"Absolutely stunning," pronounced Edward John Barrington Douglas-Scott-Montagu in the most upper of upper-crust English accents. More commonly known as Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, the 59-year-old aristocrat had just returned home from two weeks of festivities kicking off the blockbuster Treasure Houses of Britain show at Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery. The exhibit, which runs until March 16, celebrates the art and furnishings collected over 500 years and displayed in country houses of families like the Montagus. It also unabashedly flogs the noble homes as tourist attractions for visiting Americans.

The hoopla surrounding the show is already prompting Lord Montagu to rub his hands in anticipation of clanking turnstiles at Beaulieu (pronounced Bewly), his magnificent 8,000-acre estate in the picturebook Hampshire countryside. "I've been talking to Carter about this for more than seven years," says Montagu of National Gallery Director J. Carter Brown. He hopes the cultural promotion will spur Americans visiting England "to spend one more day and see one of these houses"—especially one of the so-called "Magnificent Seven," which include Beaulieu, Blenheim Palace and Woburn Abbey. (The group was organized 11 years ago to promote seven of Britain's most famous stately homes.) "We hogged the publicity," chuckles Montagu of the owners' appearance at the National Gallery's opening.

Montagu, unlike other land-poor nobility saddled with white elephants, has little to worry about. In addition to the 80-room Palace House and gardens, Beaulieu boasts on its grounds the ruins of a 13th-century Cistercian abbey, a maritime museum and the National Motor Museum (with 250 classic automobiles). Last year Beaulieu drew more than half a million visitors and took in more than $4 million. In addition to his activities at Beaulieu, Montagu also serves as Chairman of England's Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission.

Montagu's achievement is all the more astounding in view of the fact that 32 years ago he was the central figure in what has been called Britain's most sensational homosexual scandal since the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895. On March 24,1954, the then 27-year-old Montagu, dubbed "the Empire's most eligible bachelor," a member of the House of Lords and one of Princess Margaret's escorts, stood before a judge at Hampshire Assizes in Winchester. He had been arrested four months earlier at Heathrow airport as he returned from visiting his sister in Texas. An all male jury listened to charges that Montagu and two co-defendants had "incited" two Royal Air Force enlisted men to "commit unnatural and indecent acts" at a party at Montagu's beach house. As his mother, Alice, watched, Montagu swayed only slightly as the guilty verdict was announced. "I am dealing with you in the most lenient way I possibly can," the judge told Montagu as he sentenced him to a year in jail.

Few would have predicted such an ignominious fate for the young lord, who had become the third Baron Montagu of Beaulieu at the age of 2½, when his father died following a prostate operation. Montagu's idyllic childhood had been spent on "tennis, sailing, rushing around the gardens," as well as handing out prizes at regattas and local plowing competitions (beginning at 4½). After requisite schooling at Eton and a stint in the Grenadier Guards, he enrolled at Oxford only to drop out two years later for a public relations job in London. But even while he was a highly visible member of the Princess Margaret set, there were rumors afoot. His engagement (later broken) to a 21-year-old socialite was reported by British tabloids to have "surprised" friends—a Fleet St. euphemism trumpeted when closet homosexuals announce marriage plans.

Sitting in the library of the seven-bedroom apartment in Beaulieu's Palace House, which he shares with his second wife, Fiona, Montagu talked about his trial and imprisonment, subjects on which previously he had never spoken publicly. "It was much more dignified to say nothing," he explains. "The whole thing was witch hunting, a big nonsense, England in one of its periodic fits of morality. Let's just put it that I pleaded 'not guilty.' " Within six months after his trial, he points out, the government created the Wolfenden Committee to review the law on homosexual offenses. The committee's recommendation—that homosexual behavior between consenting adults no longer be treated as a criminal offense—was not implemented until 1967. "It's comforting that some good came out of it," says Montagu.

Still, the time he spent in Yorkshire's Wakefield Prison (he was released four and a half months early for good behavior) was devastating. "Being brought down to rock bottom and made to look at oneself objectively is a good thing," he says today. "I still have nightmares about it, but you can't let it overwhelm you. I could've gone off and hid myself on a desert island, but I had to come back and show it didn't matter. I returned to Beaulieu and, by plodding on with things, became a credible person again. On the whole, people were good," reflects Montagu. "It was a wonderful opportunity to determine who your friends are. There were the so-called social slights, and one just turned the other cheek."

While in prison Montagu had concentrated his thoughts on his ancestral acres, studying textbooks on estate management and farming. "I had nothing else I could do," he reflects. "If this hadn't happened, Beaulieu wouldn't be what it is today." He had already conceived of a motor museum to attract tourists as a financial stopgap to defray Beaulieu's enormous expenses. It would be a tribute as well to his father, a pioneer of motoring who is credited with introducing Rolls and Royce. Upon his release Montagu threw himself into building up the motor museum, which he had initiated two years earlier by parking five antique cars in Beaulieu's entrance hall. "We thought the whole house would burn up," his mother says.

Montagu's life slowly returned to normal, and in 1959 he married Belinda Crossley, an army captain's daughter. The couple had two children and the scandal receded into the background. "We weren't aware of it for a long time," says his son Ralph, now 24. Daughter Mary, 21, says that gradual awareness made her "sympathetic toward homosexuals," and proud of her father. "I admire the way he's battled through," she says. "He's so brave."

Montagu and Belinda were divorced in 1974. He and present wife Fiona, a Rhodesia-born former film production assistant 18 years his junior, have a 10-year-old son, Jonathan. "I don't travel with him because he moves so fast," Fiona says affectionately of her nail-biting husband, who shuttles between London, Beaulieu and his four-bedroom beach house on the English Channel. He still jogs, shoots, water-skis and sails his 34-foot yacht. "He gets through life with brute force," Fiona adds. "People will look back and say he was a great man, and great men have great faults. For me, he's a fascinating person."

But it was Montagu's mother, now 91, who watched with the greatest satisfaction as her son played host to the Prince of Wales at a ceremony at Beaulieu last year. At the time of the scandal, she recalls, one prominent person "summoned me to say that Edward was rotten to the core and would never be any good at anything. That turned out to be so utterly wrong."