Chartwell was a refuge and a sanctuary for Winston Churchill. The odd conglomeration of structures and additions on the Kentish weald, southeast of London was, for him, an earthly paradise. In fact, he often asserted that “A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted.” It was home.
And if ever a man needed a home, an earthly elysium to recharge, recoup, and reinvigorate, it was Churchill. He was born into privilege on this day in 1874—the son of the parliamentary master, Lord Randolph Churchill, and thus one of the heirs of the Marlborough legacy. Educated at Harrow and Sandhurst, he entered the Imperial service as a hussars officer. After notable tours of duty in India, Sudan, and South Africa, he entered parliament himself.
Having already made a name for himself, he rose quickly through the political ranks. By 1908 he moved from the back benches to become President of the Board of Trade. Two years later he became Home Secretary. The next year he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty presiding over the naval expansion that preceded the First World War. He was evidently a man of extraordinary gifts and abilities.
A series of disastrous defeats—including the failure of the Dardanelles expedition, which he had championed—Churchill lost his Admiralty post and served out the remainder of the war on the front lines in France. He undertook a painstakingly slow and difficult political rehabilitation in the years that followed. Most analysts believed his career was essentially over—he was now relegated to the outer fringe of political influence. His dire warnings of the threat from Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany went unheeded. During those difficult years, Churchill bought and renovated the old estate of Chartwell. It was a place where he could rest and reflect, read and write, paint and build, garden and walk. He once asserted that “We shape our dwellings and afterwards, our dwellings shape us.” There can be little doubt that he shaped Chartwell to suit his peculiar interests and concerns. There his soul was braced for the great trials ahead.
When the Second World War broke out, the hapless Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain was forced to bring Churchill into the government—even though he was now sixty-five years old. He was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. The following May, when Chamberlain was forced to resign, Churchill was asked by the King to form a new government and accept the office of Prime Minister.
Over the next five years, he stood practically alone against the Nazi menace. Almost single-handedly he saved Western Civilization, stirring the British people to unimaginable feats of valor with his bold oratory and even bolder leadership. His unflagging energy and his stubborn refusal to make peace until Adolf Hitler was crushed were crucial in turning the tide of the war and ultimately leading the Western Allies to victory. After the war, he returned to Chartwell. Extraordinary vitality, imagination, and boldness characterized his whole career. But, he was the first to admit, if he had not had Chartwell—its libraries and gardens, its hearthsides and hedgerows, its peace and quiet—he would never have been able to do what he was called to do.