Sir Winston Spencer Churchill was undoubtedly a great man who descended from a great family line. And yet, the Marlborough family line did have its peaks and troughs.
It all stared amazingly well, when John Churchill returned from his triumphant military campaigns against the French. He was made the first duke, and with funds provided by a grateful state, he built Blenheim Palace as a memorial to one of his greatest triumphs, It was designed not for beauty or elegance, but for grandeur. Here it is, that great pile of stones (paraphrasing Voltaire)
But the family line did not produce a succession of great men who could or would live up to this level of grandeur. Perhaps the fifth duke, who lived in the early nineteenth century, represented the absolute low point.
Here is a glimpse
The diarist Harriet Arbuthnot wrote one of her most scathing comments about the Duke following a visit to Blenheim in 1824:
The family of the great General is, however, gone sadly to decay, and are but a disgrace to the illustrious name of Churchill… The present Duke is overloaded with debt, is very little better than a common swindler and lets everything about Blenheim. People may shoot and fish at so much per hour and it has required all the authority of a Court of Chancery to prevent his cutting down all the trees in the park.
Indeed, John Pearson writes in “The Private Lives of Winston Churchill”
After the hermit duke came his son George, one of the greatest spendthrifts of a spendthrift age. He did his best, through lunatic extravagance, to empty the first Duke’s treasure chest to pay his debts. This was none too easy, since most of the fabled books and gems and paintings were still guarded by trustees. Even before succeeding to the Dukedom, George could gaily lose £30,000 in an afternoon at Doncaster Races, and although this was one of many debts he refused to pay, he remained chronically and wretchedly in debt throughout his dukedom.
The details are incredible. Pearson goes on
The early nineteenth century was a time when a duke could get away with almost anything, but there were limits, such as when he hoodwinked the Blenheim trustees by melting down the solid gold state dinner service, presented to the first Duke by the Elector of Bavaria, and having it replaced with a cheap pinchbeck replica. But no matter what he melted down, the desperate fifth duke could never hope to repay his debts. According to one visitor to Blenheim in the 1820’s, all the servants in the palace were in fact bailiffs, which didn’t do much to cheer things up.
BTW, “pinchbeck” is a form of brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, that has the color or gold and was popular as an inexpensive gold imitation. It was invented in the 18th century by a clockmaker, Mr. Christopher Pinchbeck, hence the name.
Pearson’s interest in the story of the bad duke relates to the romantic expectations of Sir Winston Churchill over the prospects of his son, Randolph. Sir Winston believed in great destiny for himself and his family — at least the men. It was his guiding star. But that would be upended by Randolph. As a young man, Randolph believed he would inherit greatness, and he could talk a blue streak, but he would prove unable to live up to the calling. What happened? That is what Pearson explores in his book. Let’s just say that a recipe of great hubris without great abilities to match will not produce a great success.
But back to the fifth duke. In 1987, Sir Winston’s daughter, Mary Soames, published a biography of the profligate duke. Here is the cover
It is a book that I would like to purchase, both because of the author and the topic. The image on the cover of the fifth duke was made in 1803 by James Gillray and published by Hannah Humphrey. The subtitle is “The inexpressible air of dignity”. Gillray was one of the two greatest satirical cartoonists of his day. Hogarth was the other. Mrs. Humphrey was a well known publisher … and Gillray’s consort. I do not use the word “mistress” because they lived together., unmarried. The more modern term, POSSLQ (persons of opposite sex sharing living quarters) was not to be invested for another century and a half, give or take a decade or two.
In case you are wondering, the term POSSLQ is a designation created by the US Census Bureau in the 1970’s to assist in measuring the prevalence of such cohabitation. It became popularized in the 1980’s, which inspired Charles Osgood to write
There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do
If you would be my POSSLQ
You live with me and I with you,
And you will be my POSSLQ.
I’ll be your friend and so much more;
That’s what a POSSLQ is for.