Lord Mowbray, Segrave and Stourton

Premier baron of England who in 1999 was elected a member of the reformed House of Lords


Charles Edward Stourton, farmer and politician: born London 11 March 1923; succeeded 1965 as Baron Mowbray, Segrave and Stourton; a Conservative Whip in the House of Lords 1967-70, 1974-78; a Lord in Waiting (Government Whip) and spokesman, Department of the Environment 1970-74; a Lord in Waiting (Government Whip) and spokesman for the arts, environment and transport 1979-80; CBE 1982; chairman, Ghadeco 1986-2006; chairman, Thames Estuary Airport Co 1993-2006; elected a member of the House of Lords 1999; married 1952 The Hon Jane de Yarburgh-Bateson (died 1998; two sons), 1999 Joan, Lady Holland (née Street); died Dundee 12 December 2006.

One of the most surprising members of Tony Blair's new House of Lords in 1999 was Lord Mowbray, Segrave and Stourton. The oldest of the rump of the hereditaries, he was variously described as looking like a character from a Walter Scott novel who had strayed into the modern world, something that might have been dreamt up by Evelyn Waugh or the sort of Englishman who would have made Proust swoon.

In these classless days when even gentlemen are nearly extinct, he was probably one of the last people in England who was immediately recognisable as a nobleman. His appearance suited his almost unbelievably blue blood. At the coronations of Elizabeth II, George VI, George V and Edward VII, his father and grandfather had respectively paid homage as premier barons of England.

No one ever forgot meeting Charles Mowbray. It was not just the round Norman head, walrus moustache and black eye-patch, or the lisp and slight stutter, that made him so memorable, but his cheerful, kindly manner, the friendly way he greeted everybody, always just the same for prime ministers, waiters or taxi drivers. Those who worked with or for Mowbray - in particular, those who worked for - were devoted to him. A genuinely lovable man, with tremendous zest for life, he could be the best company imaginable, especially for those who shared his passion for history, gaining so many friends that he had over 40 godchildren. There were countless affectionate anecdotes about him, such as that of his laughter bringing down a carving from the ceiling of the House of Lords.

Yet this survival from another age was an able politician who held office as a junior minister in the governments of both Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher. Had Heath's abortive scheme to reform the Upper House been implemented, Mowbray would have received a life peerage, a testimony to his effectiveness. For 13 years he was a Tory whip, while he was also a spokesman on the environment and the arts in both their administrations, his principal achievement being to guide the National Heritage Act of 1980 through its various stages in the Lords. (For some year he was chairman of the Government Picture Buying Committee.) During four decades of unflagging attendance, he became very popular with his fellow peers, Labour and Liberal no less than Conservative, a popularity demonstrated in 1999 by the hereditaries' electing him as one of their 90 representatives - their oldest, since he was already 76.

Charles Edward Stourton was born in 1923, the son of William Marmaduke, 25th Baron Mowbray, 26th Baron Segrave and 22nd Baron Stourton, succeeding his father in 1965. His Stourton title, held in unbroken male-line descent, was created in 1448 for Sir John Stourton, the son of a Speaker of the House of Commons, who had campaigned with Henry V and built a castle at Stourhead in Wiltshire paid for by French loot, besides being the jailer of the poet Duke of Orleans (captured at Agincourt). Because of his Mowbray barony, created in 1283, inherited through the female line, Charles was the last link with the signatories of Magna Carta through his direct ancestor William de Mowbray, one of the magnates who forced King John to submit at Runnymede. As such, he was a member of the parliamentary delegation that went to Washington in 1976, to present one of the four surviving copies of the charter to the United States Congress.

In a debate in the House of Lords during the 1970s, a historically minded peer recalled how in 1623 Lord Chief Justice Crewe had mourned the passing of England's old nobility. "Where is Bohun, where's Mowbray, where's Mortimer? Nay, which is more and most of all, where is Plantagenet? They are entombed in the urns and sepulchres of mortality." Charles's answer rang through the chamber, "Here is Mowbray!" - greeted with a roar of applause from other peers.

At the Reformation, as much from stubbornness as piety the Stourtons refused to exchange Catholicism for what they saw as a new, foreign, religion - nobody was going to tell them what to believe - and for centuries they endured relentless persecution as recusants. The faith Charles inherited was the old Cisalpine sort, staunch but tolerant, charitable and unobtrusive. When the Thatcher government announced its support for the celebrations of the third centenary of the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, Charles Mowbray declared, "I have no intention of celebrating Dutch William's accession to the throne", adding that it had prevented his family from taking their seat in the Lords or serving in the armed services until the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. Their Jacobitism ruined the Stourtons and Stourhead had to be sold. They recouped their fortunes, however, and in the 19th century built a vast new family seat, Allerton Park, near Knaresborough, which is regarded as one of the most important of all Gothic revival houses.

Predictably, Charles Stourton was educated at Ampleforth (where his family had helped the monks find a new home in 1802) and then at Christ Church, Oxford, where he read History. During the Second World War he served as a subaltern in the Grenadier Guards with the Guards Armoured Division, but was invalided out in 1945 after having an eye shot out in Normandy - on being wounded, characteristically he called for a priest before asking for a doctor.

After the war he ran a pig farm on his family property, and during dinner parties would sometimes make guests visit his pigs in the dark. In 1953 he was a Gold Stick Officer at the Coronation, witnessing his father pay homage to the Queen. The year before, he had married Jane de Yarburgh-Bateson, the strikingly beautiful and devastatingly amusing daughter of the fifth Lord Deramore, a marriage that brought him great happiness despite her ill-health in later life. During the 1960s he inherited a pretty Regency country house near Forfar, where he hung his fine collection of family portraits and entertained friends with exuberant hospitality.

A director of Securicor, Mowbray also served as Chairman of the Thames Estuary Airport Company, an imaginative project for which he showed unflagging enthusiasm. Among other activities, he was Vice-President of the British Knights of Malta and chairman of the English Catholic Ancestor, an organisation devoted to the history of recusant families. (His genealogical knowledge was remarkable, even greater than his impressive grasp of military history during the Napoleonic wars.) He was also a keen member of the Roxburghe Club, the most distinguished of all bibliophile societies. He was very proud of being chairman of the Normandy Veterans in Scotland, delighting in their company and in taking the salute at their parades.

Mowbray's first wife died in 1998 and the following year he married Joan, Lady Holland. The elder of his two sons inherits his titles.

Desmond Seward

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