Robert Armstrong, Baron Armstrong of Ilminster

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The Lord Armstrong of Ilminster
Official portrait of Lord Armstrong of Ilminster crop 2.jpg
Official portrait, 2018
Member of the House of Lords
Lord Temporal
In office
26 February 1988 – 3 April 2020
Life peerage
Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister
In office
Prime Minister
Preceded byAlexander Isserlis
Succeeded byKenneth Stowe
Permanent Secretary of the Home Office
In office
Prime MinisterJames Callaghan
Preceded bySir Arthur Peterson
Succeeded byBrian Cubbon
Cabinet Secretary
In office
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded bySir John Hunt
Succeeded bySir Robin Butler
Head of the Home Civil Service
In office
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded bySir Douglas Allen
Succeeded bySir Robin Butler
Personal details
Robert Temple Armstrong

(1927-03-30)30 March 1927
Headington, Oxford, England
Died3 April 2020(2020-04-03) (aged 93)
Political partyCrossbench
  • Serena Mary Benedicta
    (m. 1953, divorced)
  • Mary Patricia Carlow
    (m. 1985)
RelationsSir Thomas H. W. Armstrong (father)
EducationDragon School
Alma mater
OccupationCivil servant

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 the Prime Minister. 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.[citation needed]

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,[10] and sat as a crossbencher.[11][12]

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."[13]

Armstrong gave Margaret Thatcher what he called a "veiled" warning not to sanction Jimmy Savile's knighthood for charitable work,[14] due to allegations around his "misbehaviour with women (though not allegations of child abuse)".[15]

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.


  • (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.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. ^ "No. 51259". The London Gazette. 3 March 1988. p. 2581.
  11. ^ Lundy, Darryl. "p4448.htm". The Peerage. Archived from the original on 14 February 2010.[unreliable source]
  12. ^ Patrick Cracroft-Brennan. "The Roll of the Peerage – Life Peers – Barons". Archived from the original on 20 May 2005. Retrieved 21 April 2017.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ 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.

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by Principal Private Secretary
to the Prime Minister

Succeeded by
Preceded by Permanent Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
Succeeded by
Preceded by Cabinet Secretary
Succeeded by
Preceded by Head of the Home Civil Service
Succeeded by
Orders of precedence in the United Kingdom
Preceded by Gentlemen
Baron Armstrong of Ilminster
Followed by
The Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover