Let’s visit Blenheim Palace, one of Britain’s most spectacular stately homes and the birthplace of Winston Churchill
“At Blenheim, I took two very important decisions: to be born, and to marry. I am content with the decision I took on both occasions.” These were the words of Winston Churchill, England’s best-loved prime minister and Blenheim Palace’s most famous resident. He retained a great fondness for Blenheim throughout his life, and it isn’t hard to see why; not only was it conceived on the grandest of scales by its talented architect John Vanbrugh, but it retains an aristocratic panache that makes it a genuine joy to visit.
Today, the small town of Woodstock is home to a cornucopia of upmarket antique shops, cosy Cotswold stone pubs and boutique hotels, but it is the enormous edifice of Blenheim that defines the area, in no small part because it is, along with Chatsworth and Castle Howard, among England’s best-known and most loved grand estates. Today it attracts well over half a million visitors a year, and offers a range of sights and
activities that include anything from the tourist-oriented pleasure gardens to a miniature railway. And yet, its beginnings were of a very different kind altogether.
By the end of the 17th century, Woodstock was known for two things: proximity to Oxford, and having been home to John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, who had been made ranger and keeper of Woodstock Park by King Charles II. He lived in a lavishly appointed lodge at the edge of the park, which was reputedly decorated with a wide variety of erotic pictures. He did not have especially long to enjoy his domain, however, as he died of syphilis in 1680 at the age of 33. Thereafter, the estate returned to the crown, until it was given by King William III to one of his favourites, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, who had served with distinction during several of his campaigns.
A notable victory was obtained in 1704 at the Battle of Blenheim in Bavaria, and so, in gratitude for his achievements, the king ordered that Marlborough and his descendants be given a large expanse of Woodstock to construct a palace worthy of their service.
It might have been expected that the grand house would be constructed by Sir Christopher Wren, then England’s most famous architect, but Marlborough had the innovative idea of hiring John Vanbrugh, who had previously been responsible for beginning the construction of the neo-baroque Castle Howard.