Blenheim Palace. Where to begin… It’s a tale of military victory, political intrigue, grandiose plans, clashing personalities, strained finances and ultimately, a massive country house on whose architectural merits opinion remains divided.
Many houses fill several roles, but Blenheim (pronounced Blen-im) is a mausoleum (literally), a national monument, and since its completion, has been the somewhat uncomfortable family home of the Churchill (later Spencer-Churchill) family for over 300 years. Originally built for John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, it has remained within the same family and is currently the residence of Charles James (Jamie) Spencer-Churchill, 12th Duke of Marlborough.
It is ginormous. The lead roofs alone cover three acres. As is typical of great 18th-century houses, comfort and convenience were overruled by magnificence and nowhere is this more clearly presented than at Blenheim. The basic structure has remained largely unchanged since it was completed in 1722, but each succeeding generation of Churchills has left its mark on the interior, park and gardens, some for the better, others for the worse.
Blenheim’s mien was in dispute from the outset. Granted by a “grateful nation” to the first Duke, John Churchill, the palace was intended to be a reward for his military triumphs against the French and Bavarians during the War of the Spanish Succession, culminating in the 1704 Battle of Blenheim. The nation wanted a monument; the Duchess, Sarah, had visions of a comfortable family home. You can see the dilemma.
By all accounts Sarah was a difficult woman, strong willed and overbearing. She had wanted Sir Christopher Wren, architect of St Paul’s Cathedral to design the house, but was overruled and from the outset she and the architect Sir John Vanbrugh were at loggerheads. Vanbrugh was a popular dramatist but an untrained architect; he usually worked alongside Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was both practical and trained. Together they were already working on Castle Howard, a vast country pile in a similar architectural style, which we visited on a prior trip.
From the beginning, it was unclear how much or on what schedule funds would be provided for the construction. The Duke of Marlborough contributed £60,000 when construction began in 1705, which, when supplemented by Parliament, should have been more than sufficient to build a monumental house. A warrant dated 1705 appointed Vanbrugh as architect, but unfortunately for the Churchills, it was badly drafted leading to an escape clause for the state when the costs and political infighting escalated. And escalate they did.
The Duchess Sarah was Queen Anne’s Mistress of the Robes, and exerted a lot of influence over the Queen on both political and personal levels. Regrettably, as Sarah’s relationship with the Queen became strained funding followed suit and was issued in fits and starts as their disputes mounted, culminating in a final quarrel in 1712. The money for the construction of Blenheim dried up; £220,000 had already been spent and £45,000 was owing to workmen. All work ceased. The Marlboroughs went into exile on the Continent and returned only after the Queen’s death on August 1, 1714.
The couple managed to regain favour at court upon their return and the Duke determined to complete the project at his own expense. Work resumed in 1716 but the straitened nature of their finances and the waspish disposition of the Duchess combined to banish any harmony. The Duke suffered a severe stroke and open warfare broke out between the parsimonious Duchess and Vanbrugh, whom she blamed entirely for the burgeoning costs and extravagance of the palace, the design of which she had always detested. Vanbrugh stalked off in a huff, leaving his assistant Hawksmoor and workmen chosen by the Duchess to complete the work.
To be perfectly fair, Vanbrugh was no saint, either. For whatever reason, his attention was consumed with the construction of the bridge (shown above), while the house remained inhabitable. Talk about scope creep and confused priorities… The precious bridge conducted one nowhere. It was stranded in the middle of marshy wetlands; the lake was added later by landscape artist Lancelot “Capability” Brown (so nicknamed because he often waxed poetic about a property’s landscape “capabilities”). And Sarah was quite right about the excessive costs. It is generally acknowledged that the craftsmanship of the workers she brought in was every bit as good as Vanbrugh’s people, at significantly less expense.
Fast forward several generations of profligate spending until family fortunes reached a crisis point. By the end of the 19th century, only the funds garnered from the 9th Duke of Marlborough‘s marriage to American railroad heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt saved the day, shown above and below as paper-clad figures on their wedding day. The Vanderbilts were among the prominent families who built the Newport Rhode Island “cottages” we visited in this blog. Consuelo’s family home was Marble House.
Extensive renovations began immediately upon return of the unhappy pair from America following their forced marriage of convenience.
Typical of the time, the fortunes of the “dollar princesses” were entirely under the control of the husband. Sunny, as the 9th Duke was known, and whose disposition belied his nickname, seemed to possess an unusually virulent case of British suspicion of modern conveniences.
Consuelo’s money went solely to restoring the splendour of the estate, with scant attention to ensuring anyone’s comfort. It wasn’t until the advent of Mary Cadogan, wife of the 10th Duke, that bathrooms featuring indoor plumbing were installed. Until the 1930s servants were still schlepping gallons of hot water for bathing and removing chamber pots from bedrooms each morning. Even after Mary’s efforts, the place remained highly uncomfortable. There is an hilarious account in his diary of Noel Coward’s visit post WWII, when he came to give a private piano recital: “[My bedroom at Blenheim was] the coldest room I have ever encountered…Woke frozen. Shaving sheer agony and glacial bathroom with a skylight that would not shut. Loo like an icebox. Breakfast downstairs. Bert Marlborough none too bright — Mary very sweet. Saw Princess Margaret off. Pretended I was going to Oxford…Returned to Blenheim at cocktail time. Small dinner. More piano playing. Back to the Frigidaire.”
Blenheim Palace is also notable for being the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, though somewhat unexpectedly. Although it had been Winston Churchill’s family home, his father was a younger son and had not inherited the title or property; thus his parents were not living at Blenheim at the time.
His mother, Jenny Jerome (herself a dollar princess), went into labour while attending a party at Blenheim and Winston was delivered two months prematurely in a hastily prepared area in the cloakroom. That room is now set up as a bedroom for viewing. More on that later in the post…
That’s a highly truncated account of the tumultuous birth of Blenheim, with some tidbits of subsequent history, but I’ve just scratched the surface. A very good account can be had in Blenheim and the Churchill Family by Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, sister to the current Duke.
One more bit on the not-so-sunny, Sunny. Consuelo eventually left him and they divorced. She went on to live happily every after with her second husband, Jacques Balsan. Sunny married Gladys Deacon, famous for her Grecian profile, a profile aided by the plastic surgery of the day in the form of a wax insert to enhance her nose. Gravity (and one can only surmise, heat), had an inexorable effect as the wax sunk slowly down into her chin, rendering her hideous. She succumbed to the family history of mental illness, but not before letting a coterie of up to forty incontinent Blenheim spaniels wreak havoc on the carpets and draperies. Sunny, unable to stand it, withdrew from Blenheim and left her and her canines to it. Eventually he turned off the utilities to force her departure.
Back to the present. I took most of the exterior shots on an earlier visit when it was a glorious sunny day, when we enjoyed a lovely bowl of soup outside in one of the many cafes onsite.
These shots are from our most recent visit, when the climate was not so salubrious!
On our first trip, no interior pictures were permitted, but that has happily changed! I got my fill of photos of the inside and have had a hard time whittling it down to a reasonable number.
They had a big display about the Victorians on this visit, with lots of costumes and a fully set dining table in the huge main entrance. They even had my very favourite champagne!
You can get some sense of the vastness of the space, and the chilliness of the interior, despite the radiator you spy behind that screen.
The painted ceiling in the multi-story main hall is over 60′ high, supported by columns and lighted by enormous Palladian windows.
Statues line the arches of the second floor gallery just below the Palladian windows.
Here is a view down onto the dining table from the second floor gallery.
I remember having petit fours like the ones shown in this photo when I was a little girl. Every once in a while, to my unending delight, my Mum would bring some home from the local bakery. The fondant icing was soft and gooey, with tiny squares of moist jam-filled cake underneath. Delectable!
On to the state rooms. Below is a screen shot of the plan provided by Wikipedia, which gives you some idea of how the rooms are laid out. The hall you see in the pictures above is marked as “A”.
Here are photos of the saloon (now used as a dining room for state occasions), shown as “B”. It’s hard to get the entire room in, as the ceilings are so high, so I did it piecemeal.
A closeup of the painting over one of the door frames leading to the adjacent rooms. What looks like marble pillars is actually a painted mural.
You can see its counterpart in the picture below.
Look up, waaaaayy up….
A full view of the painted ceiling in the Saloon.
I remember from the earlier visit, that the family uses this room at Christmas, and children are permitted to attend once they reach the age of 12 – no exceptions! Before that they dine in the nursery with a nanny. Looking at the table accoutrements, one can see the reasoning; here is one of the candelabra used for formal dining.
Next is the Green Writing Room, “C” on the diagram. You’ll notice how the all doors line up, one room into the next, typical of palaces of the period. The famous Blenheim Tapestries grace the walls (there are zillions of them…). Not only was the huge scale necessary for the height of the rooms, I imagine they provided some much needed insulation.
In the next room you can see a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork mannequin of Consuelo (on loan from Warwick Castle) standing next to the cradle containing her first son.
The waxwork figure of Consuelo was created based on this original photo.
A portrait of the unhappy family: the 9th Duke, Consuelo and their two sons, John and Ivor. Consuelo was indeed very tall with an exceedingly long neck. Reputedly she could wear a choker comprising 19 strands of pearls. Standing over 6 ft., it’s not just the portrait that gives the impression of a tall woman with a swanlike neck.
This is the portrait of Consuelo on display over the fireplace.
And this is where I lose track of which room is which. Both Glenn and I had our cameras going, so the photos are not in numerical order. Oh well, you get the drift of sumptuous interiors, high ceilings, endless tapestries…
It was hard to focus on where to look next.
And portraits! Lots and lots of portraits. I believe the picture of the woman with the baby is Jenny Jerome, Winston’s mother, but don’t quote me.
Coffered and gilded ceilings.
This mirror had incredible detail on the frame, placed between rich brocade window treatments.
An exquisite Ormolu clock.
A gorgeous Meissen tureen, renowned for their lemon shaped finials and exquisite handles.
The porcelain was modern, as well as antique. Here is a ginger jar by Isis Ceramics, whom you might recognize from an earlier post. You might also recognize Glenn 🙂
The lid features a quote from John Churchill’s letter to Sarah after the Battle of Blenheim “I have not time to say more”.
I think we’ve ended up in the Green Drawing Room, which is “M” in the diagram.
Here is a closeup of the boule chest in the corner. Boule is an intriguing art form, in that a solid sheet of gold is cut out in intricate detail, such that the cut out forms a one piece mirror image. If one is fortunate enough to have both pieces come out intact (which is the idea), the opposite is called the “anti-boule”, and often the two pieces are sold together as matching furniture, in this case, chests.
I’m going to end here, and continue this in another post. Still to come are pictures of the gorgeous library complete with pipe organ, which runs the full length of one of the wings of the palace (“H” in the diagram”), the Churchill rooms containing a lovely account of Winston’s courtship of the redoubtable Clementine and the mausoleum (a site to behold, believe me).
Here’s a sneak peak of the library
And the mausoleum (also called the chapel). Note the outsized monument to the first Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, erected by his ever-loving Sarah.
Stay tuned for part II!
I’m sharing this post with Between Naps on the Porch.