Harold Nicolson

Sir Harold George Nicolson, KCVO CMG (21 November 1886 – 1 May 1968), was a British diplomat, author, diarist and politician. He was the husband of writer Vita Sackville-West.


Harold Nicolson

Member of Parliament
for Leicester West
In office
14 November 1935  5 July 1945
Preceded byErnest Harold Pickering
Succeeded byBarnett Janner
Personal details
Harold George Nicolson

(1886-11-21)21 November 1886
Tehran, Persian Empire
Died1 May 1968(1968-05-01) (aged 81)
Sissinghurst Castle, Kent, England
Political partyNational Labour and Labour Party
Vita Sackville-West
(m. 1913; d. 1962)
ChildrenBenedict Nicolson
Nigel Nicolson
ParentsArthur Nicolson, 1st Baron Carnock
Mary Hamilton
Alma materBalliol College, Oxford
OccupationBritish diplomat, author, diarist and politician

Early life

Nicolson was born in Tehran, Persia, the youngest son of diplomat Arthur Nicolson, 1st Baron Carnock. He spent his boyhood in various places throughout Europe and the Near East, following his father's frequent postings, including St. Petersburg, Constantinople, Madrid, Sofia and Tangier.[1] He was educated at The Grange School in Folkestone, Kent, followed by Wellington College. He attended Balliol College, Oxford, graduating in 1909 with a third class degree. Nicolson entered the Foreign Office that same year, after passing second in the competitive exams for the Diplomatic Service and Civil Service.[1]

Diplomatic career

In 1909 Nicolson joined HM Diplomatic Service. He served as attaché at Madrid from February to September 1911, and then Third Secretary at Constantinople from January 1912 to October 1914. In 1913, Nicolson married the novelist Vita Sackville-West. Nicolson and his wife practised what today would be called an open marriage with both having affairs with people of the same sex. A diplomatic career was an honorable and prestigious one in Edwardian Britain, but Sackville-West's parents were aristocrats who wanted their daughter to marry a fellow aristocrat from an old noble family; they gave only reluctant approval to the marriage.[2]

During the First World War he served at the Foreign Office in London, during which time he was promoted to Second Secretary. As the Foreign Office's most junior employee at this rank, it fell to him on 4 August 1914 to hand Britain's revised declaration of war to Prince Max von Lichnowsky, the German ambassador in London. An Anglophile who had been privately opposed to his country's foreign policy, the British declaration of war was a bitter blow to Lichnowsky. In December 1917 Nicolson had to explain to Sackville-West that he had contracted a venereal disease as a result of an anonymous homosexual encounter, and he had probably passed it to her. As it turned out, he hadn't.[2] He served in a junior capacity in the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, for which he was appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the 1920 New Year Honours.[3]

Promoted First Secretary in 1920, he was appointed private secretary to Sir Eric Drummond, first Secretary-General of the League of Nations, but was recalled to the Foreign Office in June 1920. In the same year, Sackville-West become involved in an intense relationship with Violet Trefusis that nearly wrecked her marriage; as Nicolson wrote in his diary, "Damn! Damn! Damn! Violet. How I loathe her".[2] On one occasion, Nicolson had to follow Vita to France, where she had "eloped" with Violet Trefusis, to try to win her back. Nicolson himself was no stranger to homosexual affairs. Among others, he was involved in a long-term relationship with Raymond Mortimer, whom both he and Vita affectionately referred to as "Tray". Nicolson and Vita discussed their shared homosexual tendencies frankly with each other,[4] and remained happy together. They were famously devoted to each other, writing almost every day when separated due to Nicolson's long diplomatic postings abroad, or Vita's insatiable wanderlust. Eventually, he gave up diplomacy, partly so they could live together in England.

In 1925 he was promoted Counsellor and posted to Tehran as Chargé d'affaires. That same year, General Reza Khan deposed the last Qajar Shah, Ahmad Shah Qajar, to take the Peacock Throne for himself, and, though this was not entirely appropriate for a foreign diplomat's wife, Sackville-West became deeply involved in the coronation of Reza Khan as the new Shah. Nicolson personally disliked Reza Khan, calling him "a bullet-headed man with the voice of an asthmatic child".[5]

Reza Khan disliked British influence in Iran, and after being crowned Shah, had submitted a "categorical note" that demanded the "removal of Indian Savars [mounted guards] from Persia".[6] The Savars had been used to guard the British Legation in Tehran and various consulates across Persia, and Reza Khan felt having the troops of a foreign power marching down the streets of his capital was an infringement of Persian sovereignty. As the chargé d'affairs, Nicolson was in charge of the British Legation in the summer of 1926 and upon receiving the Iranian note, he rushed down to the Iranian Foreign Ministry to object.[6] Nicolson writing in the third person stated he had a "Kipling inside him and something of an 'empire builder'" told the Persian officials that the note was "so categorical to be almost offensive" and wanted it withdrawn.[7] The Persians stated that the note had been written by Reza Khan himself and could not be withdrawn, though ultimately an annex was added to the note, which softened its threatening tone, but much to the satisfaction of Reza Khan, the British had to abide by what Nicolson called a "frank and honest" note, withdrawing the Savars.[8]

In the summer of 1927 he was recalled to London and demoted to First Secretary for criticising his Minister, Sir Percy Loraine, in a dispatch. However he was posted to Berlin as Chargé d'affaires in 1928 and promoted Counsellor again, but resigned from the Diplomatic Service in September 1929.

Political career

From 1930 to 1931 Nicolson edited the Londoner's Diary for the Evening Standard, but disliked writing about high-society gossip and quit within a year.

In 1931 he joined Sir Oswald Mosley and his recently formed New Party. He stood unsuccessfully for Parliament for the Combined English Universities in the general election that year and edited the party newspaper, Action. He ceased to support Mosley when the latter formed the British Union of Fascists the following year.

Nicolson entered the House of Commons as National Labour Member of Parliament (MP) for Leicester West in the 1935 election. In the latter half of the 1930s he was among a relatively small number of MPs who alerted the country to the threat of fascism. More a follower of Anthony Eden in this regard than of Winston Churchill, he nevertheless was a friend (though not an intimate) of Churchill, and often supported his efforts in the Commons to stiffen British resolve and support rearmament. A Francophile, Nicolson was a close friend of Charles Corbin, the Anglophile and anti-appeasement French ambassador to the court of St. James.[9] In October 1938, Nicolson spoke out against the Munich Agreement in the House of Commons, saying:

"I know that those of us who believe in the traditions of our policy, who believe that one great function of this country is to maintain moral standards in Europe, not to make friends with people whose conduct is demonstrably evil, but to set up some sort of standard by which smaller powers can test what is good in international conduct and what is not-I know that those who hold such beliefs are accused of possessing the Foreign Office mind. I thank God that I possess a Foreign Office mind".[10]

In June 1940, Nicolson met the French writer André Maurois at time when France was on the verge of defeat, leading him to write in his diary:

"June 12, 1940. I saw André Maurois in the morning. He left Paris yesterday. He said that never before in his life had he experienced such agony as he did when he saw Paris basking under a lovely summer day and realised that he might never see it again. I do feel so deeply for the French. Paris is to them what our countryside is to us. If we were to feel the lanes of Devonshire, the rocks of Cornwall and our own unflaunting England were all concentrated in one spot and likely to be wiped out, we would feel all the pain in the world".[11]

He became Parliamentary Secretary and official Censor[12] at the Ministry of Information in Churchill's 1940 wartime government of national unity, serving under Cabinet member Duff Cooper for approximately a year until he was asked by Churchill to leave his position in order to make way for Ernest Thurtle MP as the Labour Party demanded more of their MPs in the Government;[13] thereafter he was a well respected backbencher, especially on foreign policy issues given his early and prominent diplomatic career. From 1941 to 1946 he was also on the Board of Governors of the BBC.

In 1944, during the Battle of Monte Cassino, it was widely believed that the Germans were using the Monte Cassino abbey in Italy as an observation post to direct fire down at the Allied forces in the valley below, and many demanded that the abbey be bombed in order to save the lives of the Allied soldiers that were attempting to advance up the valley to take the heights of Monte Cassino, which was a key point in the Gustav line. In February 1944, Nicolson caused controversy with a column in The Spectator saying art was irreplaceable, but human life was expendable. He was opposed to bombing Monte Cassino abbey as the abbey was a great work of art that contained many works of art that could never be replaced, even if that meant the death of his own son, Nigel Nicolson who was serving in the 8th Army as it was fighting the Battle of Monte Cassino, saying it was morally better to take thousands of dead and wounded than to destroy the abbey of Monte Cassino.[14] Much to Nicolson's chagrin, the Monte Cassino abbey was destroyed by an American bombing raid on 15 February 1944.

When Nicolson, a Francophile, visited France in March 1945 for the first time in five years, upon landing in France he kissed the earth.[15] When a Frenchman asked the prostrate Nicolson "Monsieur a laissé tomber quelque-chose?" ("Sir, have you dropped something?"), Nicolson replied "Non, j'ai retrouvé quelque-chose" ("No, I have recovered something").[15] The exchange is little known in Britain, but is well remembered in France.[15]

He lost his seat in the 1945 election. Having then joined the Labour Party (to the dismay of his family) in an unsuccessful attempt to secure a hereditary peerage from Clement Attlee, he stood in the Croydon North by-election in 1948 but lost once again.

In 1960, at the Paris summit, Nicolson wrote about the behaviour of the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that he was "a little mad" and the "exchange of insults is not the best method of conducting relations between sovereign states".[16]


Encouraged in his literary ambitions by his wife Vita Sackville-West,[17] also a writer, Nicolson published a biography of French poet Paul Verlaine in 1921, to be followed by studies of other literary figures such as Tennyson, Byron, Swinburne and Sainte-Beuve. In 1933, he wrote an account of the Paris Peace Conference entitled Peacemaking 1919.

Nicolson noted that "although I loathe antisemitism I do dislike Jews".[18] In his diaries he expressed trepidation over making admission as a civil servant to the Foreign Office less exclusive, writing that: "Jews are far more interested in international life than are Englishmen. And if we opened the service it might be flooded with clever Jews."[19] Tony Kushner has argued that he typified the antisemite who 'warned publicly against the dangers of antisemitism at any level, yet privately hated the very presence of Jews'.[20] Without evidence, he assumed in his diaries in 1944 that a group of girls relaxing with American GIs were Jewish: "I am all for a little promiscuity. But nymphomania among East End Jewesses and for such large sums of money makes me sick."[21]

Nicolson is also remembered for his 1932 novel Public Faces, which foreshadowed the nuclear bomb. A fictional account of British national policy in 1939, it tells how Britain's secretary of state tries to keep world peace with the Royal Air Force aggressively brandishing rocket airplanes and an atomic bomb. In today's terms, it was a multi-megaton bomb, and the geology of the Persian Gulf played a central role, but on the other hand the likes of Hitler was not foreseen.

After Nicolson's last attempt to enter Parliament failed, he continued with an extensive social schedule and his programme of writing, which included books, book reviews, and a weekly column for The Spectator.

His diary is one of the pre-eminent British diaries of the 20th century[22][23] and a noteworthy source on British political history from 1930 through the 1950s, particularly in regard to the run-up to World War II and the war itself: Nicolson served in high enough echelons to write of the workings of the circles of power and the day-to-day unfolding of great events. (His fellow parliamentarian Robert Bernays aptly characterized Nicolson as being "...a national figure of the second degree.") Nicolson was variously an acquaintance, associate, friend, or intimate to such figures as Ramsay MacDonald, David Lloyd George, Alfred Duff Cooper, Charles de Gaulle, Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill, along with a host of literary and artistic figures.


He had two sons, Benedict, an art historian, and Nigel, a politician and writer. Nigel later published works by and about his parents, including Portrait of a Marriage, their correspondence, and Nicolson's diary.

In the 1930s, his wife acquired Sissinghurst Castle, near Cranbrook in Kent, the county known as the garden of England. The couple there created the renowned gardens that are now run by the National Trust.


He was appointed Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO) in 1953, as a reward for writing the official biography of George V, which had been published in the previous year.[24]

There is a plaque commemorating him and Vita Sackville-West on their house in Ebury Street, London SW1.


  • Paul Verlaine (Constable, 1921)
  • Sweet Waters (Constable, 1921) novel; new edition in 2012 by Eland
  • Tennyson: Aspects of His Life, Character and Poetry (Constable, 1923)
  • Byron: The Last Journey (Constable, 1924)
  • Swinburne (Macmillan, 1926)
  • Some People (Constable, 1927)
  • The Development of English Biography (The Hogarth Press, 1927) (Hogarth Lectures No. 4)
  • Swinburne and Baudelaire: The Zaharoff Lecture (The Clarendon Press, 1930)
  • Portrait of a Diplomatist: Being the Life of Sir Arthur Nicolson, First Lord Carnock, and a Study of the Origins of the Great War (Houghton Mifflin, 1930)
  • People and Things: Wireless Talks (Constable, 1931)
  • Public Faces: A Novel (Constable, 1932) novel
  • Peacemaking 1919 (Constable, 1933)
  • Curzon: The Last Phase, 1919–1925: A Study in Post-War Diplomacy (Constable, 1934)
  • Dwight Morrow (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935)
  • Politics on the Train (Constable, 1936)
  • Helen's Tower (Constable, 1937)
  • Small Talk (Constable, 1937)
  • Diplomacy (Thornton Butterworth, 1939) (Home University Library of Modern Knowledge)
  • Marginal Comment (January 6 – August 4, 1939) (Constable, 1939)
  • Why Britain is at War (Penguin Books, 1939) (Penguin Specials)
  • The Desire to Please: The Story of Hamilton Rowan and the United Irishmen (Constable, 1943)
  • The Poetry of Byron: The English Association Presidential Address, August 1943 (Oxford University Press, 1943)
  • Friday Mornings 1941–1944 (Constable, 1944)
  • England: An Anthology (Macmillan, 1944)
  • Another World Than This: An Anthology (Michael Joseph, 1945) edited with Vita Sackville-West
  • The Congress of Vienna: A Study in Allied Unity: 1812–1822 (Constable, 1946)
  • Comments 1944–1948 (Constable, 1948) – collected articles from the Spectator
  • Benjamin Constant (Constable, 1949)
  • King George V (Constable, 1952)[24]
  • The Evolution of Diplomacy (Constable, 1954) – Chichele Lectures 1953
  • The English Sense of Humour and other Essays (The Dropmore Press, 1946)
  • Good Behaviour, being a Study of Certain Types of Civility (Constable, 1955)
  • Sainte-Beuve (Constable, 1957)
  • Journey to Java (London: Constable, 1957)
  • The Age of Reason (1700–1789) (Constable, 1960)
  • Tennyson: Aspects of his Life, Character and Poetry (Arrow, 1960) (Grey Arrow Books, no. 39)
  • Monarchy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962)
  • Diaries and Letters 1930–39; Diaries and Letters 1939–45; Diaries and Letters 1945–62 (Collins, 1966–68) - edited by Nigel Nicolson

See also


  1. Ed. Nigel Nicolson (1966). Harold Nicolson: Diaries & Letters 1930–1939. Collins. p. 23.
  2. Johnston, Georgia "Counterfeit Perversion: Vita Sackville-West's "Portrait of a Marriage"" pp. 124–137 from Journal of Modern Literature Volume 28, Issue # 1, Autumn 2004 p. 125.
  3. "No. 31712". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1919. p. 5.
  4. Bristow-Smith, Harold Nicolson pp. 164–165, 227, 249–250
  5. Ghanī Sīrūs & Ghani, Cyrus Iran and the Rise of the Reza Shah: From Qajar Collapse to Pahlavi Power, London: B. Tauris, 2000 p. 394.
  6. Milani, Abbas The Shah, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010 p. 54.
  7. Milani, Abbas The Shah, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010 pp. 54–55.
  8. Milani, Abbas The Shah, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010 p. 55.
  9. Duroselle, Jean-Baptiste France and the Nazi Threat: The Collapse of French Diplomacy 1932–1939, New York: Enigma, 2004 p. 222.
  10. Young, Vernon "The Fine Art Of Name-Dropping: Harold Nicolson" pp. 737–744 from The Hudson Review, Volume 21, Issue #4, Winter 1968–1969 p. 739.
  11. Young, Vernon "The Fine Art Of Name-Dropping: Harold Nicolson" pp. 737–744 from The Hudson Review, Volume 21, Issue #4, Winter 1968–1969 p. 742.
  12. Ahmed Ali. Twilight in Delhi. Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1966, p. 2. This is from the introduction to the book, in which its author tells of H.N.'s role in getting it published in 1940. There is no reference to H.N.'s work in this capacity in his published Diaries, presumably due to the Official Secrets Act.
  13. Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Nicholson Baker, 2008
  14. Young, Vernon "The Fine Art Of Name-Dropping: Harold Nicolson" pp. 737–744 from The Hudson Review, Volume 21, Issue #4, Winter 1968–1969 p. 737.
  15. Bell, P. M. H. France and Britain, 1940–1994: The Long Separation London: Routledge, 2014 p. 66.
  16. Young, Vernon "The Fine Art Of Name-Dropping: Harold Nicolson" pp. 737–744 from The Hudson Review, Volume 21, Issue #4, Winter 1968–1969 p. 741.
  17. Bristow-Smith, Harold Nicolson pp. 169–170
  18. Kushner, Tony. The Persistence of Prejudice: Antisemitism in British Society during the Second World War. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1989, p. 2
  19. Nigel Nicolson (1966). Harold Nicolson: Letters & Diaries 1930–1939. Collins. p. 53.
  20. Kushner, Tony. The Persistence of Prejudice: Antisemitism in British Society during the Second World War. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1989, p. 98
  21. Kushner, Tony. The Persistence of Prejudice: Antisemitism in British Society during the Second World War. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1989, p. 110
  22. Edel, Leon, "The Price of Peace Was War". Saturday Review, 3 December 1966, pp. 53, 54.
  23. de-la-Noy, Michael, "Obituary: Nigel Nicolson". The Guardian, 23 September 2004.
  24. Nicolson, Harold (1952). King George the Fifth, His Life and Reign. London: Constable. ISBN 978-0-09-453181-9. OCLC 1633172. Also under OCLC 255946522. Published in America as Nicolson, Harold (1953). King George the Fifth, His Life and Reign. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. OCLC 1007202. Also under OCLC 476173.

Further reading

  • Nigel Nicolson, Portrait of a Marriage, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973), ISBN 0-297-76645-7.
  • Nigel Nicolson (ed.), The Harold Nicolson Diaries 1907–1963, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004), ISBN 0-297-84764-3
  • James Lees-Milne, Harold Nicolson, A Biography, (Chatto & Windus), 1980, Vol. I (1886–1929), ISBN 0-7011-2520-9; 1981, Vol. II (1930–1968), ISBN 0-7011-2602-7.
  • Nigel Nicolson (ed.), Vita and Harold. The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson 1910–1962 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1992), ISBN 0-297-81182-7.
  • David Cannadine: Portrait of More Than a Marriage: Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West Revisited. From Aspects of Aristocracy, pp. 210–42. (Yale University Press, 1994), ISBN 0-300-05981-7.
  • Norman Rose, Harold Nicolson (Jonathan Cape, 2005), ISBN 0-224-06218-2.
  • Derek Drinkwater, Sir Harold Nicolson & International Relations, ( Oxford University Press, 2005), ISBN 0-19-927385-5.
  • Laurence Bristow-Smith, Harold Nicolson: Half-an-Eye on History. Letterworth Press, 2014. ISBN 978-2-9700654-5-6.
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Ernest Harold Pickering
Member of Parliament for Leicester West
Succeeded by
Barnett Janner
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