Heritage

How Rumors of a Royal Feud Swept Through the U.K.

In a land of fairytale castles, garden parties, and pheasant shoots, royal gossip has cast a dark shadow.
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It was a procession of awkwardly matched dignitaries. They walked two by two, in their tiaras and white ties, into the state dining room at Buckingham Palace, where the 1990 Château Lafite Rothschild would perhaps flow more freely than the small talk.

U.S. President Trump and the Queen, Princess Anne and Jared Kushner, the Duke of Cambridge and Theresa May, the departing prime minister. Then, down the line came a particularly intriguing pairing. Sarah Vine, a columnist at the Daily Mail who had been invited because she is the wife of Michael Gove, a minister in May’s cabinet, joined Rose Cholmondeley, a former model whose grandmother had been bridesmaid to the queen.

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Rose Cholmondeley and Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine arrive at the state banquet for Donald Trump at Buckingham Palace.
Photo by WPA POOL / GETTY IMAGES.

Cholmondeley, who is 35, was there because her husband David, the Marquess of Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”), has a ceremonial role as Lord Great Chamberlain. But weeks earlier Vine’s newspaper had breathlessly reported rumors about Rose, the Marchioness at Houghton Hall, the absurdly grand Cholmondeley seat in Norfolk, a county in the east of England.

In that strange rural enclave of castles and the royal-­adjacent characters who inhabit them—now gleefully dubbed “Turnip Toffs” by the press—there was talk of a dramatic falling out between Rose and her neighbor and friend Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.

Headlines suddenly proclaimed Rose to be Kate’s “rural rival.” Despite the three miles that separate Houghton and Anmer Hall, Prince William’s home on the royal Sandringham estate, had a boundary been crossed? Kensington Palace slapped back against the gossip and intimations; lawsuits were threatened. At the state dinner the couples wouldn’t get close at all—after the awkward procession they were scattered across long tables. Instead Rose sat next to perhaps the only man who might know the official version of events: Britain’s spy chief, Jeremy Fleming.

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Service corridors lead to the family wing of one of England’s grandest homes. “Please address Lady Leicester as Lady Leicester,” an equerry requests, her footsteps echoing above the cold stone floors. She opens the door to an airy kitchen and sitting room. A television trails cables across a white bookcase on the far wall, in which cookbooks are stacked below ornamental letters that spell out “TOM.” The domestic scene could almost belong to an average home were the room not in Holkham Hall, a Palladian mansion that sits on an estate so vast it would take more than an hour to walk across it.

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The Marquess and Marchioness of Cholmondeley occupy Houghton Hall, the 4,000-acre, 106-room behemoth up the road from the royals.
Photo by GETTY IMAGES.

Lady Leicester, whose husband Tom Coke (pronounced “Cook”) is the eighth Earl of Leicester, is standing next to a large birdcage in which Basil is tearing up scraps of today’s Times. The parrot usually flies free. “I put him away because I didn’t know if you were bald or not,” the viscountess says. “He doesn’t like bald men.”

The Holkham estate sits in the middle of the north Norfolk coast, a bulging rump of fields and marshes on the North Sea. The aristocratic residents of its verdant villages and country houses have traditionally been easy to caricature. “Doctors used to write ‘NfN,’ or ‘normal for Norfolk,’ in their notes, which meant you were a little bit interbred,” says Desmond MacCarthy of nearby Wiveton Hall, an eerie 17th-century manor.

“There isn’t much interbreeding now, and it’s intended as a laugh,” says MacCarthy, who is best known for his fuzzy eyebrows, which are so thick and animated they look as if they might turn into butter­flies at any moment. “It’s always fun when you get someone who really minds.”

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Yet residents have become increasingly prickly of late, for this corner of England has been shaken by the storm of reports about the Cholmondeleys and the Cambridges. The inbreeding jokes have faded, only to be replaced by catty riffs on the “Turnip Toffs,” a gang of viscounts and marquesses whose titles betray a down-to-earth approach to life in a fertile county where turnips were once a vital crop.

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The Duke and of Cambridge have been spending ample time at Anmer Hall, their house in Norfolk on the Queen’s Sandringham Estate. Here they are earlier this year at Royal ascot.
Photo by MARK CUTHBERT / GETTY IMAGES.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge appeared to fit right in when they moved, in 2014, into Anmer Hall, a relatively modest Georgian pile between Sandringham and Houghton. As well as the Cokes and the Cholmondeleys, there was Mave Fellowes, William’s cousin, a novelist and daughter of Lord Fellowes; James Meade, one of William’s best friends, and his wife Lady Laura Marsham, godmother to Louis; and the van Cutsem brothers—Nicholas and William—who lived at Anmer when their father rented it from the queen and who are by all accounts William’s favored shooting partners.

As in counties across England, game shoots are woven into the social fabric here; Duchess Kate has reportedly become quite a skilled shot, attending Sandringham’s famous Boxing Day shoot. The Cambridges quickly began hosting friends and events at Anmer, including a lunch celebration for Kate’s 37th birthday in January.

As well as being neighbors, Rose and Kate are of a similar age and attend the same charity galas and garden parties. The Marchioness was a guest at the Cambridges’ wedding in 2011, and they mingled at events at Houghton, including its annual horse trials. (Zara Tindall, the queen’s eldest granddaughter, was competing at Houghton when I visited in May, although, I was politely informed, the owners were not at home.)

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The women, apparently fast friends, represent the modern face of North Norfolk, which has been changing while still eschewing the showiness of the smarter counties in London’s orbit. The area has become a magnet for middle class holidaymakers and second home owners.

Over a sunny week in May, quivers of fresh asparagus sat on tables outside delicatessens in quaint coastal villages while Kate was reportedly pottering about the antiques shops along the coast in Holt, her bodyguards attempting to blend in outside them. One dealer who prefers not to be named says she served the duchess several times, once selling her a persian rug with a large hole in it. “She said, ‘Oh, I’ll just put a bit of furniture over it,’” the dealer recalls. “She’s just another customer—except that she doesn’t really do haggling.”

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William and Kate are greeted by David and Rose Cholmondeley at a gala dinner at Houghton Hall.
Photo by STEPHEN POND / GETTY IMAGES.

Only the houses get away with being grand here. “I mean, there are people who try to be chichi, but they get battered down pretty quickly,” says Davina Barber (née Duckworth-Chad), an old family friend of William’s, at her home near Pynkney Hall, family seat of the Duckworth-Chads.

Only the houses get away with being grand here.

But then reports of a rift spread in the British press before ricocheting around social media and dubiously sourced royal blogs. The duchess was said to have shut Rose out of her social circle. Local WhatsApp groups were “buzzing.” As neither house deigned to comment publicly on the rumors, the mill then slowed down again until, in June, both couples arrived at Buckingham Palace.

Anmer Hall dominates the tiny village of the same name, which has been here for at least 1,000 years. A looping drive leads to Saint Mary the Virgin Church and ends abruptly at a pair of unmarked oak gates. A sign offers a stern warning to would-be snoopers: “This is a protected site under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act.”

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Anmer—and North Norfolk at large—has been a sanctuary for the Cambridges, and its residents are protective of its discreet atmosphere. Weeks after the rumors began to circulate, along with the Turnip Toff headlines, the gentlest inquiry is shot down faster than an overweight partridge.

“It’s a load of bollocks,” Lady Leicester says. Her friend Monica Vinader, a Spanish-born Norfolk jeweler, has joined us for lunch. She is delighted that the Duchess of Cambridge has just worn a pair of her earrings at the Chelsea Flower Show in London, but that’s as much royal chat as she is prepared to have. Desmond MacCarthy insists, “There are more interesting things to talk about.”

Meanwhile, Davina Barber rolls her eyes so hard they nearly fall out. It’s hard to gauge in the withering responses where denial meets discretion. But whatever the truth, there is a weariness of the tabloids’ interest in the county and the code of omertà that has become as much a part of the culture as worn-out carpets and freezers full of pheasant.

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The Duchess of Cambridge at an official visit to the East Anglia children's hospices, of which she is royal patron, in Norfolk in 2017.
Photo by STEPHEN POND / GETTY IMAGES.

Farther east along Norfolk’s bulge, Tom Blofeld lives in Hove­ton House, a Jacobean mansion his family built in 1680. He won’t touch any gossip either, but he is willing to muse on Norfolk’s peculiar position. The area’s early gentry made enough money from their land to build grand houses, but Norfolk’s relative isolation, and its featureless, flat landscape, meant the land never became so valuable that those families were tempted to cash in. The vast majority who stayed also retained a modesty still acknowledged in the “Turnip” tag.

“Norfolk hasn’t got a cachet, which I personally think is a massive cachet.”

“Norfolk hasn’t got a cachet, which I personally think is a massive cachet,” says Blofeld, who snorts intermittently as if trying to blow poisoned darts from his nose. When “brash city boys” from 1980s London, as Blofeld puts it, bought up mansions in the more obviously desirable Cotswolds—where Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan have taken up residence—they spared Norfolk. “And what you find here are people who are the countryside and who care about the people who work here. It’s much more integrated.”

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The Turnip Toffs, such as they are, avoid conspicuous socializing. The diary revolves around shooting, fêtes, garden parties, and 50th-birthday lunches that start late and stretch into the night. The younger earls drink in the pubs alongside the locals. Ladies who lunch now make a beeline for Socius, a new restaurant in Burnham Market that is doing a roaring trade in viognier during the Wednesday rush.

Shoots are deliberately modest. “You go to the West Country and they’re shooting 350 birds off cliffs in Devon and Madonna shows up,” says Blofeld, whose grand­father was at Eton with Ian Fleming and inspired the James Bond villain. “People here would turn those invitations down flat. You shoot small shoots for local people with 70 birds, hard fought for.”

The grouse here are at least spared the ignominy of being shot out of the sky by an oligarch—or David Beckham—dressed in spotless tweed. This is old money shooting, and lunch is perfunctory. “I just offer sausages and haul a couple of bottles of cheap crap port out to the shooting pitch and we neck it,” Blofeld says.

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Though now open to the public several days a week, this palladian pile set on 25,000 acres is home to Lady Leicester and her husband, Tom Coke, the eighth Earl of Leicester.
Photo by GETTY IMAGES.

While most families have managed to cling to their seats, the profits from farming have steadily declined, while the cost of keeping the houses standing has soared. An urgent spirit of enterprise now unites them. At Holkham the Leicesters are determined to challenge the Downton Abbey stereotype; Lord Grantham would blanch at the scale of the commercial operation, which includes a wedding venue, a restaurant, and an RV park by the sea. Blofeld built Bewilderwood, an adventure park inspired by a series of children’s books he wrote.

“I think it was our last estate director who said that it takes a year per mile out of London for new ideas to reach Norfolk,” Lady Leicester says. “But that’s changing.” Even MacCarthy is diversifying. At Wiveton he has holiday cottages and a popular café where you can buy replicas of his eyebrows on plastic glasses at the little gift shop.

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Where turnip culture remains, Blofeld says it has sometimes evolved into a studied scruffiness. “By and large tweed is considered to be improved by the addition of holes, and binder twine is contentedly used for smart, as a belt, if your coat is bust,” he says. “But the quality of eccentricity here is such that people are rather gentle and slightly unselfconscious and, oddly enough, quite unsnobby.” He adds, “There is an urge to think of ‘normal for Norfolk’ as the dribbling imbecile, but there’s an odd intelligence to it.”

Scandal has only rarely visited the marshes in the past few centuries. The last big one centered on Jane Digby, who was born at Holkham in 1807 (her mother was a Coke) and ran off in pursuit of a series of lovers, including a Bavarian king, a Greek count, a Thessalian general, and a Syrian sheikh 20 years her junior.

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Lady Anne Glenconner, who was Princess Margaret’s lady-in-waiting.
Photo by MAX MUMBY/INDIGO / GETTY IMAGES.

More recently Lady Anne Glenconner (née Coke) has spoken out about the discrimination against women that comes with primo­geniture, the feudal rule that says only oldest sons can inherit estates.

She would own Holkham, but she was the eldest of three daughters, so the estate passed from her father, the 5th Earl, to his cousin, the current Lord Leicester’s grandfather. It is a custom that the current Lady Leicester was aware of when she had two daughters before a son arrived 15 years ago. “I remember being in hospital with Tom and rushing back, and there was champagne and all the trustees came around,” she recalls, laughing as Basil the parrot squawks in his cage. “I felt like Anne Boleyn.”

But scandal here usually dies quickly, as discretion and stiff upper lips prevail. The rumors that have fluttered about the marshes most recently will, one suspects, disappear out to sea before they have any impact on these shores, not least as duty calls the Cambridges and they spend more time at Kensington Palace. An eccentric but evolving way of life will return to normal (for Norfolk). But as grouse season approaches, and until the next state visit, all eyes in Norfolk will be on the shooting calendar, where titles are no guarantee of an invitation.

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This story appears in the September 2019 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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