Nicola Roberts, matriarch of a notable Catholic family with a strong military history – obituary


Telegraph Obituaries

Sun, 8 January 2023 at 4:04 pm GMT

Nicola Roberts
Nicola Roberts

Nicola Roberts, who has died aged 92, was the matriarch of a notable Roman Catholic military family and a protegée of the theologian-author Monsignor Ronald Knox.

As the presiding spirit of a clan which included some 53 direct descendants and their spouses, plus innumerable cousins, Nicola Roberts liked to point out that the majority of her relations were not soldiers. But a remarkable number of them served in uniform, chiefly as officers of the Footguards.

Her husband John Roberts was a Welsh Guards brigadier who also commanded 2 Para. Among their sons, the eldest, Major-General Sir Sebastian Roberts, Irish Guards, commanded the Household Division. Also in the Irish Guards were Lt Col Cassian, who served with the UN in Sierra Leone, and Major Fabian, who commanded the bearer party for the Queen Mother’s funeral.

In the Welsh Guards, Hilarion was injured on the Sir Galahad in the Falklands, serving alongside his sister Helena’s husband Peter Owen Edmunds. In the next generation, two of Nicola’s grandsons also served with the Irish Guards, one in Afghanistan and the other – until he was wounded – in Iraq.

Nicola Macaskie on the day of her wedding to John Roberts in 1952 - TopFoto
Nicola Macaskie on the day of her wedding to John Roberts in 1952 – TopFoto

Military duty and danger were accordingly a constant thread for Nicola Roberts amid the family’s wider comings, goings and accomplishments. But undoubtedly the driving force of her life was her profound and shining Catholic faith, expressed at daily Mass as well as in multiple kindnesses and private prayers.

Nicola Helen Lechmere Macaskie was born in Kensington on April 20 1930, shortly before her sister Claudia; their birth, written up in The Lancet, was an example of “superfetation”, an extremely rare condition in which babies conceived a month apart are born as twins. Their father Nicholas Macaskie KC was a bencher of Gray’s Inn as his father had been before him; their mother Jane, from whom their strong faith was inherited, was a daughter of the Irish journalist James Tuohy, an associate of the politician Charles Parnell.

The family home was a large Georgian house in Kensington Square. The twins (who had three older siblings) were educated at a succession of convent schools, including one which was evacuated to Aldenham Park in Shropshire, the home of Lord Acton – where the Catholic convert and Oxford University chaplain Ronald (later Monsignor Ronald) Knox (1888-1957) was working on his translation into English of the Latin Vulgate Bible.

As a new girl, Nicola was set a dare by her classmates: to ask Fr Knox whether he would like pink blancmange for tea. “He sat me down and we talked,” she recalled. “He didn’t want the blancmange but we were friends for life.”

Nicola Roberts in 1996 with three of her sons, who were serving in the Irish Guards - Daily Mail
Nicola Roberts in 1996 with three of her sons, who were serving in the Irish Guards – Daily Mail

Knox – whose biography by Evelyn Waugh contains many references to the Macaskie twins – later dedicated The Mass in Slow Motion to Nicola and The Gospel in Slow Motion to Claudia. He was their spiritual mentor until his death – when his will forgave a loan he had made to Nicola and John to buy their first home, also in Kensington Square.

At the end of the war the twins completed their education at convents in Belgium and Florence, while Nicholas Macaskie took up the post of head of the legal division (in the honorary rank of major-general) of the British Control Commission in Berlin – where the family lived in Martin Bormann’s house at Grunewald and endured the harsh winter of the Berlin airlift.

After returning to London, Nicola took various jobs, including making lampshades: for some years the Oval Office of the White House was adorned with a pair she made for lamps given by George VI to President Truman during a state visit.

She also met and fell in love with the dashing John Roberts, whom she followed to Cyprus when he was posted there with the Guards Independent Parachute Co. He proposed to her in the Castle of St Hilarion, built by Richard the Lionheart, and they were married in London in March 1952 – attracting coverage on newspaper sports pages because John, a formidable full-back, was captain of the Army rugby team at the time.

After the difficult arrival of her firstborn, Nicola’s doctor advised against more children. But she was blessed with seven sons and three daughters, the youngest and oldest some 20 years apart and all named after classical saints and martyrs.

Nicola Roberts with her twin Claudia, who died in January 2021
Nicola Roberts with her twin Claudia, who died in January 2021

For John’s last military appointment as Brigadier General Staff BAOR they were based at Rheindahlen in Germany – but the family headquarters remained Kensington Square, where they acquired Nicola’s childhood home, No 27, and her elder sister Jane (wife of Sir David Barran, chairman of Shell, and mother of seven) lived at No 36.

Nicola became the hospitable chatelaine to an ever-changing throng of offspring, relations, friends and lodgers. A lively conversationalist, fine cook and perpetual source of calm in the melée, she often held court seated at her ironing board as she tackled mountains of household laundry.

After No 27 was sold in 1986, the salon moved to a 17th-century house beside the river at Twickenham.

John Roberts died in 1990, aged 64. In widowhood and old age, Nicola welcomed the family’s expanding third and fourth generations, hosting stylish engagements, birthdays and christenings, and made her daily devotions at St James’s church in Pope’s Grove, Twickenham.

At her traditional pre-Christmas family dinner party this year, 44 were seated but the 45th place, her own, was empty. Her twin Claudia (who married the documentary film-maker and wartime Irish Guards officer Tony Joly de Lotbiniere) died in January 2021. Nicola is survived by her sons Sebastian, Nicholas, Cassian, Lucian, Fabian and Damian – Hilarion having died in a car accident in 1986 – and her daughters Helena, Lavinia and Anthea.

Nicola Roberts, born April 20 1930, died December 10 2022

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