Louise von Alten, Duchess of Manchester and subsequently Duchess of Devonshire (1832-1911), was one of the brightest stars of the Prince of Wales’s ‘Marlborough House Set’ and would mature into one of the most formidable political and social hostesses when the prince became King Edward VII in 1901. Born in the kingdom of Hanover to noble parents, Louise was considered a great beauty and her allure was proven on a family visit to the French Riviera. She was attending the opera in Nice with her parents when a besotted young Englishman proposed himself and paid court. He was William Drogo Montagu, Viscount Mandeville and the eldest son of the 6th Duke of Manchester.
Louise was twenty when she accepted Viscount Mandeville’s proposal in 1852 and became an English Duchess for the first time three years later when the 6th Duke died. The young Duchess of Manchester was appointed Mistress-of-the-Robes to Queen Victoria in 1858; the queen always favouring Prussians at court. The London society newspapers said of her ‘no one knows how gloriously beautiful a woman can be who did not see the Duchess of Manchester when she was thirty’.
The moral tone of the latter part of the twentieth century was led not by the widowed Queen Victoria, but by her heir the Prince of Wales who all but ruled in London from Marlborough House. The Prince’s affairs are well-documented and his set were tolerant of affairs of the heart when conducted discreetly. Though the Duchess gave birth to five children with the Duke of Manchester, the marriage was unhappy and the duke’s feckless spending put the Manchester estates and his marriage in jeopardy.
The man who lost his heart to the Duchess of Manchester was Spencer Compton Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire known in society as ‘Harty-Tarty’. The bachelor duke had a life-long affair with Victorian London’s last great courtesan Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters who was also a Henry Poole & Co customer. Poole’s would tailor the skin-tight riding habits that Skittles would show off riding on Rotten Row attracting the admiration of her many beaus including the Prince of Wales. The Duchess of Manchester was a famed equestrian with a salty sense of humour. Her riding habits were as constrictive as those worn by Skittles and she wore a cherry red ribbon around her neck. After a particularly energetic hunt, the Duchess of Manchester was overheard to comment that ‘my arse will be red as the ribbon’.
The Prince of Wales set knew that the Duke of Devonshire was devoted to the Duchess of Manchester. According to gossip, the affair was revealed when the Duchess was overheard saying to Devonshire ‘stand me a stamp, Harty darling’ at a country house party. The Duke of Manchester died in Naples in 1890. Two years later, Louise von Alten became the wife of the 8th Duke of Devonshire earning her the soubriquet ‘the double duchess’. The Cavendish family’s country seat, Chatsworth House, hadn’t had a mistress for eighty years and the Duke was fifty-nine. He had thrice declined to become Prime Minister but was by now a senior grandee of the Conservative party. The Duchess of Devonshire lost little time in establishing herself as the senior social and political hostess in London at Devonshire House on Piccadilly.
The Duke was as somnambulant as his Duchess was social. He was famed for falling asleep in the House of Lords and being found asleep at his club having asked King Edward VII to dine. The Chatsworth house parties attended by King Edward and Queen Alexandra were of unprecedented splendour. The Duchess was a vicious card-player and provided gambling chips and cards in every room at Chatsworth mischievously placed next to bibles. The Duke, like The King, enjoyed horse racing and bridge. According to Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire’s 1982 book The House: A Portrait of Chatsworth, the Duke loathed pretension. When a fellow peer in the House of Lords ended a speech with ‘this is the proudest day of my life’, the Duke murmured ‘the proudest day of my life was when my pig won first prize at Skipton Fair’.
The apogee of the Duchess of Devonshire’s reign over social London was her Devonshire House ball given to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The guests were requested to dress as historical monarchs and the Duchess chose Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra. The costume, preserved in the Chatsworth archive, was worn by Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire at a fancy dress ball to celebrate her wedding anniversary to Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire. The Duchess was widowed in 1908 and 300 Members of Parliament travelled to Chatsworth to attend the 8th Duke’s funeral.
The Dowager Duchess ploughed-on regardless that her era had ended and she had now become a relic of a bygone age. The author E. F. Benson described the ageing Duchess of Devonshire thus: ‘later she became a wraith of what she had been, and still be-wigged and be-diamonded and be-rouged, she was rather like the half ruinous shell of some castellated keep, with the flower boxes in full bloom on the crumbling sills’. The Dowager Duchess attended a race meet at Sandown on the day of her death in 1911. Henry Poole & Co have no records of making riding habit for the Duchess of Manchester but the ledgers do record her ordering a fancy silk vest (waistcoat) as a gift for the Prince of Wales. The records for the Dowager Duchess of Richmond also note gifts of silk vests for the heir to the throne suggesting that it was something of a precedent for aristocratic ladies to hold an account at Henry Poole for the Prince of Wales’s gifts.