The 7th Earl of Leicester

Memorial Service

A memorial service took place on Friday 17th July in Norwich Cathedral to celebrate the life and achievements of the late 7th Earl of Leicester. Edward Douglas Coke, 7th Earl of Leicester CBE, DL who died on 25th April aged 78, was one of Norfolk’s leading figures and was instrumental in saving and modernising the Holkham Estate. Over the last 40 years he played an active role in public life holding many key positions and offices. Lord Leicester retired from the management of the Holkham Estate in 2006 handing control over to his son Tom, who is now the 8th Earl.

Paying tribute to his late father, The Earl of Leicester said: “My father had a great sense of duty and was fastidious in always giving his time to the myriad of institutions he was associated with. They all benefitted from his wise counsel and common sense. Class was no barrier to him. With everyone he was always interested and interesting, generous and kind. His hard work laid the secure foundation from which we are able to advance Holkham in the 21st Century. We are wholly indebted to him.”

Those attending the memorial service included family and friends and many with links to the Holkham Estate and the numerous charities, councils, trusts, associations and organisations with which the 7th Earl of Leicester was involved.

Sarah, Countess of Leicester, acknowledged her late husband’s role in transforming the Holkham Estate and the variety of public roles he held as the 7th Earl of Leicester: “Long before he inherited the title Earl of Leicester, my husband took over the management of Holkham in 1973, beginning a lifelong project of transforming the estate. His legacy is what so many of us can see and share today - the magnificent buildings and landscape of Holkham restored to their former glory. Much of this is due to his sense of history and responsibility manifested not least by his introduction of modernised farming operations and the upgrading of the estate’s cottages for the benefit of tenants and employees. He was a great believer in sharing the marvels of his historic home with others. My husband dedicated himself assiduously to the conservation of Holkham Hall, which through his work is secure for future generations of visitors to enjoy. He played an important role in public life both nationally and locally, and was active and accessible to everyone in the local community. He was a highly respected employer, a loving family man, and a great friend to many.”

The Life of 7th Earl of Leicester

The 7th Earl of Leicester, who died on 25th April aged 78, was one of Norfolk’s leading figures and played a key role in preserving and modernising the Holkham Estate over the last 40 years.

Edward Coke was born in 1936 in Zimbabwe, where his father had settled as a young man, and spent much of his childhood on a remote farm in South Africa. His grandfather, a younger son of the 3rd Earl of Leicester, had been killed at Gallipoli a week after providing covering fire for the first troop landings, which took place a hundred years to the day before his grandson’s death. By the 1960s it was clear that Edward was next in line to succeed to the Holkham Estate. At the age of 26 he came to England and settled in the Holkham area in 1965 in order to take up farming and familiarise himself with the estate. He married Valeria Potter in 1962 and had three children, all of whom grew up on the estate.

By early 1973 he had taken over the management of the estate, which had become severely run down. Of the 300 houses on the estate only around 30 had bathrooms, the Hall was still heated by open fires and, as he later said, the Park Farm was possibly the only unprofitable farm in the country. This was the start of a lifelong project to modernise farming, the estate’s buildings and the Hall, to ensure a successful and viable legacy for future generations. In 1996 he won the Laurent Perrier Award for Conservation, specifically recognising outstanding conservation work carried out to ensure the sustainability of the Grey Partridge population.

In 1976, following the death of the 5th Earl of Leicester and the decision of his father, the 6th Earl of Leicester, to remain resident in South Africa, as Viscount Coke he took over full responsibility for the management and leadership of the Holkham Estate. Upon the death of his father in 1994, he became the 7th Earl of Leicester.

Alongside overseeing the management of the estate the Earl of Leicester found time to play an active role in public life. Amongst the positions and offices he held were Leader of the Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk (1980-1985), Chairman of the council’s Planning Committee (1987-1991), an English Heritage Commissioner, Trustee of the North Norfolk Historic Building Trust, Founder Trustee and Chairman of the De Montfort University Global Education Trust, Trustee of the Royal Anglian Regiment, Chairman of the Country Landowners Association, Deputy Lieutenant of Norfolk, President of the Ancient Monuments Society and President of Wells RNLI. He served as President of the Historic Houses Association from 1998 to 2003, in which capacity he was awarded a CBE for services to heritage. He continued his work with the HHA as a Patron.

The Earl was passionate about the Hall’s extensive art collection and was a keen patron of the arts, loaning many paintings to galleries and exhibitions both nationally and internationally. Keenly interested in the history of the Coke family and all aspects of the Hall, he undertook the major task of restoring the original style of windows that had been destroyed by the insertion of large plate glass panes in the 19th century, and restored as far as possible the original picture hang. One of his last initiatives was to suggest a display (now in preparation) in the Hall about Magna Carta and the role played by his ancestor, the great 17th century lawyer, Sir Edward Coke, in preserving its values. With the help of his second wife, Sarah, whom he married in 1986, new vitality was breathed into the Hall by careful repair and refurbishment; open days were transformed by the removal of ropes and the addition of flowers in the state rooms; the Marble Hall hosted classical concerts and staff parties. They deliberately occupied two different wings of the Hall in summer and winter, in order to maximise use of the whole house: he remarked with a typically dry sense of humour that the move was simple, he would leave the house in the morning and return later to find all his clothes and personal possessions in place in their new quarters.

The Earl was an active field sports enthusiast and was proud of Holkham’s reputation as the birthplace of driven shooting. Over the years, as a lover of working dogs, he hosted the Kennel Club’s Retriever Championships and Spaniel Championships on the Holkham Estate. In 1978 he held a country fair in the park to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Sheep Shearings held by his ancestor, the famous farmer, ‘Coke of Norfolk’, and it became the first of many such regular events.

Lord Leicester was meticulous in his attention to detail and he abhorred waste. He was regarded by all who worked on the estate as an expert farmer and a kind and fair employer. In October 2005 Lord Leicester retired from the active management of the estate and handed over control to his son Tom, Viscount Coke, who now becomes the 8th Earl of Leicester. He moved to another property on the estate in 2006 but continued to take a keen interest in the continuing improvement of the Hall, the estate and its buildings.

The Earl of Leicester was buried at a private ceremony at St Withburga’s Church on the estate on Friday 1st May. The casket was taken from Holkham Hall to the church by his beloved Massey Ferguson tractor,driven by his brother The Hon. Johnny Coke. The tractor, which was the first one he purchased at Holkham, had been recently restored for his birthday which would have been on 6th May. The casket was made by the estate’s joinery team from Holkham oak. The route to the church was lined by over 200 estate employees and the cortège was followed by family, friends and estate employees. The funeral service included a reading by Lord Leicester’s younger son The Hon. Rupert Coke and the tribute was given by Viscount Coke. He leaves a widow, Sarah Countess of Leicester, three children and seven grandchildren.