Blenheim, forerunner to the HNS Conference

first-churchillsI’d never been to Blenheim, or Blenheim Palace as it’s more properly called. I knew it was the home of John and Sarah Churchill, the first (gifted and ambitious) Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, by having watched The First Churchills, an excellent BBC series made in 1969.

Built built between 1705 and circa 1722 in the English Baroque style, it’s the only palace that wasn’t a royal or episcopal one, a gift (mostly) from a grateful nation for Marlborough’s military triumphs against the French and Bavarians during the War of the Spanish Succession, culminating in the 1704 Battle of Blenheim.

However (there’s always a ‘however’), soon after its construction began, the palace became the subject of political infighting which led to Marlborough’s exile, the fall from power and influence of his duchess and lasting damage to the reputation of the architect Sir John Vanbrugh.


The Great Court


Consuelo Vanderbilt by Paul César Helleu

At the end of the 19th century, the palace was saved from ruin by funds gained from the 9th Duke of Marlborough’s marriage to American railroad heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt. Her mother, Alva Vanderbilt, was desperate to see her daughter a duchess, and the bride’s father, William Vanderbilt, paid for the privilege. The final price was $2,500,000 (worth over $70 million today) but it wasn’t a very happy marriage; and they separated and both remarried. The other famous fact is that Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim and retained close links all his life with his cousins there.


Isobel, giving us some background

When one of my colleagues on the  a fellow member of the Historical Novel Society organising committee asked for a volunteer to accompany the group making the excursion there, I leapt at it. Although cloudy,it didn’t actually rain. We had a friendly and knowledgeable guide, Isobel, from Explore Oxford Tours, plus an indoor guide, the softly spoken William.

Although a ‘national monument’ and UNESCO World Heritage Site the palace remains the home of the Dukes of Marlborough. The palace, park, and gardens are open to the public and include a maze, adventure playground, mini-train, gift shops, butterfly house, fishing, cafeteria and bottled Blenheim Natural Mineral Water. Game, farming and property rentals, along with concerts, filming and festivals in the palace and park help keep the palace financially afloat.


Our happy band

Our jolly group enjoyed the house tour and then explored part of the grounds by buggy, taking the obligatory photos, plus a few anarchic ones, ate in the cafeteria in the basement (very tastefully decorated, but we knew our place) and strengthened ourselves by some retail therapy.



So what did we see?
(My anarchic selection!)


Eye-eye! The second wife of the 9th duke had their eyes painted under the main portico





Beautiful ceiling, library


Churchill and Spencer ladies



Interesting selection on one shelf (Click to see what I mean.)



Tapestry of Marlborough accepting the French surrender after the Battle of Blindheim 1704


Water terraces



Gilded decoration


The classic view


Sheep, geese and Victory


One side of the Great Court






Retail therapy results

















































































Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIO and AURELIA. The fifth in the series, INSURRECTIO, was published in April 2016.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines…

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