This morning I led a small group from a summer school here in Oxford on a tour of Blenheim Palace. As it turned out today is the anniversary of the battle in 1704, so it was a very suitable day on which to make a visit.
It is a while since I had visited Blenheim, and the whole business of welcoming visitors has expanded, but what was on offer was very well done, and the Palace is impressive, if very much a self conscious national monument - indeed that fact lay at the root of many of the disputes over its construction. It is grand, but impersonal. When the ninth Duke commented about the way the monument of the first Duke dominates the chapel "Here we worship Churchills" he was not far wrong. Of course such a complex building has to be understood in terms of the social norms which dictated its plan, and how these have changes - the rooms were designed for rather different functions than those they present today. I enjoyed this visit more than my previous one - but I would still say there are many more appealing grand houses of families of similar prominence. Nonetheless worth saying you have seen it.One thing I regret is that there is nothing left of Woodstock manor. Apparently Vanburgh wanted to preserve the remains, but the formidable Duchess Sarah insisted upon their removal. From what I have gleaned from the Victoria County History volume for Woodstock it was a substantial complex, and presumably with features from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. A great loss. I am surprised the site has never, so far as I know, been excavated.
Looking round houses such as Blenheim it is often the not so obvious things which stay in the mind. Yesterday these included family photographs of Winston Churchill and other members of the family sitting and talking on the steps of the great entrance circa 1901 - a reminder that this was (and is, I suppose) a family home. There were also the three sheets of the Letters Patent of Queen Victoria appointing the seventh Duke as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1876, all three bordered with the floral badges of the Monarch, and at the top the Royal Arms flanked by the English and Irish Royal Crests - the latter comprising the castle tower with the white hart emerging. Not as good heraldic art as you would get in the twentieth century, but a reminder of the ancient linkage of an undivided Ireland to the Crown.
Amongst the portraits two struck me - one of the first Duke's sister Arabella, mistress of the future King James II and VII and mother of, amongst others, the Jacobite Marshal Duke of Berwick, and the other, perhaps booty from the war which brought Marlborough to such prominence, a state portrait of King Louis XIV, seated in his robes of state and holding the royal sceptre and the Main de Justice. This is not the only portrait of the King at Blenheim - there seems to have been a pleasure in displaying images of the great adversary.