Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire — the seat of the Duke of Marlborough — is one of the outstanding palaces of Baroque Europe, and was planned as both a residence and national monument.
Towards the end of the day on August 13, 1704, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, exhausted by an intense day of fighting near Blindheim, a village on the Danube, famously scrawled a note to his wife on the back of a tavern bill: ‘I have not time to say more but to beg you will give my duty to the Queen and let her know her army has had a glorious victory.’ The battle of Blenheim — as the name has been anglicised — was, in fact, a confrontation between a Franco-Bavarian army and the forces of a grand alliance of European powers, including the Dutch republic, Austria and Britain, over control of Spain and its empire. It was the first major defeat inflicted on a French army in the field for 50 years and was crowned by the capture of Louis XIV’s commander-in-chief, Marshal Talleyrand, who waited in the Duke’s coach as he scribbled his hasty message.
Although the plans of the building changed considerably over time, something close to the final design was published in the first part of Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus (1715). As described by Campbell, ‘the manner is grand, the parts noble, and the air majestick of this palace, adapted to the martial genius of the patron…’ This latter quality was celebrated both in the ornament of the building with military trophies and its original title, ‘Blenheim Castle’.
Fig 5: The Saloon is overlooked by figures representing the four Continents and the marble doorcase is ornamented with an imperial eagle. Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, photographed for Country Life Magazine by Will Pryce. ©Country Life
Both Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor were well versed in medieval castle architecture and their knowledge of it shines through the spectacular outline of this building, its great angle towers and the rugged articulation of the masonry. Yet this is really a Classical castle suitable for a general of Britain in its newly assumed character as an Imperial power and second Rome. Borrowing Hawksmoor’s description of Castle Howard, as ‘the seat of one of the chief nobles of Britain, it is both a castle and palace conjoined’.