Queen Anne's gift to the Duke of Marlborough, even though he had to complete it himself.
Queen Anne's gift to the Duke of Marlborough, even though he had to complete it himself. British Tourist Authority

English Duke's ambush reaps palatial reward

AFTER John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, marched 56,000 British and Austrian troops five weeks from the Low Countries to the Danube in 1704 to defeat an even greater number of French in the Battle of Blenheim during the War of Spanish Succession, his Queen on his return home asked what she could give him in appreciation of such a marvellous British conquest.

The Duke and his wife, the Duchess Sarah, decided a little place up the country would nice, somewhere to which they could retreat between overseas wars and cannon balls and gun-smoke and people who kept wanting to run the Duke over with their horses.

Queen Anne readily agreed, and called in the famed architect Sir John Vanbrugh to draw-up plans for a suitable country house at Woodstock near Oxford, with work to start in 1705.

Vanbrugh's centrepiece for the ambitious residence he proposed would be a Great Reception Hall with ceilings 20m high and with enough room for the Duke and Duchess to entertain 250 mates at a time for drinks and canapés, side rooms in which a hundred or more could stay on for dinner, and a library big enough for 10,000 books. Plus a chapel to save going into town on wet Sundays.

There were also to be several score rooms for the Marlborough's personal use and for staff to work and live in, so that in fact their "country house" would become a palace covering an amazing 2.8ha (or nearly 30 average Australian suburban building blocks,) while still leaving 800 hectares (2000 acres) for landscaping with man-made lakes, woodlands, hedges and flower displays.

Tapestry within the palace depicts the Duke of Marlborough (centre) accepting the surrender of France's Marshall Tallard at Blenheim.
Tapestry within the palace depicts the Duke of Marlborough (centre) accepting the surrender of France's Marshall Tallard at Blenheim.

Appropriately it was to be called Blenheim Palace after the Duke's battle victory, but the Duchess remarked on many occasions that she would have preferred a smaller and more homely place.

And a rocky future lay ahead for Blenheim Palace on another score.

The Duke had to keep going overseas to fight more battles (none of which he ever lost), leaving his Duchess Sarah to spend a lot of time with the Queen.

The two women had been close friends for many years, and the Queen in appreciation of this friendship and the advice which Sarah constantly proffered, appointed her to the highest office a woman could hold in the Royal Court, Mistress of the Robes, and also the important Keeper of the Privy Purse and Groom of the Stole.

But Sarah, who could be charming, vivacious and witty, was also outspoken and not backward in speaking her mind to the Queen.

This resulted over time in a number of disputes between the two, until the Queen and other confidantes eventually hatched a plan to ease both Sarah and the Duke out of royal circles.

Blenheim Palace was still a construction site 1712 when all work stopped and the Queen told the Duke and Duchess that enough was enough - even though she'd spent nearly A$500,000 on their partly-built palace.

Fountain and maze in the vast landscaped gardens.
Fountain and maze in the vast landscaped gardens.

After the Queen's death two years later, the Duke himself took over the completion of his Palace and it was finally finished the same year he died - 1722, and seventeen years after work had begun.

Today Blenheim Palace is one of the most-visited royal attractions in England with more than 500,000 visitors annually.

After you've marvelled at the billion dollar's worth of paintings, statues, chandeliers, antique furnishings and the vastness of the palace, there are boats to row on the huge man-made lake, motor launches, a miniature train ride, maze, butterfly house, spectacular formal gardens and park-like grounds, an adventure play area for the children, and a self-guided, inter-active "Untold Story" detailing many of the palace's intrigues, illicit relationships and tales of life upstairs and downstairs.

Regular special events are also held throughout the year including jousting tournaments, battle re-enactments, music festivals, prestige and vintage car shows, and craft and food fairs.

 

FOOTNOTE

Sir Winston Churchill was born prematurely at Blenheim Palace while his mother was attending a ball at the home of her husband's great forebear.

Sir Winston later proposed to his wife-to-be Clementine by a lake in the palace grounds, and they are buried side by side near that spot.

 

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