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Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe

Aristocrat at centre of dispute at Floors Castle

Aristocrat at centre of dispute at Floors Castle

Born: 23 March, 1915; Died: 2 July 2014.

Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe, who has died aged 99, was the marquess's daughter who successfully resisted legal action by her ducal husband to evict her from his seat of Floors Castle in Roxburghshire.

In 1953, she endured a six-week siege isolated in Floors, the Playfair-designed palace overlooking the river Tweed at Kelso where, a generation later, Prince Andrew proposed to Sarah Ferguson. During the marital dispute, the duchess's suite within the 100-room fairy-tale castle had telephone, electricity and gas all turned off, and the duke even attempted to cut off her water supply. The dispute split aristocratic feeling in the Borders, with neighbours of the 14th Earl of Home (later Sir Alec Douglas-Home, prime minister) at The Hirsel in Berwickshire, the 2nd Earl Haig at Bemersyde, and the then Duchess of Buccleuch at Bowhill, Selkirk all supporting her.

Lord Haig, the noted artist and painter, supplied her with food, candles, matches and paraffin lamps. Feelings ran high, the issue dividing opinion at Bowhill, where the Duke of Buccleuch sided with his brother duke.

George Roxburghe based his astonishing and controversial turn of action on then extant common law in Scotland whereby a wife lived in the marital home by licence only. Eventually, the dispute was settled out of court, and the duchess quietly left for London, never to return. While Roxburghe did not give a reason why he wanted his wife evicted, the duchess was granted a divorce in December 1953 on the ground of his adultery.

The following month, January 1954, the duke remarried, this time to Margaret Church, who was herself divorced - a move which lent colour to the quip then current in Kelso: "Where's the Duke?". "He's gone to Church".

Meanwhile, the divorced duchess could take comfort in the translation from the Latin of her family motto: "I know whom I have believed". Throughout her long life, she rose above the bitterness of the end of her marriage, and rarely touched on it.

Lady Mary Evelyn Hungerford Crewe-Milnes, the only daughter of Robert Crewe-Milnes, 1st and only Marquess of Crewe, was raised in some style at Crewe Hall in Cheshire, just beyond the railway town. The family home in London was the magnificent mansion of Crewe House in Mayfair.

She had good reason to delight in her ancestry. Her father Robert had been Viceroy of Ireland for three years until 1895, when he became Secretary of State for India and the Colonies. He inherited the barony created for his father, Monckton Milnes MP, and then was himself raised in the peerage as Earl of Crewe in 1895 and promoted to the marquisate in 1911. Through her mother Margaret née Primrose, she was the granddaughter of the 5th Earl of Rosebery, the Liberal Prime Minister, while her great-grandfather was Baron Mayer de Rothschild, creator of the vast Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire.

Mary's godmother was Queen Mary, after whom she was named. Coincidentally, Queen Mary and King George V were godparents to her future husband.

Mary Crewe-Milnes married George Roxburghe at Westminster Abbey in 1935 in one of the society weddings of the year. She was a beautiful and glamorous 20-year-old, while George Victor Robert John Innes-Ker, just 22 and a dashing young officer straight out of Sandhurst, had already inherited the title of 9th Duke of Roxburghe.

The duchess's looks and striking deportment won her a place as one of four train-bearers for Queen Elizabeth at the coronation in 1937 of King George VI. By perhaps more than coincidence, all four were duchesses - Buccleuch, Norfolk, Roxburghe and Rutland.

When her husband was posted to the Middle East at the outbreak of the Second World War, the new duchess enterprisingly wangled herself an illicit passage to meet up with him in Palestine.

After her divorce, the duchess lived in a large and elegantly furnished flat overlooking Hyde Park, devoting herself to charitable work and public life. President of the National Union of Townswomen's Guilds and a patron of the Royal Ballet, she was wholeheartedly involved in the Royal Society of Literature.

Hugely wealthy in her own right, Mary Roxburghe entertained young and old alike with the same attention to detail and Rothschild cuisine as had her parents.

The duchess and the duke had no children together, and the duchess did not remarry.

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The Royals

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