- Historic Sites
The Lion Caged
An outstanding American historian follows Winston Churchill through a typical day during his political exile in the 1930s and uses that single twenty-four-hour period to reveal the character of the century’s greatest Englishman in all its complexity. See Churchill lay bricks, paint a landscape, tease his dinner guests, badger his secretaries, dictate a history, make up a speech, write an article (that’s how he earns his living), refuse his breakfast because the jam has been left off the tray, refight the Battle of Bull Run, feed his fish, drink his brandy, fashion a “bellyband” to retrieve a particularly decrepit cigar, recite all of “Horatius at the Bridge,” take two baths—and await with noisy fortitude the day when he will save the world.
February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
The spacious cream drawing room overlooks the Weald. Beneath the prismatic gleams of its eighteenth-century chandeliers, an exquisite little clock stands upon a mahogany Louis XVI bureau à cylindre. Now, at 8:00 A.M., it chimes. Above, in the householder’s study, the sound is echoed as another clock also tells the hour. Simultaneously a sibilant rustle of Irish linen breaks the hush in Churchill’s bedroom a few feet away, as he sits bolt upright and yanks off his black satin sleep mask. He, not the sun, determines when he will greet the new day. Fumbling on the bedside table, he rings the bell for his valet-cumbutler or, as Churchill says, “my man.”
Awaiting his man, he peers around, rumpled but remarkably alert in view of the fact that he retired, as is his custom, only six hours ago. Poised thus, he is surrounded by Churchilliana. Elsewhere Chartwell’s decor reflects Clementine Churchill’s understated upper-class elegance, but her husband is a flamboyant swashbuckler, a throwback to the cavaliers or the Elizabethan patriciate with its aristocratic disdain for the opinions of others. Thus this most personal part of the mansion is decorated not with implicit grace, but with explicit flourish—Benares brass, an ornate Fabergé cigar box, engraved plates of gold and silver, and, standing in solitary splendor, a gold-headed walking stick engraved “to my youngest minister,” his wedding present from King Edward VII and a reminder of the 1880s, when Edward was Prince of Wales and Winston’s mother, Jennie, was the prince’s mistress, and also an evocation of the first decade of the new century, when young Winston was a rising power in the Edwardian Parliament.
A minute passes; two minutes. No valet. Winston fumes; the Churchillian lower lip juts out. His bizarre daily schedule deceives visitors who think it disorderly. Those who live at Chartwell know better. Though very odd, it is a schedule—is, in fact, a rigid one. Young F. W. Deakin will soon join the household, leaving his don’s rooms at Christ Church, Oxford, to be the chief researcher (at a mere £300 a year) for Winston’s multivolume biography of his great ancestor John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. Long afterward Deakin will recall: “He was totally organized, almost like a clock. His routine was absolutely dictatorial. He set himself a ruthless timetable every day and would get very agitated, even cross, if it was broken.” He is very cross now. His valet is often dilatory, though today the blame is not his. Lately the bell has not been working properly. And though Churchill is now bellowing, his shouts are unheard. That is partly his fault. The walls in this part of the mansion are thick. But by puttying all the crevices, he has effectively soundproofed the room.
Raging, he flings aside the counterpane, leaps out, stamps his bare foot like a spoiled child, and then stalks dramatically across the room, crossing the threshold and reaching the landing in pursuit of his man. This happens from time to time, and the effect is sometimes spectacular, for Churchill sleeps naked and remains so on such sorties. He will don a robe when visiting other homes, “in deference,” as he puts it, to his hosts’ “views of propriety,” but at Chartwell he feels free to roam around nude; as one of his servants will later explain, it seems “completely natural to him.” It did not seem natural to a young housemaid who has just left his employ. Looking up the stairwell one morning, she beheld, on the top step, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill in the buff—all 210 pounds of him, a tall, pink man with a bald, smooth dome and broad if slightly stooped shoulders, glaring down at her, as one of Winston’s secretaries remembers, “like a laser beam.” The girl fled shrieking and was last seen disappearing in the direction of the walled garden. She has sent for her belongings and her pay.
Churchill’s bizarre daily schedule deceives visitors who think it disorderly.
At long last his valet arrives with profuse apologies—a little man with few teeth, a pronounced lisp, and many comical gestures, which the Churchill children delight in mimicking. But their father values him; whatever his flaws, he knows the daily drill. He opens the day properly, carrying in a tray bearing his master’s first meal of the day—orange juice from a bottle (Winston detests freshly squeezed juice) and a cooked English breakfast, with, as the pièce de résistance, a small steak, or a cutlet Churchill ordered set aside at last evening’s dinner for this very purpose. There is also a small dish of jam, usually black cherry. If the jam has been forgotten Winston will lie there propped on pillows, pouting and refusing to touch anything on the tray until the jam appears.