Named a World Heritage site in 1984, Blenheim Palace is truly is one of the England’s gems.Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire is a national treasure. The Palace was gifted to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough from Queen Anne in 1704.
Blenheim Palace is the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill and a World Heritage Site.
It was his victory at the Battle of Blenheim against the French during the War of the Spanish Succession that earned the Duke the Palace. Along with his resounding victory, Marlborough’s wife Sarah was the best friend and confidant to The Queen, so that may have had some bearing the choice of such a grandiose gift. Queen Anne had Parliament grant £240,000 to construct Blenheim – well over £20 million in today’s money.
The Grand Bridge at Blenheim Palace
The architect hired to design and construct this magnificent stately residence was John Vanbrugh. It went without some cause for concern as Vanburgh was limited in his experience. The Duchess had asked for Sir Christopher Wren to design the Blenheim, but this would not be the case. It was the Duke who hired Vanbrugh. Marlborough was aware of the work he and architect Nicholas Hawksmoor were completing on Castle Howard in Yorkshire. The Duke wanted a palace of the similar lavishness at Blenheim.
Construction did not run seamlessly. Members of Parliament voiced concerns over the exorbitant cost of the construction as well as what they deemed as ostentatious in design. Sarah Churchill still miffed that her choice of Wren was not picked. She used every chance to critique the construction and subsequently had Vanbrugh banned from the construction area.
Nicholas Hawksmoor took over the reins and Blenheim was finally completed in 1725. So controversial was the design not only did Vanbrugh receive nary a commission afterwards, he and his wife were denied admission upon the opening of the Palace.
Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill had fallen out and Her Majesty decided to no longer fund the construction. The Duke and Duchess were then exiled. They would return the day after the death of Queen Anne in 1714.
Blenheim Palaces Water Terraces.
The 1st Duke died in 1722 – he had no male heirs as both of his sons were gone too. He was succeeded by his daughter Henrietta thanks to an Act of Parliament passed in order to see the survival of the Dukedom (ordinarily, peerages could only be inherited by males). When Henrietta died, the title passed on to Charles Spencer, Earl of Sunderland and Marlborough’s grandson. His mother was the Duke’s second daughter, Anne.
The Marlborough family was not wealthy like many of the British ducal families. They did however live comfortably, that was until the 5th Duke took over in 1766. A bit of an extravagant spender, he squandered what fortune remained. The family had to sell their other estates.
Blenheim though was safe as it was entailed. This meant according to Encyclopedia Britannica:
“basic condition of entail was that if the grantees died without direct descendants the land reverted to the grantor. The concept, feudal in origin, supported a landed aristocracy because it served to prevent the disintegration of large estates through divisible inheritance or the lack of heirs.”
When the 5th Duke died in 1840 he did burden his family financially. As the 1870s arrived, the 7th Duke sold artwork and the Marlborough gems to try and bring the family out of debt. Unfortunately not enough funds were raised to help pull the family out of financial disarray. The 7th Duke had to petition Parliament in 1880 to end the protective entail on Blenheim and its contents.
The Blenheim Settled Estates Act of 1880 saw much of the contents of the Palace sold including the Sunderland library which contained works such as the Epistles of Horace dating back to 1480. The sale also saw paintings by Van Dyck, Raphael and Peter Paul Rueben’s auctioned off as well.
Again the money was not enough to cover the debts. The maintenance of the Palace was expensive and the Marlborough’s did not quite have the financial resources to funnel into the costs of owning the Palace. The agricultural depression of the 1870s only exacerbated the financial woes. In 1892 when the 9th duke inherited Blenheim, the Spencer-Churchill family was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Blenheim Palace in all it’s Christmas splendour.
It was Charles the 9th Duke who was the saving grace for both the family and the palace. He inherited a dukedom on the brink of bankruptcy in 1892. Charles needed to find a way to generate income. Since this was the late 19th century and society followed stringent social standards, Charles could not go out and find employment. There was only one way out of the financial mess and that was to marry for money.
In 1896 he married American railroad heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt after long discussions with her divorced parents. Her mother loved the idea her daughter would become a Duchess and her father was willing to pay the price tag for the title. It cost Vanderbilt $2,500,000 in 50,000 shares of stock along with an annual income of $100,000 for life.
Now out of financial ruin, Blenheim was refurbished and the household staff was that of a typical ducal household during the time. It was during this time the ‘Formal Gardens’ one of the highlights of Blenheim would be proposed by Duke and landscaped by French architect Achille Duchêne in the 1920s.
The Gardens include: The Water Terraces constructed between 1925 and 1930, The Italian Garden which is the Duke’s private garden, The Secret Garden, The Rose Garden and The Pleasure Gardens.
Although Blenheim was now thriving again, The Duchess was not at all happy in her marriage. In what would shock society, she left the Duke in 1906. They were divorced in 1921. Consuelo lived long enough to see her son John become the 10th Duke of Marlborough.
Sir Winston Churchill with Coco Chanel in 1929.
Blenheim Palace is also the birthplace of the 1st Duke’s famous descendant, Winston Churchill. Churchill was born on 30th November, 1874. Today there is an exhibition near the room where he was born. The exhibition includes a bronze of Sir Winston and Lady Churchill by Oscar Nemon and Churchill’s personal painting of the Great Hall at Blenheim.
Blenheim was also the place Churchill proposed to Clementine Hozier in 1908. It was in the Palace Gardens at the Temple of Diana, Winston asked Miss Hozier for her hand. They would be married for 56 years.
Although not buried at Blenheim, Churchill along with his wife are buried next to his parents at St Martin’s Church in Bladon. From the Blenheim Palace State rooms, one can see the tower of the cemetery.
Today the palace continues as the home of the Duke of Marlborough. The current Duke is John George Vanderbilt Spencer-Churchill, 11th Duke of Marlborough. In the same way as his ancestors, he resides for a portion of the year in the palace, residing in the same suite of rooms as the 1st Duke and Duchess did over three hundred years ago.
The palace, park, and gardens are open to the public for a fee. A miniature railway links the palace to the adjacent park known as ‘Pleasure Park’ that contains a giant maze and tropical butterfly house.
Photos: Special Thanks to Blenheim Palace for use of their photos for this piece.
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