A Sunny Sunday at the Beautiful and Bucolic Blenheim Palace

One never needs an excuse for a family picnic. As Sunday was my birthday, and rather fortuitously, the sunniest and hottest day of the year to date, we drove to Woodstock and spent a fabulous few hours at Blenheim Palace.

Roughly 25 years have flown by since my first visit and my children have never been, so we decided to explore the vast park and gardens that have been home to the Dukes of Marlborough for 300 years.

Blenheim was also the birthplace and ancestral home to former UK Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, being a grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough and a direct descendant of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough.

“Under the auspices of a munificent sovereign this house was built for John Duke of Marlborough, and his Duchess Sarah, by Sir J Vanbrugh between the years 1705 and 1722, and the Royal Manor of Woodstock, together with a grant of £240,000 towards the building of Blenheim, was given by Her Majesty Queen Anne and confirmed by act of Parliament . . . to the said John Duke of Marlborough and to all his issue male and female lineally descending.”

~ Plaque above the East gate of Blenheim Palace

It was fascinating picking up bits of history through an exhibition in the stables, just off the main front courtyard.

Aerial views of Blenheim in winter:

The Battle of Blenheim

During the War of the Spanish Succession, John Churchill 1st Duke of Marlborough proved to be a canny general and diplomat. England was allied with the Dutch Republic, Austria and the Holy Roman Empire, together forming the Grand Alliance against Louis XIV in his brazen attempt at dynastic rule over Spain and their European territories.

The Battle of Blenheim (fought at Blindheim, Bavaria on 13th August 1704), was won under John’s leadership in alliance with Prince Eugene of Savoy, and was a major turning point in deciding the European balance of power.

Rather than engaging in siege warfare against Marshall Tallard and his French forces, Churchill made a strategic, surprise attack forcing an open battle. It was hard fought and hard won, with many casualties on both sides.

The Duke of Marlborough signing the despatch at Blenheim c. 1704

He won further victories at Ramillies in 1706, in Oudenarde in 1708 and Malplaquet in 1709, elevating and securing his position as one of the most successful and respected generals in Europe. The Battle of Blenheim was such an important turning point for Great Britain and its emergence as a military and political leader in Europe, that the estate in Woodstock was gifted to John and Sarah Churchill by a grateful monarchy.

Despite the glorious victory that preceded and heralded Blenheim’s existence, much acrimony surrounded its construction. Blenheim’s birth was not an easy one!

Plan of Blenheim Palace and Gardens c. 1835

A major reason for discord between the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough was John’s controversial choice of architect, Sir John Vanbrugh.

Aided by Nicholas Hawksmoor, he designed and built Blenheim Palace in the English Baroque Style. However the duchess, Sarah Churchill, a close confidante of Queen Anne, had wanted to employ Sir Christopher Wren, who was unassailable after St. Paul’s Cathedral. There was constant bickering between the Duchess and Vanbrugh.

The two could not agree about the fate of the existing Woodstock Manor and lodge, which had served as a royal retreat since the time of King Henry I.

Princess Elizabeth, before ascending to the English throne had been held captive in the lodge between 1554 and 1555 by her half-sister and Queen, Mary Tudor. It had lain in ruins after its destruction at the hands of Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarians since the Civil War.

Ruby in the perfect climbing tree near our picnic spot.

All but a stone pillar was swept away before construction of Blenheim Palace at the behest of the duchess; against the wishes of Vanbrugh, who had wanted to conserve what remained of the original dwelling.

Political infighting with the Tories and Whig Party and a fall out with Queen Anne sent the Churchill’s into ignominious exile on the continent, only returning after Queen Anne’s death in 1714. They took up residence in the east wing of the then unfinished Blenheim, and found themselves back in favour with the new monarchy, the Hanoverian dynasty.

Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough

Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough first cousin of Winston, inherited his dukedom in 1892 under the shadow of personal and family bankruptcy.

The debts incurred by the extravagant spending habits of George Spencer-Churchill, 5th Duke of Marlborough, which John Winston Spencer Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough had not been able to stem, even after selling off many of the family’s heirlooms, forced him into a mercenary and loveless marriage with Consuelo Vanderbilt; the beautiful, young American railroad heiress in 1895.

9th Duke of Marlborough with Consuelo and their sons, by John Singer Sargent

New world Vanderbilt money ensured old world Blenheim’s survival, but the Duke and Duchess were unhappy together. They had two sons to carry on the Marlborough line, but separated in 1906 and divorced in 1921, after which Charles had their marriage annulled.

Consuelo Vanderbilt by Carolus Duran c. 1900

We didn’t go into the house, my daughters made it clear that walking round a stately home would be a fate worse than death; but we did enjoy parts of Blenheim’s formidable 2,000 acres of gardens and grounds.

The Fountain Terraces (complete with sculptures from Bernini’s Italian studio) and lakeside walk are a pleasure to amble through on a sunny afternoon. An ice cream treat doesn’t go amiss either!

Blenheim Palace is unique as a country house in that it is the only non-royal residence (apart from the Church of England’s Lambeth Palace) allowed the status of ‘palace’. Its grandeur had even beguiled Hitler, who instructed that it not be bombed during World War 2, eyeing it as a possible residence should he invade the UK. Fortunately that nightmare scenario did not prevail!

Blenheim Palace was first opened to the public in 1950 and made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

The estate is now home to the 12th Duke of Marlborough and his family, who in his younger, reckless days was labelled the ‘Black Sheep’ of the family by his estranged father John Spencer-Churchill, 11th Duke of Marlborough, also a cousin of Winston Churchill and given the nickname ‘Sunny’, (but not due to his temperament). Eventually father and wayward eldest son were reconciled.

The millions of visitors each year provide the funds for Blenheim’s onerous upkeep.

Before we departed I wandered over the Grand Bridge built and designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, with the Column of Victory looming before me.  Ruby was very tired and had taken to dragging her feet whilst pulling my arm and wailing intermittently.

She begged me mercilessly to let her roly-poly down the steep hill, but I decided the generous amounts of geese poo and the thought of her rolling straight into the lake prohibited that particular fancy…

Grand Bridge and Victory Column

The sun was slowly sinking, its fading light reflected as brilliant, squint inducing starbursts off the water, shimmering and glinting at passers-by, illuminating every last drop of Blenheim’s peace and tranquility.

I eventually turned to head back to our picnic spot to search for Emily’s lost bracelet, but took a moment to admire the distant sandy coloured façade and columns of the palace, standing noble and proud to this day. Blenheim will always be an emblem of courage, fortitude and empire that presides over its Capability Brown landscape and beyond.

William also admiring the view!

Blenheim Palace is the legacy of its founding father and his outstanding military achievement, but each generation of its famous chateleins, (the Spencer-Churchill family), have left their mark in the process of preserving Blenheim for future generations – a national treasure with a magnificent, historic heritage.

“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.” ~ Sir Winston Churchill

The temple of Diana, where Winston Churchill rather romantically proposed to Clementine Hozier during a rain storm in 1908. He later wrote: “My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.”

Bust of Sir Winston Churchill in the WC Memorial Garden

I hope you like my photographs of the grounds and gardens. It’s well worth a visit if you’re ever in the vicinity of Oxford. It will be especially fun for families this Easter weekend. Happy Easter!

A Weekend of History and Music at Warwick Castle

Visually, Warwick Castle has it all: towers, turrets and battlements, a drawbridge entrance over the castle ditch (which would have been filled with sewage rather than water), dungeons, sumptuous living apartments and spectacular views. Historically, you can’t ask for more…

East front of Warwick castle by Canaletto c. 1752

East front of Warwick castle by Canaletto c. 1752


The very first settlement at Warwick Castle was constructed under the rule of Princess Ethelfleda in 914 AD after the Danish invasion. One can only imagine the grim conditions our Anglo-Saxon ancestors had to contend with.  The natural mound at Warwick provided the perfect setting for this defensive garrison against the Vikings. The first true castle was built on the site at the behest of William the Conqueror in 1048, and since then it has been fortified, expanded and improved, providing shelter and protection for noble houses down through the centuries.

The new ‘Time Tower’ shows in great visual detail the entire ancient and amazing history of Warwick Castle.

Throughout its colourful 1100 years of history Warwick Castle attained its zenith of power and prestige during the tenure of Richard Neville, husband of Anne de Beauchamp, who was the daughter of Richard de Beauchamp, the 13th Earl of Warwick.

Richard de Beauchamp was one of the wealthiest men in Medieval England – worth around 34 billion pounds in today’s money – he occupied a position of power as Captain of Calais and England’s lay representative at the Council of Constance. He was active on behalf of Henry V in the Hundred Years War, when he captured and ransomed many prisoners, as well as overseeing the trial and execution of Joan of Arc in Rouen in 1431. He is buried beneath a lavish brass effigy in St. Mary’s Church, which is clearly visible from the castle.

View of St. Mary's Church Warwick from Guy's Tower.

View of St. Mary’s Church Warwick from Guy’s Tower.

His son-in-law, Richard Neville, was bestowed with the title 16th Earl of Warwick by King Henry VI in 1450. At this point in time the quest for power became truly complex and Machiavellian, when Henry VI’s reign came under threat of civil war from the Yorkist faction. Due to his family connections Neville supported the Yorkists, thus Richard Neville, aka ‘The Kingmaker’, had the power to depose the Lancastrian King Henry VI and back his rival cousin, the Yorkist Edward IV in what was known as the ‘War of the Roses’. After Henry VI was captured in 1455 at the battle of St Albans, as a reward for his support, Neville was granted a seat of power by the Yorkist king.

Looking down at the ruined bridge  on the River Avon from Cesar's Tower.

Looking down at the ruined bridge on the River Avon from Cesar’s Tower. In Canaletto’s paintings this bridge is still intact!

All was not smelling of roses for the ‘Kingmaker’ however, because Edward IV later married Elizabeth Woodville and Warwick’s influenced waned. He then plotted against Edward IV with his brother, the Duke of Clarence, raised an army, captured Edward and temporarily imprisoned him in Cesar’s Tower. Warwick then fled to France, having completely ditched his Yorkist alliances and later returned with an army to restore the imprisoned Henry VI to the throne. The ‘Kingmaker’ fought his last battle against Edward’s Yorkist and Burgundian forces in 1471, when he was killed at the Battle of Barnet.

His daughters Isabel and Anne were married to Edward IV’s brothers, George Duke of Clarence and Richard Duke of Gloucester respectively. Richard and his wife Anne Neville took ownership of Warwick Castle in 1478. After the mysterious murder of Edward’s sons, (the Princes in the tower), he became King Richard III in 1483. He commissioned the construction of the Bear and Clarence Towers. The Bear Tower has a pit which kept a bear for the cruel sport of bear baiting during festive tournaments. After Richard III’s untimely death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 the Bear and Clarence Towers were unfinished, remaining at the height visitors still see today.

View of Cesar's Tower from Guy's Tower.

View of Cesar’s Tower from Guy’s Tower.

The new Tudor dynasty didn’t want to be associated with Warwick Castle and it fell into ruin over the following 118 years. It wasn’t until the rule of King James I of England, when it was gifted to the Calvinist Sir Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke in 1604 for his services as treasurer of the navy, chancellor of the exchequer and commissioner to the Treasury, that Greville’s investment of £20,000 towards household improvements returned Warwick Castle to its former glory. During Greville’s ownership the castle was transformed from a military fortress into a stately home.

The Grevilles of Warwick Castle:

When the English Civil War broke out Robert Greville was aligned with the Parliamentarians. He placed guns atop the mound to defend Warwick Castle against Royalist invaders in 1643. This was the last siege that the castle endured. Originally the mound formed an important Norman fortification of the motte and bailey defensive system. The earliest stonework which replaced the Norman wooden walls dates to 1260.

I climbed the mound with the girls, and the view from the top is stunning. Low placards indicate places on the landscape, pointing out the direction and distance of Oxford, The Cotswolds, Stratford-upon-Avon, the grounds landscaped by Capability Brown, the hunting lodge and the church of St. Mary. The grounds that visitors can stroll in today are a living work of art dating back from Capability Brown’s first independent commission for gardens, which helped to pave the way for his future career.

William found the dark, dank gaol which is lit only by a small shaft high on the wall and the even darker, tiny oubliette fearsome and fascinating in equal measure. If you weren’t ransomed you weren’t much use to the Beauchamp family and would have been left to rot in that airless, fetid environment.


We peered under the grates of the pit in Bear Tower, scaled the ramparts, climbed to the top of Guy’s Tower, Cesar’s Tower and went round the Kingmaker displays in the oldest quarters of the castle.

A short documentary about the rich history of Warwick Castle:


There’s plenty to see and do both indoors and outdoors at Warwick. We spent two days there and on the Sunday when it poured with rain we saw the Great Hall and its historic armoury, as well as exploring the state apartments where Daisy, Countess of Warwick used to host her infamous ‘royal weekend’ parties in the late 19th Century.

The girls also enjoyed the special show and story in the Princess Tower!

Outdoors there are regular displays of the castle’s birds of prey, consisting of eagles, owls and an Andean condor, the largest bird of prey in the world, whose aerodynamic skills are demonstrated with the guidance of the professional resident Falconer. The kids absolutely loved this show.

Andean Condor in flight - low just above the log.

Andean Condor in flight – low just above the log.

Unfortunately the Trebuchet wasn’t working when we visited, (I hope it wasn’t because of this recent incident), but usually the world’s largest modern working siege machine, which measures 18 metres high and weighs 30 tonnes, does a daily display of medieval warfare by slinging a fiery canon to demonstrate its effectiveness at catapulting all kinds of unsavoury ammunition at castles under siege.

There’s also a Horrible Histories show (which we missed), and the Great Joust tournament re-enacts the medieval sport of choice for brave knights throughout August.

The Longbow

We all enjoyed the humorous and knowledgeable demonstration by Lewis Copson, the bowman at Warwick, who took his audience back to the 14th Century and the incident that inspired the creation of the longbow by two Welsh men walking through the forest. One tripped on an elm branch, and losing his temper decided to snap the branch. When he couldn’t he decided to attach some string and fired a twig at his laughing companion. Elm was used successfully by the Welsh, and later adopted by the English and their armies, eventually evolving into Yew longbows that were known for their strength and flexibility.

A bowman in battle had to be able to fire a few hundred yards, and have the strength to pull back 125 lbs of draw weight. The Warwick bowman’s Cariadus (Welsh for beloved) had a draw weight of 75 lb, the most he could physically pull and (he was no slouch).  The command to put the arrow in, pull back and fire was knock, draw, loose.

A would-be 'Kingmaker'!

A would-be ‘Kingmaker’!

In medieval England boys from the age of six would practice after church and before the pub on Sunday. Their bones hadn’t yet fully developed and fused, which meant that they developed oversized shoulders from pulling back over the years, and grew up with one side slightly higher and beefier!!

It was the bowmans’ expertise (along with bad weather and freezing mud) that meant the French were defeated at Agincourt in 1415. We also learnt that to test his bow was correctly strung the bowman would curl his fist, put his thumb up and place it in the curve of the wood. If there was a small gap between the end of his thumb and the string that was good. Hence the origination of the thumbs up sign to indicate that all is well!


Under the stewardship of the first Earl of Warwick, Francis Greville (who inherited the estate in 1727), Warwick Castle was ushered into the age of enlightenment and transformed into a civilised country house. He built a new state dining room, commissioned Lancelot ‘Capabiltiy Brown’ to landscape the gardens and paid Canaletto the sum of £58 to paint five informal landscape scenes of the castle.

South front of Warwick Castle by Canaletto c. 1749

South front of Warwick Castle by Canaletto c. 1749

The next three generations of house Greville: George, Henry and George spent a fortune on works of art collected from their travels in Europe, amassing one of the largest private collections of art in the world, containing paintings by Van Dyck, Rubens and Rembandt.


IMG_20150712_110156When staying at Warwick Castle why not try glamorous camping?!

We had a two day pass to the castle and an overnight stay in a King’s Tent, with full English breakfast in the big banqueting tent. These posh tents are right at the southern end of the grounds, and ours overlooked the River Avon.

William and I even managed to play a game of chess. It would have been wonderfully peaceful had it not been for the heavy machinery that arrived at 5.30am on Sunday morning to take down the stage from the music performance the night before.

Sounds in the grounds

IMG_20150711_193020On Saturday night we were treated to a concert by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra with Lucy O’Byrne singing some lovely arias in between their orchestral pieces. It was a relaxed atmosphere, families had brought picnics and the Pageant Field was brimming with concert goers.

When they played Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain an ace pilot came zooming above us doing acrobatics in his spitfire.

Lucy O’Byrne singing Ebben Ne Andro Lontana at Warwick Castle:

At the end of the concert there was a firework display and we managed to get back to the tent just before the heavens opened.


All in all a fun weekend of learning, exploration and culture.