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An Endangered Species: Britain’s Non-Royal Duchesses

Anne, 3rd Duchess of Hamilton (1631-1716)
Anne, 3rd Duchess of Hamilton (1631-1716)

What a joy it is in this internet era, when so much information is ‘out there’ and (it seems) just about everything has been discovered, to find subjects which remain unexplored.  With historical topics, newly-opened archives can offer fresh information. When an area of what might be called living history turns out to be unexamined, it is very exciting.

Britain’s duchesses fall into that category: not the royal ones, like Kate and Camilla, but the non-royals, who sit with their dukes just one branch down from royalty at the top of the aristocratic tree. Kate made me think about those others when she became the Duchess of Cambridge upon marriage.  Here was a young, educated, modern woman bearing an old title, one that could evoke unflattering images: the grotesque duchess in Alice in Wonderland always sprang to my mind, the author’s parody of the Victorian upper classes, as well as a world of footmen and frippery. I wanted to discover who Britain’s non-royal duchesses are today.

By marrying into families who helped shaped Britain’s past, they are tomorrow’s history.  I was therefore very surprised to find that they had never before been written about as a group and most of them not even as individuals – particularly as they are an endangered species. Before their titles become just a quaint reminder of Britain’s past, I wanted to record them for posterity. I managed to persuade ten duchesses to be interviewed. At my request each also chose a favourite predecessor in the role whom I then researched and presented in their own chapter, providing a fascinating comparison from the 17th to the 20th century. The result is my book Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain.

Winston Churchill was offered a dukedom after he retired, but declined in order to stay in the House of Commons.

Today there are only 24 non-royal dukes in Britain, among over 800 hereditary titles and, for reasons of death or divorce, fewer duchesses.  Royal dukedoms – that is, those granted to members of the monarch’s family – have been created since 1337, when Edward III made his eldest son Duke of Cornwall, and will probably continue to be created. However, the future for non-royal dukedoms is not bright.  Created for exemplary service to the monarch, they were the highest accolade, so there were always very few of them. The greatest number to exist at one time was 40, at the end of George I’s reign in 1727. The last non-royal dukedom was Fife, created by Queen Victoria in 1900.  Queen Elizabeth offered a dukedom to Winston Churchill after he retired as Prime Minister in 1955 but he declined, as the Parliament Act 1911 would have prevented his spending his last days in the House of Commons as he wanted to do.   History has shown how rare it is for a duchess to inherit in her own right: usually the title is achieved only by marriage.  My book contains one of the rare exceptions: Anne, 3rd Duchess of Hamilton, who inherited the title aged 19, during the turbulence of the Civil War.

Non-royal titles are more likely to die out than be created. The Duchess of Cambridge may have caused the rules of succession to the throne to be changed to allow for a girl to inherit, but the non-royal duchesses, regardless of their education or other achievements,  are subject to the same pressure as they were centuries ago: to produce a male heir. The title of duke, like all hereditary titles, is granted with a ‘remainder’, or instructions as to whom the title must pass – usually a male. The most recent dukedom to become extinct for lack of an heir was Portland in 1990, with the death of the 9th Duke. Today’s Duchess of Argyll, now 41, was told by the family’s historian that she had to produce a boy because there were no more males left in the family.  The late Duke of Buccleuch, when his daughter-in-law, now Duchess, gave birth in 1982 to her first child, a daughter, cancelled the festivities he had planned. Protests from families threatened by the absence of male heirs led to Lord Lucas in May 2013 introducing his Equalities (Titles) Bill to the House of Lords which, broadly speaking, would allow women to inherit under certain conditions. However, the Bill has not progressed since December 2013.

To set the modern duchesses in context, it was necessary to research their husband’s titles. Time changes things, of course. Once, the dukes enjoyed tremendous power and privilege, including the ability to escape the courts’ jurisdiction and the right to sit in the House of Lords.  Since Labour’s reforms of 1999 only two dukes remain in the Lords: Norfolk (as Earl  Marshal of England) and Montrose (by election). Today there is also less money than there was. Those duchesses who still have cripplingly expensive stately homes to manage rely on the enduring fascination of the world with Britain’s heritage.  They impressed me deeply with their creativity and hands-on approach, working with the past yet making their estates relevant to today and stable for the future.

Those whose mothers-in-law, the Dowager Duchesses, are still alive, are reminded of a time when there was still deference towards their titles. In our recession-prone age, today’s duchesses are aware that privilege is not a popular concept and some have experienced hostility. To the disapproval of his mother, the (recently) late Debo, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the 12th Duke once said that if required to do so, he would happily surrender his title because the aristocracy is ‘dead’. While not going that far, the duchesses acknowledge that their titles are much less relevant today, except perhaps for attracting people to their homes and for charities, with which they are all involved. But even  Duchessesthose for whom the transition to duchess was unexpected or unwelcome are all proud of their titles and of belonging to families which, even when some members were less illustrious, endowed Britain’s history  with the fops and the tarts, the grotesques and the romantics, who make it so fabulously entertaining.

Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain by Jane Dismore was published on 4 September 2014 by Blink Books.

About Jane Dismore

Jane Dismore is a freelance journalist and biographer. Her latest book 'Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain' is published by Blink Books and is out now.

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