Thy choicest gifts in store

War and reward have always gone together. The commanders of a victorious army could expect treasure, tribute, land, vassals and all the other riches of a conquered land. Many of the most successful commanders are motivated by loftier ideals than mere booty: justice, revenge, glory and a demonstration of manly virtues. But getting a reward, whether a chest of gold or a peerage, a castle or a stately home, is an additional and sweet compensation.

Britain has a long history of rewarding her most successful military commanders. The most jaw-dropping display of the nation’s gratitude is found in Blenheim Palace. Blenheim was built as a reward for the 1st Duke of Marlborough to commemorate his stunning, pivotal defeat of the French at Blindheim – the German village’s name was, of course, suitably Anglicised before being applied to the Ducal pile.

Blenheim Palace from the water gardens Sarah Charlesworth [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Victory at Blindheim had won Britain the continental struggle in the Seven Years’ War. It also won the newly minted Duke of Marlborough a palace fitting his elevated title. In fact, it was a palace so oppulant that it would fit any title. It is a stunning example of the English Baroque and possibly the finest privately held house in Britain. It is perhaps telling that Blenheim is one of only 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in England; a distinction enjoyed by none of the Royal Family’s current official residences.

Blenheim’s publicity department certainly doesn’t show any sign of false modesty – they describe the building as Britain’s greatest palace. It is also unique in being the only palace in Britain not serving the Royal Family or the Church of England.

The Duke of Wellington’s Batons

Hyde Park Corner is a dizzyingly busy traffic gyratory that sucks cars, taxis and buses from Park Lane and before spewing them towards the Mall, Piccadilly, Victoria and Kensington. The five lanes of traffic create an island separating Green Park and Constitution Hill from Hyde Park. The island is dominated by the Wellington Arch and overlooked by Apsley House, the London home of the Dukes of Wellington.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington By John Jackson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Few would deny Arthur Wellesley a seat in the pantheon of British military greats. His military prowess culminated in the battle of Wellington and his victory over Napoleon ended two decades of war and turmoil. Wellesley’s service in the Napoleonic wars was richly rewarded. He received a Field Marshal’s baton in 1813 and was constantly elevated in the peerage: baron, earl and marquess until finally being created the 1st Duke of Wellington in 1814.

King and country showered the victorious general with every possible distinction, title and order. He was inducted into the Orders of the Bath and the Garter, made the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Chancellor of the University of Oxford. His honours were not limited to the UK and he earned titles and distinctions across liberated Europe. He was made a Field Marshal in the armies of each of the allies (Austria, Prussia, Portugal, Spain, Russia, Netherlands and Hanover), earning him seven more batons of command.

The Duke of Wellington's batons, showing the honorary commands he was given over allied armies

There were plans for him to be given the land to build a palace that would rival Blenheim, tentatively named Waterloo Palace. But Britain had changed between the ages of Marlborough and Wellington, and the project cost ensured a more modest gift. This came in the form of the purchase and enlargement of Stratfield Saye House in Hampshire.

Stratfield Save is still an incredibly imposing residence, it doesn’t come close to Blenheim’s grandiose splendour. In this, it is perhaps more fitting for the Iron Duke. Wellington was a military man through and through and the house’s simpler form gives it the distinctive appearance of a Regency barracks house.

Stratfield Saye House, Hampshire - the nation's gift to the Duke of Wellington Andrew Smith [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Duke didn’t have everything his own way – he had to buy his own London residence. He purchased Apsley House from his impecunious brother. Such was the general’s renowned that the building was widely known by the distinctly succinct address of Number One London (its official address was and remains 149 Piccadilly).

Modern rewards

Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s legacy is decidedly more mixed than either Marlborough or Wellington. He was celebrated as a national hero before post-war revisionism saw him more as the ‘Butcher of the Somme’. In recent times, his reputation has been subject to more balanced analysis and rehabilitation.

His rewards were also distinctly more modest than those of his illustrious predecessors. He did earn a Field Marshal’s baton and also gained elevation to the peerage. But a dukedom was out of his reach, and he had to settle for being made the 1st Earl Haig. Even this was more than the government had originally intended, with Lloyd George at first offering an offended Haig a mere viscountcy.

Bemersyde House, Berwickshire, Scotland  by Kevin Rae [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Haig received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament and was given £100,000 to ensure he could live in a manner befitting a senior member of the peerage. The government also bought Bemersyde House and grounds, an impressive manor house but not in the same league as the stately homes bought for Wellington and Marlbrough.

Perhaps his most impressive legacy is neither in his title or wealth but in the effort he put into ex-servicemen’s welfare. He was instrumental in the both the creation of the Royal British Legion, urging four existing organisations to merge, and in establishing the annual collections and poppy wearing tradition.

Field Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein By Horton (Capt), War Office official photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By the time of the Second World War buying great houses for generals, no matter how successful they had been, was out of step with the socialist times. General Montgomery was the primary victim of the changed and straightened times. He was created the 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, a title Earl Haig had rejected as an insult. Like all his great predecessors, he accumulated the royal titles and orders but received no land and no large payment. The era of glorious generals was over.

The winner takes it all

Although Blenheim Palace is incredibly impressive and a Dukedom nothing to be sniffed at, perhaps the biggest military winners have been those who have dared to challenge for the greatest prize of all – the crown.

William the Conqueror, Henry Tudor and William of Orange all led soldiers and had the audacity to stake claims on the English and later British crown and win. To the victor, the spoils – and there was no greater victors and no greater spoils than the men who gambled on fighting for the kingdom and won.

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