#35 – UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Blenheim Palace
Blenheim Palace, near Oxford, is probably best known as the birthplace of Winston Churchill but that has nothing to do with its inscription on the World Heritage list. Instead, it is listed for its architecture and its landscaped grounds. UNESCO considers the architecture at Blenheim to mark the beginning of the English Romantic movement (although other sources say its architecture is unclassifiable – neither Gothic nor Romantic nor Baroque) and the surrounding park, landscaped by Capability Brown, as one of the best surviving examples of its era. Blenheim is listed under criterion ii (demonstrating developments in architecture) and criterion iv (outstanding example of architecture or landscape illustrating a significant stage in human history). These are exactly the same criteria as the industrial village of Saltaire which I also visited recently (see https://chelseas40before40.wordpress.com/2013/08/05/world-heritage-sites-saltaire/). Blenheim is a lot prettier than Saltaire, it has to be said!
Blenheim is a monument built to honour John Churchill, later 1st Duke of Marlborough, to celebrate his leading English troops to victory over French and Bavarian armies at Blindheim in 1704. This victory is seen as decisive and as marking the beginnings of the British Empire – had we lost this one we may have all been speaking French! Building at Blenheim (named for the battlefield, but anglicised slightly) commenced in 1705 but the design was so grand and so costly that the nation eventually stopped funding the building works and the family had to finance them privately. As a result, the Palace wasn’t finished until 1722. The style of the palace and much of the interior including paintings and tapestries, continually reference the victory over the French. It is most definitely a monument to war.
Capability Brown’s landscaped park was added to the Palace in the 1760s by the 4th Duke to improve the setting and the views. It incorporates two lakes, formed by damming the river, and a signature water feature in its Grand Cascade. It took over a year after damming the river for the lakes to fill! Brown’s aim in his landscaping was always to make a constructed landscape appear natural, and to give ever changing surprise views to visitors travelling about the sites he worked on. This has certainly succeeded at Blenheim.
I spent a pleasant day wandering around the Palace, visiting an exhibition to learn more about Churchill’s life and links with Blenheim, taking a tour of the state rooms to see the lavishly decorated interiors (including ceilings decorated with gold leaf), learning more about the Marlboroughs and exploring the formal gardens and landscaped park. The most interesting fact of the day (not related to the UNESCO listing but nevertheless fascinating) is that the Marlborough Dukedom is the only English Dukedom which can legally be inherited directly by a woman. This is because none of the three sons of the 1st Duke survived into adulthood so a special Act of Parliament was passed to allow the eldest daughter, Henrietta, to inherit in her own right. Thus, the Marlborough line through history is 1st Duke, 2nd Duchess, 3rd Duke, 4th Duke etc… Blenheim is still privately owned by the Spencer-Churchill family, with the 11th Duke and Duchess in residence.