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Profile Marquess of Bristol: Under the hammer

Louise Jury on the peer whose debauched lifestyle is about to cost him his titles
By next weekend, anyone with a spare few thousand pounds could be Lord of the Manor of Felton. Alternatively they could choose the Lordship of Doveton Hall, Great Horningsheath or Meer.

The Marquess of Bristol has already lost his family estate and blown at least pounds 7m of his inheri-tance on a decade-long heroin and cocaine binge. Now, at 41, he is shedding the last reminders of a family history which can be traced back to the Saxons. Nine ancestral titles, including the Lordship of Chivington, which dates to the 13th century and was once the property of King Henry VIII, will be put to auction on Thursday. They are expected to raise between pounds 5,000 and pounds 10,000 each and, along with the remaining contents of the family estate, the money will help the peer start a new life in the Bahamas.

After a life of excess, he has little left to squander. "If you are the Marquess of Bristol," said the sale publicist, "you don't need superfluous titles as well, even if they have enticing histories." Yet with a title as besmirched as the marquess's, one might have thought he should be keeping one of the others for emergencies.

The marquess's story is of a man with the arrogance of wealth, a cruel humour used to belittle, sometimes terrify, those around him, and a string of drug and driving convictions. It is also the story of a man who comes from a loveless, dysfunctional family. His ancestors provide a centuries- old history hard to match for licentiousness spiced with other vices; his own father was horrifyingly heartless and cold.

Yet if he is now down on his luck, claiming anxiety at the prospect of a Labour government and selling up for a cheaper life, many people will view it as a kind of justice. When it came to drugs-related appearances before the courts, he got enough second chances, probably more than people with at least as difficult a home life and considerably less money. His deprivation, after all, was silver-plated. And he has the looks and tastes of an aristocrat: always impeccably dressed, he likes fast cars, helicopters and horse-racing and bestows Rolex watches on his friends. It is hard to feel too sorry for a man who once blasted his fridge open with a 12-bore shotgun to get to the champagne.

FREDERICK William John Augustus Hervey, now the 11th Earl and 7th Marquess of Bristol, was born in 1954 to an alcoholic father who was married three times, divorced twice for his infidelities and once jailed for three years for his part in a pounds 6,000 jewellery theft. The ancestors included the drunken Lord Thomas Hervey (1699-1775) and Carr, Lord Hervey (1691-1723) who seduced maids of honour at the court of the Princess of Wales and was said to have fathered an illegitimate son (who later became prime minister) with Lady Walpole. Another ancestor was rumoured to have deflowered at least a dozen Portuguese nuns.

The 7th Marquess, known as John, was never close to his violent and lawless father. "He wasn't really a father, he was a demi-god and I put him on a pedestal," he has said. "I adored him because I admired his financial acumen. But he was an extremely cold man and I was terrified of him because he commanded so much authority."

At school at Harrow, it is said, the 7th Marquess was called Cuddles because of his intimacy with other boys. At home, he was not allowed to dine with his parents until he was 13 and was compelled every day to wear long white gloves, like some repressive marker of his aristocratic status.

Not even the inheritance of an estimated pounds 4m on his 21st birthday was as joyous as one might have expected. Shortly afterwards, he arrived at the family home, Ickworth Park, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, to discover his father packing the contents for auction prior to moving to Monaco and claiming his son was illegitimate. Whether the break-up of the home or the jibe was more wounding is hard to imagine. But the young man was heartbroken.

He has always loved Ickworth Park. When he later lived in New York, he hung giant, painted scenes of the estate on the apartment block next door. An architectural curiosity with a rotunda connecting two corridors to flanking wings, the house was begun by the 4th Earl of Bristol in 1796. It passed to the National Trust in 1956, in lieu of death duties, but the family continued to lease the 60-room east wing as its home.

Not even his affection for the estate could restrain the 7th Marquess's behaviour. He behaved as badly there as he did everywhere else. Cocaine and heroin habits aside, he allowed his Irish wolf-hound to attack visitors and buzzed tourists with his Ferrari.

Even by the time his father left Britain in the mid-1970s, young John was making it into the gossip columns. He was fined for stealing bollards in Knightsbridge when he was 20 and demolished the 500-glass champagne fountain at a party by tying a piece of cotton between it and a duchess's chair.

Bruce Smith, a former friend, claimed that the marquess shot at an American guest at Ickworth with an airgun when she borrowed a rubber dinghy to go fishing on the lake and laughed as the boat went down. Another friend, Adam Edwards, described driving a hired car in Paris when the peer deliberately rammed it with a newly-acquired American Cherokee Chief Jeep. There was no remorse.

At the age of 30, after a drugs bust in New York, he did make one desperate attempt to sort his life out and settle down. He registered as a drug addict, spoke out against the "evil" of heroin and, though widely regarded as homosexual, wed Francesca Fisher, a vegetarian, teetotal 20-year-old. His father maliciously refused to attend because of a "prior engagement" that was announced through the personal columns of the Times.

The reform did not last, anyway. The marquess worked hard, tripling his inheritance through sheep farming and oil-prospecting. But when the marriage failed after 18 months, childless despite the marquess's touching longing for an heir, he simply returned to his old ways.

He was banned twice for drink-driving, served 12 months on Jersey for smuggling cocaine in his helicopter then quickly notched up a pounds 3,000 fine for possession. In 1990, he became the first British aristocrat to be deported from Australia after failing to tell immigration authorities about his record.

But it was a trial at Snaresbrook Crown Court three years ago which laid bare details of his addiction to the British public. The court heard how he hid cocaine and heroin in a false-bottomed furniture polish can and lavished drugs on his friends during dinner and shooting parties. He admitted the two charges of possession. Sentencing was adjourned for treatment, but when the marquess checked out of his clinic, fled to the south of France and resumed his old habits, Judge Owen Stable jailed him for 10 months.

George Carman QC spoke of the sadness and vulnerability of a man whose childhood had paved the way to his erratic behaviour in adulthood. "You are dealing with a man ... who has for the whole of his adult life been subject to the tragedy of persistent drug addiction. He has wrecked his life and his inheritance. The damage he has done to himself is incalculable."

The marquess knew it, of course. "Generally I feel ghastly at having to get up and cope," he once said. But he was back on probation within months after police stopped his chauffeur-driven Bentley in upmarket Belgravia and discovered more heroin. The find came two days after his release from jail.

And George Carman's explanation did not satisfy everyone. Some thought the marquess's childhood was never as bad as claimed. His mother, Pauline, remarried and he was said to have played happily at the stables of his stepfather, Terry Lambton, a horse trainer. He was also quoted as regarding his father's second wife, Juliet Fitzwilliam, as "a most wonderful stepmother".

THE British have often accepted the excuses of the upper classes. Perhaps because of lingering deference, perhaps because of comfort taken from the sentiment that money cannot buy happiness, they have been more than tolerant to wayward aristocrats like the Marquess of Blandford, seen as a poor little rich kid despite his brushes with the law.

The aristocracy, however, shudder at the thought of rogue members selling titles, disposing of historic art collections and appear-ing before the bench.

"The ones who get into the papers are a surprisingly small minority," said Harold Brookes-Baker, editor of Burke's Peerage. "Most of the aristocracy feel very strongly that, if anything, courts should be more severe on those to whom much has been given, and that the drifters should be given a very difficult time."

As his history goes under the hammer, the Marquess of Bristol could be argued to have managed that on his own account. And, it seems, his compatriots in the peerage would be the first to argue he has no one to blame but himself.