Lady Mairi Bury: Chatelaine of Mount Stewart who met Hitler and Von Ribbentrop

The cast of characters in the life of Lady Mairi Bury, member of a remarkable aristocratic family, included both Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler, as well as a host of major figures in politics and high society. Churchill was most unimpressed when her father, a former British air minister, flew to Berlin to talk to Hitler. The teenaged Mairi herself, who went along with him, was less than impressed with the German dictator.

"I thought, what a nondescript person," she recalled in later life. "You would never have picked him out in a crowd. No, I'm afraid no aura of evil, no sense of foreboding, a rather quiet voice. In fact, little stands out other than the memory of his most extraordinary blue eyes."

Her father, Lord Londonderry, spent years in vain attempts to reason with Hitler and other Nazis. At one point he brought to Mount Stewart, his grand home near Belfast, senior Hitler official Von Ribbentrop, who arrived "with a noisy gang of SS men."

Londonderry, who was described as "clueless, condescending and impossibly rich," was so naive that he spoke of Hitler as "very agreeable, a kindly man with a receding chin and an impressive face." Londonderry, himself described as "almost theatrically eighteenth century," placed his faith in the type of old world personal contact practised by Lord Castlereagh, his foreign-secretary ancestor.

While Londonderry was not a Nazi sympathiser, his futile crusade meant that he has ever afterwards been classified as an appeaser, a label which most have regarded as a badge of something close to shame. Taunted as "the Londonderry Herr," he himself was to admit: "The war, the crisis of our lives, finds me completely isolated and under a sort of shadow which I cannot get away from." As the Battle of Britain was fought he mourned: "I backed the wrong horse."

He demonstrated lack of insight on a heroic scale when he could not understand why Churchill – his cousin – would not put him in the Cabinet. He wrote in bafflement: "Winston's determined attitude towards me is incomprehensible, and I doubt if I shall ever know why he went out of his way to destroy me." Churchill scathingly called him "that half-wit Charlie Londonderry."

Lady Mairi viewed the whole sorry episode in personal terms, later stoutly defending her father. "He lived through one hideous war and wanted to do everything possible to prevent another," she maintained. "Obviously those who criticised him had absolutely no idea he was working for peace, and that for the sake of it my father would have gone anywhere, seen anyone. I find his motives deeply worthy. One's deeply proud of those efforts. How could you not be?"

She was no more a Nazi sympathiser than her father, yet curiously for decades she kept, and indeed put on show, a prominent relic of the episode. At Mount Stewart, the magnificent County Down mansion where she spent her life, she had on her mantelpiece a striking 18in high statuette of a helmeted Nazi stormtrooper proudly holding a flag.

Its exhibition seems to have been an outstanding example of aristocratic nonchalance on her part. The porcelain figure was in effect on public display, since decades ago the house and its glorious gardens became a National Trust property, with Lady Mairi continuing to live in one part of it. This meant that thousands of visitors filed past it every year. One of these, who noticed it with great surprise, was the distinguished Hitler historian Sir Ian Kershaw. Intrigued, he investigated its origins, and the result was his 2004 book, Making Friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry and Britain's Road to War.

It turned out that it had been given to Londonderry by Von Ribbentrop during his visit. As a girl, Lady Mairi cared even less for Von Ribbentrop than for Hitler, remembering him as "the most arrogant creature". (Germany's foreign minister throughout the war, he was hanged after the Nuremberg trials.)

Lady Mairi was born as Mairi Vane Tempest Stewart into a family of fabulous wealth and famous social connections. Mount Stewart's comfortable grandeur was impressive in itself, but the family had a far larger house in the North-east of England. There they possessed vast tracts of land and an immense coal-mining empire. They also owned Londonderry House in London's Park Lane, where 44 servants toiled within an imposing structure – which was damaged in the War by German bombers.

Lady Mairi's mother Edith was the most celebrated society and political hostess of her day, throwing parties with up to 2,500 guests. They included royalty and prime ministers such as Stanley Baldwin, as well as a glittering array of artists and literary figures. She was thus brought up in a life of privilege and luxury, privately educated, travelling all over the world and presented as a debutante to royalty. It was said of her in later life that "her accent remains quintessentially that of the Queen Mother".

Of the social life at Mount Stewart she reminisced: "One rather took it all for granted. In those days there were huge house parties – compared with now, the place was crowded with people. There were three footmen, a groom of chambers, butler, and numerous housemaids and kitchen maids."

Presiding over all of these stately homes was Lady Mairi's mother Edith, who was both a natural society hostess and a woman who put much effort into advancing her husband's political career. Of all the political relationships she struck up, the best-known was that with Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour prime minister. Widowed and lonely, he became infatuated with Edith, staying at Mount Stewart and writing many gushing letters to "my dearest friend of all," signing himself "your attendant ghillie".

His closeness to her caused unease in the Labour Party, especially when he gave her husband a cabinet post. MacDonald told Edith he had overheard one Labour MP saying of him in the Commons lobby, "A few months ago he sang 'The Red Flag', but now he whistles 'The Londonderry Air'."

Stanley Baldwin wrote to a family member saying bluntly that 90 per cent of people regarded her friendship with MacDonald as "an act of political expediency" to help Londonderry's career. The worries of many on the left that MacDonald was being corrupted by a hostess who was both high society and High Tory were confirmed when he struck up an association with the Conservatives and formed a National Government, which led to his expulsion from the Labour Party.

Most think that Edith and Ramsay did not actually become lovers, although the fact that she had a tattoo of a snake on her left leg, beginning at her ankle and wending its way intriguingly upwards, caused many to assume she was "a fast woman". In fact it was her husband who was a serial adulterer, a trait which hurt Edith deeply. She coped with it by utilising her skills as a hostess and having several of his mistresses to her home. Some of them, including one called Olive, were put to some use: "Olive came round and I got her to take Mairi to the circus," she wrote.

Mairi was married in 1940, to Derek William Charles Keppel, Viscount Bury, and had two children, before their divorce in 1958. In the Second World War she served in the Women's Legion, an organisation founded by her mother in the previous war. She recalled: "I worked down at the docks in London driving pick-ups. I wouldn't have gone to fight or anything like that, but I was all for women's rights".

For decades a staunch Ulster Unionist, she switched in later years to supporting the Rev Ian Paisley, describing the Good Friday Agreement, on which much of the current peace process is based, as "infamous".

David McKittrick

Mairi Elizabeth Vane Tempest Stewart: born Mount Stewart, Co Down 25 March 1921; married 1940 Viscount Bury (two daughters, divorced 1958); died Mount Stewart 16 November 2009.

scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

£550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape