Ralph Montagu was born in 1638, the second son of Edward Montagu, second Lord Montagu of Boughton and Anne, daughter of Sir Ralph Winwood, knight. His career as courtier and diplomat began early as Master of the Horse to the Duchess of York. At the death of his elder brother Edward in 1665 he succeeded to the position of Master of the Horse to Queen Catherine. He became a popular figure at the court of Charles II, distinguishing himself by his gallantry and his affairs with notable beauties of the day. On 1 January 1669 Montagu was appointed Ambassador Extraordinary to the court of Louis XIV, the first of a succession of such appointments. He lost no time in establishing himself as a friend of the Duchess of Orleans, whose knowledge of the intricacies of the French court assisted him in his diplomatic career. During this tenure he attempted to secure his future at the English Court by purchasing the Mastership of the Great Wardrobe from his cousin, Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich (1625-1672) for £14,000, a position which promised great power and influence as well as pecuniary rewards.
Upon his return in January 1672 King Charles II appointed him to the Privy Council. Montagu seems to have made an enemy of the powerful Duke of Buckingham, against whom the king sometimes backed him, but once sent him to the Tower for a few days when their quarrel encroached into the king's own drawing-room. Montagu's career progressed and at Titchfield, Hampshire on 24 August 1673 he married Elizabeth Wriothesley, daughter of Thomas, Earl of Southampton and widow of Joceline Percy, 11th Earl of Northumberland, a great heiress who is said to have numbered Charles II himself, the king's natural son the future Duke of Grafton, and the Duke of York among her suitors.
Montagu returned to France as Ambassador Extraordinary and again spent much time in planning his future, striking a bargain with Secretary of State Henry Coventry by offering to pay him £10,000 for his position. These plans came to naught as consent from others was needed and this was not forthcoming; and worse was to come. His former friend the Duchess of Cleveland denounced him to the king, and this was strengthened by accusations of corruption by the Earl of Danby as well as by the king's personal astrologer, causing his fall from favour. He was replaced as ambassador and fell back upon a safe seat in the House of Commons representing the county of Huntingdon, while planning his revenge against those whom he felt had wronged him. This took the form of contracting with the French ambassador to cause the ruin of his principal accuser in exchange for a substantial pension.
These private events were overtaken by the dissolution of Parliament in 1678, which caused Montagu to go into hiding. He used the occasion to back Monmouth's cause, hoping to get him declared Prince of Wales under the theory that a disputed succession in England would be an advantage to France. He was certainly opportunistic; Swift characterised him as 'as arrant a knave as any in his time.' When these intrigues finally collapsed and he was unable to re-establish himself in any position of power at the English court, he returned to France, in part to secure payment for his past services. Once again, greater events overtook his personal plans and on 10 January 1683-4 he succeeded his father as 3rd Lord Montagu of Boughton. As such, he fully intended to attend the coronation of James II in 1685 and was, somewhat surprisingly, welcomed by the king, although he lost the position of Master of the Wardrobe to Lord Preston and the king refused to see him personally.
With the Glorious Revolution of 1689 Montagu threw his support behind William III and was again created Privy Councillor, and in addition made Viscount Monthermer and Earl of Montagu on 9 April 1689, as well as being restored as Master of the Wardrobe, albeit assisted in that restoration by a lawsuit. It is at this time that the present flagons may have been presented to Montagu, as they are engraved with the arms of the Earl of Montagu. His wife having died in 1690 he began to court the 'very rich and very mad' Elizabeth Cavendish (d. 1734), eldest daughter of Henry Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Newcastle, and widow of Christopher Monck, 2nd Duke of Albemarle, an heiress of some £7000 per annum who declared she would only marry a crowned head. Ever resourceful, Montagu solved this dilemma by pretending to be the Emperor of China, and they were married in September, 1692, triggering a tumultuous series of lawsuits relating to her Albemarle inheritance which consumed the better part of seven years. Once again established as a courtier, Montagu now began to press his claim to a dukedom, a goal which was not attained until his son John married Lady Mary Churchill, youngest daughter of the Duke of Marlborough, in 1705, upon which occasion Montagu was raised to the title of Duke of Montagu. Having at last attained his coveted dukedom Montagu died just a few years afterwards, on 9 March 1708-9.
Montagu's town residence, Montagu House in Bloomsbury, was designed by Robert Hooke in the French style. Destroyed by fire but rebuilt, it was purchased in 1753 by the government to house the British Museum, but was demolished a century later. At his country home, Boughton House in Northamptonshire, 'contrived after the model of Versailles', Montagu went further, and strove to re-create, insofar as possible, the residences and gardens he had known and admired in France. Doubtless too, in his often insecure political standing in England it was comfortable to be reminded of Versailles, whose fountains played for him by order of Louis XIV whenever he went there. His business sense combined with an interest in the decorative arts is nowhere better illustrated than in his purchase of the Mortlake tapestry workshops in 1674. Certainly his personal fortune was prospering, for when he had assumed the Mastership of the Wardrobe in 1671 the remuneration was already the vast sum of £20,000, but this had doubled within two years. As was the custom, part of a councillor's display of wealth, stature and power took the form of plate, and Montagu was not a man to neglect these perquisites of his position.
New regalia is known to have been created for the coronation of Charles II in 1661 and it would seem very likely that the present flagons were employed as a part of the ceremonial representation of the wealth of the king at banquets celebrating the coronation. Inventory of the Standing Wardrobe carried out in 1688, when Lord Preston was still Master, entitled An Inventory of all his Mats Jewells Gold Gilt and White Plate which are either in the charge and custody of his Mats Jewell House or in the charge of the aforesaid Office & in the Custody of Other persons & Officers contains reference to gilt plate extant in the Office with a total weight of 8,476ozs. Sadly no inventory listing the royal plate with weights survives. Such a list would make a firm identification of the flagons as having been from the Royal Plate collection possible. The maker's mark of an orb and cross appears on precious few pieces from the 1660s. A set of four salts, known as the St. George Salts, are in the Royal Plate collection at the Tower of London. Dating from circa 1660, they are struck with a very similar maker's mark, as is the Maundy dish, hallmarked for 1660.