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An Afterlife Story of Undying Love & Devotion

Posted on 12 February 2018, 8:49

Arthur James Balfour (below) is most remembered as a British statesman, primarily as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1902 to 1905, but he is also remembered for one of the most intriguing love stories on record, one documented in what is called the Palm Sunday Case.  With Valentine’s Day upon us, it seems like a good time to recall that case from the annals of psychical research as recorded in the archives of the Society for Psychical Research in England (SPR) and further discussed in some detail by Professor Archie Roy in his book The Eager Dead and by Professor David Fontana in Is There an Afterlife?


The other half of the love story was Mary Catherine Lyttelton, who went by the name May. Arthur and May met at a ball at Hawarden Castle, the home of William Gladstone, then the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, at Christmas time of 1871. May’s fiancé had recently died from tuberculosis and, although Arthur was immediately attracted to her, he hesitated to intrude upon her grief.  They became close friends, however, and shared many interests over the next three years.  It was not until about January of 1875 that Arthur declared his love for May. He had plans to propose marriage to her on his next visit when she died of typhus on March 21, 1875, Palm Sunday, at age 24.

While Arthur lived another 55 years, transitioning in 1930 at age 83, he never married, and he is said to have spent every Palm Sunday visiting Lavinia, May’s sister, and her husband in a day of remembrance. 

Balfour, often referred to as AJB, was born in Scotland, received his M.A. from Trinity College, Cambridge, and was the 1st Earl of Balfour.  He held a number of government positions before serving as prime minister and then as foreign secretary from 1916 to 1919.  He was a fellow of the Royal Society and its president in 1904.  He served as president of the SPR in 1893. His obituary in the New York Times read:  “Lord Balfour was a statesman almost in spite of himself.  By inclination he was a philosopher ... the thinker, the cultural gentleman of leisure, spending his life among the books and music he loved and knew so well.”  He wrote several books or essays on philosophy.  In a letter to a friend whose son had been killed in the Great War, he wrote:

“For myself I entertain no doubt whatever about a future life.  I deem it at least as certain as any of the hundred and one truths of the framework of the world…It is no mere theological accretion, which I am prepared to accept in some moods and reject in others.  The bitterness lies not in the thought that those I love and have lost are really dead, still less in the thought that I have parted from them forever: for I think neither of these things.  The bitterness lies in the thought that until I also die I shall never again see them smile or hear their voices.  The pain is indeed hard to bear, too hard it sometimes seems for human strength.  Yet, measured on the true scale of things it is but brief.” 

As for May, Dame Edith Lyttelton, her sister-in-law, wrote:  “Not an exceptional beauty, but love and sympathy streamed out from her.  She was one of those people who charge the atmosphere with life when they appear.”  She was said to be an accomplished pianist and enjoyed the musical evenings that were a big part of Victorian family life.  She especially took delight in joining those who sang Handel’s oratorio songs or lighter pieces. 

During May’s final moments, Lavinia was present and later reported that during a delirious outburst, May imagined herself at the pre-Christmas Ball at the Gladstone’s house at Hawarden, where she first met Arthur.  “Her fevered brain telescoped that meeting into a confused collage of memories.  ‘Oh, he does interest me more and more…I do wish he had a little more backbone – perhaps it will come with age.  He has so many good qualities but also such peculiarity…Oh to see him in a ballroom is a sight in itself.’”.
May’s dying voice struggled on while she hung on to life.  “I love this exhibition…the people the crowds, the pictures, even the worst of them…But I love everything now for I saw him at Latimer…I know…I know his feelings towards me.”  A look of bewilderment on her face and then she says, “But still he does not speak.”

To Lavinia, it was clear that May and Arthur were meant for each other. She saw that, in spite of his hesitancy to propose, his whole heart was May’s and that May was prepared to return his love. 

Arthur was heartbroken.  He wrote to his friend Edward Talbot:  “I used to dream, knowing the sad story of her life, that perhaps with me her wearied heart might have at last found rest…but God has provided a far more full and perfect calm; and I do feel how selfish are the longings…for the ‘might have been.’  In the meantime, I think – I am nearly sure – that she must have grasped the state of my feelings toward her…and now, perhaps when she watches the course of those she loved who are still struggling on earth, I may not be forgotten.”

It was on Palm Sunday of 1912, 37 years after May’s death, that Winifred Coombe-Tennant, an automatic writing trance medium, received a message indicating that May was attempting to let Arthur know of her continued existence.  (As a magistrate in her county and later as a British delegate to the League of Nations, Coombe-Tennant kept her mediumship a secret from all but a few people, using the pen name “Mrs. Willett” in her automatic writing ventures.)  The communicating “intelligence” writing through her hand revealed that May had unsuccessfully attempted to contact Arthur through several other mediums, as early as 1901.  The other mediums included those well known to the SPR and investigation by SPR researchers resulted in the so-called Palm Sunday Case, one in which fragmentary bits of information through seven different mediums were pieced together, all pointing to attempts by Mary Catherine Lyttelton, referred to as the “Palm maiden,” to communicate with Arthur James Balfour, referred to as the “Knight.”

Most of the spirit communication came from deceased researchers, including Frederic Myers, Edmund Gurney, and Henry Sidgwick, the three men credited with founding the SPR, in what have become known as the “cross-correspondences” – various messages when pieced together resulted in a complete and sensible message.  The purpose of this, it was explained, was to offer evidence that overcame the telepathy and superpsi theories often suggested to defeat spirit communication.  May was cooperating with them in the experiment and found it difficult to make direct contact through Mrs. Willett. 

When Arthur received word of the communication, he was reluctant to sit with Mrs. Willett and very skeptical.  However, at the urging of his brother, Gerald, he did visit Mrs. Willett and became convinced that it was indeed May who was communicating through her.  Especially evidential was mention by May of a silver case that Arthur had made in which to keep a lock of her hair.  May even cited the inscription on the case, taken from 1 Corinthians about the mortal putting on immortality.  Reference was also made to a photo of May holding a candlestick which Arthur treasured.  Arthur deemed it highly unlikely that Mrs. Willett would know anything about the silver case or the photo.

On February 15, 1958, 28 years after Arthur’s death and two years after the death of Mrs. Willett, Geraldine Cummins, perhaps the most famous of automatic writing mediums, was receiving messages for a couple who had known Mrs. Willett and were familiar with the story of Arthur and May.  Mrs. Willett told them through the hand of Miss Cummins that she had encountered a friend of Arthur’s on that side who was in contact with Arthur and May, who apparently were at a higher level than they were.  “I am free to tell you of their intrinsic inviolable unity,” Mrs. Willett communicated.  “They shared the one anti-self, while consciously separated by her early death.  So many years parted after her passing. An emptiness, a dissatisfaction continually then for him. No joy.  He merely put in time with hard and varied mental work.  Such faithfulness, such patient waiting.  Then at last, after sixty years, or fifty by the clock, the meeting at the other side of death when his old age dropped from him like a ragged garment.  But oh!  It was well worth while to wait so long for that event.  If they had not been parted by her death, he would never have worked with that industry, that brilliance that made a name for him.  Work was his escape from intolerable memory. Oh! He was so idle before she passed.

“If she had lived, she would have been his all-absorbing playmate, life brilliant in the sunshine of just being, instead of doing, instead of a rough path each followed solitarily of struggle, and in his case of fine achievement.  But hers was also fine; they tell me that she remained waiting, waiting at the border for him, returned from the higher level, at what sacrifice!  A world so tempting beckoning, but she ignored it.  She put all that away from her so as to meet an old man’s soul.  Therefore it need hardly be said that she was the first to greet AJB when he came home to her.  A lonely man throughout his life until then.  They have gone to that other level together.  Happiness incomparable for them, they now and then, I am told, they come back, as he feels still a responsibility for Britain.”

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.

Next blog post:  Feb. 26




I haven’t been so moved-to the point of tears in fact-for a long time, thank you Michael.
  Without going into details and becoming hyperbolic Arthur Balfours feelings mirror my own, though he had much longer to wait for his wonderful reunion where as given our age differences mine is ‘just around the corner’.
    Thanks again Michael from the bottom of my heart.

alan granville, Wed 10 Apr, 11:17

Divine Plans and the choices we make to progress and/or be productive here upon the earth…
There are of course many scenarios, but two patterns frequently stand out:
1) a couple where the one helps or emotionally, etc. supports the one who is then able to do relatively important work here
(great leaders and their wives)...
2) this particular situation… where it was better he be alone in material life….(for if she had lived, he would not have accomplished
as much as he did).
But, thank God, he had his belief that sustained him and that she still existed and they would be united…
How wonderful true love and affection never dies!
A beautiful story. A good one, Mike!

Yvonne Limoges, Wed 14 Feb, 20:25


This reminds me of the “dream child” story, as dictated to Geraldine Cummins from the disembodied F.W.H Myers.

Chad W Luter, Mon 12 Feb, 23:57


Balfour was featured in the press in the UK this past November because it was the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which paved the way for the creation of Israel.
Balfour was Foreign Secretary in 1917 and as such, he put it in motion.
I don’t know how he would feel from his vantage point but I imagine he would feel some responsibility for what turned out to be a monumental event in world politics.

Jon, Mon 12 Feb, 22:25

Their patience was amazing.  Great example of what can happen if one is willing to wait.

Paul Hauser, Mon 12 Feb, 16:46

I wonder what is implied by “I am told, they come back, as he feels still a responsibility for Britain.” -AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Mon 12 Feb, 14:36

What an uplifting and inspiring story Mike. Very memorable.

Wendy Zammit, Mon 12 Feb, 11:17

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“Life After Death – The Communicator” by Paul Beard – If the telephone rings, naturally the caller is expected to identify himself. In post-mortem communication, necessitating something far more complex than a telephone, it is not enough to seek the speakers identity. One needs to estimate also as far as is possible his present status and stature. This involves a number of factors, overlapping and hard to keep separate, each bringing its own kind of difficulty. Four such factors can readily be named. Read here
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