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Royal tribute for Dowager Duchess

The Prince of Wales has paid tribute to the last of the famous Mitford sisters, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who has died at the age of 94.

Charles said he "adored and admired greatly" Deborah Vivien Cavendish, who moved in the same circles as Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy, Adolf Hitler and Evelyn Waugh and epitomised a privileged and glamorous aristocratic life that no longer exists.

Her son, the Duke of Devonshire, confirmed his mother "passed away peacefully this morning".

Tonight, the Prince said: "My wife and I were deeply saddened to learn of the death of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, whom both of us adored and admired greatly.

"She was a unique personality with a wonderfully original approach to life, and a memorable turn of phrase to match that originality.

"The joy, pleasure and amusement she gave to so many, particularly through her books, as well as the contribution she made to Derbyshire throughout her time at Chatsworth, will not easily be forgotten and we shall miss her so very much."

A spokeswoman for Chatsworth House, the family seat of the Devonshires, said an announcement about the Dowager's funeral arrangements would be made shortly.

Known as Debo to family and friends, the Dowager probably led the most normal life out of the famous sisters - Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity and Jessica - who were the It girls of their day.

She married Andrew Cavendish, who succeeded his father as 11th Duke of Devonshire in 1950, and devoted her life to running the Chatsworth estate with her husband.

The Dowager confessed to having a love for the music of Elvis, enjoyed keeping chickens and was keenly interested in art.

She was made a Dame Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (DCVO) in 1999 for her service to the Royal Collection Trust.

At the other end of the spectrum was her sister Diana, known as Honks, who left her first husband and married the founder of the British Union of Fascists Oswald Mosley, in a civil ceremony in Joseph Goebbels' drawing room in Berlin in 1936. Hitler was the only other guest.

Further glimpses into the lives of the controversial and entertaining Mitfords were given when a small part of their letters was published in 2008 after being edited by Charlotte Mosley, daughter-in-law to Mitford sister Diana.

Ms Mosley said at the time her book was published: "They took it for granted that they had a certain position in society. Even if they were shy, and certainly Deborah and Unity were shy as children, when they grew up they could walk into any room and feel comfortable.''

But the six daughters of the 2nd Baron Redesdale did not grow up in luxury.

She added: "Their father was hopeless with money and invested what they'd inherited in all sorts of madcap schemes. He sold four of his houses and the family moved to smaller and smaller ones.''

The sisters lived in relative isolation, received no formal education and their mother used to breed chickens to make money.

Ms Mosley added: ''Not having an education wasn't unusual for girls of that crowd of that time. But their parents were also incredibly anti-social, or at least the father was. So when they were growing up they hardly mixed with anybody.

''When Nancy brought some friends home, their father said at the lunch table very loudly to his wife: 'Have these people no homes of their own?'."

Over 16 years, the girls were each introduced to society as debutantes but they did not settle down to conventional lives but became instantly notorious for their beauty, wit and political fervour.

In later life she revealed a talent for writing and published her memoirs and other works to acclaim, following in the footsteps of her sister Nancy who was famed for her novel about upper-class life, Love In A Cold Climate.

Over the years she had tea with Hitler, called the Kennedys family friends and developed a strong bond with painter Lucian Freud, leaving eggs from her chickens on his doorstep whenever she was in London.

Chatsworth House contains one of the most important art collections in the country and the Dowager was one of the first trustees of the Royal Collection Trust when it was formed in 1993.

The Trust funds the conservation work needed to maintain the Royal Collection - a huge amount of artwork amassed by monarchs over the centuries - and she served for two terms before retiring in 1998.

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