In 1704, as a thank-you for his victory over the French at the Battle of Blenheim, Queen Anne gave John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (1650–1722) the royal estate of Woodstock, along with the promise of enough cash to build himself a gargantuan palace.
Work started promptly on Blenheim Palace with Sir John Vanbrugh, who was also responsible for Castle Howard in Yorkshire as principal architect. However, the duke’s formidable wife, Sarah Jennings, who had wanted Christopher Wren, was soon at loggerheads with Vanbrugh, while Queen Anne had second thoughts, stifling the flow of money. Construction work was halted and the house was only finished after the duke’s death at the instigation of his widow, who ended up paying most of the bills and designing much of the interior herself. The end result is the country’s grandest example of Baroque civic architecture, an Italianate palace of finely worked yellow stone that is more a monument than a house – just as Vanbrugh intended.
The interior of the main house is stuffed with paintings and tapestries, plus all manner of objets d’art, including furniture from Versailles and carvings by Grinling Gibbons. Those interested in Winston Churchill may prefer the Churchill Exhibition, which provides a brief introduction to the man, accompanied by live recordings of some of his more famous speeches. Born here at Blenheim, Churchill (1874–1965), grandson of the seventh Duke of Marlborough, now lies buried alongside his wife in the graveyard of Bladon church just outside the estate.
Blenheim’s formal gardens, to the rear of the house, are divided into several distinct areas, including a rose garden and an arboretum, though the open parkland is more enticing, leading from the front of the house down to an artificial lake, Queen Pool. Vanbrugh’s splendid Grand Bridge crosses the lake to the Column of Victory, erected by Sarah Jennings and topped by a statue of her husband posing heroically in a toga.