Sir Mark Heath

First ambassador to the Holy See
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The Independent Online

Mark Heath was the quintessential diplomat; tall, elegant, unfailingly courteous and able. The highlight of his long career in the Diplomatic Service was as minister, then ambassador, to the Holy See in 1980-85. This was an exciting period, with the first Polish pope, the state visit of the Queen in 1980 (the third state visit to Italy of her reign) and the papal visit to Britain in 1982 - so nearly delayed by the Falklands War.

Heath, an Anglican as has been traditional almost since the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Holy See, enjoyed full and friendly relations with the Curia, many of them as well versed in worldly affairs as anyone, or better. (The Vatican City State may be the smallest state in the world, but the Pope, as head of state, governs some one billion Catholics.) Heath's knowledge and personality earned him their respect. He also enjoyed good relations with the Anglican Centre in Rome and was later to be chairman of their English Friends.

The Heaths (in 1954 he had married Margaret Bragg, daughter of the physicist and crystallographer Sir Lawrence Bragg, the outgoing Director of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge) lived and entertained in the Villa Drusiana by the Porta di San Sebastiano, with beautiful gardens and fine views of the Appian Way - their garden wall was the old city wall of Rome, built in the third century and restored in the fifth.

Sir Mark Heath, knighted by the Queen after her visit, became the first British ambassador to the Holy See when, in 1982, his post was upgraded. The status of that post is now under threat, with an announcement in July from London that the ambassador's residence and office will be "closed", the post "downsized" and relocated to the British Embassy to Italy. Writing to The Times, three of Heath's successors as ambassador deplored this as "cheese-paring in the extreme". The timing, they said, was particularly unfortunate:

Pope Benedict XVI shows signs of wanting closer relations with Britain. The Holy See's agenda is largely centred on global issues of poverty, development and debt relief, coinciding with our own G8 priorities. The Vatican is influential and well informed, a first-class listening post in which all other G8 countries have resident diplomats.

Educated at Marlborough and Queens' College, Cambridge, where he read Modern History, Heath did his military service sweeping mines after the Second World War, following in his family's naval tradition, then entered the Foreign Office in 1950. His first overseas posting was to Djakarta, where it is said his considerable height started a rumour that he was sent to restore Java to colonial status; in fact a less proud and kinder gentle giant would have been hard to imagine.

After a spell in Copenhagen and at the Foreign Office he went as First Secretary and Deputy Head of Mission to Sofia, where he caused a stir among his colleagues when the stocky Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, looked up at him and said he'd make a fine Communist. Four years in Ottawa followed, then home, then a time at OECD Paris, again home, including a period as Head of the West African Department and non-resident ambassador to Chad, with regular visits to N'jemena.

At the same time, because of his staunch belief in principles and his consideration and care for personnel rights, he was chosen head of the Staff Side at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the nearest thing to a trade union for civil servants. Heath did not suffer fools and if any injustice seemed likely within the establishment his views could be strong and effective. When asked on television if there was anything good at all in the somewhat infamous 1977 Berrill Report he replied, "The short answer is 'NO'." The report, after due perusal in Parliament, was sensibly discarded.

These experiences stood him in good stead when he was appointed an inspector, carrying out rigorous triennial inspections of all overseas missions: he returned from one Scandinavian embassy bearing a caricature of "Mark the Knife". He held this job for two years until, to his and his wife's delight, they were given the posting for which they longed, to the Holy See. They were not disappointed. They both loved Italy, were interested in church history and history of art and relished the contacts and friends this final posting brought.

On retirement from the FCO the Heaths returned out east for three years in Hong Kong, where Mark was Head of Protocol. He carried out this job with his customary skill and imperturbability, leavened by his gift for friendship and dry and urbane sense of humour.

Mark Heath enjoyed collecting fine Chinese porcelain. He also collected antiquarian books and was for a while a beekeeper, driving full hives down to deeper Surrey when posted abroad. He was a country-lover, enjoying a good view, a good book and the company of his family. He had no enemies.

John Heath