Consuelo – The Woman Who Saved Blenheim Palace

Dowry and Forced marriages are often associated with Asian and Indian communities. But even until the late 19 th century, bankrupt European Aristocracy depended for the survival of their estates, on the enormous dowries brought by women from across the Atlantic . While the Dukes and Counts had titles and class, their coffers were empty through high living, sporting, philandering and mismanagement of assets. The Americans coveted those titles and were more than willing to part with their precious dollars, for entry into these exclusive circles. Through English eyes, the Americans were upstarts without any nobility or titles. But as long as they had the means they were welcome. Besides, American women were witty, attractive, well dressed and flighty, unlike the English prudes with their Victorian cultural inhibitions, their false modesty and cumbersome restrictive costumes.

These “dollar princesses” crossed the Atlantic on luxury liners, to marry their English Lords. This was the stuff dreams were made of! The author Edith Wharton called them ‘buccaneers.’ Their fathers poured thousands of dollars into decrepit castles and perishing estates, to buy their daughters these coveted titles.

Blenheim Palace is one such estate that survived because of a woman’s dowry. Situated 10 miles away from the ‘dreamy spires’ of Oxford, in the midst of 2100 acres of greenery, of landscaped gardens and terraced waterfalls, the palace is better known for its association with Sir Winston Churchill. Though he had no legal claims to the Dukedom, he was born prematurely at the palace on November 30 th 1874 , when his parents were down for a party.

The story of Consuelo Vanderbilt the 9 th Duchess of Marlborough reads like a sad novel. At the age of seventeen, she was forced into a loveless marriage by her ‘socially climbing vulture of a mom.’ Her heart was with another young man, but true love didn’t stand a chance against the machinations of her ambitious mother Alva. The woman feigned a heart attack when Consuelo refused to marry the Duke of Marlborough, and triumphed in her scheming where persuasion failed. Alva then began to groom her daughter for the marriage of the century, to the impassive ninth Duke Charles Richard John Spencer. His apathetic demeanour was anything but ‘Sunny’ – a pet name by which he was known.

In a way, he too was making a sacrifice for the survival of Blenheim, as he was in love with another girl. He was only twenty three when he pledged his troth to the seventeen year old Consuelo Vanderbilt on November 6 th 1895 , at St. Thomas Church , New York .

Her father William K. Vanderbilt a wealthy business magnate gave the Duke 2.5 million dollars to repair Blenheim Palace . Consuelo in course of time, spent many more millions to renovate the ‘decrepit heap’ that was Blenheim, at the time of her marriage.

She was a woman of rare beauty and elegance, and all of six feet against Sunny’s five feet seven inches. A painting in the palace shows him standing on a lower level, and she on a higher step, to hide the difference in height. Her neck was long and slender like a swan, and the painter John Sargent would not allow her to hide it with chains and necklaces. However the description he used to describe her neck was anything but flattering. He compared it to the trunk of a tree.

If there was one thing that was glaringly absent from their marriage it was love. In spite of the years they spent together as man and wife, Consuelo could not bring herself to love him. So great was her dislike for her husband, that at the gleaming dining table where they sat for meals, she kept a massive center piece of Louis XIV on horseback with his guards beside him. It stood so high that when they ate, it blocked from view the face of her husband. That piece still adorns the table at Blenheim Palace .

However in her autobiography she tries to explain why British peers of the Victorian age made such inferior husbands. Sunny was raised without much parental love, first by a nanny, and then by strict boarding school masters. His parents had very little time to spend with him during his formative years. Perhaps this loveless childhood turned him into an unusually phlegmatic adult.

For a very short time between 1892 and 1897, before the birth of a son to the

9 th Duke, Winston Churchill his first cousin was second in the line of succession. At the earliest meeting of Duchess Fanny with Consuelo she said, “Your first duty is to have a child and it must be a son, because it would be intolerable to have that little upstart Winston become the Duke.”

Consuelo delivered a boy in 1897 two years after her marriage. He was John Albert Edward Spencer who became the 10 th Duke of Marlborough. Her second son came soon after, and was called Ivor Charles Churchill.

“I’ve borne my husband an heir and a spare,” she said, “And I consider my duty over.”

They were separated from 1907 to 1919, a period of twelve years, and were reunited again only to start divorce proceedings. The marriage legally ended in 1921. People who knew Consuelo said she was compassionate and elegant, and devoted her time and money to worthy causes.

Blenheim Palace today owes its splendour to the magnanimity of Consuelo, who lived the best years of her life in a ‘gilded cage.’ Her contribution is rarely spoken about. It is the personality of Winston Churchill that pervades the place. The room where she was born, his vests and paraphernalia are all on display. His books, speeches, war efforts and paintings are exhibited in a large part of the palace.

The Great hall has a striking ceiling painted in 1716, depicting the entire battle order of the Battle of Blenheim which took place in 1797, on the north bank of the Danube . John Spencer the first duke and his troops, defeated the allied forces of Louis XIV and ended the dream of European supremacy. For this he was made a duke and received a gift of the Marlborough Estates from Queen Anne. She even built him the Blenheim Palace at her own expense. Every year, on the 13 th of August the anniversary of the battle, the Blenheim Standard of Marlborough is sent to the Sovereign at Windsor . Failure to do so could mean loss of dukedom. This custom is called “Quit Rent.”

The library is one of the finest in England . A huge Willis organ occupies the north wall. The collection of books, tapestries and paintings are priceless.

In the beautifully laid out gardens is the Temple of Diana , where Churchill proposed to Clementine Hozier, who later became his wife.

The present Duke is the 11 th , and is a nephew of Winston Churchill. From September to January each year, he lives with his fourth wife in the private apartments At this time, the palace is closed to visitors. Even in these rooms, the painting and objects d’ art are tastefully displayed. The visitors’ book here is worth a glance. It was here that Edward VII first laid his eyes on Wallis Simpson and her husband Neil Simpson. There were many important people who witnessed the life-changing vibes that passed between them – Winston Churchill, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Emma Cunnard of Cunnard Shipping Company.

Going back to Duchess Consuelo, after 26 years of a loveless union, she found true happiness in her second marriage to Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan a French aviator, whom she married on 4 th July 1921 . Those were peaceful years during which she penned her autobiography titled “The Glitter and The Gold.” She died in New York in 1964, at the ripe old age of 87, but was interred at the Blandon Churchyard in Blenheim, where her famous cousin through marriage Winston Churchill was buried in 1965.

Useful Information:

Blenheim in Woodstock is 55 miles from London. Trains run between Paddington and Oxford , from where buses or taxis are available to the palace (10 miles)

Buses also ply from Victoria to Oxford. Bed and breakfast accommodation is available for about 25-30 pounds per head per night.

Woman’s Era January 2006

1 Comment

  1. Rosemary Edwards

    Very informative. I loved reading it.


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