One might have easily defined the illustrious life of the Duchess of Alba de Tormes by the number of titles she had—over 57 titles and a Guinness World Record to match.
At the same time, she was unlike any other aristocrat of her class. From her many husbands to her regal wardrobe, Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart was a figure celebrated for her progressive attitude and her vibrant personality.
The bluest of the blue bloods
Born in Liria Palace in 1926, Cayetana was the only daughter of Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart and Maria del Rosario de Silva. Having descended from Mary, Queen of Scots and Winston Churchill, her blood has been called the “bluest” of them all. She also has ties with our own Zobel de Ayalas, who are said to be distant cousins of the Duchess.
She inherited her numerous titles when her mother passed away when was eight years old. Three years following her mother’s death, the young duchess moved from her home in Spain to England, where her father, a monarchist, was appointed the ambassador for the Spanish government. Here was where she met the young Princess Margaret, who became her childhood playmate.
The Duchess of Alba in her youth
Of her many privileges, her titles allowed her to take precedence over the Spanish royal family and skip kneeling before the Pope.
Three times a lover
Just like Princess Margaret, Cayetana became known for defying the norm. She was, for instance, married thrice, which sparked controversy then especially in a Catholic country such as Spain. Intrigues didn’t stop Cayetana from chasing love, however, even in the most unorthodox of men.
Her marriage to Pedro Luis Martínez de Irujo y Artacoz in 1947 was well publicized throughout Europe and the wedding was considered then as “the most expensive in the world,” according to the Telegraph. It somewhat overshadowed the wedding of the world’s most famous monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, which occurred a short month after. This marriage, which produced all six of the Duchess’s children, was tragically cut short with the untimely death of her husband in 1972.
Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, Duchess of Montoro (later 18th Duchess of Alba) with her first husband, Don Luis Martínez de Irujo y Artázcoz, and their first child, Carlos Fitz-James Stuart.
Not one to be discouraged, the adventurous nature of Cayetana then led her to Jesús Aguirre y Ortiz de Zarate, an intellectual and a former Jesuit who was eleven years her junior. Their wedding, which took place six years after her first husband's death, was one that shook Spanish high society. Not only did Jesus leave his religious vows, but he was looked down upon by the friends and family of the Duchess.
While detractors labeled her new husband as a social climber, it was reportedly this time that the Duchess of Alba de Tormes was the happiest. A 1979 People Magazine article quoted her saying, “Some people won’t forgive me for having married an intelligent man. We are very happy together; we don’t need anyone else.” It's reported that their love was such a fiery one that Aguirre once sent lyrics he had written for the Duchess to Julio Iglesias, who refused to use them in his songs on account of the words being "too steamy." Their love endured till the Duke Consort passed away in 2001.
With second husband Jesús Aguirre
As expected, the Duchess of Alba was ever enduring. She lived her life as she had always wanted, even when her affairs became public knowledge, from getting involved with bullfighters to her relationship Alfonso Diez Carabantes, a public servant 24 years her junior.
It was a relationship heavily criticized by her family and King Juan Carlos, who all suspected Cayetana’s new partner to be a gold digger who was after her fortune worth €3.5 billion. In retaliation to all who had opposed her relationship with the civil servant, she later argued in a radio interview: “We aren’t hurting anyone. Alfonso doesn’t want anything, he’s renounced everything. He doesn’t want anything but me.” Only when she publicly divided her fortune among her children and grandchildren were people reassured that Alfonso would cause no harm to both Cayetana and the House of Alba.
The Duchess with her three sons at the Liria Palace, Madrid.
A woman of culture
From an early age, the Duchess inherited her father's love for the arts. Her father, Jacobo, left her the palatial family home in Madrid, which was filled with 249 paintings, counting works by Rembrandt, Goya, and El Greco. The Liria Palace housed a veritable collection of written documents, such as letters from Christopher Columbus and a first edition of Don Quixote, reports the Independent. Despite all her worldly possessions, the Duchess once said, "I have a lot of artworks, but I can't eat them, can I?" It's also rumored that she snubbed the great Pablo Picasso, who desired her as his muse. During her lifetime, she always insisted that true wealth should be characterized by culture rather than money.
Apart from her love for the arts, the Duchess was also a sports enthusiast. Particularly, she was an avid fan of European football team Real Betis and was a staple at equestrian and tennis tournaments.
Her mastery of five languages helped as she partook in numerous travels.
Her last years were thus spent in the company of a man she loved. They were often seen going to Flamenco dances and bullfights, which were both passions of the eccentric duchess. This all came to an end when she passed away in late 2014 due to pneumonia. She is survived by her children and succeeded by her oldest son Carlos Fitz-James Stuart, who inherited the dukedom of Alba.