Naughtiness Among The Nobles

Large country houses were ready sites for romantic trysts. One story from the 1890s told how Lord Charles Beresford “let himself into what he believed was his mistress’s bedroom and with a lusty cry of ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo!’ leaped into the bed–only to discover that it was occupied by the Bishop of Chester and his wife.” * 

To avoid such confusions, the country house Wentworth Woodhouse took the helpful step of giving its guests silver boxes containing personalized confetti, which they could sprinkle through the corridors to help find their way back to, or between, rooms.”*  Some houses had name slots placed on the doors for ease of location.  Another device was to have a bell “rung at 6 a.m. to warn lovers it was time to find their own rooms before the servants brought their tea.”**

A more risqué episode concerned Jennie Churchill (Winston’s mother) who conceived a passion for horseback riding.  Her favorite riding partner was John Strange Jocelyn, a handsome, dashing man who lived with his wife on a 9,000 acres family estate in Ireland. It was said “He was the kind of man who could climb up the drainpipe to a bedroom window, and did.”***

On February 4, 1880, Jennie gave birth in Dublin to a second son.  The boy was always called Jack, but his proper name was John Strange Spencer-Churchill.

Poorer families could not sustain the taking-on of any extramarital children.  By contrast, the wealthy mainly cared about the legitimacy of the eldest son, the heir.  As the Duchess of Marlborough Consuelo acidly put it, she had done her marital duty when she had produced “an heir and a spare” and so was then free to do as she pleased.


Next time, a change of pace: Strolling Around The Lovely Lake District


*Bryson, Bill.  At Home:  A Short History of Private Life.  New York:  Anchor Books,

 2010; 106.

***Martin, Ralph G.  Jennie:  The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, 1854-1895;  134.

Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969. 

**Warwick, Sarah.  Upstairs and Downstairs.  London:  Carlton Publishing Group, 2011;


Photo credit:  internet free use image of Jennie Jerome Churchill



Winston Churchill, Rock Star


Churchill’s fourth youthful adventure—as correspondent during the Boer Wars—finally gained for him the widespread fame that he desired so passionately.  The British were fighting Boers (Dutch settlers) in southern Africa to possess the gold and diamond mines that had been recently discovered. Churchill, now out of the military, set sail with his valet for Cape Town in October, three days after the first shots were fired.  A friend from India days, Captain Aylmer Haldane, invited Winston to travel on a train with troops who were to explore the Boer lines.  Predictably, the Boers piled rocks on the tracks, wrecked the train, and killed or captured the survivors.   Churchill, now captured, walked the sixty-mile trek to Elandslaagte and then went by train to the prisoner-of-war camp in Pretoria.

 Haldane and another soldier soon conceived a plan to escape by climbing from a latrine over a remote wall.  Churchill joined them— in fact, he was able to escape successfully while the other two could not find a safe opportunity.  With little food, no map, and no knowledge of the language Africaans, Churchill began his escape strategy by boldly strolling through the city of Pretoria. There he hopped on a train and rode out of the city.  After days of wandering, he desperately approached a house and had the fortune to discover the only British house for twenty miles.(Manchester 308)  They hid him for three nights in a mine.  In the meanwhile, the British press had gotten news of the escape, publicized his likely punishment of being shot if captured again, and the public anxiously sought news of his progress.  His saviors conceived the plan of smuggling Churchill in a consignment of wool bales. When he finally passed into safe Portuguese East Africa, he went to the British Consulate and shouted for assistance, “’I am Winston Bloody Churchill!  Come down here at once.’”*  

He was a handsome young aristocrat whose pluck had won him freedom:  he was a full-fledged hero in England.  He was confident now that, like his father, he had secured a place for himself in the government of the Empire.

Britain would provide him with adventures and fame to lift him to the forefront of world history.  The Boer War had made Winston an Imperial Rock Star.

Next Time:  The Channel Islands.  Where are they?!

Interesting note:  The Boer Wars were sometimes called the Khaki Wars because these were the first conflicts in which the British had shed their traditional red uniforms for the safer, more functional properties of Khaki. 

For more information, see:

Churchill in the Boer War


Photo Credit: Pinterest

*Manchester, William.  The Last Lion:  Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory, 

1874-1932.  New York:  Little, Brown and Company, 1983; pp. 301, 308, 314.

The Rise of Jennie Churchill’s son, Winston: A Future Prime Minister Running Headlong into Adventure

It sounded like a mother indulging a small child:

“I understand all right–& of course darling it is natural that you shd want to travel & I won’t throw cold water on yr little plans,” wrote Jennie Churchill to her son.*  

Twenty-year-old Winston was bored and—with ten weeks before reporting to duty in India with the Fourth Hussars—concocted a “little plan” with his friend Reginald Barnes: they would sail to Havana and observe the bloody civil war there.  His deeply romantic view of battle drew him to Cuba like steel to a magnet.

Jennie pulled the necessary strings with her various lovers, and Winston soon blissfully found himself under fire:  ‘There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result,’” he wrote. Flying bullets are “‘a sound in the air sometimes like a sigh, sometimes like a whistle, and at others like the buzz of an offended hornet.’”*

Winston and Reginald made it safely through their three-week stay with three significant results for Churchill.  First, his boyhood interest in war and strategies found adult expression. Second, his five lively reports for The Daily Graphic were well received and encouraged him to begin a career of writing that would span over five decades.  Third, in he acquired a habit that became his trademark:  he loved smoking Cuban cigars.

One battle wasn’t enough to satisfy, though.  Two years later in 1897 while Churchill was back in England enjoying The Season, an uprising broke out near the Malakand Pass in northwest India. He dropped all plans, made the 2,000 mile trip back to India in five days, and got leave from his regiment so he could again come under hot fire, again as a correspondent.*  His reports described the tension of being stalked by native fighters, the torture endured if captured, the skill of the British military.  Afterwards, Jennie used her influence to get his war dispatches published as The Story of the Malakand Field Force, a book so popular that even the Prince of Wales complimented him on it.

 The next year Winston had had it with mere reporting: he wanted to be officially in the fighting.  Sir Herbert Kitchener was leading troops to avenge the butchering of General Charles Gordon and his men at the town of Khartoum in the Sudan.  This conflict was irresistible to Churchill, so he requested to be assigned to Kitchener’s force. Kitchener refused. Undeterred, Churchill asked the Prince of Wales–and even the Prime Minister who finally agreed to help a young man who was only a lieutenant. He later wrote gripping descriptions of the arid desert wastelands, the sinister dervishes who opposed them, and cavalry charges where the enemy would wait patiently on the sand “to hamstring the horses with their knives.”** 

Churchill thought it all “’magnificent’” and praised the “persevering British people who, often affronted, usually get their own way in the end’”–as he himself did.*

He could scarcely believe his good luck when another large conflict came.  This war would make him a rock star of the British Empire.

Next Time: Winston Churchill, Rock Star

Blog Note:  One last adventure of the youthful Winston Churchill will be described in the next blog and then we will let him alone for a while.  We are following all aspects of England here, not just the military and political.

Manchester, William.  The Last Lion:  Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory, 

1874-1932.  New York:  Little, Brown and Company, 1983; pp. 223, 228, 251, 280.

**Wright, William.  Omdurman 1898:  Battle Story. Gloucestershire:  The History Press, 2012; p. 108.

American Heiresses Invade As Buccaneers

The social meaning of the word buccaneer arose from an unfinished 1938 novel by Edith Wharton titled The Buccaneers (1938).  Though her work was fiction, Wharton recorded an assault that genuinely faced the English upper-class near the end of the nineteenth century:  the invasion of American heiresses. 

America’s Gilded Age capitalists such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Mellon had amassed huge fortunes and built great houses in America that could compare with those in England.  An English title, however, was a tantalizing attraction beyond the reach of most Americans–and so took on the lure of the Holy Grail to these American entrepreneurs.   Under the supervision of ambitious mothers, young American heiresses–the so-called “Dollar Princesses”–streamed to England in attempts to leap that final hurdle into the elite circles of British society. 

The “buccaneers” were genuine temptations to any English lord down on his luck,  because an impoverished noble could use the wedding dowry to replenish his coffers, repair his estate, and maintain his accustomed lifestyle.  The popular PBS series Downton Abbey showed this very situation with the fictional Grantham family. 

Consuelo Vanderbilt told the story–which may be apocryphal–that in 1938 her family locked her in a room until she agreed to marry the 9th Duke of Marlborough, owner of Blenheim Palace.  There was no doubt, however, about the fact that William Vanderbilt paid the Duke a dowry of $67 million in stock shares with guaranteed minimum dividends and annual allowance of $100,000 (2012 conversion).*  Consuelo could justifiably feel ill-treated.  Her dowry restored a crumbling Blenheim Palace but did little to gain her husband’s affections:  he never even considered breaking his liaison with his lover Gladys Deacon.   Consuelo Vanderbilt’s case was dramatic, but historian Bill Bryson notes that nearly ten per cent of marriages among the titled during this time period were, in fact, to American heiresses.**  This statistic included the Duke’s cousin, Lord Randolph Churchill.

Randolph Churchill’s prospective father-in-law Leonard Jerome dabbled in the railroad business with Vanderbilt, invested in the New York Times, and speculated in the stock market.  He enjoyed yachting, thoroughbred racing, and hunts in the American West guided by Buffalo Bill Cody.  The Jerome Mansion in New York City had a ballroom with fountains that spouted champagne.  He was, as well, entirely unfaithful to his wife, Clarissa, though they never divorced.  Clarissa eventually moved with her three daughters to Paris and allowed Leonard’s wealth to support them in an aristocratic lifestyle.  Her daughters became polished in the social graces and even became friends with the Empress Eugenie.  

The beautiful Jennie Jerome’s English debut occurred in 1872 with her presentation to Prince Albert and Princess Alexandra at Cowes, the small village on the Isle of Wight that swelled to prominence with yacht races during The Season.  Jennie and the Prince of Wales would be close lifelong friends and–at one point–lovers.  It was also at the 1873 Cowes Season, though, that Jennie met the twenty-three-year-old Randolph Churchill.***  He was slender, well-dressed, witty–and an English lord.  

Her face was classically modeled with a patrician nose and slightly pouting lips.  Her hair and brows were dark, as were her eyes, and her gaze–a potent mix of challenge and invitation–created an air of smoky sexuality that would, throughout her life, excite men and draw them to her.  She understood her power and used it effectively.

Three days later Randolph proposed marriage.  Within nine months, they welcomed a son whom they named Winston.


Next time:  The Rise of Jennie Churchill’s son, Winston



Photo Credit for Jennie Jerome Churchill’s image: Pinterest

*Bailey, Catherine.  The Secret Rooms: A True Story of A Haunted Castle, A Plotting

Duchess, & A Family Secret.  New York:  Penguin Books, 2012, p. 184.

**Bryson, Bill.  At Home:  A Short History of Private Life.  New York:  Anchor Books,

 2010, p. 258.

***Martin, Ralph G.  Jennie:  The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, 1854-1895.

Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969, p. 49. 

Who Owned Almost All of England?


Have you ever hauled a wheelbarrow filled with dirt?
Then can you imagine hiring enough workmen to haul away 23,500 cubic yards of soil and rock with wheelbarrows as did the owners of the great house Stowe?
Can you imagine being the owner of the great house Longleat and having 91,000 trees planted at one time?*
Can you imagine having an entire village relocated to improve your view shed as was done at Castle Howard and Chatsworth?
If you can imagine these things, you would fit in comfortably with many aristocratic lords, such as the 7th Duke of Westminster who in 2016 owned London properties valued at $13 billion. This wealth had its origins in the vast tracts of land owned by a small number of men.
In the 1880s–just prior to Winston Churchill’s birth–sixty peers each owned 50,000 acres of land; fourteen owned in excess of 100,000 acres each.*** The estate of William Cavendish, the 7th Duke of Devonshire, extended to nearly 200,000 acres. But the 2nd Duke of Sutherland trumped all other peers by owning a stunning 1.3 million acres.** If you consider that the United Kingdom is about 6 million acres in size, it’s startling to see that about sixty men owned 5 million of those acres—5/6 of the entire country.
So if you own practically the entire country, what do you do with it? Certainly you govern it, which we will explore a bit later.
But another thing you do is party on an epic scale—all over the country.


Next: How To Party Like A Noble

Photo credit for Castle Howard: Nancy Parrish

*Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Anchor Books,
2010; p 310.
**Cannadine, David. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. New York:
Vintage Books, 1999; pp. 710-711.
***Tuchman, Barbara. The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War,
1890-1914. The Library of America, 1962; 2012; p. 595W

How to get a gift of 2,700 acres and a palace with a 7-acre roof

Blenheim Palace has a roof that covers seven acres.  And it was a gift.  Really.

How does that happen?

First, you need shrewd, well-placed ancestors.

In 1677 Winston Churchill’s ancestor, the dashing John Churchill, had wanted to take 17-year-old Sarah Jennings as a lover; but clever Sara outmaneuvered him and got him to marry her.  Sarah Churchill then instinctively–and some said brutally–navigated the intrigues of court to keep her husband at the forefront of royal attention.  Her most astute political move was to link her fortunes to Princess Anne.
Anne constantly battled her sister and brother-in-law–King William and Queen Mary–to secure an allowance or some modest independence, and Sarah always lobbied on Anne’s side. When Anne finally became Queen, she raised John Churchill to the highest and most exclusive order of the peerage, the rank of Duke of Marlborough. Then, in 1705 when John defeated the French and Bavarians at the Battle of Blenheim in Bavaria (which insured that Britain then dominated Europe), Queen Anne naturally turned to Sarah for ways to thank John for his service.


Here Sarah played her winning card.  She guided her royal friend Anne to bestow upon her husband the gift of a country house and 2,700 acres in Oxfordshire. The resulting gift took nearly thirty years to build, employed over 1,500 workman, and became–because of its breathtaking scale–the only non-royal country house in England to hold the title of palace. To the eventual horror of Anne and the British government, it also ballooned to over five times the initial estimated cost and ultimately estranged the Marlboroughs from Queen Anne.
But the gift had been given. A later royal ruler, King George III, would look down from a hilltop towards the palace and remark with a mixture of awe and royal chagrin, “We have nothing to equal this.”*
Blenheim Palace became an emphatic statement of Churchillian power and wealth–and showed especial scorn for the French whom John had defeated. A massive Arch of Triumph marked the entrance into the grounds. Atop the entrance pediment stood a statue of Britannia and beneath her cringed two chained French captives. One lower roof supported an English lion devouring the French rooster. The south portico contained a 30-ton marble bust of French King Louis XIV that Marlborough had looted–and the 1st Duke always pointedly sat with his back to this bust. Each feature of the palace was expensive and calculated to awe the viewer.
Where St. Donat’s had towers for sighting the enemy and crenellations to protect archers, Blenheim’s tower housed a clock and decorative battlements. These vestiges of a military architectural style now signaled an unassailable class structure. The 320 rooms in the interior elaborated on that theme. Blenheim’s entrance hall soared to over four stories. The library, stocked with rare first editions and artwork, exceeded half the length of a football field. Later Dukes added a Temple of Diana, a 134-foot Column of Victory honoring the first Duke, and great works of art ranging from Raphael’s Ansidei Madonna to Van Dyck’s equestrian painting of Charles I.


Not satisfied with simply creating an imposing structure, each succeeding Duke shaped the landscape as well. The grounds of the estate were encircled by a dry stone wall that ran for nearly nine miles. In the 1760s the 4th Duke employed landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown to reshape the grounds to create an even more aesthetic context for the great house. Virtually unfettered, Brown dammed a river, created a lake, constructed a series of cascades, and diverted a stream. With the Duke’s permission, Brown took a 30-room brick building near the stream,  flooded it, submerged the lower stories until the height of the building seemed pleasing and proportional to the surrounding landscape–and used it as a bridge.


But Marlboroughs were far from the only nobles to take the land, architecture, and art as their sovereign birthright to shape for the family’s glory.

Next Time: What families owned most of England?


*Martin, Ralph G. Jennie: The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, 1854-1895.
Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969; p. 61.

**Image courtesy of