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Churchill's Birthplace: Magnificent Blenheim Palace

by Martha Doe

Blenheim Palace was born from the blood and sweat of the battleground. Built to honour John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, after he led an allied victory against the French in 1704, its construction was beset by periods of betrayal, intrigue and exile. Two hundred years later, the stately home served as the birthplace for Britain's greatest wartime leader, Winston Churchill.

Blenheim Palace

Rather than a being a home, Blenheim is best described as a lavish monument to military glory. That's not to say that the palace hasn't had its fair share of residents. For over 300 years, Blenheim has housed and romanced an array of colourful people.

Designed by the playwright Sir John Vanbrugh, Blenheim palace was a gift of gratitude from Queen Anne. The magnificent house was built on Woodstock Manor, a former royal hunting lodge and at one time a prison for Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) for her alleged role in the Wyatt plot. In 1709 the manor was destroyed on the orders of the 1st Duchess of Marlborough, and a large part of the rubble was used to fill the foundation for Vanbrugh's Grand Bridge.

Blenheim Palace The Marlboroughs fell from the Queen's favour in 1711 and were banished from the country for several years. Upon returning they were met with the news that Blenheim would be finished at their own expense. For the two decades it took to complete, Sarah, the first duchess, held bitter disputes with Vanbrugh over money and eventually barred him from even entering the palace.

Immediately upon arriving at Blenheim, the visitor must pass through an archway depicting a cockerel (the emblem of France) being forced down by a British lion. Altogether, there are around 15 references to British victories against the French on the palace exterior. Inside the theme continues in the Great Hall. Its ceiling, painted by Sir James Thornhill in 1716, shows a victorious Duke of Marlborough. In the green writing room a delicate tapestry hangs from the wall, depicting the battle of Blenheim and Marlborough accepting French surrender.

Between the Saloon -- a state dining room used by the family once a year on Christmas Day -- and the Long Library there are three interconnecting areas known as The First, Second and Third State Rooms. All three apartments are adorned with tapestries of Marlborough's later campaigns, commissioned by the Duke himself.

The Long Library was originally designed as a picture gallery but is now home to a collection of 10,000 books, a collection largely compiled by the 9th Duke. Full-length portraits of Queen Anne, King William III and John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, hang from the walls of this 55-metre-long room. At the north end sits the spectacular Willis organ, accompanied by marble sculptures of Queen Anne and the 1st Duke.

During the 1800's, the second Duke of Marlborough auctioned off several books -- along with Raphael paintings and priceless furniture -- in order to clear his numerous debts. The 7th Duke also faced large financial problems, eased somewhat by an Act of Parliament (the Blenheim Settled Estates Act of 1880), which allowed for priceless Marlborough heirlooms to be sold.

Blenheim Palace

Fortunately Blenheim still houses several fine paintings, sculptures, porcelain and silver collections and furniture. Just outside the Green Drawing Room, the China Cabinet holds a spectacular collection of Meissen porcelain, acquired by the 3rd Duke in exchange for a pack of staghounds.

During the 19th century two of the family's men married rich American heiresses, events that probably saved Blenheim Palace from ruin. One of those women was Jennie Jerome, daughter of the rich New Yorker Leonard Jerome. She became the wife of Lord Randolph Churchill and Winston Churchill's mother.

Jennie described her arrival to Blenheim in a letter to her sister: "As we passed through the entrance archway and the lovely scenery burst upon me, Randolph said with pardonable pride, 'This is the finest view in EnglandÉ' Looking at the lake, the bridge, the miles of magnificent park studded with old oaks and the huge stately palace, I confess I felt awed. But my American pride forbade the admission."

Blenheim Palace

Desperately in need of a large fortune to cover the palace's colossal expenses, in 1896 the 9th Duke of Marlborough also married a rich American --18-year-old Consuelo Vanderbilt. In the Red Drawing Room, a painting by John Singer Sargent depicts the Duke with his wife Consuelo and their son, the present Duke of Marlborough. Consuelo came with a dowry of $2.5 million in railroad stock, which enabled the fading palace to be restored to its former glory. She regularly undertook charitable works around town and became known as "the Angel of Woodstock."

The arranged marriage was not a happy one, however, and the couple separated in 1906, finally divorcing in 1921. Her son and grandson, the 10th and 11th dukes, have ensured that her portraits remain -- her elegant image can be seen hanging in various rooms throughout the palace. The 9th Duke went on marry a second American, a friend of Consuelo's named Gladys Deacon, but they too separated in 1931.

Blenheim Palace Sargent's painting isn't the most famous portrait on display in the Red Drawing room; that honour falls to a depiction of the 4th Duke with his family by Joshua Reynolds, circa 1778. The Duke is dressed in Garter robes and holds a gem from the famous Marlborough Gem collection. His son, the future Duke, is shown clasping one of the ten ornate boxes in which the gems were stored. Gathered by the 4th Duke in the mid to late 18th century, the Marlborough Gems are the most important collection of cameos and intaglios in Britain. Sadly, this is all you can see of the gems at Blenheim since, in 1875, the 7th Duke sold the entire collection at Christie's for the sum of £10,000.

Winston Churchill, grandson of the 8th Duke, was born in on 30th November in a small room that lies just west of the great hall. His parents had planned for their son to be born at their London home on Charles Street but he was to arrive two months prematurely while the couple were staying at Blenheim. His father, Randolph Churchill, described the unexpected nature of Winston's birth in a letter to his Mother-in-law:

"She [Jennie] had a fall on Tuesday walking with the shooters, and a rather imprudent and rough drive in a pony carriage brought on the pains on Saturday night. We tried to stop them, but it was no use. They went on all Sunday. Of course the Oxford physician did not come. We telegraphed for the London man, Dr Hope, but he did not arrive till this morning. The country Dr is however a clever man, and the baby was safely born at 1.30 this morning after about 8 hours of labour."

Another account, by Jennie's sister, told how Jennie was dancing at a ball held in the great ballroom and having a wonderful time before her contractions started. There was no time to find a suitable bedroom and so Sir Winston Churchill was born in a nearby room, which that night had been turned into a temporary cloakroom.

When asked to corroborate the account, Sir Winston Churchill replied: "Although present on that occasion, I have no clear recollection of the events leading up to it."

Blenheim Palace

Churchill was baptised at Blenheim Chapel, located in the west wing. The airy chapel was designed largely by Sarah, the 1st Duchess, to honour her husband and houses an ornate memorial to Blenheim's 1st Duke and Duchess and their sons, by William Kent.

Despite not becoming heir to the estate, Sir Winston Churchill had his roots in Blenheim Palace. He had an enduring love for the house he regarded as a chapter of history set in stone. Churchill also chose Blenheim Palace as his final resting place and is buried beside his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, in the nearby churchyard of Blaydon. His wife Clementine, who died in 1977, is buried next to him.

Churchill's birth room leads on to a small Churchill exhibit. On display are letters, photographs, curls cut from his five year old head, a painting he did of The Great Hall and other interesting memorabilia.

It was in the gardens at Blenheim, at the temple of Diana, that Churchill proposed to Miss Clementine Hozier during the summer of 1908.

Blenheim Palace

With 4,998 hectares of beautiful parkland feature gardens, lakes to row on, the world's largest symbolic hedge maze and an adventure playground for children, accessed by way of a mini railway, there is so much to see in the grounds that it can be difficult to decide in which direction to head. It's a good idea to follow one of the walks indicated in the official leaflets.

Originally designed by Henry Wise, the grounds were redesigned by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown in 1764. The 1920's saw a final redesign, when the 9th Duke of Marlborough enlisted the talent of French landscape architect Achill Ducêne. Across from the west wing Ducêne added the Water Terraces, styled on the Bernini river-gods' fountain in Rome.

The first terrace features several caryatids (supporting columns in the shape of a person) carved by Visseau. An interesting anecdote from the time of construction tells of a young gardener who happened to be strolling past as Visseau carried out his work. The sculptor stopped the young man and asked him if he'd like to be immortalised. The gardener, a local called Bert Timms, agreed and was the model for the northernmost caryatid.

The outdoor Terrace Café provides a wonderful excuse to stop for refreshment and admire Ducêne's handiwork. The Frenchman was also responsible for the exquisite Italian Garden on the opposite side of the palace.

Those that visit the café will notice there are bottles of Blenheim water for sale. The water comes from a source found in the park. This wasn't the first source put to use -- in the 12th century King Henry II had constructed a pleasure pool fed by an ancient spring for his mistress Rosamund Clifford in The Royal Manor of Woodstock. Now part of Blenheim Park, the square well pool still remains and is the oldest feature in the park.

Blenheim Palace

With its military connections, it's fitting that Blenehim was to play a part during the First and Second World Wars. During the First World War the Great Library was transformed into a hospital for wounded servicemen. During World War II, 400 boys from Malvern College were temporarily housed and schooled in the Great Hall. Later, up to 1000 MI5 employees were established here during the War, as well as members of The British Council and the Ministry of Supply.

Arguably Britain's most magnificent stately home, Blenheim Palace was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1987.

More Information:

Blenheim Palace is located in the town of Woodstock, eight miles northwest of Oxford on the A44 Evesham Road. For more information visit http://www.blenheimpalace.com

Related Articles:

Chartwell: Churchill's House of Refuge, by Richard Crowhurst
http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/houses/chartwell.shtml

Christmas at Blenheim Palace
http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/christmas/blenheim.shtml



Martha Doe contributes articles to a number of publications on travel and history.
Article © 2006 Martha Doe
Photos courtesy of Britainonview.com.

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