Hannah Drake

Blenheim Palace

TravelHannah DrakeComment

Blenheim Palace first got on my radar in the spring when I was searching for a good place to have a picnic within an hour or so radius from our house. I had never heard of it before, but I was instantly in awe of the photos of the palace itself, as well as the surrounding gardens and grounds.

When my sister Sam came to visit in June and expressed interested in visiting Oxford, I figured it would be a good opportunity to visit Blenheim Palace as well. It’s just a short bus from the heart of Oxford and it made for a great spot to meet up with Luke who had been working that day. Unfortunately, we missed our bus by a few moments and I misread the bus schedule, skipping over the next one in 30 minutes and instead assuming the next bus wasn’t for an hour. So Sam and I ducked into a pub to watch a World Cup match that was on and arrived an hour later than we had planned. We bought tickets for the palace and the grounds and just barely made it into the palace before they closed the doors for the day. Meanwhile, Luke was stuck in terrible traffic and arrived so late they wouldn’t even let him into the palace area. Sam and I hurried through the palace and met up with Luke outside to explore the water gardens until closing.

Luke and I were able to convert our tickets into annual passes since we had opted for the gift aid when we bought them. Since we had a whole year to come back, I’ve been waiting to share any photos from Blenheim until we could spend more time there. We went back in August and did the free audio tour of the palace. They also had a special exhibit of Yves Klein art throughout the palace, so there was an interesting mix of art in every room. Today, I’m sharing photos from both visits.

So what exactly is Blenheim Palace? It sounds like a place where the Royal Family might live, but actually it’s the only non-royal, non-episcopal country house in England to hold the title of palace, and the principle residence of the Dukes of Marlborough. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and is open to the public most days of year.

The palace is named after the Battle of Blenheim in Bavaria in 1704 and was intended for John Churchill, later styled 1st Duke of Marlborough, as a reward for his military triumphs against the French and Bavarians in the War of the Spanish Succession, culminating in the Battle of Blenheim. However, soon after construction began it became the subject of political infighting, leading to Marlborough's exile, the fall from power of his duchy and lasting damage to the reputation of the architect Sir John Vanbrugh, who designed it in the short-lived English Baroque style.

Blenheim has been the family home of the Dukes of Marlborough for nearly 300 years, currently run by the 12th Duke. In the late 1800’s the palace and family were saved from financial ruin when the 9th Duke married American railroad heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt, a dream match for her mother, but resulting in a loveless marriage for both parties, as they were both in love with another before the match. Consuelo’s dowry was so large that her husband was able to redecorate the parts of the palace in the style of Versailles.

When the 1st Duke, John Churchill, died, the title was passed to his eldest daughter, Henrietta, who became the 2nd Duchess of Marlborough in her own right through an Act of Parliament since both of John’s sons had proceeded him in death. Like her father, Henrietta outlived her sons, including her eldest son William who married, but died without children. Because of this, the Dukedom then passed to her eldest nephew, Charles Spencer, making him the 3rd Duke. Because of this, the title remains in the Spencer-Churchill family.

Now, let’s talk about those famous surnames for a moment. At the palace, you can find a family tree linking the 1st Duke of Marlborough to two of the most famous figures in the 20th century: Lady Diana Spencer and Sir Winston Churchill. While they are distantly related, both Princess Diana and Winston Churchill come from the same line that joined the Churchill and Spencer families, Churchill’s paternal grandfather being the 7th Duke.

Winston Churchill’s history even began at the palace itself, being born early there while his parents were staying during renovations on their London residence. The room where Churchill was born remains a memorial to him as part of a larger exhibit about his life. In the room, you’ll see the bed where he was born, along with locks of his curled hair.

My favourite room in the palace is the Long Library. On one end, you’ll find shelves of books, many being rare 1st editions, surrounding a very flattering statue of Queen Ann with exquisite detail. On the other end, you’ll find the pipe organ, built in 1891 for £3,669 and featuring over 2,300 pipes, making it the largest organ in private ownership in Europe. The Long Library has served as an exercise room for the ladies of the palace, a school, and even a hospital. While it was a school, a few boys stole a couple of pieces from the organ, which were then replaced. Upon their death, one of the widows found the pieces and sent them back to the Blenheim Palace anonymously with an apology for what her husband had done in his youth.

Today, the palace is open to visitors most days of the year and occasionally puts on special events on the grounds and inside the palace itself (like the Yves Klein exhibit while we were there in August). Both times we visited, in June and in August, there were car shows going on outside and we have tickets to visit during their Christmas festivities in early December, which included an illuminated walk through the gardens, holiday decor in the palace, and a Christmas market in the courtyard. It occasionally serves as a filming location for films and TV shows, including Spectre, The Royals, Cinderella, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and I believe W.E., a film directed by Madonna.

With its proximity to Oxford, you should absolutely visit if you’re in the area. If you’re local(ish), it’s worth it to turn your ticket into an annual pass so you can enjoy the palace and the gardens all year. While we won’t be back until Christmastime, I’m looking forward to packing a picnic lunch for a lovely summer day in 2019.