How Emma Manners became the accidental Duchess of Belvoir Castle
By Fiona Sanderson
In her new book The Accidental Duchess, Emma Manners – the Duchess of Rutland – reveals intimate details of her life, including what it was really like becoming a Duchess, infidelity, mental breakdown, and the challenges of managing one of the largest castles in the United Kingdom. I had an opportunity to explore these moments in my recent conversation with her.
Describe what it was like becoming a Duchess and taking on Belvoir Castle?
Well, it happened gradually but the biggest shock was getting married, and then overnight becoming a Lady, suddenly leaving the safety of my Welsh valley and coming into the flatter plains of Lincolnshire, where everything is incredibly open. I missed the flamboyance of the Welsh marshes where I grew up. In those days I was training to be an opera singer and one of my early memories was singing in a local bar called Efe’s in Hay-on-Wye. I remember this extraordinary beautiful lady coming over to me as I was sitting on my stool in my long, white Laura Ashley dress with my guitar, singing, and she said, “Daaarlink, let me tell you; in life, you will and can be anyone you choose to be.” I often reflect back to those words. I don’t know if she saw something in me, but I thought well, yes you probably can. So, that’s really what it felt like in those days. I didn’t really know what I was doing but I thought, I’ve just got to get on with it, which is what I did. When I first married into this new life, I put up loads of guards because I really didn’t know how it worked or how to behave, and I needed to feel protection. I really withdrew right back into myself. I guess, looking back, I really struggled to know who I could trust. It seemed as if I was going through a minefield in many ways and wherever I looked, there was another pitfall. I had naturally been so gregarious and just bulldozed through my life, and so I think it has really been a journey of learning.
How have you coped with the most difficult periods of your life, particularly mental breakdown after your husband’s infidelity and your five miscarriages?
I think when you go to the bottom, and you have to put the jigsaw back together after a mental breakdown, you know that you have ignited a part of the brain that should be dormant, and so you’re always quietening that fight and flight trauma in the back of your head, trying to keep it calm. These days, I do self-reiki, meditation, and lots of exercise. I run every morning and ride a horse, and I’m very lucky that I have all these things at my disposal. My children help me to get through every day and I cherish that. Tomorrow’s always another day but today, I’m trying to live life to the full.
You chose to stay at the Castle living close to your husband after the breakup of your marriage. How difficult was that and what kept you there?
Well, this is the family home and I think I became, as well as the CEO, a bit like a guard dog, and a protector. If you saw David and I together, you would think we were a sometimes grumpy, sometimes happy married couple. I mean, one would never actually know we were not together. It feels like a sense of duty within me. The reality is we share children together, and I’m invested in making [the Castle] better and handing it on, in a better state then it was handed to us.
You have interviewed a number of Duchesses for your podcast. Are there any similarities between them?
When I interviewed other women who run stately homes for my ‘‘Duchess’’ podcast, I was blown away how many of the women stand behind their men. I have already had flack for this statement, but I think it’s so empowering being behind the man – it’s just how I’ve been brought up. I know that’s a controversial statement, but it’s who I am. I feel sometimes that men have lost their identity because women have become so powerful, and they don’t know who and what they are. For me, my job is to fulfil the duty of being custodian of this heritage until such time as I’m not needed. In every conversation with the women I interview for my podcast, I am completely uplifted by their passion, their genuine love of their stately homes and the jobs they do. I feel uplifted by their devotion, to being a custodian of their heritage – they bring their own magic stardust to what they do. The houses have the energy of the women who are running them.
How do you manage such a large Castle?
We have over 200 rooms, over two acres of roof, two and a half thousand light bulbs and six towers. I think that’s most probably where my farming background helps me. Everyone has to multitask; drive the lawn mower, do some gardening, help with the rubbish – you have to be able to do everything. Everyone has access to my office if there’s ever a problem. We are like an extended family, a united team. I’m leading from the front and if we were going into battle, I would have my sword at my side with my soldiers, right behind me. So yes, we’re a very happy, very united team.
What is your favourite room in the Castle?
It’s most definitely the Elizabeth Saloon because Elizabeth, the 5th Duchess of Rutland, is with me all the time. Whenever I am down, I reflect on this really amazing woman who came here at the age of 19, knocked down the previous castle and started rebuilding it. She had 11 children, of which seven survived. She spent her entire life building this place but sadly died before it was finished. Her husband was heartbroken and closed the room. He had a marble effigy of Elizabeth made and then had it brought over from Italy. So, when I’m in this particular room, I feel as if she is there with me, and she has been with me all throughout my journey – not directly, but through spiritual guides and messages. She has said things like “that portrait is in the wrong place.” She’s never spoken to me directly, but I feel she is always there.
Whom would you put around your dinner table, if you could invite anyone in the world?
Definitely the Duchess Elizabeth; she would most definitely be the one that holds me to this Castle. I think I’d have to invite her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, who was such an inspiration to us all. Another person that has inspired me enormously was the Duchess of Devonshire and of course, my late father would also have to be there. Of those living, I would have to have my darling Phil and of course, my mother.
Finally, if you could choose one luxury as your favourite, what would it be?
A horse. Okay, hopefully with the bridle and even better with the saddle. That would be perfect.
The Accidental Duchess by Emma Manners, The Duchess of Rutland, is published by Pan Macmillan. For further information about Belvoir Castle, visit www.belvoircastle.com.