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Memorial Service

Regulars | By James Hughes-Onslow | May 2016

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu 1926–2015

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu 1926–2015

Speakers at Lord Montagu’s thanksgiving service at St Margaret’s Westminster told how he was the third-longest-serving peer in British history, having been a member of the upper house for 86 years and 155 days after inheriting the title at the age of two-and-a-half.

Kenneth Robinson, former managing director of the family estate at Beaulieu, paid tribute to his boss, saying that his life had been far from plain sailing.

‘He regularly attended the House of Lords,’ said Robinson. ‘He spoke on many subjects, always from a position of insight and knowledge, making over 540 speeches. One of his proudest moments was when, after the 1999 reforms removed most hereditary peers, he was one of the few elected by his colleagues to remain.’

After wartime evacuation to Canada, Edward Montagu went to Eton, then joined the Grenadiers, followed by New College, Oxford, where he achieved a rare distinction unmatched by David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson.

‘Due to his penchant for parties, and an incident between the Bullingdon Club and the Dramatic Society when his room was wrecked, he felt obliged to leave,’ said Robinson, describing how he later joined the PR company Voice and Vision, and then inherited the Beaulieu Estate on his 25th birthday. In 1953 there was a further catastrophe. ‘He was accused of indecent assault and arrested, attracting intense press interest, but the case was dropped. The media continued to hound him until, in 1954, he was charged and convicted of the “misdemeanour” of inciting homosexual offences and sentenced to twelve months in prison.

‘This wretched business was extremely humiliating. Edward retained his dignity throughout but, inevitably, the future of his fledgling visitor business was in doubt. However, public opinion was changing. This high-profile case prompted the Wolfenden Report and thereafter the legalisation of such relationships. Much later, Edward told me he thought prison had changed him, making him more compassionate to people whose lives were challenged by unfairness or misfortune, and he more deeply appreciated the loyalty of true friends.

‘After his release, he immediately began rebuilding his life  and the visitor activities at Beaulieu, becoming recognised as an unusually outgoing peer of the realm, more personable than many contemporaries. Edward enjoyed all music, especially jazz, and in 1956 he initiated the Beaulieu Jazz Festival on the lawns of Palace House.’ 

His eightieth birthday picnic in 2006 featured George Melly, Acker Bilk and Humphrey Lyttelton.

Sir Neil Cossons, former chairman of English Heritage, told how Montagu became the first president of the Historic Houses Association in 1973, later rebranding it English Heritage, bringing it life and sparkle, and affording the public access to sites they had previously found dull and incomprehensible.

‘It is only when we understand the history and character of the man, his tribulations and decisive triumph over them, that we can appreciate these apparent contradictions and the true value of all Edward Montagu has done to widen the cultural horizons of the British public.’

Simon Thurley, former chief executive of EH, read ‘Two Things are Impossible’, from Montagu’s memoir Wheels within Wheels: ‘Every man’s fate is decreed by his own constellation.’ Edward’s son Ralph, the 4th Baron, read St John 15, 1–12: ‘I am the true vine, and my father is the husbandman.’ The choir sang John Stainer’s anthem ‘I Saw the Lord’ and ‘Beaulieu Salve Regina’, commissioned by Lord Montagu for the 800th anniversary of Beaulieu Abbey in 2004.

James Hughes-Onslow

This story was from May 2016 issue. Subscribe Now