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Blenheim Palace

Blenheim's Story

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.

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