Touring Blenheim Palace: Birthplace of Winston Churchill

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Our next stop is technically the town of Nottingham, but the pit stop we made along the way was so grandiose that I feel it deserving of its own post. Blenheim Palace, a “country house” just outside the village of Woodstock is one of England’s largest homes and the only home in the country to be given the title of “Palace” without a connection to the crown or the church. It is also the birthplace of Winston Churchill and where he spent quite a bit of time as a child. 

The house was built by John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough in the early 1700s and has been home to various members of the Churchill family for the past 300 years. Technically, Winston Churchill never “lived” at Blenheim Palace (it was owned by his uncle the Duke of Marlborough) but the Duke and Duchess threw lavish parties and Churchill’s parents apparently liked to party.

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The palace is the picture of opulence — completely unnecessary in size and extravagance. But still very beautiful, particularly the grounds and gardens. You enter the palace by way of the enormous courtyard (pictured above). I seriously can’t image a reason for this space other than a giant parking lot for their lavish parties.

The palace itself is full of marble, gold ceiling decorations, and enormous wall tapestries. There are more “drawing rooms” than anyone could possibly need.

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The official robes of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, who actually still live here, by the way. Their living quarters are on the second floor, which we were not able to tour. The robes reminded me of a much more regal version of what Mr. and Mrs. Clause might wear during Christmas.

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The exhibits devoted to Winston Churchill were interesting, and I’m guessing the main reason people visit Blenheim Palace. Churchill apparently had a very loving romantic relationship with his wife. They wrote each other love letters throughout their lives, each signed with a drawing of either a dog or cat to signify their pet-names for one another.

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Below is a photo of the bedroom where Churchill was born. He was born two months premature, during a party his parents were attending at the palace. Supposedly, his mother unexpectedly went into labor from too much vigorous dancing. There wasn’t enough time to get her into one of the more private and luxurious rooms upstairs so baby Winston was born here, in a room right off of the grand foyer. The story goes that when the palace was planning to open its doors to the public, the Duke asked Churchill if he would like to choose one of the nicer rooms to present as his birthplace. Churchill declined.

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A number of Churchill’s belongings were on display, such as this large collection of toy soldiers from his childhood. Churchill had fond memories of the time he spent at Blenheim Palace during his youth, which was apparently extensive as he was often left here in the care of his aunt and uncle because his mother prefered being a socialite to motherhood. At least, that was how the story was presented by the tour guides. My understanding is that parents during this time period (at least very wealthy parents who could afford the hired help) took a very hands-off approach to raising their children. Children were often left in the care of a nanny or governess and private tutors. So Churchill’s mother might not have been as intentionally neglectful as the tour made it sound. She may have just been doing exactly what all the other socialite mums were doing at the time. Or maybe she really did just like to party.

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The palace underwent some very expensive and elaborate renovations during the early 1900s. The 9th Duke of Marlborough (Churchill’s uncle) was nearly broke until he struck a deal with the American Vanderbilt family and married Consuelo Vanderbilt in a deal that netted him $2.5 million dollars in American railroad stock and a guaranteed yearly income of $100,000 a year for life. For reference, $2.5 million dollars then would be over $60 million in today’s dollars). The Vanderbilt’s got a fancy title for their daughter and the  palace was saved from ruin. Nevermind the fact that Consuelo was very much forced into the marriage, supposedly locked in a room until she consented and threatened with the murder of her current lover if she refused.

The absolutely ridiculous drawing rooms are the result of that expensive renovation. It was as if the Duke was trying to prove the family still had money by using as much gold paint as humanly possible.

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The large portrait below depicts the 9th Duke and his wife Consuelo with their two children. They had completely ceased speaking to each other by the time this portrait was done. Consuelo was much taller than her husband, which he resented, so he had the artist paint in a set of stairs so that it appeared he was standing on a lower step and not actually shorter than her. In return, Consuelo had the artist exaggerate her already famously long neck, making her appear even taller.

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The tapestry below is apparently famous because the artist put horses hooves on the dog.  Maybe he just made a mistake and thought no one would notice. Or maybe they had special boots for dogs used in battle, you know, to protect their sensitive feet.

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The library (thankfully) was spared from the golden paint trend and was actually rather interesting. Like the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the palace library had a locked upper balcony that was not accessible without a key. This type of library was popular when books were very expensive. Larger books  (kept on the lower level) could be chained to the shelves but smaller books could not. These smaller volumes were kept on the locked upper level for security. It also makes for a lovely bit of architecture.

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Notice the enormous organ at the end of the corridor. They are currently raising funds for its repair. The cost of maintaining the palace is apparently astronomical. It’s a problem that has plagued the family for the past 300 years and one of the reasons that they opened it up to public tours.

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The tour of the palace itself ends at the chapel. It actually felt small compared to some of the other spaces. All of the past Dukes and Duchesses of Marlborough are interred in a vault below the chapel.

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Technically, nearly every part of Blenheim Palace is open to visitors, even the upper floors where the current Duke and Duchess live and the basement level where the staff live and work. However, these floors are only open for specially scheduled tours and they were all booked up. I would have really loved to see the palace kitchen. Unable to book a tour, we continued on to the gardens.

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The lawns are absolutely enormous. Brandon kept talking about how perfectly the grass was mowed and what type of equipment they might use. I think he could probably be happy just mowing grass for the rest of his life.

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This was a rather unusual garden, possibly decorative hedgerows in progress.

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My favorite garden was the “secret” garden, built by the Duke as a private escape after the palace was opened to public tours. After his death the garden was also made public. It must be very strange for the family that still lives here to have all of these people at their home everyday. They live in this enormous house yet probably spend most of their time in the few private spaces they have left.

Update: Through additional research I just learned that the family lives in a 46-room 4-story block encompassing the entire east wing of the palace. They have 12 bedrooms. Still probably strange to live in a museum, but not at all sympathetic. In a 2014 Vanity Fair article following the Duke’s death they wrote that he remembered when the family lived in the entirety of the house. Opening it to the public and moving to the east wing felt like “down-sizing”. He was quoted as saying, “Now we have this small area, . . . [b]ut it’s quite warm and cozy, and quite effective as a family home.” www.vanityfair.com.

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The secret garden was lovely, more wild and lush than some of the other English gardens on the property, though still meticulously maintained.

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We saw an old black and white photo during the tour of the Duke sitting on this very same bench, or at least a similar looking bench in the exact same spot.

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After touring the secret garden we walked back to the car to drive over to the Pleasure Gardens, where the family tennis courts were located, as well as a hedgemaze for children. On the way to the hedgemaze, which I wanted to walk through despite the fact that it was mainly for kids, we found an exhibit devoted to maintenance of the grounds and gardens. Brandon got a kick out of see all the old equipment.

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The gardeners would have slept in rooms like this. These days they probably drive home to their families at the end of the day.

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The pleasure gardens are really for children but the maze was a ton of fun. It’s not very long and pretty easy to solve. It only took us about 20 minutes. They also had giant chess and giant checkers. We were definitely the biggest kids there.

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We stopped by the Garden Cafe on the way out and picked up some road snacks to get us through the rest of our drive to Nottingham. Yes, I mean “that” Nottingham. Robin Hood may or may not have really existed but if he did this village would have been his stomping grounds. England is a pretty incredible place. We started off our day touring the most elaborate home I have ever seen and finished with a pint at the oldest pub in England! More on that story coming up next!

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3 thoughts on “Touring Blenheim Palace: Birthplace of Winston Churchill

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