On 14th March 1923, Lord Carnarvon had taken the train from Luxor to Cairo. A few days later Eve, his daughter told Howard Carter that her father felt very “seedy. ” Just a few weeks earlier, Carnarvon and his team had broken through a false wall in the tomb of Tutankhamun to reveal the Shrine room, but he had then decided to close the tomb so they could all take time out to conserve and understand the next stage strength before continuing in an organised manner. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon was staying in Hotel Continental, his large peaceful room opened onto a beautiful garden square and he loved to sit and listen to the familiar hubbub of the city’s daily life seeping in through the long French window.
However, suffering from pneumonia compounded with septicaemia from an infected mosquito bite, by the last days of March 1923 Carnarvon was hovering in and out of consciousness. Weakened and exhausted before the age of antibiotics, the best efforts of his doctors and family were to no effect and even a message of encouragement from King George V fell on deaf ears.
His wife Almina had rushed out from Highclere to be by his bedside and had immediately created a sense of hope given her expertise from her work in her hospital during the First World War. She had had so much success nursing the many wounded men who had found a hospital such a sanctuary.
The depth of affection between the couple was clear to everyone and for some short moments in following days, Carnarvon seemed to rally. His sister Winifred had cabled wishing she was with him but that she had an audience with the Pope in Rome. In her diary entry for April 4th that year Winifred notes: “we heard the Papal Mass this morning. I think it must be good for me just to be in his presence, for he really radiates holiness. I was very pleased, as you may imagine, for he enquired after Carnarvon’s discovery & said it had been a great addition to knowledge & sent him his blessing”.
Such was the fame of the discovery that Carnarvon’s health was the subject of daily news bulletins all over the world. Almina spent every moment at the patient’s bedside whilst Carnarvon’s colleague Alan Gardiner also stayed on and later wrote to his wife: “Darling, this is a very unpleasing letter, but I am dreadfully depressed and worried about old Carnarvon. I just live under the shadow of his illness these days. Best love from your own Alan”.
Sadly, by the time their son Henry arrived from India on April 3rd, Carnarvon was delirious, his face taut and angular, his hand burning hot with fever.
Two days later, on April 5th, around 2am in the morning, Almina thought she heard her husband murmur “I have heard the call, I am preparing”. She knew the bible verses so well; “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you” and knew that this was it. Henry had hardly fallen asleep when he heard a knock and one of the nurses put her head round the door. “I’m so sorry, your father has just died. Your mother has closed his eyes and would like you to go in and say a prayer”.
Scrambling into a dressing gown and heading for his father’s room, the hotel was suddenly plunged into darkness with one of the not uncommon power cuts. Carefully feeling his way along the corridor in the pitch black, Henry found his mother crying softly at his father’s bedside. Kneeling down, he put his arm around her as he offered a small prayer of his own. His sister Evelyn, beside herself with grief, had already been taken back to her room and given a sleeping draught.
Lord Carnarvon’s untimely death was announced around the world and hundreds and thousands of column inches were devoted to his journey from treasure to tragedy. Winifred wrote to a friend “You will have had the news …and will remember enough of the old days to know what it means to me. Thro’ all the changes & chances of life we have remained true friends. I adore him now as much as I did more than 40 years ago…Almina has fought to keep him”.
A modest man, passionate about ancient Egypt and much beloved by those with whom he shared his life and adventures, I wonder if the tomb of Tutankhamun would otherwise have been discovered. After all, everyone else had given up on that particular part of the Valley of the Kings. Howard Carter hoped his friend and colleague would be respected and admired for his achievements but, after only a few years, Carnarvon’s contribution to one of the most famous discoveries of all time descended into the shadows of history, as of course had Tutankhamun himself after his time.
Lord Carnarvon had wanted to write a book about his discoveries and his work in Egypt, one which could be sold at a reasonable price for everyone to buy. He did not live long enough to do this so, 100 years later, I have written it for him.
I thought on April 5th I would climb up to his grave with a friend who is a vicar and say a few prayers for a rather extraordinary man.