Obituary: His Grace, The Duke of Marlborough, aristocrat

Duke of Marlborough: Aristocrat who dedicated his life to maintaining the family seat, Blenheim Palace. Picture: PA
Duke of Marlborough: Aristocrat who dedicated his life to maintaining the family seat, Blenheim Palace. Picture: PA
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Born: 13 April, 1926, at Blenheim Palace. Died: 16 October, 2014, at Blenheim Palace, aged 88

The title, the Duke of Marlborough, was created in 1689 for one of the greatest generals in British history: John Churchill. The family has continued to make distinguished contributions to the nation, especially Sir Winston Churchill, who was born at Blenheim in 1874. The Blenheim Palace estate, at Woodstock in Oxfordshire, was a gift from Queen Anne to John Churchill, in 1704.

It is one of Britain’s most notable tourist attractions and the Duke dedicated his life to maintaining the palace and its glorious gardens to the highest order. It houses priceless paintings, tapestries and China that have been preserved and restored thanks to the informed programmes enacted by the Duke. One of the greatest attractions at Blenheim – one of the first rooms visitors enter – is the Churchill Room, where Sir Winston was born. To the sound of relays of his wartime speeches visitors can see historic items and letters from the former prime minister’s life.

The Duke, who died yesterday at the age of 88, was in the forefront of opening out the palace for commercial events. It is now the glorious setting for international company events and celebrity weddings. For the paying visitor there are Pleasure Gardens, a railway, a maze and a butterfly house. It is currently the venue for sculptures by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

The Duke’s overriding ambition throughout his life was to hand over to his family this jewel of British architecture.

Its magnificence was even recognised by Adolf Hitler who, according to wartime legend, planned to make Blenheim his headquarters and ordered the Luftwaffe not to bomb it. During the war the entire building was occupied by MI5.

John George Vanderbilt Henry Spencer-Churchill (always known as Sunny after one of his titles) was the elder son of the 10th Duke by his first marriage to Mary Cadogan, daughter of Viscount Chelsea. His father’s cousin, Winston Churchill, was one of his godparents.

After Eton, Marlborough joined the Life Guards, retiring as a captain in 1952. He then concentrated on the management and upkeep of Blenheim, particularly in the public opening of the palace. Until his father’s death in 1972, when he became the 11th Duke, he lived in the next door village but busied himself on many local charities and events – notably the Oxfordshire Association for Young People and the Oxfordshire branch of the Country Landowners’ Association.

He also served as a councillor on Oxfordshire County Council and as a magistrate. The Duke was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant for Oxfordshire in 1974.

After the war Blenheim was in a rundown condition. The walls were scarred and the famous library had been used as a map room. By the time the 11th Duke inherited, the interiors had to be substantially refurbished, the paintings cleaned and the rewiring, alone, took seven years. He had to hand over many valuable Churchill documents in lieu of death duties.

An ongoing concern for some years was the drug addiction of his eldest son, the Marquess of Blandford. It is understood the Duke did take legal action some years ago to prevent his son from inheriting the estate. That was annulled more recently after the Marquess reformed his lifestyle.

In 2012 the Marquess featured in a Channel 4 documentary which charted his new relationship with his father. The calmer atmosphere between father and son was evidenced when the Duke made it clear that his son would have an executive role in the running of Blenheim although, like the Duke himself, he would be answerable to trustees.

In that television programme the Duke spoke movingly of his love for Blenheim and pride in his family’s place in British history. “Trying to keep Blenheim going is a very important part of the family’s history and life at the present time, and so what we’re trying to do is ensure that Blenheim is kept for future generations.”

The 11th Duke enjoyed a colourful private life. He first married Susan Hornby in 1951 but they divorced in 1961. That year he married Tina Livanos, the former wife of the Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. She left him to marry Stavros Niarchos, who had previously been married to her sister. She and the Duke divorced in 1971.

The Duke married thirdly, in 1972, Rosita Douglas, the daughter of a Swedish count and ambassador to the United States. The marriage was dissolved in 2008, and in the same year he married Lily Mahtani – her father, Narinder Sahni is an executive with the Hinduja Group. She and the Marquess of Blandford, Lord Edward, Lady Alexandra and Lady Henrietta all survive him.

The Duke is succeeded to the Marlborough titles by his eldest son James, Marquess of Blandford, who was born in 1955.