Fundación Casa Medina Sidonia
by Claire Lloyd
LUISA ISABEL ÁLVAREZ DE TOLEDO, 21ST DUCHESS OF MEDINA SIDONIA
Luisa Isabel María del Carmen Cristina Rosalía Joaquina Álvarez de Toledo y Maura, Isabel to her friends, was the 21st Duchess of Medina-Sidonia, one of the oldest aristocratic families in Spain. She became known as the Red Duchess (la Duquesa Roja) because of her political convictions, for which she was imprisoned under the Franco regime. A prolific writer and a controversial historian, she inherited one of the largest private historical archives in Europe, and dedicated her life to its organisation and preservation. Controversial to the end, on her deathbed she married her female companion and secretary to ensure that the archive would remain intact in the ducal palace at Sanlúcar de Barrameda and not be divided amongst her children.
Isabel was the product of generations of aristocrats, politicians, historians, warriors and controversial figures. Despite her strong belief in social justice she never renounced her titles, and is it intriguing to ponder what she saw as the role of the nobility in contemporary Spain, and where she saw herself within that structure. Certainly her titles protected her from almost certain execution following her outspoken criticism of Franco, but she retained them long after his death. How did she resolve the apparent contradiction of passing on the line of Spain's oldest dukedom with her professed Republicanism? Was her devotion to history and her family's place in it stronger than her political conscience? Did she believe in noblesse oblige, the responsibility of the privileged to the less fortunate?
Published accounts of Isabel's life tend to be either sycophantic or deeply critical, depending on the standpoint of the writer. However it became clear to me while reading them that she was neither saint nor sinner, but the product of her unique circumstances. My principle aim in writing this article, therefore, is to paint a more objective picture. Apart from obituaries there is very little written about her in English, so my secondary aim is to bring this fascinating woman to the attention of a wider readership.
THE FAMILYThe founder of the House of Medina Sidonia was Alonso Pérez de Guzmán (1256-1309), better known as Guzmán el Bueno, one of Spain's most cherished legendary heroes. After defending the besieged town of Tarifa against Moorish troops and sacrificing his own son, whose life was offered in return for surrender, he was rewarded with land and titles. Subsequent generations of Guzmáns continued to assist the Catholic monarchs with the ethnic cleansing of Moors and Jews from Spain and amassed further wealth over the centuries.
The House of Medina Sidonia was entitled to rents and produce from much of what are now the Atlantic-facing Andalusian provinces of Cádiz and Huelva, including the ancient almadrabas of Conil and Zahara where huge quantities of tuna were netted each year. From the Port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, located on the mouth of the Guadalquivir River which forms the border between the two provinces, successive generations exported dried tuna, livestock, wine, grain and oil to Northern Europe, North Africa and the Americas. They became one of the richest families in Europe and their wealth enabled them to build up an impressive collection of art and furniture. Their estate included the Coto Doñana hunting grounds on the other side of the river from Sanlúcar, named after Doña Ana de Silva, wife of the 7th Duke, and now one of Europe's most important nature reserves.
The Duke best known to British readers was the seventh, Alonso Pérez de Guzmán (1550-1615). Despite his self-professed lack of military experience, poor health and tendency to seasickness, King Philip II appointed him to command the Spanish Armada in 1588 in his disastrous attempt to overthrow Elizabeth I of England.
After the end of Spain´s Golden Age the family fortunes declined and Isabel's father, Joaquín Álvarez de Toledo y Caro, inherited a greatly reduced legacy when he became the 20th Duke in 1915. He refreshed the family fortunes in 1931 by marrying María del Carmen Maura y Herrera, descended from one of Cuba's wealthiest aristocratic families,the House of Mortera. Their estate in Havana was expropriated by the state after the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro. In 1986 Isabel, a strong supporter of the Revolution, turned down the offer of compensation negotiated by the Spanish government for the confiscation of the family's assets.
Isabel was descended not only from aristocrats and military men but also from politicians and historians. Her maternal grandfather, the historian Gabriel Maura Gamazo, served as Labour Minister in the last elected government under Alfonso XIII, which was replaced in 1923 by the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera. He left Spain during the Civil War and during his absence much of his historical archive was destroyed. Gabriel´s father, Miguel Maura Gamazo, was Minister of the Interior in the 1931 Republican government, and his grandfather Antonio Maura was Prime Minister of Spain on five occasions between 1903 and 1922. Antonio entered politics originally to fight the culture of caciquismo (despotic tyranny by local landowners and employers), which he considered a cancer within Spanish politics and the main obstacle to genuine democracy.
Another branch of the family produced the award-winning film actress Carmen Maura, star of many films by Pedro Almoódovar including Women at the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown and Volver, in which she played Penelope Cruz's deceased mother.
Isabel was born on 21 August 1936 in Estoril, a Portuguese resort near Lisbon, where her parents had gone into exile during the Second Spanish Republic. Estoril was a second home for many exiled dignitaries from Spain including the family of Juan de Borbón, third son of Alfonso XIII who had stepped down as King and left the country in 1931 following the declaration of the Second Spanish Republic. Juan's son, Juan Carlos, was restored to the Monarchy following Franco's death in 1975 and is still on the throne.
In July 1936 a military coup against the elected Republican government kicked off the Spanish Civil War. Joaquín, Isabel's father, fought on the side of Franco's Nationalists, but a priest later told Isabel that her father had once saved a lorryload of Republicans from being executed. The Nationalists wanted to execute him as punishment, but he was spared because of his title.
The family home, the Ducal Palace in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, had been in reasonably good repair when they decamped to Portugal, but on their return at the end of the Civil War they discovered that the Nationalists were using it as a barracks. Joaquin used his connections to evict the troops and the family were able to move back in.
In the 1940s much of Andalucía suffered near famine conditions, partly as a result of years of neglect of the land by absentee landlords and partly because of Franco's desire to punish this strongly Republican region for its resistance. What little food was available was strictly rationed, and often deliberately withheld from supporters of the former Republic. People were literally dying of hunger; others survived by scavenging in the countryside for snails and edible thistles.
Isabel watched her mother Carmen taking in homeless families and organising food relief for the local people in the square at the front of the Palace; the family ate the same food themselves. Carmen also set up a small infirmary in the Palace, which can still be seen today. The locals believed she could perform miracles and cure blindness. When Isabel visited Sanlúcar after her father's death, one blind man thought she was her mother and asked her to cure him. Not wishing to turn the Palace back into a hospital, she told him she would happily pay the oculist's bill.
Though we cannot tell whether Carmen's charitable acts stemmed from compassion or a sense of aristocratic duty, there is little doubt that they helped to form Isabel's lifelong concern for social justice and welfare. Given the Palace's location in the heart of the town, from an early age Isabel was literally surrounded by poverty and hardship, in contrast to the privilege and luxury of her own social class.
Isabel and her mother were very close, possibly closing ranks against Joaquín who was violent towards Carmen and indifferent to Isabel - he may have resented the fact that the Dukedom would for the first time in history be passed to a female. Isabel, an only child, was allowed to run wild, scandalising family friends and relatives with her tomboyish behaviour. Her grandparents had given her a pony, and she used to race it on the beach. She preferred to play with the local children than with those of her own social class. She learned one of her first lessons in social justice when her mother persuaded her to hand over a favourite toy to a child who had none.
Carmen died of cancer when Isabel was just ten years old, and Joaquin sent his daughter to live with Carmen's parents in Madrid, offering a monthly payment for her keep. Isabel was deeply disturbed by the move and by the loss of her beloved mother, but she soon became the apple of her grandfather's eye, being the only child of his favourite daughter. She was fascinated by history, heraldry and ancient documents, and her grandfather encouraged her interest, teaching her how to interpret the documents. He would give her a date or a name, and send her off to libraries and archives to find the documents he needed for his research. But occasionally this led to problems in the classroom, when she would contradict the official account of events, having seen evidence to the contrary.
Her grandmother, Julia Herrera, the Cuban heiress, was by all accounts slightly eccentric. She wore long mauve Chanel suits and a black plastic visor to protect herself from the sun, was obsessed with the softness of toilet paper, and had to be carried up and down stairs by servants because the lift made her claustrophobic.
A naturally rebellious and inquisitive child, Isabel was expelled from various convent schools. One schoolfriend told how she used to arrive in a chauffeur-driven car each morning and share her lunch with the boarders; it was far better than what they were given at school. Isabel never completed her bachillerato - her grandmother did not think girls needed qualifications so would not let her take exams - and later complained that her formal education equipped her only to be an accomplished society lady and wife. "I was taught French. They tried to teach me English and I was taught how to drink tea. Nobody ever expected I would need to learn anything else."
The Falangists, represented in her life by her father, detested Communism but were strongly anti-Monarchist, whereas the Mauras had supported the Monarchy. One of Isabel's earliest acts of defiance as a young girl was to cry "Viva el Rey" (Long live the King), in front of General Franco at an equestrian event, causing a number of civic dignitaries to cross themselves and a number of senior military men to chuckle quietly.
MARRIAGE AND MOTHERHOOD
As a teenager Isabel was more interested in horses than boyfriends and didn't enjoy parties. She believed herself to be unattractive. One of her favourite novels was Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which attacks mankind's vain attachment to worldly goods and superficiality. When she was fifteen her father bestowed on her the title of Marquesa de los Veléz, presumably to make her a more attractive marriage prospect.
At the age of 18 Isabel was presented into society on the same day as Pilar de Borbón, sister of the future King Juan Carlos I. They had known each other in Estoril. By this time Isabel had embraced Republicanism, and she teased the future monarch by referring to him as "Citizen Borbón". She also raised eyebrows in titled society with her vehement atheism.
But her free spirit and controversial opinions did not save her from a conventional aristocratic marriage. She met the dashing and handsome José Leoncio González de Gregorio through her love of riding; he was a champion horseman and rode in the Spanish Olympic team. Another factor in his favour was that he was not in the Military. She was eighteen and he was six years older.
Her guardians, the Mauras, did not approve of her choice; they thought he was promiscuous (he had two illegitimate children) and not particularly bright. His family were only minor nobility and well below the House of Medina Sidonia in social status. This sort of "mixed marriage" was still frowned on at the time, so maybe defiance of convention was another of Isabel's motives. Another consideration was that she was three months' pregnant. The wedding took place on 16 July 1955 and the bride wore black.
On 11 December that same year, Isabel's father died intestate. The following April the courts declared her the official and sole heir to the House of Medina Sidonia, and a year later she became the 21st Duchess of Medina Sidonia, 18th Marchioness of los Vélez,17th Marchioness of Villafranca del Bierzo, 25th Countess of Niebla, and a Grandee of Spain three times over.
Isabel and Leoncio had three children. Leoncio Alonso, hereditary Count of Niebla, was born on 3 January 1956, six months after the wedding; María de Pilar was born a year later, and Gabriel Ernesto a year after that.
Isabel's romantic notion of married life did not last long - three children in quick succession and a husband with whom she had nothing in common except a love of horse-riding saw to that. She did not adapt comfortably to motherhood, caring for her babies herself because there was no alternative, but she much preferred reading and studying. Isabel and Leoncio were complete opposites; she was unconventional and intellectual, he was rigid, unimaginative and conservative. They fought bitterly then drifted apart, formally separating in 1960 (divorce was not then legal and it was not until 2005 that the marriage was officially terminated).
From then on Isabel had a series of relationships with women, discreetly referred to as secretaries or companions. Years later she told a friend that she had always known she was a lesbian, but was obliged to marry and have children because she was an only child and the family line had to continue. It was almost unheard of in those days to come out of the closet - yet one can't help wondering why, when she had no qualms about openly declaring her non-conformist religious and political beliefs, she kept quiet about her sexuality.
Following the separation the children went to live with their great-grandparents, Gabriel Maura and Julia Herrera, who had brought up Isabel herself. This act of "abandonment" was used as a weapon against Isabel for the rest of her life, not least by the children themselves. However once her reputation as "the Red Duchess" took hold, both her grandmother and her husband, who later won custody, did their best to prevent her from seeing them and she was turned away at the door on many occasions.
ACTIVIST AND NOVELIST
Following her accession to her father's titles and the breakdown of her marriage in the late 1950s, Isabel moved back into the Palace at Sanlúcar. The building was up for sale, but she acquired the shares of various uncles for one million pesetas and started work on its restoration. The Medina Sidonia family archive, a priceless collection of historical documents dating back to the 13th Century, was rescued from a warehouse in Madrid and transferred to the Palace in 1962.
She managed to reclaim a number of family treasures which had found their way into the Church of La Merced next to the Palace. Brandishing a pistol she entered the church, defied the priest and retrieved all the paintings, crucifixes and other valuables. The action led to her excommunication by the Bishop of Cádiz.
Isabel soon began to follow in her mother's footsteps and became involved in voluntary work among the local farming and fishing communities. A fervent believer in land reform, she also gave away some of her inherited land to form rural co-operatives, a practice she continued until she owned little more than the Palace itself. The authorities regarded her as eccentric but harmless, in an honourable Spanish aristocratic tradition. Just five feet tall and slight of build, she seemed an unlikely revolutionary.
However her open criticism of the Franco regime and defence of Republican ideals and liberties led them to revise their opinion. Still a young mother in her early 20s, she became involved with the struggle of local vineyard workers against the near-feudal conditions imposed by the "sherry barons", boldly denouncing members of the same land-owning class into which she had been born. She helped organise a strike, and the strikers won.
She set up a co-operative for the fishermen of Sanlúcar to establish and fight for their rights, and helped establish Comisiones Obreras (Workers' Commissions) so that agricultural workers could become unionised. In 1964 she was convicted of leading an illegal demonstration by striking fishermen, but refused to pay the fine.
In the early '60s she moved back to Madrid, and made contact with various left-wing groups opposed to the dictatorship. She wrote her first novel, La Huelga (The Strike), based on her experiences in Sanlúcar. Telling the story of a strike by vineyard workers, it pulled no punches in denouncing the police brutality and judicial sleights of hand involved in suppressing the working class under the system of caciquismo, elitism and privilege prevalent throughout Andalucia. It was promptly banned in Spain, but brought out in both French and Spanish by a publishing house in Paris.
On 17 January 1966, a collision in the skies over the fishing village of Palomares in Almería between a USAF B-52 bomber and a KC-135 refuelling plane caused one of the most serious nuclear accidents of the Cold War. Conventional explosives in two of the B-52's hydrogen bombs detonated, spilling radioactive material. Three of the bombs were located and a fourth, which fell into the sea, was found a few weeks later. Negotiations to try and get the US government to pay for the clean-up are still going on to this day.
Two years earlier there had been a similar accident in the Coto de Doñana, on the other side of the river from Sanlúcar, but all details were officially silenced. Anxious to avoid damage to Spain's burgeoning tourist industry, Franco again tried to suppress any publicity hinting of plutonium release at Palomares.
When she heard what had happened Isabel went to Almería, used her title to get past the security cordons and met with the labourers whose small plots of land, on which they depended for food and work, had been contaminated. She returned to Madrid and, after failing to get official acknowledgement of the contamination from the government, she sent details to the French radio station Europe 1. This was the start of an international campaign demanding compensation for the labourers, culminating in a demonstration on 17 January 1967. The Nuclear Energy Board were forced to send an inspector to the site and reveal the results of medical examinations on the local population, who finally began to receive the treatment they needed.
Isabel's second novel, La Base, dealt with the effects of the establishment of a military base on the material and mental well-being of the local population. It was a thinly veiled fictitious account of what happened at Rota, just a few miles along the coast from Sanlúcar, now home to a huge military airfield and naval supply base used by NATO and the USA as their "gateway to the Mediterranean". La Base was published in France by Grasset in 1971, while Isabel was in exile.
The third novel in the trilogy with La Huelga and La Base was La Caceria (The Chase), which described the unlimited power and moral hypocrisy exercised by a decadent ruling class over their peasant tenants and labourers in Andalusia. It was published by Grijalbo in 1977, following Isabel's return from exile. She wrote several other novels and many historical works, all of which are available from the Fundación Casa Medina Sidonia in Sanlúcar.
IMPRISONMENT AND EXILE
Public demonstrations were illegal under Franco and after the Palomares march Isabel was arrested. One report claims that because of her high public profile she was offered her freedom in exchange for her silence, but she refused to keep quiet. She was judged by a military trial, at which the Nuclear Energy Board inspector gave evidence, and found guilty. She was condemned to 13 months in prison at Alcalá de Henares and released in November 1969, her sentence reduced to eight months for good behaviour.
The Duchess also used her aristocracy as a means of intimidating the courtroom. When told by a judge that she should call him Your Honour rather than just "you", she replied: "In that case you will address me as Excellency, since I am a Duchess and a Grandee."
It was during this period that she was awarded the soubriquet "Red Duchess" by the labourers she had helped, though she never used it herself. In the context of Franco's Spain, when death squads executed without trial anyone suspected of being a socialist, anarchist or communist until well after the end of the Civil War, the term "Red" had far stronger connotations than it does today. She rejected Communism outright, stating that "I would have to accept a whole series of things I don't accept: the loss of freedom of expression, of press, of gathering - precisely the deprivations against which I'm fighting in my own country."
In 1969 the clandestine circulation of La Huelga and other articles published in the magazine Sábado Gráfico brought her to trial once again, for supposedly insulting the police and the judiciary. In total there were four prosecution reports against her, including one requesting a ten-year sentence. All were as a result, in her own words, of "having used freedom of expression which is respected in any free country, and which one hopes will be respected in future on the part of the Spanish state." A press tribunal set up to handle offences against the country's censorship laws cleared her of all charges, but in a year later the verdict was overturned by the Spanish Supreme Court and she was sentenced to a month and a day in jail.
Unwilling to spend another term behind bars she fled to France, taking with her as much of her grandmother's money as she could lay her hands on. She divided her time between Hasparren, near Bayonne in the French Basque Pyrenees, and Paris, where many Spaniards who could not live under the Franco regime for various reasons had already found a safe haven.
During her stay in the Basque region she frequented the Playboy Club in Biarritz, in the company of transvestites and gays. There are also rumours that she associated with members of ETA (Euskadi Ta Azkatasuna or Basque Homeland and Freedom), which first emerged in the 1960s as a student resistance movement bitterly opposed to General Franco's repressive military dictatorship. Under Franco the Basque language was banned, their distinctive culture suppressed, and intellectuals imprisoned and tortured for their political and cultural beliefs. ETA's early acts of resistance did not involve mass civilian bombings, although a number of police were killed in exchanges of fire. In December 1973 they assassinated the Prime Minister, Franco's close confidant Luis Carrero Blanco, in retaliation for the execution of five of Franco's political enemies, an act applauded by many opponents of the fascist regime.
In Paris she lived in a garret of 15 square metres, whose only source of daylight was a window overlooking the Politécnique, but through which passed many of those would later become the first democratic politicians of Spain. Forcibly separated from her loved ones and short on home comforts, she directed her energy towards research, reading, writing, meeting and talking with like-minded people, travelling and expanding her knowledge and experience of the world.
Isabel visited Britain, Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Canada, denouncing the Franco regime at every opportunity, and inevitably alienating herself from those of her fellow-countrymen whose ideological plans for post-democracy Spain did not coincide with her more radical vision. In her essay Sin intermediarios (Without Intermediaries) she questioned why societies were incapable of defending themselves against the political or economic aggression to which they were submitted. She analysed the historical, economic and social aspects of European peoples, inviting the reader to look at them from a new perspective based on ethics and objectivity, rather than from the status quo. By maintaining this anti-capitalist stance she effectively ruled herself out of a role in the government of post-Franco Spain.
The children's father would not allow them to speak to their mother by telephone during her exile, let alone visit her, but the letters she wrote to them during this period displayed both a deep affection and a strong desire to teach them the values in which she herself believed - liberty, justice and solidarity.
In 1975 Franco died and in October the following year, taking advantage of the declaration of an amnesty for his former critics, Isabel was free to return to her homeland, hailed as a figurehead of Spain's emerging democracy. An arrest warrant, based on a statement to the Swiss press and two letters she had written to the head of the armed forces requesting that gas rather than firearms be used to subdue demonstrations, was dropped. Her eldest son, Leoncio Alonso, made the arrangements for her return.
After six years in exile Isabel's physical appearance and her demeanour had changed considerably. She was met on her return by her children Gabriel and Pilar, then aged 18 and 19 respectively. Leoncio was away on military service at the time (conscription did not end till 2001). They described her as scruffy, drinking too much, and failing to use deodorant. She appeared to have disposed of most of the inheritance, and was on her uppers. She had a missing tooth, which she couldn't afford to fix, and chain-smoked cheap black Celta cigarettes. Gabriel declared that she showed him no warmth at all and Pilar found her intolerant, unpredictable and judgemental.
Three months after her return she was detained in her house in Mortera, near Santander. Six police officers searched the house and also her French-registered Volkswagen. She did not hesitate to remind them of her nobility, exclaiming "You can't lay a hand on me, I am a Grandee of Spain!"
She told a reporter from El País that she believed the French police had informed their Spanish counterparts that she was carrying "something illegal", which she feared had been planted. She had fallen foul of French authorities eighteen months earlier when, emerging from the Playboy Club in Biarritz early one morning somewhat the worse for drink, she fired on a baker's van which she thought contained Franco's spies out to get her. They found nothing, but she was arrested for assaulting an officer - hard to believe, given that she was frail and only five feet tall - and sentenced to six months' house arrest.
RETURN TO SANLUCAR
In 1977 Isabel took up permanent residence in the Palace. During her exile planning permission had She swiftly had it declared a BIC (Bien de Interés Cultural, or Historic-Artistic Monument), putting an end to any possibility of redevelopment, carried out extensive restoration work on the building and installed the rest of family's magnificent collection of paintings, Flemish tapestries and 16th century furniture. She set to work cataloguing the six million documents in the archive, a job which took her ten years to complete - the catalogue itself consists of twenty volumes.
Isabel set up two schools in the Palace, one for children and one for adults, using state-trained teachers. Each year she paid for the three brightest to go to university. She donated a plot of land in the town to build flats for the poor. One of the tenants recalled that she did a lot more for the townspeople than the King ever had, but some of them didn't always appreciate what she did and gossiped about her. Others had a great affection for her, and regarded her as one of their own. She enjoyed going down into the town and having a drink with them in the bars.
In January 1979 Isabel was absolved of a charge of contempt of court for having written a letter to the authorities following the violent death in strange circumstances of a 27-year-old man in Sanlúcar. In reality she had written it on behalf of the father and widow of the man, who were illiterate. This was just one of several similar charges during that period, indicating that despite Spain's return to democracy she was still regarded with suspicion by the authorities.
Isabel had a strong sense of humour and irony. She once went a fancy dress party with her female partner dressed as medieval lepers, complete with bells to warn other guests of the danger of contamination from their company.
In 1982 Miguel Ángel Arenas, a well-known musical director known as "El Capi", was invited by Isabel to spend summer at the Palace. He paints a vivid and somewhat seedy picture of life there, with strangers coming and going, drinking and promiscuity. The only prohibition was the use of drugs. There was never enough food - Isabel lived mainly on fried eggs - and there was no money for soap or detergents, so the sheets were never changed and plates were washed in dirty water. But there was no shortage of amontillado sherry and coñac, which everybody drunk round the kitchen table in the evenings while Isabel told tales of her life in Paris and boasted of using her grandmother's inheritance to finance the May '68 Revolution.
After Capi had returned to Madrid Isabel came to stay with him when she had to petition the King in order to obtain approval for her eldest son's wedding. She couldn't stand Leoncio Alonso's fiancée, or her mother. Wearing muddy boots and old clothes but accompanied by the Madrid glitterati, she stood in the entrance hall of the Royal Palace and loudly declared "You all know I am not in favour of this wedding - but I will do my duty".
The Movida Madrileña was in full swing at the time, a hedonistic cultural explosion and breaking of old taboos after decades of repression. Later that night Isabel, Capi and their entourage went on the town ending up at an exclusive discotheque where they bumped into the Duke of Huéscar, son of Spain's best-loved aristocrat the Duchess of Alba. Isabel threw her arms round his neck but he didn't recognise her. "I am Medina-Sidonia!" she declared, "and you are nobody! So is your mother!" He was too polite to retaliate, and her companions quickly whisked her away.
Isabel's own version of the Madrid experience is somewhat different. She sampled the Movida for a few weeks, to see what kind of life her children were living, and was appalled. Hedonism, she claimed, is the enemy of progress and the transition was a sociological disaster, leaving behind an amoral and vice-ridden generation, its critical senses destroyed by drugs.
Leoncio Alonso's wedding took place in Sanlúcar on 12 December 1983. The family had difficulty persuading Isabel to wear women's clothes. They finally got her into a black velvet gown, with no adornments or jewellery, and she kept her boots on. Immediately after mass she ran out of the church to get changed.
One of the witnesses in the bride's party was Liliane Dahlmann, a young German historian then living in Barcelona. She had been warned about Isabel by Maria's family, and advised not to speak to her. But when they met at the supper before the wedding Liliane was completely captivated by the diminutive 47-year-old "Red Duchess" with her combination of historical knowledge, philosophical wisdom and irreverent wit.
The attraction was mutual. Isabel went to Barcelona to see her again, and invited her to come and stay at Sanlúcar; Liliane accepted, initially intending to stay for just a few months. However she was soon installed as Isabel's "secretary" and the previous incumbent, Esperanza, a popular local girl, was sacked without compensation. This caused a lot of bad feeling locally, and her family along with half the town wanted to set fire to the Palace.
This was a turning point in Isabel's life. She gave up the wild Bohemian life and attempted to become respected, if not respectable. Maybe it was to impress the impeccably polite and well-turned out Liliane, maybe she realised how badly she had alienated the townspeople over the dismissal of Esperanza, or maybe she had just had enough of acting a role that went against her true nature.
But Isabel's relationship with her children took a turn for the worse. Gabriel, the youngest, was convinced that she had fiddled the terms of her grandmother's will to deprive them of their inheritance; Julia had left all her property to the children but with Isabel having usufruct, i.e. the right to benefit from it during her lifetime. He found evidence that the executors' instructions had been amended after Julia's death and tried to persuade the other two to take out a lawsuit against her. He eventually succeeded, but by the time the courts finally found Isabel guilty, there was nothing left except the derelict palace at Mortera, with an order to carry out costly restoration work. Everything else had gone towards setting up a Foundation to protect the Palace and its contents.
After Liliane's arrival Isabel spent her days in the library researching in the family archive, the Archivo de la Casa de Medina Sidonia, a unique collection of six million original documents dating back to 1228 and the largest private archive in Spain, possibly in Europe. The documents include not only details of the property and goods owned by the family, and their occupations and titles, but also their public and private relationships and how they spent their leisure time. It is a rich source of information about the Middle Ages, especially the reigns of Carlos V and Felipe II.
Isabel continued to court controversy with her historical works, making extensive references to the archive to declare that much of the conventional wisdom of Spanish history was in fact patrañas (humbug). Over the next twenty years she published a number of books contradicting received wisdom and managed to alienate most of the Spanish academic community, especially the Academia de Historia, with a number of claims which were widely regarded as heretical.
For example, she suggested that Philip II had changed his mind about conquering England because of the huge cost of maintaining it as a Spanish colony, but rather than lose face by calling off the Armada he appointed the inexperienced 7th Duke knowing that he was loyal to the Crown and would follow instructions to the letter, even if it meant losing battles.
Isabel discovered documents in the archive which convinced her that America was discovered a long time before Columbus by Arab-Andalusian or Moroccan sailors who traded with ports in Brazil, Guyana and Venezuela. Plants indigenous to the Americas, such as maize and peppers, were referred to in the archive well before 1492, as were rivers and coasts that could not be identified in Europe or Africa. She even painstakingly calculated that the huge number of horses and cattle already grazing the plains of Argentina when the Spanish established a permanent colony in Buenos Aires could not possibly have all descended from the twenty or thirty beasts left behind by the first group of European settlers forty years earlier.
She published her findings in No fuimos nosotros (It wasn't us) in 1992, coinciding with the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the New World, and in África versus América: La Fuerza del Paradigma in 2000. This made her very popular with the Islamic community in Spain, and the books were translated into Arabic by the Junta Islámica de España. The date of Columbus' voyage - 1492 - was the same year identified in Spanish history as the completion of the Christian "reconquest" when the Moors were finally driven out of their last stronghold at Granada. Did they then, as Isabel suggested, extend the Reconquista to the American continent and extinguish all traces of Islam there too?
Another of Isabel's claims welcomed by the Islamic community was that her ancestor Guzmán el Bueno, hero of the siege of Tarifa and many other battles fought by the Spanish Christians against the occupying Muslim forces, was in fact a Moor by birth, with the Moroccan family name of Othmán. In English history, this would be the equivalent of saying that Alfred the Great was actually a Viking. Isabel discovered in the archive references to him as by the King as his "vassal" i.e. a non-Spaniard, who had probably converted to Christianity and offered his services as a mercenary. There is also a signed permit allowing him to export wheat to "the other side of the sea - where he comes from" - i.e. Morocco, on the other side of the Mediterranean, where no wheat could be grown. Not only was he a Muslim, but his wife was Jewish.
She believed that the Medina Sidonia family, in common with other noble families in Spain, had its history rewritten in the sixteenth century to remove all traces of its ethnic origins from the records, at the time when the Spanish Inquisition was busy purging Islam and Judaism from the land.
But was the Duchess of Medina Sidonia herself credible as a historian? The Academia de Historia, which never invited her to become a member, thought not. They dismissed her as an amateur and ridiculed her theories. (She, in return, believed that the academic world stifled creative thought and intellectual ability with its emphasis on passing exams.)
Alfonso Franco, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Cádiz, spent three years researching in the archive from 1978. He found Isabel charming and intelligent, generous and immensely hard-working, but she had no training as a historian and lacked the methodology and the necessary judgement to interpret the documents correctly. She jumped to conclusions too quickly, especially regarding the discovery of America. The academic community, he claimed, found her too confrontational and unwilling to be objective about her findings. She wasn't one of the club, which made them uncomfortable.
THE LAST FEW YEARS
At an age when many women would be happy to slow down and take things easy, Isabel continued working twelve hours a day, researching, writing and campaigning for justice, showing solidarity with Spanish Islamic groups. In July 2000 she visited King Mohammad VI of Morocco with a group of Spanish Muslims to present her book Africa vs America, and was received with full honours, much to the dismay of King Juan Carlos of Spain.
In 2003 a televised interview entitled La Señora de Sanlúcar , made in conjunction with UNED, shows Isabel working at her laptop surrounded by the archive, looking somewhat older than her 67 years but bright, sharp and alert and courteous as she answers the interviewer's questions. She made various other television appearances and appeared in the British TV documentary "When the Moors Ruled in Europe", showing presenter Bettany Hughes the documents in the archive relating to the origins of Guzmán el Bueno (the programme can be seen in full on YouTube; the interview is about one hour in).
In an undated interview (c.2004) with Íñigo Ramírez de Haro, published in his book El Caso Medina Sidonia, Isabel talked about herself and her life. "I carry my nobility like the nose on my face", she said. "It goes before me wherever I go." She had never felt herself to be "different", though other people have come to that conclusion. She admitted to being difficult and demanding, but said her tantrums were short-lived, unlike Liliane's. She agreed with the description of stoic, needing only food and a computer; she never bought clothes, make-up or frivolities, regarding them as a waste of money which was better spent on the archive. She gave up riding because she couldn't afford both.
She had never joined a political party, although she had explored all of them. The monarchy she regarded as an absurdity, and the aristocracy a pointless dead weight on society. "Fame has lost all meaning... you can be as famous for writing Don Quixote as for sleeping with a famous bullfighter." She admired Bill Gates, because he had achieved something, but detested George W. Bush, who spoke of bringing liberty and democracy to the world while maintaining the prison camp at Guantanamo.
She quite liked Zapatero but didn't approve of his new anti-tobacco law. A life-long heavy smoker herself, she was irritated by the requirement to make part of Palace cafeteria a non-smoking area. "The non-smoking part is practically empty, whereas people are walking out because they can't get a seat in the smoking area." The country should be concentrating its resources on the war on drugs, she maintained, having seen people destroyed by cocaine and losing all sense of reality, but post-democracy Spain was reluctant to censure people's vices. She would legalise drugs and sell them in pharmacies. She also believed in euthanasia and the right to take one's own life.
In 2006 the 70-year-old Isabel was interviewed in the Palace by Quentin Kean for an article published in English in La Luz magazine. This brought her to the attention of the many English-speaking residents and visitors to the Costa de la Luz and the rest of Cádiz Province, including myself, for the first time as details of the Duchess, the Palace and its accommodation are still inexplicably absent from most of the tourist information available for this area. "We're poor, but we're self-sufficient", she told him.
"We keep going from the proceeds of the cafe and the hotel. I haven't got a scrap of land and none of this is mine. It all belongs to the Foundation, which we've tied up with the tightest statutes in Spain. To tell you the truth, it's a really uncomfortable place to live. I'd like to be in Paris, writing peacefully, but the least I can do is look after it all for future generations."
In December 2007 Isabel was awarded the Medalla de Oro al Mérito en las Bellas Artes, a gold medal in recognition by Spain's Ministry of Culture to people or institutions outstanding in the fields of literature, music, drama and dance. Accompanied by coachloads of Sanluqueños with banners saying "La Duquesita de Sanlúcar" she travelled to Toledo for the ceremony, her last public appearance. She received the award in person from Felipe, Prince of Asturias, son of her old adversary King Juan Carlos. In an interview with Mario Niebla del Toro she said that although she thought awards for cultural achievement were unnecessary, she had accepted it because she supported the attempt of Zapatero's PSOE government to redress past mistakes.
But the cold she had been suffering from when she returned developed into pneumonia. Weakened by many years of chain-smoking and sleepless nights, Isabel weighed just 37 kg, and could not fight off the infection. A CAT scan revealed lung cancer, just days after her former husband had succumbed to the same condition.
Isabel refused to see Pilar or Gabriel when she was dying, and left written instructions prohibiting their entry into the Palace after her death. In spite of this, Gabriel managed to sneak in and take a final photograph of her body just before the funeral. Liliane appeared immediately and ordered him to leave. She did spend some time with Leoncio Alonso though, as their relationship had mellowed somewhat in the final years.
Controversial to the end, Isabel threw down her most defiant challenge in her final hours. On 7 March 2008 she married Liliane in articulo mortis and died a few hours later. Spain had legalised same-sex marriages in 2005, one of the first acts passed by the Socialist government of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The true nature of their relationship was known to their close friends and the family, but the marriage sent shockwaves through Spain's more conservative aristocracy. Opinion is still divided over whether it was a marriage based on love or just a convenient way of ensuring the future of the Foundation.
The former atheist hedged her bets and asked for the last rites, and had a Catholic funeral service at which the priest read out the condolences of friends, family and neighbours, but completely ignored the weeping widow.
Isabel was cremated and her ashes were sprinkled in the Palace Garden. She died just before the 2008 general election, and had already sent in her postal vote.
From a very young age Isabel was determined that her unique family archive should never be broken up and dispersed. The way to do this was to set up the Fundación Casa Medina Sidonia, securing the future of the Palace, the archive and all its art treasures, since they were inextricably linked. She and Liliane approached various bodies including the Junta de Andalucía for financial assistance, but nothing materialised and the Junta had no experience of collaborating with private institutions. They had the idea of opening a guest-house and cafeteria to raise money, but the Palace had no heating, TV or home comforts, and there were a dozen or so families already in residence and the garden was like a rubbish tip.
So Isabel sold her few remaining family assets and invested the money in doing up the Palace. The Fundación Casa Medina Sidonia was finally established in 1991 via a government decree, with Isabel as President, Liliane as Secretary, and a board of trustees to ensure that its original aims are adhered to - to preserve, disseminate and promote the heritage of the House of Medina Sidonia as a non-profit-making cultural resource, so that present and future generations may freely benefit and learn from the legacy of past generations.
Leoncio Alonso, Isabel's eldest son, was one of the original trustees, but stepped down when his mother refused his demand for all communications with the Junta de Andalucía concerning the legal status of the Foundation to be sent to him for prior approval.
The guest-house and the cafeteria generated some income and they collaborated with the Ministry of Culture on fundraising events at the Palace. They also set up a printing press in-house so they could print and sell copies of Isabel's books. In 2006 an agreement was reached with the Junta de Andalucía for funding to continue the work of digitising the documents, which had begun a few years earlier in conjunction with UNED, Spain's Open University.
When Isabel died in 2008 Liliane became Life-President of the Foundation, and on Liliane's death the Foundation will pass to the Ayuntamiento of Sanlúcar. In May 2011 she signed an addendum to the agreement with the Junta de Andalucía, confirming its acknowledgement of the Foundation as a tourist attraction, allowing it to add more than 1,500 items of value to the Inventory of Cultural Property in Andalucía, and providing over €170,000 of public funds for restoration and conservation work.
Isabel's children have challenged the legal status of the Foundation and Liliane's rights as President. In 2010 Leoncio Alonso, now 22nd Duke of Medina Sidonia, wrote an article in El Pais challenging that newspaper's representation of the heritage of the House of Medina Sidonia as having belonged to his mother, on the basis that it had accumulated over centuries and belonged with the title rather than to an individual. Neither was it right for the State to intervene, beyond ensuring that the public should have access to it. The statutes of the Foundation, he believed, should be reformulated because they did not satisfy the needs either of the rightful heirs or of the State.
The Palace is open to the public with guided tours daily from July till mid-September (or by previous appointment at other times), and in the adjacent Hospedería Palacio Ducal there are nine lavishly appointed guest rooms, dating from the 15th century, set round the beautiful courtyard garden. The restaurant/tea-room is located under the 11th century Arab arches on the other side of the garden. These activities provide revenue to enable the Foundation to keep going.
Foundation website and details of the guest house