Edith Cavell, Spy and Martyr

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Edith Louise Cavell

Birthdate: (49)
Birthplace: England, United Kingdom
Death: October 12, 1915 (49)
Schaerbeek, Brussels, Belgium (Executed for treason by Germany)
Place of Burial: Norwich, Norfolk, United Kingdom
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Frederick V Cavell and Louisa Sophia Cavell
Sister of Florence Cavell; Lillian Wainright and John Frederick Scott Cavell

Occupation: Nurse
Managed by: Anne Ferguson
Last Updated:

About Edith Cavell, Spy and Martyr

Edith Louisa Cavell; 4 December 1865 – 12 October 1915) was a British nurse and patriot. She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from all sides without distinction and in helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during World War I, for which she was arrested. She was subsequently court-martialled, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage.

She is well known for her statement that "patriotism is not enough." Her strong Anglican beliefs propelled her to help all those who needed it, both German and Allied soldiers. She was quoted as saying, "I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved".[1] October 12 is appointed for her commemoration in the Anglican church, although this is not a "saint's feast day" in the traditional sense.

Edith Cavell, who was 49 at the time of her execution, was already notable as a pioneer of modern nursing in Belgium.


The Reverend Frederick Cavell came to Swardeston soon after he was ordained. He evidently knew what he was taking on as he had spent some years as the curate of neighbouring East Carleton. He liked Swardeston so much that he remained there for the rest of his ministry some 46 years. Frederick Cavell was trained for the ministry at Kings College, London and his certificate is to be found hanging at the back of Swardeston Church. While he was training in London, he fell in love with his housekeeper's daughter but they were not to be married until she had completed some extra education and thought fitted to the role of a parson's wife. In 1863, after twelve years at East Carleton, Frederick Cavell accepted the living at Swardeston. Two years later, Edith Louisa Cavell was born, on December 4th, 1865.

At first the Cavells lived in a temporary parsonage some distance from the Church at the bottom of Swardeston's beautiful common.

The house in which Edith grew up and knew as her home. It was here that the three younger children, Florence, Lilian and John, were born. The Vicarage was built at Frederick Cavell's own expense and local people say that it nearly ruined him. He was always a 'poor parson' from that time. Although the family lived frugally, they had to employ staff to help run such a large house and keep up appearances. The staff were evidently paid a subsistence wage as scratched on an attic bedroom wall are these words pencilled by a maid in 1876: "The pay is small, The food is bad, I wonder why I don't go mad." Obviously an intelligent and discerning maid, as most girls in service would not be so literate. Even if the family were poor and the food not very appetising, they were concerned to share what they had with their poorer parishioners. Sunday lunch was a great family affair and whatever was cut from the Sunday joint, an equal amount was taken out to hungry cottagers nearby.

Sundays in a Victorian Vicarage could be gloomy by today's standards. No cards, no books allowed except the Bible. Frederick Cavell was something of a Puritan and would want to keep a strict Sabbath. Edith wrote to her favourite cousin Eddie, "Do come and stay again soon, but not for a weekend. Father's sermons are so long and dull". It is said that the Cavell children did occasionally sneak a game of cards in the study when Father was in Church. They certainly were not dour and sour Victorians that many biographies suggest. The Vicar could easily be tempted to disguise himself as a bear and cause the Cavell children to shriek with delight.

One of Edith's favourite winter pastimes was ice skating. A 96 year-old member of the Unthank family who lived at Intwood Hall can recall seeing her skating down by the ford at Intwood and obviously enjoying herself. Nearer at home, the moat at the Old Rectory behind the Church would often freeze in winter and this was a favourite haunt of the Cavell children. Spring in Swardeston is still a spectacle of wild flowers around the common, although many species are disappearing (there were some 200 in her day). Edith had a great respect and love of nature and she seems always to have surrounded herself with plants and animals. Many of her photographs show her with her dogs and the Church has two chalk drawings of reindeer dated 10.10.82, showing the influence of the favourite Victorian painter, Landseer. Flowers were a fascination to her and she would collect and draw them as they grew on the common. She soon became a very accomplished artist and one or two village folk treasure examples of her work. A powder box given to Mrs. Emma Burgess at the birth of her baby was beautifully painted with flowers by Edith.


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Edith Cavell, Spy and Martyr's Timeline

December 4, 1865
England, United Kingdom
October 12, 1915
Age 49
Schaerbeek, Brussels, Belgium
Norwich, Norfolk, United Kingdom