Obituary: Rodney Dennys
Tuesday 17 August 1993
WHEN IN 1968 Rodney Dennys was consulted by the makers of the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service, he had an unrivalled mixture of experience to draw on. In the film, Bond impersonates a herald (with the all too plausible title of Sable Basilisk Pursuivant). Dennys was by then Somerset Herald but in an earlier incarnation he had been a member of the Secret Intelligence Service. He was thus uniquely qualified to enter the realms of Ian Fleming's imagination - and he greatly enjoyed advising on the script and flying out to Switzerland on location.
Dennys was in all respects a memorable character. Six foot three inches tall, an imposing figure with a lumbering gait, he was at the same time a man of cultivated taste and unfailing courtesy. His occasional absent-mindedness and distracted manner belied a considerable shrewdness and guile. He was a man of immense charm and great good humour who touched life at many points.
Though quintessentially English and descended from an old Devon family (whose ramifications he explored with zest), Dennys had some distinctly cosmopolitan elements in his background. German blood flowed in his veins - his mother's family came from Prussia and his paternal grandmother was Hanoverian. He himself was born at Ipoh in the British protected state of Perak where his father was serving in the Malayan Civil Service. He was fond of recalling that the first words he spoke were Malay, taught to him by his amah; English came later. He was fully nine years old before he left Malaya and saw England for the first time.
Educated at Canford and the London School of Economics, he worked for a while in a bank, which he cordially disliked. Always interested in public affairs, he was adopted as Liberal candidate for the North Kensington constituency but before he could fight an election he entered the Foreign Office, in 1937.
From the outset he was employed on intelligence matters, his first posting being The Hague. He would later tell of regular visits to Rotterdam where, sitting on a coiled rope and sipping brandies and soda, he received vital information from a ship's chandler. He stayed in Holland until the Germans overran the Low Countries in May 1940, escaping by one of the last available boats, which was just as well given that his name appeared second on the Gestapo hit-list for the Netherlands. He was taken ill immediately before his departure and was deprived of a kidney by surgeons on his return to England.
In 1941 he was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps and was sent out to the Middle East in 1942. There he played a major role in counterintelligence in the Eastern Mediterranean. For these services he was appointed OBE in 1943. The following year found him back in Europe for a time. In more than one theatre of war he made an invaluable contribution to the work of strategic deception.
Demobilised as a Lieutenant-Colonel in 1946, he continued his secret-service work under the Foreign Office umbrella. He served in the British Middle East Office in the late 1940s before becoming senior SIS officer in Turkey and then in Paris. Fellow members of the service were impressed by his enviable patience and the meticulousness of his work, qualities he later put to good use in other fields.
Dennys rarely spoke of his 20 years in the intelligence world. He strongly disapproved of those like Peter Wright who insisted on spilling the beans. He preferred to keep a discreet silence. Yet it is quite evident that he had a fascinating time. He encountered most of the notorious members of his profession. He shared a room with Kim Philby for six months; knew but disliked Anthony Blunt; remembered Donald Maclean being in a shambolic state in Cairo; and reckoned he was the only person in London who had never met Guy Burgess.
His middle years brought a change of career which proved enormously rewarding. He had been interested in heraldry and genealogy from an early age. Resigning from the Foreign Office in 1957, he went to work at the College of Arms, initially as an assistant to Anthony Wagner, the pre-eminent herald of his generation. When Wagner became Garter King of Arms in 1961, Dennys was appointed Rouge Croix Pursuivant. Promotion to Somerset Herald followed in 1967. He continued as a member of the college until 1982 when he retired as Somerset and became Arundel Herald Extraordinary.
He swiftly developed a busy practice in the sort of work heralds have been doing for centuries - tracing pedigrees, designing coats of arms and arranging all manner of heraldic artwork. He ran an efficient and cheerful office, ably assisted for over a quarter of a century by his diligent secretary, Carol Hartley. He acted for some years as House Comptroller of the College of Arms (with responsibility for the fabric of the building) and served on a number of heraldic and genealogical committees.
He was adept at ceremonial work, being closely involved in the arrangements for the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965, of which he gives an enthralling account in his book Heraldry and the Heralds. He also helped to plan the Prince of Wales's Investiture at Caernarvon Castle in 1969 and was appointed a Member of the Royal Victorian Order in the Investiture Honours List. He was promoted to CVO upon retiring as Somerset in 1982.
Dennys's later years at the College of Arms were concerned principally with the establishment of the Heralds' Museum at the Tower of London, which opened in 1980 and was the first permanent exhibition of heraldry in this country. From its inception he acted as Deputy Director, doing the lion's share of the donkey work (as he himself might well have described it), in due course succeeding Sir Anthony Wagner as Director and continuing in that post till his 80th birthday. The museum was a conspicuous success and its temporary demise in 1990 was due only to a clawing back of space by the Department of the Environment. Latterly, Dennys devoted his formidable negotiating skills to finding a new home for the museum.
If the museum expressed his desire to popularise heraldry, so too did his writings. The Heraldic Imagination (1975) is a substantial work of scholarship, drawing on an impressive range of sources, surveying the medieval development of heraldry and looking in detail at the fabulous beasts and monsters that form such an exotic part of the heraldic repertoire. Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, himself a distinguished herald, pronounced it 'a splendidly illustrated book of beauty and colour, hard to describe in musty print, but gloating lovely to possess'.
Heraldry and the Heralds followed in 1982, a more discursive work which provides an engaging pot-pourri of armorial lore. Among the curious crests illustrated in it are a 15th-century urinal granted to a Tudor physician and a football recorded in 1623 for a Wiltshire family. Part of the book's message is that heraldry can be fun. Indeed, for Rodney Dennys, almost everything was 'rather fun'.
All his writings are eminently readable. He had a particular gift for metaphor, mixed and unmixed, which he deployed to great advantage. His annual reports on the Heralds' Museum were a delight to read - in one of the last, he characterised his negotiations with the Department of the Environment as 'rather like trying to make love to a whale, when you think you have made it, you find you have slipped off'.
He spoke much as he wrote - in a mellifluous voice and a genial manner. Conversation with him tended to be a rambling affair, but the stories were good and always worth hearing (sometimes more than once). His face would light up as he recollected an ancient tale of humorous or romantic interest; then, with a happy chuckle, he would set off once again down some well-trodden anecdotal alleyway.
He was a generous host and a convivial companion. His favourite lunchtime haunt was indisputably El Vino in Fleet Street, where he spent countless jolly hours in the company of barristers, journalists and fellow heralds.
Robin Dennys had a keen and highly developed appreciation of the opposite sex. Many a fair maid activated the unmistakable twinkle in his eye. But there was no doubting the great and enduring happiness of his marriage to Elisabeth Greene, his equal in charm and intelligence. His concern for her when she suffered a stroke in 1989 was plain for all to see, and their mutual dependence after his own stroke the following year was an inspiring sight.
They met during the war and married in Cairo at the beginning of 1944. Rodney Dennys thereby acquired a celebrated (and equally tall) collection of brothers-in-law that included Graham Greene and Hugh Greene. An only child himself, Dennys became a vital part of the Greene clan. Graham Greene was especially close to his younger sister and came to depend on her heavily in the 1980s when she took on responsibility for all his British interests. Liza Dennys survives her husband along with their children, Amanda, Louise and Nick, who have all made successes for themselves in their chosen fields of photography, publishing and bookselling.
For the last 30 years, Rodney and Liza Dennys had made their home near Crowborough in Sussex. He took an active interest in the affairs of his adopted county (and was delighted to end his heraldic life bearing the name Arundel). Involvement in an anti-pylon campaign in the 1960s led him to help set up the Sussex branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, serving as chairman for its first five years. He sat on the Court of Sussex University and the Executive Committee of the Sussex Historic Churches Trust and also spent an enjoyable year as High Sheriff of East Sussex in 1983-84, securing the Earl Marshal's permission to wear Royal Household uniform while performing his ceremonial duties.
At the end of 1990 a stroke severely impaired his mobility. The restrictions this placed on his life inevitably depressed him but he showed great pluck in coming to terms with it and nothing could dim his innate humour and optimism. After being taken ill a fortnight ago, he clung tenaciously to life and confounded his doctors who expected him to last only a day or two.
In the end he slipped away peacefully but there had been many entirely lucid moments when he was his old self - asking for a drink (and meaning something other than the water he was given), joyfully receiving a new heraldic badge he had designed for himself, quoting John Donne, and (after having Cyrano de Bergerac read to him) discoursing on the origins of the word 'panache'.
Thus it was with his own distinctive brand of panache that Rodney Dennys quit the scene, sure in the knowledge of a life richly spent and leaving behind a host of happy memories.
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