descended from King Robert the Bruce – the historical Braverheart. If the Black Knight HAD intended to claim the throne, the established line of Royal Stewarts would not exist.

The Black Knight’s wife Joan, however, was a Beaufort, great-granddaughter of King Edward III of England and niece of Cardinal Beaufort whom I mentioned last month as ancestors of Will Young.

But Noël Coward does have some Royal Stewart blood through Jane Stewart’s female line. Her maternal grandmother was descended from King Robert III Stewart (1337-1406), father of the assassinated King James I Stewart.

With all this Scottish ancestry it would seem that St. Andrew’s Day on 30th November, or even the New Year and Hogmanay, would have been a more appropriate day to remember Sir Noël Coward’s family heritage. As it happens, the anniversary of Sir Noël Coward’s birthday today falls exactly in between the two and couldn’t be more perfect.

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