Tag Archives: 11th Duke of Marlborough

Back to Blenheim


Every now and then the stars align favorably.  I was lucky enough to visit Blenheim Palace last fall, and doubly lucky to be in England again in the spring.  When I bought my Blenheim ticket last fall, I stopped at a kiosk and made it into a year-long pass–at no extra charge!  What a deal!  I’d probably go back even if I didn’t like the place, but I happen to love it.


Blenheim was used for the exterior scenes of the great film Hamlet, with Kenneth Branagh as director and and playing the melancholy Hamlet himself. He was perfect. English major and Shakespeare lover that I am, I’ve watched the film quite a few times.  I like to turn on the subtitles so I can get all the glorious Shakespearean words, but it is very dramatic and easy to follow even without caring much about the dialogue. It even ends with some swashbuckling worthy of Jack Bauer in 24. The acting is stellar, featuring, besides Kenneth Branagh, Charlton Heston, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, the late Robin Williams, Derek Jacobi, Kate Winslet, Michael Maloney, Timothy Spall, Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Judi Dench, Geraard Depardieu, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, and Jack Lemmon (he was still with us in 1996!)

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Toward the end of the film, one scene shows the new King arriving after the tragic events of the story, riding up to the palace with his retinue.


The palace, decorated with military mementos of the First Duke of Marlborough, was just the right location. The 11th Duke of Marlborough had a cameo appearance as one of the nobles accompanying the new king.  I’m guessing it was one of the highlights of his long and distinguished life. After all, he was appearing with fine actors in a great film that showcased his ancestral home. Plus the new King was played by Rufus Sewell, in fine smoldering form.  Who wouldn’t want to appear in that film?

I  last saw the 11th Duke last fall on my visit.  He was usually a very visible presence, striding around his palace and really seeming to welcome visitors.  When I was there last, his brother was being married in the palace chapel. So the Duke was jovially greeting his guests.  He looked frail, though, and I was sad to learn that he died just a few weeks later. During my visit, I saw his lovely wife, and I also saw the soon-to-be 12th Duke with his wife. I recognized them all from photos in the house. The heir is in the photo just behind the 11th Duke.

I previously wrote about Blenheim at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/11/06/blenheim-the-s…kings-waterloo/

I wrote about the death and funeral of the elegant 11th Duke at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/10/30/what-are-plus-fours-anyway/ ‎ and  https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/10/29/farewell-to-th…of-marlborough/

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The 12th Duke has now moved to the front of the photo displays in the palace. Yesterday I toured the several of the family’s private rooms in the East Wing.  The rooms are sumptuous, but lived-in.  (Think of the most elegant possible version of Shabby Chic).  There are 12 bedrooms, each with its own bathroom and dressing room–but they are off limits. No photos were allowed. The 12th Duke was in the house–his flag was flying.  But he must not have been told that I had come to see him, because he was nowhere in sight.  As an American, I’m always puzzled but intrigued by British aristocracy and royalty.  I wish the 12th Duke many years of carrying on his family’s heritage, and I’m sure he’s as dedicated to the task as his late father was.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

What are Plus Fours Anyway?

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

The media coverage of the late 11th Duke of Marlborough’s death made much of the fact that his pallbearers were Palace gamekeepers, or maybe groundskeepers, dressed in “traditional plus fours.”  I looked at the photos and all I saw was short pants worn with knee-high socks that seemed to slightly clash with the pants.  It turns out “plus fours” have a very specific definition: pants that are carefully tailored exactly four inches below the knee.They’ve been worn by British sportsmen since about 1860. The Duke himself very likely wore them when out hunting on his lands.

During his visit to America in 1924, the raffish Edward, Prince of Wales, famously wore plus fours. (He later briefly became Kind Edward VIII, until he famously abdicated in order to marry the divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson). His short pants gave him a sort of free-wheeling look that fit right in with the Roaring Twenties.  After Edward made his way back home across the pond, his stylish short pants caught on, especially with golfers and with anyone else who wanted to flout convention.  (I can well imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald sporting a pair).

I generally expect pallbearers to be close friends or relatives of the deceased.  It seems that having one’s groundskeepers perform the task must be a privilege and mark of very high status. After all, how many of us even have extensive grounds, let alone uniformed groundskeepers to tend them?  There’s also the implication that the Duke’s relatives are above any sort of menial task.

I’m reminded of the custom that shocked Consuelo Vanderbilt when she arrived as a young American bride at Blenheim, freshly married to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. A carriage met the newlyweds’ train in Woodstock.  Approaching Blenheim, men from the estate unhitched the horses and pulled the carriage through the grand palace gates. Things like that didn’t happen where Consuelo came from.

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

Anyway, the Duke’s employees seem a very happy lot.  When I was in Woodstock last month, all the palace employees I encountered seemed extremely cheerful–and that is not always the case with people who attend the high and mighty.  I think the late Duke was a hands-on sort of man, genuinely loved by many.

As an American, I don’t suppose I’ll ever fully understand the subtleties of the British class system.  I do appreciate certain little perks.  For example, the late Duke’s name was John George Vanderbilt Henry Spencer-Churchill.  But his title gave him the right to use a most elegant signature:  he simply signed his name “Marlborough.” Now that’s class.


Farewell to the 11th Duke of Marlborough


Each time I’ve visited Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, England, I’ve had at least a glimpse of the 11th Duke.  Unlike many aristocrats, he made his very grand family seat his real home.  Many owners of stately homes admit the public only grudgingly.  But the 11th Duke really seemed to welcome the public with open arms, and he could regularly be seen striding through a courtyard or hurrying down a hallway.  A ticket to Blenheim is good for a full year of visits, a real bargain for anyone who can visit the house and glorious grounds even twice in a year. Many Brits make it a regular stop.

Sadly, my last visit, in September, was the last time I would see the 11th Duke.  He died less than a month later, on October 16 of this year. When I entered the palace, I asked whether a tour of the private quarters was available–I never miss a chance to get a glimpse at how “toffs” actually live.  The private quarters of a stately home are usually the ultimate in Shabby Chic–the authentic variety.  The guide said, “I’m terribly sorry, but His Grace has a lot of guests.  His brother is getting married today in the chapel.”  Very soon, I spotted His Grace, mingling with his guests outside the private chapel before and after the wedding. He was 88 and walked with a cane, but his tall figure was still elegant and he had the same gentle smile. His Duchess–his fourth Duchess, to be exact–is Lily, a Persian beauty about 30 years younger.

Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, photo from Daily Mail article cited below

Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, photo from Daily Mail article cited below

The marriage, a few years ago, raised eyebrows, but Lily turned out to be a rousing success as a wife.  Not only did she make the Duke extremely happy, but she quietly worked on a reconciliation between the Duke and his heir. The Duke actually had to disinherit his oldest son, Jamie Spencer-Churchill, who was generally known as Jamie Blandford. It was a step almost unheard of in aristocratic families.  They had been estranged for almost 20 years, because the heir had serious drug problems and even served time in prison for crimes such as forging prescriptions and road rage incidents.  With Lily fostering a reconciliation, the reformed heir was back in His Grace’s  good graces.  On the death of his father, he became the 12th Duke.  It appears that he will also inherit the property, although there is talk of some supervision by a board of trustees.


For the wedding, the entire family was present and everyone seemed happy to be together.  I took the opportunity to photo-bomb the occasion, which no one seemed to mind.


11th Duke's funeral procession, photo from Daily Mail article cited below

11th Duke’s funeral procession, photo from Daily Mail article cited below

Sadly, the elegant old Duke died in his sleep less than a month later. His son and heir, the 12th Duke, followed the solemn and affectionate funeral procession with Lily, now the Dowager Duchess, on his arm. May the old Duke rest in peace, and may the young Duke (now 58) do his father proud.