later 5th. Duke of Marlborough
Born: 6th March 1766at Marlborough House, Westminster, Middlesex
Died: 5 March 1840 at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire
The Marquess of Blandford may be regarded, along with the Englfeields as the founders of Whiteknights Park as we know it today, although sadly some of that heritage in the form of buildings and other features have been erased.
The early nineteenth benefactor of Whiteknights was a member of the famous Churchill famuly who made their initial mark in British national history via the John Churchill (created 1st. Duke of Marlborough) in the war against thr French during the reign of Queen Anne (1701-1714).
His descendant inherited the junior title of the family, Marquess of Blandford. He was the eldest son of George Spencer (the 4th Duke of Marlborough), and Caroline the daughter of John Russell, the 4th Duke of Bedford. As was so often thr case with the higher eschelons of the aristocracy on those days, he grew up in al;ragel;y isolated manner cut off form the rest of society at the immense family estate at Woodstock in Oxfordshire- Blenheim Palace. Private education at home was the form of the day before finishing off at Eton or such like. After Eton he went on to Christ Church College, Oxford. Here, like many aristocrats since, his wild, profligate and extravagant nature began to show. However, despite this he graduated with an honourary M.A. in 1786 and D.C.L. on 20th June 1792.
In 1790, he became M.P. for Oxfordshire. Sons of the aristocracy often served in the House of Commons, until inheriting the senior title when they would graduate to thr Lords. a post in which he served for seven years. The in 1791, he married Susan, second daughter of John Stewart, 7th Earl of Galloway and together they raised a family of three sons: George Spencer Churchill; Lord Charles Spencer Churchill and Revd. Lord George Henry Spencer Churchill. The family was brought up in the Royal County of Berkshire, renting properties, first at Culham Court in Wargrave and then Bill Hill in Hurst. In 1798 though, they moved to the handsome Italianate mansion on the 80-acre Whiteknights Park estate at Earley, which the Marlborough trustees had recently purchased.
It was now that the Marquess' passions and extravagance started to have full vein, which was of course to be his ignominous undoing. The aristocracy in those days seemed respected enough to get rolling credit from any supplier and run up huge debts whether or not they could afford it (much like governments these days!) Well the Marquess commenced an ambitious programme of landscaping, collection, rennovation, planting and purchase. In what would millions of pounds he poured forth money into his Whiteknights Estate with the avowed intention of making his new home one of the finest homes.
According to some sources, he had a certain well known skill as botanist, and brought to Whiteknights a collection of unusual plants which he had amassed at his previous base at Bill Hill. Now he was to send forth requests and emissaries around the world to seek out ever more exotic specimens.. This was to include items sent to him for King George III form the Royal Gardens. It was said that he was especially proud of a pearly-white wall of magnolia, which some say was a hundred and forty feet long and twenty feet high! Whilst living at Blenheim Palace as a boy he had no doubt been impressed by the work on that estate of the landscape designer Capability Brown for his father. Now he was to let his imagination go forth in similar vein organised the laying out of woods, gardens, and also the construction of the lake and bridges. To complete it all near to the Wokingham Road entrance of the estate he created what he termed his "Wilderness" (which is remembered in the name of Wilderness Road). To complete this part of the estate he had sarsen stones brought over from Wiltshire.
In the grounds were also a large Ice-House, and a folly of monoliths. It was rumoured that he had even discovered on the grounds what were supposed to be the ruins of the medieval ‘White Knight’s Chapel’ . There was a certain amount of public access to the grounds for local people, who could stroll through the estate and skate on the lake in winter. The Marquess even had his own private military band which woudl play for visitors in summer.
In 1817, the authoress, Mary Russell Mitford (who lived on the London Road in what is now Kendrick View Dental Practice on the very northern edge of Redland), wrote of her visit to the grounds that "there is a certain wood at Whiteknights, shut in with great boarded gates, which nobody is allowed to enter. It is a perfect Bluebeard's chamber; and, of course, all our pretty Fatimas would give their heads to get in." She and another woman were described by the housekeeper as the first two ‘modest ladies’ she had seen admitted there! Perhaps we have hints here of the debauched goings-on which characterised another aristocrat nearby- Sir Francis Dahswood and the 'Hell Fire Club' at West Wycombe House.
Erleigh Whiteknights House itself (which was located on the Whiteknights Road entrance in the vicinity of what is now Wessex and Bridges Halls of Residence) was magnificently furnished in ‘spledour worthy of a Royal residence’. Indeed, it played host to Queen Charlotte, her son, King George IV, and other Royal personages for whom Whiteknights became a favourite retreat. Perhaps this was the Marquess kept what was reputed to be one of the finest wine and spirit cellars in the country! (it was said his collection was nigh on a thousand bottles) Additional to this George was an art collector and also loved books. The rest of the building was like a private art gallery, displaying paintings by most of the great masters. Its chief treasures, however, were kept in its World-famous library. The Marquis was a bibliophile of the first order, and his exceptional collection of rare and valuable books, particularly ancient mass books, included the Bedford Missal, executed for the Duke of Bedford during his Regency of France in 1422 and given, by him, to his nephew, King Henry VI. It was bought from the library of James Edwards at a cost of £698 in 1817. More expensive still was the only perfect copy of Valderfen's edition of Boccaccio's ‘Decameron’ in existence which the Marquis had purchased for a staggering £2,260 at the Duke of Roxburgh's sale in 1812!
In his professional life, the Marquis was elected M.P. for Tregony in Cornwall, rather than Oxfordshire, in 1802 and he sat in the House of Commons for another three years before becoming Lord of the Treasury from August 1804 till February 1806. In the latter year, George was called to the House of Lords in his own right, as Baron Spencer of Wormleighton.
Unfortunately, in 1812, the Marquis fell under a cloud, due apparently to a series of scandals as well as his abandoned extravagance. Miss Mitford referred to him as "that notable fool"; but his brother-in-law, the Rev. Dr. E. Nares, while noting the "pecuniary embarrassments [which] have…..exposed him to much obloquy," paid tribute to the Marquess’ "extraordinary attainments" and declared that he knew the many disadvantages under which the his lordship laboured: "though I cannot pretend to vindicate every detail of his life, I shall always consider him an injured man."
Those to whom the Marquis was heavily in debt were not so forgiving and, two years later, he put off the collectors only by borrowing another £50,000. By 1818, however, he owned more £600,000 (several millions in today's figures) and, only months after succeeding his father as 5th Duke of Marlborough, not even virtual national icon of the illustrious family name of the hero of Battle of the Blenheim could stop the bailiffs moving in on him. There came a time when even the greatest of nobles would run out of a line of credit. George had finally reached the end of his. By October 1819, unable to prevaricate or evade his creditors any longer, the entire contents of Whiteknights House were seized and put up for auction. Sadly as so often happens in forced sales, the sums raised were below the actual value of the goods seized.
The reputation of his immense Library of rare books had not gone unnoticed by the carrion which circled above the Marquess. When the library was sold, there was great excitement as such items the ‘Decameron’ came up. Everyone surged forward to obtain a glimpse of the book that had cost so much and they could only admire the Marquess for having obtained so priceless items. He also had a collection of fine paintings which were also seized to pay off some bills. Yet it fetched only the low figure of 873 guineas. Miss Mitford stated recalls that the Marquess (who had now succeed his father as Duke of Marlborough)had lost everything except "by an admirable trick of legerdemain," the Bedford Missal. Additional to the collection the Marquess personal extravagance can be noted by the fact that also in the auction were hundred pairs of shoes and two hundred pairs of leather breeches! It was said that many rare books and paintings were sold for ridiculously low amounts because the ignorant Reading auctioneer did not appreciate their real value.
Sir Francis Cholmeley laid a claim to the ruined Whiteknights estate and, after long and drawn-out litigation, was successful in taking possession in 1824. Estranged from his wife, the impoverished Duke was obliged to retire Blenheim Palace, where he lived the last years of his life with mistress, Lady Mary Anne Sturt, with whom a had another six children. Withdrawn from the world to a single corner of the huge rambling house, the 5th Duke of Marlborough survived on a post office annuity of £5,000 which had originally been granted by Queen Anne to his ancestor, the victor of Blenheim. He died there, surrounded by bailiffs disguised as footmen, only one day after completing his 74th year in 1840.
A sad but apocryphal tale of extravagance and prodigality- but we should thank the Marquess for many of the features of Whiteknights Park today.