Blenheim Palace (Woodstock in Oxfordshire)

I pass though Woodstock on my regular trips to Worcestershire and have been wondering for some time just what was so special about Blenheim. Well, last week I finally decided to stop and find out. After all, I’ve been experiencing some sightseeing withdrawal symptoms since India and feeling a bit depressed by the late Spring (like everyone else in the country) so I thought that a little bit of culture might prove beneficial.

And I certainly had a lot to learn. Blenheim Palace is the only stately home in England which is neither royal nor episcopal to be styled “palace” and the only one to have World Heritage status but is it actually interesting? Given to the first Duke of Marleborough by Queen Anne and a grateful nation after the battle of Blenheim in 1705, its fortunes waxed and waned for a couple of hundred years until the rise to prominence of a certain offspring of a second son: Winston Churchill. But let’s not get too far ahead.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) may not be one of my strongest subjects but the victory of the first Duke at Blenheim prevented much of the rest of Europe from falling to the Imperial ambitions of Louis XIV of France. Whatever you may think of that, it cannot be denied that John Churchill (son of another Winston) was an absolutely brilliant military strategist. This talent appears to have sunk deep to the bottom of the gene pool and waited, like Excalibur, until the country’s hour of greatest need while an unhappy succession of spendthrifts and philanderers sold off most of the family fortunes.

A lavish guide book means that you can read all about the dull Dukes and the disolute Dukes, the acquisitive Dukes and the auctioneering Dukes, and it is to the credit of the current incumbents that few juicy details are omitted. Inheriting an almost bankrupt estate with the title in 1891 The ninth Duke went wife prospecting in America and found the Vanderbilt family willing to settle an obscenely large amount of money on their lovely teenage daughter Consuelo. Not only was the poor girl locked in her room until she agreed to marry him but she is said to have gone to the altar hiding her tears under her veil. However, a certain amount of revenge was to come her way later in life.

The beleaguered ninth Duchess undertook many good works and became beloved of the tennents on the estate at the same time as she was re-arranging the dining table centrepiece so that it would hide the face of the husband opposite. This sacrificial bride was not destined for the same fate as befell the Spencer girl eighty years later but went on to obtain annulment of the detested marriage and marry a wildly romantic Frenchman. Her lively personality and strong intellect meant that she became a particular favourite of young Winston and she went on to outlive the ninth Duke by thirty years.

Despite the usual television drama nonsense of the British upper classes, to visit Blenheim is to be steeped in the political and military history of Europe and to begin to understand how one awkward little boy, not much regarded as either an heir or a scholar, could have grown up to save a civilisation. Modern analysis may question some of Churchill’s decisions, particularly in relation to the Soviets, and his record as a peacetime politician was less than stellar but the armchair strategists cannot really damage his reputation. Following in his ancestor’s footsteps, Sir Winston was offered a dukedom of his own after the second world war by our current queen. He declined.

Hopefully my photographs capture some of the usual stately house paraphernalia. It is certainly impressive if you like that sort of thing but, paradoxically, the sale of so many paintings and antiques during the nineteenth century has somewhat pared down the “cluttered look” and returned the house to its more refined, early eighteenth century ambiance. Next stop Chartwell.  

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Categories: Britain, West of England


  • Vic Ainsworth says:

    test comment on mum’s new site.

  • Nicola says:

    Thank you Vic, let’s see if we can get it all up and running

  • Vic says:

    Fourth Test

  • Chris says:

    No.27: This impressive portrait of Lady Gwendolen Churchill (1885-1941) was painted by Sir William Orpen (1878-1931) in 1917. She was Sir Winston Churchill’s sister-in-law, having married his brother, Major John Strange Spencer-Churchill (1880-1947) in August 1908. Born Lady Gwendoline Theresa Mary Bertie, she was the daughter of Montagu Arthur Bertie, 7th Earl of Abingdon and Gwendoline Mary Dormer.

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