12th Duke of Bedford

Hastings William Sackville Russell, 12th Duke of Bedford (1888-1953), was a noted pacifist and pamphleteer educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford. His father the 11th Duke was a recluse described by his grandson the 13th Duke as ‘a selfish, forbidding man with a highly developed sense of public duty and ducal responsibility. He lived a cold, aloof existence isolated from the outside world by a mass of servants, sycophants and an eleven-mile wall’. His mother Mary was known as the ‘Flying Duchess’ and undertook a record-breaking flight in 1929 from Lympne airport to Karachi and back. She was to die in an aviation accident in 1937 three years before her husband.

The Marquess of Tavistock, as he was styled as heir to the dukedom, was a keen naturalist like his father (who was President of the Zoological Society for 37-years) and led an expedition to Shaanxi in China to collect zoological specimens for the British Museum in 1906. He was a Lieutenant in the 10th Middlesex Regiment but did not fight in the Great War due to ill health and what was to become a messianic belief in Pacifism that would lead to his estrangement from the 11th Duke. The Marquess didn’t speak to his father for 20-years and when the 11th Duke died in 1940 he did not move into the family seat Woburn Abbey.

According to MI5 records released in 2004, the Duke was considered dangerous. ‘The Duke of Bedford is a pacifist and a believer in monetary reform. He is also believed to have held pro-German views since the war of 1914-1918 when he took part in a pacifist agitation. His zeal for monetary reform and for peace coupled with his pro-German sympathies have led him to adopt an anti-British and pro-German attitude to the present war’. The report goes on to accuse the Duke of negotiating for peace through the medium of the British Council for Christian Settlement in Europe which had as its officials two members of the British Union of Fascists. In the early part of 1940 Lord Tavistock travelled to Ireland to establish contact with the German government through the German legation in Dublin with a view to negotiating peace terms.

Throughout World War II, the Duke published pamphlets such as Propaganda for Proper Geese, The Absurdity of the National Debt, Debt-Free Prosperity, They Have No Answers and The Causes of Poverty. He spoke in the House of Lords. The 1941 Courier-Mail reported ‘the pacifist Duke of Bedford is causing friction among his peace-pledged collaborators…he now considers Hitler may be ready to evacuate occupied territory. Those who opposed the Duke describe this as a choice example of muddled thinking’. MI5 went further saying the Duke ‘blames the British government for the war, makes excuses for Hitler and for Nazi methods of atrocities and maintains that the only hope for this country lies in negotiated peace’. It concludes ‘in the event of the Duke falling into the hands of the enemy he would be likely to be set up as the head of a puppet British government’.

The Duke’s record as a father was little better. According to the 13th Duke’s 1959 memoir A Silver-Plated Spoon his father was ‘the loneliest man I ever knew, incapable of giving or receiving love, utterly self centred and opinionated. He loved birds, animals, peace, monetary reform, the park and religion’. As a boy the 13th Duke hadn’t been made aware that he was the heir to a Dukedom, was privately educated and left to fend for himself in a Bloomsbury flat aged 19. He was disinherited in 1939 when he married Clare Holloway, a lady considerably older than himself who killed herself in 1945. Estranged from his father – to whom he wrote ‘underneath your Christian cloak lies a small, narrow, mean mind incapable of forgiveness, generosity or feeling’ – the Marquess married again and emigrated to South Africa.

For the duration of World War II Woburn Abbey was occupied by a government department. When they evacuated dry rot was discovered in one of the wings of the house. The 12th Duke had the wing demolished and continued to live in a property on the High Street at Woburn with his ménage of parakeets, homing budgerigars and a spider that – according to acerbic authoress Nancy Mitford – he would feed roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Though history proved the Duke wrong about Hitler, he continued to lobby for peace in the House of Lords. In 1952 The Gazette newspaper reported ‘the Duke (of Bedford) calls on the US to pull out of Korea, recognise Communist China and stop supporting the Chinese nationalists’. The 12th Duke died on the 9th of October 1953 in mysterious circumstances. He died of a gunshot wound on his estate in Devon. Whether it was a hunting accident or self-inflicted has never been proven. The 13th Duke returned to Woburn and is acknowledged as the saviour of the family seat who secured the Dukedom.

(c) James Sherwood

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