Primogeniture is a risky business.
Andrew, 11th Duke of Devonshire (1920-2004) wasn’t expected to inherit until his older brother Billy was shot by a sniper in France in September 1944. For the rest of his life, Andrew Devonshire was haunted by a feeling of stepping into his brother’s shoes: “I’m Duke of Devonshire owing to a marksman killing my brother, so I’m here by proxy and I remind myself every morning when I wake up and again when I go to bed, that I am one of the luckiest men alive. And it does make me uneasy. I mean, it’s not right!” [Lynn Barber, ‘The Original Thin White Duke’, The Observer, October 22nd 2002].
Indeed, at the time that William, Marquess of Hartington died, it was possible that his wife of four months might have conceived – but it turned out she hadn’t. Kathleen, Marchioness of Hartington was the daughter of the former US Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy: two of her brothers were Jack, the future US President, and his brother Bobby.
Her marriage did not go down well, particularly with her mother, Rose, because the Kennedys were staunch Boston Catholics whereas the Dukes of Devonshire were firmly Protestant. In fact, the only Kennedy to attend the wedding was Kathleen’s oldest brother, Joe Jnr, who was himself killed in action over Suffolk in August 1944.
The extraordinary grief of losing a brother and a husband within a matter of weeks would crush many people: Kathleen Hartington wrote to a friend, “…life holds no fears for someone who has faced love, marriage and death before the age of 25”.
She made a life for herself in post-war London, and fell in love with the unhappily married Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 8th Earl Fitzwilliam. Not only were the Fitzwilliams intransigently Protestant, but the necessity for a divorce was anathema to Rose Kennedy. In the hope of persuading Joseph Kennedy Snr to accept their relationship the couple flew to the South of France in a private plane which encountered a thunderstorm and crashed into a mountain in the Ardèche region of France in 1948, killing all on board. Kathleen, Marchioness of Hartington is buried at Edensor, in the grounds of Chatsworth House: her grave carries the epitaph “Joy she gave; joy she has found”.
The Fitzwilliam title, the family seat at Wentworth Woodhouse, South Yorkshire, and the extensive estates passed to Eric, 9th Earl, an alcoholic bachelor. The next heir was not only distant but in doubt – one of two brothers, great-grandsons of the 5th Earl – of whom the elder, Toby, had a son and grandson, but whose legitimacy was uncertain, while Tom, the younger, had no male heir. A court-case settled in favour of Tom, who duly succeeded as 10th Earl and died in 1979, taking the title with him.
So the Devonshire dynasty continues through the line of Billy Hartington’s younger brother and Chatsworth thrives; the Fitzwilliam estates remain in the ownership of the 10th Earl’s descendants and the estate village of Wentworth is maintained by the Fitzwilliam Wentworth Amenity Trust, but the vast house, comparable in scale with Chatsworth or Blenheim, was sold off in 1989, and was until recently inaccessible to the public, though the East Front has always been visible from the bridleway that runs through the park.
The twentieth-century history of the Fitzwilliams is told in Catherine Bailey, Black Diamonds: the rise and fall of an English dynasty (Viking 2007), a remarkable achievement by a first-time author, not least because of the notorious secrecy of the family. Tom, 10th Earl, ordered the destruction of those family documents that hadn’t been weeded by his predecessors: the sixteen tons of papers took three weeks to burn.
Read the book. It’s compelling.
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The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing. It includes chapters on Aston Hall, Brodsworth Hall, Cannon Hall, Cusworth Hall, Hickleton Hall, Renishaw Hall, Wentworth Castle, Wentworth Woodhouse and Wortley Hall. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.