Prince Charles has led the tributes to the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – seen by many as the saviour of Chatsworth House.
The Duke of Devonshire said his mother, aged 94, had passed away peacefully yesterday morning.
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The Dowager Duchess, known to friends as Debo, was the last of the famous Mitford sisters, who scandalised and delighted high society.
A statement from The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall said: “My wife and I were deeply saddened to learn of the death of The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, whom both of us adored and admired greatly.
“She was a unique personality with a wonderfully original approach to life, and a memorable turn of phrase to match that originality.
“The joy, pleasure and amusement she gave to so many, particularly through her books, as well as the contribution she made to Derbyshire throughout her time at Chatsworth, will not easily be forgotten and we shall miss her so very much.”
Deborah married Lord Andrew Cavendish, and they became the 11th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire in 1950, residing at Chatsworth House until his death in 2004.
Her son, the 12th Duke, said: “It is with great sadness that I have to inform you that Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, passed away peacefully.
“An announcement about funeral arrangements will be made shortly.”
The Duchess was born in 1920, the sixth daughter of the 2nd Baron Redesdale.
Her sister Unity’s infatuation with Hitler led to the young Deborah being invited to tea with the German dictator in Berlin.
She also met the young John F Kennedy and became close friends with the future US president.
She and Andrew were not always destined for Chatsworth. It was only when her husband’s brother was killed in WWII, and when his father, the 10th Duke, died suddenly six years later, that responsibility fell to the couple.
Crippling death duties cast a cloud over their initial future, and the couple imagined Chatsworth would become a museum. But eventually they began the daunting task of cleaning and modernising their new home for all to enjoy.
Speaking to The Star in 2002, the Dowager Duchess said: “Our aim has always been to try to leave it better than we found it, and I think we have done that. I hope we have.”
In her later years, the Dowager Duchess lived in a cottage in Edensor on the Chatsworth estate, where she was a much-loved figure.
David Blunkett, MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, who himself lives on the estate, in the village of Beeley, said: “She had the incredible common touch and capacity to touch people’s lives for the better.
“Not only did she transform Chatsworth at a time when its viability was at stake, but created an inland resort which offered great pleasure and entertainment to the thousands of visitors every year.
“But above all she cared about the staff and the local residents, the maintenance of a sense of community and identity, and the environmental and social heritage she treasured.”
Jim Dixon, chief executive of the Peak District National Park, said she ‘believed passionately in the countryside.’
He added: “Perhaps her greatest achievement was, with her husband, to save Chatsworth, leading the way for it to be the powerhouse of the Peak District economy, especially farming and tourism.”
The Dowager Duchess was honorary life president of St Luke’s Hospice in Sheffield. As a friend of St Luke’s founder and national hospice movement pioneer, Dr Eric Wilkes, she visited the hospice several times.
Hospice chief executive, Peter Hartland, said her death was an ‘enormous loss’.
“She was always one of our most enthusiastic and eager supporters,” he said.
“As a dear friend of Eric Wilkes, she was instrumental in raising the support that led to the building of St Luke’s and it was a cause that remained close to her heart throughout her life.
“We will all miss her dedication and commitment, and extend our deepest sympathy to her family.”
Coun Alexis Diouf, mayor of Chesterfield, said the Dowager Duchess ‘played a much appreciated economic and social part’ in the borough.
Coun John Burrows, leader of Chesterfield Council, added: “Derbyshire has lost a jewel from its crown.”