Blenheim Palace (a.k.a. Malplaquet)

T. H. White satirically based the "Palace of Malplaquet" (in Mistress Masham's Repose) on Blenheim. The following notes from Camelot International, are strangly familiar to anyone who has studied Mistress Masham's Repose.

An Afternoon Visit to Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace is an excellent place to begin our summer school. It was built as a gift from Queen and Country to John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, in recognition of his success as the principal English general in the long War of Spanish Succession, fighting Louis XIV of France. Specifically, the gift commemorates the battle of Blenheim in 1704. The Palace is perhaps the greatest secular work of the English Baroque - a superb combination of castle and chateau, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor, two great and highly individual architects.

Photographs never do justice to the heady drama of Blenheim, which is a wonderfully creative and evocative building, inside and out. It is still the home of the dukes of Marlborough, who make a single token payment for the right to remain there. It is also the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, who is buried in the local churchyard.

Blenheim nestles against the beautiful village of Woodstock, and the palace is set in the middle of one of the greatest of landscape gardens. It has been altered many times, but the presiding genius now is Lancelot "Capability" Brown, who created the immense and striking lake, half submerging Vanbrugh's huge bridge.

Blenheim Palace adjacent to Woodstock and Bladon - the greatest palace from the English baroque period. The palace, great lake, bridge and the park clad with mature trees and set out by Capability Brown in the 17th Century makes a sublime landscape. The palace was designed by Vanburgh and is surrounded by the 2500 acre park. Admission to the public on most days - watch for the special events.

Blenheim's Story:

The Inscription on the East Gate

The inscription on the East Gate declares that: Under the auspices of a magnificent sovereign this house was built for John Duke of Marlborough, and his Duchess Sarah, by Sir J. Vanbrugh between the years 1705 and 1722. And this Royal Manor of Woodstock, together with a grant of 240,000, towards the building of Blenheim was given by Her Majesty Queen Anne and confirmed by Act of Parliament . . .

But that is only a small part of the story. At least 60,000 was contributed by Marlborough and his widow towards the initial cost of the building; and of course a great many thousands have been spent on it since.

Queen Anne's generosity was regal indeed, but if only she had made it clear at the outset how much she meant to give! At the time the present was given, so high was Marlborough's favour, so close the friendship between Queen and Duchess, that any hint of a limit to the royal bounty - much less anything so formal and cold as a written agreement - would have been unthinkable. Later there were plenty found to cast doubt on the Queen's intentions and even to deny that she had given such a present at all.

As victory followed victory (Ramillies, 1706; Oudenarde, 1708; Malplaquet, 1709) no one, except those few who were plotting it, dreamed of Marlborough's fall from favour. He said himself that he never would have believed it possible that so staunch a friendship could so soon have been lost. Perhaps if duty had not kept him overseas, the patience and diplomacy which had worked marvels for his country might also have preserved peace, if not love, between 'Mrs Freeman' (his Duchess) and 'Mrs Morley' (the Queen). As it was, he could not be there to check Sarah from 'teasing and tormenting' her royal mistress in such a way as to make it so much the easier for the soft-spoken Mrs Masham, supported by Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, to supplant her.

In the spring of 1710 the Duchess had her last and most distressing interview with the Queen; and in the summer of 1712 all building at Blenheim ceased. The amount then owing to masons, carvers and others (including Vanbrugh) was 45,000, though no less than 220,000 had already been paid out.

From 1712 to 1714 the Marlboroughs were abroad in what the Duchess called 'a sort of exile'. They returned the day after Queen Anne died 'My lord Duke,' said George I to Marlborough, 'I hope your troubles are now all over.' A knighthood was conferred on Vanbrugh, and after the Queen's 'debts' had been looked into and the Blenheim debt acknowledged, the Duke decided to finish the palace at his own expense, with Vanbrugh as architect, and Nicholas Hawksmoor assisting him, as before.

There were difficulties. Men of skill and standing, like Grinling Gibbons and the Edward Strongs (who part-owned the famous quarries at Taynton, near Burford, and had worked as chief masons on St Paul's), had been paid by the Treasury only a third of what was due to them for Blenheim. That was bad enough. But now they were told that the rates they had been charging were Crown rates. For the Duke they must lower them. This, for reputation's sake and for other good reasons, they could not bring themselves to do. That is why Gibbons completed only one of the four marble door cases in the Saloon and why foreman-masons took over in 1716, and carried on at the lower rates their masters could not afford to accept.

The summer of 1716 saw a resumption of work at Blenheim, but by November Vanbrugh had left in a rage, never to return as surveyor or architect. Differences with the Duchess about costs had been brought to a head by her violent criticisms which, coupled with her ill-usage of him in other matters, made it, as he told her, impracticable to continue.

You have your end, Madam, he concluded, for I will never trouble you more unless the Duke of Marlborough recovers [from a stroke] so far [as] to shelter me from such intolerable Treatment.

I shall in the meantime have only this Concern on his account (for whom I shall ever retain the greatest Veneration), that your Grace having like the Queen thought fit to get rid of a faithful servant, the Tory's will have the pleasure to See your Glassmaker, Moor, make just such an end of the Dukes Building as her Minister Harley did of his Victories for which it was erected.

Strange guesses have been made as to the identity of the glassmaker Moor. He was in fact James Moore, the cabinet-maker, a designer of considerable originality, referred to by the Duchess as her 'oracle; of very good sense . . . very honest and under-standing in many Trades besides his own'. At Blenheim he not only made pier-glasses, a great many of which were needed, some to reflect the pictures, but in November 1716 Moore took over from Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor as clerk of the works and factotum, assisted by one Desborough of Woodstock. It was not till after the Duke's death that Hawksmoor was recalled for the Triumphal Arch and other outworks; while Vanbrugh was in permanent and irretrievable disgrace. In 1725, when Sir John and Lady Vanbrugh, accompanied by the Earl of Carlisle and party, presented themselves at Hawksmoor's two-year-old arch, they were refused admittance even to the park. Vanbrugh did at least see the arch; and had managed to snatch a glimpse of the palace itself six years previously, while the Duchess was away. He died in 1726.

Camelot International 1995

The Column of Victory

The Column of Victory, which was begun five years after Marlborough's death, was finished in 1730 and cost about 3,000. Marlborough is also honoured in the Triumphal Arch. The height of this Doric column, surmounted by eagles, is 134 feet (40 metres), including the lead Statue of the Duke, by Robert Pit, an otherwise unknown craftsman. The statue holds aloft a winged Victory “as an ordinary man might hold a bird”.

Before the final design was adopted, a great many proposals were made, both as to the shape of the monument and its position. For some years the plan had been to have an obelisk, standing halfway along the Great Avenue, and Nicholas Hawks moor prepared designs. This obelisk would probably have had a stairway so that visitors might appreciate the pattern of the elms. An alternative site was considered to mark the position of Woodstock Manor and to “give an opportunity of mentioning that King [Henry II] whose Scenes of Love Sir John [Vanbrugh] was so much pleas'd with”. But that suggestion did not appeal to the Duchess. “If there were obelisks to bee made of what all our Kings have don of that sort,” she wrote, “the countrey would bee Stuffed with very odd things.” She finally chose the present site, at the entrance to the Great Avenue and, having looked over a number of measured drawings by Hawksmoor and others, called in Lord Herbert and his assistant Roger Morris, architect of the Palladian Bridge at Wilton and of the stables at Althorp, to 'conduct' its completion.

The Duchess took more trouble over the inscription than anything else, trying many different writers, including Alexander Pope. In the end it turned out, by an unlikely stroke of irony, that the only man capable of doing it justice was Lord Bolingbroke (Henry StJohn), the man who, with Harley, had plotted the Marlboroughs' downfall. His inscription, however, was recognised at once by the shrewd Duchess as “the finest thing that was possible for any man to write”. She sent copies to her friends, and while carefully concealing the author's identity, admitted that every time she read it she “wet the paper”. Sir Winston Churchill observes in his life of Marlborough, “The inscription is a masterpiece of compact and majestic statement. In fact, it would serve as a history in itself, were all other records lost.”

Camelot International 1995

The Triumphal Arch

The Triumphal Arch, raised in Marlborough's honour by his widow in 1723, is now used as the chief entrance from Woodstock. Its architect was Nicholas Hawksmoor, who had collaborated with Vanbrugh in the building of the palace; his pattern for this gateway being a Roman ruin, possibly the Arch of Titus. “I fear it will be thought too narrow for the height,” wrote Sarah, when it was almost finished, “though when Lord Burlington saw it he found no fault with that.” Certainly it is very narrow indeed. Yet the effect on the visitor who for the first time passes through it, to have the whole vast view suddenly burst on him, is tremendous. “It is not”, wrote Boydell, “a transition from nothing to something but from nothing to everything.”

On the Woodstock side the arch carries a Latin inscription, and on the Blenheim side is the translation:

“This gate was built the year after the death of the most illustrious John, Duke of Marlborough, by order of Sarah his most beloved wife, to whom he left the sole direction of the many things that remained unfinished of this fabric. The services of this great man to his country the pillar will tell you which the Duchess has erected for a lasting monument of his glory and her affection to him. MDCCXXIII.”

Camelot International 1995

However, the present Duke has already had both these avenues replanted - the Northern Avenue with limes and the Eastern Avenue, renamed the Jubilee Avenue, with alternate lime and plane trees. The first of the limes on the south side of Jubilee Avenue was planted by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales on 19th December 1976. In addition, the Duke has overseen the completion of twelve years of the first twenty-five years of the phased park restoration plan which is cyclic and covers the next two centuries. He has also had many thousands of parkland and commercial trees planted.

England Have My Bones: For the Reader of the Works of T. H. White
[Home] [Books] [FAQ] [E-Mail] [Links]
Unless otherwise noted, entire contents 1996, J. Moulder and M. Schaefer. All rights reserved.
Revised Saturday, 28-Sep-2002 22:11:03 CDT.