The Duchess of Medina Sidonia: Aristocrat whose radicalism earned her the title 'Red Duchess' - Obituaries - News - The Independent

The Duchess of Medina Sidonia: Aristocrat whose radicalism earned her the title 'Red Duchess'

When Spain's paramilitary policemen came across the Duchess of Medina Sidonia amidst a crowd of protesting agricultural workers, they greeted her with surprise and the respect her high rank demanded. "Doña Luisa Isabel! What are you doing here?" But when they realised she was part of the protest, the policemen pushed her around as roughly as they did her humbler comrades.

This privileged aristocrat had a rebellious spirit, perhaps to do with her mother's death when she was 10. She lived with her grandmother until leaving home at 18 to marry. Five years and three children later, her marriage ended. In the 1960s she was jailed for fiercely confronting Franco's dictatorship, and became known as the Red Duchess – a "title" she never accepted – for her radicalism.

She was born in Estoril, Portugal, her parents having gone into exile at the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. She was presented as a débutante in Estoril, together with Doña Pilar de Borbón, sister of Juan Carlos. Flourishing her republicanism, Luisa Isabel teased the future king of Spain as "Citizen Borbón". She also raised eyebrows in titled society by her vehement atheism.

Largely self-educated, she complained that her convent education equipped her only to be an accomplished society lady, and wife. But from childhood she was fascinated by historical studies, heraldry and ancient documents.

Her parents were Joaquí*Alvarez de Toledo, and Carmen Maura, daughter of the Duke of Maura; her great-grandfather, Antonio Maura, had been prime minister of Spain five times. Her grandfather, Gabriel Maura, encouraged her interest in historical research, fostering a lifetime of investigation among the medieval documents stored in her family's prodigious library in the ducal palace at Sanlúcar de Barrameda, near Cádiz. The palace houses reportedly the most important private archive in Europe, protected by the Medina Sidonia Foundation set up by the duchess in 1990.

When her father, the 20th duke, died in 1955, she inherited the title of Duchess of Medina Sidonia (Spain's first hereditary dukedom, granted in 1445, but whose origins date back to 1297), as well as Duchess of Fernandina, Princess of Montalbán, Marquess of Villafranca del Bierzo and Marquess of los Velez.

Investigations into her family's documents prompted her to write several controversial books and essays, many self-published, that argued among other heresies that African or Phoenician merchants, or possibly knights templar, reached America long before Columbus did in 1492. She published her thesis in 1992 in the books Africa versus América and No fuimos nosotros ("It wasn't us")

She also claimed to have documentary proof that the grandmother of her illegitimate ancestor Alonso Perez de Guzman, a 13th-century Spanish hero who fought against the Moors, was black. She wrote a biography of a later Perez de Guzman, commander in chief in 1588 of the Spanish Armada, based on her ancestor's letters with King Philip II.

In 1967, Luisa Isabel led a protest of labourers who claimed compensation for the contamination of their small plots in Palomares near Almería on the Costa del Sol. An American plane had accidentally dropped four thermo-nuclear bombs on the region a year earlier. She was jailed for a year, and wrote about her experience in My Prison (1972).

She wrote novels, including La Huelga ("Strike", 1967), about police brutality against striking vineyard workers, that was banned but clandestinely circulated, followed by La Cacería ("The Chase") that described the unlimited power exercised by landlords over their peasants in Andalusia.

In 1971 she wrote La Base about an American military base in Andalusia, and Palomares about the nuclear accident, and went into exile in the French Basque town of Hasparren rather than submit to another jail term. Her book, based on testimonies of 80 people affected by radiation, was not published until 2002. She complained that her work was constantly censored.

The duchess returned in 1976, after Franco's death, and was hailed as a symbol of Spain's emerging democracy. But she was detained again, accused of "violence against agents of authority" – which supporters found incomprehensible since she was fragile and only five feet tall – and given a suspended sentence of six months.

Henceforth she rarely left the 16th-century splendour of her palace in Sanlúcar, although she lived modestly, and spent her days in the library, studying and cataloguing an estimated six million documents in her private archive.

Controversial to the end, she is reported to have married her long-time secretary and president of the Medina Sidonia foundation, Liliana María Dahlmann, in articulo mortis, hours before her death.

Elizabeth Nash

Luisa Isabel Álvarez de Toledo y Maura, writer and historian: born Estoril, Portugal 21 August 1936; succeeded 1955 as Duchess of Medina Sidonia; married 1955 José Leoncio González de Gregorio y Martí (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1960); died Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain 7 March 2008.

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Teacher

£110 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Newcastle: Our clients are looking for...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

Supply teachers needed- Worthing!

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: Supply teachers needed for va...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week