Nicholas Henderson

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Sir Nicholas Henderson
British Ambassador to the United States
In office
Monarch Elizabeth II
President Jimmy Carter
Ronald Reagan
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Preceded by Peter Jay
Succeeded by Oliver Wright
British Ambassador to France
In office
Prime Minister Harold Wilson
James Callaghan
Preceded by Edward Tomkins
Succeeded by Reginald Hibbert
British Ambassador to West Germany
In office
Prime Minister Edward Heath
Harold Wilson
Chancellor Helmut Schmidt
Preceded by Frank Roberts
Succeeded by Oliver Wright
British Ambassador to Poland
In office
Prime Minister Harold Wilson
Edward Heath
Preceded by Thomas Brimelow
Succeeded by Frank Brenchley
Personal details
Born 1 April 1919
Died 16 March 2009(2009-03-16) (aged 89)
Nationality British
Education Stowe School
Alma mater Hertford College, Oxford

Sir John Nicholas 'Nico' Henderson, GCMG, KCVO (1 April 1919 – 16 March 2009) was a British diplomat and writer, who served as British Ambassador to the United States from 1979 to 1982.[1]

Life and career

Henderson was born in London, the only son and second of three children of Sir Hubert Henderson, a prominent political economist and later Drummond Professor of Political Economy at Oxford. and of Faith Marion Jane Henderson, née Bagenal.

He was educated at Stowe School and Hertford College, Oxford, and was the President of the Oxford Union. Childhood tuberculosis disqualified him from military service during World War II. Instead, in 1942, he joined the Cairo staff of Lord Moyne, Minister Resident in the Middle East, on a temporary basis. In 1944, he was appointed Assistant Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Sir Anthony Eden, and then to Ernest Bevin.

He joined the British Diplomatic Service in 1946 and rose to become Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary in 1963. Subsequently he served as British Ambassador to Poland, Germany and finally France, from which post he retired in 1979 on his sixtieth birthday.

Valedictory dispatch and Ambassadorship to the United States

Upon retiring (as he thought) from the foreign service when relinquishing his post in Paris, he wrote a final dispatch titled "Britain's decline; its causes and consequences". The Economist obtained a copy and printed it in the same year stating "The despatch does not, needless to say, reach us from him and was presumably written for very limited circulation. But it is so unusually forthright and timely, particularly in its middle and concluding passages on British policy in Europe, under governments of every stripe, as to merit publication virtually in full." [2][3]

A surprise extension to Henderson's career came about because of the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in May of that year. Mrs Thatcher invited him to return to service as Ambassador to Washington, where he served until 1982. Mrs Thatcher had first asked Edward Heath to take up the post, but he had refused the offer. Henderson was enormously popular in Washington, and he and his wife Mary formed a close personal friendship with President Ronald Reagan at a crucial time in the latter's presidency, oiling the special friendship which developed between Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In particular he was successful in putting the British side of the Falklands War in 1982, and maintaining friendly relations between the nations when that friendship was under some strain.

In retirement, Henderson wrote several books on history, and an account of his career as a diplomat, Mandarin. He held directorships of several major British companies, including the Channel Tunnel Group, Sotheby's, and Hambros. He also had close ties with the Prince of Wales, serving as Lord Warden of the Stannaries and Chairman of the Prince's Council (the body which oversees the Duchy of Cornwall) after retiring from the Diplomatic Service. He was appointed KCVO for this service to the Crown. He gave the Romanes Lecture in Oxford in 1986.

In 1951, Henderson married Mary Barber (née Cawadias), a Greek-born former war correspondent for Time-Life.[4][5] She died in 2004. Their only child, Alexandra Nicolette, married the photographer Derry Moore, now the 12th Earl of Drogheda. As Alexandra Henderson, she has followed a career as a television and radio producer specialising in current affairs.

He was generally known as "Nicko (sp. "Nico" in Lady Thatcher's memoirs) Henderson" in private life.


  • Prince Eugen of Savoy. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, (1966). ISBN 1-84212-597-4
  • The Birth of NATO, 1982
  • The Private Office, 1984
  • Channels and Tunnels: Reflections on Britain and Abroad (1987)
  • Diplomatic Immunity: Principles, Practices, Problems by Grant McClanahan with a foreword by Sir Nicholas Henderson (Hurst & Co. for the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, 1989). ISBN 1-85065-043-8
  • Mandarin, The Diary, 1994
  • Old Friends and Other Instances, 2000
  • The Private Office Revisited, 2001

In popular culture

Henderson was portrayed by Jeremy Clyde in the 2002 BBC production of Ian Curteis's controversial The Falklands Play.

Diplomatic Posts and Offices

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Sir Oliver Wright
Principal Private Secretary
to the Foreign Secretary

Succeeded by
Murray, The Lord MacLehose of Beoch
Preceded by
Ian Samuel
Minister at the
British Embassy, Madrid

Succeeded by
Thomas Keeble
Preceded by
Thomas, The Lord Brimelow
British Ambassador
to Poland

Succeeded by
Frank Brenchley
Preceded by
Sir Roger Jackling
British Ambassador
to West Germany

Succeeded by
Sir Oliver Wright
Preceded by
Sir Edward Tomkins
British Ambassador
to France

Succeeded by
Sir Reginald Hibbert
Preceded by
Peter Jay
British Ambassador
to the United States

Succeeded by
Sir Oliver Wright
Court offices
Preceded by
Peter, The Marquess of Lothian
Lord Warden of the Stannaries
Succeeded by
John, The Lord Ashburton


  1. ^ "The Times obituary (printed version)". The Times. March 17, 2009.
  2. ^ "Britain's decline; its causes and consequences" The Economist Jun 2nd 1979
  3. ^ Parris, Matthew; Bryson, Andrew (2010). Parting Shots. London: Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-91929-1.
  4. ^ HENDERSON, Sir (John) Nicholas, Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2009, accessed 6 March 2012
  5. ^ Xenia, the Greek spirit personified, The Telegraph, London, 17 February 2004

External links

  • The Daily Telegraph obituary
  • The Guardian obituary
  • The Independent obituary
  • The Times obituary
  • Appearance on Desert Island Discs (2 June 1989)
  • Interview with Sir John Nicholas Henderson & transcript, British Diplomatic Oral History Programme, Churchill College, Cambridge, 1998

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