Tag Archives: Blenheim Palace

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!

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!

Consuelo Vanderbilt to the Rescue

La Duchess de Marlborough, Helleu, 1901, Public Domain

La Duchess de Marlborough, Helleu, 1901, Public Domain

Julian Fellowes, creator of the television hit Downton Abbey, did not invent the story of an American heiress bringing her fortune to the rescue of an aristocratic British family of declining fortunes. Fortune-hunting Brits, titled but poor, regularly patrolled the upper reaches of American society for rich brides.  Consuelo Vanderbilt was one of those real-life brides. She became the very reluctant wife of the 9th Duke of Marlborough.

By all accounts, Consuelo was one of the loveliest and most charming women of her age. The playwright Sir James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, famously wrote, “I would wait all night in the rain, to see Consuelo Marlborough get into her carriage.” She was also sweet, compliant, and dominated by her mother Alva Vanderbilt.

Alva was formidable.  She was estranged from her husband, the fabulously rich railroad man who, among other feats, created Madison Square Garden.  He was a grandson of the dynasty’s founder, Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt, and inherited the equivalent of about $1.4 billion in today’s money. Alva divorced him for adultery and landed a settlement of the equivalent of $280 million in today’s money.  Alva named her daughter after her godmother, a half-Cuban American socialite who had made a spectacular marriage into the family of the Duke of Manchester.

Alva expected no less of her beautiful daughter Consuelo. She forced Consuelo into a brilliant but doomed marriage with the 9th Duke, who didn’t want the marriage any more than Consuelo did. Alva actually placed her daughter under house arrest in her bedroom, keeping her away from the man she loved, until the tearful teenager finally agreed to marry the Duke of Marlborough.  Consuelo wept behind her wedding veil at the 1895 ceremony in New York. She was just 18 at the time. The Duke wasted no time in collecting her dowry, the equivalent of $67 million dollars, which he sorely needed to maintain the family seat at Blenheim Palace. The money lasted until around 1950, when declining fortunes forced the house to open to the paying public.

Duke of Marlborough and His Family, John SInger Sargent, 1905, Public Domain

Duke of Marlborough and His Family, John SInger Sargent, 1905, Public Domain

Consuelo did her duty, producing the required “heir and a spare.” By some accounts, she invented the famous expression. Predictably, the marriage ended in separation in 1906, divorce in 1921, and finally annullment in 1926, after Alva admitted that she had been wrong to force the marriage. Consuelo forgave her domineering mother and they developed a close relationship.

Consuelo with WInston Churchill at Blenheim, Public Domain

Consuelo with WInston Churchill at Blenheim, Public Domain

Consuelo became a close friend of Sir Winston Churchill, who was born at Blenheim in 1874 and remained a frequent visitor there all his life. While she was the Duchess, she worked to improve the lives of the poor around the estate and in the town of Woodstock.  It appears she was universally adored.  Later in life, she continued her good works, even as she took part in glittering society.  Her second marriage was happy, and she lived out her days in contentment. She died in New York at age 87.

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.


Why I Love England and Can’t Wait to Return

I always have good intentions of posting almost daily while traveling, but I always end up rushing around seeing more things than I can record and think about.  That comes later, when I have time to go through my pictures–not to mention the guidebooks that make my suitcase weigh a ton on the trip home. It’s time to sift through my memories of my last trip and begin planning another one.


I love the streams that meander through the English countryside. Estates fortunate enough to have a stream have ancient plantings and walkways, because generations have paused to listen to the rushing water.  This stream is at Mottisfont.


A fence can become a work of art, when there’s a passionate gardener around.  And England is full of passionate gardeners.  This fence is at Uppark.


The British are thoughtful, and their memories are long.  In this year of remembering those fallen in World War I, there are also memorials to the non-human victims.  This wreath, found in the village of Arundel, honors the millions of innocent animals that suffered during the terrible war years. As in town and villages all over England, simple wooden crosses with poppies honor the local war dead. I thought it was nice to create a wreath of blue poppies to honor the animals.


The historical sights are making new efforts to attract visitors, and to explain their histories in engaging ways. At Blenheim Palace, there’s a series of rooms that dramatize important events in the palace’s history through the eyes of a lady’s maid. This (wax) woman was awakened in a bedroom where she wasn’t supposed to be, setting off a Marlborough family scandal that turned into a government crisis in days long past.  I would rather read my history and see actual artifacts, but I appreciate the effort that goes into exhibits like this.



Antique shops are crammed with unusual and very British items, like this well-worn Art Deco chair.


And have I mentioned the flowers? These are at Avebury Manor. Well into the fall, the temperate climate of England keeps flowers blooming.  Yes, I love England!

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



A Siren and a Siren Suit

The birth of Winston Churchill, the future Prime Minister, was a shocking surprise and a bit of a scandal. His father, Randolph Churchill, was related to the Dukes of Marlborough, whose seat was (and still is) the over-the-top Blenheim Palace just outside Woodstock.  His mother was the famous American beauty Jennie Jerome.  The couple’s engagement went on longer than they wished, due to financial negotiations, and the bride was very soon noticeably pregnant.  Jennie was a headstrong free spirit.  She was not about to give up the admiration of everyone on the dance floor just because of her condition. By all accounts, she was as lovely and alluring as ever in the final stages of pregnancy.

Jennie Jerome Churchill, , circa 1880, Public Domain

Jennie Jerome Churchill, , circa 1880, Public Domain

So Jennie was dancing, with abandon, in a diaphonous flowing gown when she suddenly went into labor–“prematurely,” or so the story went.  Winston was born about two months sooner than anyone expected, in the Palace that many people consider more grand than any palaces of actual British royalty.

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The surprise birth took place in a small and rather plain bedroom close to the grand state rooms, where the band played on. A glass box displays the baby’s infant vest.

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Much later in life, when he was Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Sir Winston wore a “siren suit” during air raids.  Many people, men and women, had one. We’d call it a “jumpsuit:” a loose full-length garment, designed to be zipped into over pajamas on the way to the air raid shelter.


By today’s standards, Jennie Jerome would be considered a terrible mother–selfish before her child was born, and even more selfish afterward in pursuing her often scandalous social life. She paid very little attention to Winston as he grew up. He was raised almost entirely by a beloved nanny.  Yet in later life, Jennie became almost like a sister to her son, advising him and using her wide social and political connections to further his career.  The little bedroom in Blenheim Palace is where a remarkable life began.

Scotland’s Still In


The people of Scotland voted yesterday, pretty resoundingly, to remain in the United Kingdom. Considering the turmoil and violence of the past, this was a very civilized historic event. British government leaders made impassioned appeals to the people of Scotland to reject independence, and promised significant changes if they did. Now it’s time to make good on those promises. I’m in England, watching British TV, and this is the big news story of the week.

It’s surprising to learn how important the 1995 movie, directed by and starring Mel Gibson, was to Scots in their drive for independence.  The 13th century real-life William Wallace was probably a much darker and more complex man than he appears in the movie, but the stirring scenes of battle and eloquent speeches on freedom are still affecting Scots two decades after the Academy Award-winning movie. Leaders of the independence drive regularly referred to the movie as a source of Scottish pride.

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British people seem to have a special fondness for Scots.  In large cities, it is fairly common to encounter a bagpiper in kilt and full Scottish regalia, playing on a street corner. Today at Blenheim Palace I spotted a Scottish soldier in a display of hundreds and hundreds of accurate models, made by the British Model Soldier Society. The Society, founded in 1935, meets monthly in London. Its members do extensive historical research before approving any of the wonderfully detailed models (which are about 3-4 inches tall). The model above depicts a private in the Black Watch regiment in 1815.

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Above is an even earlier Scottish soldier from 1684, the Royal Scots 1st of Foot. The union of England and Scotland has deep historical roots.  I hope the Scots get the changes they were promised and the union continues with benefits to both sides.

The Braveheart image above is the theatrical release poster.  The film is available from Amazon.



One day in London, I was standing in a customer service line at Harrod’s.  The well-dressed woman in front of me was unhappy with the answers she was getting from the man behind the counter.  I heard the woman say icily, “I find your attitude most reprehensible.”  The man behind the counter, amazingly, blanched, looked around to see who was watching, and gave her what she wanted.  That’s England.  An American customer in the same situation might say, “Hey, gimme a break” or “I want to see your supervisor, ” only to be met with a blank stare.  The British still have a whole layer of civility that Americans are sadly lacking.

Brits take pride in their wit.  Once at Blenheim Palace, I paid extra for a tour of the family’s private quarters–always worthwhile, anyplace it is offered.  The tour guide provided a running commentary about the family’s foibles, as he guided us through grand but surprisingly shabby rooms (Brits still honor “old money,” and Blenheim is about as old as it gets). Someone asked the guide whether the college-age heir hung around the palace he would someday inherit.  “Well,” he replied, “he’s off somewhere having his gap year, don’t you know, but every now and again he stops by and strikes the place a glancing blow.”

Some expressions are just amusing because they’re different.  A trash can is a “rubbish tip.” To be careful when stepping onto a subway car is to “mind the gap.” The equipment needed for, say, a long hike, is “all the kit you need.” An airline attendant might look at an excessive amount of luggage and say, “I’m afraid you can’t bring all that lot.”  If I thought my suitcase was especially heavy, I could say “That thing weighs 10 stone” (140 pounds, at 14 pounds to the stone). To give something a try is to “have a go.”

The Brits have some wonderfully descriptive terms, too.  I like to call myself a “dogsbody” when I find myself doing some menial task no one else wants to do.  When totally amazed, I might say I’m “gobsmacked.”

In the films of Laurel and Hardy, the contrasts between the American Oliver Hardy and the Englishman Stan Laurel account for a lot of the humor.

It’s especially amusing that the Englishman, who aside from his dopey expression looks slim and elegant, is childlike and dim.  He’s always asking unanswerable questions.  The  tubby American is equally clueless, but he doesn’t know it.  So he is ridiculously pompous.

All this has left me feeling a bit knackered.  Maybe it’s time for a bit of a lie-down!