British PM’s widow was engaged to Soviet spy Guy Burgess, biographer reveals

Anthony Eden’s wife, Clarissa, who died yesterday, at 101, took her secret to the grave


Clarissa, Countess of Avon, died on November 15th, 2021, aged 101, taking a well-kept secret with her to the grave.

Clarissa’s brother, Peregrine Spencer-Churchill, who I interviewed in 2001, told me that “as a young girl, Clarissa had been away for a while, then she turned up at home, flashing a diamond engagement ring on her finger. No one knew where she’d been. She announced to the family that she was engaged to be married to Guy Burgess.”

Clearly, as she was quite promiscuous, having boasted of her first “affair at age 17”, she had been living with Burgess during her absence. Unknown to her at that time, Burgess was also homosexual and a communist, spying for the Russians.

In a separate interview, Clarissa told me that she and her family spent every Sunday at the home of Winston and Clementine Churchill. There, she said, referring to the second World War, “Winston talked of nothing but a terrible war. He said we were all going to be annihilated.” There can be no doubt that Burgess used her to obtain first-hand information about the war from Winston that he passed on to the Russians.

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Burgess had been a friend of Clarissa and her circle for a number of years. They were a crowd of what one might call “intellectuals”. Clarissa had been educated partly at the Sorbonne in Paris, which was unheard of for a girl in those days. Born on June 28th, 1920, she was aged 19 when the second World War broke out. It was during the war she became engaged to Burgess. Peregrine said the engagement “lasted three months and then in typical flamboyant style, she turned up again at home, and announced ‘it’s all off’. No reason was given!”

Another family secret was that Clarissa’s side of the family were Roman Catholic. Sir Winston Churchill’s almost unknown brother, John Strange Spencer-Churchill, married Clarissa’s mother on August 7th, 1908, in the Catholic Church at Oxford. Lady Gwendeline Mary Bertie was a devout Roman Catholic, daughter of Gwendeline Mary nee Dormer and Montagu Arthur Bertie, 7th Earl of Abingdon. According to Clarissa, “Winston had earlier had romantic designs on my mother Gwendeline. The Berties would not have accepted Winston as a son-in-law. They saw Jack as the brains in the family, Winston they viewed as a wild maverick sort of character.”

On Lady Gwendeline’s wedding day, Winston had to be satisfied with being best man at the wedding. However, by that time he’d fallen in love with Clementine Hozier and they were married the following month, September 1908, at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster.

Clarissa also recalled that it was dangerous to have Winston about their house, and her mother didn’t want him there. As chancellor of the exchequer in Stanley Baldwin’s government, he decided to restore the Gold Standard at its pre-first World War parity of $4.86 to the pound sterling, which he announced in his budget statement, April 1925. The following year, the TUC called a general strike that lasted for 10 days. Clarissa, aged 5, remembered “standing in the windowsill of our house, looking out at a mob who had gathered, calling for Winston, as they thought he lived with us.” Clarissa was “frightened, seeing a woman wearing a red stocking on her head, who looked like a figure from the French Revolution, shaking her fist. My nanny took me away from the window.”

As to Clarissa’s future; she was ambitious – so Peregrine’s wife Yvonne Spencer-Churchill told me. As a young woman, she set her cap for the next prime minister, Anthony Eden, 1st Earl of Avon (1897-1977). Twenty-three years her senior, he was prime minister of the UK from 1955 to 1957. The mess he made over the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 brought about his downfall. Clarissa put a brave face on matters to me, referring to that time, “Anthony was not well – he’d had an operation. Trouble with his kidneys.”

Clarissa was conscious of her husband being so much older than herself. In recent TV out-takes of an interview Anthony Eden gave, she was in the studio with him, and was shown blackening his white moustache with her eye liner to make him look younger, before he broadcast live.

I kept in touch with Clarissa over the years, sending her a card on each birthday. She told me that her mother Gwendeline didn’t like the Churchills and it was “political”. At the time they all first met, Winston Churchill and his fiancee Clementine Hozier were Liberals as was Clarissa. Whereas, when Winston defected again to the Tory Party and the others went with him, Gwendeline “remained a liberal all her life”. She was in a close friend of the Asquith family, and frequently played cards with them throughout the first World War, when her husband Jack was serving at Gallipoli and at the Western Front.

Clarissa was fiercely figure conscious but great fun with a sense of humour. She told me she was “rather hard up” meaning short of money, but I noted several fine oil paintings adorned the walls of her flat. When her sister-in-law, Yvonne Spencer-Churchill, widow of her brother Peregrine, died in December 2010, the 11th Duke of Marlborough kindly took all of us who attended her memorial service at St. Martin’s Church, Bladon, in January 2011, to Blenheim Palace for a sumptuous lunch. Clarissa, who was then aged 90, was so fit, she actually passed all of us, climbing the lengthy stairs in the palace, even though she was using a walking stick.

Clarissa, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, with a perfect figure and brain to match, was considered a great beauty and intellectual in her day. Her passing marks the end of the Churchills of that era.

Her motto in life might be said to have been: "Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die."

Clarissa, Countess of Avon – June 28th, 1920-November 15th, 2021
Celia Lee is author of The Churchills: a Family Portrait
(Lume Books, 2021)