06 November 2011

The Red Duchess - Luisa Isabel Álvarez de Toledo

I've just finished writing a short biography of a woman who first captured my imagination after I read an article about her in La Luz Magazine a few years ago.   She lived in a palace in Sanlúcar de Barrameda and although I am not normally a fan of duchesses I have become rather fond of this one, as she swam against the tide all her life.

Luisa Isabel María del Carmen Cristina Rosalía Joaquina Álvarez de Toledo y Maura, Isabel to her friends, was the 21st Duchess of Medina-Sidonia, one of the oldest aristocratic families in Spain. She left her husband  after having three babies in quick succession and then deposited the children with her grandparents while they were still small.  She became known as the Red Duchess (la Duquesa Roja) because of her political convictions.  She organised strikes amongst fishermen and vineyard workers, campaigned for compensation for locals affected by a nuclear accident, was imprisoned under the Franco regime, gave away property to build housing for the poor, and started a school for local children in the Palace.   She drank in the local bars, wore men´s clothes and smoked like a chimney.  She is still fondly remembered in Sanlúcar as "la Duquesita".

A prolific writer and a controversial historian, Isabel inherited one of the largest private historical archives in Europe.  She dedicated her life to its organisation and preservation and set up the Fundación Casa Medina Sidonia to ensure it would be made freely available for historical research.   She found evidence in the archive that the Moorish sailors discovered America before Columbus and that her ancestor Guzmán el Bueno, hero of the Christian reconquest, was a Moor.  Controversial to the end, on her deathbed she married her female companion and secretary so that the archive, the Palace and its contents would not be divided amongst her children, who remain convinced that she deprived them of their inheritance.

Isabel was the product of generations of aristocrats, politicians, historians, warriors and controversial figures. Despite her strong belief in social justice she never renounced her titles, and is it intriguing to ponder what she saw as the role of the nobility in contemporary Spain, and where she saw herself within that structure. Certainly her titles protected her from almost certain execution following her outspoken criticism of Franco, but she retained them long after his death. How did she resolve the apparent contradiction of passing on the line of Spain's oldest dukedom with her professed Republicanism? Was her devotion to history and her family's place in it stronger than her political conscience? Did she believe in noblesse oblige, the responsibility of the privileged to the less fortunate?  Why, as an outspoken campaigner for civil liberties, did she keep quiet about being a Lesbian?  Why, as a lifelong atheist, did she call for the last rites on her deathbed?

You can download the full work or read it online here:   The Woman Who Rewrote History

The Palace is open to the public and there are nine beautiful guest rooms around the courtyard garden where you can stay in Renaissance splendour from €70 for a double room including tax and breakfast.  Details here:  Hospedería

Palacio Ducal de Medina Sidonia in Sanlúcar de Barrameda
Accommodation in the Palace Hospedería
The Courtyard Garden
The Archive


Tumbit said...

Obviously a very interesting and eccentric lady. Did you get an understanding as to why she abandoned her children with their grandparents ?

Claire Lloyd said...

I think basically they were cramping her style! She was not really the maternal wifey type. If you read the full version it goes into a lot more detail.