The Duke of Marlborough 1926-2014

The Duke of Marlborough 1926-2014

The Eleventh Duke: Memories. 13 April 1926 – 16 October 2014

Duke of Marlborough 1926-2014
11th Duke of Marl­bor­ough (Dai­ly Telegraph)

“You shouldn’t call him ‘Your Grace,’ you know.”

It was 2005. Lady Soames was coach­ing me on a let­ter to her cousin the Duke of Marl­bor­ough. It was to ask (again) for the lease (at a friend-of-the-fam­i­ly dis­count) of the Great Hall at Blenheim Palace. Anoth­er black tie din­ner was in store for anoth­er Churchill Tour.

“What should I call him, then? I can’t call him ‘Sun­ny,’ as you do!” (The fam­i­ly nick­name stemmed from one of the Duke’s ear­ly titles, Earl of Sun­der­land.)

“Of course not. But ‘Your Grace’ is too for­mal, or for ser­vants. Write, ‘My Dear Duke’”

“Sounds medieval,” I said, draw­ing a snort from Win­ston Churchill’s daugh­ter. “Well,” she said, “if you want to be com­plete­ly unimag­i­na­tive you may write ‘Dear Sir.’ But it will sound like a solicitor’s letter.”


Always hav­ing ben­e­fit­ed from her advice, I duly wrote “My Dear Duke,” and he quick­ly replied (“Dear Richard,” signed “Sun­ny”). We could have the Great Hall; yes, at a reduc­tion; and thank-you, he and the Duchess would be glad to attend. Just one thing, he said at the end: “This will have to be the last time at that price. I have to answer to my trustees, and they sim­ply don’t under­stand when I make exceptions.”

I remem­bered that episode when I heard he’d left us, because it illus­trates not only what a gen­er­ous per­son he was, but how much he cared about Blenheim. The estate so often run down in its his­to­ry waxed glo­ri­ous under his stew­ard­ship, with his atten­tion to detail and can­ny busi­ness sense. And to ensure con­ti­nu­ity, he had placed Blenheim under a board of trustees, to whom even he paid def­er­ence, know­ing that they were devot­ed to its sur­vival as the nation­al mon­u­ment to John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough.

Make no mis­take, it is no easy task. I remem­ber ask­ing him why, every time I vis­it­ed, there was scaf­fold­ing up some­where around the build­ing. “Because,” he said with a smile, “every time we fin­ish paint­ing the win­dow sash, it’s time to start all over again.” I had to think he was speak­ing fig­u­ra­tive­ly, but it cer­tain­ly empha­sized the work need­ed to main­tain and pre­serve this grand edifice.


The Marl­bor­oughs were involved at every lev­el. “Peo­ple must visu­al­ize me loung­ing on a divan in leop­ard­skin leo­tards with a long cig­a­rette hold­er,” joked his then-wife, the for­mer Count­ess Rosi­ta Dou­glas, in the Orangery dur­ing a less­er Churchill ban­quet. “But I’ve been up there on the scaf­fold­ing scrub­bing the den­tils with a tooth­brush, like every­body else.” She was as wel­com­ing as he was.

For our first Great Hall din­ner, warned that the Duke was noto­ri­ous­ly hard to con­verse with, I seat­ed at his right my secret weapon, Mrs. Bar­bara Lang­worth, who is capa­ble of engag­ing with any­body. The two of them chat­ted gai­ly through­out the meal. “I thought he was hard to talk to?” I asked her after­ward. “How did you do it?” “Cows,” she said. We lived next to a New Hamp­shire dairy farm at the time; Bar­bara sim­ply men­tioned cows, and the Duke was off and run­ning on the fine points of bovine husbandry.

Churchillians came to Blenheim not to gape at its won­ders but because it was the birth­place and fre­quent loca­tion of the man they revered. Twice we dined in ulti­mate splen­dor in the Great Hall, the Duke and Duchess stand­ing in the receiv­ing line, putting every­one at ease. Anoth­er time it was the Orangery, as always orga­nized by the Duke’s indis­pen­si­ble man­ag­er, Paul Duffie.

Once it was the Spencer-Churchill Con­fer­ence Room, which the Duke made avail­able for an aca­d­e­m­ic sym­po­sium on Marl­bor­ough: His Life and Times. Yet again it was the Blenheim Muni­ment Room, off lim­its to all but schol­ars, where we were shown the Marl­bor­ough archives that Churchill had him­self perused while writ­ing his great biog­ra­phy. At every one of those occa­sions the Duke and Duchess made them­selves avail­able, even when pressed by oth­er con­cerns, to wel­come us to their home.

“In Years to Come…”

The Long Library at Blenheim is dom­i­nat­ed by an 1891 Hen­ry Willis organ, which bears a poignant leg­end: “In mem­o­ry of hap­py days & as a trib­ute to this glo­ri­ous home, we leave thy voice to speak with­in these walls in years to come, when ours are still.”

The 11th Duke of Marl­bor­ough went to his rest know­ing that his great work to pre­serve and pro­tect a Churchillian mon­u­ment goes on under his trustees. I am con­fi­dent that his voice will speak through their exam­ple, in years to come, when ours are still.

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