Antonia Keaney is author of A Passion for Fashion—300 Years of Style at Blenheim Palace (Unicorn 2019), from which the quotations in this article are drawn.
Blenheim Palace is famous for many things, and one of its leading claims to fame is that it happens to be the birth- place of a certain Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill—twice prime minister of Great Britain, accomplished writer, artist, and skilled bricklayer.
One may be surprised at hearing Winston Churchill referred to as a style icon, in much the same way that one might express surprise at his being described as “wonderfully pretty” (Lord Randolph’s description of his prematurely born son in a letter to his mother-in-law), but icons tend to develop rather than to be born, and that is certainly true of Winston Churchill.
Lord Randolph Churchill ’s life has long been over-shadowed by the enduring fame of his son. By comparison with Winston’s heroic feats as a war leader, the father’s political career was brief, embedded in the obscure and long-forgotten politics of late Victorian Britain, and a conspicuous failure. It is no surprise, therefore, that he attracts comparatively little attention, but in one respect, at least, the situation fails to do him justice. Winston Churchill was, in more ways than one, his father’s creation.
Randolph Churchill (1849–1895) was the second surviving son of the seventh Duke of Marlborough. After Eton, and Magdalen College Oxford, where he obtained a respectable degree in law and history, he devoted most of his time to fox hunting. In 1874 he was elected to the House of Commons as the Conservative MP for Woodstock, a small country town at the gates of Blenheim Palace, where the duke’s influence over the electors virtually guaranteed his victory. Randolph contested the seat partly from loyalty to his family, and partly in return for his father’s permission to marry Jennie Jerome, a match of which he initially disapproved. As yet he gave no sign of ambition and neglected politics in favour of high society. He and Jennie were a dazzling young couple at the heart of the “Marlborough House Set,” the favourite friends and companions of “Bertie,” the philandering Prince of Wales.
In 1876 a scandal plunged Randolph into conflict with “Bertie.” The Earl of Aylesford, a companion of the Prince, planned to divorce his wife on the grounds that she had committed adultery with Randolph’s elder brother, the Marquess of Blandford. In an attempt to prevent the scandal from becoming public, Randolph threatened to produce compromising letters the Prince had written to Lady Aylesford some years before. It was a daring move, driven by ferocious loyalty to the good name of the Churchills. Aylesford dropped the divorce proceedings, but the Prince was furious and instructed his friends to ostracise Randolph, in effect banishing him from high society. For the next eight years, until a reconciliation occurred, Randolph lived under the shadow of royal displeasure. “In the interval,” wrote Winston in his father’s biography, “a nature originally genial and gay contracted a stern and bitter quality, a harsh contempt for what is called ‘Society’, and an abiding antagonism to rank and authority.”1
125 Years ago
Autumn 1891 • Age 17
“He is just at the ‘ugly’ stage”
Lady Randolph had written Lord Randolph in late July that Winston “has improved very much in looks.” She wrote to him again on 25 September that “on the whole he has been a very good boy— but honestly he is getting to be too old for a woman to manage and he really requires to be with a man…He is just at the ‘ugly’ stage—slouchy and tiresome.” In the first volume of the Official Biography of his father, Randolph Churchill wrote of his grandmother that “Unless Winston’s looks greatly fluctuated, it would seem that Lady Randolph was somewhat capricious in her judgment for only two months earlier she had written that he had improved very much in looks.”
His mother’s “ugly” comment, however, was not directed toward her son’s looks. Rather, it was directed at Winston’s manners and maturity, especially towards his mother. That “ugliness” of which she wrote was in full bloom as he reached his seventeenth birthday. The occasion for such a prolonged display of “ugliness” was the desire of Harrow’s Head Master that Winston stay the Christmas holidays with a French family so as to improve his French in preparation for the Sandhurst exams. In this, the Head Master was simply carrying out Lord Randolph’s desire that everything be done at Harrow to ensure that Winston made it into Sandhurst.
Lord Randolph was still in South Africa on business during the summer when he received Winston’s letter recounting, among other things, the abandoned factory windows he and some other Harrow students had broken. In his reply to Winston on 27 June, Lord Randolph made no reference to the broken windows. Rather, in distinct contrast to many of his critical letters to his son, he began this one in a cheery upbeat manner:
You cannot think how pleased I was to get your interesting & well-written letter & to learn that you are getting on well. I understand that Mr Welldon thinks you will be able to pass your examination into the Army when the time comes. I hope it may be so, as it will be a tremendous pull for you ultimately.
He concluded the letter with “Ever yr most affte father” and added a p.s. that he was “doubtful about being able to bring home a tame antelope.” In a letter to his father on 22 July, Winston clarified what he wanted: “I never meant you to bring home a ‘live’ antelope. What I meant was a head for my room.” Read More >
Lord Randolph Churchill died in January 1895 at the age of forty-five. His son Winston Churchill claimed thirty-five years later in his autobiographical volume My Early Life that Lord Randolph had died “at the moment when his new fortune almost exactly equaled his debts.”1 Ever since historians have usually accepted this verdict.2
It is true that Winston’s parents had struggled with money all their married lives. The Churchill and Jerome families had contributed enough assets to the young couple’s marriage settlement to put them in the top percentile of Britain’s income earners at £3,000 a year; in addition, Lord Randolph’s father, the seventh Duke of Marlborough, gave them an extra £10,000 with which to buy a London house.3
Yet this start had never been enough to satisfy the expensive tastes that Lord Randolph and Jennie Jerome had acquired in their youth: Jennie could no more give up buying her clothes from expensive designers in Paris than Lord Randolph could cast off the male Churchills’ fondness for gambling. Read More >
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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.