Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire: Palace fit for a king

Blenheim Palace is close to the busy little town of Woodstock in Oxfordshire. It was built to reward John Churchill for beating the French army in Germany, but during construction another battle loomed…with Queen Anne.

Only an Englishman would appreciate the smile on the faces of the smug-looking lions as they grip a startled cockerel in their giant paws. The scene, created by Grinling Gibbons on each corner of Blenheim Palace Clock Tower Arch, is symbolic recalling the day when England, the lion, beat France represented by the squawking bird.

You can imagine the amusement, if not the crude remarks, as the stonemasons commissioned to do the work poked fun at the French as they cut and chiselled the stone. The lions mark how the Allied army, led by the greatest soldier of the time, John Churchill, routed the strutting young French cockerels at a decisive battle at Blindheim, today we call it Blenheim, on August 13, 1704 close to the River Danube in Bavaria.

A palace is usually the home of a king or bishop so how was it that a soldier, even one as famous as John Churchill, came to be live in probably the largest private palace in the kingdom? For no mortal man would be able to afford such a majestic home, except a king, or this case, a queen.

The story begins with two woman; Anne, who became queen in 1702, and Sarah, the wife of our hero soldier. They were friends, although they fell out in later life, and this caused problems at the Blenheim building site as we will later find out.

As always in British history we were having a spat with the French and in 1703 war broke out between the two sparring nations. And who better to lead our troops into Europe but John Churchill? The French wanted to expand into Holland, but the British kept them out, eventually pushing them south-east into Bavaria.

Here the Allied troops, in typical battle formations, supported by cavalry charges, routed the French, crushing Louis XIV’s plans to rule Europe forever. It was said the Blenheim battle changed the balance of world politics… and the fortunes of the Churchill family. For as you can see today as you take the grand tour around the palace and impressive gardens, the Churchill’s became a family of power and prestige.

A grateful nation, or was it a war-weary country, were so elated the fighting was over, that Queen Anne, in recognition of John’s outstanding victory, ordered her government to grant the now 1st Duke of Marlborough the Manor and Honour of Woodstock and the Hundred at Wootton (an area outlined in the Doomsday Book to assess taxes), which is where the house, to be raised in the glory of the victory, would be built.

This is where we see a familiar story form – step forward Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect of Castle Howard, who together with Capability Brown, would build and design the Blenheim estate we see today. Due to shoddy paperwork Vanbrugh was never given a formal contract, and this was to cause problems later when Sarah’s friendship with Queen Anne became frosty and political plotting damaged Marlborough’s standing in royal circles.

In today’s terms Blenheim Palace cost millions to build, the government of the time granting an astonishing £240,000 towards the construction of the house, which was designed in the Baroque style to reflect the symmetry, grand formality, drama and symbolism befitting a national hero. It was said that Vanbrugh wanted to design a building that rivalled Versailles.

Work began in 1705 with the government bank rolling payments to architects, masons, and all the other allied trades. But by 1712 outstanding debts, due to dwindling Treasury payments, had risen to £45,000. Everyone on site didn’t get paid, including Vanbrugh, so work stopped.

Over the next couple of years Marlborough lived abroad, returning to England the day after Queen Anne died. George I, the new king, understood the debt to Marlborough was still outstanding, but no further funds came from the Treasury.

The Duke wanted the palace finished so he paid for the work to resume at his own expense, rehiring Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor to complete the build. But money was tight and the Duke refused to pay the going rate for the job, resulting in master craftsmen, like Grinling Gibbons, who still hadn’t been paid by the Treasury, never returning to Blenheim.

Work did continue though. Foreman-masons managed the work for lower rates of pay, which their masters had refused to accept. Vanbrugh was to leave again in 1716, steaming with anger because the Duchess criticised his work, and celebrated cabinet-maker James Moore was hired to continue the work. Nicholas Hawksmoor did return to Blenheim. After the Duke’s death in 1722 he was commissioned to work on the Triumphant Arch and other major outbuildings…but his partner Vanbrugh was never allowed on the estate again.

There is no doubt that Blenheim is a monument, a beautifully built castle but you wouldn’t say it was homely. Everything is bold, making a brash statement that the man is the master. Very rarely do you find anything homely as you walk the corridors of power and celebration of victory.

If the Grand Hall was built to make you feel humble, then Vanbrugh has followed Marlborough’s instructions without fault. Standing 67ft high it is without doubt one of the finest examples of the architect’s vision and stonemason’s skill. The quality of Grinling Gibbons and his assistant’s stone carving is perfectly reflected in the official guide to Blenheim, which says: “cutt extraordinary rich and cut very deep.” The work, which reflects the mason’s skill at its highest level, is some of the best you will find in this country or abroad.

Wherever you wander at Blenheim you will be amazed at how big everything is; the rooms, the height of the ceilings, the windows and the views out of them. One of the most striking and memorable is the long view through the Great Hall front door across the Great Court, which today looks more like an up-market car park, across the lake and gently uphill to the Column of Victory.

Staying in the vicinity of the Great Hall visitors pass through a small bedroom, which at one-time formed the apartments of the 1st Duke’s chaplain. We don’t know a lot about him but we do know someone who was born in the small bedroom who became just as famous as the Duke of Marlborough, again for his fighting spirit. That was Sir Winston Churchill; his mother Lady Randolph Churchill bringing him into the world on November 30, 1874.

Continuing the tour you can admire the themes of innovative creation of banding and coving that combine to create additional height and power in the Green and the Red Drawing rooms and the Green Writing room. The work is by Hawksmoor, who had learnt his skills from Sir Christopher Wren.

The Green Drawing room is one of the cosiest rooms at Blenheim, the subdued tones, magnificent candelabra, Rococo pier glass and light sprinkling of pictures result in a comfortable place to work and relax. The same thing can’t be said of the Red Drawing room – which is more a family picture album; large paintings by Van Dyck, John Sargent Singer and Sir Joshua Reynolds showing various members of the family through the decades. Rich red wallpaper and upholstered furnishings bring grandeur to the scene.

For the historians among us, the Green Writing Room is the place to dally. Here the walls are hung with superb tapestries, the most notable showing John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, receiving the surrender of Marshall Tallard in 1704.

The needle-craft and military detail is outstanding; the tapestry showing the formation of troops from both armies, the landscape, buildings ablaze, position of cannon batteries, and troops of cavalry on the move. More battle tapestries, part of a series of 11 showing Marlborough’s battles, can be admired in the First State room.

Blenheim is a grand and indulgent celebration of John Churchill’s great military achievements for the nation, and it must have left a sour taste in his mouth when he was dismissed by Queen Anne in 1711 and left to pick up the bill to complete the house, which was supposed to be a gift from a grateful nation.

Mel Russ