The Blenheim Palace
Blenheim Palace is a large and monumental country house situated in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England. It is the only non-episcopal country house in England to hold the title of palace. The palace, one of England's largest houses, was built between 1705 and circa 1724. UNESCO recognised the palace as a World Heritage Site in 1987. Its construction was originally intended to be a gift to John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough from a grateful nation in return for military triumph against the French and Bavarians at the Battle of Blenheim.
Designed in the rare, and short-lived, English Baroque style, architectural appreciation of the palace is as divided today as it was in the 1720s. It is unique in its combined usage as a family home, mausoleum and national monument. The palace is also notable as the birthplace and ancestral home of Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.
The building of the palace was a minefield of political intrigue by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. Following the palace's completion, it became the home of the Churchill family for the following 300 years, and various members of the family have in that period wrought various changes, in the interiors, park and gardens. At the end of the 19th century, the palace and the Churchills were saved from ruin by an American marriage. Thus, the exterior of the palace remains in good repair and exactly as completed.
The architect selected for the ambitious project was a controversial one. The Duchess was known to favour Sir Christopher Wren, famous for St Paul's Cathedral and many other national buildings. The Duke however, following a chance meeting at a playhouse, is said to have commissioned Sir John Vanbrugh there and then. Vanbrugh, a popular dramatist, 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. This huge Yorkshire mansion was one of England's first houses in the flamboyant European Baroque style. Marlborough had obviously been impressed by this grandiose pile and wished for something similar at Woodstock.
Blenheim, however, was not to provide Vanbrugh with the architectural plaudits he imagined it would. The fight over funding led to accusations of extravagance and impracticality of design, many of these charges levelled by the Whig factions in power. He found no defender in the Duchess of Marlborough. Having been foiled in her wish to employ Wren, she levelled criticism at Vanbrugh on every level, from design to taste. In part their problems arose from what was demanded of the architect. The nation (who it was then assumed, by architect and owners, was paying the bills) wanted a monument, but the Duchess wanted not only a fitting tribute to her husband but also a comfortable home, two requirements that were not compatible in 18th-century architecture. Finally, in the early days of the building the Duke was frequently away on his military campaigns, and it was left to the Duchess to negotiate with Vanbrugh. More aware than her husband of the precarious state of the financial aid they were receiving, she attempted to curb Vanbrugh's grandiose ideas, in an arrogant fashion (as was her wont) rather than explain the true reasons behind her frugality.
Following their final altercation Vanbrugh was banned from the site. In 1719, while the Duchess was away, Vanbrugh viewed the palace in secret. However, when he and his wife, with the Earl of Carlisle, visited the completed Blenheim as members of the viewing public in 1725, they were refused admission even to enter the park. The palace had been completed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, his friend and architectural associate.
Vanbrugh's severe massed Baroque used at Blenheim never truly caught the public imagination, and was quickly superseded by the revival of the Palladian style. Vanbrugh's reputation was irreparably damaged, and he received no further truly great public commissions. For his final design, Seaton Delaval Hall, which was hailed as his masterpiece, he used a refined version of the Baroque employed at Blenheim. He died shortly before its completion.
The precise responsibility for the funding of the new palace has always been a debatable subject, unresolved to this day. The palace as a reward was mooted within months of the Battle of Blenheim, at a time when Marlborough was still to gain many further victories on behalf of the country. That a grateful nation led by its Queen wished and intended to give their national hero a suitable home is beyond doubt, but the exact size and nature of that house is questionable. A warrant dated 1705, signed by the parliamentary treasurer the Earl of Godolphin, appointed Vanbrugh as architect and outlined his remit. Unfortunately for the Churchills, nowhere did this warrant mention Queen or Crown. This error provided the escape clause for the state when the costs and political infighting escalated.
The Duke of Marlborough contributed £60,000 to the initial cost when work commenced in 1705, which, supplemented by Parliament, should have built a monumental house. Parliament voted funds for the building of Blenheim, but no exact sum was mentioned nor provision for inflation or over-budget expenses. Almost from the outset, funds were spasmodic. Queen Anne paid some of them, but with growing reluctance and lapses, following her frequent altercations with the Duchess. After their final argument in 1712, all state money ceased and work came to a halt. £220,000 had already been spent and £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 and Duchess came back into favour at court. The 64-year-old Duke now decided to complete the project at his own expense. In 1716 work resumed, but the project relied completely upon the limited means of the Duke himself. Harmony on the building site was short-lived, as in 1717 the Duke suffered a severe stroke, and the thrifty Duchess took control. The Duchess blamed Vanbrugh entirely for the growing costs and extravagance of the palace, the design of which she had never liked. Following a meeting with the Duchess, Vanbrugh left the building site in a rage, insisting that the new masons, carpenters and craftsmen, brought in by the Duchess, were inferior to those he had employed. The master craftsmen he had patronised, however, such as Grinling Gibbons, refused to work for the lower rates paid by the Marlboroughs. The craftsmen brought in by the Duchess, under the guidance of furniture designer James Moore, and Vanbrugh's assistant architect Hawksmoor, completed the work in perfect imitation of the greater masters, so there was fault and intransigence on both sides in this famed argument.
"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."
Following the Duke's death in 1722, completion of the Palace and its park became the Duchess's driving ambition. Vanbrugh's assistant Hawksmoor was recalled and in 1723 designed the "Arch of Triumph", based on the Arch of Titus, at the entrance to the park from Woodstock. Hawksmoor also completed the interior design of the library, the ceilings of many of the state rooms and other details in numerous other minor rooms, and various outbuildings. Cutting rates of pay to workmen, and using lower-quality materials in unobtrusive places, the widowed Duchess completed the great house as a tribute to her late husband. The final date of completion is not known, but as late as 1735 the Duchess was haggling with Rysbrack over the cost of Queen Anne's statue placed in the library. In 1732 the Duchess wrote "The Chappel is finish'd and more than half the Tomb there ready to set up".
Vanbrugh planned Blenheim in perspective, that is to be best viewed from a distance. As the site covers some seven acres (28,000 m²) this is also a necessity.
The plan of Blenheim Palace is basically that of a large central rectangular block, containing behind the southern facade the principal state apartments. On the east side are the suites of private apartments of the Duke and Duchess, on the west along the entire length is the long gallery originally conceived as a picture gallery. The central block is flanked by two further service blocks around square courtyards. The east court contains the kitchens, laundry, and other domestic offices, the west court adjacent to the chapel the stables and indoor riding school. The three blocks together form the "Great Court" designed to overpower the visitor arriving at the palace. Pilasters and pillars abound, while from the roofs, themselves resembling those of a small town, great statues in the renaissance manner of St Peter's in Rome gaze down on the visitor below, who is rendered inconsequential. Other assorted statuary in the guise of martial trophies, and the English lion devouring a French cock, also decorate the lower roofs. Many of these are by such masters as Grinling Gibbons.
In the design of great 18th-century houses comfort and convenience were subservient to magnificence, and this is certainly the case at Blenheim. This magnificence over creature comfort is heightened as the architect's brief was to create not only a home but also a national monument to reflect the power and civilisation of the nation. In order to create this monumental effect, Vanbrugh chose to design in a severe form of Baroque, using great masses of stone to imitate strength and create shadow as decoration.
The solid and huge entrance portico on the north front resembles more the entrance to a pantheon than a family home. Vanbrugh also liked to employ what he called his "castle air", which he achieved by placing a low tower at each corner of the central block and crowning the towers with vast belvederes of massed stone, decorated with curious finials (disguising the chimneys). Coincidentally these towers which hint at the pylons of an Egyptian temple further add to the heroic pantheonesque atmosphere of the building.
There are two approaches to the palace's grand entrance, one from the long straight drive through wrought iron gates directly into the Great Court, while the other, equally if not more impressive, betrays Vanbrugh's true vision: the palace as a bastion or strong citadel, the true monument and home to a great warrior. Piercing the windowless, city-like curtain wall of the east court is the great East Gate, a monumental triumphal arch, more Egyptian in design than Roman, an optical illusion was created by tapering its walls to create an impression of even greater height. Confounding those who accuse Vanbrugh of impracticality this gate is also the palace's water tower. Through the arch of the gate one views across the courtyard a second equally massive gate, that beneath the clock tower, through which, rather like the sanctuary of a temple, one glimpses the Great Court. In this way Vanbrugh is giving even greater, almost God-like, importance to the areas of the palace occupied by the great Duke himself.
This view of the Duke as an omnipotent being is also reflected in the interior design of the palace, and indeed its axis to certain features in the park. It was planned that when the Duke dined in state in his place of honour in the great saloon, he would be the climax of a great procession of architectural mass aggrandising him rather like a proscenium.
The palace chapel as a consequence of the Duke's death now obtained even greater importance. The design was altered by the Marlboroughs' friend the Earl of Godolphin, who placed the high altar in defiance of religious convention against the west wall, thus allowing the dominating feature to be the Duke's gargantuan tomb and sarcophagus. Commissioned by the Duchess in 1730, it was designed by William Kent, and statues of the Duke and Duchess depicted as Caesar and Caesarina adorn the great sarcophagus. In bas relief at the base of the tomb, the Duchess ordered to be depicted the surrender of Marshal Tallard. Thus finally the theme throughout the palace of honouring the Duke reached its apotheosis with completion of his tomb. The Duke's coffin was returned to Blenheim from Westminster Abbey. Now Blenheim had indeed become a pantheon and mausoleum. Successive Dukes and their wives are also interred in the vault beneath the chapel.
Blenheim sits in the centre of a large undulating park, a classic example of the English landscape garden movement and style. When Vanbrugh first cast his eyes over it in 1704 he immediately conceived a typically grandiose plan: through the park trickled the small River Glyme, and Vanbrugh envisaged this marshy brook traversed by the "finest bridge in Europe".
Another of Vanbrugh's schemes was the great parterre, nearly half a mile long and as wide as the south front. Also in the park, completed after the 1st Duke's death, is the Column of Victory. It is 134 ft (41 m) high and terminates a great avenue of elms leading to the palace, which were planted in the positions of Marlborough's troops at the Battle of Blenheim. Vanbrugh had wanted an obelisk to mark the site of the former royal manor, and the trysts of Henry II which had taken place there, causing the 1st Duchess to remark, "If there were obelisks to bee made of all what our Kings have done of that sort, the countrey would bee stuffed with very odd things" (sic). The obelisk was never realised.
Following the 1st Duke's death the Duchess concentrated most of her considerable energies on the completion of the palace itself, and the park remained relatively unchanged until the arrival of Capability Brown in 1764. The 4th Duke employed Brown who immediately began an English landscape garden scheme to naturalise and enhance the landscape, with tree planting, and man-made undulations.
However, the feature with which he is forever associated is the lake, a huge stretch of water created by damming the River Glyme and ornamented by a series of cascades where the river flows in and out. The lake was narrowed at the point of Vanbrugh's grand bridge, but the three small canal-like streams trickling underneath it were completely absorbed by one river-like stretch. Brown's great achievement at this point was to actually flood and submerge beneath the water level the lower stories and rooms of the bridge itself, thus reducing its incongruous height and achieving what is regarded by many as the epitome of an English landscape. Brown also grassed over the great parterre and the Great Court. The latter was re-paved by Duchene in the early 20th century. The 5th Duke was responsible for several other garden follies and novelties such as the swivelling boulder, which would suddenly roll across a path, to supposedly thrill the walker.
Sir William Chambers, assisted by John Yenn, was responsible for the small summerhouse known as "The Temple of Diana" down by the lake, where in 1908 Winston Churchill proposed to his future wife. However, the ornamental gardens seen today close to the palace, the Italian and water gardens, are entirely the design of Duchene and the 9th Duke.
The internal layout of the rooms of the central block at Blenheim was defined by the court etiquette of the day. State apartments were designed as an axis of rooms of increasing importance and public use, leading to the chief room. The larger houses, like Blenheim, had two sets of state apartments each mirroring each other. The grandest and most public and important was the central saloon which served as the communal state dining room.
Either side of the saloon are suites of state apartments, decreasing in importance but increasing in privacy: the first room would have been an audience chamber for receiving important guests, the next room a private withdrawing room, the next room would have been the bedroom of the occupier of the suite, thus the most private. One of the small rooms between the bedroom and the internal courtyard was intended as a dressing room.
the first state room
This arrangement is reflected on the other side of the saloon. The state apartments were intended for use only by the most important guests such as a visiting sovereign. On the left (east) side of the plan on either side of the bow room can be seen a smaller but nearly identical layout of rooms, which were the suites of the Duke and Duchess themselves. Thus, the bow room corresponds exactly to the saloon in terms of its importance to the two smaller suites.
The bow room
Blenheim Palace was the birthplace of the 1st Duke's famous descendant, Winston Churchill, whose life and times are commemorated by a permanent exhibition in the suite of rooms in which he was born. Blenheim Palace was designed with all its principal and secondary rooms on the piano nobile, thus there is no great staircase of state: anyone worthy of such state would have no cause to leave the piano nobile. Insofar as Blenheim does have a grand staircase, then it is the series of steps in the Great Court which lead to the North Portico. There are staircases of various sizes and grandeur in the central block, but none are designed on the same scale of magnificence as the palace. James Thornhill painted the ceiling of the hall in 1716. It depicts Marlborough kneeling to Britannia and proffering a map of the Battle of Blenheim. The hall is 67 ft (20 m) high, and remarkable chiefly for its size and for its stone carvings by Gibbons, yet in spite of its immense size it is merely a vast ante-room to the saloon.
The saloon was also to have been painted by Thornhill, but the Duchess suspected him of overcharging, so the commission was given to Louis Laguerre. This room is an example of three-dimensional painting, or trompe l'œil, "trick-the-eye", a fashionable painting technique at the time. The Peace Treaty of Utrecht was about to be signed, so all the elements in the painting represent the coming of peace. The domed ceiling is an allegorical representation of Peace: John Churchill is in the chariot, he holds a zigzag thunderbolt of war, and the woman who holds back his arm represents Peace. The walls depict all the nations of the world who have come together peacefully. Laguerre also included a self-portrait placing himself next to Dean Jones, chaplain to the 1st Duke, another enemy of the Duchess, although she tolerated him in the household because he could play a good hand at cards. To the right of the doorway leading into the first stateroom, Laguerre included the French spies, said to have big ears and eyes because they may still be spying. Of the four marble door-cases in the room displaying the Duke's crest as a prince of the Holy Roman Empire, only one is by Gibbons, the other three were copied indistinguishably by the Duchess's cheaper craftsmen.
The third remarkable room is the long library designed by Christopher Wren, (H), 180 ft (55 m) long, which was intended as a picture gallery. The ceiling has saucer domes, which were to have been painted by Thornhill, had the Duchess not upset him. The palace, and in particular this room, was furnished with the many valuable artefacts the Duke had been given, or sequestered as the spoils of war, including a fine art collection. Here in the library, rewriting history in her own indomitable style, the Duchess set up a larger than life statue of Queen Anne, its base recording their friendship.
On the death of the 1st Duke in 1722, as both his sons were dead, he was succeeded by his daughter Henrietta. This was an unusual succession and required a special Act of Parliament, as only sons can usually succeed to a dukedom. When Henrietta died, the title passed to Marlborough's grandson Charles Spencer, Earl of Sunderland, whose mother was Marlborough's second daughter Anne.
The first Duke as a soldier was not a rich man, and what fortune he possessed was mostly used for finishing the palace. In comparison with other British ducal families the Marlboroughs were not very wealthy. Yet they existed quite comfortably until the time of the Fifth Duke of Marlborough (1766–1840), a spendthrift who considerably depleted the family's remaining fortune. He was eventually forced to sell other family estates, but Blenheim was safe from him as it was entailed. This did not prevent him selling the Marlboroughs' Boccaccio for a mere £875, and his own library in over 4000 lots. On his death in 1840, he left the estate and family with financial problems.
By the 1870s the Marlboroughs were in severe financial trouble, and in 1875 the 7th Duke sold the "Marriage of Cupid and Psyche", together with the famed Marlborough gems, at auction for £10,000. However this was not enough to save the family. In 1880 the 7th Duke was forced to petition Parliament to break the protective entail on the Palace and its contents. This was achieved under the Blenheim Settled Estates Act of 1880, and the door was now open for wholesale dispersal of Blenheim and its contents. The first victim was the great Sunderland Library which was sold in 1882, including such volumes as The Epistles of Horace, printed at Caen in 1480, and the works of Josephus, printed at Verona in 1648. The 18,000 volumes raised almost £60,000. The sales continued to denude the palace: Raphael's "Ansidei Madonna" was sold for £70,000; Van Dyck’s equestrian painting of Charles I realised £17,500; and finally the "piece de resistance" of the collection, Peter Paul Rubens "Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment, and Their Son Peter Paul", which had been given by the city of Brussels to the 1st Duke in 1704, was also sold, and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
These sums of money, vast by the standards of the day, failed to cover the debts, and the maintenance of the great palace remained beyond the Marlboroughs' resources. These had always been small in relation to their ducal rank and the size of their house. The British agricultural depression which started in the 1870s added to the family's problems. When the 9th Duke inherited in 1892, the Spencer-Churchills were almost bankrupt.
Charles, 9th Duke of Marlborough (1871–1934) can be credited with saving both the palace and the family. Inheriting the near-bankrupt dukedom in 1892, he was forced to find a quick and drastic solution to the problems. Prevented by the strict social dictates of late 19th-century society from earning money, he was left with one solution; he had to marry money. In November 1896 he coldly and openly without love married the American railroad heiress and renowned beauty Consuelo Vanderbilt. The marriage was celebrated following lengthy negotiations with her divorced parents: her mother was desperate to see her daughter a Duchess, and the bride's father, William Vanderbilt paid for the privilege. The final price was $2,500,000 (worth about $300m in 2007) in 50,000 shares of the capital stock of the Beech Creek Railway Company with a minimum 4% dividend guaranteed by the New York Central Railroad Company. The couple were given a further annual income each of $100,000 for life. The contract was actually signed in the vestry of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, New York immediately after the wedding vows had been made. In the carriage leaving the church, Marlborough told Consuelo he loved another woman, and would never return to America, as he "despised anything that was not British".
The replenishing of Blenheim began on the honeymoon itself, with the replacement of the Marlborough gems. Tapestries, paintings and furniture were bought in Europe to fill the depleted palace. On their return the Duke began an exhaustive restoration and redecoration of the palace. The state rooms to the west of the saloon were redecorated with gilt boiseries in imitation of Versailles. Vanbrugh's subtle rivalry to Louis XIV's great palace was now completely undermined, as the interiors became mere pastiches of those of the greater palace. While this redecoration may not have been without fault (and the Duke later regretted it), other improvements were better received. Another problem caused by the redecoration was that the state and principal bedrooms were now moved upstairs, thus rendering the state rooms an enfilade of rather similar and meaningless drawing rooms. On the west terrace the French landscape architect Achille Duchêne was employed to create a water garden. On a second terrace below this were placed two great fountains in the style of Bernini, scaled models of those in the Piazza Navona which had been presented to the 1st Duke.
Inside the palace the staff was enlarged and smartened to suit a fabulously wealthy ducal household. The inside staff was of approximately 40, while the outside staff numbered 50, including the game-keeping staff of 12, electricians for the newly installed wiring, carpenters, flower arrangers, lodge keepers, and a cricket professional to ensure the success and honour of the estate cricket team. The lodge keepers were dressed in black coats with silver buttons, buff breeches, and cockaded top hats. The gamekeepers donned green velvet coats with brass buttons and black billycock hats.
Blenheim was once again a place of wonder and prestige. However, Consuelo was far from happy; she records many of her problems in her cynical and often less than candid biography "The Glitter and the Gold". In 1906 she shocked society and left her husband, finally divorcing in 1921. She subsequently married a Frenchman, Jacques Balsan. She died in 1964 having lived to see her son Duke of Marlborough, and frequently returning to Blenheim, the house she had hated and yet saved, albeit as the unwilling sacrifice.