Lady Evelyn Leonora Almina Herbert was born in 1901, she died in 1980. She was the only daughter of Almina, 5th Countess of Carnarvon of Tutankhamun fame.
As we fast approach the centenary in 2022 of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, Lady Evelyn Herbert is assured a place when remembering that event. In November 1922 she was the first woman to step back over 3000 years to witness the opening of the sealed door of the boy Pharaoh’s tomb, then enter the antechamber a step or two behind Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon and Arthur ‘ Pecky’ Callender ( Carter’s assistant).
Besides this the American museum curator - historian- the late Thomas Hoving ( citing Mervyn Herbert’s diaries, Mervyn was Lord Carnarvon’s half-brother, who worked sometime as a diplomat in Cairo ) reveals that Lady Evelyn was the first person to enter the boy King’s Burial Chamber on the same night or the following day after the antechamber was breeched on 26 November 1922.
In Hoving’s book “Tutankhamun : The Untold Story”, a pivotal publication from 1978 he blew the gaff making known the breath taking extent and rascality of Carnarvon and Carter’s tomb robbing antics. Hoving’s evidence from the dusty files of the Metropolitan Museum in New York is now accepted as the best account of what took place on that momentous day, Carter's " day of days" on 26 November, 1922.
The entry into the Burial Chamber, the hallowed inner sanctum of the crypt was a deliberate ‘two fingers’ jab at the Egyptians. History records the official opening was several months later, on 16 February 1923. An earlier breech hole was cleverly cemented over - a royal seal reaffixed- a superb make-over job by the accomplished faker, Howard Carter.
Such skulduggery was necessary as the Egyptian Antiquities Service in the shape of Director Pierre Lacau and Cario Museum’s Reggie Engelbach wanted their representative in situ before the discoverers continued beyond the first room entered. However in their heady rush to find the ultimate prize with a strategy that stretched the Earl of Carnarvon’s digging permit to its fullest elasticity, Carnarvon and Carter proceeded to examine the exact state of the Pharaoh’s shrines, the position of the mummy, then grab – as they saw it – their just rewards from the finest of the removeable golden relics.
They behaved like two of the mindless Tottenham rioters, looting, removing items and concealing their defalcation. Not quite a perfect hoist, some of the stolen artefacts emerged after Carter’s death, these were smuggled back to Egypt in diplomatic bags ( to avoid an almighty scandal), but further pieces ( that still belong to Egypt) remain estranged in American museums and some are no doubt prized in private collections. Lord Carnarvon’s own Egyptian Collection, sold off to the Metropolitan by Almina for £50k, had several pieces that must have been in the SWAG bag.
Evelyn Herbert’s relatively small frame squeezed very bravely through the cavity wall - she had the same lion courage as her mother - going head first into the illegal opening made by Carter ; this was fated, Evelyn was the smallest and thinnest of those so went inside, the others except for Callender ( who was far too big to get through the hole ) followed into the inner chamber, finding the sepulchre of Tutankhamun in a badly lit, creepy void, guarded at the entry point by two eerie gilded replicas of the boy King. Inside it was found beautifully intact, a first ever near-perfect find of its type in the Valley of Kings.
Carter wrote months later in 1923 after the official opening of the Burial Chamber that “ within a yard of the doorway..a solid wall of gold..”. It was the side of an immense gilt shrine, one of four placed one inside the other.
Back in November of the previous year, job executed, Howard Carter was in a heavenly state of rapture, recording in his 1922 diary “ the day of days…the most wonderful I have ever lived through, and certainly one whose like I can never hope to see again”.
Carter would not have written in quite ecstatic terms unless he had actually been inside the Burial Chamber several weeks before the official opening.
Lord Carnarvon ( who was dying of a terminal illness ) was overjoyed that Evelyn had shared the high point of the years of wait and see. It was a triumph. With Carter’s ingenuity, cunning and luck they had finally struck the jackpot, an Aladdin’s Cave of treasures, moreover they had got one over on the Egyptian’s who had made working life very difficult for the two adventurers.
The rest is history! Fifty years later in 1972, the frail Lady Evelyn, the last living of the gang of four from 1922 was in attendance at the opening of the King Tut anniversary celebrations, including the impressive exhibition at the British Museum, in London, opened by HM the Queen. This Author attended there too as a 19-year – old law student who queued outside with hundreds of other waiting visitors and stood anxious for six hours. He would be happy to do it again just to see the extraordinary funerary mask.
Fifty of the priceless treasures of the tomb of Tutankhamun salvaged by Carter and his team of conservation experts and deposited in the Cairo Museum were brought over on loan to London by the RAF and displayed for a year in a sell out event.
Sadly by this time in 1972 Lady Evelyn was far from lucid; she had suffered a series of strokes going back to a horrific car accident in the 1930s. Obviously determined to represent Carnarvon, Carter and Callender and not least her own unique achievement, she held up well with support, and met the Queen.
An interview with the last survivor of 1922 for The Times ( who were Lord Carnarvon’s choice for exclusive news coverage of the original story) was conjured up from old archive material and padded out from Carter’s diaries and quotations from his first book ( written with AC Mace ) on the details of the epic discovery.
The event at the British Museum from 1972 was the first time Evelyn had seen the funerary mask in its glory, it was located by Howard Carter in the deepest inner shrine a considerable time after the death of Lord Carnarvon. It was in the days following Carnarvon's death that Lady Evelyn returned to England and said farewell to Egypt for ever.
A haunting photograph taken in the shadows of the 1972 exhibition shows Lady Evelyn glancing at the stunning golden mask of the boy King. This also reveals her own face full of beauty and pain with a sense of sorrow, yet both the mask and Evelyn Herbert radiate with pride.
Evelyn married ( Sir) Brograve Beauchamp ( a love match first sparked in Cairo at one of her mother’s receptions at the Residency during Evelyn’s debutante period 1920-2; Brograve later visited Evelyn at Luxor to view King Tut’s tomb and kindle his flaming torch for her, they married in October, 1923 ). The Beauchamps settled down to the rest of their life together, Lady Evelyn never visited Egypt again.
Once in a while Lady Evelyn did see Howard Carter on the London scene. She was the only woman ( of a small gathering of men) who attended Carter’s funeral at Putney Vale Cemetery in 1939. Co-incidentally Evelyn is also buried at Putney Vale.
The above posting is a draft extract from a forthcoming book by William Cross, FSA Scot, entitled " Carnarvon, Carter and Tutankhamum Revisited : The hidden truths and doomed relationships" . Publication Date: November 2016.