Recently I played hooky from my desk for a day and went to Blenheim Palace. I’d read about it, of course, and I’ve seen it in any number of movies, but this was my first visit.
The palace is a world heritage site and it well deserves that honour. It is amazing, but I had to wonder if some of my reaction to it is due to the fact that I am Australian.
We have nothing like that in Australia.
The Palace took many years to build and was finally completed in 1772. At that time, Europeans had yet to find their way to Australia. The indigenous Australians were mainly nomads, who lived off the rich land and felt no need to build permanent structures.
The other big difference of course is that Australia doesn’t have an aristocracy. In the early years of our settlement, a ‘squatocracy’ developed. This was the elite of the colony – the squatters – who owned vast areas of land and cattle and sheep stations. But this was never a formal social structure as it is in the UK. Some of the homesteads on those properties are impressive – but there is nothing at all on the scale of Blenheim.
Blenheim is the only place in the UK which is called a ‘palace’ even though it is not a royal residence. This is because it was built on royal land. Queen Anne gifted it to the First Duke of Marlborough – on behalf of ‘a grateful nation’ after he defeated the French in battle.
During my visit (crowds were very small because it was mid-week and off season), I got to wander through the halls. But I also took a tour of the parts of the palace that are still private. The Duke of Marlborough and his family still live there, but they weren’t home at the time.
By chance, we ran into the Duke’s butler, who joined us walking around the guest bedrooms (about 18 of them), telling us very discreet tales of what it’s like living and working in such a place. Amazingly, he is just 19 years old.
Apparently it takes 34 seconds to get a meal from the kitchens to the Duke’s table up one floor and along a corridor. This would be a meal prepared by the Michelin starred chef who is part of the Duke’s staff.
The family has 11 staff. That’s private staff and doesn’t include the people who deal with visitors and gift shops and tours and such. Nor does that include the groundsman who look after the great park.
When the family is staying in their town house in Oxford, their laundry is still brought to the palace and washed and ironed by the laundry maid and taken back to the house. And meals are sometimes prepared at the palace and then delivered to the family in their other residences. Wow – that’s a whole new definition of ordering take out.
One of the things that struck me is that magnificent as it is, the palace has been quite a burden to the family. It is a heritage to be preserved at all costs – and what costs they are! Obviously, the money paid by people like me to tour the place helps with its upkeep. People pay to hold private shooting parties there. And the estate includes tens of thousands of acres of rich farmland.
But the history of the palace talks about times when the family finances went into decline. There is mention of past Dukes who were, shall we say, not particularly responsible with money.
Apparently, it was on the brink of ruin when, in 1895, the 9th Duke married American railroad heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt – and received a dowry of (in today’s terms) about 75 million dollars. Impoverished aristocracy marries new money seeking social standing – it’s a story we have all heard and in this case the marriage was apparently a disaster. It was annulled in 1921, and both parties sought happiness elsewhere. The Palace, however, was now back in good shape for the future.
Blenheim is an amazing place – particularly for a girl who grew up in the Australian bush. I spent the whole day there and didn’t see everything, so I will go back again. Maybe I’ll get to talk to the butler again – because the butler always knows the secrets hidden behind the spectacular façade.