Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe
BORN LONDON, MARCH 23, 1915. DIED, SURREY, JULY 2, 2014, AGED 99
WHEN THE German Ambassador to England, Dr von Dirckson, observed to the attractive Duchess of Roxburghe at a dinner party shortly before the Second World War: “I suppose that you get your fine black eyes from your Scottish ancestry?” he was taken aback when she replied, “No, it is my Jewish ancestry to which I owe them”.
The Duchess, formerly Lady Mary Evelyn Hungerford Crewe-Milnes, was the only daughter of the marriage of Robert Crewe-Milnes, the first and last Marquess of Crewe, to Margaret Étienne Hannah Primrose, daughter of the fifth Earl of Rosebery, Liberal Prime Minister from 1894-95.
The Jewish ancestry to which the Duchess was referring was that of her maternal grandmother, Hannah, daughter of Juliana Cohen and Mayer de Rothschild, thus making her a direct descendant of Levi Barent Cohen, head of one of the most important families in Anglo-Jewish history, and of Nathan Rothschild, the founder of the English house of Rothschild.
She was named after her godmother, Queen Mary, and raised at Crewe Hall in Cheshire and at the family mansion, Crewe House, in Mayfair. A popular déb- utante of the 1933 London season, her engagement was announced in June, 1935 to the young Duke of Roxburghe, of the Royal Horse Guards.
The dukedom of Roxburghe was created in 1707, the last dukedom of the Scottish peerage. The family fortune had been secured by the Duke’s grandfather when he married an American heiress, and this wealth had been inherited by Mary’s bridegroom, George Victor Robert John Innes Kerr, the ninth Duke, in 1912. Their marriage at Westminster Abbey took place on October 24, 1935 and was considered to be one of the most important soci- ety weddings of that year, with Queen Mary and the Duke of Kent attending the reception at Crewe House. Two years later, the Duchess was one of the four train bearers to Queen Elizabeth at the coronation of King George the Sixth, chosen because of her striking,brunette looks and deportment.
In spite of an auspicious start, even involving an illicit passage to meet up with the Duke, when he was posted to Palestine during the Second World War, the marriage floundered.
There were no children and in 1953 the Duchess endured a six week siege at Floors, the Duke’s castle overlooking the River Tweed, when her husband cut off the telephone, electricity and gas and attempted to turn off the hot water, in order to drive her out.
It was his contention that under Scottish common law a wife lived in her husband’s house by licence only. The marital dispute split the Border region, the Duchess had to be supplied with food, candles, matches and paraffin by her friends, who included Sir Alec Douglas-Home and the Duchess of Buccleuch, while her husband was supported by the Duke of Buccleuch. The picturesque castle at Floors would later be the venue that Prince Andrew would choose for his proposal to Sarah Ferguson.
The dispute was eventually set- tled out of court; the Duchess left for London and was granted a divorce in December, 1953 because of her husband’s adultery.
The following month the Duke married Elizabeth Margaret Cunningham Church, the divorced wife of an army officer. This gave rise to the quip, “Where is the Duke?” “He’s gone to Church”. The Duke became a stepfather to her two children and afterwards the father of two further sons.
After the divorce, the Duchess settled down well in a large apartment overlooking Hyde Park, devoting herself to charitable works. Among them was her presidency of the National Union of Townswomen’s Guilds, she became a patron of the Royal Ballet and involved herself in the Royal Society of Literature. She insisted on entertaining with the same Rothschild style of her parents and living up to her family motto, “I know whom I have believed”. Her view of the background which had endowed her with such wealth was that of the born aristocrat.
Informed in 1983 that Crewe House, sold for £90,00 by her father in 1937, was on the market for £50 million, she said: “I will bear the news with fortitude”. At the time of her death she was the last descendant of the two daughters of Hannah de Rothschild and the Earl of Rosebery.
Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe: her marriage to Scottish peer turned sour