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Blenheim Palace: A Gift from a Queen

On Friday 25 September, the Duke of Gloucester will be visiting the historic and highly unique Blenheim Palace. Ever since being built at the dawn of the 18th century, it has been home to a long and illustrious lineage of the Dukes of Marlborough. Over the centuries, it has been the home of various great personages, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough and Sir Winston Churchill among them.

The Victory of a Duke

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John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough by John Closterman, 1685-90.

The year was 1704, and the War of Spanish Succession had been transpiring all over Western Europe for three years. Just before the war broke out, Charles II, the king of Spain (the last of the Habsburgs) died childlessly. He designated Philip, Duke of Anjou and grandson of Louis XIV of France to be his heir. England, Austria, and the Dutch Republic personally backed Leopold I who made a claim on the Spanish throne for his son, Archduke Charles. In the war, it was France and the Electorate of Bavaria versus England, the Dutch Republic, and Austria. There were some battles, but it is Battle of Blenheim, which was an exciting and jubilant victory for England.

“I have no time to say more but to beg you will give my duty to the Queen, and let her know her army has had a glorious victory.” The Duke of Marlborough is known to have written to his wife, Sarah. Due to the much-celebrated victory, Queen Anne, who was a good friend of the Duchess of Marlborough, saw fit to grant the Duke the Manor of Woodstock where the royal manor of Hensington had existed previously. The gift of Queen Anne was not merely to grant the duke a simple manor. There was to be a great palace to be built on the grounds, with Parliament to pay for a large portion of it. Because John and Sarah were given the titles of Duke and Duchess of Marlborough two years before, it was largely unsurprising that they would be elevated further. The queen’s generous nature in part had to do with the fact that the duke was, in fact, a highly competent and impressive military leader. However, Anne and Sarah had been best friends since they were very young, and this was something that carried into adolescence as well as adulthood. The two women were so close that they indeed had affectionate names for each other, Anne was “Mrs Morley” and Sarah was “Mrs Freeman.” In rewarding John for his exceptional service to his country, the queen was also rewarding her best friend.

Sir John Vanbrugh

By the time that the palace was being built, it had already had a long history. Starting with King Henry I, it was an enclosed deer park, and when it was in the possession of Henry II, it was a place where he kept his mistress, Rosamund Clifford. Elizabeth I was imprisoned there during the reign of her sister Mary I from 1554 to 1555, after having been accused of having a hand in the Wyatt Plot. At last, during the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell and his men had completely barraged the manor, leaving nothing behind but ruins.

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A portrait of Sir John Vanbrugh by Godfrey Kneller, 1704-10.

The Marlboroughs were given an impressive tract of land and a substantial amount of money, what was next required was the architect. Sarah, a hot-tempered woman who always knew her mind, immediately wanted to enlist the services of Sir Christopher Wren. Wren had done work on St Paul’s Cathedral as well as other national buildings of import. However, it would seem that John would have other ideas when it came to hiring an architect. After a chance meeting a playhouse, John immediately hired a man by the name of Sir John Vanbrugh, a dramatist with very little training in the art of architecture. Vanbrugh worked in partnership with another architect by the name of Nicholas Hawksmoor, and the two of them had recently started on the Baroque Castle Howard, which was done in the European Baroque style. The duke was impressed by what he had seen.

What was meant to be a glorious architectural wonder for Vanbrugh eventually transformed into a hellish journey. From start to finish, Sarah was completely against the architect, and she did whatever she could to make things difficult for him. With the Duke of Marlborough constantly off at war, it meant that Sarah was engaged in overseeing the work of Vanbrugh. From the outset of construction, Vanbrugh wanted to maintain the old ruins and argued that they added a charm to the landscape. Sarah disagreed and wanted every last part Woodstock torn down to make way for the new palace.

The Downfall of Marlborough

Even though Queen Anne and the Duchess of Marlborough were friends since childhood, at this time, there was a significant disconnect in their friendship. The queen was a gentle spirit who was exceedingly religious and who happened to agree with the core sentiments of the Tory party. Sarah, on the other hand, was belligerent, antagonistic, and she espoused behaviour that was insensitive and cruel. While many treated the queen with the greatest care and the utmost respect, Sarah continually lodged insults at her, acted coldly, and would completely ignore Anne’s correspondence. The majority of the time, Anne had relied upon Sarah for her candid and sometimes brutally honest advice.

The Duke of Marlborough was supported by the Whigs who happened to be the opponents of the Tory party, and Sarah would not stop heckling the queen to take up their cause. It was the final straw. Eventually, the queen had decided that she had had enough and ceased funding Blenheim Palace immediately, banning Sarah from her presence. Sarah was stripped of the titles that she once held: Mistress of the Robes, Groom of the Stole, and Keeper of the Privy Purse. She was replaced by her cousin Abigail Masham, as the queen’s favourite. What was once heralded as a beautiful friendship had ended in the duchess’s downfall. As a result, the Duke of Marlborough was discharged from the queen’s service and dubious charges of embezzlement was brought against him. Shamed, they left England in a self-imposed exile and found themselves favourites amongst the monarchs of other courts.

Blenheim Palace Completed

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Sarah Churchill, 1st Duchess of Marlborough.

The Duke and Duchess of Marlborough returned to England in 1714, after Queen Anne had passed away. It was then that the duke made an effort to complete Blenheim Palace, but he realised that he lacked the funds necessary and not long after, he suffered from a stroke. Once again, the short-tempered Sarah began to oversee the process once more, which led to a great deal of squabbling with Vanbrugh. She leveled accusations at him about the exorbitant amounts of money required, and she voiced her disappointment in the design altogether. The last altercation between the chatelaine and the architect was over the workers that she had hired, at the urging of James Moore, a furniture designer. Vanbrugh argued back with Sarah, commenting on the Marlboroughs ability to be cheap when it came to hiring proper workers. When enough was enough, Vanbrugh was banned from Blenheim Palace for life, and it was Hawksmoor who completed the work.

Even after the duke passed away in 1722, Sarah dedicated the rest of her life to completing Blenheim Palace.

Blenheim Palace Today

As of 1987, Blenheim Palace was given the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To this day, the palace is inhabited by the 12th Duke of Marlborough and his family. It is a place that is open to the public with an entry fee of £21 and thousands roam its grounds year after year. Blenheim Palace is still a unique architectural marvel as it was in its heyday, a magnificent monument to the 1st Duke of Marlborough that it was meant to be.


Image Credit: via Wikipedia [Public Domain]; 1st Duke of Marlborough via Wikipedia [Public Domain]; Sir John Vanbrugh via Wikipedia [Public Domain]; and 1st Duchess of Marlborough via Wikipedia [Public Domain].

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