A Surprising Wife

Amongst the thousands of people who have formed part of the community of St George’s College since its foundation have been, to date, more than six hundred and fifty army veterans. They appear in the College Statutes as alms receivers called the Poor Knights and are now known as the Military Knights of Windsor and have lived in the Castle in groups of between three and twelve since 1348. The group was established by Edward III to be live-in counterparts for his Knights of the Order of the Garter, their duties being to attend Chapel four times each day and pray for the Sovereign and Knights of the Order. (This was later amended to attending every Sunday morning and also on certain specified occasions, including St George’s Day and the Monarch’s birthday.)

In April 1901 a Major Charles Grantley Campbell Norton was admitted as a Military Knight and came to live at Windsor. He was sixty-five years old, had been an officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and was a veteran of the rebellions at Lucknow and Cawnpore. With him came his wife, Mina, a professional guitarist and singer, famed for leading a large Anglo-Spanish guitar band, for her ability to compose and sing in eight languages and for her habit of enhancing her performances by wearing the national dress of the countries her music was native to. In an England barely emerged from the formality and propriety of the Victorian era it seems surprising that a respected army officer placed into a distinguished position should have a wife with any profession, let alone such a public-facing one.

The Statutes governing the Poor Knights originally stipulated that the Knights should not be married at all and that if they were to marry after their appointment they would lose their place. However, by the twentieth century it had become quite common for dispensation to be granted to the Military Knights allowing them to be married, either before the appointment or after it. In the present day, this part of the Statutes is ignored and Military Knights are actually required to be married before they are appointed.

By the time of his appointment, Major Norton had already been married to Mina – his second wife – for fifteen years. His first wife, Katharine McVickar, daughter of a wealthy American stockbroker, allegedly deserted him for his own cousin, John Norton, the 5th Baron Grantley, in 1879.

However unconventional Major Norton’s second choice of wife may have been, there seems little doubt that they were deeply in love and very happy. A collection of Major Norton’s papers held in the St George’s Chapel Archives [SGC ACC/2014/002] includes a scrap-book that contains many press releases and programmes relating to his wife’s performances from 1894 onwards. There is also a booklet of songs dedicated as follows:

To Charlie..

What care I for all your singing

Songsters of the grove!

Sweetest song, and sweetest singing,

Is the voice I love.

From Mina

Xmas 1915.

It contains the lyrics to dozens of songs, handwritten both by Mrs Norton and by the Major, many of them love songs.

In the scrap-book an extract from The Gentleman’s Journal, dated 1st April 1895, tells how Mina came to be a professional musician: “Well, Colonel [sic.] Norton is so often away from home that, being well known as an amateur, music being also my greatest pleasure, I adopted the profession as an occupation since my marriage.” A number of the programmes and reports of her performances mention that she had had the honour of performing for H.R.H The Princess of Wales and the Princesses Victoria and Maud in 1894. Major Norton also kept a letter sent to Dean Baillie in March 1921, stating that the King had been “very sorry to hear of Mrs Norton’s death” and asking that the King’s sympathies be passed to Major Norton.

Major Norton lived only for a month after his wife had died. An obituary for him stated that “he never afterwards seemed to recover from the shock.” Likewise, some letters from his family about “Uncle Charlie”, also found in the collection in the Archives, make it clear that they thought it was a mercy that he did not have to face the loneliness of life without her for very long.

Kate McQuillian (Assistant Archivist)

The Queen's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.