Cecil, David George Brownlow, sixth Marquess of Exeter and Baron Burghley 1905-1981, athlete and parliamentarian, was born in the family's vast 350-year-old ancestral home at Burghley, Stamford, Lincolnshire, 9 February 1905, the second child and elder son in the family of four children of the fifth Marquess, William Thomas Brownlow Cecil (1876-1956) and his wife, Myra Rowena Sibell, daughter of William Thomas Orde-Powlett, fourth Baron Bolton. Lord Burghley, as he was to be for more than fifty years, was educated at Eton and from 1923 at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he studied engineering and obtained a BA in 1926. He earned selection in Britain's 1924 Olympic team but ran poorly. However in 1925 this striking blond-haired, aquiline-featured young patrician leaped into prominence as the world's pre-eminent hurdler.
He won both the high and low hurdles event in the Inter-Varsity Sports against Oxford in 1925, 1926, and 1927 and became president of the Cambridge University Athletics Club in his last year. The time of 42.5 seconds, recorded in Burghley's diary after he ran round the Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge, before the twenty-third of the twenty-four noon-time chimes, was still unsurpassed after half a century. He went on to represent Great Britain in eleven full international matches and to win eight Amateur Athletic Association titles and three British Empire titles. He set English native records for the 120 yards high and 220 yards low hurdles with 14.5 and 24.7 seconds. In 1927 he very briefly held the world's 440 yards hurdles record.
His greatest hour came in the 400 metres hurdles final at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam where, by deliberately running for third place in the semi-final he arrived quite fresh for the six-man final. He and Britain's T. C. Livingstone-Learmonth drew the disadvantageous outside fifth and sixth lanes. Ranged against them were the world record holder and defending champion F. Morgan Taylor (US), Frank J. Cuhel (US), the Italian Luigi Facelli, and Sweden's Sten Pettersson. Burghley went off seemingly too fast but reached the tenth and final flight of the all-wooden barriers just ahead of Cuhel. His finish was described as obstinate and at the tape he won by a long yard in the Olympic record time of 53.4 seconds with Cuhel second and Morgan Taylor third, both in 53.6 seconds. In that era before track suits he donned his greatcoat and confined his comment to The Americans are frightfully good losers. In the fashion of the day his father made no comment whatsoever but touchingly his mother was later found to have kept a secret scrap-book of her son's many triumphs on the track.
Burghley's enjoyment of amateur athletics was such that four years later he defended his Olympic title in Los Angeles. By this time he was married, a father, and an MP. In the general election of 1931 he had won the Labour-held seat of Peterborough with a majority of 12,434. Under the California sun he ran his fastest ever time of 52.2 seconds but still finished behind his fellow Cambridge blue Robert Tisdall (Ireland) (51.7 seconds) and the two Americans Glen Hardin and his old rival Morgan Taylor. In the 4 400 metres relay he ran an outstanding third stage for Great Britain in 46.7 seconds, so adding a silver medal to his collection, behind only America's world record-breaking quartet. He was the British Olympic captain in 1932 and 1936.
From 1933 to 1937 Burghley was chairman of the Junior Imperial League (president, 1939). In the general election of 1935 he held his seat with a reduced majority. In the House of Commons Burghley and Alan Lennox-Boyd (later Viscount Boyd of Merton) [qv.] were the two fastest speakers and cherished their visits to the office of the Hansard shorthand writers where they had to be permitted to improve rather than merely correct their speech proofs. Burghley, though a lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards until 1929 (when he resigned and obtained seats on the boards of a number of companies), was unable to take up combatant service in 1939 due to a persistent leg injury. He was appointed a staff captain Tank Supply in 1940, and became assistant director with the rank of lieutenant-colonel in 1942. In August 1943 he left Parliament to become governor of Bermuda where he captivated many American and other Allied visiting dignitaries. He was created KCMG in the same year.
Burghley was chairman of the organizing and executive committee of the fourteenth summer Olympic Games held in Wembley stadium in London in 1948. King George VI adamantly refused to attend and the prime minister, C. R. (later Earl) Attlee, was obliged to intervene since Olympic protocol required that the head of state of the host nation declare the Games open in person. Predictably the King's sense of duty prevailed when on 29 July he performed the ceremony. Burghley, who had only two, instead of the customary six years, in which to organize these first post-war games, had worked tirelessly in surmounting all the difficulties in an era of rationing, bomb damage, and national austerity. The success of this quadrennial festival of what was then amateur sport was a credit to his zeal. Some of his team were less richly honoured for their heroic efforts to make the Games a British success than might have been appropriate had not an honour of any kind been withheld from their chairman. Burghley was president of the AAA (1936-76), the International Amateur Athletic Federation (1946-76), and the British Olympic Association (1966-77, chairman 1936-66). His fervent, some thought naïve, belief that amateur and Olympic sport were a palliative in international strife brought him into conflict over the award in 1974 by the International Olympic committee of the 1980 or twentieth Games to Moscow. He was obdurate in the face of mounting entreaties after the invasion of Afghanistan that Britain should pull out. Supported by Lords Killanin and Luke, his defiance of the prime minister's well-known wishes resulted in his being ostracized by those who thought British participation would also demoralize the four millions imprisoned in Soviet Gulags and be an insult to the captive peoples of eastern Europe.
Despite his replacement operations Burghley hunted with vigour, latterly with the Burghley Hunt up to 1967. He had succeeded to the marquessate in 1956. He often gave priority to local affairs over debates in the House of Lords because, as he said, They are of more importance to Mrs Buggins because it is her roof which is leaking. In 1961 he was elected mayor of Stamford. He was honorary FRCS and had an honorary LLD from St Andrews University (of which he was rector from 1949 to 1952).
In 1929 Burghley married Mary Theresa, fourth daughter of John Charles Montagu-Douglas-Scott, seventh Duke of Buccleuch and ninth Duke of Queensberry, at a time when the announcement of her engagement to Prince Henry, later Duke of Gloucester [qv.], was regarded as imminent in royal circles. They had a son and three daughters but the son died of tubercular meningitis at the age of thirteen months in 1934. The marriage was dissolved in 1946 and in the same year Burghley married Diana Mary (died 1982), widow of Lieutenant-Colonel David Walter Arthur William Forbes and daughter of the Hon. Arnold Henderson. The only child of his second marriage, Lady Victoria Leatham, was to become a vigorous and enterprising chatelaine of Burghley House where he died 21 October 1981. He was succeeded in the marquessate by his brother, (William) Martin (Alleyne) (1909-1988).
The Times, 23 October 1981
Contributor: Norris McWhirter