Dr Axel M.F. Munthe (1857-1949)

Axel Martin Fredrik Munthe (1857-1949), the Swedish physician, psychiatrist, and author of The Story of San Michele, first came to Broadway in 1907 and lived for a short time afterwards at The Malt House, High Street, Broadway.

Dr Axel Munthe Broadway
Dr Axel Munthe ©Howard Carter FRSA

Born in Sweden on 31 October 1857, Munthe studied medicine in Paris. He became a distinguished physician and was appointed chief physician to Queen Victoria of Sweden in 1892.

Munthe firstly married Ultima Hornberg, a Swede, on 24 November 1880, whom he met while she was studying art in Paris. They divorced in the late 1880s and in 1887, Munthe moved to Capri where he purchased and rebuilt the Villa San Michele in Anacapri. 

On 16 May 1907, Munthe married English aristocrat, Hilda Pennington Mellor (1876–1967) at the Parish Church, Paddington, London. He was 49 and she was 29 years of age. The couple honeymooned at Sunnyside, 72 High Street, Broadway, a guest house run by Mrs Charlotte Kendrick. Sid Knight, who worked as a house boy at Sunnyside, recounts in his book Cotswold Lad  the arrival of Dr and Mrs Munthe’s arrival at the guest house:

Presently the rumbling of wheels disturbed the quiet of the High Street as into view lumbered the station fly owned by the Lygon Arms Hotel, the top piled high with luggage bearing railway and hotel labels from all over Europe. The horse-drawn four-wheeler came to a sedate halt alongside the grass verge that separated roadway from sidewalk, and two imposing figures alighted. One was a woman who to my boyish mind was of unbelievable beauty and charm …… followed by a tall, well-built man, a menacing figure in black…. Over his dark suit he wore a dark, flowing cape ……… A black Homburg shaded his black spade beard, and down his face ran a deep scar ………. rumour said was caused by a falling chimney pot in Stockholm one dark, windy night….Big dark glasses obscured his eyes……..

After a period at Sunnyside, the couple went on to settle in the village at The Malt House, High Street. The Munthe household is recorded in the 1911 Census1:

  1. Hilda Munthe, wife, 31 years old, living on own means, born France, British.
  2. Viking John Axel (Peter) Munthe, son, 2 years old, born London, Swede.
  3. Ludwig Malcolm Grane Munthe, son, 1 year old, born London, Swede.
  4. Sarah Smith, servant – cook, 60 years old, married, born Battersea, London.
  5. May Watts, servant – nurse, 16 years old, single, born Broadway, Worcestershire.
  6. Irene Launer, servant – housemaid, 14 years old, single, born France, French.
  7. Loetitia de Céligny, guest – visitor, 9 years old, born France, French.
  8. Catherine de Céligny, guest – visitor, 31 years old, born France, French.

Sid Knight, who worked at Sunnyside as a houseboy, also worked at The Malt House as a houseboy and his cousin Ada was cook for the Munthe household for many years, travelling and living with them in Rome, Berlin and Stockholm before settling with them at San Michele were it is said King Edward2 used to visit them.

The Malt House, Broadway ©David Lovell
The Malt House, High Street, Broadway ©David Lovell

During 1910, Munthe had a 14-room summer home, Stengården, built in Leksand, Sweden as a gift to his wife. Hilda landscaped Stengården with an English garden, and furnished it with 17th, 18th and 19th-century art and furniture from Italy, England and France.

For s short period during the First World War, Munthe volunteered and served with the British Ambulance Corps in France3. After the war, Munthe was more often at San Michele until his eyesight deteriorated. Sid Knight recounts in his book his last memory of seeing Mrs Munthe in Broadway, towards the end of the First World War, by which time Munthe and his wife, Hilda, were separated.

Munthe’s autobiographical book, The Story of San Michele, was first published in 1929. It was later translated into 25 different languages. Following an operation in Zurich in 1934, his sight was partially restored.

It was reported in the Lancashire Evening Post on 13 August 1937:

Dr. Axel Munthe, having completed his annual visit to England, left to-day for Stockholm, where he will stay with one of his oldest friends – the King of Sweden.

Bearded, dark spectacled, elusive, Dr. Munthe is still a Swede by nationality. Before the war he was on the point of adopting British nationality. But the war delayed the process of nationalisation, and he abandoned his intention.

Formerly, Dr Munthe had a house at Broadway, in Worcestershire. Now, though he belongs to the St. James Club, he has no English residence. But he remains an Englishman in spirit, and frets at being obliged to pass through the aliens’ barrier whenever he lands in this country.

Munthe was made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1905. He died on 11 February 1949, aged 91, in the Royal Palace in Stockholm and his ashes were scattered in the North Sea.

 

Notes:

  1. The 1911 Census for England and Wales was taken on the night of Sunday 2 April, 1911.
  2. From Cotswold Lad by Sid Knight, published 1960.
  3. See Red Cross & Iron Cross by Axel Munthe, published 1916.