Retro: Peak District trip by President Kennedy to sister’s grave

Robert Kennedy at Chatsworth - January 1964

Robert Kennedy at Chatsworth - January 1964

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At about 4.10pm on Saturday July 29, 1963, the President of the United States, John F Kennedy, whirled into the village of Edensor in Derbyshire.

The whirr of the President’s US Army helicopter caught the Edensor villagers by surprise and they rushed from their homes in shirt-sleeves and carpet slippers to join a posse of security men waiting for the touchdown in a field at the back of the churchyard.

John F Kennedy leaves Edensor Church - June 1963

John F Kennedy leaves Edensor Church - June 1963

After visiting Ireland, JFK had flown to RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and then made a private hour-long pilgrimage from there to Edensor. He walked from a field over the deer leap on a specially-constructed bridge that the estate workmen had put up.

For a brief moment he forgot all his troubles to stand in the quiet Derbyshire churchyard beside the grave of his sister, Kathleen Devonshire.

Although his visit was informal, every movement the President made was scrutinized by a weighty corps of security men – including one who waited near the grave guarding the flowers until Mr Kennedy arrived.

Seventy policemen were ranged round the church and patrolmen checked the names of reporters and photographers entering the village.

JFK, his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver and members of the Devonshire family placed three sprays of roses and a spray or carnations by the simple memorial stone.

The vicar, one of the few non-security people to see the President’s arrival, commented: “He said ‘Hello’’ and I asked him if this was the first visit to the grave. He replied that he had been here several years ago.”

Kathleen, known as Kick, Kennedy was born on February 20, 1920 in Brookline, Massachusetts, the second daughter and fourth child of Joseph and Rose Kennedy.

On May 6, 1944, Kathleen Kennedy married William ‘Billy’ Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington, the eldest son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, whom she had met during her first trip to England in 1938.

Her mother Rose disapproved strongly of the marriage – the Kennedy family were Roman Catholic and the Dukes of Devonshire were Anglican.

Billy, Lord Hartington, a member of the British army, was called up on June 13, four weeks after their wedding. He was killed in combat on September 10, 1944.

At a ball at the Dorchester Hotel, London on June 12, 1946, Kathleen, who now lived in the city, met wealthy British aristocrat Peter Fitzwilliam, the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, of Wentworth House.

It was a fundraising event for the widows and dependents of Commando soldiers killed or seriously injured during the war.

Born on December 31, 1910, Peter Fitzwilliam was separated from his wife Olive Dorothea ‘Obby’ Plunket with an 11-year-old daughter. Commissioned into the Royal Scots Greys’ supplementary reserve in 1929, he served with the Commandos during World War Two and later served in the Special Operations Executive, gaining a Distinguished Service Order.

Yet he was known to be a hard-drinking, hard-gambling and wealthy playboy.

Inviting Kathleen to dance, Fitzwilliam spun her round the ballroom. “It was overnight and it was the real thing,” Charlotte Harris recalled in Catherine Bailey’s book Black Diamond. “One got the impression that she’d discovered something she didn’t really plan to experience in life.”

“Whatever the indignities of the situation, Kathleen was deeply embroiled in her affair with Peter,” claims Lynne McTaggart in Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times, adding: “She was blindly, recklessly in love, probably for the first time.

“She didn’t seem to care any more whether the affair was kept secret or her reputation remained unsoiled.”

According to Catherine Bailey, Kathleen confided in JFK that Fitzwilliam made her laugh. “She had found a man who knew how to play, who swept her along with him and with whom she could have fun after the sadness and sacrifices of the war.”

The author records that Fitzwilliam’s niece Lady Barbara Ricardo said: “Peter was mad about Kick, absolutely mad about her. She also had the double attraction – because of the whole Catholic thing – of being seemingly unobtainable” because Fitzwilliam was from a long line of Protestants.

The Kennedy family was outraged, particularly Kathleen’s mother, Rose. “She threatened to disown Kathleen and refuse to ever see or speak to her again if she married Fitzwilliam,” McTaggart’s book says.

Tragically, when the couple were on their way to a romantic location in the South of France on May 13, 1948 before planning to meet Joseph Kennedy in Paris to discuss their intention to marry, their 10-seater private jet crashed in stormy weather, instantly killing them and all on board.

Only Joe Kennedy attended Lady Kathleen’s London funeral mass and later burial at Edensor on May 20, 1948.

Kathleen’s epitaph reads ‘JOY SHE GAVE JOY SHE HAS FOUND’ with the acknowledgement that she was ‘widow of the Major Marquess Hartington, killed in action, and daughter of the Hon Joseph Kennedy, sometime Ambassador of the United States to Great Britain’.

Peter Fitzwilliam’s funeral at Wentworth had taken place on the previous day.

After visiting his sister’s grave in July 1963, JFK walked the 100 yards through the churchyard to where cars were waiting.

Then, as he stepped into the car, the crowd of around 25 reacted with a flutter of restrained applause. JFK stood back, smiled, waved and ducked back into the Bentley.

Within minutes of driving through the grounds to Chatsworth House, he was airborne again and on his way back to RAF Waddington. From there he was to move on to have talks with prime minister Harold McMillan.

Several months after JFK’s assassination, Robert Kennedy visited his sister’s grave at Edensor on January 25, 1964.

Flying from London with his wife in a pink and blue helicopter, it was reported Robert Kennedy placed a sheaf of daffodils and tulips on his sister’s grave.

Later, he and his wife lunched with the Duchess of Devonshire and her younger daughter, Lady Sophia Cavendish, and then made a brief conducted tour of Chatsworth’s famous art collection with the Duchess as guide.

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