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Canada British envoy discovers patriotic hymn’s Canadian connection

After his sudden death in 1918, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, above, was buried in Ottawa’s Beechwood cemetery. At left, Ashley Prime, Britain’s outgoing deputy consul-general in Toronto, visits Sir Cecil’s grave in 2012. The gravesite will soon feature a plaque recognizing the famous First World War diplomat.

Library of Congress; HANDOUT

Ashley Prime was idly trawling the Internet last spring when he decided to search for the author of a stirring hymn sung at his father's funeral in Peterborough, England, about 30 years ago.

Little could Mr. Prime know what remarkable results were waiting at the other end of a simple search for a song – not the discovery that I Vow to Thee, My Country, one of Britain's most cherished patriotic songs, was penned by a British ambassador who was buried in Ottawa's historic Beechwood cemetery at the end of the First World War. And certainly not the ceremony at Beechwood on Friday attended by a distinguished group of Britons and Canadians.

Written as a poem in 1912 and later set to a section of Gustav Holst's The Planets suite, the hymn's overriding theme is sacrifice in battle – making it a favourite at Remembrance Day services. It is also well known for being performed at the wedding of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Prince Charles – it had "always been a favourite since schooldays," she said – and at her funeral in 1997. More recently, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher requested that it be sung at her funeral.

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Mr. Prime, Britain's deputy consul-general in Toronto, found that the words were written by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, one of Britain's most senior diplomats before and during the First World War.

It turned out that Sir Cecil had an important Canadian connection: He died suddenly of Graves' disease in Ottawa in 1918 at the age of 58, when he was returning home after the foreign office suddenly recalled him from his posting as ambassador in Washington. He was buried at Beechwood, Canada's national cemetery.

Mr. Prime's interest was sufficiently piqued that on his next visit to Ottawa, he invited his boss, Andrew Pocock, then the British high commissioner, to join him on a bicycle ride through the cemetery. Mr. Prime recalled that, as they stood at the nondescript, weathered cross that marks Sir Cecil's grave, he said to Mr. Pocock: 'We've got to do something about this.' "

His first move was to track down Sir Cecil's descendants, including his only surviving grandchild, Caroline Kenny, a retired primary-school teacher in Sussex, England; and Mark Bridges, the Queen's personal solicitor and a great-grandson of one of Sir Cecil's sisters. Mr. Bridges's grandfather, Lord Bridges, was secretary to the British cabinet during the Second World War, and later head of the Home Civil Service.

Mr. Prime proposed organizing a fundraising drive to clean up the headstone and install a memorial plaque recognizing Sir Cecil and his famous poem.

Mrs. Kenny, now 75, was born 20 years after her grandfather died. Even so, she said in an interview, she has always felt a close affinity to him.

"I can remember being given homework at my primary school in Cyprus, which was then a colony, and being told to learn the first verse [of the poem]," she recalled. "And I remember saying, and I wasn't really boasting: 'I know it, I know it already.' "

The hymn was sung each year on prize-giving day at the London private school where Mrs. Kenny's mother – Sir Cecil's daughter – was a pupil. Among her teachers was Gustav Holst, who was the school's head of music for almost 30 years.

Mr. Prime says that he has raised "a few hundred dollars" for the plaque, mainly from the Toronto branch of the Honourable Company of Freemen of the City of London, an offshoot of one of the medieval British livery companies, or trade associations.

Among the 30 guests expected to attend the unveiling will be Mrs. Kenny and her niece; Charles Spring-Rice, a grandson of Sir Cecil's brother; and Howard Drake, Britain's new high commissioner to Canada.

The Canadian contingent will include former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae and Conservative MP Chris Alexander, both of whom attended Balliol College, Oxford, Sir Cecil's alma mater.

"I'm very excited about it," Mrs. Kenny said. "We've always known grandfather was buried in Ottawa and I've always wanted to have an excuse to see the grave."

Although Sir Cecil did not die in battle, Mrs. Kenny takes the view that he sacrificed as much as any soldier for his country. "He worked flat out in Washington, against the powerful pro-German lobby and the isolationism of the government," she said.

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"I believe he wore out his already frail strength, and the shock and distress of his sudden and brutal removal from office was the last straw. He was a highly sensitive person – a poet, remember – who felt things very deeply."

After Sir Cecil died, his widow, herself an ambassador's daughter, raised two young children with no home and no pension. "Ambassadors were expected to have family money," Mrs. Kenny said. American friends, including legendary banker J.P. Morgan, raised money for the family, including the children's education. "Considering what she came from, she lived in a very small way indeed," Mrs. Kenny recalled. Her grandmother died in 1961. The money that remains in the JP Morgan fund is used for scholarships at Balliol.

The poem's original title was Urbs Dei (City of God), and the "other country" in the last verse is widely interpreted as a reference to heaven. Sir Cecil's family has agreed to have those two lines inscribed on the plaque that will be unveiled on Friday. "He is, after all, buried in 'another country,' " Mr. Prime said.

The ceremony will be one of Mr. Drake's first official duties since he arrived in Ottawa last week. The lunch afterward at Earnscliffe, the high commissioner's official residence, will be a farewell to Mr. Prime, who returns to Britain later this month after five years in Toronto.

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