The Mitford family is an aristocratic English family that traces its origins in Northumberland back to the time of the Norman Conquest. The main family line had seats at Mitford Castle, Mitford Old Manor House and from 1828, the newly built Mitford Hall. Several heads of the family served as High Sheriff of Northumberland. There is a subsidiary line, with seats at Newton Park, Northumberland and Exbury House, Hampshire, via the historian William Mitford, that was elevated to the British peerage under the title Baron Redesdale.reference required
In the 20th century the family achieved contemporary notoriety for their controversial and stylish lives as young people, and later for their very public political divisions between communism and fascism. The six daughters of the family were known collectively as the Mitford sisters. Nancy and Jessica became well-known writers and Deborah managed one of the most successful stately homes in England. Jessica and Deborah both married nephews-by-marriage of prime ministers, Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan respectively. Deborah and Diana married wealthy aristocrats. Unity and Diana were well known during the 1930s for being close to Adolf Hitler. In the early 1980s, Deborah also became politically active when she and her husband, the Duke of Devonshire, became leading lights in the newly formed political party, the Social Democratic Party (UK).
The sisters were the children of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, known to his children as "Farve" and various other nicknames. Their mother was Sydney Freeman-Mitford, Baroness Redesdale, known as "Muv", the daughter of Thomas Bowles, whom David 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.
The Mitford sisters (and their one brother) grew up in an aristocratic country house, not unusual for its time, with emotionally distant parents, a large household with numerous servants, and a disregard for formal education, at least where the girls of the family were concerned; they were expected to marry young and well. The parents were described as "nature's fascists"; at least two of their daughters followed in their footsteps, while one turned her back on her inherited privileges and ran away to become a Communist, a result of the excitements of European politics in the 1930s. Following on from the biographical sketches of many of the family characters in Nancy's books, Jessica's memoir Hons and Rebels describes their upbringing. The children had a private language called "Boudledidge" (pronounced 'boodledidge'), and each had a different nickname for the others.
On 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 they separated in the late 1940s. Nancy, a moderate socialist, worked in London during The Blitz. Pamela remained non-political. Tom, a fascist, refused to fight Germany but volunteered to fight against Imperial Japan. He was killed in combat a short time after arriving in Asia. Diana (married to Oswald Mosley), a fascist, was interned in London for three years. Unity, distraught over the war declaration against Hitler, tried to commit suicide and suffered brain damage eventually leading to her early death. Jessica, a communist supporter, had moved to the U.S., but her husband Esmond volunteered for the RAF and was killed during an air raid. The political rivalry between Jessica and Diana lasted until their deaths, with the other sisters in frequent contact.
The sisters are noted as prolific letter-writers. A substantial body of correspondence still exists, principally letters between the sisters.
- The Hon. Nancy Mitford (November 28, 1904 – June 30, 1973). Married Peter Rodd and had a longstanding relationship with French politician and statesman Gaston Palewski. Lived in France much of her adult life. 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.
- The Hon. Pamela Mitford (November 25, 1907 – April 12, 1994). Married and divorced the millionaire scientist Derek Jackson. John Betjeman, who for a time was in love with her, referred to her as the "Rural Mitford". After her divorce from Jackson, she spent the remainder of her life as the companion of Giuditta Tommasi (died 1993), an Italian horsewoman.
- The Hon. Thomas Mitford (January 2, 1909 – March 30, 1945). Educated at Eton. Regular lover of Tilly Losch during her marriage to Edward James. Died as a soldier in Burma.
- The Hon. Diana Mitford (June 17, 1910 – August 11, 2003). Married aristocrat and writer Bryan Walter Guinness in the society wedding of the year. Left him in the society scandal of the year for British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. Was interned in Holloway Prison during the Second World War. Never renounced her belief in fascism.
- The Hon. Unity Valkyrie Mitford (August 8, 1914 – May 28, 1948). Famous for her adulation of and friendship with Adolf Hitler. Shot herself in the head when World War II broke out, but failed to kill herself and eventually died of pneumonococcal meningitis at West Highland Cottage Hospital, Oban, after being transferred there from Inch Kenneth.
- The Hon. Jessica Mitford commonly known as Decca (September 11, 1917 – July 22, 1996). 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 military service she married Robert Treuhaft, whom she met as part of her work as a civil rights activist. Member of the American Communist Party (until 1958). Wrote several volumes of memoirs and several muckrakers, including the bestselling The American Way of Death (1963) about the funeral industry.
- The Hon. Deborah Mitford (born March 31, 1920). She married Andrew Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire and with him turned his ancestral home, Chatsworth House, into one of Britain's most successful stately homes.
A fictional family based on the Mitford sisters features prominently in author Jo Walton's 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.
- Charlotte Mosley, editor. The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, London: Fourth Estate, 2007, page 264. According to her sister Jessica, Pamela Mitford had become "a you-know-what-bian" [lesbian].
- History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland (1835) Vol II pp282-286 (ISBN 9781847271686)
- The Guardian review of The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters
The House of Mitford by Jonathan Guinness (Hutchinson, London 1984)