Amazing Grace E. S. Turner (Michael Joseph E5.95) Once did I see a great duke before me, dukeing it up, and it was a sight I shall never forget.
The second Duke of Westminster, Bend Or to his intimates, after his grandfather's horse which won the Derby in 1879, the year of his birth, the man of whom Noel Coward once observed that in an earlier age "he would undoubtedly have glittered with rhinestones from head to foot." (Actually, until I'd read Mr Turner's book, I'd always thought he was called 'Ben d'Or,' or 'Golden Ben,' but no matter.) On the morning when I met Bend Or, in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, to interview him about his racing prospects in Ireland — a subject about which I knew nothing — he certainly wore a glittering sheen. His dark-blue suit was luminous. His silk shirt glowed. His shoes were like black headlights. His complexion was that of a man who has had innumerable hot dinners. Behind an indigo silk handkerchief in his breast pocket lurked three cigars of the largest size.
I offered him a drink. He said, "1 think the chap's probably bringing something." Three waiters, in fact, were struggling with champagne bottles, napkins, ice-buckets; a regular routine, I guessed, every time they caught but a glimpse of him. As we sat down Bend Or produced a cigar — one, not two — and made a miniscule tear in the leaf as he removed the band. He looked at it, broke it in half, threw it into the ashtray, took out another one, maimed it, too, got rid of it in the same way as before and finally succeeded in slotting the third one into his mouth, unharmed. Perhaps, at II a.m., it was a little early in the morning for dukes, but it was the richest thing I'd ever seen done.
But, then, Bend Or had it. He owned thirty thousand acres in Chester and Flintshire, an estate in Scotland, six hundred acres of London, two yachts and a fleet of Bentleys to meet him in every port. His income from the London properties alone, was, at current rates, about £10,000 a day. "But," as Sir Henry 'Chips' Channon said of him, "he lived only for pleasure — and women — for seventy-four years. He was restless, spoilt and his life was an empty failure." Filled with broken, unsmoked Corona-Corona cigars.
According to Mr Turner, who has really duked it up himself, in this beautifully entitled Amazing Grace, men got to be dukes only because they owned so much land and/or wealth that they could not, in all decency, be expected to continue as lowly Earls or Marquises any longer. It embarrassed themselves, their friends and their innumerable wives. They were innumerable because the only way to own land or wealth was to inherit it, or to marry it — the second method being preferred since nearly all the Dukes had got rid of their whack by the time the Grim Reaper paid his call.
• They built like madmen. The Duke of Bedford, who constructed the first version of Welbeck Abbey, had hollowed out underneath it, so as not to spoil the line of the mansion, an underground ballroom, considered by many admiring friends to be the largest private apartment in England. It was 174 feet long, 64 feet wide and 22 feet high, with a hydraulic drop to deliver 2,000 guests, at 20 a time. The Duke of Portland carved out below his park, lake and fields a carriage tunnel more than a mile long, starting from his coach house, so that he could come and go unseen — an undoubted extravagance, since whenever he travelled the curtains of his conveyance were always drawn. He was said by many to be a tedious conversationalist, and finished his life in his London palace as a total recluse. The first Duke of Devonshire worked so hard and so long at the rebuilding of Chatsworth that by his death, in 1707, the back of the house had turned into the front, making it necessary for the fourth Duke to rearrange the grounds in their entirety. This entailed the straightening of a bend in the River Derwent, the removal of a whole chain of reservoirs and the re-siting of the village of Edensor, which was getting in the way.
Money poured out by the ton. When a Duke and a Duchess set out for a weekend with friends, the Duchess left two days before the Duke, not as a protection against footpads but because their entourages were so enormous that no post-house could have accommodated both at the same time. Money also poured in. The Duke of Sutherland shifted thousands of people from his 1,500,000 Scottish acres to make room for sheep, far more industrious in the production of meat and wool than the previous residents, who merely sat around all day in home-made hovels subsisting on nettle broth and Illicit whisky. When this "Great Improver" died he was commemorated by a 30 foot high statue overlooking the Dornoch Firth, another one overlooking Trentham and a 70 foot obelisk on Lilleshall Hill.
Reading Mr Turner's marvellous compendium of spendthrift folly is like standing in the glare of a thousand chandeliers, dazzled by an army of jewel-laden dukes and duchesses, all inter-related and all wondering, when the next one dies, which of them will be quickest to take over the loot. It was not always easy to spot the heir, owing to the prevalence of ducal bastards. They were known as "children of the mist" and they proliferated in those colossal palaces, protected from all outside interference by mile after mile of parkland wall.
Charles II and the Countess of Castlemaine had six misty ones, three of whom became the Dukes of Cleveland, Grafton and Northumberland. In 1670 Nell Gw'ynn gave birth to the subsequent Duke of St Albans. In 1672, assisted by the King, Louise de Kerouaile gave birth to boy who became the Duke of Richmond. Four of these ducal lines — Buccleuch, Grafton, Richmond and St. Albans — still prosper to this day.
The curious thing is that nearly all of them, despite their antecedents, turned out to have been almost pathologically secretive — and dull. A guest at Chatsworth, in 1825, noted sadly, "At the end of the second day the depths of bore were broken up and carried all before them." The Duke of Portland, the one with the mile-long tunnel, allowed visitors to his estate only on the condition that "they would be good enough not to see me, in the event of a chance encounter." A far cry, indeed, from the present Duke of Bedford, when he used to whip up trade, with many a quip and sally, adown and along the verdant lawns of Woburn Abbey.
It's nice to think that Dukes are getting better all the time.