The Marquess of Salisbury

Heir to a long tradition of distinguished public service
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Robert Edward Peter Gascoyne-Cecil, landowner and politician: born 24 October 1916; styled Viscount Cranborne 1947-1972; MP (Conservative) for Bournemouth West 1950-54; succeeded 1972 as sixth Marquess of Salisbury; President, Monday Club 1974-81; married 1945 Mollie Wyndham-Quin (four sons, one daughter, and two sons deceased); died Hatfield, Hertfordshire 11 July 2003.

To be born into a great family that has served the nation since the times of the first Elizabeth may be sufficient explanation of the continued prominence of family members in government and in the affairs of the Conservative Party. Yet, as we discover more of the part played in our own affairs by our genetic make-up, it is permissible to wonder whether there is some persisting blend of inherited talent and environment that continues to propel the Cecils into the forefront of British political life.

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, sixth Marquess of Salisbury, was something of an exception, largely as a result of illness, but even he became an MP and subsequently contributed to right-wing politics as president of the Monday Club and as a member of the House of Lords.

The first Cecil that can be traced was elected to the Commons as the Member for Stamford after fighting for Henry VII at Bosworth, but the family owes its prominence to Elizabeth I's close adviser, William, Lord Burghley. Both his sons were elevated into the peerage, but it was the descendants of the younger son, Robert, first Earl of Salisbury, successively first minister to Elizabeth and to James I, who contributed more to English political life. The seventh Earl was elevated to the Marquessate for his political services and his son served in the two brief Derby governments in 1852 and 1858-59.

However, it was the infusion of Gascoyne genes in the 19th century that led to the most remarkable accentuation of the Cecil contribution to national politics. Robert, the third Marquess, was elevated to the Cabinet by Disraeli, and subsequently became Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister. Two of his sons served in the Cabinet and he was followed as Prime Minister by his nephew, Arthur Balfour. The fifth Marquess had already been elevated to the peerage in his own right to lead the Lords during the Second World War and he served in the post-war Cabinets of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan, before resigning in 1957.

If his son preferred running the family estates to an active political life, his grandson more than compensated, through service in John Major's Cabinet as leader of the Lords, and, like his grandfather, became a peer in his father's lifetime (he was created Baron Cecil in 1999).

It is understandable, therefore, that some of his family were disappointed that the sixth Marquess, although an intelligent man with decided right-wing views, should have given up so early on his chance to achieve political prominence. But there are other forms of service and Salisbury may well have been right to think that his first duty was to run the great family estates he had inherited at Cranborne and at Hatfield.

Robert Edward Peter Gascoyne-Cecil was born during the First World War and served in the Second. He was educated at Eton and was then commissioned in the Grenadier Guards. The celebrations for his 21st birthday in 1937 lasted five days and were marked by separate dances given for his friends and the family employees. In the following year his father resigned from the Government in support of Anthony Eden and in 1939, Gascoyne-Cecil went to war.

In 1942 he was seriously wounded during training at Imber Down in Wiltshire when a ground strafing Hurricane, off target, gunned down 23 soldiers. Although hit in one lung and with a badly injured right hand, he was sufficiently recovered to join the 2nd battalion and take part in the invasion of Normandy. He was with the Guards Armoured Division as they made their way into Belgium, was with the first unit to enter Brussels, and took part in the Arnhem operation and the battle for the Reichswald.

In March 1945 he joined Harold Macmillan in Italy as his ADC and was with him until he returned to England to join the caretaker government on 26 May. He contested the Labour stronghold of Ince in Lancashire in the subsequent general election, and then gave himself to the study of farming and estate management. In 1947 when his father succeeded as fifth Marquess, Gascoyne-Cecil was styled Viscount Cranborne. He was elected to the Commons for Bournemouth West in 1950; and in his maiden speech on the call up of reservists, it was noted that he not only had an attractive speaking voice but that he possessed much of his father's charm.

In 1951 he increased an already comfortable majority, but thereafter his parliamentary career was dogged by illness. Cranborne resigned his seat in 1954 and spent much time in the next few years in Rhodesia where his family had an interest in 80,000 acres. On his return to England he concentrated on running the family estates at Hatfield and Cranborne. He overhauled the fabric and re-roofed Hatfield, while management of the estate at Cranborne involved the provision of affordable housing. In 1965 he was elected president of the British Association of Dairy Farmers.

When he succeeded as sixth Marquess on the death of his father in 1972, he entered the Lords and devoted his maiden speech to pointing out the ineffectiveness of the sanctions imposed on the Rhodesian government that had declared UDI seven years before. He served as president of the Anglo-Rhodesian Society and from 1974 until 1981 was president of the Monday Club, which had been founded by his father. He remained a vocal critic of British policy towards Southern Rhodesia and lived to see some of his worst fears realised.

He was supportive of the Salisbury Group and later of the Salisbury Review, which made their views more widely available. He commissioned Andrew Roberts to write the life of his great-grandfather, the third Marquess, and in addition became president of the Roxburghe Club. A tall man, of great charm and presence, Salisbury and his wife Mollie had a large family, but they had the misfortune to lose one son in infancy and another shot in 1978 while working as a journalist in Rhodesia.

John Barnes

If the sixth Marquess of Salisbury was the heir to a long tradition of distinguished public service, he also inherited a library and archive with an equally long and distinguished tradition, writes Nicolas Barker. His ancestor Lord Burghley began both, and the collection that he put together, partly his own public and personal papers, partly the maps and surveys that he caused to be compiled and drawn, and partly a substantial library of printed books in most European languages, was important in his own time and has grown in importance since. His successors added to it, and the papers of the sixth Marquess's great-grandfather, the former Prime Minister, added another significant political dimension.

Of all this, Salisbury was very much aware. He had a natural affinity for books and manuscripts himself, and his own special contribution to their preservation at Hatfield was to create the Muniment Room, with furniture made to hold the historic papers and books, and equipped with all the necessary environmental controls to ensure their future preservation. He made some important additions to the library himself, adding any personal documents of his predecessors that came his way. He had a special liking for illustrated books, and bought the fine copies of Piranesi's Vedute and Redouté's Les Liliacées at the sale of the Earl of Bradford's library at Weston Park.

Both his father and grandfather had been members of the Roxburghe Club, founded in 1812 to preserve and publish important and forgotten literary and historical works, and Salisbury too became a member in 1976, succeeding to the presidency of the club on the death of Viscount De L'Isle in 1991. Here too he was following family tradition, for his great-grandfather had become president of the club exactly a century earlier. He presented to it a handsome edition of the papers at Hatfield relating to the last years of Mary, Queen of Scots. It was a great source of sadness to him, but even more to the club, when ill-health forced him to resign in 1998.