Finest Hour 187, First Quarter 2020
By Robert Courts
Robert Courts is Member of Parliament for Witney. He lives with his family in Bladon, abutting Blenheim Park.
Winston Churchill is reported to have 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.” Certainly the remark typifies his characteristically understated humour, giving as it does only a hint of the role that Blenheim Palace played in his life. In fact, it made up part of the fabric of his hinterland: a vision of what he came from, was, and wanted to be.
But Blenheim is and was much more than just a gorgeous backdrop to the lives of either Winston Churchill or his ancestor John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. Whilst it was this weight of history, so vividly portrayed at Blenheim, that made the young Winston acutely aware of his ancestry—and his destiny— there is a much greater story to be told in the way Blenheim has shaped and been shaped by the surrounding area.
The Palace Then
Winston notes in the first few pages of the biography he wrote of his father Lord Randolph Churchill: “The antiquity of Woodstock is not measured by a thousand years, and Blenheim is heir to all the memories of Woodstock.” The area had seen Kings, Roman settlement, Civil War strife, and even a wild animal menagerie all before Marlborough’s battlefield triumph in 1704 superimposed a palace and park of supreme, if highly cultivated, beauty over the ancient landscape.
Winston’s own contribution to the history of Blenheim began with his birth in 1874. As the years went by, young Winston learned to ride his pony Rob Roy in the grounds of Blenheim, and it was as the youngest minister of King Edward VII in 1908 that Churchill proposed to Clementine in the Temple of Diana, which today is accompanied by a memorial garden with a timeline walk that commemorates the life of Blenheim’s most famous son.
Blenheim was also the scene of Winston’s first exposure to the earthier world of front-line politics, since his father’s political career began at much the same time that Winston was born. In that era, the parliamentary constituency in which Blenheim sat was known as Woodstock. Already an illustrious seat by the time of Lord Randolph’s election, previous incumbents had included William Lenthall, the Speaker who famously defied Charles I when he attempted to arrest the Five Members at the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642.
Some nine months before Winston’s birth and two months before his marriage to Jenny Jerome, Lord Randolph was elected to represent Woodstock. At the time, the constituency was effectively the Marlborough family seat, controlled by the palace. Spencer-Churchills had even been elected unopposed in the 1850s, and the unreformed nature of Woodstock was the subject of a debate that was one of Lord Randolph’s early triumphs.
The Palace Now
Today most of what made up the Woodstock constituency lies in the constituency of Witney. Whereas Lord Randolph only had to campaign towards an electorate of about 1,000—significantly fewer voters than in the smallest Council ward today—his successor in 2020 faces an electorate of approximately 80,000. And certainly Lord Randolph’s substitution of his wife Jennie to campaign in his place during the general election of 1885 would be unlikely to have the same successful result today, no matter how talented the wife. Small wonder that Lord Randolph was worried about “how the workers would go” as the franchise expanded.
More has changed, though, than just the size of the constituency. Whilst Blenheim was the venue for numerous Conservative party rallies over the years, not only for Lord Randolph and Winston but also for Mrs. Thatcher as recently as 1977, the advent of the Blenheim Trust has led to a more politically neutral stance in recent times as the palace transitions from ducal family stronghold to local community institution.
What has not changed is that the Blenheim Estate remains a major local employer and landowner. This makes working closely with the estate as critical for a modern MP as it was during Lord Randolph’s time. Winston’s father poured himself into tasks such as working closely with his own father, the seventh Duke, to bring the railway to Woodstock—at the latter’s personal expense—a project “so absorbing that politics seem for a time to have been almost abandoned” and involving himself in local causes like the restoration of Woodstock Church.
Both then and now, the Blenheim Estate offers assistance if possible. On Christmas Eve 1874 (something of a big year in the life of Lord Randolph Churchill: marriage, the birth of Winston, and election to Parliament), the Shipton-on-Cherwell railway disaster saw the local MP rendering assistance in the most practical way possible when he rushed from Blenheim to assist in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Also unchanged is the fact that local matters are of paramount importance to any MP, even the mercurial Lord Randolph. Winston later recorded— with seeming surprise—that, during the first three years his father served in the House of Commons, the Member for Woodstock spoke “usually on matters connected with Woodstock”—a position that will be understood immediately by any MP elected for the first time, learning to represent his constituency effectively, and with an infant son waiting at home!
Now, as then, Blenheim Palace is much more than a stunningly beautiful tourist attraction, even if the business of the estate today rests in the hands of a trust. But the palace was, and is, intertwined in the daily life of the people who live in the demesne villages that surround the park. Winston was second in command of the Woodstock squadron of the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars around 1901, for example, and played a major role in increasing the professionalism of the unit as the First World War approached, the squadron’s military exercises often taking place in Blenheim Park.
The Blenheim Estate today hosts many local events. It invests in the local community and provides free access to the estate’s vast acreage for those who live around the park. It boasts its own fleet of electric vehicles and is actively engaged in local housing and farming as well as forestry conservation, and management. The trust take the view that the estate will remain for hundreds of years to come and that the mission of “keeping Blenheim going” as a memorial to Marlborough and Churchill as well as a World Heritage Site remains as critical now as ever. Choosing the local Member of Parliament, however, is a job that most certainly has passed to others.