Deborah Vivien Cavendish, The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire DCVO (1920–2014)

The 11th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire

The 11th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire - Credit: Archant

It is a tired cliche, but nevertheless true, that the death of the last of the Mitford sisters marks the end of an era

The Hon. Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford was born on the 21st March 1920, the youngest of six sisters – daughters, of the 2nd Lord Redesdale (their only brother Thomas died of wounds in Burma in World War II). Her siblings were all formidable characters including brilliant author Nancy Mitford and Diana Mosley. ‘Debo’ as she was always affectionately called was also an author of considerable ability.

‘Debo’s’ main talent came into play when she married Lord Andrew Cavendish younger son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire. The Duke’s heir, William, Marquess of Hartington, fell in action during the War so Lord Andrew became Hartington and eventually Duke himself when his father died in 1950. His wife thus became chatelaine of one of Britain’s finest houses.

The enormous death duties at the time meant the very existence of Chatsworth, one of the nation’s most cherished treasures, was seriously threatened. It could have meant the break-up of an estate which had flourished since the l6th century and the consequent plight of many employees and tenants, some of whom had been associated with the family for generations.

It can be fairly said that the new Duchess with the help and approval of her husband the 11th Duke saved the major part of the estate. She herself contributed more than anyone else to Chatsworth since her hero the 6th Duke. Debo and her husband worked tirelessly over a number of years to pay off the huge ‘debt’ to the state. They had to part with Hardwick Hall (now National Trust), several very important works of art and much land. The Duchess introduced money-making schemes such as the Farm Shop and the spectacular and very popular Carriage House Restaurant in the stables. Her latent talent for business came to the fore and millions were raised, enabling the family to move back into Chatsworth and restore it to its former glory.

What of the Duchess’s private self? She had much tragedy in her life but was a very kind and friendly person with some quirky ideas such as her admiration for Elvis Presley and her love of poultry. My favourite story is of her showing a party around Chatsworth pointing out the Rembrandts, the Lelys, the Canova sculptures and much more. One of the party asked ‘Who is Your Grace’s favourite artist?’ She replied without hesitation ‘Beatrix Potter’. She had a point.

There is so much more to say about the Duchess but her life’s work saving Chatsworth will endure in fame as long as the literary works of her siblings, and perhaps longer.

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Related links:

Remembering Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire

Pat Ashworth looks back on treasured memories of past meetings.

Funeral of Deborah Vivien Cavendish DCVO

Deborah Vivien Cavendish DCVO (1920-2014) was laid to rest on Thursday 2nd October 2014 at St Peter’s Church, Edensor.

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