Mitford family

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The Mitford family

The Mitford family is a gentry (minor aristocratic) English family whose main family line had seats at Mitford, Northumberland. Several heads of the family served as High Sheriff of Northumberland. A junior line, with seats at Newton Park, Northumberland, and Exbury House, Hampshire, descends via the historian William Mitford (1744–1827) and were twice elevated to the British peerage, in 1802 and 1902, under the title Baron Redesdale.[1] The Mitford sisters were William Mitford's great-great-great-granddaughters.

The sisters, six daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, and Sydney Bowles, became celebrated, and at times scandalous, figures that were caricatured, according to The Times journalist Ben Macintyre, as "Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur".[2]


The family traces its origins in Northumberland back to the time of the Norman conquest. In the Middle Ages they had been Border Reivers based in Redesdale. The main family line had seats at Mitford Castle and Mitford Old Manor House prior to Mitford Hall in 1828.

The Mitford siblings[edit]

Mitford sisters[edit]

Nearly full length group portrait of five well-dressed women standing in a field. Their ages range from roughly 20 to 30; their hair is cut short of the shoulders in elegant 1930s or 1940s styles; four of the five wear skirts down just below the knee, and one a longer coat. Two wear pearls.
Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity, and Pamela Mitford in 1935. Among the six, the youngest sister Deborah is missing.

The sisters achieved notoriety for their controversial but stylish lives as young people, then for their public political divisions between communism and fascism. Nancy and Jessica became well-known writers: Nancy wrote The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, and Jessica The American Way of Death (1963). Deborah managed one of the most successful stately homes in England, Chatsworth. Jessica and Deborah married nephews of prime ministers Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan, respectively. Deborah and Diana both married wealthy aristocrats. Unity and Diana were well-known during the 1930s for being close to Adolf Hitler. Jessica turned her back on her inherited privileges and ran away to become a communist.[3] Jessica's memoir, Hons and Rebels, describes their upbringing, and Nancy obviously drew upon her family members for characters in her novels. In the early 1980s, Deborah became politically active when she and her husband Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire joined the new Social Democratic Party.

The sisters and their brother Thomas were the children of David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, known to his children as "Farve" and by various other nicknames. Their mother was Sydney Freeman-Mitford, Baroness Redesdale, known as "Muv", the daughter of Thomas Bowles. David and Sydney married in 1904. The family homes changed from Batsford House to Asthall Manor beside the River Windrush in Oxfordshire, and then Swinbrook Cottage nearby, with a house at Rutland Gate in London.[4] They also lived in a cottage in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire which they used as a summer residence.[5] The siblings grew up in an aristocratic country house with emotionally distant parents and a large household with numerous servants; this family dynamic was not unusual for upper-class families of the time. There was also a disregard for formal education of women of the family, and they were expected to marry at a young age to a financially well-off husband. The children had a private language called "Boudledidge" (pronounced "bowdledidge"), and each had a different nickname for the others.

Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, their political views came into sharper relief. "Farve" remained a conservative, but "Muv" usually supported her fascist daughters, and the couple separated in the late 1940s. Nancy, a moderate socialist, worked in London during the Blitz. Pamela remained seemingly non-political, although she was reportedly an anti-Semite.[6] Tom, a fascist, refused to fight Germany but volunteered to fight against Imperial Japan; he was killed in action a short time after arriving in Asia. Diana, married to Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, was imprisoned in London for three years under Defence Regulation 18B. Unity, distraught over the war declaration against Germany, tried to commit suicide by shooting herself in the head. She suffered brain damage which eventually led to her early death. Jessica, a communist supporter, had moved to the US, but her husband Esmond Romilly volunteered for the RCAF and died when his bomber developed mechanical problems over the North Sea.[7] In numerous letters Jessica stated that her daughter received a pension from the Canadian government from Esmond's death until she turned 18.[7] The political rift between Jessica and Diana left them estranged until their deaths. The other sisters kept in frequent contact. The sisters were prolific letter-writers, and a substantial body of correspondence still exists, principally letters between them.[2]

Thumbnail biographies[edit]

  1. Nancy Mitford (28 November 1904 – 30 June 1973). Married Peter Rodd and had a longstanding relationship with French politician and statesman Gaston Palewski. She lived in France much of her adult life. A writer of many novels, including her most popular (and somewhat autobiographical), The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Also a noted biographer of historical figures, including the Sun King.
  2. Pamela Mitford (25 November 1907 – 12 April 1994), known as "Woman". Married and divorced the millionaire physicist Derek Jackson. John Betjeman, who for a time was in love with her, referred to her as the "Rural Mitford". After her divorce, she spent the remainder of her life as the companion of Giuditta Tommasi (died 1993), an Italian horsewoman.[8]
  3. Thomas Mitford (2 January 1909 – 30 March 1945), known as "Tom". Educated at Eton, where he was a close friend of James Lees-Milne.[9] Regular lover of Tilly Losch during her marriage to Edward James. Died as a soldier in Burma. According to Jessica's letters, he supported British fascism and was stationed in Burma after refusing to fight in Europe.[7]
  4. Diana Mitford (17 June 1910 – 11 August 2003). Married aristocrat and writer Bryan Walter Guinness in the 1929 society wedding of the year. She left him in the society scandal of the year (1933) for British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. She was interned in Holloway Prison during the Second World War. Her belief in fascism never wavered nor her affection for Adolf Hitler. Mother of Max Mosley.
  5. Unity Valkyrie Mitford (8 August 1914 – 28 May 1948), known as "Bobo" or "Boud" to her siblings. Famous for her adulation of and friendship with Adolf Hitler. Shot herself in the head days after Britain declared war on Germany,[7] but failed to kill herself and eventually died of pneumococcal meningitis at West Highland Cottage Hospital, Oban, after being transferred from Inch Kenneth.
  6. Jessica Mitford (11 September 1917 – 22 July 1996), known as "Decca". Eloped with Esmond Romilly to the Spanish Civil War. Spent most of her adult life in the United States. Two years after Esmond was killed during the Second World War she married Robert Treuhaft, whom she met as a fellow US government employee. Member of the American Communist Party until 1958. She wrote several volumes of memoirs and several volumes of polemical investigation, including the best-selling The American Way of Death (1963) about the funeral industry. Grandmother of James Forman Jr. and Chaka Forman, sons of the African-American civil rights leader James Forman by her daughter Constancia Romilly.
  7. Deborah Mitford (31 March 1920 – 24 September 2014). Married Andrew Cavendish who became the Duke of Devonshire, and with him turned his ancestral home, Chatsworth House, into one of Britain's most successful stately homes. She wrote a dozen books.

The Mitfords in popular culture[edit]

Nancy Mitford's 1949 novel, Love in a Cold Climate, which was based on the family, was serialised by Thames Television in 1980 and by the BBC in 2001.

The daughters were the subject of a 1981 musical, The Mitford Girls, by Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin, and of a song, "The Mitford Sisters", by Luke Haines.

A fictional family based on the Mitford sisters features prominently in Jo Walton's 2007 novel Ha'penny; Viola Lark, one of the point-of-view characters, is one of the sisters, another is married to Himmler, and a third is a Communist spy.

The fictional "Combe sisters" in the BBC 2 series Bellamy's People, first broadcast in 2010, bear a striking resemblance to the Mitford sisters. Bellamy meets two of the surviving Combe sisters, said to have been notorious in the 1930s and '40s for their extreme political views, now living together in a strained relationship in the dramatically different political realities of 2010. One an avid fascist and the other a committed Communist, the sisters have hit upon the solution of dividing their stately home down the middle, each converting her side into an homage to her ideology.

Sharon Horgan, Samantha Spiro, and Sophie Ellis-Bextor played a version of the Mitford Sisters in a song-based sketch for Season 2 of the Sky Arts comedy series Psychobitches, in the winter of 2014.

In his French language trilogy of novels - Le Vent du soir (1985), Tous les hommes en sont fous (1985), and Le Bonheur à San Miniato (1987) - Jean d'Ormesson recounts a much-imagined version of the exploits of four of the Mitford sisters, through the characters Pandora, Vanessa, Atalanta, and Jessica.

A portion of Jessica Mitford's writing is used as a spoken-word introduction to the song "Last Act of Defiance", about the New Mexico State Penitentiary riot, on thrash metal band Exodus's 1989 album Fabulous Disaster.


Mitford sisters by William Acton


  1. ^ Burke's Peerage, 107th edn. (London 2003).
  2. ^ a b "Those utterly maddening Mitford girls", Ben Macintyre, The Times, London, 12 October 2007. Retrieved 28 July 2009.[dead link]
  3. ^ Boadilla by Esmond Romilly, The Clapton Press Limited, London, 2018 ISBN 978-1999654306
  4. ^ 26 Rutland Gate, Knightsbridge, SW7 > Notable Abodes |
  5. ^ Mitford Girls at 'This Is Local London' 2001. Retrieved 14 December 2013
  6. ^ Reynolds, Paul (14 November 2003). "Nancy Mitford spied on sisters". BBC News. Retrieved 25 November 2010.
  7. ^ a b c d Mitford, Jessica (2006). Sussman, Peter Y., ed. Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  8. ^ Charlotte Mosley, editor, The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, London: Fourth Estate, 2007, p. 264. According to her sister Jessica, Pamela Mitford had become "a you-know-what-bian" [lesbian], although that was not taken literally.
  9. ^ The National Trust bed-hopper who persuaded aristocrats he slept with—women AND men—to leave their homes to the nation, Matthew Wilson, Daily Mail, 11 September 2009


Further reading[edit]

  • Burke, John (1835). A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland, Enjoying Territorial Possessions Or High Official Rank. Great Britain: Nabu Press. ISBN 978-1-171-81928-8.
  • Guinness, Jonathan (1984). The House of Mitford. London: Hutchinson. ISBN 978-0-753-81803-9.
  • Lovell, Mary S. (2001). The Mitford Girls: The Sage of the Mitford Family. London: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 978-0-393-01043-5.
  • Mosley, Charlotte (2007). The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters. London: Fourth Estate. ISBN 978-0-061-37540-8.
  • Thompson, Laura (2016). The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-1-250-09953-2.

External links[edit]