Peregrine Cavendish is the 12th Duke of Devonshire and currently lives at Chatsworth House which has been owned by his family for 500 years. Currently, there are only eleven dukes in England who hold this highest title of the English aristocracy.
The Duke of Devonshire owns four houses. Chatsworth is one of England’s largest private houses. It has 300 rooms, 350 doors, 17 staircases, and its roof is the size of a football field. The estate itself is the size of Washington, D.C.
Chatsworth House - Wikimedia
For the men of Chatsworth, their power base lies in the land. Through land, you can create money, through rents and produce. Large holdings of land are what supports these great houses. In the past, kings and queens rewarded their faithful subjects with gifts of land.
By the 1500’s, the Cavendish family had established themselves at Chatsworth. They were Earls initially. To be raised from an earldom to a dukedom is a great honor. A duke is a higher position in the aristocracy. To maintain power, it is necessary to keep hold of one’s wealth. The Cavendish clan have held their wealth through centuries.
The right of primogeniture means that all the assets and the chattels go to the eldest son. It is deeply unfair, but it insures that the large bulk of the collection will stay in one hand. It generates the income that is received from the land.
A Tourist Attraction
Chatsworth today is a tourist attraction. It is visited by 3/4 of a million people every year. It is a model of conspicuous consumption, dating back to the 16th century. The window frames are coated with sheets of gold, which actually last longer than paint. Gold lasts for 30 years; paint lasts for only 5 years.
The first Duke of Devonshire built Chatsworth. It is a series of opulent rooms. It has one bed which would cost $100,000 in today’s money. There is a huge entrance hall. Outside, there are 1600 species of tree; 70 sculptures, a 900 foot pond which makes the house seem to float on glassy water.
The Gardens at Chatsworth - Wikimedia
The head gardener, Steve Porter is in charge of millions of gallons of water each year which cascade over the steps. The water makes a different sound on each step it hits, providing music for the visitor to the gardens. Each year, the Gardens attract 600,000 visitors who are allowed to walk through the house with the exception of a small area reserved for the family. Without the visitors, the family might not be able to afford to stay there. The archives is another place that is off-limits to visitors. It reveals the dramas that have played out in the rooms upstairs.
At one point, a gambling addiction threatened the survival of the estate when Georgiana Spencer married the Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, in 1774. She was a 17-year-old bride. It was a complete nightmare to her to run a house like Chatsworth. Not only was she in charge of the enormous estate, she was expected to conceive a son and heir. It took eight years for her to conceive, and she had a girl, which enraged the family. She drowned her sorrows by gambling, which was a popular pastime with 18th century aristocrats. She could easily gamble $60,000 dollars in one night because of her addiction. She was in such debt, it could have liquidated the entire estate. She could not tell her husband that she owed so much money, some of which she owed to the Prince of Wales. She was lonely and desperate.
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire - Wikimedia
She met Lady Elizabeth Foster in 1782, and thought she had found a true friend. Bess was the quintessential Snake in the Grass. People were convinced she was a fake except for Georgiana, who was desperate for friends. There was much speculation about their relationship. It is possible that it was a sexual relationship. Records show that Bess did have an interior motive. Her real ambition was that she wanted the Duke for herself; she wanted to drive out Georgiana. She became the Duke’s mistress. It was a Menage a trois. After 15 years of marriage, Georgiana became pregnant and gave birth to a son, which provided fringe benefits to her. She could now look for love elsewhere. She fell for a man much younger than herself with disastrous consequences. She became pregnant and the Duke found out about her affair. She was banished abroad and had to leave behind her infant son, not knowing if she would ever return to Chatsworth. Far from home and about to give birth, she wrote her son a loving letter written in her own blood. She was allowed eventually to return to Chatsworth and lived there for 14 years. Bess got her wish and married the Duke. Bess became the Duchess of Devonshire.
Georgiana’s son was known as the Bachelor Duke. He was eligible but never married. He inherited Chatsworth in 1811 and his wealth was beyond measure. It was five times larger than it is now. The Bachelor Duke loved the Chatsworth Gardens. With the help of expert gardener Joseph Paxton, he transformed Chatsworth. It cost a fortune. He spent $4 million on plant seeds alone. The annual expense was $7 million in today’s money. The Bachelor Duke loved exotic plants. He christened them with the name of Cavendish. Today, there are Cavendish bananas.
The Bachelor Duke, Sixth Duke of Devonshire - Wikimedia
The Bachelor Duke
The Bachelor Duke was the sixth Duke of Devonshire. In the 1840’s, he bankrolled Joseph Paxton to build the Great Conservatory. It was exotic, it was huge, it had never been seen before. The Duke owned the world’s biggest glass house. It took 300 tons of coal each year to heat the Conservatory. Because coal became scarce during World War I, it finally fell into disrepair and was eventually demolished.
In 1873, Joseph Paxton built the Emperor Fountain, which was a record breaker. It was the first big engineering feat of that time, a legacy of national importance.
Christine Robinson is Chatsworth’s head housekeeper. Her family worked there for three generations. Her grandmother and great grandmother worked in the kitchen. The viewer was taken through the Victorian kitchen which had three fireplaces. There was heat and steam in the kitchen which was intolerable. Her ancestors were too lowly to obtain work in any other place.
Sixty guests stayed in the house with one hundred more coming at night. Turtle soup became a symbol of opulence. One hundred people required one hundred turtles, costing 20 pounds each. The scullery maids prepared the food; scullery maids made 20 pounds a year.
Box upon box of 1000 items of kitchenware was discovered hidden away that the family did not know existed. The cutlery was engraved with a C for Cavendish, and DD for the Duke of Devonshire. It had to be cleaned which was tough work. The women had to do the cleaning. The floors were scrubbed by four young 12-year-old girls on their hands and knees.
In the 19th century, 70 servants lived there. There was a distinct divide between master upstairs and servant downstairs. A corridor which leads to the Great Dining Room is where the divide begins. The best entertaining that Chatsworth could offer took place in this dining room.
The Double Duchess
In 1892, Louise von Alten, aged 60, married the Duke of Devonshire. She had been married to a Duke before, which gave rise to her nickname, “the Double Duchess.” There had not been a Duchess at Chatsworth for 100 years.
That was the Age of the House Party. The Double Duchess’ parties were excessive. You must be friends with the host to have easy access to your lover. The 40 bedrooms were allocated with a name on the door. The corridors would creak as re-arrangement of rooms took place. You had to be discreet. The Double Duchess herself had an affair with the Duke of Devonshire for thirty years. It was known but never discussed.
Louise, the Double Duchess was also close to Edward, the Prince of Wales. He was often seen at Chatsworth in the theatre which was part of the house. He came often to the Shooting Parties that were held at Chatsworth. On one weekend, they shot 256 pheasants on the first day, and 859 pheasants on the next day. The Prince of Wales became King Edward VII.
The Double Duchess wore the Devonshire Tiara on special occasions. It was made in London, and consisted of 1900 diamonds set in silver and gold, worth more than 2 million dollars. She wore it when King Edward VII came to visit.
Duchess Louise’s daughter-in-law, American Consuelo del Valle, had a New England mother and a Cuban father. She liked to play the banjo and smoke cigars. She liked to introduce wealthy American women to the British aristocracy. Many of these young women married British noblemen. When Consuelo’s husband deserted her, the Double Duchess stood by her.
Adele Astaire - Wikimedia
The archives reveals many stories. In 1923, Adele Astaire, the sister of Fred, starred on the London stage and captivated London society, including royalty. Charlie Cavendish, the second son the Duke of Devonshire brought her to Chatsworth. She was overawed to be there, and turned cartwheels when she was introduced to Charlie’s parents. They were married at Chatsworth in 1932, but tried to keep it secret because she was so famous. It was unusual for an actress to marry into English aristocracy. Charlie died at age 38 of alcoholism.
Ambasssador Joseph Kennedy and Family - Wikimedia
Kathleen Kennedy, known as Kick, was the oldest daughter of Joseph Kennedy, the Ambassador to England, and also the sister of John F. Kennedy, the future President of the United States. Kick met the heir to the Duke of Devonshire in 1938 when she was 18 years old. Billie Cavendish had turned 21 that year. He was England’s most eligible bachelor and heir to the title of Duke of Devonshire. She came from a wealthy family, but British aristocracy was something else. She caught Billie’s eye and a romance developed. The problem was that he was a Protestant English Lord and she was an Irish-American Catholic. The possibility of having Catholic children did not fit in.
In 1939 war broke out. For five years, because of the war, they were separated. They finally married but he was killed in the war. The tenth Duke of Devonshire never recovered from Billie’s death. Kick decided to make her home in England. Three years later, she took a plane to France during a heavy thunderstorm, crashed into a mountain, and all on board were killed. Her father, Joseph Kennedy, was the only family member to attend the funeral. In 1963, JFK made an unplanned visit to his sister’s grave at Chatsworth when he was President. It was kept secret at the time. Six months later, his met his own untimely death.
In the 1950’s, heavy inheritance taxes totaling $60 million put Chatsworth into great debt. It took thirty years until the debt was finally paid off. Since then, Chatworth’s collection has returned to its former glory.Chatsworth was able to reopen. The 12th Duke of Devonshire lives there now.