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The Duke and Duchess of Norfolk are pure A-list, appearing in Tatler’s Top Ten Most Invited. But the hottest events of the summer are held at their own home at Arundel Castle as part of the town’s celebrated festival, as the Duchess of Norfolk reveals to Ian Trevett
Nestling directly above Ben and Kate Goldsmith, Keira Knightly and Elle Macpherson, at eighth place in Tatler’s Hot 100 are the parents of five children, who have established themselves as one of the friendliest and most popular couples an the A-List Circuit. The Duke and Duchess of Norfolk may not be as instantly recognisable as many of the big-name celebrities on the 2006 list, but according to Tatler, they are one of the couples that are on every guest list. "Cosy up to the country’s top catholic twosome," proclaims the society bible. "They’re a breath of modernity in the 1,000-year-old castle, Arundel."
They may be one of the ‘most invited’ but its difficult to imagine how the Duke and Duchess have time to accept many invitations. As well as looking after the magnificent castle, attending to the myriad of charity commitments, and organising the headline events for the recent Arundel Festival, there is a small matter of raising five children, whose ages range from 19-year-old Henry, down to ten-year-old Philip. However, the Duchess was still able to make time to invite me into the family wing of the castle to chat about the festival, the incredible and often deadly-dangerous family history and their life in the castle.
It is easy to see why the Duke and Duchess are such popular company. Despite the splendour of the surroundings, the welcome is warm and relaxed. Dressed casually in jeans and an elegantly frilled shirt and cardigan, the Duchess immediately dispenses with rules of etiquette and asks to be called Georgina, rather than the formal ‘Your Grace’. So laid back is Georgina, that the first time we met at a festival launch, I chatted easily with her, totally unaware of her title. The Duke (or Eddie) is just as approachable.
The interior of the east wing – which is the family’s private residence – somehow manages to look like a comfortable home, in spite of the fact it is encased in one of the county’s most imposing and historic architecture. It is an easy mix of the traditional (dramatic ancestral portraits, spectacular fireplaces) and the trappings of modern furnishings and appliances. Magazines scatter across the coffee table, the titles illustrating their diverse mix of interests, including organic farming, helicopters and high-adrenaline motor sports. And further dispelling any possibilities of stuffiness, there is no attempt to hide the carefree contributions from the children, including a few discarded chocolate wrappers. The kids come before order and rigidity, and quite right too.
A couple of photos also grab the attention, with Georgina adorned in harnesses and a safety helmet, leaning backwards over the castle turret, embarking on the first steps of a vertigo-inducing abseil. In one, she is smiling bravely for the camera, but her expression in the other more accurately betrays her obvious fear. "Don’t print that one," she says with a laugh. "I look so terrified. I saw the camera and managed to smile, but then they captured me looking scared. The worst bit is having to step backwards over the edge."
If it was so scary, why do it? "I was talking to someone from the Royal Marines and said I always wanted to do it," replies Georgina, "So he said he’d organise it and it grew from there. We got the Rotary Club involved and my friend, Janet, (Lady March) took part as well, and we raised a fair bit of money. It was frightening, but then again we had a 12-year-old doing it, so I had to do it. If they could do it, then I couldn’t back out. Afterwards it felt fantastic".
There seems to be a certain penchant for adrenaline sports among the titled classes. The Duke has a passion for motor racing, the Earl of March has hurtled down the break-neck icy Cresta Run and the royals risk life and limb playing polo and taking on challenging ski-runs at Cloisters. Is there, I wondered, something in the genes that spur you on the take such risks?
Georgina seems slightly surprised by the question. "I don’t know if it is anything to do with the lifestyle or background. I think everyone likes to take on a challenge. We had a waiting list for the abseiling and there are plenty of people who like jumping out of aeroplanes. Perhaps it is just a bit less publicised."
Even so, the love of the fast life continues into the next generation. Their eldest, 19-yearold Henry, plans to devote himself to motor racing, and he is regarded as an extraordinary talent. As a mother, do you worry? I enquired. "No,| I think now the sport is very safe. I want him to live his dream, though I admit it can be very nerve-wracking."
"“I wanted seven children, but after five I thought, that’s that – I’d probably have died if I had anymore!”"
Though Georgina plays down any particular tendency to flirt with risk, it would be no surprise when you consider the turbulent past of the Howard and Fitzalam families, their aristocratic ancestors. As Tatler accurately described, the Duke and Duchess are the leading catholic couple, a position which has certain privileges – for instance, Edward’s father, the 17th Duke of Norfolk, was assigned the prestigious duty of representing the monarchy the last time the pope visited the UK. However, in more dangerous times, looking to Rome for spiritual leadership could lose you your head – literally.
Georgina is fascinated by the family history and is happy to recount some of the trails and tribulations of the family, including the story of the Third Duke who was sentenced to death. However he escaped with his life because, on the day his execution was due to take place, King Henry VIII conveniently died. Georgina, herself, was not a catholic from birth. "I am a catholic convert. I became a catholic when we were married. I didn’t choose to convert because of tradition, it just felt right. In fact, Edward didn’t pressure me to convert, as he didn’t want it to appear that I had been made to change my religion. It was very much my decision. I wanted my children to be raised with one religion. I became a very strong convert, but then I mellowed a bit. I think that’s what happens to most converts."
Georgina and Edward met at the party of a mutual friend in London in 1980. Georgina was working as a painter for the decorators Colefax and Fowler in their studios. "I was working on murals and furniture. I learnt a lot about colours and missing colours. They specialise in a very traditional style."
This experience helped at the castle. "We moved into the castle in 1992," recalls Georgina, "and there was a lot of work to be done. It hadn’t been lived in for 30 years, but it had been open to the public. It wasn’t a living space. We had to put in a kitchen and storage space and make it habitable. It wasn’t a comfortable place to live."
"They key is, you have to be bold. You want to keep the character and make sure the castle is attractive to visitors, bit it has to feel homely as well. The castle is a fantasy, and it is huge – it has an aura that can be breathtaking. The best view is coming into Arundel from London on the train.
"I hope it is a great place for children to grow up in – it’s certainly different. I hope when my children look back on their childhood here, they will see it as a good place."
Inevitably, conversation often drifts back to the children, which is hardly surprising with Georgina having five children in less then ten years. Five may seem like quite a brood, but she had a plan for more!
"Five is an enormous amount," Georgina agrees. "The youngest is nine and the oldest is 18. It is hard work and you are always busy, but I loved it. I just love children. I adore babies and young children. I wanted seven. I wanted more and more children but after five I thought, that’s that – I’d probably have died if I had anymore"
Despite the work involved in raising a brood of children, the couple have dedicated enormous energies to the Arundel Festival, with a mix of classical and popular music events.
The Duke and Duchess may well be one of the first people on the invitation lists of London’s society hostesses, but if any event takes place at the end of August or the start of September, then they might as well save their postage. Wild horses wouldn’t drag them away from Arundel during the festival.