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date: 25 February 2024

Nicolson, Sir Harold Georgefree


Nicolson, Sir Harold Georgefree

  • T. G. Otte

Sir Harold George Nicolson (1886–1968)

by Howard Coster, 1935

Nicolson, Sir Harold George (1886–1968), diplomatist and politician, was born at the British legation, Tehran, on 21 November 1886, the third son of Arthur Nicolson, first Baron Carnock (1849–1928), and his wife, (Mary) Katharine Rowan (d. 1951), the youngest daughter of Captain Archibald Rowan Hamilton of Killyleagh Castle, co. Down. He was born into a minor patrician family with a well-established tradition of public service. His father was a distinguished diplomatist himself, becoming permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office in 1910. Through his maternal aunt he was related to the imperial statesman-cum-diplomat Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, the marquess of Dufferin. Not surprisingly, in light of his lineage, the young Nicolson turned to diplomacy as a career.

Youth and education

Much of Nicolson's early youth was spent either abroad, wherever his father was posted, or at the Irish estates of his mother's relatives. It was in these great Irish houses, he would reflect in later life, that he found 'anchors in a drifting life, … the only places where I ceased to be a pot-plant for ever being bedded out in alien soil' (Nicolson, Desire to Please, 5). Only Tangier, where his father was Britain's minister from 1894 to 1904, held a similar spell over him throughout his life. At the age of nearly nine, in 1895, he was sent away from his beloved Morocco to attend The Grange, a preparatory school near Folkestone. He hated the regimented life at The Grange as much as he loathed Wellington College, where he was sent in 1900, although under the spell of its master, the Revd Bertram Pollock, later bishop of Norwich, he learned to love literature and the classics. Nicolson moved on to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1904, having spent the intervening year after leaving Wellington at Weimar to learn German. After the conventional dullness of Wellington, Nicolson flourished in Balliol's liberal and cerebrally stimulating climate, but left Oxford in 1907 with only a pass degree, having obtained a third in classical honour moderations the previous year.

Early years as a diplomatist

While still at Balliol Nicolson decided to try for diplomacy. On leaving Oxford he went to Paris and Hanover to complete his language studies—he later described his experiences in his delightful, semi-autobiographical Some People (1927)—and in October 1909, much to everyone's (especially his father's) surprise, he passed second in the competitive entrance examination for the diplomatic service. He spent his early years in the service as an attaché at Madrid (from February to September 1911) and then as third secretary at Constantinople (from January 1912 to October 1914). On 1 October 1913 he married the Hon. Victoria Mary (Vita) Sackville-West (1892–1962), only child of Lionel Edward Sackville-West, third Baron Sackville, and his wife and first cousin, Victoria Josefa Sackville-West, daughter of Lionel Sackville-West, second Baron Sackville, and his mistress, Josefa de la Oliva (known as Pepita), a Spanish dancer. Redoubtable as she was eccentric and irascible, Lady Sackville was to cause the Nicolsons great anxiety in future years. Nicolson's marriage to Vita, too, was the source of much despair. None the less this unconventional union, and its bond of mutual and deep understanding and affection, remained the bedrock of his life. There were two sons of the marriage: Lionel Benedict Nicolson (1914–1978) and Nigel Nicolson (1917–2004).

Nicolson was recalled to the Foreign Office in the spring of 1914. During his home leave the First World War broke out. He was drafted back into duty, and it was left to him, as the youngest member of staff, to recover on 3 August Britain's declaration of war on Germany from the German embassy, which had been erroneously delivered after intercepted German wireless traffic suggested that Germany had already declared war (Nicolson, Lord Carnock, 424–6). Nicolson was exempted from military duty on account of his position at the Foreign Office. His war work earned him his first professional spurs. Much of it involved relations with the neutral powers; but he was also, with Sir Mark Sykes and Leo Amery, one of the chief draftsmen of the Balfour declaration, which committed Britain to supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine. More importantly perhaps for the future course of his diplomatic career, he was brought in closer contact with the problems of south-eastern Europe. His war work allowed him to forge closer ties with the supporters of the pro-entente Hellenist leader Eleftherios Venizelos, ties which would stand him in good stead at the Paris peace conference and the later Near Eastern conferences of the early post-war years.

At the end of hostilities Nicolson was attached to the British delegation at the Paris peace conference, where he served under his beloved chief Sir Eyre Crowe on a number of Balkan committees. Officially, Nicolson was only a junior adviser, but he soon established for himself a reputation for penetrating analyses and sound political judgement. He had travelled to Paris with high hopes, yet before long concluded that the conference was doomed to fail to deliver the lasting peace he had hoped for. In 1919 he accompanied General Smuts on a mission to Béla Kun's Soviet-style government at Budapest. For his services during the war and at the conference Nicolson was appointed CMG in 1919 and promoted to first secretary. After the conference he was appointed private secretary to Sir (James) Eric Drummond, the first secretary-general of the infant League of Nations. This appointment was perhaps as much a reward for the notable success of his conference work as it was a reflection of his strong pro-league sentiments. At Paris he had become strongly imbued with Wilsonian ideals and regarded the league as the panacea for the ills of international politics rather than the 'separatist alliances and combinations' of the old pre-war diplomacy (Nicolson to Viorel Tilea, 9 Dec 1919, Tilea MSS, box 67).

Marital complications and further diplomatic career

Nicolson's professional success in these years, however, was marred by considerable conjugal disquiet. In 1915 the Nicolsons had bought Long Barn, a semi-derelict medieval farmstead in the Kentish weald not far from Sevenoaks, near Vita's ancestral home, Knole. At Long Barn the Nicolsons laid the foundations of their reputations as successful gardeners and writers. There Vita launched upon poetry and Nicolson wrote the first of his six literary biographies, Paul Verlaine, and also Sweet Waters, his first novel (both 1921). Yet their marriage was strained very nearly to breaking-point because of Vita's love affair with Violet Trefusis. The Nicolsons' marital crisis reached its near-farcical climax in the abortive elopement of the two women to northern France with Nicolson in hot pursuit in a two-seater aeroplane. Nicolson was himself by no means a stranger to homosexual affairs; but his forbearance and patience enabled the Nicolsons to continue their marriage.

In June 1920 Nicolson was recalled to the Foreign Office. By this time his enthusiasm for the league had already begun to wane. Possibly under the strong influence of Crowe, now permanent under-secretary, he became more sceptical of the league and reverted to a more traditional concept of diplomacy. His duties at the Foreign Office were mostly concerned with Near and Middle Eastern affairs. Stirred by Venizelos's fall in November 1920 and the reverses suffered by Greece in the conflict with Turkey, the philhellene Nicolson challenged received Foreign Office opinion by arguing against any compromise with the Kemalist forces. It was the first time that he stood up to his masters on a major policy issue. Ultimately the course of the campaign in Asia Minor rendered his recommendations impracticable. Nicolson, however, remained the Foreign Office's chief expert on the remnants of the Eastern question. His notable 'Memorandum … respecting the Freedom of the Straits', of 15 November 1922, formed the basis of British policy at the Lausanne conference of 1922–3 (Medlicott and others, Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1st ser., 18, appx 1). At Lausanne he acted as Lord Curzon's private secretary and was Britain's representative on a number of subcommittees. Nicolson later rendered his account of the proceedings at Lausanne in Curzon: the Last Phase (1934). Although busy with diplomatic work he still found time to write three further literary biographies: Tennyson (1923), Byron: the Last Journey (1924), and Swinburne (1926).

In 1925 the new head of the Foreign Office, Sir William Tyrrell, transferred Nicolson to Tehran as counsellor of legation. Relations between the two men had been strained, and Nicolson always suspected an element of personal spite in Tyrrell's decision to transfer him. A posting to Persia in the 1920s involved an arduous journey by sea to Haifa or via Russia and the Caspian Sea to Resht and thence across the desert in a motor car to Tehran. (His wife's Passenger to Tehran, 1926, offered a glimpse into this unglamorous aspect of diplomatic life.) Nicolson's two years in the city of his birth marked the nadir of his diplomatic career. Separated from his wife and sons, he suffered from the geographical, intellectual, and social isolation Persia imposed upon him. Worse still, his relations with his chief, Sir Percy Loraine, were rather reserved. Unlike Ponderous Percy, Nicolson was too much of an individualist ever to take seriously the representative side of diplomacy. 'I loathe processions & gholams & sowars & uniforms & tail coats & all that …—I can't hide my loathing & P[ercy] … gets rather distressed' (Nicolson to Lancelot Oliphant, 12 March 1926, Sissinghurst, Nicolson MSS). Nicolson's lack of diplomatic decorum, his indulgence for intellectual frivolity, and his tendency to tease ('my jokes … are greeted with a “two minute silence”'; ibid., Nicolson to Oliphant, 28 May 1926) only added to the strain. Loraine, moreover, took umbrage when he suspected Nicolson of lampooning him in his essays 'on real people in imaginary situations and imaginary people in real situations', Some People (1927), which he wrote at Tehran. 'A cad's book', Loraine called it (Waterfield, 116). Nicolson's differences with his chief, however, were not merely questions of style but also of policy. In September 1926, when in charge of the legation, he sent a long dispatch in which he criticized 'certain inherited maxims' of Britain's 'buffer state' policy towards Persia and Loraine's 'too rosy picture' of the situation (Nicolson to Sir Austen Chamberlain, (no. 486), 30 Sept 1926, Documents on British Foreign Policy, ser. 1a, 2, no. 447; and to parents, 28 Aug 1926, Sissinghurst, Nicolson MSS). It was the second time that Nicolson had taken it upon himself to challenge received Foreign Office wisdom. This time, however, his Foreign Office colleagues were incensed at his breach of protocol in criticizing his highly regarded former chief. The foreign secretary minuted:

if Mr Nicolson were a fool, I should remove him. As he is certainly not a fool, I infer that, away from daily contact with us, our intentions are not as clear to him as to us. Let us make them clear.

Min. Chamberlain, 9 Nov 1926, FO 371/11481/E5994/92/34

On his recall to London in the following summer he was demoted to first secretary.

Nicolson was depressed at the lack of progress in his career. Instead of shaping policy, he found himself 'strand[ed] in this bog in which I have wasted the best years of my life', having to execute policies in which he did not believe (Nicolson to Owen O'Malley, 23 Aug 1927, Sissinghurst, Nicholson MSS). For the first time he considered leaving the service, but stayed 'an ageing limpet stuck to the hulk of British diplomacy' (ibid., Nicolson to Lancelot Oliphant, 28 Dec 1926). His next post was Berlin. What ground he had lost as chargé d'affaires at Tehran he regained when in charge of the Berlin embassy in 1928. His dispatches from there re-established his high reputation and he was promoted to counsellor again. Nevertheless, in September 1929 Nicolson resigned from the diplomatic service, when he accepted an offer to join the Beaverbrook press. He was then halfway up the diplomatic career ladder with the distinct prospect of a legation or minor embassy in the near future. His colleagues were mystified by his decision. It was, however, a step which he did not take lightly. He remained attached to his old profession and occasionally longed 'to creep back into the F. O.' (ibid., Nicolson to Lancelot Oliphant, 24 Aug 1935). The unbearable absences from his wife and sons and their financial dependence upon the increasingly quarrelsome Lady Sackville induced him to take this decision. But his disillusionment with the policy-makers and his own nascent political ambitions were equally potent factors.

Sissinghurst, politics, and writing

With his resignation began Nicolson's public life. The year 1930 marked a major turning point. From January 1930, and for the next eighteen months, he wrote the 'Londoner's diary' in the Evening Standard, an occupation which the fastidious Nicolson found increasingly irksome. From new year 1930 he also kept the daily diary for which he would perhaps primarily be remembered. In the spring of 1930 the Nicolsons moved from Long Barn when a neighbouring poultry farmer threatened to invade their rural isolation. At Sissinghurst Castle, the remnants of an Elizabethan manor house near Cranbrook, they found a new home. There Vita Sackville-West's poetic temperament and gardening expertise combined with Nicolson's classically trained sense of architectural form and order to create one of the most celebrated gardens in England (now one of the most visited of National Trust properties).

The political and economic crisis of 1931 convinced Nicolson of the inadequacy of the existing parliamentary machinery to solve contemporary problems. Having declined to stand as a Liberal for Falmouth, he joined the New Party under Sir Oswald Mosley, the son-in-law of his old mentor, Lord Curzon, with whom he had formed a friendship at Berlin in 1929. At the 1931 general election he unsuccessfully contested the Combined Universities seat. He also became editor of Action, the Mosley party's weekly organ. However, when Mosley embraced fascism, in 1932, Nicolson severed his links with him.

Out of a job, Nicolson was once more thrown upon his resources as a writer. In 1932 he published his second novel, Public Faces, a benign satire about an international crisis into which he worked his own league and Persian experiences, and which characteristically ended on the notion that honesty is the best policy. Already in 1930 he had published the biography of his father, Lord Carnock. His 'Studies in modern diplomacy' trilogy was now completed by his insightful account of the Paris peace conference, Peacemaking 1919 (1933), followed in 1934 by his book on Lord Curzon's foreign secretaryship. A well-paid lecture tour of America with his wife resulted in the commission to write the biography of the American financier turned diplomat Dwight Morrow, which was published in 1935. It was followed two years later by Helen's Tower, an account of the career of his uncle, the marquess of Dufferin. During these years Nicolson rose to prominence as a regular and popular broadcaster on the wireless.

At the general election of 1935 Nicolson finally realized his political ambitions by being elected by a narrow margin as the National Labour candidate for Leicester West, a nomination which had been fixed by his wife's relative Herbrand Edward Dundonald Brassey Sackville, the ninth Earl De La Warr. Nicolson never climbed to the ‘top of the greasy pole’. Like many of his class and generation, he felt politically uprooted, defining himself in terms of family ties and friendships rather than party labels. By choosing National Labour his political fortunes were bound up with those of Ramsay MacDonald. While his Leicester election was made possible only with Conservative support, he was fiercely anti-tory in his private sentiments, yet at the same time unable to understand the aspirations of the middle and working classes in his industrial constituency. But although he was perhaps not made for the cut and thrust of party politics, Nicolson was one of the best-informed speakers on foreign affairs in the long parliament of 1935, warning early and consistently of the dangers of appeasement. His expertise in foreign affairs was also very much in evidence in his slim, but elegant and instructive Diplomacy (1939). His support for Churchill, however, never yielded the desired results. He held junior office at the Ministry of Information from 1940, but to his dismay was returned to the back-benches in 1941. Perhaps his most effective contributions to the war effort were his weekly column 'Marginal comment' in The Spectator (1939–40, 1941–52), and the Penguin paperback Why Britain is at War (1939). From 1941 to 1946 he served on the board of governors of the BBC. His political career came to an end in 1945 when, standing as an independent but with Conservative backing, he lost his seat in the Labour landslide.

Last years

Nicolson retained his hopes of re-entering politics. Having unsuccessfully sought a peerage as a cross-bencher from Prime Minister Attlee, he joined the Labour Party in 1947 and in the following year contested the North Croydon by-election. Both steps were half-hearted at best. His bid for election—'this nightmare'—ended in defeat (Nicolson to Sibyl Colefax, 28 Feb 1948, Colefax MSS, MS.Eng.c.3166); his socialism was 'purely cerebral' (Nicolson to Vita Sackville-West, 7 May 1948, N. Nicolson, Diaries, 3.148–9). An incautiously disdainful 'Marginal comment' on his electioneering experience (published in The Spectator of 19 March 1948) put paid to all further hopes of re-entering politics and the much-coveted peerage eluded him forever. His only link with the world of politics and diplomacy were his regular broadcasts. In 1946 he covered the abortive Paris peace conference for the BBC. Apart from broadcasting, he channelled his prodigious energies into writing. The decade and a half after the end of the war saw a series of very different books from his pen. In 1945 he edited with his wife Another World than This, a poetry anthology. His next books were The Congress of Vienna (1946), The English Sense of Humour (1947), and Benjamin Constant (1949). In 1948 he was commissioned to write the official biography of George V—an awkward assignment skilfully executed; it was published four years later and confirmed his high reputation as a writer. It also earned him a knighthood as KCVO and an honorary fellowship of Balliol (both 1953). His Chichele lectures during 1953 at Oxford were published in the following year as The Evolution of Diplomatic Method. His last productive years saw another spate of books: Good Behaviour (1955), Sainte-Beuve (1957), Journey to Java (1957), The Age of Reason (1960), and Monarchy (1962). From 1949 to 1963 he also contributed weekly book reviews to The Observer.

Nicolson's last book, on kingship, was his perhaps least satisfactory. He himself took it as a sign of his waning powers. His wife's death, in 1962, dealt a violent blow to him from which he never recovered. Her death marked the end of a unique marriage and of his life as a writer. He had always been a glutton for work. Besides his writing he had found time to serve on the National Trust executive committee (1947–68) and the London Library committee (1952–7). He was also a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery (1948–64), and president of the Classical Association (1950–51). His last years, however, were spent in melancholy decline at Sissinghurst. He died there on 1 May 1968, following a stroke, and was buried at Sissinghurst church. He was survived by his two sons.

Nicolson was in many ways 'a nineteenth-century character … living an eighteenth century life in the midst of the twentieth century' (J. Sparrow, Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, 6). His background and his strong intellectual tastes made him an élitist. But he was no snob, and disliked pomp and formality. He was known to a wide circle as a responsive and entertaining companion, but his diaries, edited by his son Nigel in three volumes (1966–8), quickly became a standard source for the period and revealed his capacity for self-scrutiny. He brought to politics shrewd practical wisdom combined with humanistic values, and to literature an easy, slightly ironic, classical style. 'His life tended to zigzag, but he extracted from it much pleasure' (N. Nicolson, Introduction, Diaries, 9). James Lees-Milne described him as 'stocky in build and cheerful in countenance; jaunty in movement; mischievous and benignant in manner' (DNB).


  • Sissinghurst Castle, near Cranbrook, Kent, Nicolson MSS
  • N. Nicolson, ed., Diaries and letters of Harold Nicolson, 3 vols. (1966–8)
  • S. Olson, ed., Harold Nicolson: diaries and letters, 1930–64 (1980)
  • J. Lees-Milne, Harold Nicolson: a biography, 2 vols. (1980–83)
  • N. Nicolson, ed., Vita and Harold: the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, 1910–1962 (1992)
  • N. Nicolson, Portrait of a marriage, new edn (1992)
  • Bodl. Oxf., MSS Rumbold
  • Bodl. Oxf., MSS Colefax
  • Ratiu Family Charitable Foundation, London, Tilea MSS
  • W. N. Medlicott and others, eds., Documents on British foreign policy, 1919–1939, 1st ser., vol. 17; ser. 1a, vol. 2
  • TNA: PRO, Foreign Office archives, FO 371/11481
  • Parl. Arch., Beaverbrook papers
  • H. Nicolson, Sir Arthur Nicolson, Bart: Lord Carnock (1930)
  • H. Nicolson, The desire to please (1943)
  • H. Nicolson, Curzon, the last phase, 1919–1925 (1934)
  • H. Nicolson, Peacemaking 1919 (1933)
  • H. Nicolson, Some people (1927)
  • H. Nicolson, ‘Marginal comment’, The Spectator [various issues]
  • G. Waterfield, Professional diplomat: Sir Percy Loraine (1973)
  • L. Wolff, ‘The public faces of Harold Nicolson: the thirties’, Biography, 5 (1982), 240–52
  • A. Scott-James, Sissinghurst: the making of a garden (1973)
  • V. Glendinning, Vita: the life of Vita Sackville-West (1983)
  • D. Cannadine, Aspects of aristocracy: grandeur and decline in modern Britain (1995)
  • T. G. Otte, Harold Nicolson and diplomatic theory: between old diplomacy and new (1998)
  • WWW, 1961–70
  • T. G. Otte, ‘Nicolson’, in G. R. Berridge, M. Keens-Soper, and T. G. Otte, Diplomatic theory from Machiavelli to Kissinger (2001), 125–50
  • D. Drinkwater, Sir Harold Nicolson and international relations: the practitioner as theorist (2005)


  • Balliol Oxf., diaries
  • Sissinghurst Castle, near Cranbrook, Kent, corresp.
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sibyl Colefax
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lionel Curtis
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Horace Rumbold
  • CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir E. L. Spears
  • Georgetown University, Washington, DC, letters to Christopher Sykes
  • Harvard University, near Florence, Italy, Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, letters to Bernard Berenson
  • King's AC Cam., letters to Clive Bell
  • King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart
  • Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook
  • Rice University, Houston, Texas, Woodson Research Center, corresp. with Julian S. Huxley
  • Royal Society of Literature, London, letters to Royal Society of Literature
  • TNA: PRO, Foreign Office archives, FO 371
  • U. Durham, letters to William Plomer


  • W. Rothenstein, red chalk drawing, 1925
  • H. Coster, photographs, 1930–39, NPG [see illus.]
  • Y. Karsh, photograph, 1949, NPG
  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1955, NPG
  • W. Suschitzky, photograph, 1957, NPG
  • photograph, repro. in Nicolson, ed., Vita and Harold (1992), facing p. 310
  • photograph, repro. in M. Jebb, ed., The diaries of Cynthia Gladwyn (1995), following p. 96
  • photographs, repro. in Nicolson, ed., Diaries and letters
  • photographs, repro. in Lees-Milne, Harold Nicolson

Wealth at Death

£22,748: probate, 12 Nov 1968, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Churchill College, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge
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British Library, National Sound Archive
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Balliol College, Oxford
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Parliamentary Archives of the United Kingdom
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King's College Archive Centre, Cambridge
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National Portrait Gallery, London
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National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
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