The only non-royal country house in England to be titled as a palace is Blenheim Palace. This large estate is located in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England and is the current residence of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. As one of the largest houses in England, this is one location that is a must-see on your visitor itinerary.
Key Facts about Blenheim Palace
- Originally built as a gift to John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough
- Construction started in 1705 and lasted until 1722
- A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987
- The birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill
A Brief History of Blenheim Palace
Blenheim Palace was constructed between 1705 and 1722 as a gift to the 1st Duke of Marlborough. As the military commander, he led the allied forces to success in the Battle of Blenheim on 13th August, 1704. The Duke won the battle when he received the surrender of Marshall Tallard, the leader of the French forces.
In return for his success, Queen Anne granted the Churchill family access to the Royal Manor and the park at Woodstock; as well as any funds necessary to build the Blenheim Palace. As a thank you for the gift, the Duke promised to address the Palace as a monument to Queen Anne.
The construction of the Palace took longer than normal due to several problems: the first being that Sarah, the 1st Duchess of Marlborough, did not have a desire for such a large house. She had preferred a smaller country house that was more suitable for comfort. She was also a very outspoken woman, and did not hesitate to voice her unhappiness with the architect. This also caused her to also fall out of favor with Queen Anne.
The architect selected for the ambitious project was a controversial one. The Duchess was known to favour Sir Christopher Wren, famous for St Paul’s Cathedral and many other national buildings. The Duke however, following a chance meeting at a playhouse, is said to have commissioned Sir John Vanbrugh there and then. Vanbrugh, a popular dramatist, was an untrained architect, who usually worked in conjunction with the trained and practical Nicholas Hawksmoor. The duo had recently completed the first stages of the Baroque Castle Howard. This huge Yorkshire mansion was one of England’s first houses in the flamboyant European Baroque style. Marlborough had obviously been impressed by this grandiose pile and wished for something similar at Woodstock.
A second problem arose when the funds being utilized to construct the house ran dry. Sarah was friends with Queen Anne prior to her receiving the title as Queen. She carried great influence over Queen Anne, of both personal and political. However, as years past, the two grew apart, and it was finally the quarrel about the house that caused the two to part ways.
The building process was paused in the summer of 1712 when the funds for the construction were terminated by the Queen. This forced the Duke to complete the construction out of his own personal funds. A short time after, the Marlborough’s decided to go into exile, and later returned after the death of the Queen on 1st August, 1714.
Blenheim, however, was not to provide Vanbrugh with the architectural plaudits he imagined it would. The fight over funding led to accusations of extravagance and impracticability of design, many of these charges leveled by the Whig factions in power. He found no defender in the Duchess of Marlborough. Having been foiled in her wish to employ Wren, she leveled criticism at Vanbrugh on every level, from design to taste. In part their problems arose from what was demanded of the architect. The nation (who it was then assumed, by architect and owners, was paying the bills) wanted a monument, but the Duchess wanted not only a fitting tribute to her husband but also a comfortable home, two requirements that were not compatible in 18th-century architecture. Finally, in the early days of the building the Duke was frequently away on his military campaigns, and it was left to the Duchess to negotiate with Vanbrugh. More aware than her husband of the precarious state of the financial aid they were receiving, she attempted to curb Vanbrugh’s grandiose ideas, in an arrogant fashion (as was her wont) rather than explain the true reasons behind her frugality.
Following their final altercation Vanbrugh was banned from the site. In 1719, while the Duchess was away, Vanbrugh viewed the palace in secret. However, when he and his wife, with the Earl of Carlisle, visited the completed Blenheim as members of the viewing public in 1725, they were refused admission even to enter the park. The palace had been completed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, his friend and architectural associate.
Blenheim Palace was the home to the Churchill family for 300 years. However, it was not free from ruin. At the end of the 19th century, the 9th Duke of Marlborough married the heiress to the American railroad, Consuelo Vanderbilt. With the newly found financial relief, the Palace was saved from the ruins and a new restoration process began to bring it back to what it once was.
Many of the Duke’s that have taken residence at the Palace have been especially involved in the improvements made to the property. The park and gardens underwent major changes when the 4th Duke commissioned the services of landscape designer, Lancelot Brown and architect designer William Chambers.
Another Duke to make positive changes to the Palace was the 8th Duke. He was responsible for the introduction of electricity, gas, central heating, and an internal telephone system to be implemented in the house. Other restorations completed included the restoration of the State Rooms, and added furniture throughout the Palace. This was completed by the 9th Duke.
The current Duke, who is also the 11th to carry the title, has made it his commitment to preserve the previous restorations completed, and it was also thanks to the Duke that the property became a World Heritage Site in 1987.
What Makes This House So Famous
There are many stories about Blenheim that have made the property well known. However, the most famous reason is Sir Winston Churchill. He was born at the Blenheim Palace on 30th November, 1874. He was the grandson of the 7th Duke, and he was also a close friend to the 9th Duke and Duchess. It was also at the small lake-side summerhouse near the Palace, known as “The Temple of Diana”, where Winston Churchill proposed to his future wife, Miss Clementine Hozier, in 1908.
Their marriage was not expected to last according to many critics, but the couple proved everyone wrong when their marriage lasted for 56 years. When Sir Winston Churchill died on 24th January, 1965, he was an accomplished former British Prime Minister, author, painter, and historian. He was buried next to his parents in the cemetery of St. Martin’s Church in Bladon, not far from the Blenheim Palace. Lady Churchill died 12 years later and her cremated remains were laid to rest next to her husband.
TV & Film
The Palace has been the location for many popular films and television productions. With the excellent architecture and the breathtaking scenery, it is no surprise that the setting has been sought after by so many directors. The Blenheim Palace is not always center stage in a film. In some cases, it is part of a small scene, such as a skit in a staircase or in one of the gardens. Famous films that have been filmed at the Palace include: Young Winston (1972); Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989); Black Beauty (1994); Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007); The Young Victoria (2008); and Gulliver’s Travels (2010).
A highly beloved feature at the Palace is ‘The Untold Story’ experience. This is included in the Park and Gardens ticket, and is reached at the main entrance of the Palace. There is no separate ticket required to enter the experience. It is a simulated event that walks you through all of the untold stories of history that have taken place in the last 300 years with the house. Your virtual tour guide, Grace Ridley, who was also the maid to the 1st Duchess, will walk you through history to reveal the family secrets as they were seen through the eyes of the staff.
Through the use of video animation and interactive exhibits, Grace will introduce you to characters such as the 1st Duchess of Marlborough and other people who made an impact on the history of Blenheim Palace. You will be able to witness, first-hand, the events that led to the lack of funding for the construction of the house, as well as the 1st Duke’s affair with the mistress of King Charles II. The total experience lasts for about 35 minutes and is extremely interesting based on previous visitors’ experiences.
There are several books worth reading about the palace in including: Blenheim: Biography of a Palace by Martin Fowler and Blenheim And the Churchill Family: A Personal Portrait - actually written by a member of the Marlborough family.
The Palace was also featured in Treasure Houses of Britain, which is available on DVD and On Demand.
The Palace is open to the public daily from 15th February to 2nd November, and Wednesdays through to Sundays from 5th November to 14th December. Each section of the property has a separate opening and closing time. Refer to the Blenheim Palace website for more information about specific opening and closing times, ticket prices, and direction information. You can easily spend the whole day on the estate and there is plenty to do for the whole family.
We visited the Palace in 2012 – read about our visit here.
Relevant YouTube Videos
Blenheim Palace Video – Birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill (5 Minutes)
How We Built Britain – Blenheim Palace
Travels in Britain – Oxfordshire Cotswolds (Segment on Palace in second half) – 14 Minutes