Thursday 30 December 2010, 11:48
Of all the great characters in Welsh history - and there are many - none is more unusual, more fascinating and more downright bizarre than Evan Morgan, the last Viscount Tredegar.
Evan succeeded to the title in 1934 but by then his reputation for outlandish behaviour had been well established. Born in 1893, by the beginning of the First World War Evan Morgan was abroad in society. Over the next 30 years he created the myth of wildness and extravagance that has lasted until today.
A poor poet and painter, he was nevertheless adviser on art to the Royal Family. He dabbled on the artistic fringes of society and Queen Mary referred to him as her favourite bohemian. He was also something of a favourite with Lloyd George and was a great influence on Brendan Bracken, Churchill's right hand man. Those were the more acceptable sides to his character and behaviour.
At his palatial Tredegar House, just on the edge of Newport, he kept a menagerie of wild animals, including a boxing kangaroo and whole flocks of birds that easily and effortlessly did his bidding. More often than not the animals lived inside the house rather than outside. His friends included writers like Aldous Huxley and GK Chesterton, artists such as Augustus John and, above all, the great 'black magician' Aleister Crowley.
Known as 'the Black Monk', Evan was an expert in the occult and even built himself a 'magik room' - the spelling was deliberate - at Tredegar House. Crowley visited him many times, and declared the room the best equipped he had ever seen. Crowley, known throughout Europe as the 'Great Beast', took part in many weird and perhaps terrifying rituals at Tredegar Park and christened Evan 'adept of adepts'. Sometimes those rituals frightened even Crowley.
During the Second World War Evan was a high ranking officer in MI8, his particular responsibility being the monitoring of carrier pigeons. When he foolishly and carelessly let slip the departmental secrets - to two girl guides, would you believe - Evan was court martialled and was lucky to get away without a term of imprisonment, or even the firing squad.
In retaliation Evan Morgan called Aleister Crowley to Tredegar House to take part in a cursing ritual on his commanding officer. Whatever Evan said or did it frightened Crowley so much that he left before the process was complete. And, amazingly, Evan's CO soon contracted some mysterious illness and nearly died!
Despite his openly acknowledged homosexuality Evan was twice married, to actress Lois Sturt and to the Russian Princess Olga Dolgorouky. Neither marriage was a success and Evan continued to flaunt and entertain his male lovers in hotel bedrooms across Europe.
As if that was not enough, he was able to put his obsession with the occult on hold for a short period while he converted to Catholicism, becoming Chamberlain to Popes Benedict XV and Pius XI. He went to study at the English College in Rome - although the amount of studying he did was limited in the extreme - and was soon a well known figure around Rome, driving through the city in a Rolls Royce that had a portable altar in the back.
The stories of Evan Morgan's behaviour are legend but perhaps the most mysterious and intriguing episode in his life came in 1932. That year he was invited to a small private dinner and meeting at a restaurant in Bad Wiesse, just outside Munich. Nothing unusual in that, you might say - except that you then look at the other guests. They included Rudolph Hess, the deputy of what was fast becoming the most significant political party in Germany, right wing British artist Sir Francis Rose, Ernst Rohm - head of Hitler's SA or Brownshirts - and his deputy Edmund Heines.
What was discussed at the meeting will never be known but all of the diners were ferociously right wing in their politics. Many of them were gay and a large number were fascinated by the occult. This was the period just before Hitler came to power and it would not be stretching things too far to suggest that the emergent Nazi party was trying to find out how things were run in Britain, perhaps by courting one of the wealthiest aristocrats in the country.
Evan Morgan continued to maintain distant links with the Nazis. Some years later Herman Göring was on the Isle of Capri for a meeting with Italian dictator Mussolini. In the room next door was Evan Morgan. Evan's parrot, a bird that used to sit obediently on his shoulder as he walked around, apparently bit Goring on the nose - much to the displeasure of the portly German.
During the war, after he had parachuted into Britain in an attempt to end the conflict, Rudolph Hess was imprisoned at Abergavenny, not too many miles distant from Tredegar House. If Hess and Evan knew each other - however slightly - they would surely have met. Hess might even have come to Tredegar House as he was given a fair degree of freedom and latitude to journey around eastern Wales. Was Evan Morgan one of the people Hess was hoping to use as an intermediary in his bid to end hostilities? It is a fascinating speculation.
Unfortunately, it will remain just speculation. Like so much that went on in his life, we will never know what was really going on in the mind of Evan Morgan. He remains one of Wales' greatest and most memorable eccentrics.
Listen to the story of Evan Morgan and that meeting in Munich on The Past Master, the BBC Wales history programme, broadcast on Sunday 2 January 2011 at 5.30pm.
Join the discussion...
Wednesday 29 December 2010, 09:29
Thursday 30 December 2010, 12:12