Cecil, Hugh Richard Heathcote Gascoyne-, Baron Quickswood 1869-1956, politician and provost of Eton, was born at Hatfield 14 October 1869, the fifth and youngest son of the third Marquess of Salisbury [qv.]. Educated at Eton and University College, Oxford, he laid the foundation of a life devoted to Anglican principles and Conservative politics in a family circle and historic house consecrated to both. Tradition has it that before he was seven he had indicted his nurse as a Socinian and admitted that for long he himself had not been quite orthodox.
Equipped with a first class in modern history and a prize fellowship at Hertford (1891), he prepared to take holy orders like his brother William, later bishop of Exeter. Instead he was persuaded to become assistant private secretary to his father, who simultaneously held the offices of prime minister and foreign secretary. This apprenticeship led in 1895 to his election as Conservative member of Parliament for Greenwich, a seat he held until his advocacy of free trade helped to ensure his defeat in the general election of 1906. Religion, nevertheless, remained the mainspring of his life; and even had the tenacity of his Conservative beliefs not deterred him from crossing the floor of the House in the wake of his lifelong friend (Sir) Winston Churchill, the strength of nonconformity in the Liberal Party would no less surely have repelled him from so drastic a change of political faith. So his allegiance rested with the Tories and in 1910 he secured a congenial seat as burgess for the university of Oxford which he retained until 1937. He received an honorary Doctor of Civil Laws (1924) and was an honorary fellow of Hertford, Keble, and New colleges.
Cecil was perhaps the most accomplished classical orator of his generation. He was handicapped by a frail physique, restless mannerisms, and a voice pitched too high for sonority. But Lord Curzon [qv.], himself a majestic exponent of the art of eloquence, was not alone in holding that Cecil's words combined the charm of music with the rapture of the seer. His most memorable speeches were delivered during debates on the education bill in 1902 and on the Welsh Church bill in 1913. The intensity of his beliefs sometimes provoked him to less edifying interventions and the hysterical animosity which he and his friends bore against Asquith for daring to lay hands on the constitution in the Parliament bill of 1911 earned them the style of Hughligans.
Although well past the age of forty and never in robust health, Cecil joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1915. His intrepid maneuvres while learning to fly eventually brought him his pilot's wings—on condition that he never again made a solo flight. In 1918 he was sworn of the Privy Council, an exceptional honour for a back-bench parliamentarian whose independence of mind and reverence for individual liberty unfitted him for the discipline of office.
During the years between the wars his interest was captured increasingly by the Church Assembly, which he had helped to create. As in the Commons, he relished an arena where Christian principles as he saw them could be defended by forensic logic and an artful grasp of procedure. In 1927, however, and again in 1928 he unexpectedly failed to persuade the Commons to accept the revised Prayer Book. Too often in controversy he spoke with the tongue of an ecclesiastical lawyer, not of an angel. The subtle magic of his eloquence fascinated as of old but did not convince; and many who thought themselves no less loyal churchmen than Cecil found his interpretation of Christian doctrine so rigid as almost to exclude the charity of Christ. In 1933-4 he exercised his authority in Anglican affairs by successfully challenging the right of a bishop (A. A. David, qv.) to admit Unitarian ministers to the pulpit of a cathedral. A later demand that the Church Assembly should pass a measure prohibiting the use of the marriage service to all divorced persons was overwhelmingly rejected.
In 1936 he was appointed provost of Eton in succession to M. R. James [qv.]. He delighted in the services in college chapel and as its ordinary would preface his sermons with the words, I speak as a layman to laymen without the authority of the priesthood, then go on to be very authoritative indeed. His tall swaying figure surmounted by a green eyeshade, his incisive and often provocative commentary on biblical texts, and his oblique anti-clericalism will all be remembered. So too will his destructive obiter dicta on talks to the boys by distinguished visitors. I hope I am not boring you, one of them said nervously in the middle of an address. Not yet, the provost replied with a tigerish smile. He regarded the war as a vulgar intrusion on well-established routine and scorned to abandon his habit of dining in knee-breeches. As chairman of the governing body he amused some of his colleagues and exasperated others by insisting that under its statutes Eton was responsible only for educating the boys, not for providing air-raid shelters for their protection. The relentless analysis of a medieval schoolman to which he subjected human problems was not always appreciated. But fellows, masters, and boys alike loved him for the ingenuity of his fancy and the felicity of his phrase.
Linky Cecil, who had been best man at Churchill's wedding in 1908, was touched when in 1941 the prime minister recommended him for a peerage. He took the title Baron Quickswood but did not often speak in the Lords. Three years later he retired from Eton. I go to Bournemouth in lieu of Paradise, he told the assembled school, and there he bore the growing infirmities of age with cheerful courage. His last act before he died there, 10 December 1956, was to dictate a characteristic letter in support of the local Conservative member of Parliament whose political opinions he had not always shared but whose freedom of action he felt to be intolerably threatened by pressure from the constituency association.
Although Cecil never married and had no house of his own until appointed to Eton, he enjoyed unbroken domestic happiness. For most of his life he lived at Hatfield in rooms set aside for his private use. He took his meals, however, with the rest of the family, who readily forgave his unpunctuality in return for the sustained conviviality of his talk. At night he would retire early to read and to meditate. Unhappily he committed little to print except a small volume entitled Conservatism, published in the Home University Library in 1912 and embodying a personal creed which remained unchanged to the end of his days. Pageantry and ceremonial appealed to him as reminders of the past. To aesthetic experience, however, he was immune and when a friend once drew his attention to a glorious sunset he replied, Yes, extremely tasteful. Until well into middle age he was an occasional but adventurous rider to hounds. A portrait by Sargent is at Hatfield and another by P. A. de László at Church House, Westminster.
Eton College Chronicle, 7 February 1957
Contributor: Kenneth Rose.