Welcome back to our story about Blenheim Palace, home to the Dukes of Marlborough since 1722. Our last instalment left off as we were about to enter the Library, shown as “H” on the screen-save of the diagram from Wikipedia:

As you can see, the library runs the full length of one side of the central block. At one end  of the library is a statue of Queen Anne, who enjoyed, ahem, an “unusually close friendship” with Sarah, the first Duchess of Marlborough. The ladies exchanged intimately coded correspondence for years, and Anne was rumoured to be extremely jealous of Sarah’s love for her husband, John Churchill. Theirs was a very complicated relationship.

The statue is thought to be a flattering depiction of Queen Anne, who was enormously stout, having endured 17 pregnancies during her marriage to Prince George of Denmark, but sadly, none of the children survived beyond infancy. She was the last Stuart monarch. 

Originally designed as a gallery by Hawksmoor, the library came into being during the time of the third Duke, whose vast collection of books seemed to be his sole contribution to Blenheim.

The third Duke of Marlborough inherited the collection from his father, the third Earl of Sunderland, who married the first Duke of Marlborough’s daughter, Anne. How’s that for confusing?  If you’ve ever wondered where the Spencer came from, it was here. The first Duke and Duchess of Marlborough’s only son died at age 17. Their second daughter, Anne Churchill married Charles Spencer, the Earl of Sunderland in 1700. Unusually, Anne inherited the title, thus becoming the second Duchess of Marlborough, although the surname changed from Churchill to Spencer. Anne’s son became the third Duke of Marlborough. The surname was hyphenated by the 4th Duke, George Spencer-Churchill. The most famous Churchill of recent years, Winston, used Spencer as a middle name, forgoing the hyphen.

Back to the library. The collection began its life at Althorp, where the third Earl of Sunderland resided before his marriage to Anne Churchill. Yes, the same Althorp where another famous Spencer, Princess Diana, the late wife of the Prince of Wales spent her childhood and is now buried.

The third Earl of Sutherland’s career as a statesman and courtier involved many foreign postings, and he used the opportunity to amass an amazing collection of rare books from across Europe. By 1703 it was described as the finest collection in Europe. The collection swelled to 24,000 volumes (and I think I have china storage problems), and the King of Portugal offered to buy it at one point.

Charles Spencer, the Earl of Sunderland’s son, became the third Duke of Marlborough in 1733, and inherited what was then known as the Sunderland Library. He moved the collection from Althorp and built the bookcases you see above to house the collection.

This transition from gallery to library comprised third Duke’s sole contribution to Blenheim. Instead, he lavished time and attention on Langley Park, at the time a lovely Georgian house of beautiful proportions near Windsor. Ironically, it was the kind of house Sarah, the first Duchess of Marlborough, would have adored. It is now a country house hotel.

The collection remained intact until the advent of the 8th Duke of Marlborough, known as “The Wicked Duke”, so called not because of his actual history of extra-curricular marital activities, but because his passion for science and orchids lead him to sell off portions of the Blenheim collection. It’s fascinating that he earned this sobriquet, when his three most recent ducal predecessors made hay with the family fortune by living lives of indulgence and profligacy. But they didn’t sell anything!!!

The 8th Duke (father of Sunny who married Consuelo Vanderbilt) married Lady Albertha Hamilton, a goddaughter to Queen Victoria in 1869. He quickly grew bored with her and began an affair with Edith Aylesford, wife of a great friend of the Prince of Wales. The affair took on unusually public attributes for its time, and culminated in the Duke attempting to seek divorce from Lady Albertha.  Horror of horrors!

While this predilection for marital affairs plunged the 8th Duke into scandal, it was his younger brother, Randolph who really messed things up. Randolph already had a strained relationship with his parents from his precipitate marriage to an American, Jennie Jerome. He won their consent, if not their approval through blackmail, a tactic to which he was attracted, but apparently at which he did not excel, and this was to prove his undoing. Randolph bungled a shocking attempt to blackmail the Prince of Wales into preventing the 8th Duke from achieving a divorce from Lady Albertha, plunging the family into a greater scandal than the one he was seeking to avoid. 

The backlash was immediate, and affected the family in unanticipated ways. Randolph’s father, the 7th Duke was so mortified by Randolph’s actions that he took up the post of Viceroy of Ireland, an ignominious posting, and dragged Randolph, his wife Jennie and their young son, Winston with them. Randolph whiled away the time acting as his father’s unpaid private secretary and perhaps contemplating the unwisdom of inept blackmail attempts.

The Churchills really do have the most interesting family history! But I digress… once more back to the library. The Victorian exhibit included costumes wore during the filming of The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend which was shot on location here. The script was written by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame! I love the clear French blue of the first dress, especially.

I’m not certain of the significance of the long train on this one, but it was gorgeous. I tried to get a closeup of the beadwork on the edge of the velvet, but couldn’t get the camera still enough to capture the detail.

Coronation robes and uniforms were also on display.

Looking down the length of the room, you can just spot the pipe organ at the opposite end. It gives you a sense of the vast proportions of the room, doesn’t it?

Fantastically decorated, the pipe organ takes up the whole of the end wall, rising into the ornately decorated domed ceiling.

Cherubs cavort at the top of the pipes.

And rather gruesomely depicted angelic faces peer out. They reminded me of those horrid dolls whose multi-faceted china heads could be turned on the doll’s body to change the doll’s expression from laughing to crying to sleeping, while a bonnet covered the other faces. They creeped me out enormously as a child, and still do, frankly.

Halfway down the inside wall of the library, one accesses the Winston Churchill Rooms, where Jennie Jerome gave birth to Winston, an unexpectedly early arrival.

Here is the room where he was born, though I gather it didn’t look like this at the time.

As nephew to the 8th Duke, Winston spent his childhood visiting Blenheim, and had very fond memories of the place.

It was here he courted and proposed to his lifelong love, Clementine Hozier. Sunny, 9th Duke of Marlborough good-naturedly arranged a small house party to entice Clementine to visit. 

Despite Sunny’s best efforts, Winston almost blew it by oversleeping. He had arranged to meet Clementine for a walk through the gardens, his undisclosed destination being a summerhouse on the property (actually a neo-classical temple to Diana, Goddess of Hunting) where he planned to pop the question. Sunny noticed Clementine hanging around in the gardens with no Winston in sight, and tactfully diverted her attention with an impromptu carriage-ride, allowing sufficient time for Winston to rouse himself and keep the assignation.

The rest is history. They had a wonderfully supportive, romantic and affectionate marriage. Clementine was no pushover, however, and Winston relied on her to call him on his nonsense; a marvellous union of equal strengths of character.


The exhibit also features one of Winton’s Siren Suits (a big, velvet onesie, really), which he used to sleep in during World War II. A very appropriate garment for the war, especially for a man who was famous for striding about in the nude, much to the discomfort of his staff, when all were roused from bed at a second’s notice to deal with matters of grave importance, such as being bombed.

A quote on the wall sums up Winston Churchill’s philosophy beautifully.

We left the exhibit, traversed back down the library, and headed down a passageway toward the chapel. 

Past a glass enclose interior staircase…

past a bust of John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough…

…into the Main Hall.

From there we went to the Chapel. For someone who avowed simple taste and disliked ornamentation, the first Duchess, Sarah really went to town on the monument for John Churchill, her husband.

You can see the outsized marble tomb over on the right. Good gad.

’nuff said…

The ceiling detail is extremely ornate.

Other than stopping for a delicious lunch, and taking the “behind the scenes” tour (no pictures allowed, as it bordered on the family’s private quarters), that was it for us. The house is overwhelming. We couldn’t even begin to contemplate taking the other three tours on offer, including the private apartments. Perhaps next time.

We did notice, however, they offer weddings at Blenheim, in case anyone is interested. This is from a poster advertising the service, which we noticed when purchasing our tickets for the behind the scenes tour.  How’s that for putting on the Ritz!

For anyone who is interested in learning more about Blenheim and the Churchills, I very much enjoyed Henrietta Spencer Churchill’s book Blenheim and the Churchill Family: A Personal Portrait. Also, Marian Fowler has written two excellent books, Blenheim: Biography of a Palace and In a Gilded Cage: From Heiress to Duchess about the American Dollar Princesses, including Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s s Mother and Consuelo Vanderbilt. 

I’m sharing this post with Between Naps on the Porch.

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