THE 11th Duke of Marlborough, who has died aged 88, made it his life’s work to preserve Blenheim Palace for the future.

John Spencer-Churchill, often called “Sunny” because of his courtesy title of Earl of Sunderland, inherited his father’s title of Duke on March 10, 1972.

As part of his mission to protect the world-famous palace at Woodstock, he opened it further to the general public, realising that running a stately home in the modern day was more akin to a business.

He once said: “Although the Battle of Blenheim was won in 1704, the battle for Blenheim continues.”

Blenheim had originally been opened to paying visitors in 1950, but only for fours days a week.

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But it was the 11th Duke who managed to persuade his father to open it for five days a week, and then to six, and when he took over in the 1970s this was soon increased to seven. In 1987 it was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site and over the past 25 years the estate has hosted music and literary festivals, classic motoring shows, film crews, the Battle Proms and the Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials, Oxfordshire’s biggest sporting event.

John George Vanderbilt Henry Spencer-Churchill was born on April 13, 1926, to Lt Col John Spencer- Churchill, the 10th Duke of Marlborough, and the Hon Alexandra Mary Hilda Cadogan.

He was a cousin of war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill, one of his godparents, and a distant relative of Diana, Princess of Wales.

As a young man he attended Eton College, going on to join the army, becoming a captain in the Life Guards, part of the Household Cavalry. He retired in 1952 and moved to Grade-II listed Lee Place, on the outskirts of Charlbury.

During the 1950s he became a Woodstock magistrate, serving on the bench for many years, and also a councillor on Charlbury Parish Council.

On inheriting his father’s title of Duke in March 1972, he immediately faced his first financial struggle for Blenheim, as he was forced to pay a substantial death duty bill.

Whitehall later agreed a large part of the payment could be met by surrendering the Blenheim Archive, a collection of 30,000 papers and letters left by the first Duke of Marlborough. It was given to the British Library in London in 1978.

The Duke was variously a Deputy Lieutenant of Oxfordshire, president of the Thames and Chilterns Tourist Board, president of the Oxfordshire Association of Boys’ Clubs and president of Oxfordshire County Cricket Club.

At one stage he was also president of Oxford United.

He married Susan Hornby, daughter of WH Smith’s deputy chairman Michael, in 1951. They had their first child, christened John David Ivor Spencer-Churchill, in November 1952, but he died two years later.

The couple then had Jamie in 1955 and Henrietta in 1958, but divorced in 1961. The Marquess gained custody of the children.

That same year he married Tina Livanos, the ex-wife of Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. They divorced in 1971.

The 11th Duke, after gaining his father’s title, then married British artist Rosita Douglas in 1972 and they had three children, Richard, who died in infancy, Edward in 1974 and Alexandra in 1977. Their marriage lasted until 2008.

In 2008 he married Iranian-born Lily Mahtani, the daughter of a successful Indian businessman.

She was credited by some newspapers for rekindling the Duke’s troubled relationship with his eldest surviving son, Jamie, former Marquess of Blandford and now 12th Duke of Marlborough, who had been subject to jail sentences and drug addictions.

Their feud came to a head in 1994 in the form of a High Court case, which stopped the errant son from securing control of the palace and ensured it would be handled by trustees until Jamie’s son, George, succeeded him.

However, they were to apparently reconcile in 2012, when a Channel 4 programme documented them establishing friendly relations.

His son is now to make Blenheim his family home and, it is believed, will sit on the board of trustees alongside his half-brother Edward.

The 11th Duke of Marlborough, died peacefully last Thursday.

He is survived by four of his children, Lord Charles James Spencer-Churchill, 58, Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, 56, Lord Edward Spencer-Churchill, 40, and Lady Alexandra Spencer-Churchill, 38.

A funeral will be held tomorrow for close friends and family in the parish church of St Mary Magdalene, Woodstock, at 11.30am.

It will be followed in the new year by a memorial service in London.


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