Lord Saye and Sele celebrates his 100th birthday at Broughton Castle, Banbury today (Tuesday)

Banbury wishes a very happy 100th birthday to Lord Saye and Sele, who celebrates his centenary with his family today (Tuesday, September 22).

Monday, 21st September 2020, 1:12 pm
Updated Tuesday, 22nd September 2020, 11:16 am
A 2007 photograph of Lord and Lady Saye and Sele who have restored and cared for Broughton Castle since 1968

Lord Saye has lived a remarkable life, having suffered personal tragedy, witnessed the horrors of the holocaust (and been reunited with a concentration camp survivor in his 99th year) and renovated historic Broughton Castle for his family and the pleasure of future generations.

His generosity and friendliness to the community is now legendary. Countless organisations, charities and good causes have been given use of the castle and its grounds for fundraising. And Broughton has become well known as a location for films and TV programmes - most recently the hit series, The Crown.

Known as Nat to family and friends, Nathaniel Fiennes is 21st in a line that started with the first lord in 1447 who fought at Agincourt and was Treasurer of England. The family modernised the house, built in the early 1330s and extended in the 1550s. Broughton Castle remains a prime example of a late medieval mansion, unspoiled by later alterations.

A 2006 snapshot of Lord Saye and Sele playing cricket with one of his grandsons

The Fiennes family was well off but never hugely wealthy. This was not helped by the lifestyles of one or two ancestors. When his father inherited the house in 1948, 'there was water coming through the roof... and there was no money', Lord Saye said.

The roof was re-tiled in the 1950s and the castle opened to the public at 2/- (10p) a visit to pay the bills. After Nathaniel inherited the castle in 1968 with a 1,800 acre estate and just £3,000, he and his wife Mariette carried out extensive interior redecoration and refurbishment.

Being a qualified Chartered Surveyor he understood the value of preventative maintenance and in the 1980s commissioned a £1m, 12-year programme of restoration. The stone was crumbling, the windows' leadwork had wasted and deathwatch beetle was devouring the beams. In spite of an English Heritage grant, the family faced raising £600,000.

"It was sink or swim time," said Lord Saye who boosted the estate's arable farming, increased visitors to 15,000 - 20,000 a year and rented the castle out to film companies.

Nat Fiennes playing cricket as Captain of Eton XI in a match versus Harrow at Lords in 1939

The Great Hall, Tudor Oak Room and walled garden had starring roles in Shakespeare in Love, Three Men and a Little Lady and The Madness of King George among other feature films.

Lord Saye told an interviewer in 1997: "We've just had Gwyneth Paltrow here. I gather she's quite a big star."

Lord Saye changed his name by deed poll, relinquishing Twistleton-Wykeham from his surname. He was born in a grace and favour apartment in the Victoria Tower of the House of Lords making him reportedly the only Lord to have been born in the Lords.

Always realistic, he did not attend the House of Lords because he needed a full-time job to help with Broughton's costs. He believed it right to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers and was not too proud to become a car park attendant on busy days.

Lord Saye and Sele with two of his grand-sons, Ivo and Guy, in 2010 at the beach at Courseulles-sur-Mere where he and the 8th Battalion Rifle Brigade landed on D-D plus 6 in 1944

"One's got to be prepared to live in a modest way. It's no good thinking you've got to have a Bentley and a butler. That'll break you," he said.

He believes the family link to a property is the most cost-effective way of preserving the fabric and 'soul' of a place.

Nathaniel Fiennes went to Eton and started a promising cricket career, captaining the Eton XI and the Public Schools XI in 1939. His son Martin believes he could have had a first class cricket career had the war not intervened. He played for Oxfordshire, the Army and the Rifle Brigade which became the Royal Green Jackets, for whom he played until he was about 60.

On the outbreak of war he signed up for the Oxfordshire and Bucks Light Infantry but was sent home as he was too young but joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment the following year. He spent time on the roof of the Natural History Museum in Oxford, defending the building from fire, to protect the vast and invaluable collection inside.

Lord Saye and Sele at Broughton Castle in January 2010

During the war the Great Hall of Broughton Castle was filled to the ceiling with the London Natural History Museum's insect collection.

With his battalion, Nathaniel saw action in France, Belgium and Holland and into Germany, where he was camped near Belsen concentration camp. He and a fellow officer returned to the camp.

"I remember the smells, bodies lying on the trackway, walked through the huts - people lying there (and it was) hard to know who was dead and who was alive. It was a sight you wouldn't have believed possible to see. Anyone who denies the holocaust - I'd be happy to talk to them about Belsen," he said.

He married Mariette, who he had met on a skiing holiday, in 1958 and the couple had a daughter and four sons. The death in 1968 of their third son, Thomas, aged nearly three, cast a shadow over family life as did the death of their eldest son Richard in 2001, aged 41, after a lifetime suffering from epilepsy.

Daughter Susannah Fiennes is a well-known painter and son Martin - they are twins - now runs the castle. The youngest son, William Fiennes, is a successful author.

Maurice Humphris of the Rotary Club of Banbury said: "Nat has been an honorary member since 1977 and to mark this the current President, David Richardson and I went to the castle to present him with the Paul Harris Fellowship - the highest award any club can give anyone, to mark his 100th birthday.

Nat Fiennes, Adjutant with the 8th Battalion, Rifle Brigade, in Germany with General Montgomery, 1945

"He has been brilliant in letting people use the castle and grounds to raise money for so many good causes. He and Mariette have thrown their home and grounds open and made everyone so welcome."

Sir Tony Baldry, former MP and High Steward of Banbury said: "His is an amazing life which has included fighting his way from the D Day Normandy beaches to Berlin as a young officer and being involved in the liberation of Nazi concentration camps to managing Broughton Castle which has been in the ownership of the same family for one of the longest periods of time and doing so with great and continuous generosity and support for local causes and local charities.

"Nat Fiennes is a man of enormous modesty and humanity notwithstanding holding one of the oldest titles in England."

Nat Fiennes, left, with his father and brother Ingel, right, who was killed aged 19 in 1943 on his first operational flight
Lord and Lady Saye and Sele with David Bellamy on a visit by the botanist to Broughton Castle
Lord Saye and Sele has always been happy to roll up his sleeves and help with jobs, from being car parking attendant to planting snowdrops
Lord Saye and Sele helps to hoist a washing machine up the outside of the castle walls - the only way the appliance could be taken inside. From Lady Saye's family scrapbooks
Lord Saye and Sele with his wife Mariette in June 2006 alongside the Battlement border in the garden at Broughton