Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Great Country Estates of Britain Series. Part Three: Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace
(the only non-episcopal, non-royal 'Palace' in England, was built in Woodstock, Oxfordshire between 1705 and circa 1724.

It was constructed in part as a gift from Queen Anne and 'a grateful nation' to John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, in gratitude for his military triumph against the French and Bavarian forces of Louis XIV at the Battle of Blenheim, (Blindheim) a small village on the Danube. As with Castle Howard, it was designed by John Vanbrugh, in the rare and short-lived English-baroque style. The design was a matter of infighting and controversy at the time, and architectural appreciation of the palace is still divided today.

Above: John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough

The palace cost an astronomical sum to construct, and it's funding was the source of much fighting between the Marlboroughs, The Queen, and Parliament. The Duke contributed £60,000 to the initial cost when work commenced in 1705. This was supplemented by Parliament, who voted in favour of funding the building of Blenheim, but did not decide on an exact amount.

The plan of Blenheim Palace (shown above) is essentially a large central rectangular block. Behind the southern facade are the principal state apartments. On the eastern side are the private apartments of the Duke and Duchess. On the west the entire length is taken up with the long gallery. The central block is flanked by two further service blocks around square courtyards. The eastern court contains the kitchens, laundry, and other domestic offices, the western court contains the stables and riding school.

The three blocks together form the "Great Court" designed to be severely imposing to demonstrate military prowess. Vanbrugh had turned the ideal of comfort first and opulence second, on its head, for it was not merely a country house, but a national monument. In order to create this effect, Vanbrugh created a unique, English / Vanbrugh style of baroque, using vast masses of stone to give the feeling of strength and security, as well as much positive and negative detailing to enhance the masonry with contrasting shadow and light:

The solid and huge entrance portico on the north front (below) resembles the entrance to a classical temple. But it is not a pure classical style. It combines castle elements, such as the low towers at each corner of the central block and crowning the towers with vast masonry belvederes, decorated with finials (disguising the chimneys):

All these features were to aid the heroic pantheonesque atmosphere of the building, a Roman triumph on a grander scale.

There are two approaches to the palace's grand entrance, one from the long straight drive directly into the Great Court, (the current visitors' entrance), the other a more impressive , triumphal arch: the great East Gate. The gate is also the palace's water tower.

The homage to the Duke's pre-eminence (and status as a national hero) is reflected in every last detail of the design of the palace, right down to it sprawling out from his seat at the dining table in the great saloon, as if he was the climax of the palace itself.

The Duke did not live long enough to view this majestic tribute realised, and sit enthroned in this architectural vision: it was not completed until after the Duke's death. Upon which, the palace chapel obtained greater importance, and the design was altered, placing the high against the west wall to allow room for the Duke's tomb at the east end (where the altar should rightfully go).

His tomb was commissioned by the Duchess in 1730, and was designed by William Kent.

Statues of the Duke and Duchess depicted as Caesar and Caesarina adorn the great sarcophagus, while in bas relief around the bottom of the tomb is a depiction of the surrender of Marshall Tallard. Successive Dukes and their wives are also interred in the vault beneath the chapel.

From the outset, the payments to the builders and labourers were paroxysmal. Queen Anne paid some of them, but with growing reluctance, due to her frequent altercations with Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough. After their final argument in 1712, all state funding ceased and work ground to a halt with £45,000 owing to workmen. It seemed that not even the vast sum of £220,000 had been enough to finish the house. The Marlboroughs were forced into exile on the continent, and did not return until after the Queen's death in 1714.

Queen Anne (6 February 1665 – 1 August 1714) was the last of the Stuart monarchs. With no successor the throne passed to George, Elector of Hanover, related through his Grandmother to the English throne. He was to become George I. Her reign was not marked with success. but relative turmoil. However, given the fate of her recent predecessors, I guess at least she got to leave the throne in one piece (albeit buried in a square coffin due to her overwhelming oedema from unchecked gout and erysipelas (a generalised skin infection which, in Anne's case lead to overwhelming sepsis). One can start to see the doughy changes to her physique in the portrait above (which is one of the kinder painted in her latter years).

During the war, the 1st Duke of Marlborough lost his son to smallpox. An Act of Parliament established that in the event of a lack of a male heir the title would go through the female line., thus the Duke's eldest daughter, Henrietta, inherited the title of second Duchess of Marlborough. Henrietta also died without a male heir, so the title passed to the eldest son of her sister Anne, Charles Spencer, who became the 3rd Duke in 1733. At this point the Churchill name was lost,. However, the 5th Duke, by royal licence, was allowed to add Churchill to his surname and ever since the family has been Spencer-Churchill. Charles Spencer had a younger brother John who remained at Althorp. From him the Earls of Spencer descend. Lady Diana Spencer, the late Princess of Wales, was a direct descendant of the 1st Duke of Marlborough.

The palace itself takes up about 7 acres, and is set within a vast park. The 4th Duke brought in Capability Brown and William Chambers to make major changes to the original park and gardens.

The 5th Duke who was a horticulturalist of international renown, developed extensive gardens which no longer survive. He spent vast sums of money (which he could not afford) buying rare plants and flowers, particularly orchids. He created a whole range of specialist gardens,which except for the Rose Garden (was restored by the present Duke), are history.

The financial pickle persisted through another 2 dukes. George Spencer-Churchill, the 8th Duke of Marlborough, inherited a poorly estate. Thus, he decided to sell off over 200 old master paintings, using the funds for Palace maintenance and improvements to the estate. He was also a scientist. He constructed his own laboratory within the palace and introduced gas, electricity, central heating and a telephone system of his own design.

The 8th Duke's brother, Randolph, married Jennie Jerome and had two sons, one of whom was Winston Churchill. Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim and proposed to his wife, Clementine Hozier, there too. Winston said "At Blenheim I made two decisions: to be born and to marry. I am happily content with both".

The 9th Duke, Charles Spencer- Churchill, inherited the estate in 1892. He too dedicated himself to restoring the palace to its former glory, but was thwarted by its impecunious situation. Thus, he married Consuelo Vanderbilt (2 March 1877 – 6 December 1964), of the prominent American Vanderbilt family, who at the time owned most of Fifth avenue, and several country houses. It was a socially advantageous marriage, he had the pedigree, the palace and the status, and she had all the wealth. Thanks to her, Blenheim was restored to the glorious palace it is today: her dowry paid for the complete redecoration of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd State Rooms, and re-stocking the Long Library (the books were sold by the 7th Duke to pay for the palace's upkeep).

Above: The Long Library
Below: The Statue of Queen Anne which stands at one end of the library.

The Duke also completed the Water Terraces (below) to the west and the Italian Garden to the east.

He restored the Great Court to its pre-Capability Brown original state (i.e. as it stands today) and restored the Grand Avenue of elms (in all he planted half a million trees).

Above: The 9th Duke of Marlborough, with his wife Consuelo and their two sons.

They had 2 sons, John Albert William Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford (and later the 10th Duke), and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill. Sadly, but predictably, the marriage did not last.

Consuelo was close friends with many of England's elite, including Winston Churchill, who remained a regular visitor to Blenheim. One famous occurrence at Blenheim during this time was an altercation between Churchill and one of Consuelo's other friends, Nancy Astor (the first female MP, with whom Churchill was not friendly). On this occasion Churchill arrived unexpectedly and ran into Astor. An argument inevitable pursued, during which Astor commented that if she were married to Churchill she would put poison in his drink, to which Churchill replied "if I was you husband I would drink it".

Above: The Green Writing Room.
Note the tapestries on the wall commemorating the Battle of Blenheim.

Below: Tapestry detail.

Above: The Great Hall.
Below: The State Dining Room

Below: Several photos of the ground and park taken in 2008.

It is also the family home of one of my favourite interior decorators, Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, the eldest daughter of the 11th Duke of Marlborough. Her interior design company, Woodstock Designs, is located in the nearby village.

Above: An aerial photo of Blenheim, showing the park and the nearby village of Woodstock.

Below: A panoramic video of the forecourt take during our trip in 2008.


  1. Great images and very interesting reading..I look forward to going there someday. Thanks for the insight!


  3. Blenheim Palace- my favorite stately home in England. I have visited twice, and was mesmerized each time. Thank you for this wonderful historical record.

    When I started my blog, I wrote under the pseudonym of 'Sarah Jennings' - the first Duchess of Marlborough. I remember seeing her portrait in the National Gallery in London, and being intrigued with the Blenheim connection.

  4. This is such a pretty site
    my second time here.
    Love English history.
    Great reading. I am new at this blog stuff.


  5. You have a good eye and I'm in awe of the scope of your knowledge. I'll be sure to visit often. Thanks for sharing your site with me.
    Warmest regards,

  6. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

  7. Nicely done! Thank you! I am reading William Manchester's 2 volume set about Winston Churchill and like to supplement my reading with additional research on the Internet.


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