The Marquesses of Bristol have often embodied that curiously ripe strain of English upper-class decadence. The Third Marquess boasted that he had bedded 12 Portuguese nuns. The fourth, who became Bishop of Derry, tipped a tureen of hot spaghetti over a procession of the Blessed Sacrament from his window in Rome because he couldn’t stand the sound of bells. The sixth, Victor Hervey, not content with being jailed for his part in a jewel heist, took potshots at his house guests from the upstairs windows of the family pile at Ickworth, Suffolk, and was rumoured to have been the last man to be publicly flogged in Britain.
So Victor’s son John, the seventh Marquess, had a lot to live up to when he was born in 1954. To say he dedicated his life to exceeding everyone’s direst expectations would be something of an understatement.
The portents were there at his christening — one of his godparents later shot himself in the head, while another would go on to kill his wife — but his downward trajectory really began when his mother Pauline walked out of the family pile at Ickworth, Suffolk, when he was just four, claiming she couldn’t stand Victor’s habit of keeping the radiators on all night. John had a lonely childhood; his father, too busy for weekend visits to his son’s prep school, would send a car full of toys instead. “If I had been asked who was going to get into hot water in adult life, John would have been the first name that sprang to mind,” recalled his schoolmate Harry Wyndham.
John inherited the 8,000-acre family estate (worth £4 million then) on his 21st birthday in 1975. This fortune, plus the money he had made from investments in oil, property and agriculture, bought him all the standard boy toys (yachts, classic cars, motorbikes, helicopters), and also allowed him to assume the mantle of libidinous libertine. Then there was the drink and drugs. Even as a teenager he had hidden bottles of crème de menthe in Ickfield’s numerous lavatory cisterns; now, the Bloody Marys were wheeled out at 11am. His experiments with cocaine blossomed into parties in his Claridge’s suite where the lines of coke would be on the left of the mantelpiece and the lines of heroin on the right (there was also the memorable occasion when he exited the monogrammed helicopter he’d been piloting with his face covered in cocaine; he had been snorting it off the map he was using for navigation). And there was also the sex. A man of prodigious appetites, John preferred men (a short-lived marriage to Francesca Fisher, a teetotal free spirit barely out of her teens, ended after she was left dangling, Italian Job-like, in the Bentley he had drunkenly driven halfway off a cliff); among his paramours were Robin Hurlstone (who later dated Joan Collins) and a young Rupert Everett.
The Marquess was twice jailed for drug offences, acquired the accolade of being the only member of the House of Lords to be deported from Australia, and died, virtually penniless, of multiple organ failure in 1999, having admitted spending £7 million on drugs in less than a decade (Ickworth had been leased to the National Trust the previous year, in lieu of their evicting him for bad behaviour; he ended up living in a rented farmhouse on the edge of the estate, railing at passing day-trippers). His illustrious forebears would have applauded his indecorousness, but the seventh Marquess was not unaware of the human cost of his poisonous legacy. “You can buy something that is self-gratifying,” he said, shortly before he died, “but self-gratification does not last long enough and it does not turn into happiness. I can tell you. I’ve tried it for a long time.”