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The Viscount Astor is a title in the Peerage of the Great Britain held by the family of Astor who are, depending on your point of view, of French, German or American origin.

The Origins of the Astors

The Astor family can trace their origins back to Jean-Jacques d’Astorg of Savoy who is believed to have been a protestant who fled Savoy following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and took up residence in the village of Walldorf, near Heidelberg in Germany. Although the Astors were later to claim that they were descended from the Counts of Astorga in Spain there appears to be no real evidence in support of this theory.

Jean-Jacques's grandson Johann Jakob Astor or Asdor, a butcher by trade, had four sons, one of whom named George came to Britain where he went into partnership with John Broadwood, a manufacturer of harpsichords and pianos. The youngest son who anglicised his name as John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) came to London in 1779 to work in the family business but then re-emigrated to the United States of America in 1783. (Where another brother Henry had been resident in New York since 1776, initially engaged in the business of providing supplies to the Hessian mercenaries raised by George III to help suppress some of his more rebellious subjects.) Initially acting as the New York agent of the Astor and Broadwood partnership, John Jacob later made his fortune in the fur trade, the proceeds of which were invested in property in New York, with his great-grandson William Waldorf Astor eventually inheriting much of this wealth in 1890.

The Viscounts Astor

Although William Waldorf Astor had served in the New York State assembly between 1877 and 1881, and later as the US minister to Italy from 1882 to 1885, he had developed an intense dislike for the country of his birth, which he regarded as no fit place for a gentleman. Therefore as soon as he'd inherited his father's fortune he left for Britain and went to live with his family in London. In 1893 he acquired Cliveden House from the Duke of Westminster and became a British citizen in 1899. His immense fortune enabled him to establish himself as a press magnate, acquiring the now defunct evening newspaper the Pall Mall Gazette, as well as the Sunday newspaper The Observer. His wealth also enabled him to make generous contributions to charity as well as swelling the coffers of the Conservative Party. Naturally such benefactions brought him to the attention of David Lloyd George who in any case had a predilection for awarding peerage titles to newspaper proprietors and William was created the Baron Astor on the 26th January 1916 before being promoted to the Viscount Astor on the 3rd June 1917.

The 1st Viscount died at Brighton on the 18th October 1919 and was succeeded by his elder son, Waldorf Astor, who although born in New York had been educated as an English gentleman at Eton College and New College, Oxford. The 2nd Viscount had been the Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton from 1910 until succeeding to the peerage in 1919, an event which many regarded as having damaged his otherwise promising political career. This did however allowed his wife Nancy Astor to take over his Plymouth seat, thus becoming the first woman ever to sit in the House of Commons.

During the 1930s his Cliveden home became the meeting place for a number of politicians and academics, dubbed the Cliveden Set, which attracted a reputation as one of the drivers of the policy of appeasement, an accusation which both the 2nd Viscount and his wife were later to vehemently deny. He also invested some of the family wealth in horse-racing and established the Cliveden Stud, becoming a successful racehorse-owner most notably of Court Martial, who won the 2000 Guineas in 1945, and later died at Cliveden on the 30th September 1952, being succeeded by his eldest son William Waldorf.

The 3rd Viscount had been the Member of Parliament for East Fulham in 1935 until 1945 and also briefly for Wycombe in 1951 until inheriting his title. As an active Conservative peer the 3rd Viscount became acquainted with the Secretary of State for War John Profumo and it was at his Cliveden home that Profumo first met Christine Keeler and thus set in motion the chain of events that led to Profumo's disgrace and resignation in 1963. It was this Viscount Astor who was later to appear in court, where he denied having a relationship with Mandy Rice-Davies, thus prompting that young lady to utter the immortal words "He would, wouldn't he?". Although the 3rd Viscount survived this ordeal, his health is said to have collapsed as a result of the scandal, he suffered a stroke whilst his weight dropped to eight-and-a-half stone, all of which appears to have precipitated his early death on the 7th March 1966 at the age of fifty-eight.

He was succeeded by his eldest son, William Waldorf who is the 4th and present Viscount Astor. Between between 1990 and 1997 he held a number of minor government appointments, and following the Conservative defeat in the General Election of 1997 was successively the Opposition Spokesman for Home Affairs and then Transport. An elected hereditary peer since 1999, he was appointed the Shadow Minister in the Lords for Culture, Media and Sport in 2005. His wife Annabel Lucy Veronica, was formerly married to Reginald Adrian Sheffield, 8th Baronet, whose daughter Samantha is married to the Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron. Indeed before Cameron became leader, both he and his step father-in-law were sat together on the board of Urbium plc.

The Viscount Astor no longer lives at Cliveden; death duties took a rather large bite out of the family's wealth in 1966, the famous Cliveden Stud was sold to Philip Freedman and Cliveden House itself is now a luxury hotel and part of the Von Essen Hotels group.


THE VISCOUNTS ASTOR

ASTOR


SOURCES

  • The entry for ASTOR from Burke's Peerage and Baronetage 107th Edition
  • A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain at www.thepeerage.com
  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
  • The entries for Astor, William Waldorf, first Viscount Astor and Astor, Waldorf, second Viscount Astor from the Oxford Dictionary of National Briography

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