Tag Archives: Deborah Mitford

Farewell to My Favorite Duchess, Deborah Mitford Devonshire


Deborah Devonshire, known as “Debo” to her large family, died today at the age of 94.  She was the youngest of the famous (and notorious) Mitford sisters.  Deborah was considered a little dim by her lively eccentric family, but she was really as bright as the best of them; she just bloomed a little later.

One sister had a longstanding affair with a leader of the French Resistance in World War II, and wrote brilliant comic novels about English aristocratic life.  One sister married a Guinness, but soon left him for the leader of the British Fascists and spent the war years in prison with him. One sister became obsessed with Adolph Hitler and actually became his friend; she shot herself when England declared war on Germany and eventually died of her injuries.  One sister eloped with a man off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, then left that husband for a Communist and spent the rest of her life in the United States as a Communist sympathizer and agitator. Another sister led a quiet country life.  And then there was Deborah.


During World War II, she married the younger son of an aristocratic family.  She expected a quiet country life, poor but happy. He unexpectedly became the Duke of Devonshire when his older brother, who had married Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, was killed in combat in World War II. (Debo became a friend of President Kennedy; she attended his inauguration, which she playfully insisted on calling his “coronation.”) With the Dukedom came huge estates and grand country homes, nearly impossible to maintain.  The world was changing, as dramatized in the TV series Downton Abbey.

For the Devonshires, the solution to keeping Chatsworth, one of  the grandest and most historic stately homes in the country, was up to Deborah.  She rose to the challenge. She spruced up the house and made it ready for a steady stream of paying tourists.  She decided that tourists liked to eat and to buy things.  Soon she had restaurants and elegant shops selling everything from keychains to custom furniture.  She created a children’s farm so that city children could have hands-on experience of running a farm and seeing where the food in the grocery store came from.  She created a farm shop with her own Chatsworth brands of every kind of food grown on the vast estate. Her shops were “local and organic” decades before those terms became trendy.

When the Duke died, Deborah became the Dowager Duchess. She graciously moved out of the grand house and into a smaller house in the village.  There, to the end of her life, she wrote vastly entertaining memoirs and books about country life.  She listened to Elvis records:  she was a great fan.  She raised her beloved chickens and still oversaw every aspect of the thriving Chatsworth businesses that she had created almost single-handed.  May she rest in peace.


The photos above are from a story about Deborah’s  life and death in the Daily Mail at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2768095/BREAKING-NEWS-Last-Mitford-sisters-Dowager-Duchess-Devonshire-died-aged-94.html

If I Could Choose a Tiara…

My choice would be the Devonshire Tiara. It’s ensconced in a display case among many other treasures at Chatsworth, one of my very favorite English stately homes.

And my favorite wearer of this tiara?  That would be Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. Her home, Chatsworth, has been the seat of the rich and influential Cavendish family since 1549, when Bess of Hardwick decided to settle in the area.

Bess of Hardwick was a remarkable woman who deserves a few posts of her own, along with posts about glorious Hardwick House nearby. Both houses are in Derbyshire, in the magnificent walking country that Elizabeth Bennet famously visited in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Many people think Chatsworth was a model for Mr. Darcy’s home, Pemberly.  Jane Austen herself was staying in the nearby town of Bakewell while she was writing the novel. But I’m told that Chatsworth was actually mentioned, separately from Pemberly, in the novel. (Some scholars read Jane Austen very carefully!)

Chatsworth, like Highclere, is still in the family of the heirs to the property.  But keeping it so has been a saga of its own.  Credit in recent years goes to my favorite duchess, Deborah Devonshire.  She was the youngest of the six famous Mitford sisters.  She married Andrew, a younger son of the Cavendish family, in 1941.

When the heir, Andrew’s older brother William, was killed in action in World War II, Andrew suddenly became the heir and Deborah was in line to become the Duchess.  In 1950, the 10th Duke died and Andrew became the 11th Duke. Deborah became the Duchess.

In her memoir, Wait for Me, Deborah describes how the Cavendish family had carefully (and legally) planned to circumvent the “death tax” laws by signing over the property to the heir a number of years before the death of the sitting Duke.  But the 10th Duke died very unexpectedly just a few months short of the effective date.  So the tax blow was crushing.  Deborah rolled up her sleeves and turned Chatsworth into a thriving, money-making enterprise that still honors history and shares its glories with the public.

When the American businessman Joseph Kennedy was ambassador to England, his daughter Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy met and married William Cavendish, then heir to the dukedom.  He was killed in combat, and she died in a plane crash shortly after the war.  She is buried at Edensor, the village at Chatsworth.  President John F. Kennedy became a great friend of Deborah’s.  (I’m assuming he called her Debo, as she was always known to her friends.  I imagine she called him Jack). She and her husband were invited to his Inauguration in Washington.  She gleefully attended, but kept committing the faux pas of calling it his “coronation.”  Irrepressible–that’s how I like my duchesses!

Today, Deborah is the Dowager Duchess–which means her husband has died, a new Duke is in place, and the new Duke’s wife is the actual Duchess.  (This is the same situation as on the show Downton Abbey, where Violet Crawley, played by Maggie Smith, is the Dowager Countess of Grantham). Deborah is 93 now, the last of the famous (some say notorious) Mitford sisters.  She lives in the village of Edensor, which is part of the Chatsworth estate. She still oversees the commercial enterprise she created.  She loves Elvis Presley. And she keeps prize chickens, some of which roam the beautiful grounds at Chatsworth.

Chatsworth Chickens

Chatsworth Chickens

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles, with a special emphasis on colorful personalities!