Emma Watkins was born in 1963 on a farm called Heartsease on the Welsh borders, and had an extremely happy childhood. Her father John was a successful farmer and he gradually acquired enough land to leave farms to both her brothers but there was no land for her. Her job was to marry a local farmer, and her father’s first question about any boy she went out with was: “So, Em, how many acres does he have?”
She was a total country girl, pony mad, who joined the beaters on shoots and learnt to pluck pheasants. But she was “slow” at school, an undiagnosed dyslexic who could barely read and found numbers incomprehensible. Her salvation was her wonderful singing voice, which won her a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music in London. But after a year she realised she was not cut out to be an opera singer, and anyway, “What I wanted was a farmhouse with an Aga and a brood of children running around.”
So, rather cunningly, she went on a land management course at Southampton College, where she was one of only two girls, surrounded by young men who wanted to live on the land. “In other words, this was the perfect place to find a potential husband.”
Unfortunately the first one she took home brought a CD player, which her father decided was a machine for playing blue movies, so he told him that “he wasn’t going to stand by and watch his only daughter being ‘polluted’ by this muck” and that was the end of him. Then there was one called Peter who took her to Cheltenham Races, but she overheard one of his former girlfriends asking if he was serious about her and him replying “Oh no – but she’s a lot of fun.” So she walked out of the enclosure and hitchhiked back to Hereford.
She finally met her young farmer at a dinner party in London. He was not particularly handsome and he had a gammy leg and a withered arm, but he was keen. He asked her for lunch at his home, the Old Saddlery, in Leicestershire, and she noticed an enormous castle up the road and asked who lived there. He said: “My parents.”
He had previously given her his business card which said David Manners, Marquess of Granby, which should have been a clue but she assumed the Marquess of Granby was a pub. Anyway, she was soon invited to a shooting weekend at Belvoir Castle and met David’s parents and when her father asked his usual question “How many acres?” she was able to tell him “Around 17,000.”
David proposed, and they married at Belvoir, with 500 guests, and the Rutland tiara arrived under armed guard. Then she and David settled down to live in the Old Saddlery. She had looked forward to running her own home but Mrs Pacey the housekeeper was still in charge and told her off if she put the mustard on the wrong shelf.
With nothing to do, she developed insomnia and depression. She only cheered up when they moved to a different house on the estate, Knipton Lodge, which she was free to decorate with furnishings from the castle – it had whole rooms full of spare wardrobes and carpets and lamps. And she gave birth to her first child, Violet, who was given the Rutland pram, with its coat of arms.
She installed Mrs Pacey as nanny and threw herself into starting a business selling conservatory furniture, with a showroom in the grounds of Belvoir. She got lists of conservatory planning applications from every council within 100 miles and set about cold calling potential clients. One of the customers who turned up, complete with outriders, was the then Prime Minister John Major.
These were happy days, living at Knipton Lodge, building up the business, and producing babies – though one dowager said she must be disappointed that she only had girls. She was pregnant again when, on Boxing Day 1998, the old Duke suffered a massive stroke. She visited him on his deathbed and told him that she was expecting a boy, and the Duke squeezed her hand. He died a few days later so now she was a duchess, and soon produced an heir, Charles. David was eager to move into the castle but she was sad to leave Knipton Lodge and sadder still when, soon after the birth, she found out he was having an affair.
And then the men in suits arrived to tell them that they had to pay £12 million in inheritance tax, and that Haddon Hall, the other Rutland property that largely subsidised Belvoir, had been left to the Duke’s brother Eddie. So they had massive debts and very little income. They sold a Van Dyck to pay the inheritance tax and a Poussin to clear debts, but the castle still cost £1 million a year to run. Emma decided to open it to visitors, to hold weddings and conferences there, and game fairs and concerts in the park. She also set about pruning the 130-strong workforce, making do with one butler instead of four.
In 2009, she invited 320 guests for a sit-down dinner to celebrate David’s 50th birthday. It was all going swimmingly until she asked her husband to dance. He said “I’m busy” and walked away. Later she saw him dancing and laughing with another woman, “And then I knew.”
After this second affair, she consulted a divorce lawyer who said she could easily get a £30 million settlement, but she decided she wanted to stay at Belvoir, so instead she arranged a legal separation and moved David into separate quarters in Shepherd’s Tower (the part of the castle where she still keeps her extensive wardrobe).
Meanwhile, an ex-farmer called Phil Burtt offered to run the shoot at no charge, and took over the home farm. He proved to be brilliant at both and she made him estate manager. And eventually she realised she had fallen in love. It took Fleet Street’s finest a while to sniff out the story – the Duchess and the gamekeeper – but she decided to pre-empt them by writing her own account for the Daily Mail, under the headline “The Duchess’s remarkable response to her husband’s infidelity.”
The Duchess does indeed seem a remarkable woman – courageous, a bit batty (she communes with the spirit of the 5th Duchess) and fearlessly unconventional. So this is an engaging book and conceivably useful if you find yourself married to a duke with a 200-room castle to run. I imagine it will sell for years in the Belvoir gift shop.
The Accidental Duchess is published by Macmillan at £22. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books