Glenn James writes in tribute of his second father, the founder of The Katherine Swynford Society

Whenever Roger Joy met someone new, he would always act in the same, rather endearing and characteristic way. Who they were would be immaterial – they might be an Emperor, or a child of school age on their half-term holidays, one always saw the same reaction from Dr Joy. He would light up with a heart-warming smile, raise a hand to attract their attention, and say curiously “Are you interested in History?” If the answer was yes, he would then delve into his large camera bag, or signal to me to do it for him, produce a copy of ‘The Katherine Wheel’ and proudly hand the copy to his new acquaintance. He was never without copies of the latest edition about his person. His enthusiasm for and love of 14th Century history, and his great Duchess Katherine, was as devoted as Chaucer was to the heavenly Blanche of Lancaster, and I have seen him even do this when confined to his hospital bed. When I once proved to have carried out this little ritual on his behalf, on meeting a nurse with an interest in the Plantagenets, Roger nodded approvingly, and said: “You done good, my boy.”

An Honorary Brit from the start

A complete Anglophile, and to all intents and purposes a charming old-world English gentleman, Pa (as he was to me, or “Grandpa Joy” as he was to our children) delighted in surprising people by revealing that he was actually an American. Although he identified himself as an osprey in spirit, a citizen of all nations, he hailed from Boston, Massachusetts in the United States, where he was born in March 1934. He was raised at White Plains near New York, and never lost the Bostonian urbanity of his race. His father Thomas Joy was a Bostonian by birth, and his mother Gladys Warren was a native New Yorker, and a brilliant skater in her youth. The Joys were a close and happy family, and Pa followed in his father’s footsteps to Boston Latin School, where he developed his lifelong devotion to Medieval Latin. As a child, Roger is second from the right in dungarees in the top picture on page 34, running through the woods around the family’s country home with his brother Warren (centre) and his Sturge and Warren cousins. As he began to mature during WW2, Harvard soon followed, (again in his father’s footsteps) and then the fabled MIT, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) the recruiting ground of NASA scientists and astronauts. His parents ran the Massachusetts Decorating Company producing flags and bunting, and when he spoke about those days, his childhood always sounded like a golden sunlit version of The Waltons. Roger said that when they were playing in the countryside in those summers, on a clear day you could just see the tops of the skyscrapers of New York. He had two siblings, an older brother (Warren Joy, seven years his senior) and an older sister, Maida, who was confined to a wheelchair.

A Holiday with a lasting impact

It was just before he went on to start at MIT that a life-changing event occurred for this bright young American student. Before term began in 1951, Roger came to England for a holiday, ostensibly to visit his Aunt Grace and his British family. While here, he intended to see the Festival of Britain, and to satisfy an already passionate curiosity about British History and sites of ancient provenance. But while he was in England he met a young woman called Sylvia France, and fell passionately in love. The story of his life turned a page and took a completely different direction. Sylvia Margaret France was then dating Roger’s cousin Joseph Sturge, but lightning well and truly struck for young Roger Joy. Sylvia was a couple of years older than Roger, and although flattered, did not then see a future for this relationship at all. But Roger was smitten, and from that moment on, he saw his future as being in the UK with Sylvia. Roger and Sylvia wrote to each other from 1951 to 1963, and courted, by mail, across the Atlantic. This correspondence totaled over 500 letters each, and the courtship spanned the McCarthy period and the Korean War in the USA, as well as the Suez Crisis and rationing in England. During this period Roger graduated from MIT, did his stint in the Chemical Core of the US Army (the equivalent of National Service) and landed a place at Birmingham University in England studying Biophysics, working with Electron Microscopes. They could, at last, see each other, and incredibly by today’s standards, in what now sounds like a Lewis and Clarke expedition, every weekend Roger cycled 40 miles from Birmingham to the Westlands in Newcastle-under-Lyme to see Sylvia. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s what you call love.

Sylvia France

Sylvia was a wholly remarkable woman, and it’s a major regret of mine that she died in 2000, long before I moved to Staffordshire and might have met her. Pa was devoted to her, and grieved every day after her unexpected death. An exceptionally talented actress and Phonetics teacher, Sylvia had studied at the world-renowned Central School of Speech and Drama, based at the Royal Albert Hall in London, alongside the very famous model and TV presenter Bronwyn Pugh, who became Lady Astor, and Virginia McKenna, a celebrated actress known for films such as A Town Like Alice and Born Free. As part of their professional debut, Sylvia’s graduating year were performing at Windsor Castle before King George VI, and it was during this period that she and Roger met each other. Sylvia taught at a number of schools up and down the country in the ensuing few years, and had a private practice based in Newcastle-under-Lyme, teaching phonetics, and taking part in theatre productions. She was also a close associate of the legendary Director Peter Cheeseman, who founded the famous New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme. This was while Roger was going through the army, studying at Birmingham University, and cycling over at weekends. It was a genuine love match between them, and although sadly their union was not blessed with children, Sylvia’s cousin Peter France always says that they were a very devoted couple. They married in 1963, and Roger became a University Lecturer at Norwich, before they moved to Nottingham, and he taught Zoology at Nottingham Trent University for the lion’s share of his career. Both of the Joys were lecturers with the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association) all over the Midlands. They sometimes gave lectures together, sometimes apart, or helped the other from the side-lines when one of them was speaking. Sufficient to say they had a considerable impact – one of Dr Joy’s memoirs speaks of being a WEA Lecturer for 50 years, and both of them are spoken of with enormous respect and affection for their work in education all over Staffordshire. Their names prompt a warm smile and a genuinely loving response whenever mentioned, and he was certainly greeted with a reverent affection by anyone who knew him as a professional whenever I was with him in later years.

Returning to Newcastle and the Katherine Swynford Society

Roger had a deep love of the medieval period, and the fascination had taken a very strong hold when he first read Katherine by Anya Seaton when he was a young man. This particular book stuck with Roger and stayed with him all his life, in the way that all of us have a significant book we have read in our youth which lodges in the heart. Pa never forgot John of Gaunt and his beautiful lady, and their story remained with him all through those years teaching science at University. Throughout, Roger read about the period, developed his Latin, visited historic sites and continued an interest in brass rubbing. He retired in 1985, and the couple returned to Newcastle to look after Sylvia’s ailing parents, but it was in the new millennium, after Sylvia had passed away, that he decided to dedicate his energies and intelligence to the study of that wonderful period of history which had fascinated him all his life. Roger became a full-on medievalist, and the dye was cast. He apparently got the idea of founding the Katherine Swynford Society after attending an event at Lincoln Cathedral marking the 600th anniversary of her passing. He began producing the Journal, “The Katherine Wheel”, in 2007. And in his dedication to the subject, and his Duchess, he has been no less significant or sincere than Chaucer in his professional efforts. Across a ten year period, in his efforts to grow and build the society, Roger developed links with Tutbury Castle and the world-renowned English scholar, historian, heritage publicist and actress Lesley Smith, curator of the castle. He has staged many study days for members of the society there and at other very notable sites. He designed a brass memorial for Katherine’s grave at Lincoln Cathedral, (the original having been long ago destroyed) and was in full discussion with the Dean about potentially having this new design created and put in place in her memory. Roger was quite prepared to pay for it out of his own funds, and if the scheme had only received official approval he would have followed it through to completion. He authored scores of entertaining and scholarly works for the journal during his watch, and his commitment was second to none, even when in very fragile health during later life. His enthusiasm and genuine intellectual curiosity was infectious, and speaking to him personally about the period was a wonderful inclusive experience. He wore his knowledge lightly, as befits a scholar of his exceptional experience and learning, and he always had a very mischievous sense of humour. Venturing outside the period, he also paid to have a series of the famous Marian tapestries recreated, the works made originally by Mary Queen of Scots when in captivity, and these were presented to Tutbury Castle officially, one of the fortresses where the queen was held in custody for so long. These are genuine cultural artefacts, frequently on display throughout the country, and that’s quite a legacy for anyone to leave behind.

Grandpa Joy

I got to know Roger when I was working on the biography he was writing of Sylvia, taken from the myriad letters they wrote to each other when courting all those years before. I was transcribing the letters for him, and between us, we completed 500 before his untimely death at the age of 86 in 2020. The search goes on for any remaining correspondence which might have been missed, amongst his humongous store of cardboard boxes filled with papers – Pa always grinned and said he was a hoarder, like his great Aunt Sarah, who had a box labelled ‘Pieces of String Too Short To Be Useful’. He became a second father to me, and a grandfather to my children, and we developed a very close father and son relationship. We laughed a great deal together, and talked a LOT, and I do not remember a cross word in all the years we knew each other. During the pandemic Lockdown, when his health had become very frail, I was shielding him, and Roger taught me to play chess. We really did become close during those six months, and I think some of the happiest times I can remember with him were when the two of us were wrapped in companionable silence, opposite each other across a chessboard. He has a sweet tooth, a quick observant mind, a kind heart, and a love of ballet and classical music. He was interested in everything from the Clouded Yellow Butterfly to the multitudinous historical uses of liquorice, everything from The X-Files to the works of William Shakespeare, and I miss his infectious laugh very, very badly. I do not remember walking in to see him without him saying “I’ve got something to show you…” and going on to discuss something intriguing which he had come across in his reading, his research, or on television. We adored him. During his final illness, I would sit with Roger, the two of us chatting or playing chess together, or I read his beloved Katherine aloud for him – Anya Seaton’s novel remained a genuine delight, and I made sure he had a copy of the book with him on his final journey. But from this period one memory stands out to me, about this kind and intelligent man, something he said during his last days, when he knew he only had a little time left; and it was something he knew I would notice, because he knew I had a love of the Royal Stuarts. When very ill and not able to speak very much, he looked across at me one day, and suddenly said: “Don’t worry, second shirt.” I was reading Katherine for him at the time, and I looked up and said, “What was that, Pa?” And then he said, quite distinctly, “Second shirt – Charles the first…” And then I understood. He was making a very pointed reference, and I don’t think I will ever forget it. When Charles was to be executed, it was a bitterly cold winter’s morning, with snow on the ground. The Parliamentarians wanted him to be humiliated as much as possible, and so he was expected to come out to meet his death in his shirt-sleeves in the freezing cold. But Charles knew that they expected him to feel the extremes of the weather, and asked for a second shirt he could wear. This was deliberate – he didn’t want to shiver due to the cold, and have anyone say it was due to fear. Dr Joy was an historian. Roger knew I would pick up on this, and it was his way of saying that he was not afraid. That’s a very brave, wise man, and we miss him enormously.