Blenheim Palace has a roof that covers seven acres. And it was a gift. Really.
How does that happen?
First, you need shrewd, well-placed ancestors.
In 1677 Winston Churchill’s ancestor, the dashing John Churchill, had wanted to take 17-year-old Sarah Jennings as a lover; but clever Sara outmaneuvered him and got him to marry her. Sarah Churchill then instinctively–and some said brutally–navigated the intrigues of court to keep her husband at the forefront of royal attention. Her most astute political move was to link her fortunes to Princess Anne.
Anne constantly battled her sister and brother-in-law–King William and Queen Mary–to secure an allowance or some modest independence, and Sarah always lobbied on Anne’s side. When Anne finally became Queen, she raised John Churchill to the highest and most exclusive order of the peerage, the rank of Duke of Marlborough. Then, in 1705 when John defeated the French and Bavarians at the Battle of Blenheim in Bavaria (which insured that Britain then dominated Europe), Queen Anne naturally turned to Sarah for ways to thank John for his service.
Here Sarah played her winning card. She guided her royal friend Anne to bestow upon her husband the gift of a country house and 2,700 acres in Oxfordshire. The resulting gift took nearly thirty years to build, employed over 1,500 workman, and became–because of its breathtaking scale–the only non-royal country house in England to hold the title of palace. To the eventual horror of Anne and the British government, it also ballooned to over five times the initial estimated cost and ultimately estranged the Marlboroughs from Queen Anne.
But the gift had been given. A later royal ruler, King George III, would look down from a hilltop towards the palace and remark with a mixture of awe and royal chagrin, “We have nothing to equal this.”*
Blenheim Palace became an emphatic statement of Churchillian power and wealth–and showed especial scorn for the French whom John had defeated. A massive Arch of Triumph marked the entrance into the grounds. Atop the entrance pediment stood a statue of Britannia and beneath her cringed two chained French captives. One lower roof supported an English lion devouring the French rooster. The south portico contained a 30-ton marble bust of French King Louis XIV that Marlborough had looted–and the 1st Duke always pointedly sat with his back to this bust. Each feature of the palace was expensive and calculated to awe the viewer.
Where St. Donat’s had towers for sighting the enemy and crenellations to protect archers, Blenheim’s tower housed a clock and decorative battlements. These vestiges of a military architectural style now signaled an unassailable class structure. The 320 rooms in the interior elaborated on that theme. Blenheim’s entrance hall soared to over four stories. The library, stocked with rare first editions and artwork, exceeded half the length of a football field. Later Dukes added a Temple of Diana, a 134-foot Column of Victory honoring the first Duke, and great works of art ranging from Raphael’s Ansidei Madonna to Van Dyck’s equestrian painting of Charles I.
Not satisfied with simply creating an imposing structure, each succeeding Duke shaped the landscape as well. The grounds of the estate were encircled by a dry stone wall that ran for nearly nine miles. In the 1760s the 4th Duke employed landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown to reshape the grounds to create an even more aesthetic context for the great house. Virtually unfettered, Brown dammed a river, created a lake, constructed a series of cascades, and diverted a stream. With the Duke’s permission, Brown took a 30-room brick building near the stream, flooded it, submerged the lower stories until the height of the building seemed pleasing and proportional to the surrounding landscape–and used it as a bridge.
But Marlboroughs were far from the only nobles to take the land, architecture, and art as their sovereign birthright to shape for the family’s glory.
Next Time: What families owned most of England?
*Martin, Ralph G. Jennie: The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, 1854-1895.
Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969; p. 61.
**Image courtesy of Framepool.com