Lord Cobbold, custodian of Knebworth House, was born on July 14, 1937. He died of complications from Parkinson’s disease on May 9, 2022, aged 84.
“I give you . . . David of Knebworth,” roared the tournament compere as a tall figure, resplendent in chain-mail, helmet and plume, galloped at full tilt with his lance fixed towards his opponent, the Black Knight. The assembled crowd watched as the jouster unseated his adversary, then saluted in triumph.
While many landowners work long hours to preserve their inheritance, few will have taken such a hands-on and hazardous approach as Lord Cobbold, one of the first aristocrats to keep his historic house in the family by opening it to the public.
Lady Hermione inherited the house when both her brothers were killed, Antony in an air crash and John at Alamein. She and her husband moved there in 1947. A lively, sporty boy, David enjoyed riding and tree-climbing in the deer park. He went to Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, before joining the Canadian Air Force as his National Service.
Lord Cobbold with Ella Fitzgerald at Knebworth in 1981
He took over his mother’s ancestral home Knebworth House, Hertfordshire, in his early thirties and with his dauntless wife transformed its fortunes, staging a series of music festivals featuring many of the greatest rock and jazz musicians of the era. Beginning in 1974, the events attracted the biggest names in music, including the Rolling Stones, Genesis, the Boomtown Rats, Cliff Richard, Pink Floyd and, in 1986, Freddie Mercury’s final concert. Oasis’s two-night run drew a combined audience of 250,000 and more than 2.6 million people applied for tickets.
Personable and charismatic, Cobbold juggled his various commitments as custodian, impresario, banker and peer. He was re-elected to the House of Lords as a Liberal Democrat, among the 92 hereditary peers retained after the majority were expelled in 1999, and later became a crossbencher.
David Anthony Fromanteel Cobbold, the 2nd Baron Cobbold, was born into a Suffolk brewing family. His father was Cameron (Kim) Cobbold and his mother Lady Hermione (née Bulwer-Lytton), whose great-grandfather was the eccentric novelist and opium enthusiast Edward Bulwer-Lytton, famous for his highly-coloured romances and oft-parodied lines such as “It was a dark and stormy night”. Edward had lived at Knebworth, once an Elizabethan manor house built around a central court. In 1814 the three front sections of the house were demolished, while its rear west wing was remodelled in Tudor gothic style for Mrs Bulwer-Lytton, the novelist’s mother.
Aged 21, at a debutante dance, he met Christine (Chryssie) Stucley, from Hartland Abbey, North Devon, one of the few houses in England bigger than Knebworth, and was smitten by her large-eyed beauty, low-cut green dress and long hair. “He wandered over and asked ‘Are you a mermaid?’ ” she later recalled. The couple married in 1961, after Cobbold had changed his name by deed poll to Lytton Cobbold to honour his mother’s distinguished line.
Through his father’s contacts, he worked in banks around the world, including New York and Zurich, before joining the Bank of London and South America (Bolsa) in the late 1960s. Bolsa was one of the first banks in the Eurodollar market and the experience kindled Cobbold’s enthusiasm for European unity and the EU itself.
In 1960 his father Kim, a long-serving governor of the Bank of England, was made the 1st Baron Cobbold and three years later he was appointed lord chamberlain to the Queen; he found he had no time to keep Knebworth going.
Proud of their romantic family heritage, the Lytton Cobbolds begged to run the house themselves, taking over in 1969 despite parental fears at the cost. Money was indeed always tight: Chryssie’s father, Sir Dennis Stucley, paid for portraits of the young couple, teasing his daughter: “By the time David’s earned enough to pay for the pictures, you won’t be worth painting.”
Chryssie, a practical woman despite her dreamy manner, had few fears about running Knebworth on a shoestring, though there were challenges at first (she once woke up to find mice nibbling her toes). The pair began renovating, replacing rotten curtains and threadbare carpets, doing much of the work themselves, despite moth infestations and plumbing disasters.
Once visitors no longer risked being flattened by falling masonry, the couple opened the estate for everything from steam rallies and wedding receptions to Scout jamborees and film shoots. Their four children joined in with gusto. Henry, a keen naturist, became a Hollywood screenwriter before taking over the estate; Peter now manages property in Spain; Richard was appointed page of honour to the Queen in 1980 and later became an entrepreneur; and Rosina is an artist and designer. Given their extraordinary upbringing it was no surprise that all the Cobbold offspring were equally at ease hosting big-name celebrities, romping with lion cubs on the lawn or acting as extras in films like The Shooting Party (1985).
Also in the thick of the action at Knebworth were two of Henry’s closest friends from Eton, Ugandan brothers Danny and Harry Matovu, whose parents had suffered persecution under Idi Amin. The Lytton Cobbolds informally adopted the two boys, who went on to become successful barristers and an accomplished jazz vocal and piano duo.
Generous hosts, the couple threw parties reminiscent of the Bright Young Things of the 1920s. Their diverse group of friends included Dame Barbara Cartland, Auberon and Teresa Waugh, and neighbours Ken and Barbara Follett. They once threw an “Underground”-themed fancy-dress party, for which Cobbold had an entire Tube carriage towed into the courtyard as an eye-catching dance floor. Guests dressed as different stations including a borderline-pornographic Cockfosters.
Henry recalled his father “running for the train to a City job he tolerates so he can party like a prince all weekend” and “coming down to supper in his flashing Knebworth House jacket, and Brian May wig and dancing inappropriately with every pretty girl”.
As well as Chryssie, their four children and the Matovu brothers, he is survived by two children from other relationships. Although Cobbold was a well-known ladies’ man, the couple’s partnership remained close-knit thanks to their mutual tolerance and aristocratic disdain for convention. This included the decision to install a bath in the kitchen of their London house, where the pair would often convene, relaxing in the tub and pouring glasses of champagne as they discussed the day’s events at Knebworth and in the City. Lady Cobbold’s account of how they transformed the estate was duly titled Board Meetings in the Bath.
Hosting high- profile music festivals occasionally led to close shaves: while members of Pink Floyd and the Who were partying hard in one room, Cobbold and his wife had to distract the drugs squad next door.
Still he enjoyed sharing his inheritance, watching the vast crowds massing in the park amid the reek of cannabis smoke. He particularly loved meeting his jazz heroes Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald and was intrigued to discover that Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page was, somewhat unexpectedly, a great fan of Bulwer-Lytton.
After learning that his great-great grandfather had put on amateur theatrical performances with his friend Charles Dickens, Cobbold decided to recreate these “Dickens and Bulwer” evenings at Knebworth with the help of the actor Gerald Dickens, a descendant of the novelist: they restaged one of the original melodramas performed by their ancestors in 1850.
He co-founded the Historic Houses Association in the early 1970s and was its treasurer for many years. His daughter-in-law Martha (née Boone), Henry’s wife, now chairs it.
After working at BP and then TSB until the late 1980s, Cobbold left the City to run Knebworth full-time. The preservation work continued, with the restoration of the notable “bat on barrel” gargoyles — an architectural pun on the family name Lytton (“lyt” being an ancient word for bat and “ton” for barrel). Gertrude Jekyll had drawn up plans for a herb garden in 1907 which Cobbold finally had planted in 1982.
He established a charitable trust to secure the estate’s future, with the family paying rent to live there, then in 2002 handed it over to his heir Henry, who now succeeds to the barony. The Cobbolds moved to nearby Park Gate House.
Their granddaughter Morwenna, Henry’s daughter, became a well-known model and DJ while her brother Edward studied both rock guitar and land management in preparation for his own stint at the helm of Knebworth.
Cobbold continued jousting in full chain-mail into his seventies. His last public appearance was in April when he attended Morwenna’s wedding in the banqueting hall of Knebworth House.
Unconventional to the end, he was buried 25 hours after his death without priest or undertaker, in a quiet nook in Knebworth garden. He made his final journey in a cardboard coffin printed with the album design for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.