Blenheim Palace – Baroque Birthplace of Churchill

Blenheim Palace is a monumental country house in Oxfordshire, England. Located near the Cotswolds, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and is the main residence of the Dukes of Marlborough.

History

The Palace is one of England’s largest country houses and was named after the Battle of Blenheim. The estate upon which it is built was a gift from Queen Anne to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, in recognition of his exploits during the War of the Spanish Succession. The Duke commanded English troops to a significant victory over the French on 13th August 1704.

Original Site

The land gifted to the 1st Duke of Marlborough was originally known as the Manor or Palace of Woodstock. Used predominantly as a deer park, a hunting lodge was constructed there in the 16th century and was where Elizabeth I was briefly held captive during the English Civil War. Its remains were eventually removed when the park was re-landscaped in preparation for the palace.

Construction

Although Sir Christopher Wren was favoured to design the palace by the Duchess of Marlborough, Sir John Vanbrugh was eventually commissioned by the Duke following a chance meeting. Although an untrained architect, Vanbrugh, together with Nicholas Hawksmoor, had already completed the early stages of Castle Howard – an enormous Baroque Yorkshire mansion.

Blenheim Palace was also designed in the English Baroque style, with construction beginning in 1705. During that time it became the source of considerable controversy due to the exorbitant costs. There were also numerous disputes between Vanbrugh and the Duchess of Marlborough regarding expenditure as well as the ongoing development of the palace.

Although Queen Anne helped fund the project, financial support was eventually withdrawn in 1712. Nevertheless, the palace was completed in 1722 and became home to the Churchill family who remained in residence for the next 300 years

Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace Interior

The magnificently-decorated interior epitomises the opulence of the Baroque style. And in keeping with 18th century architectural trends, the palace was designed with an emphasis on grandeur over comfort. While this caused friction between the Duchess and Vanbrugh, it’s worth noting that the architects’ brief was not only to create a home befitting of the Marlborough family but also to create a monument that reflected the power and majesty of Britain.

The Great Hall

The imposing Great Hall is one of the Palace’s most impressive spaces. Flanked by marble pillars which support curved arch-ways, it rises 67 feet to a vast ceiling painting by Sir James Thornhill which depicts the military triumphs of John Churchill. Also on display are three French standards captured at the Battle of Blenhiem as well as a bronze bust of the 9th Duke of Marlborough.

The State Rooms

There are three wonderfully ornate state rooms, of which all feature ceiling paintings by John Hawksmoor. Located to the south side of the Palace’s central block, they are a treasure-trove of priceless family portraits from the likes of Anthony van Dyck, Sir Godfrey Kneller and John Singer Sargent. The sumptuously-decorated rooms also feature intricately designed Belgium tapestries as well as a wonderful collection of Louis XIV furniture pieces.

In the first state room, a portrait of Consuelo Vanderbilt, wife of the ninth Duke, sits above the fireplace as does the Blenheim Standard. On a tortoiseshell desk in the centre of the room is a copy of a dispatch from John Churchill describing his victory at the Battle of Blenheim.

The second state room features beautiful tapestries that commemorate John Churchill’s victorious campaign at the Siege of Bourdain. Presiding over the opulence is a portrait of Louis XIV – Marlborough’s chief adversary during the Wars of the Spanish Succession. 12th century Persian pottery sits on a marquetry chest underneath one of the tapestries.

The third stateroom comprises striking golden gilt panelling similar to that found at the Palace of Versailles. Above its fireplace is a portrait of John Churchill with military engineer Colonel Armstrong –a friend of Churchill’s and one of his many comrades in arms.

The Long Library

The Long Library was the last room to be finished by Vanbrugh. Running the entire length of the west side of the state apartments, it was originally intended as a picture gallery before being converted into a library at the instruction of the Third Duke of Marlborough. Flanked by tall bookcases, it too features a Hawksmoor ceiling.

Impressive sculpted domes are situated at each end of the room and there’s also a beautiful white statue of Queen Anne, commissioned in 1738 to memorialise her passing. Other noteworthy features include an imposing pipe organ as well as a collection of Coronation robes and coronets.

Blenheim Palace Chapel

Also worth seeing is Blenheim Palace Chapel which is dominated by the tomb of the Duke of Marlborough. It was designed by eminent architect William Kent and comprises highly-detailed depictions of the Duke and Duchess as Caesar and Caesarina.

To accommodate the enormous sarcophagus and to ensure that the tomb enjoyed greater prominence, the chapel’s high altar was moved against the west wall thus defying religious conventions of the time. The chapel also houses a well-preserved pipe organ – this one is a rare example of the type built by Robert Postill in the mid 19th century.

Blenheim Palace Grounds

Blenheim Palace Grounds

The gardens at Blenheim Palace were originally landscaped by Capability Brown. Together with the sprawling 2000-acre park and woodlands, they are Grade I listed on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.

Developed over the years by numerous garden designers such as Achille Duchêne and Henry Wise, the gardens include numerous character features such as water terraces and a majestic lake spanned by Vanbrugh’s Grand Bridge.

There are plenty of additional places of interest within the grounds including a pleasure gardens complex, the Marlborough Maze and an adventure play area for children. A miniature train also runs from the palace to the pleasure gardens on a daily basis.

Birth Place of Churchill

Blenheim Palace is also notable for being the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. Born on 30th November 1874, he spent much of his childhood here and proposed to his wife Clementine in the Temple of Diana summerhouse. The bedroom in which he was born two months prematurely is open to the public and can be accessed via a side corridor which runs off the Long Library.


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