Welcome to Blenheim Palace. The gold letters on the gates shine in the pale afternoon sun as I walk by. There’s a field to my right, sheaves of wheat waving in the slight breeze and the woods stand to my left, gesturing at me with their twiggy fingers. The leaves have not come back yet, but already the promise of spring is in the air, adding a buoyancy to my ten mile walk from the centre of Cornmarket Street in Oxford.
This is my first time visiting Oxford’s own World Heritage Site, the largest country home in England and the only non-royal and non-episcopal palace in the country. And right away I am struck by how extravagant it is, with its gold stones worked with doilies and dusted with age. Once upon a time, it was a gift from a grateful nation to John Churchill for his incredible victory at the Battle of Blenheim on 13th August 1704.
Churchill’s epic battle was fought in the Danube Valley on the French-German border as part of the War of Spanish Succession. The French and the Austrians were fighting over who got to rule Spain, whose monarchy had ties to both of these great empires.
The British entered the war on behalf of the Austrian Hapsburgs, largely for the sake of defeating the French, who were enemies of the English state at that time. In the end, the most pivotal battles were fought in the Americas (a little remembered series of skirmishes called Queen Anne’s War) and the conflict was ended at the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, with neither the French nor the Austrians winning.
Spain kept its Spanish Bourbon king, but lost all of its European holdings outside of the Iberian Peninsula, mostly to Austria. So all in all, it was a pretty pointless war.
Nonetheless, Churchill was a brilliant tactician and general and rocked a major victory at Blenheim, which allowed Austria to force the French back west of the Danube and out of German territory. So the English crown gave him a palace, which he named after his greatest victory during the conflict.
The beauty of the palace is criticised just as often as the utility of Churchill’s victory – but I think the giant edifice is gorgeous. It is certainly a princely gift.
The palace was designed by Churchill’s wife Sarah, one of Queen Anne’s best friends and confidants. She built the palace in the English Baroque style, a fad that died out within 20 years, during which time she received money from the royal family to continue construction.
Sarah’s architectural dreams came tumbling down however when she spoke out of turn one time too many and lost the support of the royal family. She and the Duke were exiled from England, never to return.
But the palace needed to be filled. With so much of the crown’s wealth invested into the grand building, William and Anne could not simply leave it sitting there. So, when Churchill died, the palace was given to his only remaining family, his daughter Henrietta. And thus the palace lived on.
The sun sets behind the golden stone sinking into the giant deer park, once a hunting ground for the Dukes of Marlborough, but today a natural preserve by order of the 11th duke, who still resides in the palace. I walk through the wrought iron gates, their gold letters gleaming in the last light of day and out along the waving wheat and the dancing trees.