Curse of the Shaftesburys

The death of the 11th Earl of Shaftesbury, months after he inherited the title from his murdered father, is the latest in a long line of scandals to befall a famous family. By Louis Jebb

The 11th Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, died this week in New York just a month after the body of his father, the 10th earl, was found in a ravine in the French Alps after a six-month manhunt and the opening of a murder inquiry. The 11th earl, who was just 27, is thought to have died of a heart attack, but the cause of death may not be revealed until next week.

The 11th Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, died this week in New York just a month after the body of his father, the 10th earl, was found in a ravine in the French Alps after a six-month manhunt and the opening of a murder inquiry. The 11th earl, who was just 27, is thought to have died of a heart attack, but the cause of death may not be revealed until next week.

It is easy to ascribe some family curse to what is an awful, double family misfortune, and tempting to see the tragedy of the Ashley Coopers as a parable of the dissolution of the English aristocracy, an aristocracy robbed of its remaining political relevance by the reform of the House of Lords by the past government.

One thing emphasised by the painful reversals for a family that produced great public figures in the 17th and 19th centuries - and by the unhappy last years of the 10th Earl - is just how unforgiving the Establishment is, and always has been, in guaranteeing the survival of the species. Positions at court are an irrelevance today, the Lords is closed to hereditary peers, but the expectations the upper class still puts on heirs to titles and great possessions has produced in the recent history of the earls of Shaftesbury a parable relevant to our celebrity-driven culture.

After the body of the 10th earl was found last month, his sister Frances put her brother's position - when a man formerly anchored with his second wife and two young sons started associating with glamour models and fortune-hunters in the South of France, in a louche world in which he was murdered - into a an upper-class family context. "He was a victim of the aristocratic system," Lady Frances said. "It is unforgiving. If the eldest son cannot cope with responsibilities, it's just too bad for him."

The aristocratic system she referred to might seem a private concern of a shrinking body of over-privileged individuals. But it would be wrong to underestimate the synergy of its workings with the fate and future of the Royal Family. The Ashley Coopers have stood away from public life for generations now, but the fate of the family has resonance - in what it tells us of our expectations of celebrities, politicians and public figures - for the future of the constitution, where the position of the Royal Family seems increasingly ambiguous.

Like them or loathe them, hereditary peers such as the Shaftesburys form a bridge between the workings of the celebrity market and the sometimes impenetrable doings of the Royal Family. The life of Diana, Princess of Wales, changed the shape of that bridge, and did plenty to reinforce it. Families such as the Spencers and Ashley Coopers have provided regular celebrity-fodder since their rise to prominence in Jacobean times. And the particular charge that a long family history produces, whether in an earl's family or a royal house, is one of cumulative expectation.

The story of the Ashley Coopers is a model for these cumulative expectations. The first Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, was a superstar of political machination under Crom-well and Charles II. To his critics he was a malleable opportunist who blew with the political wind to ensure his position after the Restoration of the monarchy. To John Dryden he was: "Restless, unfixt in Principle and Place, In Power unpleas'd, impatient of Disgrace."

To his supporters, the first a founding father of the Whig Party one to whom, claims family spin repeated in Burke's Peerage for generations, the country "owed the Habeas Corpus Act" (in reality he plugged the loopholes in the law) and the independence of the judiciary from the monarchy. Certainly he was a commanding figure in the legal and political world of his time.

He was also the first of the family to enjoy the united estates of the Ashley and Cooper families, in Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset, and centred around the family seat at St Giles's, near Wimborne. And it is in him that the aristocratic survival instinct first revealed itself most powerfully. He was dissatisfied with his eldest son, a second Anthony, and determined to cut him out of his inheritance and hand the family possessions through trustees to his grandson (a third Anthony, and eventually third Earl of Shaftesbury). As part of the grand plan, the grandson was removed from his parents' care and educated at the first earl's household by the resident philosopher, John Locke.

The first earl could find no guarantee against his own mortality and after his death in 1683, the third Anthony returned to his parents' care. Disaster was nonetheless averted and, despite a dose of rebarbative Tory indoctrination at Winchester College (something that would have had his Whig grandfather spinning in his grave) the third earl's high-grade education paid off because he turned out to be one of the most influential and interesting philosophical writers of his generation And one of the third earl's most anguished musings was on the role of the educated aristocrat in society.

In 1698, the philosopher earl felt so overpowered by psychological stress that he undertook a year of self-therapy, going to Rotterdam for a year of study and reflection. He kept a remarkable set of notebooks, in which he combined the thoughts of Stoic philosophers with a personal diary. His musings reveal him caught up in a struggle between the social and political expectations that came with his inherited social position and the still present example of his grandfather's public career and his own personality which he found was bent on privacy.

His year of sabbatical set him on an influential career as an author (his best-known work is Characteristicks) whose musings resonated right through the 18th century - endorsing equality, reciprocity and scepticism, but within the elitist term of gentlemanly conversation - and influenced writers as diverse as Diderot and Thomas Jefferson.

The third earl's resolved enthusiasms were for a retired life and the encouragement of young men in their intellectual pursuits. He may have been a homosexual but was suffused enough with the dynastic survival instinct to do his duty by marrying and producing a heir.

And the paralysing high-mindedness of the third earl had shown was still powerfully present in the most famous of the family, his great grandson, another Anthony, seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, the great philanthropist, evangelical and social reformer who was one of the defining figures of the Victorian era. The seventh earl's reputation still cast a giant shadow over the family at the time of the 10th earl's birth in 1938. The seventh earl, a Dickensian hero, was the champion of the protection of child labourers. lunatics and fallen women. At the time of his funeral at Westminster Abbey in 1885 he drew vast crowds in a way not matched until the death of Diana, Princes of Wales in 1997.

But for all his glowing reputation, he was as much as victim of family dysfunction and tragedy as the Ashley Coopers of the 21st century. He was estranged from his father in 1843 for criticising landowners for their treatment of tenants. His estates at Wimborne St Giles were heavily in debt, and he was predeceased by four of his children.

The extreme example the 7th earl set to his descendants, just as the first earl had set for the third, was part of the cocktail of expectation that greeted the 10th earl when he inherited from his grandfather in 1961. The 10th earl's father, Lord Ashley, who had died in 1947 before he could inherit had shocked society by marrying the chorus girl, Sylvia Hawkes. After their divorce she married Douglas Fairbanks Sr, then Clark Gable. Anthony was born to his father's French-born second wife,Françoise Soulier.

The 10th earl's grandfather had left his affairs in good order, with no heavy death duties. His grandson inherited 9,000 acres around the family seat at Wimborne St Giles and won the Royal Forestry Society's National Duke of Cornwall's Award for Forestry and Conservation. But after his mother' death in 1999, and divorce in 2000 from his second wife, Christina Casella, he began short, expensive affairs with exotic younger women.

His engagement to Nathalie Lions, a 29-year-old he reportedly met in a lingerie shop in Geneva, ended in 2002 after she was revealed as a former nude model and Penthouse Pet. That year, he did marry Jamila M'Barek, a Tunisian divorcée with two children he met in a Paris bar where she was a hostess. They separated in April 2004. He had set up home in Cannes with another woman, aged 33, when he disappeared.

He was last seen in November, entering a hostess-bar in Cannes. In February, Jamila was arrested in France and allegedly admitted she was present when the earl was killed in her home. The 10th earl's body was found in April. Ms M'Barek and her brother, Mohammed, are being investigated for murder. Ms M'Barek denies murder but admits a part in his "criminal disappearance". Mr M'Barek denies involvement.

To the 10th earl's sister, his life change stemmed from his mother's death in 1999, when he was 61. "[It] had a seismic effect on him. My mother adored him; she treated him like a god. With her love, he felt safe but, without her, he had no one to protect him."

And so the tale of the Ashley Coopers, begun with the founding of Whig politics, through the development of schools of philosophy and the redefining of laws protecting the poorest of lands, came to its latest chapter with the murder of a bereaved pensioner and the untimely death of his son a month later.

And society and the press and the establishment looks on, appalled and fascinated, like the tricoteuses at the guillotining of a whole social society and the press look on, appalled and fascinated, just as they did as the the marriage of Diana Spencer and the Prince of Wales dissolved; and just as they do now at the unanswered question of whether Prince Charles can ever inherit the throne, like latter-day tricoteuses at the apparent guillotining of a whole social class. And the question of whether the establishment, and the Royal Family, will carry on, lies in the strength of the survival instinct which served the Ashley Coopers and their ilk so strongly for the past four centuries.

The flawed aristocracy

* Jamie Spencer Churchill, Marquess of Blandford, heir to the Duke of Marlborough, at 49, has convictions for theft, drugs and driving offences. By the mid-1980s he was spending £1,200 a week on cocaine. In 1994, a High Court ruled he would never have control of his father's estate. He lives in a house in the grounds.

* Lord Bristol died in 1999, aged 44, when his body failed through drug abuse, leaving his title to his half-brother Frederick Hervey, a university student. He served two jail terms for drugs and wasted much of his family's £35m fortune, including £7m on drugs. He had sold his right to live in the 50-rom east wing at Ickworth House to the National Trust and auctioned its contents.

* Lord Brocket served half of a five-year term for a £4.5m insurance fraud. He pretended four cars had been stolen from his £20m classic collection. He was freed in 1998. In 1996, he sold the family's 18th-century Brocket Hall to pay his debts.

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