Born on 8 August 1909 in Kensington, London, Charles John Lyttelton was the son of Violet Yolande Leonard and her husband, John Cavendish Lyttelton, who in 1922 was to become the ninth Viscount Cobham. The family had historical ties to New Zealand: Charles’s great-grandfather, after whom the town of Lyttelton was named, had been chairman of the Canterbury Association, and his grandfather had played a prominent role in financing the development of Christchurch; Hagley Park was named after the family seat, Hagley Hall. Charles attended Eton College and later Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating BA with honours in law in 1932. Although he did not excel at cricket at school, he played county cricket for Worcestershire from 1932, and was captain from 1936 to 1939. In 1935–36 he spent three months touring New Zealand as vice captain of the English cricket team. He was also renowned for his prowess at golf.
Lyttelton, who had been active in the Territorial Army since 1933, served as an artillery officer in the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940, and from 1943 commanded the 5th Regiment, Maritime Royal Artillery. On 30 April 1942, at Chelsea, he married Elizabeth Alison Makeig-Jones; they were to have four sons and four daughters. After the war he aspired to a political career, but his hopes of securing a seat in the House of Commons as a Conservative party candidate were dashed by his elevation to the peerage on the death of his father in 1949. He became the 10th Viscount Cobham and the 13th Baron Cobham, in addition to acquiring a number of lesser titles. In 1950 he visited New Zealand in connection with properties he owned in Christchurch. He was president of the MCC, the controlling body of English cricket, in 1954–55.
Cobham became governor general of New Zealand on 5 September 1957; before taking up the post in Wellington, he was made a GCMG. He proved to be a popular governor general and, despite his aristocratic background, associated easily with New Zealanders. He was later described as ‘essentially an outdoors man – cricketer, golfer, a sound judge of Rugby football, a good man with a gun’, and an enthusiastic fly fisherman. These interests, as well as his comparative youth, helped break down barriers in a country where sporting prowess was much respected. In 1961 he led an invitation XI in a match against the visiting English cricket team, during which he thrilled the crowd with some exciting batsmanship.
Cobham was the driving force behind the establishment of the Outward Bound Trust of New Zealand in April 1961; its school at Anakiwa in Queen Charlotte Sound, which he opened in September 1962, was named after him. Finding the Waitangi Day ceremony ‘dreary beyond description’ and a test of endurance, he made suggestions for improving both it and the site at Waitangi. He was a skilful speaker, often quoting wittily from classical sources. A volume of his speeches published at the end of his term sold more than 50,000 copies; Cobham generously donated the £10,000 profit to Outward Bound.
Although the government changed twice, Cobham was not confronted with any difficult political situations during his term as governor general, which was notably uncontroversial. He was on cordial terms with all three prime ministers of the period, and was scrupulously careful to avoid commenting on politically controversial matters. He relinquished his position on 13 September 1962, leaving his name to a number of localities including Cobham Oval in Whangarei and Cobham Court in Porirua.
Back in the United Kingdom, Cobham resided at Hagley Hall, Stourbridge, where he grew increasingly disenchanted with the changing nature of British society. He served as a director of numerous companies and was treasurer of the MCC in 1963–64. He was lord lieutenant of Worcestershire from 1963 to 1974, and was made a Knight Companion of the Order of the Garter in 1964, becoming Chancellor of the Order of the Garter eight years later.
During a brief visit to New Zealand in 1966 Cobham returned to Anakiwa and was gratified by the progress that had been made with Outward Bound. The following year he was appointed a privy counsellor and lord steward of Her Majesty’s Household. On his retirement from the latter post in 1972, he was made a GCVO. Cobham died at Marylebone, London, on 20 March 1977, survived by his wife and children.