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.
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!