By Douglas LeBlanc
For the first time in decades, an Archbishop of Canterbury has lost a parent to death while he served at Lambeth Palace. Lady Jane Williams, who died July 15 at 93, led an eventful life long before her son, Justin Portal Welby, even began his studies at Eaton College in the early 1970s.
After a humiliating first encounter with Prime Minister Winston Churchill — who, upon meeting his new secretary, asked whether there was anybody else— she became a long-standing and trusted member of his staff. She took dictation of his acclaimed account of World War II.
In 1952 she accompanied Churchill to Heathrow Airport to greet Queen Elizabeth II, who had to return from a trip to Kenya because of the death of her father, King George VI. “I remember him in the car just weeping because he felt the history of it … they just poured down, unashamed,” Lady Williams said, according to an obituary in The Telegraph.
In 1955, she eloped to the United States with Gavin Welby and they married in Baltimore. She gave birth to the future archbishop approximately nine months later. She petitioned for divorce in 1959, citing Gavin Welby’s adultery. Gavin Welby won custody of his son.
“As a result of my parents’ addictions my early life was messy, although I had the blessing and gift of a wonderful education, and was cared for deeply by my grandmother, my mother once she was in recovery, and my father [Gavin Welby] as far as he was able,” the archbishop later recalled.
Gavin Welby later was briefly engaged to Vanessa Redgrave, and he died in 1977.
The archbishop’s mother overcame her alcoholism in 1968, and she married Charles Williams, a banker, biographer, and cricketer, in 1975. “When he was elevated to the House of Lords as a Labour life peer in 1985, she became Lady Williams of Elvel,” The Telegraph said.
For all that anyone knew for the next five decades, Gavin Welby was Justin Welby’s father.
But in April 2016, an investigation by The Telegraph suggested that he was instead the son of Sir Anthony Montague Browne, another of Churchill’s secretaries. The archbishop took a DNA test to settle the matter, and the result showed a 99.98 percent probability of Browne being his father. (The story is told at greater length in this Telegraph article.)
In its obituary, The Telegraph said Lady Williams “responded with great dignity and honesty as details of her own struggles with alcoholism, her dysfunctional first marriage and her son’s disjointed upbringing filled the news pages.”
“Although there are elements of sadness and even tragedy in [Gavin Welby’s] case, this is a story of redemption and hope from a place of tumultuous difficulty and near-despair in several lives,” Archbishop Welby said in 2006. “It is a testimony to the grace and power of Christ to liberate and redeem us, grace and power which is offered to every human being.”
Welby had learned in 2013 that Gavin Welby and Gavin’s father were both Jewish, and that the family’s true name was Weiler.
“Laura Sykes, editor of the Lay Anglicana blog, started researching Welby’s family history when his name was first raised as a serious candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury last summer. According to her, Welby’s Jewish grandfather, Bernard Weiler, came to England from Germany in 1886, possibly to escape anti-Semitism,” The Times of Israel reported in 2013. Bernard changed the “Germanic-sounding surname to Welby a month after Britain declared war on Germany in 1914.”
Parents often have died before their sons become Archbishop of Canterbury. The parents of Rowan Williams died within a fortnight of each other in 1999. George Carey wrote in Know the Truth: A Memoir that both his parents were dead by the time of his becoming archbishop. The parents of Robert Runcie died in 1946 and 1950, long before he became archbishop in 1980.
Through learning of his biological father, Archbishop Welby also learned of a half-sister, Jane Hoare-Temple, and her son, Guy.
Archbishop Welby issued this statement July 15 after his mother’s death:
It’s with profound sadness that I mourn the loss of my mother. I loved her very deeply and it has been a privilege to be her son. I am the person I am in part because of her love, example and encouragement. Our whole family share in the loss of a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. We are profoundly grateful to God for the gift she has been to us all — for all we received from her, and all she has meant to us. The grief we feel is a measure of the love we have shared. We will treasure the many memories we have of her: memories full of grace, laughter and joy.
My mother had a remarkable life. She was born in India in 1929. During much of World War II she lived with her mother’s brother, R.A. Butler. Her first job in 1949 was working for Winston Churchill, with whom she stayed until 1955. She was one of the last of his personal staff. Later in life, until quite recently she often lectured and spoke about him. She also worked for the Nobel Prize winner, Professor Sir Ernst Chain, at Imperial College London, who, with his family, were very kind to her.
My mother lived a full human life, with all its ups and downs. Her story is one of redemption — which she found through faith in Jesus Christ, and loving service to others. In recovery from alcoholism, she helped countless others to know freedom from addiction. She spent many years supporting people to rebuild their lives after leaving prison, professionally as a Probation Officer in Camberwell, then in the National Parole Board, and also as a Prison Visitor. In 1977 she married my stepfather, Lord Williams of Elvel, and it was a happy marriage of over 40 years until his death in 2019. Each step in her journey towards greater fullness of life brought me such joy.
Towards the end of her life she showed great courage, faith and hope. She knew she would soon be with God. That was a source of strength for her, and for all of us, and her death was peaceful and full of hope. I know that many people will be praying for me and my family at this time and we are deeply grateful. Losing those we love is an experience we all share. But grief is bearable if we bear it together — and we do so knowing the presence of the Good Shepherd who welcomes us into the house of God for evermore.