Blenheim Palace is one of England's most famous buildings, a sprawling edifice of honey-colored stone surrounded by spacious parks. Residence of the Dukes of Marlborough, the palace is located in the village of Woodstock, near Oxford. Despite its beauty and idyllic grounds, I found an air of melancholy permeated the property.
Sarah, the first duchess, fought with architects John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor from the very beginning. She wanted a comfortable residence. They, after creating the baroque magnificence of Castle Howard, wanted a splendid national monument on the order of Versailles. The subsequent story of Blenheim is an indiscriminate mix of the acquisition and dispersal of great art, the antics of peculiar family members, the real and imagined obligations of the aristocracy, and curiosity of the public.
Though Sarah bore the duke six children, both sons and one daughter did not live to adulthood. The eldest of the three remaining daughters, Henrietta, became the 2nd Duchess of Marlborough in her own right. Sadly, her son did not survive her and the 3rd Duke of Marlborough was the son of her sister, Anne, wife of Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland. This is the connection to the Spencer family, ancestors of the late Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales.
and their sons
The fourth duke, who succeeded to the title in 1758 at age 19, was actually the first to make Blenheim his family's principle residence. He found the place cold, forbidding and rundown, never properly completed. He assumed the great honor and burden of rejuvenating its grandeur and surrounding it with an appropriately sublime setting, a park designed by Lancelot "Capability" Brown. George III, on a visit in 1786, is reported to have said, "We have nothing to equal this!"
Family of the 4th Duke of Marlborough by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Never plump enough in the pocket, the fourth duke spent millions of pounds on the mansion and grounds. By the 1780's, he was fading into reclusiveness, his obsession with the house nearing insanity. When Admiral Nelson visited in 1802, with Lord and Lady Hamilton, the duke refused to receive them. Upon the fourth duke's death in 1817, his son succeeded.
Thus, the pattern was established, dukes and duchesses sacrificing themselves and their families to a symbolic vision of Blenheim Palace more important than mere humans. Another famous victim was Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the 9th duke in 1895, a social coup for her mother, but a lesser triumph for her father, who provided millions to restore and maintain Blenheim. Consuelo later divorced and eventually achieved happiness as Countess Balsan. Right, the 9th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough with their heir and spare, painted by John Singer Sargent in 1907.
The Red Drawing Room