Blenheim Palace is located in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England, a few miles north of Oxford. Uniquely is the only country house, in England, to hold the title "palace" that is not the seat of a bishop. Blenheim Palace is one of England's greatest houses and was built between 1705 and completed about 1722. Its was originally built as a gift to the 1st Duke of Marlborough from a grateful british nation in recognition of his military victories against the French. However its construction became embroiled political infighting which led to the Duke of Marlborough's exile, the fall from grace of his Duchess, and diminution of the reputation of the architect Sir John Vanbrugh. The palace is also notable as the birthplace and ancestral home of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The plaque above the East gate gives the family's view of palace's construction:
"Under the auspices of a munificent sovereign this house was built for John Duke of Marlborough and his Duchess Sarah, by Sir J Vanbrugh between the years 1705 and 1722. And the Royal Manor of Woodstock, together with a grant of £240,000 towards the building of Blenheim, was given by Her Majesty Queen Anne and confirmed by act of parliament."
The truth is that the building of the palace was a minefield of political intrigue, with scheming on a Machiavellian scale by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough.
John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, was born in Devon, to a family that gentry rather than aristocracy. He joined the British army in 1667, and soon was promoted to colonel. In 1678 he married Sarah Jennings, and seven years later, on the accession of King James II, became Baron Churchill. On the accession of William III Churchill was further elevated to Earl of Marlborough, a title which had become extinct in his mother's family. Then during the War of the Spanish Succession he gained series of military victories: Blenheim in 1704, Ramillies in 1706, Oudenarde in 1708, and Malplaquet in 1709. By neutralisiing the danger of French invasion of England, he became a national hero and was elevated to Dukedom of Marlborough. His wife had become Queen Anne's closest friend and confidante. And it was Queen Anne who decided to gift Marlborough the former royal manor of Woodstock to site a new palace and Parliament voted a substantial sum of money towards its creation.
However the relationship between Queen and Duchess later became strained and following a final quarrel in 1711, the money for the construction of Blenheim ceased. The Marlboroughs were forced into exile abroad until they returned the day after the Queen's death.
The architect was a controversial choice. The Duchess was known to favour Sir Christopher Wren, famous for St Paul's Cathedral. The Duke however, following a chance meeting with him, is said to have commissioned Sir John Vanbrugh. Vanbrugh was an untrained architect, who usually worked in conjunction with the trained and practical Nicholas Hawksmoor. The duo had recently completed the first stages of the baroque Castle Howard. Marlborough had obviously been impressed by Castle Howard and wanted for something similar at Woodstock.
However shortage of money led to problems for Vanburgh.- accusations of extravagance and impracticality of design. The Duchess of Marlborough, having been foiled in her wish to employ Wren criticised Vanbrugh on everything from design to taste The palace was eventually completed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, his friend and architectural associate.
The precise responsibility for the funding of the new palace has always been a debatable. Queen Anne wanted the national hero to have a suitable home, but its the exact size and cost were never actually specified. A warrant dated 1705, signed by the parliamentary treasurer the Earl of Godolphin, appointed Vanbrugh as architect, and outlined his remit. This warrant did not mention Queen, or Crown. This error provided the escape clause for the state when the costs escalated. From the start funds were spasmodic. Queen Anne paid some of them, but with growing reluctance, following her frequent quarrels with the Duchess. After their final argument in 1712, all state money ceased and work came to a halt. £45,000 was owing to workmen. The Marlboroughs were forced into exile on the continent, and did not return until after the Queen's death in 1714.
On their return the Duke, now 64, decided to complete the project at his own expense. In 1716 work re-started, but the project relied completely upon the limited means of the Duke himself. 1717 the Duke suffered a severe stroke, and the thrifty Duchess took control. The master craftsmen Vanburgh had used, such as Grinling Gibbons, refused to work for the lower rates paid by the Marlboroughs. Following the Duke's death in 1722, completion of the Palace became the Duchess's ambition. The Duchess finally completed the great house as a tribute to her late husband in 1722.
Blenheim Palace is today open to the public, with an atmosphere still that of a large country house. Concerts and festivals are staged in the palace and park. The Duke retains final control over all matters in the running of the palace, but has out-sourced to Sodexho Prestige, the commercial running of the house.
The family still entertain in the state rooms, and dine on special occasions in the saloon, around the great silver centre piece depicting the 1st Duke of Marlborough on horseback. Blenheim Palace remains the tribute to the 1st Duke which both his wife and the architect Sir John Vanbrugh envisaged. Today a World Heritage Site, features to note are
The Great Hall. The ceiling, painted in 1716 by Sir James Thornhill shows Marlborough victorious, with his troops at Blenheim spread out for battle. Long, vaulted corridors running from the north and south sides of the Great Hall are typical of Vanbrugh. The staircase is concealed by the arcaded eastern wall. The complicated lock for the hall door was copied from a lock found on the gates of Warsaw.
The Saloon. The state dining-room is used by the family once a year, on Christmas Day. The table is laid with a Minton service with silver gilt. The silver centre piece shows Marlborough on horseback after the Battle of Blenheim. The murals and painted ceiling are by Louis Laguerre (1663 - 1721). The marble doorcases by Grinling Gibbons, the overdoors are emblazoned with the two-headed Eagle crest of the Duke of Marlborough as a Prince of the Roman Empire.
The Long Library. Originally designed as a picture gallery, this 55 metre long room has a fine stucco ceiling. There are full length portraits of Queen Anne, King William III and the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Plus a magnificent Willis organ at the north end. Two marble sculptures of Marlborough and Queen Anne are also displayed here.
The Formal Gardens. 9th Duke of Marlborough created the formal gardens in the 1920’s.The French landscape architect Achille Duchêne, redesigned the previous gardens to provide the Palace with the formal gardens seen today. Water Terraces, designed around the Bernini river-gods’ fountain; beautiful Italian Garden centering on the Mermaid Fountain designed by Waldo Story; the beautiful Secret Garden water features, bridges, ponds and streams.
Blenheim Palace in Wikipedia
World Heritage Sites in Britain