Suicide verdict on Lord Caithness's wife: Inquest skirts around details of peer's troubled marriage, as coroner told of wife's threats to kill herself. Stephen Ward reports

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LORD CAITHNESS, formerly a minister, now without work, faced the two-hour ordeal of his wife's inquest yesterday, white faced, clearly under strain, and looking far older than his 45 years.

Only a partial picture of the troubled marriage, and Lady Caithness's final hours, was allowed to emerge by the Oxford coroner, Nicholas Gardiner. He said it was not the role of an inquest to pry into the personal affairs of a family.

Lord Caithness's two children, Iona, 15, and Alexander, 12, who attend boarding schools, were not in court. Lady Caithness's parents, Major Richard Coke and his wife, Molly, were present, but entered and left the court at a distance from Lord Caithness and appeared not to exchange even a glance with their former son-in-law.

Lord Caithness had sat with his eyes closed and his forehead resting on his clenched hands as the medical details of Lady Caithness's suicide on 8 January at their home were read out by Dr Godman Greywoode, a pathologist.

Then, after he had climbed slowly into the witness stand, wearing a dark suit and black tie, the peer spoke in public for the first time about the events which led to her body being found in a bedroom next to a discharged shotgun.

The coroner asked whether his wife had indicated to him that she was thinking of harming herself? 'Yes, she said it many times,' Lord Caithness replied. 'She had three different methods: a shotgun . . . poison . . .' His voice faltered and dropped as he gave the third: '. . . or a tree on a motorway.'

'Had she taken active steps previously?' he was asked.

Lord Caithness replied: 'Earlier last year, while I was in London, she said she took the gun out of the cupboard. I had found her with the gun once, but it was unloaded.'

Lord Caithness said he had known his wife had been taking anti-depressant tablets at the time of her death. He had been taking the same pills himself last summer.

The coroner led the peer through an account of the hours leading to his wife's death.

He and his wife had spent the previous night at home with their daughter Iona. 'In the morning all three of us had a long discussion. Following lunch, Iona and I went for a walk. My wife didn't join us because she hadn't slept the night before and thought she should have a rest.'

They walked for an hour or more, and he saw his wife again. 'Iona then wanted to to go to Burford to buy a jacket she had seen. I took her there, she couldn't find the jacket and we came home. I talked to my wife again. We watched the news, and whatever followed on television, I think it was Dad's Army.' He said the news had been at some time after 5pm.

'We were all in the nursery. My wife started to do some ironing. Iona and I sat down and played some cards. We all agreed we would play a family game later.' At 6.20pm Lady Caithness had gone upstairs.

'Ten minutes later we heard a dreadful noise. We had been sitting on the floor playing patience in the room directly below the bedroom. Luckily I was closer to the door than Iona. We both ran upstairs. I got there first. I looked in, with Iona looking over my shoulder. She turned pale.'

The coroner asked whether he had touched his wife's body? 'Good Lord no,' he replied.

He had run to the study and called the ambulance, then his wife's GP, Dr Raymond Goves. He was asked whether he had thought the noise was the sound of a gun. 'It immediately entered my mind, in view of what had been said,' he answered. Had she said what she had intended to do when she left the room? He shook his head. He said there had been nothing exceptional in the way she had left the room. He had not heard her moving about the house.

The shotgun had been his, a double-barrelled 16-bore, and kept in a locked safe cupboard below the stairs, he said. He had last used it in November. Cartridges and the key to the cupboard were kept in his study. His wife would 'most certainly' have known where they were kept. She had used shotguns when she was younger, and would have been taught how they worked by her father.

He was asked whether his wife's state of mind that day had given him any cause for concern? 'We had a bit of a discussion about the future in the morning which was quite heated at times, but she was much calmer in the afternoon, particularly after we came back from Burford.' Asked whether she had been angry or distressed, Lord Caithness said she had been 'upset'. He said she had been in some pain from cysts.

He was asked by counsel for his wife's family why, in view of her suicide threats, he had not kept the key from his wife.

He said there were things in the safe other than the gun, to which his wife required access. 'And I had taken part of the gun and hidden it before. She had said 'please leave it there. It is my security when you are in London'.'

Dr Goves told the inquest Lady Caithness had been his patient for more than 10 years and was a friend. He had been aware for some time that she had 'financial and other worries'. Then, last May, 'a member of her family' had telephoned him to say she had threatened suicide. When he had spoken to her two days later, she had said it was just a phrase her family used and was not to be taken literally. At that time he did not judge her to be clinically depressed. In September, he had seen her again and she had told him she had been seeing a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist in London, and that they had recommended sleeping pills, which he had then prescribed for her. He still did not consider her depressed.

Later in September she had come to him worried about a lump on her breast. Tests had assured her within three weeks that it was benign.

On 3 December, he had seen her again when she brought him a letter from her psychiatrist recommending anti-depressants. He had prescribed two months' worth, asking her to return again in a week. However, she had telephoned to cancel, saying she felt fine.

He had never seen her alive again, but on 8 January he had been phoned by Lord Caithness. 'He was tearful and distressed, having found his wife and said she was dead. I arrived about 6.30pm, and was met by a tearful Lord Caithness.'

He said he had not examined the body, but his clinical judgement, having seen similar deaths, was that the odour in the room, and the degree to which the pools of blood had congealed, suggested she had been dead for two to three hours when he arrived, indicating a time of death of between 3.30pm and 4.30pm. Cross-examined by counsel for Lord Caithness, he said the heating was on in the bedroom, but his clinical judgement was that the death could not have occurred only half an hour before.

The doctor said Lady Caithness had always denied to him that she had threatened suicide. But knowing what the doctors in London were saying, he had asked Lord Caithness to keep the shotgun locked up. 'He assured me that was the case, and that he had the key.'

A post mortem examination of Lady Caithness's body two days after her death had shown no evidence of alcohol or drugs, the inquest heard.

PC Raymond Mayo, who had reached the house at 7.30 that evening, said Iona had not been asked to give a formal statement, but had been more composed than her father and had agreed with his account of the time of events. There had been no note. A neighbour had reported hearing a gunshot between 3pm and 3.30pm, but this was not significant in a part of Oxfordshire where shooting wildlife was part of the way of life.

He said there were no suspicious circumstances, and the police inquiries into Lady Caithness's death were complete.

The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide, saying Lady Caithness had taken her own life at about 6.30pm.

(Photograph omitted)