Winston Churchill is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s most significant people, a man known for his inspirational speeches and great leadership. Although Churchill was not a member of the royal family, this giant of British politics was born into the privileged classes in one of Europe’s grandest residences, the magnificent Blenheim Palace.
Situated in the heart of rural Oxfordshire and approaching its 300th birthday, Blenheim is a fascinating place that offers a glimpse into Britain’s aristocratic world, and while Churchill’s birth remains the most significant event in the palace’s history, there are a host of other interesting stories about it too.
Blenheim Palace looks best in late summer when fleeting sunshine illuminates its gold-cream limestone columns and the light runs away down the billiard table-flat lawns. Designed in perspective to look in proportion from afar, the palace building itself covers a ground area of 7 acres. By comparison, the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington covers just 4 acres.
The original royal estate–albeit in a fairly rundown condition and containing no extravagant building—was given by a grateful nation to John Churchill after he was the victorious general in the Battle of Blenheim in southern Germany in 1704. Accepting the gift, John, who had been made the first Duke of Marlborough two years earlier, began to create his life near the small market town of Woodstock, a short distance from Oxford.
John Churchill’s greatest asset, however, was not his undoubted military genius. It was his wife, Sarah. Despite a volcanic temper, she had charmed her way into court and become best friends with Queen Anne. She is even said to have bullied the shy queen into promoting her husband and then awarding him the royal estate.
The cost of building a palace on the estate, however, was beyond the Churchills’ means until they secured a grant from Parliament. Naming it after the famous battle was a moment of inspiration.
The architect, John Vanbrugh, was determined that Blenheim should be the most striking building in Europe. He succeeded, but as is common with architects, his unlimited ambition was beyond his limited budget and costs skyrocketed. Parliament had not specified how much money was to be granted, but in 1712 they decided that they’d given quite enough already and pulled the plug. The Churchills were then accused of corruption and greed and their relationship with the royal family deteriorated when Sarah fell out with Queen Anne after browbeating her once too often.
The Blenheim building project was only finished in the years after Queen Anne’s death in 1714 when the Churchills returned to royal favor, but there were more problems to come. Most dukes have huge incomes to finance their huge houses. The Churchills did not. Their palace was an expensive liability, and it didn’t help that John’s successors knew better how to spend money than make it. By the 19th century, the Churchills were bankrupt. Then, in 1895, the palace was saved from ruin by the marriage of the ninth Duke to American millionaire heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt. American money saved Blenheim, but it was not the first Anglo-American connection for the Churchill family—the ninth duke’s uncle, Lord Randolph Churchill, had already wed Jennie Jerome from Brooklyn in 1874. She was just 20 years old, beautiful, intelligent and an excellent pianist.
Just eight months into their marriage, Jennie and Randolph were visiting Blenheim and were admiring the grounds, but during the tour, Jennie had a fall and was borne back to the house by carriage. Randolph thought she had been carried a little too roughly, but his young wife recovered sufficiently to attend a ball that evening in the Long Library.
Jennie was the center of the party as always, but as the band was playing a waltz, suddenly she felt a sharp pain in her stomach. Jennie was done with dancing and retreated to a side room to recover her composure where, to the surprise of everyone but the couple themselves, a few hours later she gave birth to a son, Winston.
In order to avoid any embarrassment, Jennie and her husband told everybody that Winston had been born prematurely, an event caused by the fall in the gardens combined with the bumpy carriage ride and over exertion at the ball. The scandal of a baby born after premarital conception was unthinkable.
Of his inauspicious birth, Winston said much later: “Although present on the occasion, I have no clear recollection of the events leading up to it.”
Winston Churchill never lived in Blenheim, but he was a regular visitor of his cousin, the ninth duke. In 1908, at the age of 34, he proposed to Clementine Hozier in the grounds in the pouring rain. She accepted, and their marriage remained strong for their rest of their lives.
Winston later said: “At Blenheim, I took two very important decisions: to be born and to marry. I am content with the decision I took on both occasions.”
Stories about the Churchills are central to Blenheim Palace which remains one of Britain’s most popular stately homes. Winston’s Blenheim connection was completed in 1965 after his extravagant state funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral in central London. Instead of burial at that world famous place of worship, the body of Britain’s greatest prime minister was put to rest in Oxfordshire, at Bladon Church, where all the Churchills are buried, and just a mile from where he was born.