Ava Astor

Another book about SPARES (I wrote mine first!)

In 2021 I wrote a book about the lives of a group of aristocratic British Spares and specifically their extraordinary expedition to Jerusalem to find the Ark of the Covenant. The expedition ended in riots and disorder and headlines around the world. In January 2023 Penguin Books launched Prince Harry’s autobiography entitled Spare. It similarly has produced an enormous number of headlines around the world.

Prince Harry at the Invictus Games 2020

The title of the Duke of Sussex’s book refers to the fact that Harry’s elder brother William is the Heir and Harry, the younger brother, is the Spare. This fate which has faced countless royal and aristocratic brothers. It is inherent in the system whereby the title and position passes automatically to the eldest son. The fate of sisters has traditionally been worse, as in a hereditary system they were simply there to be married off in a suitable dynastic match determined by their father.

The issue for the male Spare is what to do with their life. Initially Prince Harry followed a familiar path which has been trodden by generations of young royal and aristocratic British men. Only later did he have to worry about what to do with his life. As a spare in the British Royal Family Harry did not have to really worry about money.

Eton College

As mentioned earlier most British members of the Parker expedition were spares and this is not the only similarity between them and the Duke of Sussex. The first of these is Harry’s upbringing and education. Prince Harry, like his elder brother, was educated at Eton College. King Henry VI founded the College in the 15th century. The King is possibly best remembered by the famous quote that he “lost his wits, his two kingdoms and his only son”. Henry VI’s goal for the College was to educate poor children around Windsor Castle, the king’s principal residence. However, over the years, the College changed its role. Its purpose became, and in no small degree still is, to create the next generation of English gentlemen. Eton was and still is a school for those who came from power and money and who assume, generally correctly, that this situation will continue. Most Etonian schoolboys have traditionally known that their academic achievements or otherwise at the College were not the prime drivers of their future. Over the centuries many boys have realised that there was no absolute necessity for them to work hard. This was certainly true of Prince Harry who left the College with decidedly underwhelming academic qualifications. In his autobiography he says he confessed to Meghan on their second date that he is “Not really big on books”.

An Eton schoolboy’s uniform in the 1890s.

Most of the members of the Parker expedition were younger sons, not necessarily destined to inherit their father’s titles. The eponymous expedition leader, Montagu Parker was the second son of an earl. Cyril Foley was the second son of a general and the grandson of a baron. Clarence Wilson was the third son of a rich, knighted member of parliament. Cyril Ward was the fifth son of an earl. These men, like Harry, were not meant to inherit their father’s title, estate or realm. So the question was what they did with their lives.

The Royal Family

Many of the members of the Parker expedition were very close to the Royal family. Gordon Wilson even helped ensure the continuation of the monarchy. When he was a schoolboy at Eton he helped foil an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria in Windsor. A mentally ill man named Roderick Maclean fired at Queen Victoria’s carriage as she drove from the station to the castle. Gordon hit Maclean over the head with his umbrella a number of times and ensured he could be subdued by the police before he could fire any more shots.  

Roderick Maclean firing at Queen Victoria

Other connections were very personal, Cyril Ward’s aunt, Lady Harriet Mordaunt, had been one of Edward VII’s many mistresses. She was also one of the most notorious. Her husband divorced her for adultery, a highly unusual move in Victorian England.  In court, Sir Charles Mordaunt as good as accused the heir to the throne of adultery with his wife. The Prince of Wales felt obliged to give evidence. It is hard to overemphasise how scandalous it was for the heir to appear in court to deny he had committed adultery. Many newspaper reports said that Robin Duff was a cousin of the King, albeit a distant one. However, he was close to the English (and German) Royal families. Robin Duff married Lady Juliet Lowther, a favourite of the Royal family and King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra attended their wedding. Cyril Foley knew many of the Royal family well and shot regularly with George V and VI. In his autobiography he 

The British Army

Prince Harry had many of the same constraints as late Victorian aristocratic men. They and he could not go into, what was called, trade to make money. One route which many royal and aristocratic young men took after finishing education was to go into the military. This is exactly what many of the Parker expedition and Prince Harry did. Military service, of course was as officers typically in an elite regiment such as the Guards, Hussars or Lancers. In the Edwardian era aristocrats dominated the officer corps of such regiments. Prince Harry joined one such regiment, the Blues and Royals of the Household Cavalry. Several members of the Parker expedition served in the Household Division and one, Gordon Wilson, rose to command the Royal Horse Guards. Monty Parker served in the Grenadier Guards and Robin Duff served in the Royal Life Guards. Most of the other British members of the expedition served as officers in the British Army, the only exception being Cyril Ward who served as an officer in the Royal Navy.

Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Wilson  

Active Service in a Foreign War

Most of the members of the expedition who served in the British Army saw active service, just as Harry did. In the case of the Parker expedition this was the Second Boer War. Like the war in which Harry fought, the war was fought against irregular and guerrilla forces. In March 1900, Montagu Parker sailed with a contingent of the Grenadier and Scots Guards to South Africa. He was twenty-one years of age and one of the youngest officers in the Grenadier Guards. Before they sailed, Queen Victoria inspected the regiment at Buckingham Palace, with the officers being presented individually to the Queen. During the Boer War Gordon Wilson fought at the siege of Mafeking with Robert Baden-Powell, his brother Clarence was wounded and another brother Wilfred was killed in action. Clarence went on to be the main funder of the Parker expedition, ploughing the equivalent of millions of pounds into it.

Cyril Foley, like Harry, wrote an account of his time in the war and recounted the tale of one night when there was a tremendous fusillade from two blockhouses under his command. This went on for forty minutes. When Foley got through to the blockhouse, his men told him they had fought off a massed attack by the Boers, who had driven a herd of cattle at the wire. The two blockhouses fired 1,200 rounds of ammunition, fighting off the supposed attack. In the morning, when he inspected the battlefield, Foley found the sole casualty was a single cow!

What To Do Next? Marriage to a famous American divorcee perhaps

The members of the Parker expedition who fought in South Africa came home to a more cynical country and were possibly more cynical and damaged themselves.  For example Monty Parker was diagnosed with PTSD caused by his service in the war. After Harry’s service in Afghanistan he resigned his commission in 2015 and had to find a new role for himself. It was while he was looking for this new role that he met Megan Markle and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Once again there are many similarities with the members of the Parker expedition, many of whom had finished their military careers shortly before the expedition. They had to find new lives, which given their status as Spares was difficult. One possibility was to make a good match and marry well. Monty Parker, if you believe the newspapers of the time was a favourite of Ava Astor, one of the most beautiful women of the age. One newspaper report said

‘His attentions during the recent visit of Mrs Astor were indefatigable, while in his company the beautiful American seemed to lose that wearied look she continually wears, and occasionally smiled, something she rarely does.’

 There seemed a possibility that she and Monty Parker might wed once she divorced her first husband. He was one of the richest men in America, John Jacob Astor, commonly known as Jack. Ava Astor was one of the most beautiful women of her age and with her eventual divorce settlement of $10 million from her husband would be worth over $300m today.

Ava Astor

The Parker expedition

In the end Monty and Ava did not marry and instead he led the expedition to find the Ark of the Covenant together with other Spares. The expedition seemed the perfect opportunity for young men who were searching for something to do with their lives.

The Parker expedition believed they had solved the 2,500-year-old mystery of the location of the Ark. The expedition members were convinced the Ark and the Temple treasures were not lost. They believed the precious objects had been hidden to protect them when Jerusalem was once again under threat. The participants were confident they knew the hiding place and had come to retrieve the Ark. The venture started when a Finnish poet and biblical scholar convinced the aristocratic Spares that he had discovered hidden cyphers in the Old Testament which showed the Ark’s hiding place.

The story of the Parker expedition includes secret codes, bribery, betrayal, gun-running, madness, bankruptcy, untimely death and more. It sounds improbable; Downton Abbey meets Indiana Jones meets Dan Brown. However, there is no need for invention. When Rudyard Kipling, the most famous writer of the day, heard the story of the expedition from one of its participants, he wrote to a friend: ‘Talk of fiction! Fiction isn’t in it.

Newspaper Headlines

It does not spoil the story of the Parker expedition to say that the expedition did not succeed in its goal and the members live happily ever after. Instead it created riots and disorder in Jerusalem in 1911 resulting in headlines around the world. Many of these were inaccurate and some contained outright journalistic invention. To use a modern phrase, there was a great deal of fake news about the expedition. However, a well-sourced story in the Jewish Chronicle reported that one cypher the expedition used contained a curse. The report said that any unauthorised person who attempted to disclose the secret chamber containing the Ark would be cursed ‘sixty and six fold’. Another newspaper report asked rhetorically what fate would await the Ark’s robbers. In my research I have found that the answer to this question was often an unhappy one. Within a few years, three were dead, one was mad, two were bankrupt, one divorced and another deported.

Hopefully the Duke of Sussex’s path is smoother and does not lead to the same unhappy endings as many of the Spares on the Parker expedition!

Another book about SPARES (I wrote mine first!) Read More »

The connections to the United States

The famous and the no-so famous

There are many connections of the Parker expedition. The expedition was reported in US newspapers more than anywhere else and certainly the largest and most sensational reports were those which appeared in American newspapers. The coverage started as early as 1909 but was at its height after the Haram al-Sharif incident in April 1911.

The New York Times was one of the first US newspapers to cover the incident and its aftermath. On 4th May 1911, the paper carried a report headlined ‘Fears Diggers Took Ark of Covenant’. Three days later, they ran a double-page spread headlined ‘Have Englishmen Found the Ark of the Covenant?’ and a sub-heading of:

‘A Mysterious Expedition, Apparently Not Composed of Archaeologists, Hunts Strange Treasure Under the Mosque of Omar, Sets the Moslems in a Ferment, and May Cause Diplomatic Incident’

Many of the American newspapers that covered the story the most heavily were part of the so-called yellow press. They would carry stories under large, lurid or sensational headlines and would often incorporate graphics and images. Often, they were less interested in the truth of the story than telling an exciting one. They would often include fake interviews or information within their reports. Another innovation which they pioneered were large Sunday supplements. The best-known proprietor of such papers was William Randolph Hearst. He was one of the most significant newspaper owners of the 20th century and the inspiration for the film Citizen Kane. The Parker expedition was precisely the sort of story that Hearst’s newspapers thrived on. His first newspaper was the San Francisco Examiner. On Sunday, 28th May 1911, the Examiner included a full page about the expedition.

One of the issues with much of the coverage being in the yellow press is that much of what they reported was simple invention or exaggeration. One newspaper said that, when discovered, the robbers ‘loaded a vast amount of objects they had recovered on an armored train which was in waiting on the railroad outside Jerusalem’.

There was also a wonderfully inventive account of Ava Astor’s supposed conversation with Montagu Parker. The article suggested that if Parker found the Ark, she might agree to marry him. It quoted her as saying, ‘Well bring back the Ark and I will—talk to you again.” The yellow press were well known for inventing quotes as so this is most likely some fantastically inventive journalism. Having said that Ava Astor and Montagu Parker did know each other. She spent much time in England and he was a frequent visitor to America. Ava’s first husband was John Jacob Astor, commonly known as Jack. He was part of the immensely wealthy Astor family whose fortune was built on real estate in New York. Jack and Ava married in 1891 but after thirteen years together, their marriage was foundering. Ava spent a great deal of time in England with a country estate at Sutton Place in Surrey and a townhouse in Grosvenor Square. Jack and Ava separated and divorced in 1909. Her divorce settlement of $10 million from her husband would be worth $300m today. Ava Astor was not merely rich but was one of the most beautiful women of her age.

The Times Dispatch Nov 1912

Many newspaper reports described Parker as a favourite of hers. The American newspapers were much less circumspect than the English ones of the time and, following her separation, regularly wrote about her suitors. One article in the Oakland Tribune said of Parker:

‘His attentions during the recent visit of Mrs Astor were indefatigable, while in his company the beautiful American seemed to lose that wearied look she continually wears, and occasionally smiled, something she rarely does.

Many newspaper reports claimed that the Armour Family of Chicago, who made their fortune in meat packing, and Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Marlborough, were investors in the expedition. Once again these stories probably started with more than a grain of truth. Parker knew and socialised with Consuelo Vanderbilt. In 1908 shortly before the expedition Consuelo travelled back from England to New York on the Cunard liner Lucania. Newspaper reports describe how Parker accompanied her as a member of her party.

The trouble with all these stories is that there is no evidence in the records of the expedition to back them up. Neither the Armour family nor Consuelo Vanderbilt are recorded as investors in the expedition. One of the expedition members later wrote about an encounter with a rich American who wanted to invest:

‘Never shall I forget the face of a noted American financier when he came to the Ritz one morning with an open cheque book, and having intimated that he wished to be in the show, was politely told that his money was not required. He had to have two cocktails before he could believe it, and even then it broke him up completely.’

The records of the expedition do show that there were two American residents who were shareholders in the expedition. They were two Finnish nationals who had emigrated to Calumet Michigan. They in fact played key roles in getting the expedition off the ground. Their names were Arne Basilier and Uno Montin and they were related. Arne Basilier had emigrated to Calumet from Finland. On a trip home to Finland in 1907 he met a Finnish biblical scholar for lunch at the elegant restaurant of the Hotel Kämp in Helsinki. Dr Valter Juvelius told Arne about his research and how he had uncovered secret cyphers in the Old Testament which showed where the Ark was hidden. However, the scholar needed investors to be able to pursue the project. Arne said that his stepfather, who was a businessman, had connections and would be a good person to raise the money. That individual was Johan Millen and he went to England and there met Montagu Parker and the rest, as they say, is history.

Other geographical connections

The connections to the United States Read More »