I would go as far to say it would be criminal to visit Oxford without making a trip to nearby Blenheim Palace to learn about it’s history.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Blenheim Palace is home to the Dukes of Marlborough. It is also the only non-royal country house in England to hold the title of palace. It is unique in its combined use as a family home, mausoleum and national monument to Britain’s greatness.
It is also the result of an close but ultimately unhealthy relationship between two powerful women.
Fancy learning more about the history of Blenheim Palace and how it came to be? Then read on!
Blenheim Palace’s history began when the manor of Woodstock was gifted to the first Duke of Marlborough by Queen Anne as thanks for his victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704.
John Churchill from Axminster, Devon, the first Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), is the only Briton ever to have risen from a commoner to a Duke in one generation. This was partly due to his skill as a military leader, and partly due to his wife Sarah’s VERY close relationship with Queen Anne (which is the subject of the new film The Favourite starring Olivia Colman – I just can’t wait to see it!)
Sarah wasn’t just Queen Anne’s close confidante, but her adviser in government and political matters. She the most powerful women in the country after Anne. As a result of Sarah’s unique status with the queen, John rose to become the richest man in Britain and one of the greatest military generals in European history.
Another famous war leader from Blenheim Palace was the great Winston Churchill, who was voted the Greatest Briton of All Time in a BBC poll in 2002.
He famously said ‘At Blenheim I took too very important decisions: to be born and to marry’. On the 30th November 1874 Winston Churchill was born at the Palace, the home of his grandfather the 7th Duke. Its also where he proposed to his future wife, Clementine Hozier.
Building at Blenheim began in 1705. The bills were paid by the Treasury , with a massive budget of £240,000 earmarked for the build. It was designed by John Vanbrugh, who was actually a dramatist and not Sarah’s preferred choice of architect.
However building ceased in 1710 when the friendship of Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill collapsed. The grant was almost spent but work was anything but finished.
When Queen Anne died and George I came to the throne some of the outstanding debts were met by the Crown, but it became clear Marlborough had to finish the building at his own expense.
As you can imagine, now he had to foot the bill John became MUCH more interested in the rates the craftsmen were charging. Master craftsmen, such as the famous woodcarver Grinling Gibbons, refused to return. The situation was compounded in 1719 when Vanburgh and the Duchess had a major falling out. Sarah banned him from the site, and his second-in-charge Nicholas Hawksmoor had to take over.
The architectural style is that of the rare and short-lived English Baroque (the trend only lasted for about 50 years). English Baroque is all about demonstrating power and wealth with lots of elaborate decoration and ornamentation.
Blenheim Palace is just room after room of pure unadulterated opulence. The ground floor has three drawing rooms and three state rooms alone! However, these are the rooms that really stood out for me when I visited;
The Great Hall
You enter Blenheim Palace through the main doors into the Great Hall. It may be called the Great Hall, but in reality there is no superlative to describe the sheer scale and grandeur of the room.
The room rises the full height of the building. Immediately it draws your eyes upward to the fabulous painted ceiling fresco. There are also columns, Corinthian capitals and Grinling Gibbons masterpieces galore.
The Long Library
Another room to make your jaw drop, the Long Library is thought to be the second longest room in any house in England.
As you enter, you are met with an imposing marble of statue of the Churchill’s bestie, Queen Anne. However, for me the best part of this room were the exhibits they had on display. They included the family’s coronation robes and a cap/coronet-style thingy that was worn by Queen Anne herself.
At the end of the library you find a magnificent ceiling-height organ. Apparently it is the largest pipe organ in a private home in Europe, and something of a celebrity in the organ world!
The Winston Churchill Exhibition
Now please don’t hate me, but I was very underwhelmed by the Winston Churchill exhibition.
I understand the exhibition has recently been moved within Blenheim to a new location, just off the Long Gallery. However the space was small and cramped to the point I felt claustrophobic. I also felt the exhibition was lacking in relevant items and was mostly made up of interpretation.
The highlight is without doubt the fact you get to visit the bedroom where Churchill was born. Ringlets of his curls even hang above the bed.
When you enter the chapel it Blenheim you almost feel disorientated. The design is very different to most chapels. The high altar is placed in defiance of religious convention against the west wall. This allows the Duke’s tomb and sarcophagus to take centre stage, almost overwhelming the whole building.
The monument is jaw-droppingly large and elaborate, and cost nearly £200,000 of today’s money to build.
Top Tips for Visiting Blenheim Palace
- Allow enough time – Although you can probably tour the main Palace building and shops in only a few hours, the Palace also has extensive grounds with many interesting features. You could easily spend a whole day here. I’m gutted I didn’t have enough time to explore the outside.
- Pick your day to visit carefully – I visited on a day when a Christmas market was being held. There was a lovely festive atmosphere to enjoy, but overall I do think my visitor experience suffered. A temporary ticket booth was set up for the event and I wasn’t given a good introduction to the property or even offered a guide book. If you are really interested in the history of Blenheim, ensure you visit on a day when they are no events.
- Use the audio-guide – I’m not usually a big fan of audio-guides, but you could tell Blenheim Palace had invested in theirs. On entering you are given a mobile-phone like device to take round with you, and you can easily control the amount of information you listen to. The info given is also entertaining, and is supplementary to that contained in the guide book.
- Convert your ticket to a free annual pass – Tickets are a bit on the pricey side, so it may pay to convert your ticket to a free annual pass if you know you are going to visit again. Doing this also means the cost of your entry is donated to the Blenheim Palace Heritage Foundation Charity, so everyone’s a winner!
2019 ticket prices for adults start from £27, allowing for entry to the park, palace and gardens. Entry times vary according to season, and there can be partial closures due to events, so always check the website before visiting.
Blenheim Palace has long been on my historical bucket list, and I was so pleased I finally got to tick it off. Have you visited Blenheim Palace? If so, what did you think of it?
P.S. If you’re visiting Blenheim, then why not check out nearby Oxford?