Claude Lowther purchased the ruins of Herstmonceux Castle in 1911, when he was forty years old. Up to that point, he had tried various roles based on his wealthy and privileged background: London playboy; honorary diplomatic attaché in Madrid; playwright; high profile socialite; art collector; and soldier. It was in the last of these roles that Lowther had eventually contributed something substantial, serving as an officer in the Second Boer War, where he was recommended (unsuccessfully) for a Victoria Cross for bravery. He became an MP in the post-war election of 1900, losing his seat in 1906, before re-entering the House 1910-22. Lowther was an erratic MP, whose infrequent interventions could be embarrassing, for instance calling for the destruction of German cathedrals as revenge for damage to French churches during the Great War. All of this roleplaying suggests a man who had no solid personal or professional identity, and who was split between a residual Victorian milieu and the emergent modernity that was beginning to transform Britain.
Lowther’s purchase of Herstmonceux Castle with inherited money finally gave him a locus to realise himself. It was an unusual and eye-catching backdrop that Vita Sackville-West reckoned had much in common with “theatrical scenery.” Certainly, the Castle was reconstructed under Lowther’s direction for social climbing, not historical accuracy, and hosted weekend parties that had the locals gossiping. Lowther’s own sartorial excesses earned him the spooneristic nickname “Loud Clother,” as playing the Lord of the Manor now shaded into something like Castle cosplay.
In 1914, however, the war halted the works and the parties, and Lowther concentrated on recruiting locally for his Southdown regiments, nicknamed ‘Lowther’s Lambs’. Lowther was too unwell to accompany his Lambs to the Western Front, where they were massacred at the Battle of the Boar’s Head in a diversionary attack the day before the first Battle of the Somme. How Lowther felt about this is unrecorded, but there is evidence that the artillery could be heard from France at Herstmonceux. Perhaps Lowther’s brutal anti-German rants in parliament were a sign of a guilty conscience? That said, the parents of his recruits who died did not seem to bear him any ill will when he visited them after the war.
In the 1920s Herstmonceux Castle was again the venue for wild soirees and political networking. Lowther gathered figures such as Violet Bonham Carter, Winston and Clemmie Churchill, Lady Diana Duff Cooper and Alfred Duff Cooper among many notables. The locals were also subject to a slightly odd charm offensive, with the daughter of the local vicar remembering: “the food was always delicious, eaten off priceless silver or pewter plates, one of which the host [Lowther] might hurl playfully at his butler, then go down on his knees to beg forgiveness.” Lowther became well known both locally and in London for his excesses and eccentricity: part country squire enjoying hunting and fishing, part debauched socialite leading the rout in his house of fun. As the decade went on, though, his health failed and his drinking and smoking began to incapacitate him. Lowther died in 1929 before his recreation of Herstmonceux Castle was completed (in fact it was only half-way done).
Lowther’s legacy is complex and many more primary sources will need to be excavated before we can be more confident in our interpretation of his life and its significance. Several central issues remain occluded. He never married and had no acknowledged children; however, there is a theory that he lived with an illegitimate son in his London house. This notion notwithstanding, we cannot be sure of Lowther’s sexual orientation, and he was subject to homophobic slurs at several points in his public life. We know little of what he did in Paris and have few private letters and documents to go on. His possessions were dispersed at an auction on his death, and their locations are generally unknown. All of this will give students at the BISC fascinating possibilities to investigate as this project continues.
Dr Christian Lloyd, Academic Director at the BISC.
Anderson, Verily. Castellans of Herstmonceux (1911-2010). Herstmonceux: Bisc Press, 2011.
Baines, John A. The Day Sussex Died: a History of Lowther’s Lambs to the Boar’s head Massacre. London: Uniform Press, 2016.
Bonham-Carter, Violet. Winston Churchill As I Knew Him. London: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1965.
Carlisle Postcards: Carlisle Canal and the 1910 Election
Connell, Andrew. “Claude Lowther: 1870-1929: Wit, tragedy, Melodrama and Mystery in Public Life.” Conservative History Journal Vol II. Issue 5. Autumn 2017.
Hansard online HANSARD 1803–2005 (parliament.uk)