John Julius Norwich, CVO

Born. 15 September, 1929. Died 1 June, 2018.

Historian, broadcaster and founder of Venice in Peril.

John Julius Norwich, the Second Viscount Norwich, who has died aged 88, was a widely published author and recognized as an authority on the history and architecture of Venice. He founded and worked tirelessly for the Venice in Peril appeal. He wrote and broadcast on history and covered a range of subjects including Byzantium, Shakespeare’s history plays and the papacy. John Julius was a man of many enthusiasms and wrote with much clarity expressing himself in a relaxed and learned way – without ever appearing academic or precious. He made several documentaries for BBCTV including a memorable programme on Napoleon’s campaign prior to Waterloo.

John Julius Cooper was the son of the Conservative MP Duff Cooper and socialite Lady Diana Cooper (nee Manners). He was devoted to his mother, herself a great beauty, calling her, ‘my greatest inspiration’. He had 17 godparents – including the Aga Khan and JM Barrie and his cosmopolitan upbringing ensured he was learning French at five. His father resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty over Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement and John Julius was evacuated to the US and attended Upper Canada College in Toronto before returning to Eton in 1945.

John Julius read Modern Languages at New College, Oxford where he met and married Anne Clifford. His father was appointed Ambassador in Paris in 1945 and the young John Julius poured cocktails for the likes of Maurice Chevalier and Jean Cocteau. He told of a meeting with the austere General de Gaulle at a dinner. The ravenous John Julius noticed the general had not touched his apple pie and asked if he could finish it. De Gaulle agreed, but pointed out that it was covered in his cigarette ash. “I said that it would be an honour for me to eat his cigarette ash – an appalling piece of over-the-top flattery which I blush to recall.” Such gracious charm was to remain a hallmark all his life.

He joined the Foreign Office and inherited the title of Viscount Norwich in 1954 – in fact, he preferred not to use it professionally. His first posting was to Belgrade and in 1961 acted as an official at the Geneva Disarmament Conference. His career seemed well set but John Julius resigned to become a writer.

One of his first books was The Normans in the South and while doing his research he realised how little was known about the Norman presence in Sicily. He wrote The Kingdom in the Sun which explored the political, social and military rule of the Norman civilisation in Sicily until 1194 writing with a skill and lucidity that made the subject immediate and accessible.

He followed, in the late 1980s, with a comprehensive account of the Byzantine empire from its creation by Constantine the Great to its defeat by the Turks. For seven years from 1988 John Julius immersed himself in the hugely complex subject of warring factions and the three volumes proved best sellers with historians and the public. He then tackled an equally challenging subject: the history of the popes. Not surprisingly one reviewer wrote that ‘his enthusiasm is addictive’ when John Julius had called John Paul II’s 500 canonisations as “we have saints like other people have mice”.

Perhaps John Julius is most widely admired for his championing of the city he had loved since childhood. In 1970 he became Chairman of Venice in Peril Fund and wrote and made television programmes about the structural dangers it was facing. With his ease of communication, courteous charm and sheer knowledge John Julius made many aware of the dangers of flooding and increased tourism. He liked to tell the story of his first visit with his father: ‘He said we’d only go into two buildings, St Mark’s at the beginning and Harry’s Bar at the end: in between we would just walk.’

His career in broadcasting reflected his many interests. For four years he was chairman of the panel game My Word, a regular on Round Britain Quiz and for three years presented the Evening Concert on Classic FM. In 1970 John Julius started sending his annual Christmas anthology called A Christmas Cracker. They have become prized possessions.

John Julius was a fine wordsmith and had the ability to capture major flamboyant characters in history with unerring verve. He was excellent company, a witty conversationalist and had a winning smile and laugh.

John Julius Norwich was appointed CVO in 1993. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1985 and in 1989 he married the Hon. Mollie Philipps. She survives him, as do his son and daughter and Artemis Cooper, from his first marriage. He also had a daughter, Allegra Huston, from a relationship with the dancer Enrica Soma former wife of the film director John Huston.

Alasdair Steven