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Stories from Blenheim Palace

A fascinating history of the awe-inspiring world heritage site — home to ancestors of Winston Churchill and Lady Diana

Stories from Blenheim Palace
Drawing room in the palace.

At the time when Panama Leaks shook the world, I embarked upon a visit to Brasenose and Keble colleges in Oxford, whose famous alumni include the serving British PM and our own celebrity sportsman-turned politico.

Just as I passed the famous Trinity College on my way, as you would expect in early spring in Oxford, it started raining. Forced to take refuge in a nearby pub, I picked up a local tabloid to pass the time — and lo and behold — another Panama leak of a different kind came screeching out of its pages.

Evening tabloids in England have a unique way of romanticising juicy gossip — by providing selective details to capture the fancy of readers. Reading the news item about a beleaguered pontiff, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, I was astonished to find references to Winston Spencer Churchill, the British Prime Minister during World War II. According to the tabloid story, Jane Portal, the mother of the archbishop also served as personal secretary to the famous British PM and then followed a story, spiced with details of romance and deceit between the lady and Sir Anthony Montague Browne, a decorated war hero, all linked to the alluring Blenheim palace in Oxfordshire.

Justin Welby, a distinguished alumnus of Trinity College, Oxford seemed embroiled in yet another controversy, related to some stunning revelations about his parental lineage. Some difficult times indeed for the illustrious sons of this fabled seat of learning, I thought.

With all this brilliant stuff about betrayal, confessions and jinxed ancestries, covering the past, the present and (in our case, I daresay) the future prime ministers, all linked to the historic Blenheim palace, there was nothing stopping me from taking the first available bus to Woodstock instead.

Passing through the amazing English countryside, I entered the imposing gates of Blenheim palace in less than two hours’ time after leaving Oxford.

Belenheim Palace.

Belenheim Palace.

You have to imagine the hundreds of acres of undulating sprawling green fields, dotted with mighty oaks and walnut trees, and several lakes of azure, sparkling waters where sunny rays dance on floating lotus flowers to have some idea of the beauty of the Blenheim Palace estate. Now a world heritage site, the stately Baroque fantasy estate with an awe-inspiring mansion inside is the hereditary home of the Dukes of Marlborough. It was a bestowment by Queen Anne to the Marlboroughs after their great ancestor, John Churchill, trounced the French armies in the famous battle of Blenheim in 1704.

With my fancies fixed on the clouded fortunes of some famous Oxford alumni, I was anxious to head towards the Temple of Diana, which had been referred to by the tabloid as the location where Winston Churchill had proposed to his future wife, Clementine Hozier. Apart from the Archbishop’s mother’s romantic excesses in Blenheim, the story had also referred to Princess Diana’s linkage with this place and the tragic turns in her romantic life.

As I stood at the mysteriously charming Temple of Diana in Blenheim, wondering about the linkages of the place with Princess Diana Spencer and Sir Winston Churchill, I was reminded of a famous saying of Churchill. “At Blenheim, I took two very important decisions; to be born and to marry. I am content with both decisions”. The wilderness at the Temple of Diana in Blenheim estate appeared exceedingly magical — true to the fabled nature of the Roman goddess Diana, who rules moon and wildernesses and has the ability to tame wild, fiery souls.

After paying my respects to Diana (both real and the goddess) at the temple, I moved on to explore Churchill quarters in Blenheim palace. Having already been to the historic room in Shab Qadar Fort in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa next to the Durand Line where Churchill spent time as a war scribe during World War I, I was excited to see the birth place of this great scion of English nobility.

Trouble and tribulations somehow have been part of an otherwise fascinating history of the palace. Blenheim Palace was originally designed by playwright, Sir John Vanbrugh, over what used to be known as Woodstock Manor. It was originally a royal hunting lodge which also had once even served as a prison for Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) for her alleged role in the famous Wyatt plot. (So trouble in Blenheim started from the word ‘go’).

Soon after being granted the Blenheim estate, the Marlboroughs lost favour with the Queen and were banished from the place for a while prior to the reconciliation that allowed them to continue building the palace. Financial hardships to build and maintain this sprawling extravaganza troubled the hereditary owners all along its initial history, forcing them to seek financial relief through odd marriage alliances.

The most famous of these marriage alliances was of Jennie Jerome, the daughter of rich Leonard Jerome. It was the same woman who became the wife of Lord Randolph Churchill and mother of Sir Winston Churchill.

On my way to visit the famous room where Churchill was born, I came across some truly scintillating pieces of art and history. Amongst these, the most impressive was the archway showing emblem of France, being forced down by a British lion. Next in terms of attractions was the famous ceiling painting by Sir James Thornhill showing a victorious Duke of Marlborough while another delicate tapestry in the green writing room shows the famous battle of Blenheim and the French surrender.

Typically, the guide points to a painting by Sargent and another one by Joshua Reynolds as the most fascinating collections, the latter showing the fourth Duke with his family, highlighting a great gem collection and the famous Blenheim tapestries.

True to the fluctuating fortunes of Blenheim over the centuries, many of the priceless belongings were sold by several Dukes to ease financial hardships. These included paintings by Raphael, gems collection and some priceless furniture. However, I would rate the China Cabinet with its dazzling collection of Meissen porcelain (acquired by one of the dukes in exchange for a pack of staghounds) as the best.

When I finally reached Churchill’s birth room, I was awed by its history and timelessness. This particular room and the adjoining one is decorated with many belongings from Churchill including the bed on which he was born, his photographs, his writings, letters, the curly locks of hair cut from his head as a child.

With evening shadows lengthening, I retraced my steps to leave the fairytale palace. On my way back, I halted briefly at the newly-restored East Courtyard Visitor Shop. I had forgotten all about Panama Leaks and the beleaguered Oxford alumni. Here, suddenly a poster caught my eye. It read, “Right: Honourable David Cameron opening Oxfordshire Pantry at Blenheim Palace in company with His Grace the 11th Duke of Marlborough”.

For a while, my thoughts shifted to sorry victims of Panama Leaks back home —with or without Oxford connections — struggling like the Marlboroughs to preserve their Blenheim Palaces.

Syed Rizwan Mahboob

Rizwan Mahboob copy
The writer is a public policy expert interested in issues of governance, environment and heritage.

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