Historic Blenheim Palace, one of the grandest private homes in Britain, was the birthplace and childhood home of Sir Winston Churchill. It's a magnificent example of English Baroque architecture and, with its beautiful grounds and attractions, makes a great day out from London, Oxford or Birmingham.
It began as a gift from a grateful monarch, Queen Anne, to John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, in honor of his defeat of the French at the 1704 Battle of Blenheim in the War of the Spanish Succession.
By the time the flamboyant palace was completed, some of the greatest architects, designers, landscape gardeners, painters, carvers and sculptors of the 18th century had taken part in its creation but the Duchess had fallen out with everyone - including the Queen of England.
About two hours from central London by car (less by train and local bus), Blenheim Palace makes an easy day trip from London and a "must" on any tour of the Southeast or the Cotswolds. Take his pictorial tour, and then plan your visit.
The North Front
The palace, built for John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, was his reward for leading troops at the Battle of Blenheim. Queen Anne,only two years into her reign, granted him the "Manor and Honour of Woodstock and the Hundred of Wooton", along with £240,000 to build a house that would be a monument to his famous victory. Ultimately, the house and its famous occupants because far more famous than the victory it was built to celebrate.
The Churchills were already established royal familiars, with John's wife Sarah being a close friend of Queen Anne. By all reports, she must have been something of a handful, because by the time the house was finished, she had fallen out with the builders, the architect, the artists and artisans, not to mention the Queen herself.
Today's visitors to Blenheim can tour the house or simply enjoy the gardens, park and various attractions of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Clock Tower at Blenheim Palace
While the Duke of Marborough went off to war, facing the French again at the Battle of Ramillies in 1706, his wife Sarah busied herself creating a house that was a monument to his glory. Wherever you look, symbols and trophies of war abound.
Architect John Vanbrugh, also an 18th century playwright and builder of Castle Howard in York, was assisted by Nicholas Hawksmoor, who created many of the City of London's famous churches. Lancelot "Capability" Brown, created the park and lakes.
But, as the project became more and more ambitious and expensive, the Queen and Sarah bickered. Politics changed at court and, when the Marlboroughs fell out of favor in 1712, money for the project dried up. By that time, Vanbrugh was owed £45,000 and all construction came to a halt.
The Great Hall at Blenheim Palace
While the Duke of Marlborough was away fighting battles, Sarah, the Duchess, devoted herself to creating a monument to his glory as the Great Hall demonstrates.
When the Marlboroughs fell out of favor at court, money for building Blenheim Palace dried up. They actually went into exile in Europe for two years, only returning on the death of Queen Anne.
Works on the house began again in 1716 but, since the Duke was now paying out of his own pocket (£60,000 in all) he refused to pay crown rates. Some of the master craftsmen, like carver Grinling Gibbons, who decorated this room, refused to return at the lower rates of pay. Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor were re-engaged but Vanbrugh left in fury a few months later, complaining of the Duchess's strong criticisms and "intolerable treatment" of him. It does seem that problems with builders are eternal.
Hawksmoor returned after the Duke's death to create a triumphal arch in his honor. But Vanbrugh was never allowed on the property again.
Despite the Dramas...
...a stunning house was created. Visitors enter Blenheim Palace through the Great Hall, before beginning guided tours of the elegant rooms. The Hall's 67 foot high ceiling was painted by Sir James Thornhill and depicts the first Duke in Roman dress presenting his battle plan to Britannia.
Stone carvings around the room are by Grinling Gibbons and an inventory of the house describes them as "cutt extraordinary rich and sunk very deep." While in this room, look for the bronze bust of the 9th Duke in his Order of the Garter robes, by Sir Jacob Epstein.
The Green Writing Room at Blenheim Palace
The China room is the first stop on the tour of Blenheim Palace. Among the Sevres and Meissen services displayed there, look for the Meissen tureen with lemon slices for its handle. It's part of a service given to the third Duke by the King of Poland in exchange for a pack of stag hounds.
An elaborate bureau in the room, decorated with modern marquetry, was made for the millennium by Viscount Linley, the current Queen's nephew.
A Guest Suite
In the 18th and 19th centuries, prestigious guests visiting Blenheim Palace would have been given the use of a three room suite. The Green Writing Room, pictured here, was part of a suite that also includes:
- The Green Drawing Room decorated in the style of Louis XV. It has an elaborate ceiling, decorated in 24K gold leaf, by Nicholas Hawksmoor and stunning ormolu clock made by Gosselin of Paris. Take a look at the portrait of the 4th Duke in his Order of the Garter robes (looking a bit like George Washington). In the background, you can see what "Capability" Brown's landscaping looked like in the 18th century as well as the Temple of Diana, a classical folly, where Winston Churchill proposed to his wife.
- The Red Drawing Room decorated with Chippendale furniture and Savonniere carpets. Two portraits worth taking some time over are a painting of the 4th Duke with his family by Sir Joshua Reynolds and a portrait of the 9th Duke with his American wife, Consuelo Vanderbilt, painted by American society portraitist John Singer Sargent.
The Green Writing Room
Among the treasures of this room, most famous is the Belgian tapestry that depicts the 1st Duke accepting the surrender of the French at the Battle of Blenheim. It is remarkable for it's almost eyewitness detail. Anyone interested in 18th century military history should spend some time studying all the activity going on behind the main action of the tapestry.
Imagine having a room in your house that you only use once a year. The Saloon, the state dining room at Blenheim Palace is that sort of room. The family of the Duke of Marlborough use it for Christmas Dinner and that's about it.
The murals and paintings in this elegant room were painted by French artist Louis Laguerre, who charged £500 for the lot. Sir James Thornhill, who painted the ceiling of the Great Hall had originally been commissioned to do this room, but Sarah, the 1st Duchess of Marlborough disputed his fees. She was famous for disputing fees and arguing with the craftsmen and workmen she hired. In a similar dispute with the builders, master carver Grinling Gibbons only completed one of the carved marble door cases when work on the house was suspended in 1712. He never returned when work resumed.
The massive, solid silver centerpiece in this room depicts the 1st Duke, on horseback, writing a dispatch to his wife, instructing her to report the victory at Blenheim to Queen Anne. The dispatch, scribbled on the back of a tavern bill, is kept at the British Library (a copy is kept in the First State Room). The centerpiece was made by Garrard, the Crown Jewellers.
The First State Room at Blenheim Palace
More Belgian tapestries depict Marborough's military victories in the first of three "state" rooms that connect the Saloon to the Long Library.
The 1st Duke commissioned a series of 11 tapestries, from the Belgian weaver deVos, to commemorate his 18th century military successes. The Battle of Blenheim tapestry is displayed in the Green Writing Room. Among those displayed in this room are:
- The Donauworth tapestry, showing Marborough's forces preparing to attack the fortress and walled city.
- The Battle of Malplaquet
- The crossing the Lines of Brabant
- The Siege of Lille.
Above the fireplace is a portrait of Consuelo Vanderbilt, the American 1st wife of the 9th Duke. It was, likely, Vanderbilt money that helped to restore the ornate ceiling of this room. It is decorated with 9 carat gold and is copied from a ceiling in Versailles.
The Quit-Rent Standard
One of the eccentricities of Blenheim Palace is the Quit-Rent standard. A banner with three fleurs de lys, it is the French royal standard. By order of Queen Anne, a new Quit-Rent standard is presented to the sovereign every year on the anniversary of the Battle of Blenheim.
While in this room, make sure to look at the ornate, gilt cradle in which Duchess Consuelo rocked her two sons, one of whom became the 10th Duke.
The Long Library at Blenheim Palace
More than 10,000 books are kept in the Long Library, planned by Vanbrugh and designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.
A room of superlatives, the Long Library runs the length of the west front of the palace and is one of the longest rooms in a private house in Britain. In former times, ladies took their exercise in inclement weather by strolling about in the room Vanbrugh described as a "noble room of parade or picture gallery." Measuring 183 feet long and 32 feet high, the Long Library also contains an organ built by Henry Willis in 1891 - the largest organ in a private house in Europe.
Although originally planned by Vanbrugh, the Long Library at Blenheim Palace is considered to be Hawksmoor's finest room in the house. Spend some time looking up at the extraordinary stucco ceilings, including two false domes, completed in 1725.
The blank ceiling panels reflect yet another disagreement with the decorators. Sir James Thornhill was originally commissioned to fill them with allegorical scenes. He proved too expensive so they remained blank. Interestingly, in this showcase of English Baroque, the empty ceiling panels give the room a simpler appearance, more typical of the neoclassical or Georgian style of the Robert Adam of the late 18th century.
The Long Library has seen a variety of uses over the years. During World War I it was a hospital ward and during World War II it served as a dormitory for Malvern College boys. From 1940 to 1944, the clerks of MI5 filled the room with their desks and top secret intelligence work. Today, the Long Library is sometimes used for charity balls.