Duke of Norfolk

Duke of Norfolk (Miles Francis Stapleton Fitzalan-Howard), soldier, businessman and Earl Marshal of England

Born: 21 July, 1915, in London Died: 24 June, 2002, aged 86

NOTHING could have better prepared the Duke of Norfolk for his several careers than what someone once described as having been "born with a logistical spoon in his mouth". He was a natural leader, someone who knew his way round the system. His ascendancy to the rank of major-general was entirely on his own merit, as was his later position in the merchant banking house of Robert Fleming.

As a young man, the Hon Miles Fitzalan-Howard hardly expected to succeed to the premier dukedom of England. Duke Bernard, his second cousin once removed, was only seven years older than he was. Bernard’s children, however, were daughters, and a male heir was required. Miles duly succeeded in 1975.

His personal faith was unconquerable, and he proved a stalwart if occasionally unsubtle lay leader of Britain’s Roman Catholic community. His close friendship with Basil Hume aided that cleric in becoming Archbishop of Westminster, while his persuasion of the Vatican ensured the succession of Cormac Murphy-O’Connor to the premier see. His defence of the family as well as his fearless role as spokesman on Catholic issues in Parliament were proof of the value of his family motto, "Virtue Alone Is Unconquerable".

He picked his ancestry well. He came of a clutch of titles and a maternal line going back to a King of Jerusalem. His forebear Thomas Howard, a lieutenant general in the English army, defeated the Scots under James IV at Flodden on 9 September, 1513, for which Howard was made Duke of Norfolk. The fact that his father had been first granted then stripped of a similar dukedom confusingly means that the late Duke is usually referred to as the 17th of the line, though pedants insist on the 16th. The impact of Flodden is maintained in the Norfolk coat-of-arms to the present day, for in memory of the English victory, Henry VIII granted to Duke Thomas the "honourable augmentation" to his shield of a version of Scotland’s lion rampant shot through the mouth with an arrow.

Educated at Ampleforth and Christ Church, Oxford, Fitzalan-Howard was commissioned into the Grenadier Guards in 1937. In a distinguished military career of some three decades, he served with his regiment in the Second World War in France, North Africa, Sicily and Italy, as well as taking part in the D-Day landings, and was twice mentioned in dispatches. In 1943, as brigade major with the 4th Armoured Brigade in Italy, he gained an immediate Military Cross for bravery in action during the crossing of the Sangro river. In later life, he would occasionally remark: "Anyone can be Duke of Norfolk, but I’m rather proud of that medal."

Blessed with an ear for language, he became competent in Russian during his time with the British Military Mission in postwar Germany. He emulated this, but in Swahili, when from 1961 for two years he commanded the 70th brigade of the King’s African Rifles just before Kenya gained independence. His final post was as director of service intelligence at the Ministry of Defence before retiring from the army in 1967.

His personality proved larger than his somewhat slight build. He bore a breezy demeanour and had an unmistakable aura of presence. He’d sweep into a room and demand airily of no one in particular: "Now, look here." His army inheritance left its mark in his use of soldierly language. Never afraid to call a spade a bloody shovel, he was once shown divorce figures at a Catholic conference, and retorted: "Good God, that’s two battalions."

For a dozen years, he worked in the City as a director of Robert Fleming’s, undertaking much ambassadorial work for the company until he inherited the dukedom. He had already fallen heir to nearly a dozen titles, but this final one included the hereditary office of Earl Marshal of England, a post first held by one of his ancestors in 1316, and attached to the ducal line since 1672. It remains one of the great offices of state, and indeed during Tony Blair’s reformation of the House of Lords in 1999, this post along with that of Lord Great Chamberlain was allowed to continue without recourse to election.

The Earl Marshalship is no sinecure. He has responsibility for planning and executing state occasions. As chance would have it, no great event came his way in the quarter of a century he functioned as Earl Marshal (he had handed over to his son before the death of the Queen Mother) - unlike his predecessor, who undertook three state funerals, two Coronations and the investiture of the Prince of Wales.

For five centuries, Earl Marshals have supervised the College of Arms, the headquarters of the heraldic profession in England. Under a curious arrangement, the Earl Marshal has no office in the college but has to sign an authorising document for every new English grant of arms. Unlike his immediate predecessors, the duke adopted a hands-on approach, taking a visible management role in the work of the college and making sure that senior personnel knew who he was and why he was there. Four Garter Kings of Arms served under him.

Norfolk never lacked in persuasive talents, and these he used to good effect for the college in fund-raising ventures, notably one to the United States in 1998, when he was accompanied by the present Garter, Peter Gwynne-Jones, to drum up funds for a new roof for the Queen Victoria Street premises just by the City.

To the end of his days, he retained the military habit of cleaning his own shoes. In 1987, in the filming on one of his properties for a screen version of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, he played an extra as a gardener attired in collarless shirt, causing one critic to froth that Norfolk lit a fire and touched his cap as if "to the cottage born".

A family man first, last and always, he and his three brothers and four sisters had 40 children among them, a situation he summed up wryly: "We’re not short of heirs in the Howard family." His 80th birthday in 1995 was marked by a large gathering of Howards.

In 1949, he married Anne Constable-Maxwell, a member of the old Stewartry family of Herries of Terregles. They worked well as artistic partners: she painted, and he enjoyed framing her pictures. He was a Knight of the Sovereign Order of Malta and a Deputy Lieutenant for West Sussex.

He is survived by the duchess, their sons, Edward (now 18th Duke) and Gerald, and daughters Tessa, Marcia, the actress Marsha Fitzalan formerly married to the actor Patrick Ryecart; and Carina, married to Sir David Frost.