OBITUARY : Caroline Beaufort

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The Independent Online
The estate of Badminton after the Second World War was a world apart, where time and tradition had stood still for many years. It was best known to the outside world for the famous Horse Trials, attended each year by the monarch. Its owners, the old Duke and Duchess of Beaufort, were devoted to the chase and to the Royal Family. On hearing that their future heir was marrying, they did not ask: "Is she nice?" but "Does she hunt?"

David Somerset married Lady Caroline Thynne at St Peter's, Eaton Square, in July 1950, in the presence of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Queen Mary, the Duchess of Beaufort's aunt, who had spent the war years - memorably - at Badminton, attended the reception at "Chips" Channon's house in Belgrave Square. David Somerset's father, Robert, a first cousin once removed of the 10th Duke, was drowned in 1965. David Somerset, dapper, handsome and well-dressed, the chairman of Marlborough Fine Art, then became heir.

Caroline Thynne was the only daughter of the sixth Marquess of Bath, the owner of Longleat, in Wiltshire, and a pioneer of the stately home industry ("We Have Seen the Lions of Longleat"), and his wife Daphne, later known (as Daphne Fielding) for her many books, such as The Duchess of Jermyn Street. Caroline's early years were spent at Longleat, where she was somehow not overwhelmed by a host of elderly Thynne aunts. While many of the Thynnes were (and are) arguably eccentric, Lady Caroline was surprisingly normal, wholly straightforward, and retained a refreshing innocence throughout life.

As a young couple, the Somersets were taken under the wing of the childless Duke and Duchess of Beaufort, with whom they lived at Badminton. The Duke was known as "Master" - he was the Master of the Horse to the Queen as well as Master of the Beaufort Hunt. "Obviously," he once declared, "the hunting of the fox has been my chief concern."

There was no special reason to expect that this arrangement would work so well, for the Somersets had wider and more cultural interests than their elders, yet the four were united by a strong mutual respect, love of Badminton and of the countryside. As their young family grew, the Somersets moved to a house nearby, only returning to Badminton when "Master" died in 1984. The 11th Duke took his place as Master of the Beaufort, and there occurred one of the best runs in years, causing the new Duchess to exclaim: "Master has inhabited the fox!" The old Duke was laid to rest under a mighty edifice to protect his remains from ill-intentioned hunt saboteurs.

The new Duchess set about her role as mistress of the great house with enormous good- humour. Badminton was in terrible disrepair, with buckets to catch the incoming water. She presided over the house's restoration, created a beautiful garden, planted thousands of new trees in the park; each year they undertook at least one major repair. Where her mother-in-law, Mary Beaufort, who lived on in the house till 1987, had occasionally taken up a post in one of the state rooms to answer questions from the tourists, suitably cordoned behind ropes, Caroline Beaufort's approach was very different. There can have been few more generous guides to a stately home.

Welcoming parties of visitors (by appointment), the Duchess would announce: "Chairs. Chairs are for sitting on, so sit on all of them, and take as many photographs as you like." Visitors roamed freely upstairs, even visiting her bedroom (where Queen Mary had resided in the war), and behaved better than had they been detained behind the traditional ropes. The Duchess's good-humour and charm were infectious.

She was also intrepid. With her husband she would depart for two months at a time to China, the Himalayas, Zimbabwe or the Amazon. Her idea of travel was "a quick dip" in waters infested with piranha or camping near lions. Active with charities - she supported 76 charities on a regular basis - she once abseiled from the outside wall of the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital to raise money for National Meningitis Awareness Week. This spring she received an honorary LLD for her charitable work from Bristol University.

The Beauforts had three sons and a daughter, Lady Anne Somerset, biographer of Elizabeth I. When cancer of the liver was diagnosed last summer, the Duchess was as open as ever. In a newspaper interview she spoke of her fate, her remaining hopes and disappointments and declared the disease "a bloody bore". She continued: "If I thought it would do any good I would scream like a stuck pig, but instead I will have to carry on as normal."

Hugo Vickers

Caroline Jane Thynne: born 28 August 1928; married 1950 David Somerset (succeeded 1984 as 11th Duke of Beaufort; three sons, one daughter); died Badminton 22 April 1995.