Edwin Montagu was born on 6th February 1879, at 12 Kensington Palace Gardens, London. He was the second son of Samuel Montagu and Ellen Cohen Montagu. His father was a millionaire banker and his mother came from a prominent Jewish banking family of Liverpool. (1)
Samuel was a long-term financial backer of the Liberal Party and in the 1885 General Election he was elected to represent Whitechapel. A great supporter of William Gladstone, in the House of Commons he argued in favour of Jewish colonisation in Palestine. In 1888 he was a member of the select committee on alien immigration, an issue on which he opposed over-restriction and spoke for the interests of persecuted Jews. (2)
In 1891 Edwin Montague was sent to a boarding-school, Clifton College, "where he did not settle, suffering from frequent bouts of homesickness, especially missing his mother, to whom he was very close". In April 1893 he was moved to the City of London School. (3)
In December 1895 Edwin Montagu entered University College, specializing in biology. After briefly attending University College Hospital as a medical student, he began studying at Trinity College, in October 1898. Montagu was an undistinguished student, but developed a reputation for political debating and was praised for his use of "delightful satire". (4)
In 1902 Montagu was elected as President of the Cambridge Union. During this period he became friends with Raymond Asquith, the son of H. H. Asquith, a senior figure in the Liberal Party. Asquith was impressed with the young man and he was recruited to speak at "meetings throughout the country, earning a reputation as an up-and-coming Liberal of radical opinions". It was during this period he became known as Asquith's protégé. (5)
In 1903 he started work with Messrs Coward Hawksley and Chance, solicitors, at 30 Mincing Lane, London. In November 1905 he passed the constitutional law section of the bar examination but his main interest was in politics. He was adopted as the Liberal candidate for the Chesterton constituency, and was elected to parliament as part of the Liberal landslide in the 1906 General Election. Asquith, was appointed as Chancellor of the Exchequer, by the new prime minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Asquith immediately asked Montagu to be his parliamentary private secretary and became part of the family "inner circle". (6)
Henry Campbell-Bannerman suffered a severe stroke in November, 1907. He returned to work following two months rest but it soon became clear that the 71 year-old prime minister was unable to continue. On 27th March, 1908, he asked to see Asquith. According to Margot Asquith: "Henry came into my room at 7.30 p.m. and told me that Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman had sent for him that day to tell him that he was dying... He began by telling him the text he had chosen out of the Psalms to put on his grave, and the manner of his funeral... Henry was deeply moved when he went on to tell me that Campbell-Bannerman had thanked him for being a wonderful colleague." (7)
Campbell-Bannerman suggested to Edward VII that Asquith should replace him as Prime Minister. However, the King with characteristic selfishness was reluctant to break his holiday in Biarritz and ordered him to continue. On 1st April, the dying Campbell-Bannerman, sent a letter to the King seeking his permission to give up office. He agreed as long as Asquith was willing to travel to France to "kiss hands". Colin Clifford has argued that "Campbell-Bannerman.. for all his defects, was probably the most decent man ever to hold the office of Prime Minister. Childless and a widower since the death of his beloved wife the year before, he was now facing death bravely, with no family to comfort him." Campbell-Bannerman died later that month. (8)
In 1910 Asquith appointed Montagu as the under-secretary of state at the India Office. His first speech in the post "was a tour de force and marked him out for a considerable political future... Montagu concerned himself with political matters, particularly the growing unrest in India. While acknowledging that demands for increasing political participation emanated from a small section of the educated intelligentsia, he nevertheless asserted the importance of responding to the challenging nationalist climate constructively in order to avoid major conflagration." (9)
Some members of the establishment disapproved of Montagu because of his Jewish faith. Raymond Asquith defended Montagu to his friend Conrad Russell: "I agree that he has not a drop of European blood, but then neither has he a drop of American. I don't agree that he is a wet-blanket in Society. He is moody certainly, but is capable of being extremely amusing... He is broadminded, minded, free from cant, open to new impressions, tolerant of new people. " (10)
This brought him even closer to Asquith and in 1912 he joined the family on a trip to Sicily in 1912. Also on holiday with them was Asquith's daughter, Violet Asquith and her friend Venetia Stanley. Over the next two weeks both men fell in love with Venetia. Asquith, was 59 years old at the time and in a letter to her later he described the holiday as "the first stage in our intimacy... we had together one of the most interesting and delightful fortnights in all our lives... the scales dropped from my eyes… and I dimly felt… that I had come to a turning point in my life". (11)
On their return from holiday Asquith invited Venetia Stanley to a house party, following this up with invitations to 10 Downing Street. However, he was unaware that Edwin Montagu was also besotted with Venetia. He wrote to her regularly and took her out whenever he could. It seems that Asquith was totally unaware of this developing relationship. In August 1912 he asked her to marry him. At first she accepted the proposal and later changed her mind. (12)
If Venetia accepted his proposal he would have lost his inheritance as his father, Samuel Montagu, 1st Baron Swaythling, who had died in 1911, had stipulated in his will that he had to marry a Jewish woman. "Although Venetia, physically repelled by his huge head and course pock-marked face, refused him, she lapped up the waspish political gossip at which he excelled, and they continued to see a great deal of one another, with Montagu a regular house guest at the Stanley family homes at Alderley and Penrhos." (13)
Violet Asquith had mixed feelings about her father's friend: "Montagu's physical repulsiveness to me is such that I would lightly leap from the top story of Queen Anne's Mansions - or the Eiffel Tower itself to avoid the lightest contact - the thought of any erotic amenities with him is enough to freeze one's blood. Apart from this he is not only very unlike and Englishman - or indeed a European - but also extraordinarily unlike a man... He has no robustness, virility, courage, physical competency - he is devoured by hypochondria - which if it does not spring from a diseased body must indicate a very unhealthy mind. As against this he has imagination, ambition, fire in his stomach (my favourite quality!) and real generosity and powers of devotion. A better friend than lover I should say." (14)
Edwin Montagu continued to try to persuade Venetia to marry him. Both his brother, Louis Montagu, 2nd Baron Swaythling, and his sister, Lilian Montagu, put pressure on him to stop seeing Venetia. He was told that "Christians are all so totally unlike the Jews". Venetia's sister, Sylvia Henley, thought that she was fond of Montagu and liked his company but did not love him. "After all, she could hardly even bare to kiss him. And if she was not in love with him, what would happen if she really fell in love with someone else?" (15)
During this period H. H. Asquith was writing to Venetia explaining how she had become her "pole-star" who had rescued him "from sterility, impotence, despair" and his love for her enabled him "in the daily stress of almost intolerable burdens and anxieties, to see visions and dreams". Despite his passionate love letters, according to Venetia's friend, Diana Cooper, the relationship remained platonic. However, Bobbie Neate, the author of Conspiracy of Secrets (2012) believes that Venetia gave birth to Asquith's child in August 1911. From the evidence available this seems very unlikely. (16)
In February 1914 Montagu became financial secretary to the Treasury. The following year he joined the cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. John Grigg has pointed out: "Still only in his middle thirties, he had risen in politics as Asquith's protégé but was far from being a mere hanger-on... Rich and privileged, intellectually a late-developer, sensitive and emotional yet capable of a certain ruthlessness, he was now becoming a rather important figure." (17)
Montagu now had status as well as money. Venetia Stanley decided to accept Edwin Montagu's proposal of marriage. "For Montagu, religion was a purely personal affair; he had no formal religious beliefs, was anti-Zionist, and constantly emphasized his foremost identity as a Briton". However, in order that Montagu could continue to receive an annual income of £10,000 from his father's estate, Venetia was compelled to convert to Judaism. (18)
On 12th May 1915, Asquith was shocked to receive her letter announcing her engagement to Montagu. Asquith replied that this news "breaks my heart" and that he "couldn't bear to come and see you". On the day he heard the news Asquith wrote three letters to Venetia's sister, Sylvia Henley, about the proposed marriage. In the second letter he pointed out: "I had never any illusions, and often told Venetia: and she also was always most frank about her someday getting married. But this. We have always treated it as a kind of freakish, but unimaginable venture. I don't believe there are two living people who, each in their separate ways, are more devoted to me than she and Montagu: and it is the way of fortune that they two should combine to deal a death-blow to me."
Asquith then went on to assess Venetia's choice as husband including: "I am really fond of him, recognise his intellectual merits, find him excellent company and have always been able to reckon on his loyalty and devotion. Anything but this! It is not merely the prohibitive physical side (bad as that is) - I won't say anything about race and religion though they are not quite negligible factors. But he is not a man: a shamble of words and nerves and symptoms, intensely self absorbed, and - but I won't go on with the dismal catalogue." (19)
Violet Asquith was also upset by the news: "Curious and disturbing news reached us on Wednesday evening of Montagu's engagement to Venetia... Montagu's physical repulsiveness to me is such that I would lightly leap from the top story of Queen Anne's Mansions - or the Eiffel Tower itself to avoid the lightest contact - the thought of any erotic amenities with him is enough to freeze one's blood. Apart from this he is not only very unlike and Englishman - or indeed a European - but also extraordinarily unlike a man... He has no robustness, virility, courage, physical competency - he is devoured by hypochondria - which if it does not spring from a diseased body must indicate a very unhealthy mind." (20)
Margot Asquith was pleased the relationship was over. She told her daughter: "That want of candour in Venetia is what has hurt him but she has suffered tortures of remorse poor darling and I feel sorry for her... He is wonderful over it all - courageous, convinced and very humble. They were both old enough to know their own minds and no one must tease them now. There's a good deal of bosh in the religion campaign, though superficially it takes one in... It is Montagu's physique that I could never get over not his religion". (21)
The marriage between Edwin Montagu and Venetia Stanley took place on 26th July 1915, a few days after she had been received into the Jewish faith. Montagu's old friend from university, Raymond Asquith, defended the marriage: "I am entirely in favour of the Stanley/Montagu match. (i) Because for a woman any marriage is better than perpetual virginity, which after a certain age (not very far distant in Venetia's case) becomes insufferably absurd. (ii) Because, as you say yourself, she has had a fair chance of conceiving a romantic passion for someone or other during the last 12 years and has not done so and is probably incapable of doing so. This being so I think she is well advised to make a marriage of convenience. (iii) Because, in my opinion, this is a marriage of convenience. If a man has private means and private parts (specially if both are large) he is a convenience to a woman. (iv) Because it annoys Lord and Lady Sheffield. (v) Because it profoundly shocks the entire Christian community." (22)
It was not a happy marriage as their "relationship lacked passion". It has been claimed that Venetia had lesbian tendencies. According to Sylvia Henley, Venetia had told Montagu that "sex would only take place on her terms, should she want it, but that she should also be free to seek it elsewhere". (23) This resulted in several affairs. Edwin Montagu was almost certainly not the father of Venetia's daughter, Judith, who was born on 6th February 1923. It is believed that the man responsible was William Ward, 3rd Earl of Dudley. (24)
Duff Cooper wrote that: "The relations of Edwin and Venetia are very distressing. She seems hardly to be able to bear him - she cannot help showing it and he cannot help seeing it." Cooper, who was a Conservative Party MP, had little sympathy for Montagu: "I no longer like and cannot pity him... He is a man incapable of inspiring trust, confidence or lasting love. He has no friends or followers either in politics or in private life. He has great qualities of charm and intellect but they are all warped by something, which I believe to be a mixture of cowardice, jealousy and suspicion." (25)
Venetia Stanley's conversion to Judaism rankled with society hostesses, for it seemed to some she had "deserted her class" and this apparent disloyalty caused "continued sniping behind her back". Despite this she "could still hook and reel in some of the most influential men in the country". This included a sexual relationship with Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of The Daily Express. (26)
In November 1916, David Lloyd George came to the conclusion that the present structure of command and direction of policy could not win the war and might well lose it. Lloyd George agreed with Maurice Hankey, secretary of the Imperial War Cabinet, that he should talk to Andrew Bonar Law, the leader of the Conservative Party, about the situation. Bonar Law remained loyal to Asquith and so Lloyd George contacted Max Aitken instead and told him about his suggested reforms.
Lord Northcliffe joined with Lloyd George in attempting to persuade Asquith and several of his cabinet, including Sir Edward Grey, Arthur Balfour, Robert Crewe-Milnes, 1st Marquess of Crewe and Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, to resign. It was reported that Lloyd George was trying to encourage Asquith to establish a small War Council to run the war and if he did not agree he would resign. (27)
Tom Clarke, the news editor of The Daily Mail, claims that Lord Northcliffe told him to take a message to the editor, Thomas Marlowe, that he was to run an article on the political crisis with the headline, "Asquith a National Danger". According to Clarke, Marlowe "put the brake on the Chief's impetuosity" and instead used the headline "The Limpets: A National Danger". He also told Clarke to print pictures of Lloyd George and Asquith side by side: "Get a smiling picture of Lloyd George and get the worst possible picture of Asquith." Clarke told Northcliffe that this was "rather unkind, to say the least". Northcliffe replied: "Rough methods are needed if we are not to lose the war... it's the only way." (28)
On 4th December, 1916, The Times praised Lloyd George's stand against the present "cumbrous methods of directing the war" and urged Asquith to accept the "alternative scheme" of the small War Council, that he had proposed. Asquith should not be a member of the council and instead his qualities were "fitted better... to preserve the unity of the Nation". (29) Even the Liberal Party supporting Manchester Guardian, referred to the humiliation of Asquith, whose "natural course would be either to resist the demand for a War Council, which would partly supersede him as Premier, or alternatively himself to resign." (30)
At a Cabinet meeting the following day, Asquith refused to form a new War Council that did not include him. Edwin Montagu suggested that King George V should be asked to call Asquith, Lloyd George, Andrew Bonar Law (leader of the Conservative Party) and Arthur Henderson (leader of the Labour Party) together to find a solution. Lloyd George refused and instead resigned. (31)
Lloyd George announced: "It is with great personal regret that I have come to this conclusion.... Nothing would have induced me to part now except an overwhelming sense that the course of action which has been pursued has put the country - and not merely the country, but throughout the world the principles for which you and I have always stood throughout our political lives - is the greatest peril that has ever overtaken them. As I am fully conscious of the importance of preserving national unity, I propose to give your Government complete support in the vigorous prosecution of the war; but unity without action is nothing but futile carnage, and I cannot be responsible for that." (32)
Conservative members of the coalition made it clear that they would no longer be willing to serve under Asquith. At 7 p.m. he drove to Buckingham Palace and tendered his resignation to King George V. Apparently, he told J. H. Thomas, that on "the advice of close friends that it was impossible for Lloyd George to form a Cabinet" and believed that "the King would send for him before the day was out." Thomas replied "I, wanting him to continue, pointed out that this advice was sheer madness." (33)
Edwin Montagu resigned from the government over this issue but in January 1917, David Lloyd George, the new prime minister, offered him a cabinet post as minister without portfolio in charge of reconstruction. Montagu accepted, much to the annoyance of the Asquithian Liberals. In July, he received further promotion when he was appointed Secretary of State for India. Chandrika Kaul has pointed out that "Montagu was the last Liberal and only Jew" to hold this post. (34)
Montagu was soon in conflict with Lloyd George over his decision to favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. Montagu wrote to Lloyd George: "I appreciate your motives - your generosity and desire to take up the cudgels for the oppressed... I believe firmly that if you make a statement about Palestine as the national home for Jews, every anti-Semitic organisation and newspaper will ask what right a Jewish Englishman, with the status at best of a naturalised foreigner, has to take a foremost part of the Government of the British Empire. The country for which I have worked ever since I left the University - England - the country for which my family have fought, tells me that my national home, if I desire to go there... is Palestine." (35)
In 1917 Edwin Montagu and Frederic Thesiger, 1st Viscount Chelmsford, produced a report which recommended a limited measure of self-government. These ideas were incorporated in the 1919 Government of India Act. On the 14th April, 1919, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on a crowd of protesters in Amritsar's Jallinwala Bagh. The official statement, reported 379 dead and 1,208 injured. However, it was later estimated that over 1,000 people were killed.
Edwin Montagu, described Dyer's action as "a grave error in judgement". In a debate in the House of Commons, he asked, "Are you going to keep your hold on India by terrorism, racial humiliation, subordination and frightfulness, or are you going to rest it upon the goodwill and the growing goodwill of the people of your Indian Empire?" (36) A significant section of the Conservative-dominated House of Commons, were furious with Montagu over these comments, and he was "heckled with openly racist comments about his race and religion". (37)
Thesiger was replaced by Rufus Isaacs, Lord Reading, who agreed with Montagu that Britain should move towards Indian independence. In a telegram sent on 1st March, 1922, Reading proposed that in order to placate Muslim opinion, Allied troops should be withdrawn from Constantinople. The telegram was leaked to the press and George Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, who disapproved of the liberal views of Montagu and Reading, attacked them in the House of Commons. Montagu failed to get support from Lloyd George and he resigned on 9th March. (38)
Two days later, Montagu commented on the style of Lloyd George's leadership. "We have been governed by a great genius - a dictator who has called together from time to time conferences of Ministers, men who had access to him day and night, leaving all those who, like myself, found it impossible to get to him for days together. He has come to epoch-making decisions, over and over again. It is notorious that members of the Cabinet had no knowledge of those decisions." (39)
Montagu was now political isolated from both David Lloyd George and the former Liberal prime minister, H. H. Asquith, and it was no surprise when in the 1922 General Election he lost his seat in the landslide victory for the Conservative Party, who won 344 seats.
Edwin Montagu died of arteriosclerosis on 15th November, 1924. A public memorial service, was held on 21st November in the West London Synagogue, which Venetia Stanley Montagu did not attend. He left his property equally divided between Venetia and her daughter Judith. (40)
Venetia wrote to Asquith on her husband's death: "I know it is is not necessary for me to tell you how deeply he loved you and what a lasting grief your political separation was. He always used to say that though he was still absorbingly interested in his work after he left you, it was no longer any fun." (41 )
If he (Asquith) wins (secures agreement over Ulster) you first will share his triumph, if he loses you alone can make it tolerable... Don't you know what you are to him? How amused you can afford to be at his relaxation. Those who know you both would laugh at a comparison between your relations with him and those of any other woman in the world.
So show him you acknowledge his right to any amusement he chooses in order that he may give every ounce of himself for the struggle. Show him how confident you are of him and yourself and you will prove to be once again the big minded great loving Margot, who has no more loyal admirer and friend.
Since I wrote to you this morning I have gone through a Cabinet, a luncheon with Prince Paul of Serbia and Sir R. McBride of British Columbia and a rather searching question time at the House and I hope I got through them all without any sign of disquietude or impotence. All the same, I don't suppose there is in the kingdom at this moment a much more unhappy man.
I had never any illusions, and often told Venetia: and she also was always most frank about her someday getting married. But this. We have always treated it as a kind of freakish, but unimaginable venture. I don't believe there are two living people who, each in their separate ways, are more devoted to me than she and Montagu: and it is the way of fortune that they two should combine to deal a death-blow to me... I am really fond of him, recognise his intellectual merits, find him excellent company and have always been able to reckon on his loyalty and devotion. Anything but this!
It is not merely the prohibitive physical side (bad as that is) - I won't say anything about race and religion though they are not quite negligible factors. But he is not a man: a shamble of words and nerves and symptoms, intensely self absorbed, and - but I won't go on with the dismal catalogue...
She says at the end of a sadly meagre letter: "I can't help feeling, after all the joy you've given me, that mine is a very treacherous return". Poor darling: I wouldn't have put it like that. But in essence it is true: and it leaves me sore and humiliated.
Dearest Sylvia, I am almost ashamed to write to you like this, and I know you won't say a word to her of what I have written. But whom have I but you to turn to? in this searching trial, which comes upon me, when I am almost overwhelmed with every kind and degree of care and responsibility. Don't think that I am blaming her: I shall love her with all my heart to my dying day; she has given me untold happiness. I shall always bless her. But - I know you will understand. Send me a line of help and sympathy.
Curious and disturbing news reached us on Wednesday evening of Montagu's engagement to Venetia... Montagu's physical repulsiveness to me is such that I would lightly leap from the top story of Queen Anne's Mansions - or the Eiffel Tower itself to avoid the lightest contact - the thought of any erotic amenities with him is enough to freeze one's blood. Apart from this he is not only very unlike and Englishman - or indeed a European - but also extraordinarily unlike a man... He has no robustness, virility, courage, physical competency - he is devoured by hypochondria - which if it does not spring from a diseased body must indicate a very unhealthy mind. As against this he has imagination, ambition, fire in his stomach (my favourite quality!) and real generosity and powers of devotion. A better friend than lover I should say.
I asked Montagu about the religious difficulty - he replied "we can get round that". I have since learned that by getting round it - he meant Venetia going through it. This shocked me to the marrow. To renounce England and Christianity - even if one has never held it - at the dead bidding of foul old Lord Swaythling and to secure his filthy £10,000 a year - for that to renounce one's religion and take on a new one - become a Jew - seems to me the most impossibility, squalidly cynical antic.
It is true that Venetia believes nothing - has no spiritual "apprehension" whatever - but she then is not entitled to masquerade as a believing of the case. She seemed quite calm - rather cheerful than happy - admitted she felt no "glow" about it and used one phrase which haunted me "there was nothing else much there". I cannot help feeling she would have done anything else if there had been.
Father is happier over Venetia's marriage though not converted - he thinks he would mind less were it anyone else but I tell him whoever she married he would mind deeply as he has been very much in love - he says if she had only told him he would have felt it less. That want of candour in Venetia is what has hurt him but she has suffered tortures of remorse poor darling and I feel sorry for her... He is wonderful over it all - courageous, convinced and very humble. They were both old enough to know their own minds and no one must tease them now. There's a good deal of bosh in the religion campaign, though superficially it takes one in... It is Montagu's physique that I could never get over not his religion.
Your letter is a powerful indictment, and though I don't agree with it I am glad to see that a year of soldiering has not blunted the edge of your pen. It has turned mine into a ploughshare... I am entirely in favour of the Stanley/Montagu match. (i) Because for a woman any marriage is better than perpetual virginity, which after a certain age (not very far distant in Venetia's case) becomes insufferably absurd. (ii) Because, as you say yourself, she has had a fair chance of conceiving a romantic passion for someone or other during the last 12 years and has not done so and is probably incapable of doing so. This being so I think she is well advised to make a marriage of convenience. (iii) Because, in my opinion, this is a marriage of convenience. If a man has private means and private parts (specially if both are large) he is a convenience to a woman. (iv) Because it annoys Lord and Lady Sheffield. (v) Because it profoundly shocks the entire Christian community.
Of course I see your point when you say you wouldn't like to go to bed with Edwin. I don't mind admitting that I shouldn't myself. But you must remember that women are not refined, sensitive delicate-minded creatures like you and me: none of them have much physical squeamishness and Venetia far less than most. You say she must have weighed the consequences and so she did, quite carefully: but what frightened her most was not the prospect of the bed being too full but of the board being too empty. She was afraid that her friends might give her up in disgust; but after sounding a few of them - Katharine e.g. and Diana - she concluded that it would be all right and decided to flout the interested disapproval of Mr. H. H. and the idiotic indignation of Miss V. Asquith.
Your character sketch of Edwin is done in much too dark colours. You are obviously prejudiced against him by the fact (if fact it be) that he steals birds' eggs, a vice utterly immaterial in a bride-groom. I agree that he has not a drop of European blood, but then neither has he a drop of American. I don't agree that he is a wet-blanket in Society. He is moody certainly, but is capable of being extremely amusing and (specially during the last year) has succeeded in attracting some very critical and some very beautiful women. He is broadminded, minded, free from cant, open to new impressions, tolerant of new people. I do not think he will be either a dull or a tyrannical husband, and I understand that the terms of alliance permit a wide licence to both parties to indulge such extra conjugal conjugal caprices as either may be lucky enough to conceive.
We have been governed by a great genius (David Lloyd George) - a dictator who has called together from time to time conferences of Ministers, men who had access to him day and night, leaving all those who, like myself, found it impossible to get to him for days together. He has come to epoch-making decisions, over and over again. It is notorious that members of the Cabinet had no knowledge of those decisions.
While there’s no proof that they had a physical relationship, Venetia and Violet constantly professed undying love for one another, as well as sending each other little presents. "I’ve sent you a tiny and very humble gift which you must wear always (in your bath and in your bed)," wrote Violet, "and if you think it too ugly you may tuck it in under your combies."
So who was Venetia Stanley, the object of not only the Prime Minister’s affections, but his daughter’s, too? On the surface, she came from an impeccably conventional aristocratic family. Peer a little more closely, though, and what emerges is anything but conventional.
It seems quite possible that Venetia’s uncle may also have been her father. Certainly there were lots of rumours to that effect and her mother was known to have had an affair with her husband’s brother. Despite Venetia possessing what one friend of hers called "a gruff baritone voice", Asquith thought her the most alluring woman he’d ever met..
When Venetia announced her engagement to an extremely drippy man called Edwin Montagu - Secretary of State for India - the Prime Minister was heartbroken.
However, he didn’t repine for long, swiftly transferring his attentions to Venetia’s younger sister, Sylvia. Initially flattered, Sylvia soon discovered that if she was alone with Asquith, "it was safest to sit either side of the fire... or to make sure there was a table between them."
Not that she was the only object of his attentions. By today’s standards, Asquith was a serial groper. One woman recalled an incident when "the Prime Minister had his head jammed down in to my shoulder and all my fingers in his mouth"...
When Edwin died in 1924, Venetia literally took to the air, buying herself an airplane and whizzing around the Middle East with yet another of her lovers. By now some of her old friends, appalled by all this conjugal carnage, had given her up as a bad lot.
But not Winston Churchill and his wife, Clementine, who had always been fond of Venetia - she’d been a bridesmaid at their wedding. During World War II they regularly invited her to their weekend retreat at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire.