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The life and times of the 18th Duchess of Alba, who had more titles than Queen Elizabeth II

By Aurora lemos - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

The 18th Duchess of Alba, María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva, was born on 28 March 1926 at the vast Liria Palace, which has served as the Madrid residence of the Dukes of Albas for generations (most of the home was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War and was rebuilt by the Duchess’s father and the Duchess).

The Fitz-James Stuarts, the most powerful aristocratic dynasty in Spain, have always enjoyed a close relationship with the Spanish Royal Family. Queen Victoria Eugenie, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and consort of Spain’s King Alfonso XIII, was her godmother. The Duchess’s father, Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart, the 17th Duke of Alba, was an important member of King Alfonso’s court and served as Foreign Minister of Spain and Ambassador to the UK. He married Cayetana’s mother, Maria del Rosario de Silva, Marquesa de San Vicente del Barco, in 1920, though she died, aged 33, from tuberculosis.

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The Duchess of Alba, Head of the House of Alba from 1953-2014 and Spain’s richest aristocrat at the time of her death, had a fortune that some experts estimated to be over €3.5 billion. It was rumoured that she could travel from northern to southern Spain without leaving her property. She was well known throughout Spanish society for her strong sense of independence, style, and irreverence, famously refusing to pose nude for Pablo Picasso and fraternizing with some of the most famous people of the 20th century. Her social circle included Princess Grace of Monaco, Jackie Kennedy, Princess Margaret, Walt Disney, Audrey Hepburn, and Yves Saint Laurent. She was also well known for her love of bullfighting, horses, and flamenco.

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The Duchess was a descendant of King James II of England (VII of Scotland) through the illegitimate son he had with his mistress, Arabella Churchill, the sister of the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Their son, James FitzJames, was made Duke of Berwick in 1687. The title Duke of Berwick, created in the Peerage of England but held by the current Duke of Alba, is one of the many titles that make the Head of the House of Alba the most titled person in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The Albas are also distant relatives of Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Winston Churchill, and Diana, Princess of Wales.

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Widowed twice, the Duchess of Alba caused a huge scandal by marrying for the third time at the age of 85 over the objection of King Juan Carlos. He cautioned her against marrying Alfonso Diez Carabantes, a civil servant 25 years her junior that he suspected was after her immense wealth, a sentiment shared by her children. She married Carabantes in 2011 anyway, opting to give her children their inheritance early, including several palaces, land, and a first edition of Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Carabantes agreed to renounce any claim to her fortune.

The Duchess ran the House of Alba Foundation, and after her death, original letters written by Christopher Columbus fell under her son’s control as he took over running the foundation. Paintings by Rembrandt, Goya, Rubens, Renoir, Van Dyck, and Titian also remain with the family as part of one of the largest art collections in the world. One of the most valuable items is the famed Alba Bible, an illuminated manuscript which dates back to 1430 and is currently on display at Liria Palace. The majority of her wealth was split equally between the foundation (what is managed by the foundation, by law, belongs to Spain) and her six children, the latter of whom received their inheritance ahead of her 2011 wedding.

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The ducal Alba title is the most senior title held by the Fitz-James Stuarts. The Duchess had six other ducal titles (Duchess of Aliaga, Duchess of Arjona, Duchess of Berwick, Duchess of Hijar, Duchess of Liria and Jerice, and Duchess of Montoro). In addition, she held 24 marchioness titles and 22 countess titles, among others. The Duchess also held multiple times over the title Grandee of Spain (Grande de España), which is reserved for the highest-ranking members of Spain’s aristocracy. Grandees rank immediately below the Prince or Princess of Asturias and Infantes and Infantas of Spain. The Grandee title used to carry great privileges, including diplomatic immunity, but these privileges were revoked in 1984.

By CarlosVdeHabsburgo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Of her titles, the dukedom of Alba, like most of her titles, is now held by her eldest son, Carlos while the dukedoms of Aliaga and Híjar are held by her son, Alfonso. Her son Cayetano holds the dukedom of Arjona, and the dukedom of Montoro is held by Eugenia.

Her son, Alfonso now holds the marquessates of Almenara and Orani, as well as the countships of Aranda, Guimerá, Ribadeo and Palma del Río. The marquessate of San Vicente del Barco is held by Fernando while the countships of Salvatierra and Siruela now belong to Cayetano and Jacobo, respectively.

The late Duchess’s grandson, Fernando, through her son Carlos, is now the 15th Duke of Huéscar.

Despite her immense wealth, The Duchess of Alba maintained that she was not wealthy, famously saying, “I have a lot of artworks, but I can’t eat them, can I?”

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The Duchess died at 88-years-old on 20 November 2014, after a short illness, at her main property in Seville, the El Palacio de las Dueñas. King Felipe of Spain reached out to the family and extended his condolences and sent two flower crowns to Seville. Infanta Elena, the King’s sister, represented the Royal Family at her funeral.