Writer Julian Fellowes delivers a vivid account of how one of the greatest ancestral homes in England was transformed by the First World War in Blenheim Palace: Great War House.
“When I created Downton Abbey I wanted to tell the story of this very moment in our history. Now I want to tell about the men and women of a real house, Blenheim Palace, the war stories of a real Downton Abbey.” – Julian Fellowes
By delving into archives and speaking to experts and relatives of the house’s inhabitants, the author and creator of Downton Abbey tells the stories of the real men and women who worked and lived at Blenheim during the war.
He discovers tales of heroism and tragedy, both upstairs and downstairs, and how WW1 was the making of Blenheim’s most famous son, Winston Churchill. Fellowes learns about the ladies of the household, Consuelo Vanderbilt and Lady Sarah Wilson and the men who went to war including the fate of a lowly clerk.
Built in 1722, Blenheim Palace was, for centuries, a miniature kingdom for its inhabitants. Run by the Dukes of Marlborough the palace was the focal point of the community and around 80 servants worked at the house. There was a set order to life at Blenheim which the First World War disrupted, changing the lives of all those who relied upon the estate.
Before the war, Sonny the 9th Duke of Marlborough married Consuelo Vanderbilt. The Vanderbilt family amassed one of America’s biggest rail and shipping fortunes and Consuelo’s father gave her a dowry. It was a marriage of convenience rather than love, the Spencer-Churchill’s gained millions from the marriage and Consuelo became a Duchess.
Fellowes says: “They were married towards the end of 1895 in New York but they took a long honeymoon tour which only really served to show they didn’t like each other very much.”
After having children Consuelo left Blenheim. Sonny founded the Women’s Land Corps, which later became the Women’s Land Army and allowed the library at Blenheim to be used as a convalescent ward. Before the war it would have been used to host grand balls and glittering receptions.
Fellowes says: “This very room transformed into a convalescence ward. I think there’s something very moving in that, wanting to involve the house.”
When war was declared Lady Sarah Wilson, Sonny’s sister, volunteered to help the effort. She travelled to France to set up a hospital, helping the wounded and her husband Colonel Gordon Wilson went to fight on the front line. Lady Sarah’s work looking after the sick and wounded was a world away from her former life in Blenheim.
Fellowes says: “Before the war I don’t think she was a nice person, she was extremely unpleasant to Consuelo when she first arrived at Blenheim, and bullying.
“It seems to have transformed her really.”
The First World War had a great effect on Winston Churchill who was born at Blenheim Palace. His ancestor John Churchill won a victory over France and was rewarded with Blenheim and became the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Churchill wanted to make his own mark during the war but as first Lord of the Admiralty he was held responsible for the disastrous invasion at Gallipoli. He was forced out of office and his reputation was ruined. His response was to go to the Western Front himself as an ordinary battalion commander.
Fellowes says: “He decides to go to the front to face the danger and to be with the men who are fighting and very possibly to be killed. He was enormously brave in the face of whatever happened to him.”
“I think Winston Churchill was one of those people who were changed for the better by the First World War. That very aristocratic sense of entitlement, unquestioned, rather arrogant really, seemed to develop into something kinder and more modern. The First World War made him the man to win the Second World War.”
Fellowes also discovers more about Arthur Hine a lowly clerk on Blenheim estate who fought on the frontline at Ypres. Sergeant Hine was a dispatch rider message carrier. Hine travelled through Antwerp while it was being bombarded and helped a Belgian girl whose parents had both been killed during the bombing, taking her back to England to live with his family. Fellowes meets a relative of Hine’s who has no idea of her ancestor’s heroic past.
Finally, Fellowes discovers the fate of Albert Farley man who belonged to a family who for years had painted the rooms at Blenheim. . Farley volunteered for service, joining the army before conscription. However documents reveal that he ended up acquiring a bad disciplinary record
Fellowes says: “It’s rather sad isn’t it. You think he volunteered to protect his country and went off brave and it hasn’t gone well from the beginning so the question is what happened to him?”
Fellowes discovers that he received one of the most controversial penalties served out to errant men on the front line, Field Punishment No1. It involved tying the man to a fixed point for two hours a day for 21 days.
Six weeks after Farley received his worst punishment his war was over. He was reported as missing and accepted as having died. He was one of over a million people who died in the Great War. As well as human fatalities the great houses were casualties too as families had lost heirs, servants were unwilling to return to work, taxes had risen and the great depression followed. Houses and land were sold off or converted. The 9th Duke refused to accept this change and he dedicated his life to Blenheim spending money on the house and gardens, a legacy, which is continued today by his ancestor, the 11th Duke of Marlborough.
Fellowes says: “The Churchill family and in fact the whole Blenheim community had entered the Great War still governed by the ways of the 19th century they emerged from it to find themselves in the 20th.
“The mindset had changed, the clarity of the old world where most people accepted the role they were born to and lived by its rules, that had been replaced by something very different. Better maybe but definitely more uncertain.”