Robert Armstrong, Baron Armstrong of Ilminster

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British civil servant and peer (1927–2020)

Robert Temple Armstrong, Baron Armstrong of Ilminster, GCB, CVO (30 March 1927 – 3 April 2020) was a British civil servant and life peer.[1]

Armstrong was born in Headington on 30 March 1927, the only son of the musician Sir Thomas H. W. Armstrong and his wife Hester M. Draper, who were married in the City of London in 1926. His sister Helen was born in Exeter in 1930.[2]

Armstrong was educated at the Dragon School and then at Eton College, where he was a King’s Scholar, following which he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, where he read Greats.[3]

In Wantage, on 25 July 1953, Armstrong married Serena Mary Benedicta Chance, daughter of Sir Roger James Ferguson Chance, and Mary Georgina Rowney. Armstrong and his wife had two daughters, both born in Marylebone, Jane Orlanda Armstrong, born 1954, and Teresa Brigid Armstrong, born 1957.[2] This marriage ended in divorce, and in 1985 he married Mary Patricia Carlow, daughter of Charles Cyril Carlow.[3]

In a long civil service career, Armstrong worked in several departments, including HM Treasury and the Home Office. From 1970 to 1975 he served as the Principal Private Secretary to Prime Ministers Ted Heath and Harold Wilson. He was knighted in 1978. From 1979 to 1987, he served as Cabinet Secretary under Margaret Thatcher.[4]

Armstrong was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in 1974,[5] a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) in the 1975 Birthday Honours.[6] In the 1978 Birthday Honours he was promoted to Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB)[7] and to Knight Grand Cross (GCB) in the 1983 New Year Honours.[8]

Spycatcher trial[edit]

In 1986, Armstrong was the key witness for the British Government as it sought to suppress the publication of Spycatcher, in which it alleged its author, Peter Wright, had attempted to disclose confidential information. At the time Wright was a retired high-ranking member of MI5 and was about to publish his book in Australia. The evidence given by Armstrong was widely ridiculed by the British press for its absurd ambiguity and seemingly deceptive nature. Wright’s lawyer, Malcolm Turnbull, who later became the Prime Minister of Australia, was ultimately successful in lifting the publication ban. Turnbull described Armstrong as being like “Sir Humphrey Appleby” from Yes, Minister and said “If he is an honest man, then he appears rather like a well-educated mushroom”.[9]

He is credited with bringing the phrase “economical with the truth” into popular usage, after he used it during the Spycatcher trial in 1986; his use of the phrase was subsequently included in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.[10]

Later life[edit]

He was created a life peer as Baron Armstrong of Ilminster, of Ashill in the County of Somerset, on 26 February 1988,[11] and sat as a crossbencher.[12][13]

From 1994 to 2006, Lord Armstrong was Chancellor of the University of Hull. He was chairman of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation until 2013.[3]

Allegations of child abuse ‘coverup’[edit]

Armstrong was aware of Sir Peter Hayman’s paedophilia, and after leaving office, commented “Clearly, I was aware of it at the time but I was not concerned with the personal aspect of it.”[14]

Armstrong gave Margaret Thatcher what he called a “veiled” warning not to sanction Jimmy Savile’s knighthood for charitable work,[15] due to allegations around his “misbehaviour with women (though not allegations of child abuse)”.[16]

In popular culture[edit]

Armstrong has been portrayed by the following actors in film and television productions:

Armstrong died on 3 April 2020 at the age of 93.[19][20][21]


  • (1997). The Future of the National Art Library: A Pamphlet Concerning the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Responsibility Towards the Documentation of the History of Art and Design
Coat of arms of Robert Armstrong, Baron Armstrong of Ilminster
A Coronet of a Baron
A Chough wings elevated and addorsed proper grasping in the dexter foot a Penner attached thereto two Cords reflexed over the back and terminating in an Inkhorn Or
Paly of four Gules and Sable three lilies slipped in pale Argent between four Arms embowed in Armour issuing from the flanks Or
On either side a Black and White Cat reguardant proper gorged with a Plain Collar Or
SUAVITER IN MODO, FORTITER IN RE (Gentle in manner, vigorous in action)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ “Lord Armstrong of Ilminster obituary”. The Times. Retrieved 4 April 2020.
  2. ^ a b “FreeBMD Home Page”.
  3. ^ a b c “Armstrong of Ilminster, Baron, (Robert Temple Armstrong) (born 30 March 1927)”, Who’s Who, Oxford University Press, 1 December 2007, doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.u5716, retrieved 15 April 2021
  4. ^ “Lord Armstrong of Ilminster : Political Biography – DodOnline”. Archived from the original on 7 March 2012. Retrieved 21 April 2017.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  5. ^ “No. 46254”. The London Gazette (Supplement). 5 April 1974. p. 4396.
  6. ^ “No. 46593”. The London Gazette (Supplement). 14 June 1975. p. 7372.
  7. ^ “No. 47549”. The London Gazette (Supplement). 3 June 1978. p. 6231.
  8. ^ “No. 49212”. The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 1982. p. 3.
  9. ^ see M. Turnbull, “The Spycatcher Trial” (1988).
  10. ^ “economical with the truth”. Oxford Reference. Retrieved 20 January 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  11. ^ “No. 51259”. The London Gazette. 3 March 1988. p. 2581.
  12. ^ Lundy, Darryl. “p4448.htm”. The Peerage. Archived from the original on 14 February 2010.[unreliable source]
  13. ^ Patrick Cracroft-Brennan. “The Roll of the Peerage – Life Peers – Barons”. Archived from the original on 20 May 2005. Retrieved 21 April 2017.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  14. ^ Hanning, James (1 February 2015). “Call for inquiry into links between senior civil servant Sir Peter Hayman and paedophile network in the 1980’s”. The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 25 September 2015.
  15. ^ Michael White (17 March 2015). “The Westminster child abuse ‘coverup’: how much did MPs know? | Politics”. The Guardian. Archived from the original on 19 March 2017. Retrieved 18 March 2017.
  16. ^ Moore, Charles (3 October 2015). “Margaret Thatcher biography part 7: Dealing with rumours without evidence”. The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 5 October 2015. Retrieved 4 April 2020.
  17. ^ The Falklands Play (TV Movie 2002) – IMDb, retrieved 20 January 2022
  18. ^ “The Alan Clark Diaries” The March of the Grey Men (TV Episode 2004) – IMDb, retrieved 20 January 2022
  19. ^ Obituaries, Telegraph (5 April 2020). “Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, the greatest ‘Mandarin’ of his generation who inspired the trust of three prime ministers – obituary”. The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 20 January 2022.
  20. ^ “Robert Armstrong obituary: Key British official behind Anglo Irish Agreement”. The Irish Times. Retrieved 20 January 2022.
  21. ^ “Lord Armstrong of Ilminster obituary”. the Guardian. 5 April 2020. Retrieved 12 August 2022.

External links[edit]