Blenheim Palace was built between 1705 and 1722 to honor John Churchill (1650-1722), 1st Duke of Marlborough for his victory over the French at Blenheim (Bavaria) in 1703. Churchill had previously married Sara Jennings (1660-1744), a lady in waiting to Queen Anne, the monarch who gave them the royal park at Woodstock and authorized the construction of a palace there.
The architect of Castle Howard, Sir John Vanbrugh (who had no training as an architect), designed the baroque palace, with assistance from Sir Christopher Wren’s top assistant, Nicholas Hawksmoor. It was Vanbrugh’s intent the palace be a monument, castle, citadel and private house – in that order. The last room to be completed, the long library, was not finished until ten years after the 1st Duke’s death.
Though she preferred plain and cozy, the 1st Duchess threw her heart into the palace’s completion to honor her beloved husband – perhaps the only person with whom she did not fight.
By special dispensation of Parliament, the title passed to John and Sarah’s daughter, Henrietta, because their sons had died of smallpox before reaching adulthood. Upon Henrietta’s death, the dukedom passed through the son of her sister, who had married Charles Spencer. The old duchess Sarah’s private fortune passed to the second Spencer grandson, who became the 1st Earl Spencer (Princess Diana’s ancestor).
The 7th Duke of Marlborough (1822-1857) was Sir Winston Churchill’s grandfather. Winston Churchill (1874-1965) said the two most significant events in his life occurred at Blenheim: He was born there, and he proposed marriage to Clementine Hozier there.
The 9th Duke (1871-1934) bolstered the family’s sagging fortunes in 1895 when he married Consuelo Vanderbilt of the American railroad fortune, who brought $2.5 million (about $75 million today) into the marriage. Both bride and groom were forced into the marriage for reasons other than love, and the marriage that produced two sons ended in divorce in 1921. The duke and duchess quickly remarried others.
Today, Blenheim Palace is the principal seat for the 11th duke and his wife.
Blenheim lives up to the claim it is “Britain’s Greatest Palace.” The baroque palace is not only one of England’s 10 Treasure Houses (selected for grandeur of architecture, furnishings, landscape, and historical significance), but has also been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Constructed of ochre-colored stone and topped with several graceful turrets, the central, u-shaped block opens onto a massive courtyard of which the grand, pedimented entry is the focal point. Wings on either side of the entry are connected by curving links. Visitors enter the great hall – the magnificence of which redefines that venerable English room. This great hall soars to 67 feet and features three towering tiers of arches, culminating in an upper tier of arched windows that flood the room with light.
There’s a painted ceiling featuring the 1st Duke in Roman garb, and opposite the entry Corinthian columns support a huge arch that trumpets entry into the saloon, another vast stone room with elaborate marble door casings.
On weekdays visitors are taken on a guided tour of the public rooms, which include the 180-foot long library, the red drawing room and the green drawing room, the green writing room, and state rooms hung with tapestries commemorating the 1st Duke’s battles.
The room in which Winston Churchill was born is also displayed, along with a self-guided Churchill exhibition. Visitors may opt to take a tour (about 45 minutes) titled The Untold Story, which uses talking portraits and special projection technology to tell the history of the house.
Pick a pretty day to come here and plan to stay until dusk exploring the 2,100 acres. Children will enjoy taking the train from just outside the house’s main entrance to the Pleasure Gardens, which include mazes, a Blenheim Bygone exhibition, putting greens, giant chess game, kitchen and cutting gardens, and an adventure play area.
But the main attraction here is the Capability Brown landscape commissioned by the 4th Duke in 1764 and completed 10 years later. Brown created the lakes on either side of Vanbrugh’s Grand Bridge that had been built over the Glyme stream. A circular walk around the Queen’s Pool takes 45 minutes; another circular lakeside walk to the rose gardens also takes 45 minutes. A one-hour walk brings visitors to the rose garden and the Secret Garden (tropical) as well as across broad lawns. Two of the walks sweep past the Temple of Diana where Winston Churchill asked Clementine to marry him.
In addition to picnic areas, there is one restaurant at the Pleasure Gardens and another adjacent to the Water Terraces.
From the house’s grand entry, one can look straight ahead, past the Vanbrugh Grand Bridge to see the 1st Duke of Marlborough’s 134-foot high Column of Victory.–By Cheryl Bolen, whose next Regency-set romance novel, Miss Hastings’ Excellent London Adventure, comes out soon.