Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Blenheim Revisited

As today is the 308th anniversary of the battle of Blenheim in 1704 and as I led three groups from an Oxford summer school out to Blenheim Palace on Saturday and Sunday and gave them introductory talks about the history of the building and the Churchill family and a tour it seems appropriate to write something about it today.

Blenheim Palace

Image: Blenheim7k.co.uk

When I give these tours, and I have done several this summer, I stress the fact that in building the palace as a thank offering to the first Duke of Marlborough the political nation was very much aware of the significance of his victory at Blenheim and of his later victories at Ramilles, Oudenarde and Malplaquet, over the armies of King Louis XIV.
Firstly these were the first major defeats of the formidable French military machine in many decades.
Secondly this was the first time an English land army had secured a major victory over the old enemy on the continent since the battle of  Verneuil in 1424, 280 years earlier.
Thirdly we can see with hindsight that Marlborough's military victories do mark - or recognise - the emergence of Britain as a major military and diplomatic power in the Europe of the eighteenth century - something we had not really been as a country, and despite what we might like to think, since the fifteenth century - we had been too pre-occupied with our own succession disputes and the disasters of reformation and civil war.
In recent years the presentation of Blenheim Palace has been greatly improved - in the 1980s it was not getting very good reviews in the heritage press - and there is a lot to see and do with exhibitions about both the Marlborough family and about Winston Churchill who was, of course, born at the Palace in 1874.

The way in which the Palace celebrates the French opponent is rather surprising - not only does King Louis XIV preside in a state portrait over on e of the great reception rooms, and the fleur de lys is prominent on captured standards from Marlborough's victories and the standards presented annually to the Sovereign as rent for the Woodstock estate, but most strikingly in the great bust of Le Roi Soleil which sits on top of the centre of the south facade of Vanburgh's building - captured in the Low Countries by the first Duke he brought it back and incorporated it in his new building. It may be grandiloquent as a gesture, but it also suggest repect and magnanimity towards an opponent

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