Thursday, October 24, 2013

Building of the Week: Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace

This gem is one of England’s largest stately homes, and one of the few surviving examples of the short-lived English Baroque style of architecture. Long the family seat of the Duke of Marlborough (notably the Churchill family), the magnificent palace is located in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England and is the only non-Royal, non-Episcopal country house in England to be granted the title of “Palace.”

The palace has a long and fascinating history of intrigue, hubris and conflict. Initially, the house was meant to be built as sort of a trophy for John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough as a “thank you gift” for his triumphs in defeating the French at the Battle of Blenheim. Prior to the early 1700’s, this large parcel of land in Woodstock was the location of a hunting lodge. It was in this lodge that Elizabeth I had been imprisoned by her sister, Queen Mary, and where Henry II had stashed away his toothsome mistress, the 
Fair Rosamond. So, certainly it was a location of historical significance.

That didn’t matter much to the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, who, as the 1700’s rolled on, was increasingly miffed that she didn’t get the architect that she wanted to build their gifted mansion (Christopher Wren of St. Paul’s fame). She was also pouting because she and the Duke were quarelling about the style and size of the house. She wanted something homier. He wanted something that said, “Ha! I beat the French. Look at the house that Queen Anne gave me! I’m awesome!” After the Duke hired the theatrical John Vanbrugh, without her permission, to design a (gasp) Baroque monument to his victory, she began to behave in a rather passive aggressive manner and made life a living hell for anyone and everyone—especially Vanbrugh.

The Duchess began her reign of terror by ordering that all of the existing historic landmarks be pulled down. She and Vanbrugh—an early proponent of conservation—argued violently about it. But, the Duchess won in the end, as Duchesses often do. She was just a nightmare. In fact, she was so much of a nightmare that she continued to draw attention to herself and her husband in a not so pleasant way. By continually reminding everyone just how much money the Crown was shelling out for their palace, she effectively ruined their friendship with Queen Anne who promptly cut off their funds. With a great big house which was nowhere near livable, £220,000 spent (£60,000 of which was her husband’s money) and over £45,000 more owed to the builders, they had to not only skip town, but leave the country. Those were tremendous sums of money in the early Eighteenth Century.

The Duke and Duchess didn’t return to England until the day after Queen Anne’s death in 1714. Sarah and John Churchill got back in the good graces of the new King—George I—and managed to get some funding for their enormous house, once again working with Vanbrugh who Sarah continued to loathe until she demanded that he not return. The magnificent Baroque mansion was nearly finished when the Duke died in 1722. He never really got to enjoy their monumental, overwhelming and wholly dramatic estate. He did, however, get a really great tomb out of the deal. A monstrous tomb was built in the palace for him, thereby giving it the status of mausoleum as well.

Many other famous names passed through those intricately vaulted stone halls—including some Spencers (ancestors of the late Diana, Princess of Wales) and the Dukes of Marlborough continued to get themselves into countless jams. I could write a book about all of their shenanigans. And, I might. But, for now, we’ll skip ahead a couple of centuries.
Keeping up a house of that scale is rather difficult. By the Nineteenth Century, there was no way that the Churchill family could afford to maintain the place. And, so, as was the habit of the time, in 1896, Charles, The Ninth Duke of Marlborough entered into a loveless marriage with American Railroad Heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt (much to her chagrin). The palace was saved and largely redecorated and expanded. And, Consuelo was utterly miserable. She and Churchill would later divorce, but he got the house. This is beginning to sound like Downton Abbey.

Oh, yes! Winston Churchill was born there. That’s something.

The ensuing history is equally troubled. So, let’s just focus on the mansion itself. It is magnificent! Still the home of the Duke of Marlborough, it’s now also something of a convention center/tourist attraction. They’ve introduced a rather nifty electronic, interactive, fairgrounds kind of tour which I wouldn’t mind seeing someday. You can read more about that on their Web site.

Despite the rather mercenary way of doing so, the family has managed to maintain this unusual piece of architectural history with its painted ceilings and gorgeous construction. It also sports a grand collection of artwork. I think it would well be worth a visit!

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