Jane Portal, as she was when she worked for Winston Churchill, died last week, aged 93. Lady Williams of Elvel, as she much later became, had an extraordinary life. I encountered her story by chance. In 2015, near us in Sussex, I was told that ‘of course’ (people love saying that when telling you a surprise) Jane Williams’s son, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was not the offspring of Gavin Welby, as the Archbishop believed, but of Sir Anthony Montague Browne, Churchill’s last private secretary. Of course he wasn’t, I said. I made further inquiries, however, and saw letters and heard testimony which began to persuade me. I also noticed that, when the Archbishop took off his spectacles, he did look remarkably like Montague Browne. I became almost certain that what I had been told was true.
Given that, in good faith, Justin Welby had often talked publicly about Gavin Welby, an alcoholic, gambler and fraudster, as his father, it seemed to me a news story if he had a different paternity. The Churchill connection gave it added interest. As I already knew Justin Welby, I decided to approach him privately and show him my evidence, avoiding ‘the usual channels’. He kindly agreed, and we met alone at Lambeth Palace. The Archbishop had heard the rumour before, he told me, but he did not believe it. ‘Apart from anything else, I am a honeymoon baby,’ he said. It was natural that he thought this, because he was indeed born nine months after his mother skipped her own farewell party at 10 Downing Street in 1955 and eloped with Gavin Welby to marry him in the United States in the face of her parents’ disapproval. But his reaction to my inquiries impressed me with its boldness. ‘Well,’ he said, with a lack of equivocation rare in church leaders, ‘truth is better than doubt, so let’s get a DNA test.’