Obituary: Abbot Aelred Watkin

Abbot Aelred Watkin was one of the most loved and most respected monks in the Benedictine Order. The two most conspicuous features of his character - a deep spirituality combined with an infectious love of life - are encapsulated in one of his favourite quotations from William Blake: "Everything that lives is holy; life delights in life."

He was born Christopher Ingram Watkin in 1918, the son of a Roman Catholic philosopher and historian, E.I. Watkin, their common middle name perpetuating descent from Herbert Ingram, the founder of the Illustrated London News. His mother, Helen Shepheard, was the daughter of Maria Pasqua, who had been a penniless Italian model until she was adopted by a member of the Baring family, the wealthy Comtesse de Noailles.

The young Christopher was educated by the Dominicans at Laxton School in Northamptonshire. He was not, by his own admission, a pious boy, and went through a period of profound unsettlement within the Roman communion. His interests from an early age were literary and antiquarian, but he was aware that his conscience was continually telling him that a truth, however unwelcome, could never be evaded nor adapted to one's own tastes. It was through the guidance of his confessor - Father Aelwin Tindal - that he came to recognise that earlier doubts had been illusory and that his ultimate destiny was to become a Benedictine monk. On 14 January 1936, never having seen Downside Abbey, and not knowing anyone there, he offered himself as a novice - "a marvellous providence of God to a not too repentant sinner", he subsequently observed.

His life and career thereafter followed an extraordinary course, at every stage marked by the delightful idionyncrasies of a man whom nature had fashioned to be rather more like a clown than a cleric: short of stature, bulky and clumsy in movement, eyes alight with mischief, and a curiously high-pitched, clipped but emphatic diction which always commanded attention. If not a monk, if not a clown, he had all the capacities, and most of the credentials, of a fine medieval scholar.

He went up to Christ's College, Cambridge, to read History, subsequent to his ordination in 1943. As a second-year undergraduate, he had the intellectual acumen, and also the temerity, to detect serious errors in Cardinal Gasquet's transcription of some of Lord Acton's letters, and, in collaboration with Herbert Butterfield, duly published an expose in the Cambridge Historical Journal. Before proceeding to his Double First in History, he had already become a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Returning to Downside to teach at the school, notwithstanding offers of greater prestige at Cambridge, he continued to produce outstanding contributions to medieval scholarship - the editing of the three- volume Great Chartulary of Glastonbury (1946-58), and the Registrum Archidiaconatus Norwyci (1946-48) for the Norwich Records Society - while gaining for his pupils a steady stream of history awards at Oxford and Cambridge.

His methods were again idiosyncratic. On one occasion, in one of Watkin's classes, a school inspector noted with horror a boy wearing a dunce's cap - the penalty, Watkin explained, for asking a question to which he already knew the answer. The inspector was mollified when the boy then supplied him with the recondite details of the height and weight of King John.

In 1962, having been a housemaster since 1948, Watkin proceeded to the Headmastership of Downside. He loved the dignity, cherished the problems of peculiarly difficult years in which to headmaster, enjoyed the awed respect of his colleagues whenever he spoke at conferences, and revelled in informal social occasions. He was a disciplinarian of the old school, while usually sympathising with errant boyhood, since so many of its delinquencies reminded him of his own schooldays.

On relinquishing the headship in 1975, he had every hope of becoming Abbot, but it was not to be. He was sent to Beccles in Suffolk as a parish priest. His talents were certainly not wasted, for these were years of great changes within the Catholic liturgy, and none of them congenial to Watkin himself. But he did his duty by his flock, and adopted methods of delegation of responsibility within an active parish council similar to those he had used as a headmaster.

He rose to a wholly improbable civic eminence as well. Having been persuaded to stand as an independent candidate for the Council, he found himself elected Mayor of Beccles in 1979, taking great delight in wearing his mayoral chain over his monkish habit. Disliking long speeches as much as he disapproved of sermons in excess of eight minutes, he conducted council proceedings at a rattling pace. Decisions had never before been taken with such minimal debate. He chose as his mayoral chaplain the local officer of the Salvation Army.

In 1989, having suffered a stroke, he returned to Downside, and was given the titular honour of Abbot of Glastonbury. There were to be no more books from his pen to follow the deeply spiritual writings of his earlier Downside years - The Heart of the World (1954), The Enemies of Love (1958) and Resurrection is Now (1975). He could no longer take long walks (a great hardship, since he loved the countryside), but he continued to play a full part in the monastic life. There were certain indulgences, however, which he refused to forego - a second glass of port, perhaps; and very definitely the joys of tobacco. "I do not fear death," he would tell his friends, "but it is such a break from established habits!"

Christopher Ingram Watkin, monk: born 23 February 1918; clothed a monk 1937 as Dom Aelred; ordained priest 1943; FRHistS 1946; housemaster, Downside School 1948-62, Headmaster 1962-75; FSA 1950; FRSA 1969; parish priest, Beccles, Suffolk 1975-89; Mayor of Beccles 1979; titular Abbot of Glastonbury 1989-97; died Stratton-on-the-Fosse, Somerset 2 May 1997.

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