Dom Aelred Watkin, M.A., O.S.B.
Christopher Paul Watkin was born on 23 February 1918 in Edgbaston, Birmingham, the only son of Edward Ingram Watkin, the Catholic philosopher. Much of his childhood was spent by the sea at Sheringham in north Norfolk and he later boarded at the Blackfriars School at Laxton, Northamptonshire. Although several of his Dominican teachers were notable scholars, Watkin remained unimpressed and left Laxton without taking his Higher School Certificate, the equivalent of today’s `A’ levels. After a brief period working at his father’s publishers, Sheed & Ward, Watkin entered Downside Abbey in January 1936; he took the religious name Aelred and was clothed as a novice a year later. The community at that time was less than serene. The reforming zeal of Dom David Knowles, F.S.A., had caused dissension among the brethren and, though Brother Aelred approved Knowles’changes in principle, he always managed to walk the tightrope between extremes and ultimately accepted the will of the majority and the authority of the Abbot. This authority was exercised over young Brother Aelred when his entrepreneurial talents resulted in a large money-making venture: the sale of green chasubles, for which his advertisements read "as St Patrick would have worn them’. Responsibility for this highly successful undertaking was transferred to a more senior, and less imaginative, monk. Later, when the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was living in Bath during the war, Brother Aelred bought from him some moonstones which now adorn the Abbot’s mitre. In 1943, now a class teacher in the school, seven of his pupils were killed in an air crash on the cricket field while their essays were on his desk waiting to be marked – Brother Aelred’s numbing first experience of death close to home. He had made a start on serious historical research soon after arrival at Downside, paying weekly visits to Wells Cathedral to work in the unlit and unheated library on his Wells Cathedral Miscellany, and to Shepton Mallet Prison to study the copy of Magna Carta which had been sent there for safekeeping. After ordination in July 1943 Brother Aelred was elected a scholar at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he was a brilliant undergraduate and took a first in both parts of the history tripos, while finding time to enjoy student life to the full. Christopher Booke, his young contemporary at Cambridge, recalls Watkins’ visits to the aging Hilaire Belloc for ‘non-don’ conversation. Christ’s offered him a fellowship and a post at the Institute of Historical Research but he was recalled to Downside to continue teaching history. Not surprisingly, he was disappointed at having to reject an academic career but, committed by his vows, he bowed not for the first time to the will of the Abbot. As housemaster of Caverel House from 1948 to 1962 two constant features of his administration were the annual production of a sometimes dubious melodrama, and success in the house boxing competition. Dom Aelred succeeded to the headship of the school in 1962, then in his mid-forties and, though he introduced more music, art and literature into the curriculum, this liberalisation was not universally implemented: laziness or transgression of the rules still earned a beating. Downside did not escape the student revolts of the sixties, exacerbated in its case by the reforms introduced by the Second Vatican Council, culminating in 1969 in an episode cited by Dom Aelred as "the nadir of our existence". On the day of a General Inspection, senior pupils organized a Combined Cadet Force rebellion which, though settled in the nick of time, resulted in concessions in favour of the boys. Henceforth the Corps was to be voluntary and social service activities were broadened. Dom Aelred served on the central committee of the Headmasters' Conference for five years and was a co-opted member of Somerset County Council's education committee this latter duty reflecting his concern for educational standards beyond the confines of Downside. He cannot have been sorry to relinquish the headmastership in 1974 for retirement to a country parish in Suffolk, but on becoming parish priest of St Benet's Minster at Beccles he found the parishioners as unsettled in their response to the Second Vatican Council as his staff and pupils at Downside had been in the late sixties. The Latin liturgy, for which Father Aelred had the deepest affection, had been virtually abandoned in most churches but his services often used the full sung Latin Mass; on other Sundays it would be folk music. As a reformer, he encouraged the establishment of an active parish council empowered to take its own decisions; as a traditionalist, he erected a rood-beam and a pulpit in the minster when such ornaments were being ripped out of any catholic church that still possessed them. Simultaneously with the upheavals in the church, the citizens of Beccles rejected all party politicians and Dom Aelred, along with several others, was persuaded to stand as an independent candidate in the local elections of 1979. All were elected, leaving no experienced councillor to fill the office of mayor, and Dom Aelred drew the short straw. He chose as his chaplain the local Salvation Army officer, a woman whose work he admired and whose band he considered an added attraction to the mayoralty. Dom Aelred's chain of office was complemented by the pectoral cross he wore as titular Abbot of Glastonbury, an honour bestowed on him by the English Benedictine Congregation in 1976 in recognition of his historical work and his contribution to catholic education. Teaching and administration had occupied Dom Aelred's time to the full at Downside and when he retired from the school ecclesiastical historians had hoped he would produce the definitive history of medieval Glastonbury, following Wells Cathedral Miscellany, published in 1943 before he went to Cambridge. This was not to be and his greatest contribution to scholarship remains the 3-volume edition of The Great Cartulary of Glastonbury, published by the Somerset Record Society between 1946-58; although his own favourite was probably the 2-volume Registrum Archdiaconatus Norwyci because of its East Anglian context. As president of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society he followed in the footsteps of Dom Ethelbert Horne, F.S.A., one of the first serious excavators of Glastonbury. Over a period of years Dom Aelred was a member of the Excavation Committee appointed by the Church of England to oversee excavations at Glastonbury under the directorship of Dr Ralegh Radford, who became a firm friend. There were many exciting finds relating to the monastic `city’, all the more vivid to Dom Aelred whose knowledge of the documentary history of Glastonbury was exceeded only by that of Dr Radford. Dom Aelred contributed articles to the Victoria County History, Cambridge Historical Journal, The English Historical Review, and other learned journals, as well as three spiritual works published between 1954 and 1975. In 1989 his health broke down and he was brought back to Downside, apparently to die, but after a long stay in the infirmary he was restored to health and played an influential part in the life of the school for the next eight years. He preached many sermons to the boys (eight minutes being his self-imposed time limit), and was probably more popular as a patriarch than he had been as headmaster, though still known as `Old Bushy’ because of his luxuriant eyebrows. As was customary, Dom Aelred went down to Matins on the day of his death, 2 May 1997, but was too ill to walk into the choir and died some hours later.