IMAGINE having someone poking around your home with a notebook and camera, interviewing your relatives and Hoovering up snippets of gossip.
In the foreword to the new book about Alnwick Castle, which the Duchess of Northumberland launched recently, she thanks author James McDonald, “who has written and taken most of the excellent photographs for this record of Alnwick Castle (occasionally driving us mad in the process!)”
This huge book, with its cover photo of the castle, may appear at first glance like bland coffee table fare. But, as the Duchess’s no doubt affectionate exasperation suggests, it is much more fun than that, infusing history with human interest.
There is, of course, a lot of history to get through. The Percy family trace their English origins back to William de Percy who came here in 1066 or 1067 from Perci in Normandy. Conveniently, William was friendly with another William, the Conquerer.
Having conquered, the Normans settled. But it wasn’t until 1309 that the Percys got their hands on the castle.
It and the Alnwick barony were sold to wealthy warrior Henry de Percy (that “de” is long gone) from Antony Bek, Bishop of Durham, for the “vast” sum of 10,000 marks.
Thus Henry de Percy became 1st Baron Percy of Alnwick.
Flashing forward we meet the 4th Baron, also Henry, who became 1st Earl of Northumberland and was the father of Scot-bothering warrior Harry Hotspur, who would star in Shakespeare’s plays.
Father and son, owed money by Henry IV, took up arms against the reigning monarch with fatal results. As the author states: “In the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, the gallant Hotspur was killed when he raised his visor to get some fresh air and was hit in the face by an arrow.”
It was in 1766 that the 1st Duke of Northumberland came along, the dukedom conferred by George III who, the author points out, was known as ‘Mad George’.
The current beneficiaries of the ‘mad’ monarch’s grand gesture are Lord Ralph and Lady Jane Percy, 12th Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, who were married in 1979 and have four grown-up children.
Ralph inherited the dukedom and all it entailed when his brother Harry, the 11th Duke, died in 1995 at the age of 42.
They head, says McDonald, “one of the United Kingdom’s wealthiest and most aristocratic dynasties”. They are also “a most private couple” so it was a while before they agreed to let him do the book.
Insights were provided by Dowager Duchess Elizabeth, mother of the current Duke, who was 89 when she spilled the beans to McDonald.
A Scot, she married the 10th Duke at Westminster Abbey in 1946 when she was 24. She didn’t like the look of Alnwick Castle. “It didn’t look very cosy,” she said. “I was a bit, I suppose, horrified at the idea of living in this vast place.”
Creature comforts, it seems, were not the priority of the 10th Duke after the war. Duchess Elizabeth remembered “great arguments” over the threadbare carpet in the library. Only when she took “a crashing fall” did her husband allow her to buy a new one.
The author interviewed Ian August who served the 10th Duke as clerk of works from 1955. He recalled the Duke wanting a washbasin installed in his bedroom. Asked if he wanted the peeling wallpaper replaced at the same time, the Duke asked how old it was.
Told that it was put on earlier in the century, the Duke had replied: “Is that all?”
Although he was forced by economic necessity to open the castle to the public in 1950, he told his agent, Bill Hugonin, that he wouldn’t spend a penny on trying to get them to come.
“Never fall down and worship at the god of economics,” he used to say; and if the estate ever went into the red: “Well, I will have to sell something.”
What, you wonder, would he have made of the great tourist attraction that is The Alnwick Garden?
Its creator, the 12th Duchess, is described as being “energetic, modern and informal in style”, disliking anything “twin set, pearls and duchessy” and refusing to be photographed in a tiara. There is “something of a CEO (chief executive officer) about her,” the author suggests.
In 2009 she was made Lord Lieutenant of Northumberland. A good thing, according to Duchess Elizabeth. “It saves Ralph who is much shier, you know.”
The author writes of the current Duchess’s “perverse interest in death and ghoulish things like poison”, citing her Poison Garden and the novels inspired by it.
“On her death,” he reveals, “she wants some of her ashes to be put into hourglass egg timers, so that her children can remember her each breakfast time.
“Planning ahead, she asked a grand London jeweller for a quotation for making these, which caused some confusion when it was mistakenly sent to her mother-in-law, Duchess Elizabeth.”
Alnwick Castle, gloriously restored and even infused with a little cosiness, is seemingly in good hands.
Though still feeling the loss of her eldest son, Harry, Duchess Elizabeth acknowledged: “When Ralph took over in 1995, everything then grew and developed. Everything has gone terribly well ever since.”
Alnwick Castle by James McDonald (Frances Lincoln, £30)