It is nearly impossible to overstate how impressive the Ditchley home is. Ditchley’s history dates back to the 16th century when Sir Henry Lee, first owner of the Ditchley Estate, became one of the major courtiers of Queen Elizabeth I. The home is practically a degree-granting institution in history and art in its own right. Lee commissioned what is known as the “Ditchley Elizabeth,” now hanging in London’s National Portrait Gallery in 1592, when she visited the estate. The picture shows Elizabeth’s feet firmly planted on Oxfordshire soil with the thunder and lightening of Spanish Armada (1588) behind her and the bright sunlit future of England stretching ahead:
The grounds, located in Oxfordshire, were once the site of a Roman villa and served as a royal hunting grounds for the Stuart dynasty that succeeded Elizabeth and her Tudor predecessors. The picture below shows several antlers on the wall; each is mounted as trophy with a brass plaque below celebrating the hunt, sort a royal conference championship banner, if you will. Each plaque celebrates where the stag was cornered, who was in on the hunt (including names such as the Prince of Wales or King James I ) and how the end came. Close inspection revealed that all of these antlers were dated between 1608 and 1623.
Ditchley also served as a weekend retreat for Winston Churchill during World War II. The Prime Minister’s official country home, Chequers, had a long driveway leading up to it, almost a road map during moonlit nights for German bombers during the London Blitz. When the moon was likely to be high, Churchill spent his working weekends at Ditchley. The room in which we met was where Churchill negotiated the Lend-Lease agreement with Harry Hopkins, FDR’s personal emissary. The picture below, from the Ditchley Foundation, shows Churchill on the Ditchley grounds during the war.
There’s another Churchill connection with Ditchley. It’s a bit of an open secret at the home, but perhaps not so well known outside it. Blenheim Palace, home of the Duke of Marlborough, lies only a few miles from Ditchley. And symbols of Blenheim are prominent in the art throughout the house and in the “Blenheim Water” served to visitors. What’s the connection?
Two giant portraits offer a clue. The first is a portrait of King Charles II (1660-1685). Charles II was the son of Charles I, beheaded by Oliver Cromwell in 1649. The son, restored to the throne, in what is known of course as “The Restoration,” hunted down and executed the regicides who had killed his father. He actually had Cromwell’s corpse disinterred and beheaded.
Across the room one finds Barbara Villiers, one of a dozen mistresses to Charles. She bore him five royal bastards. Modern moralists have nothing on royal portrait painters who offer up Villiers with noticeable decolletage and a louche expression.
The Churchill connection? It seems Ms. Villiers believed turnabout was fair play and adopted some lovers in addition to the king. One was an impoverished young country gentleman named John Churchill. When she put him aside at the king’s request, she paid him off with a large fortune of 5,000 guineas. The value of this fortune, probably worth close to $1 million or more today, can be understood when one realizes that the cost of building Ditchley was estimated to be 2,000 guineas when it went up. (A guinea amounted to one pound sterling plus one shilling.)
Mr. Churchill went on to fame and fortune as the First Duke of Marlborough. The duke was renowned for leading victorious troops in the Battle of Blenheim (1704). Blenheim was a major victory ensuring the protection of Vienna during the War of Spanish Succession, a significant European conflict that ended in 1710. The Treaty of Utrecht reconciled the differences between France and Austria (and their allies) over who would govern Spanish territory. Below, a mounted John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, signs dispatches on the field at Blenheim.
A grateful nation rewarded Churchill with Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born on November 30, 1874. Winston was the grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough and the son of a gifted Conservative Party politician, Lord Randolph Henry Spenser Churchill and Jennie Jerome, an American. (Randolph Churchill as a third son could not inherit the dukedom.)
So there we have it. The amorous adventures of an ambitious young social climber, John Churchill, and a royal paramour, Barbara Villiers, link the English regicide and Restoration of the 17th century with a major European battle in the 18th, and to Winston Churchill, one of the great leaders of the 20th century, who used his time at Ditchley to cement the Atlantic Alliance — at a time when England faced its gravest peril since Elizabeth I turned back the Spanish Armada.