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The Duchess of Medinaceli: Aristocrat and philanthropist


From one of Europe's oldest aristocratic families, Spain's 18th Duchess of Medinaceli held more than 50 titles. She was 19 times a countess, 19 times a marchioness, nine times a duchess, 14 times Grandeza de España (a Grandee of Spain) and Honorary Governor of Andalucía. She estimated that she had close to 100 castles, palaces or country estates.

In her favourite palace, the Casa de Pilatos in Seville, where she died, she hosted glittering parties, debutante balls and fashion shows for guests including Jackie Kennedy, Ava Gardner and Princess Grace of Monaco. The 15th century palace has featured in numerous films including Lawrence of Arabia (1962), in the scene where Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) meets General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), and more recently Knight and Day (2010) starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz.

She was born Victoria Eugenia Fernández de Córdoba y Fernández de Henestrosa, and after gaining her titles saw her name prefixed by "The Most Excellent", but her family, party guests and the gossip columns simply called her "Mimi".

Since 1980 she had shunned publicity and focused on her Ducal House of Medinaceli Foundation, with the aims of protecting her family's ancient heritage and property and promoting social, educational and cultural projects. The Foundation's projects were financed by income from public entry to the Casa de Pilatos and her other properties, as well as by location fees from film producers. Philanthropy, she said, helped her overcome the loss of three of her four children between 2001 and 2012.

The Duchess could have been recognised as the most titled person on the planet but gave up several to her children to avoid being listed in the Guinness Book of Records alongside what she considered "weirdos and common people." Her extrovert cousin, the Duchess of Alba, got in with 41; La Medinaceli had cut hers to 40.

She was born in 1917 in a Medinaceli palace since destroyed by fire on Madrid's Plaza de Colón. Another family palace stood on the site of what is now the world-renowned (Westin) Palace Hotel in the capital. Her father was the 17th Duke of Medinaceli, a title granted by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the 15th century and referring to the town of that (Arabic-based) name in the province of Soria. She was baptised in the Palacio Real, the royal palace of her godparents King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenia, after whom she was named.

As the Second Republic was being launched in 1931 – a catalyst for the Spanish Civil war later in the decade – the King fled the country, accompanied by Victoria Eugenia's father. She left on her 14th birthday with her own family and the Queen.

Despite the Civil War, her family felt it safe to return in 1937, when she was 20, and installed themselves in Seville in the Casa de Pilatos, her main home for the rest of her life. It had been damaged during the Civil War, when Franco's forces had occupied it, and she helped restore the magnificent palace, part Italian renaissance and part Mudéjar style, eventually opening it to the public along with its art works. These include one of Spain's most popular artistic attractions, the ceiling painted by Francisco Pacheco, father-in-law of Diego Velazquez.

In 1938 she married Rafael de Medina y Vilallonga, who would serve as mayor of Seville during the 1940s. Her first title, granted to her by her father in 1951, was Duchess of Alcalá de los Gazules. She gained the rest of her titles, including Duchess of Medina, when he died in 1956. In Seville she supported the Spanish Red Cross in aiding Civil War victims from both sides and helping create schools for poor children and orphans, including one within a wing of the palace. She was honoured with a Red Cross Gold Medal in 1963.

The Duchess's later life was tinged by tragedy and scandal. In 1994 one of her sons, Rafael, Duke of Feria, was sentenced to 18 years in jail for corruption of minors, drug abuse and trafficking after kidnapping a five-year-old girl and photographing her naked. It was one of the biggest media stories in Spain's history, not least when he claimed he had lacked motherly love within his aristocratic upbringing. He was released on parole in 1998 but died in 2001 of a reported barbiturates overdose at the age of 58.

Adding fuel to the media fire was the fact that the mother of his two sons was his ex-wife Nati Abascal, Duchess of Feria, a former supermodel and darling of Spain's La Jet [the Jet Set], rarely out of the fashion or other glossy magazines and known as Spain's first "It Girl" from her supermodelling days in the 1960s. Their two sons, Rafael and Luis – the Duchess of Medinaceli's grandsons – now in their thirties, have become staples of the magazines, gossip columns and best-dressed lists.

The Duchess's eldest son Luis, Duke of Santisteban del Puerto, died in 2011 aged 69 while her only daughter Ana, Countess of Ofalia, died last year of cancer at 71. Under Spain's aristocratic system, Ana's son Marco von Hohenlohe y Medina (Prince Marco of Hohenlohe-Langenburg) is most likely to succeed as 19th Duke of Medinaceli rather than the Duchess's son, Ignacio. The Duchess's husband died in 1992. She is survived by her son Ignacio, Duke of Segorbe, nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Phil Davison

Victoria Eugenia Fernández de Córdoba y Fernández de Henestrosa, aristocrat and philanthropist: born Madrid 16 April 1917; married 1938 Rafael de Medina y Vilallonga (one son, two sons deceased, one daughter deceased); died Seville 18 August 2013.