Hofdame Note: Thank you to Baguette Iselen for this deep-dive on the Spanish nobility. For some background, you may want to read the Pocket Profile on Maria of Molina. It will give you additional information on the Kings in power during the beginning of these ducal families. This is part one of a three part series.
Among the numerous aristocratic families in Spain, three of them stand out, three duchies that shaped the history of the country: the eldest one, the House of Medina Sidonia; the royal one, the House of Medinaceli; and the one that accumulated more titles, the House of Alba. They’re the top of the upper crust, walking right behind the royal family and, most of the time, more powerful and wealthier than our kings.
House of Medina Sidonia
The founder of the Medina Sidonia family was Guzmán el Bueno, an outstanding and very successful warrior who served the Kings Alfonso X and Sancho IV from 1276 to 1309. He married María Alfonso Coronel, a wealthy lady, and their son Juan Alonso married a great-granddaughter of King Alfonso IX. They were the Counts of Niebla, but other titles were granted to the descendants, one of them even married the illegitimate daughter of King Enrique II, increasing the power of the family.
The Duchy of Medina Sidonia was granted by King Juan II to Juan Alfonso Pérez de Guzmán in 1445. Thanks to some marriage alliances, and despite some clashes with several monarchs, the house thrived till the point they became a threat to the monarchy. The dukes of Medina Sidonia were so wealthy and had so many properties in Andalusia, that in 1641 they tried to become independent and create a new kingdom, unsuccessfully. From that moment on, the house went into decline compared to the other two duchies, but still very powerful compared to the “normal” aristocracy. They still have wonderful palaces, amazing works of art and the best private archive of a Spanish noble house.
House of Medinaceli
The origin of the House of Medinaceli was prince Fernando de la Cerda, son and heir of King Alfonso X. Unfortunately, he died young and his two sons were babies, the Castilian nobles decided that the next king should be Sancho IV, Fernando’s brother, because the kingdom was at war and a long regency would be a disaster. Of course, these babies and their descendants kept claiming that they were the rightful pretenders to the throne.
In 1370, Isabel de la Cerda, great-granddaughter of Prince Fernando, married Bernardo of Foix and King Enrique II named them Counts of Medinaceli. Isabella and Fernando, the Catholic Monarchs, granted the title of Dukes of Medinaceli in 1479 and, through several inheritances, they became the most important landowners in Spain. They have the most valuable art collection in private hands in my country, with paintings from El Greco, Tintoretto, Tiziano, Goya, Zurbarán, Ribera, Antonio Moro, Luca Giordano…
The current Duchess of Medinaceli, Victoria Elisabeth von Hohenlohe-Langenburg is shown above.
House of Alba
The origin of the House of Alba was Pedro Illán, a Mozarab who lived in Toledo around 1125. Mozarabs were Christians that stayed in the area of Spain ruled by Muslim kings, they let them keep their religion at first, but later, put lot of pressure on them to convert to Islam. Some of them did, most of them decided to move to the north and live in the Christian kingdoms, this Pedro Illán was one of them. The family thrived and his grandson Esteban became the mayor of Toledo, a very important position since this was one of the biggest cities in Castilla. During the next century, lot of members of this family were top officials in the city.
Las Dueñas is the palace of Alba House in Seville
In 1366, Garci Alvarez of Toledo, was serving King Pedro I as seneschal (steward or major domo) and was named Lord of Oropesa. This was the first real noble title of the family. Fernando Alvarez of Toledo became the Count of Alba de Tormes in 1439 and his son Garcia Alvarez of Toledo was named Duke of Alba in 1472. Contrary to what happened with the other duchies, this family thrived at the royal court, they didn’t get the titles for their service in war but because they were top officials. Of course, all of them added titles through good marriages.
The last Alvarez of Toledo was María Teresa, the first Duchess of Alba in her own right and the wealthiest heiress in Europe back in 1712. She married Manuel of Silva, count of Galve, who was a descendant of Christopher Columbus, among other noble ancestors. The House of Alba keeps Columbus’ last will in their archive.
The last Silva-Alvarez of Toledo was Cayetana, the second duchess of Alba in her own right and the one you all know because Goya painted a wonderful portrait wearing a white dress with a wide red belt. She died in 1802 without children. Her heir was Carlos Fitz-James Stuart and Silva, a son of Cayetana’s second cousin once removed. The current Duke of Alba is a descendant of this man and, therefore, a descendant of King James II of England and VII of Scotland and his mistress Arabella Churchill.
King James II’s son, James Fitz-James Stuart, was the first duke of Berwick and also got the Spanish title of duke of Liria in 1707 for his services to King Felipe V of Bourbon during the War of Succession. He left all his Spanish titles, plus the duchy of Berwick, to his first son who married a Spanish lady and all his family stayed here. And now I hope you can follow me because this is complicated:
According to the British laws, the duchy of Berwick can only be inherited by a man which means that the last duke was Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart y Falcó, who died in 1953 and was Cayetana’s father, the eccentric lady you all knew and third duchess in her own right. The British College of Arms considers this title extinct although some people believe that Jacobo Hernando Fitz-James Stuart, Cayetana’s cousin, is the current duke of Berwick because he was the next male in line.
Cayetana, 17th Duchess of Alba with her oldest child, Carlos
But the Duchy of Berwick was recognized as a Spanish title in 1882 and granted to Carlos Maria Fitz-James Stuart, Empress Eugenie of France’s nephew, you know her sister was the duchess of Alba. And according to the Spanish laws, women can inherit titles which means Cayetana was the Duchess of Berwick and her son, Carlos Fitz James Stuart, the current Duke of Alba is also the Duke of Berwick, but it’s the Spanish title, not the one associated to Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland. Does it make sense? Probably not, but it is what it is.
Cayetana, Duchess of Alba in 1947
There’s no doubt that they’re Stuarts, that’s for sure. And the Queen Mother was well aware of that: when Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart was the Spanish ambassador in UK from 1937 to 1945, Cayetana was invited to Buckingham palace quite often. Princess Elizabeth and the future duchess became childhood friends. They’re 7th degree cousins, I think. Later, when Queen Elizabeth II visited Spain in 1988, she was happy to meet her friend again during the state dinner.
Cayetana, Duchess of Alba with the British royals