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Churchill’s ancestral home and birthplace was built for another national hero

Posted in Architecture, Country House, Famous battles, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 30 October 2013

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This edited article about Blenheim Palace originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 444 published on 18 July 1970.

Blenheim Palace, picture, image, illustration

Blenheim Palace

“Here littleness is absorbed in grandeur, and prettiness in magnificence . . .” So, in 1806, wrote Dr. Mayor of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.

Here at Blenheim, Winston Churchill was born, and here in the garden he proposed marriage.

Winston Churchill’s mother, when she was taken to Blenheim for the first time by her husband, Lord Randolph Churchill, tells us how she felt, when she wrote: “Randolph said, ‘This is the finest view in England.’ Looking at the lake, the bridge, the miles of magnificent park studded with old oaks, and the huge and stately Palace I confess I felt awed. But my American blood forbade the admission.”

Lady Randolph Churchill was not the first person to be awed by Blenheim Palace and its surroundings. Most visitors were – and still are. In 1724 Daniel Defoe – author of Robinson Crusoe – wrote of Blenheim: “It requires the Royalty of a Sovereign to support an Equipage suitable to the Greatness of this Palace.”

The dream of the great Palace of Blenheim first existed in the mind of Queen Anne. She wished to create a noble Palace as a gift to John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, victor of many great battles, the most famous being Blenheim in 1704. The dream then became the great architect, John Vanbrugh’s, and finally Sarah Churchill’s, who was the first Duchess of Marlborough.

Queen Anne was a nervous woman, and needed the assurance of others. Her sister, Mary, who married William of Orange, was a very determined woman, and the two sisters had little in common.

Mary became Queen with her husband, William, and we always think of them together as “William and Mary”. They had no children, and when William died, after his Queen, Anne came to the throne of England. She was not beautiful, not haughty, not self-willed. She was happily married to Prince George of Denmark, and she had fifteen children, all of whom died in their early years.

It was Sarah Churchill who helped Queen Anne. She gave the Queen courage and firmness, and made the sad Queen laugh. And Sarah’s husband, John Churchill, brought England glory with his military victories.

So it was natural that Queen Anne dreamed that her hero, and the Nation’s hero, the Duke of Marlborough, and his Sarah, should have a mighty Palace.

Over the East Gate of Blenheim is inscribed: “Under the Auspices of a munificent Sovereign this house was built for John, Duke of Marlborough, and his Duchess Sarah, by Sir J. Vanbrugh between the years 1705 and 1722. And this Royal Manor of Woodstock, together with a grant of £240,000 towards the building of Blenheim was given by Her Majesty, Queen Anne and confirmed by Act of Parliament.”

It was in the winter of 1704 when John Churchill and John Vanbrugh went down into the countryside of Oxfordshire and looked at the Woodstock Park and Manor, the gift of Queen Anne. They saw a beautiful valley, deep and wide, holding the Glyme, a stream caught in a marsh and not free-flowing. Bridges crossed the marsh to the Manor.

Vanbrugh’s imagination made him see at a glance how he could turn the marsh into ornamental water and he saw the “finest bridge in Europe” crossing it. Queen Anne would have approved, but both the Duke and Duchess were alarmed. They felt that the cost of the “finest bridge in Europe” would be crippling. Sir Christopher Wren was consulted to design a more modest bridge. But Vanbrugh persuaded John Churchill to execute his design.

Sarah Churchill, with all the fire of her character, disputed with Vanbrugh and tried in vain to make him design a less splendid bridge. She writes: “I made Mr. Vanbrugh my enemy by constant disputes I had with him to prevent his extravagance.” She counted thirty-three rooms in the bridge, and she likened it to London Bridge. But Vanbrugh built his bridge, complete with rooms, and planned the lake, canals and a whole waterworks to supply the Palace, with the cistern on top of the East Gate. It was completed in 1727.

But it was in 1764 that Lancelot Brown, the landscape designer nicknamed “Capability”, with his huge extensions, gave Blenheim what has been called “the most magnificent private lake in the country”.

Woodstock Manor, partly ruined, was a Royal Hunting Lodge, and Sarah wished to have it pulled down. This Vanbrugh refused to do – in fact, he had it repaired and for three years, on and off, he lived in it while working on the Palace.

Vanbrugh built and built, but building great palaces needed great money, and suddenly Queen Anne found a new confidante and turned away from her friendship with Sarah Churchill. At the same time she granted no more money for the building of the Palace. In 1712 all building at Blenheim ceased, with vast sums owing to masons, carvers and to Vanbrugh himself.

Now Sarah became determined to continue building – perhaps because the Queen had withdrawn her favours and because Vanbrugh had withdrawn in a rage: perhaps because the Nation had almost forgotten John Churchill who had won so many battles for England. So, taking the bit between her determined teeth and cutting expenses all round, Sarah Churchill, first Duchess of Marlborough, saw Blenheim Palace through its final stages.

The Palace, with its courts and buildings stands upon seven acres of land, It has stone carvings by that great wood-carver, Grinling Gibbons, and it has the flow of Vanbrugh’s imagination which made of it a place of grandeur unique in English architecture.

The dream of three entirely different personalities blended together to perfect Blenheim – a shy Queen, a great architect and a fiery, determined woman. And John Churchill, for whom the Palace was built, was a soldier who had lived much of his life in any make-do accommodation, and had often not known the luxury of even a simple home.

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