Nicola here. I was very interested in Wench Andrea’s blog a week or so ago about Dukes, and the reality of dukes and dukedoms as opposed to what we see on film and read about in books. This prompted me to think about duchesses, particularly as a new podcast called “Duchess” started recently. It’s a show that explores the inspiring women who are running the stately home of Britain. In it, Emma Manners, the Duchess of Rutland, travels the country and talks to a variety of women about their lives caring for historic houses. It’s quite an eye-opening listen (if that isn’t an odd metaphor!) Despite the very modern approach of some of the chatelaines, there were times when I felt I could have been listening to someone talking in the 19th century, particularly when the made reference to “taking care of the staff.” It’s all part and parcel of running a modern estate.
One of the messages that came over clearly from all the participants of the show was that life changes forever when you marry and take on the care of one of Britain’s most historic buildings. Of course you get to live in the most amazing setting and enjoy all the treasures of a grand pile, but you are sharing your home with visitors and need some privacy some of the time.
My favourite of the episodes so far was with Lady Ingilby of Ripley Castle (pictured). Ripley in Yorkshire was one of my favourite places to visit when I was growing up. I was amused to hear that staff call Lady Ingilby “the boss” but she was very clear that Ripley is a home but it is also a business and has to earn its keep. The desire to pass a castle on in good shape to the next generation came over very strongly in the podcasts. This felt like a very strong duty that all the chatelaines felt keenly. Lady Ingilby also spoke bracingly of the pressure to produce an heir and a spare and that as she had produced not two but four boys that was certainly “job done”!
Today’s duchesses and indeed many of the countesses and other titled ladies who are chatelaines of great houses are there mainly by virtue of their husband’s titles. The argument for abolishing male-preference primogeniture, where a title and estate normally goes to the eldest legitimate son, rumbles on but whilst it was abolished with regard to the monarchy in 2013, it’s not made much headway further down the aristocratic tree.
Looking at women who were duchesses in their own right, it sometimes seems things have gone backwards. In 1397, Margaret, daughter and sole heir of Thomas Earl of Norfolk, became Duchess of Norfolk in her own right and Earl Marshal of England as well. To this day she is the only woman to have held the title of Earl Marshal, which is a hereditary royal and chivalric title.
You have to come forward to 1644 before you find another woman who was created a Duchess in
her own right, this time Alice, Lady Dudley. Alice Dudley was an interesting woman. I first came across her when researching my current WIP because she was the sister of my heroine Catherine Catesby. She married Robert Dudley, the natural son of Elizabeth I’s royal favourite the Earl of Leicester. Robert junior was obsessed with getting his claim to be legitimate recognised and after the failure of a court case to achieve this, he ran off to the continent in 1605 with his cousin, leaving poor Alice and their brood of children behind.
In 1644, King Charles II somewhat belatedly tried to make it up to Alice by making her a Duchess in her own right. As with Margaret of Norfolk, however, this was only for the space of her lifetime. There was no suggestion of these titles ever becoming hereditary, least of all down the female line.
King Charles II was very fond of duchesses. He made his mistress Barbara Palmer Duchess of Cleveland and another mistress, Louise de Kerouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth. King George I followed suit by creating his mistress Melusine von der Schulenberg Duchess of Munster in 1716. Melusine was in fact the “double duchess” because George gave her the title of Duchess of Kendal three years later!
An interesting case was Cecilia, Duchess of Inverness. Cecilia was born around 1789, the daughter of Arthur Gore, second Earl of Arran. In 1831 the widowed Cecilia married Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, the sixth son of King George III. This marriage, like the prince’s previous one, wasn’t legal under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 so Queen Victoria made Cecilia a Duchess and the title could be passed on – to her male heirs of course!
Other women have been made peeresses in their own right and in some rare cases these titles can be passed via the female line but this is very rare. In 1818 there were 28 dukedoms, 32 marquessates, 210 earldoms, 66 viscounts and 172 barons. 16 of these were ‘peeresses in their own right” and none of those were duchesses. In 2021 there are 18 peeresses in their own right which is 2.2% of the peerage! You can see why some of the daughters of the nobility are calling for reform!
Of course, being a Duchess by right of your husband’s title doesn’t detract at all from the amazing achievements of some special duchesses down the centuries. Elizabeth Murray, Duchess of Lauderdale was a staunch Royalist during the English Civil War and was a member of the secret organisation the Sealed Knot. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, born in 1757, had an interest in political campaigning, chemistry and writing.
On the Duchess podcast, amongst the stories of haunted castles and rich tales of family history, what stands out is that down the ages there have been some remarkable women taking care of Britain’s stately homes – and there still are.
Do you have a favourite historical duchess like Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, whom you admire for their life and their achievements, or a favourite fictional representation of a duchess in a novel? There are certainly plenty of them out there!