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Nicolson, Arthur, first Baron Carnocklocked

  • Keith Neilson

Arthur Nicolson, first Baron Carnock (1849–1928)

by unknown photographer, c. 1888

Nicolson, Arthur, first Baron Carnock (1849–1928), diplomatist, was born on 19 September 1849 in London, the second son of Admiral Sir Frederick Nicolson, tenth baronet (1815–1899), and the first of his three wives, Mary Clementina Marian (d. 1851), daughter of James Loch of Drylaw. Nicolson was intended by his family for the Royal Navy, and entered HMS Britannia at the age of twelve, after private schooling in Wimbledon. He passed third out of Britannia, but did not join the navy. Instead, he went in 1863 to Rugby School, and then in 1867 to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he did not take a degree. During 1869 and 1870 he prepared for the Foreign Office examinations by studying French in Switzerland and German in Dresden. He passed first into the Foreign Office, and joined that institution on 23 August 1870.

Nicolson acted as assistant secretary to the foreign secretary, Lord Granville, from July 1872 to February 1874. He became acting third secretary at Berlin in that month, and, in November 1874, transferred to the diplomatic service. He did not return to the Foreign Office until 1910. From Berlin he was posted to Peking (Beijing) as second secretary in 1876 and back to Berlin in 1878. A year later he was sent to Constantinople, where he remained until late 1882. At this post he met a number of people, including Charles Hardinge (a future permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office) and Donald Mackenzie Wallace (journalist and expert on Russia), who later would be important for his career. Further, he met, became engaged to, and married, on 20 April 1882, (Mary) Katharine Rowan Hamilton (d. 1951), the youngest daughter of Archibald Rowan Hamilton of Killyleagh Castle, co. Down, and the sister-in-law of Lord Dufferin, the British ambassador to Constantinople. Nicolson's marriage was a mixed blessing. He and his wife enjoyed a very happy private life; however, her social connections aside, Lady Nicolson (as she later became) was an impediment to his career, for she 'shuns society and dresses like a housemaid' (Hardinge to Bertie, 4 Dec 1903, TNA: PRO, Bertie MSS, FO 800/163).

After Constantinople, Nicolson served successively in Athens, where he was chargé d'affaires from 1884 to 1885; in Tehran, as secretary of legation, from 1885 to 1888; and, for the next four years, in Budapest, as consul-general. He spent 1893 as secretary of embassy in Constantinople, and in mid-1894 became British agent and consul-general at Sofia. A year later he became minister at Tangier, where he spent almost ten years. At Tangier, Nicolson's career accelerated. While he had done well at his earlier posts (he was created CMG in 1886 and KCIE in 1888 as rewards for his services), his progress in the diplomatic service had been unexceptional. However, the Anglo-French discussions concerning Morocco (which were part of the negotiations leading to the entente cordiale of 1904) and the Franco-German rivalry over Morocco put Nicolson at one of the centres of British diplomacy and gave him an opportunity to display his abilities. He was made a KCB and KCVO as a result of his efforts, and was appointed ambassador to Madrid on 1 January 1905. His time in Spain was brief. At the end of 1905, owing in part to the intervention of Charles Hardinge, Nicolson was offered and accepted the embassy at St Petersburg (although his formal appointment to that post did not take place until February 1906). But before he took up his position in Russia, Nicolson served as the British representative to the Algeciras conference, which ran from January to April 1906. His performance at the conference was seen as exceptional. Sir William Tyrrell, the influential précis writer to the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, wrote to Nicolson on 3 April 1906 that 'you easily carry off the lion's share of the success of this most tiresome negotiation [Algeciras], and we don't mind basking in your reflected sunshine' (TNA: PRO, Nicholson MSS, FO 800/338).

Nicolson served in St Petersburg for the next four years. During this time, his views of Russia shaped by Mackenzie Wallace, he was instrumental in the negotiation of the Anglo-Russian convention, signed 31 August 1907. His performance during the talks was impressive: so much so that Lord Morley, the secretary of state for India, wrote that Nicolson 'deserves his reputation as the best man of his day in his own trade. He is quiet, steady, full of ready resource, not making difficulties, nor delighting to put the other man into a hole' (Morley to Minto, 2 Aug 1907, BL OIOC, MS Eur. D/573/2). More tangible praise came from Grey, who ensured that Nicolson received the GCB for his efforts.

In part owing to further determined lobbying by Hardinge, Nicolson became permanent under-secretary in 1910. For the next six years Nicolson was at the centre of British foreign policy. Before the war he advised Grey that Britain should turn her loose entente with France and Russia into a formal alliance designed to check Germany's aggressive policy. Nicolson was convinced that the security of Britain and her empire depended on such a policy. He believed that otherwise France and Russia would view Britain as an unreliable partner and instead try to reach an accommodation with Germany. In particular, Nicolson advocated maintaining the close relationship with Russia that he had helped to bring about. Such an approach was unacceptable to Grey. Within his own party there were many who felt that autocratic Russia was an inappropriate partner for Liberal Britain. Others insisted on attempting to achieve better relations with Germany. And a substantial number objected to Britain's joining any alliance system whatsoever. This, combined with Lady Nicolson's outspoken support for Ulster, diminished his influence with Grey. Nicolson did not enjoy the routine bureaucratic work at the Foreign Office and, with his health poor owing to arthritis, pressed Grey for an opportunity to return to diplomacy. Nicolson was scheduled to become ambassador to Paris in the autumn of 1914, but this move was placed in abeyance by the outbreak of war.

During the July crisis Nicolson urged Grey to make Britain's support for France and Russia clear to Germany and, if war broke out, to join the former pair. 'Should we waver now', he wrote to the foreign secretary as the guns began to fire on 1 August, 'we shall rue the day later' (Nicolson to Grey, 1 Aug 1914, TNA: PRO, Grey MSS, FO 800/94). Whether his advice had an influence on Grey's decision to take Britain into the conflict is uncertain, but Britain's wartime alliance with France and Russia was clearly what Nicolson had long believed was necessary to check Germany's belligerence. Throughout the war, and despite his increasing physical difficulties, Nicolson played an active role in British policy. In particular, he continued to advocate maintaining close relations with Russia, despite the latter country's drift to the political right and threat of internal collapse. However, by mid-1916 his health had deteriorated to such an extent that he asked Grey to be relieved of his post. On 20 June he was succeeded as permanent under-secretary by Lord Hardinge. That year he was created Baron Carnock of Carnock, having succeeded as eleventh baronet on 29 December 1899.

In retirement Carnock briefly acted as an assistant private secretary to George V, and later served as a director of the London City and Midland Bank. He devoted himself to family life, and remained close to his three sons and daughter. His third son, Sir Harold Nicolson, followed him into the diplomatic service; he was also his father's biographer. After a lingering illness Nicolson died on 5 November 1928 at his Chelsea home, 53 Cadogan Gardens.

Nicolson was one of the greatest diplomatists of his day. He was particularly sympathetic to the point of view of foreigners and was able to convey their feelings to his political masters. This was particularly evident in his dealings with Russia, the country that was the centrepiece of his career. At the same time, however, Nicolson never became an advocate for the country to which he was accredited; he was a firm believer in the maintenance of Britain's own interests and he pursued them tenaciously. By reason of his position as ambassador to Russia, his friendship with Hardinge, and his own tenure at the Foreign Office, Nicolson must be considered as one of those civil servants most influential in the formulation of British foreign policy in the decade before the First World War.


  • H. Nicolson, Sir Arthur Nicolson, Bart., first Lord Carnock: a study in the old diplomacy (1930)
  • Z. S. Steiner, The Foreign Office and foreign policy, 1898–1914 (1969)
  • K. Neilson, ‘“My beloved Russians”: Sir Arthur Nicolson and Russia, 1906–1916’, International History Review, 9 (1987), 521–4
  • K. Neilson, Britain and the last tsar: British policy and Russia, 1894–1917 (1995)
  • TNA: PRO, Nicolson MSS
  • BL OIOC, Morley MSS
  • Grey MSS, TNA: PRO
  • Bertie MSS, TNA: PRO


  • TNA: PRO, corresp., journals, and papers, PRO 30/81
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. and papers, FO 800/336–81
  • Balliol Oxf., corresp. with Sir Louis Mallet
  • BL, letters to Sir Austen Layard, Add. MSS 39034–39036, 39098
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Herbert Asquith
  • CUL, corresp. with Lord Hardinge
  • Parl. Arch., corresp. with John St Loe Strachey
  • TNA: PRO, letters to Odo Russell, FO 918
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. with Sir Henry Hyde Villiers, FO 800
  • Trinity Cam., corresp. with Sir Henry Babington Smith


  • sepia cabinet photograph, 1888, NPG [see illus.]
  • Russell, photograph, 1916, repro. in Nicolson, Sir Arthur Nicolson
  • P. A. de Laszlo, oils, priv. coll.

Wealth at Death

£9131 1s. 0d.: probate, 19 Dec 1928, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)
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