Tag Archives: 1st 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!)

FullSizeRender (31)

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/

FullSizeRender (34)

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!

Blenheim: The Sun King’s Waterloo

Claude Lefebre, Public Domainnknown artist, after Louis XIV, circa 1670, u

Claude Lefebre, Public Domainnknown artist, after Louis XIV, circa 1670, u

Before there was Napoleon Bonaparte, there  was Louis XIV, the Sun King.  He believed himself the greatest monarch the world had ever seen, so naturally he thought he might as well control all of Europe plus the British Isles, not just France.  In 1704, the War of the Spanish Succession had been going on for four years, and things were going well for the French.  Unlike many kings, Louis XIV was actually a soldier, and an accomplished one.

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, 1704, Adriaen van der Werff, Public Domain

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, 1704, Adriaen van der Werff, Public Domain

He met his match in John Churchill, who had risen through the ranks after beginning at court as a lowly page.  He had already attained the rank of First Duke of Marlborough when he stopped the French in their tracks.  He changed the course of European history.  Churchill/Marlborough did this through a combination of deceptive communications and wily maneuvering of his forces.  As I understand it, he marched his troops undetected through the Low Countries, pretty much surprising the French at a little Bavarian village called Blenheim.  The object was to keep the French from occupying Vienna, which would have broken up the delicate and ever-shifting balance among European powers.

Marlborough’s heroics ended Louis XIV’s dream of controlling all of Europe. The French suffered 30,000 casualties.  The French commander-in-chief, Marshall Tallard, was captured and hauled to England as a prisoner.  There were still battles left to fight, but the battle of Blenheim was a huge turning point in history.


A grateful nation gave the 1st Duke of Marlborough the lands and the money to build a suitable tribute, a palace that would rival the Versailles of Louis XIV.  In fact, the cavernous entry hall at Blenheim is as impressive as anything I’ve seen at Versailles.  It’s more austere, though–suitable for the military theme of Blenheim. The palace was built in the English Baroque style, and contained 187 rooms. The construction was halted in 1711, after the Duchess of Marlborough had a terrible quarrel with Queen Anne.  In fact, the Duke and Duchess had to go into temporary exile on the continent until the Queen died in 1714.  After that, the Duke had to spend his own money to complete his palace.

Serious historians would not be much impressed by my analysis of the military situation. If I wanted to fully understand the War of the Spanish Succession and its many battles, I could study a large military exhibition at Blenheim Palace.  I thought about the military exhibit on my recent visit, but the tearoom was calling my name.

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