Spain mourns its eccentric flamenco-dancing Duchess of Alba

Relatives of Spain's Duchess of Alba, Maria del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James-Stuart carry her coffin into the Town Hall of Sevilla on Nov 20, 2014. Spain's eccentric Duchess of Alba, one of the nation's richest women with more titles than any oth
Relatives of Spain's Duchess of Alba, Maria del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James-Stuart carry her coffin into the Town Hall of Sevilla on Nov 20, 2014. Spain's eccentric Duchess of Alba, one of the nation's richest women with more titles than any other aristocrat on earth, died on Thursday at the age of 88. -- PHOTO: AFP 

SEVILLE, SPAIN (AFP) - Spain's eccentric Duchess of Alba, one of the nation's richest women with more titles than any other aristocrat on earth, died on Thursday at the age of 88.

Duchess Maria del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart passed away at her Duenas Palace in the southern city of Seville on Thursday morning where she was surrounded by her family, a family spokesman said.

Known for her frizzy hair and colourful dress sense, the duchess owned swathes of real estate, great houses and treasures including paintings by the Great Masters from Goya to Velazquez.

File picture shows Spain's Duchess of Alba walking towards photographers after her wedding ceremony.--PHOTO: AFP

Although she appeared to be a walking monument to the plastic surgeon's art, she was coy on the subject.

"If they forget you, you are nobody," the twice-widowed aristocrat once told one of the Spanish celebrity magazines of which she was a fixture.

A 2011 photo shows Spain's Duchess of Alba after her wedding ceremony with Alfonso Diez in Seville. -- PHOTO: AFP

Her principle title was Duchess of Alba de Tormes but she had more than 40 others due to a complex series of marriages by her ancestors, which made her the noble with the most officially recognised titles in the world, according to Guinness World Records.

"She was born in high society yet knew how to walk among the people like nobody else," Mr Fermin Urbiola, the author of several books on European royals, who knew the duchess personally, said.

Cayetana, as she is affectionately known in Spain, was born at the Liria Palace in Madrid on March 28, 1926.

An aerial view shows Liria Palace (centre), the Madrid residence of Spain's Duchess of Alba.--PHOTO: REUTERS

A devout Roman Catholic, she was a fan of pop music and bullfights, and her colourful private life drew the attention of Spain's avid celebrity press.

"She had that duality, of being free and modern and at the same time maintaining value," said Urbiola.

The duchess last came to international attention in 2011 when she danced flamenco at her wedding to Mr Alfonso Diez, a civil servant 25 years her junior, whom she married despite objections from her six children.

Spain's Duchess of Alba (right) dances flamenco beside husband Alfonso Diez after their wedding in 2011. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

To win their approval, Mr Diez renounced any claim to the duchess's wealth and just before the wedding she divided up much of her estate among her five sons and one daughter in her will.

However, she kept control over the assets - reputedly worth between 600 million and 3.5 billion euros (S$980 million and S$5.7 billion) - until her death.

A file picture shows the Spanish Duchess posing during the presentation of her autobiography in Seville.--PHOTO: AFP

Her first marriage in October 1947 to Don Pedro Luis Martines de Irujo, son of the Duke of Sotomayor, was described by the New York Times as "Spain's most elaborate social event since the end of the monarchy".

One thousand guests attended the formal banquet while free meals were served to another thousand needy locals.

However, her vast wealth - it is said she could walk from the most northern point of Spain to the south coast without ever stepping off her own land - made her a target of claims that she enriched herself in part with European Union agricultural subsidies.

Alfonso Diez (right), husband of Spain's Duchess of Alba and her son Carlos (centre) are seen in Seville. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Six years after the duke's death in 1972, the duchess scandalised Spanish high society by marrying a former Jesuit priest, Jesus Aguirre, who was 11 years younger than her and had been her confessor.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hailed the duchess's patronage of the arts in a telegram sent to her family.

The coffin of Spain's Duchess of Alba is seen in the town hall of Seville.--PHOTO: REUTERS

Thousands of people from all walks of life streamed past her closed coffin laid out in Seville's town hall to pay their last respects.

The casket was draped with the red and yellow Spanish flag and the coat of arms of the House of Alba.

Relatives of Spain's Duchess of Alba sit surrounding her coffin in the town hall of Seville. --PHOTO: REUTERS

"Cayetana always kept Seville in her heart and as a result she will always remain in the heart of Seville," the city's mayor, Juan Ignacio Zoido, said on Twitter.

Spain's King Felipe and Queen Letizia called the duchess's family to convey their condolences and sent wreaths, the royal palace said.

People make their way to pay their respects to Spain's Duchess of Alba in Seville.--PHOTO: REUTERS

The king's older sister, Princess Elena, will attend her funeral on Friday, which will get underway at noon in Seville's Gothic cathedral.

In her best-selling memoirs published in 2011, the duchess wrote that she would like the epitaph on her tombstone to read: "Here lies Cayetana, who lived as she felt."

Her oldest son, Carlos Martinez de Irujo, Duke of Huescar, now becomes head of the five-centuries-old House of Alba with her other titles divided up among her heirs.

A photograph of Spain's Duchess of Alba in her younger days. -PHOTO: WEB