Duchesses of Belvoir Castle: Guest Post by Emma Manners, Duchess of Rutland

This post has been written by Emma Manners, Duchess of Rutland, author of the book The Accidental Duchess. Here, she gives an insight into some of her predecessors at Belvoir Castle. Thanks to the Duchess for this interesting and enlightening post. 

Living at Belvoir it is impossible not to be aware of the duchesses that preceded me. Their portraits are everywhere, from the state rooms, to the long corridors in the private side.  However, it was only once I became a duchess myself, on the death of my father-in-law in 1999,  that I got to know the women behind the portraits.  A month or so after the funeral, my mother-in-law, then the dowager duchess, handed me a huge metal box which contained hundreds of keys, each one clearly labelled. The next day she gave me a conducted tour round the storerooms, most of which I never even knew existed.  One of these was the linen room where she showed me a trunk filled with literally dozens of babies’ nightdresses.  “Elizabeth, the fifth duchess” she explained.  I knew that Elizabeth had eleven children over the years, but this seemed excessive. My mother-in-law laughed and suggested I feel them.  They weren’t fine cotton or linen, but somewhat rough to the touch. It was Elizabeth’s idea, she explained. They would be given to every villager who had a baby.  Once the baby had grown out of them, they’d be laundered and returned to this trunk ready for the next arrival. 

Elizabeth, 5th Duchess of Rutland (image: Emma Manners)

She then opened another box that contained yards of silk –– a wedding train – wrapped in tissue paper, along with the tiny size 2 wedding shoes… These had belonged to the 4th duchess she told me, Mary Isabella, daughter of the Duke of Somerset.  She was a renowned beauty – Sir Joshua Reynolds painted her portrait four times – and went on to have six children in quick succession.  These pregnancies – and the premature death of her husband at 33 when her eldest son was only 9 –– took their toll and, rather cruelly, she became known as Mary once-a-bella…

The most inspirational of my predecessors was Elizabeth, the 5th duchess, Mary Isabella’s daughter-in-law, who married the 5th duke when she was 19.  She was the daughter of the Earl of Carlisle and had been brought up at Castle Howard, the magnificent baroque mansion in Yorkshire by Sir John Vanbrugh, who later designed Blenheim Palace.  Not surprisingly when Elizabeth first saw Belvoir, she was not impressed. At that point it was a rather plain, squat building on a rocky outcrop. She too was a beauty and her besotted young husband gave her carte blanche to remodel it as she wanted. Taking him at his word, she commissioned James Wyatt, the fashionable architect of the day (who was then working on Windsor Castle) to realise her vision of a romantic neo-gothic extravaganza. He decided the simplest thing was to knock down the existing building and start again, and in doing so created the fairy-tale castle that we still see today.

The next duchess to leave her mark on Belvoir was Violet, the 8th duchess.  By the time her husband acceded to the title in 1906, she was 50 and already the mother of five so wasted no time in bringing the castle into the 20th century, installing electricity, the telephone and bathrooms with flushing toilets.  She was also a successful artist who exhibited in London and abroad, famous for her drawings of the movers and shakers of the day, who were regular guests both at Bute House in Holland Park, where she and her MP husband lived before the 7th duke died, and later at Belvoir. However interesting these portraits might be historically, it’s her sketches of children that I find particularly moving.  Although these young sitters were sketched over a hundred years ago, they look as if they could have been drawn yesterday and the tenderness of the relationship comes shining through, and within these innocent faces, I can recognise the features of my own children.

Violet, 8th Duchess of Rutland. Image: Emma Manners

The 9th duchess was Kathleen, my husband’s grandmother, whose own husband died shortly after the outbreak of war in 1940.  Eventually all three of her sons were in uniform fighting in Europe.  Letters from Charles, her eldest son, the 10th duke, are particularly poignant and show how important she was, not only in running this vast building of over 200 rooms, and the estate of some 17,000 acres, but in keeping morale up during the darkest of times.

Kathleen, 9th Duchess of Rutland, with her bulldog Johnny (image: Emma Manners)

I could go on. The archives stretch back hundreds of years and there is still so much to discover.    I would love to know how Mary Isabella spent the years following her husband’s early death.  She died aged 76, meaning she was a widow for 43 years. How did she cope with five children under 9? Was she instrumental in choosing Elizabeth as the young heir’s bride?  Did she approve of her daughter-in-law’s new-look castle? Or did she mourn the disappearance of the house where her children had been born?

The Accidental Duchess by Emma Manners Duchess of Rutland is published by Pan Macmillan, £22.00. Look out for it at your local bookshop or buy at Amazon (that's an affiliate link, your purchase helps to support the blog at no extra cost to you).  

Thanks again to the Duchess for this wonderful post! Have you read the book? Have you visited Belvoir? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below... 

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