WOODSTOCK, ENGLAND — As the grandeur of Blenheim Palace comes into view, my eyes widen and my jaw drops. I’m left speechless at the magnificence of this “family home,” dubbed “England’s (Palais de) Versailles.”
Few European palaces can compete with this Baroque masterpiece. In fact, Blenheim makes the Queen’s favourite palaces, Windsor, Balmoral and Buckingham, look like public housing.
I’m drawn here because of Blenheim’s connection with Sir Winston Churchill. The great British statesman and hero of World War II was born in the palace on Nov. 30, 1874 and spent his formative years here. He even proposed marriage to his beloved Clementine (Lady Churchill) in the palace.
However, upon arriving, people quickly realize it’s Blenheim Palace, not Churchill, that’s the star of this show.
The 187-room limestone gem, built for the 1st Duke of Marlborough in the late 1700s, is bathed in golden hues on sun-drenched days and sits perched on the highest point of the property like a crown. The parkland setting that surrounds it is breathtaking — manicured lawns sweep down to the shores of a swan-filled lake and then drift off into secret gardens and a forest flush with beech trees.
Above: The stately grounds at Blenheim Palace have inspired many famous painters to capture it on canvas.
Blenheim’s magnificent landscape has inspired famous English painters like J.M.W. Turner to capture it on canvas and TV and film producers regularly use it as a backdrop for shows like the legendary Inspector Morse detective series.
As I enter the palace through the imposing black ironwork gates that guard its historic treasures, I pass under the impressive four-sided Clock Tower and feel like I’m walking back in time. That’s because little has changed at Blenheim since the time Queen Anne ordered it built in 1764 as a tribute to Colonel John Churchill’s impressive 1704 victory over the French in the Battle of Blenheim, in what’s now Bavaria.
Queen Anne was so grateful she made the colonel the 1st Duke of Marlborough and the legend of Blenheim Palace began. The 12th Duke of Marlborough, Charles James (Jamie) Spencer-Churchill, and his family now reside in some private apartments atop the massive palace, but the majority of rooms are open for the public to explore.
What people discover in this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a treasure trove of relics that rival anything in the British Museum.
I feel like I’m being watched as I pass under the ornately decorated portico that guards the entrance to the Great Hall. I look up and staring back at me are huge eyes painted by noted artist Colin Gill. The sapphire blue eyes apparently belonged to Gladys, the 9th Duke’s second wife, and the brown ones are of her noted husband.
Above: The room in which he was born and an exhibition of his famous wardrobe get a lot of attention from tourists.
The Great Hall certainly lives up to its title. I pause to take in the room’s majesty and can’t take my eyes off the ceiling painting hovering 20 metres above my head. It was commissioned in 1716 and depicts the 1st Duke of Marlborough in Roman dress kneeling as he presents his plan for the Battle of Blenheim to Britannia, the female personification of the British Isles. The columns either side of the imposing main arch are topped with Corinthian capitals along with Queen Anne’s coat of arms.
The corridors leading to the Churchill Exhibition off the Great Hall are lined with lovely display cases filled with over 2,500 priceless Blanc de Chine and Meissen figurines.
Churchill, voted “the Greatest Briton of all times” in a national poll conducted in 2002, once said: “At Blenheim I took two very important designs — to be born and to marry.”
Several rooms make up the Churchill Exhibition, but his birth room, which was described by one of Winston's many biographers as being a "singularly bleak-looking bedroom" draws the most attention. Decorated in flotsam wall covering in the style of William Morris, the room contains the brass bed in which his mother gave birth, private letters, bronzes of Winston and Lady Churchill by Oscar Nemon, and golden locks from his first haircut at the age of 5.
Other rooms contain family portraits, World War II photographs of Churchill with other Allied leaders and one of his famous siren suits, which he wore while relaxing or painting. The one displayed at Blenheim is a maroon velvet version with matching slippers.
Upon his death in 1965, Churchill was buried in a small church graveyard in nearby Bladon. It, like Blenheim Palace, draws thousands of Churchill admireres annually.
Above: A bust of the great man stands guard just outside the palace's sprawling rose garden.
Blenheim’s elegant drawing rooms are filled with family portraits painted by the likes if Van Dyck and Sargent, many bronzes and lots of one-of-a-kind Chippendale furnishings. The world famous Marlborough tapestries featured in several rooms stops visitors in their tracks. The most famous in the collection is the massive hanging that depicts the moment of surrender by French commander Marshal Tallard to Marlborough after the epic battle. The detail in these works is incredible.
Blenheim’s saloon, where the Dukes have entertained royalty throughout the centuries, competes with the most splendid palace rooms in all of Europe. The elaborate dining table is dressed in the finest china, silverware and crystal and features four massive marble doorcases that date back to 1716. It’s still used by the present Duke on special occasions, like Christmas.
Of all the lavish rooms at Blenheim, though, the one that impresses me most is the Long Library, regarded as the second longest room in any house in all of England.
The centrepiece of the room is a large marble statue of Queen Anne, who financed the building of Blenheim. On the opposite north wall stands a gigantic Willis organ. The 8th Duke installed the library and it contains over 10,000 rare volumes dating back to the late 1600s.
The narrow stone staircase off the library leads to the sunken chapel where the 1st Duke of Marlborough and his wife Sarah are interned. The chapel, where Churchill was christened, is dominated by an impressive marble monument depicting the 1st Duke as a Roman general with his wife and four daughters gathered around him.
Above: A marble statue of Queen Anne, left, and ornate fountains are scattered about the great palace.
The palace exterior is no less impressive. It’s highlighted by water terraces, fountains and statue-filled gardens.
A gilded bronze Mermaid Fountain by American sculptor Waldo Story, which was commissioned by the 9th Duke, is a real eye catcher.
Small temples line the pathways leading from the palace to the Churchill Memorial Garden. The romantic Temple of Diana, at the entrance to the Churchill Garden, is where Winston apparently proposed to Clementine. An Oscar Lemon bust of a scowling Churchill greets visitors as they enter the sprawling outdoor nursery.
A few steps away is the stunning Rose Garden, where the main circular bed is surrounded by 20 symmetrical beds containing thousands of roses in shades of pink, red and white. The surrounding lawns, where locals like to come and picnic, are perfumed by the rose garden and others — Pleasure Garden, Lavender Garden and Hidden Garden — that dot the property. Every spring, one of England’s most treasured flower shows is held at Blenheim.
A path around the pond leads to an impressive stone bridge that connects the Great Avenue — the original entrance — to the palace gates. In the distance I see a massive Doric column at the end of the avenue that stands 41m high and is topped with a statue of the 1st Duke, who again is dressed like a Roman general.
When he first saw Blenheim, mad King George III said: “We have nothing to equal this.”
It was the sanest thing he ever said because nothing equals Blenheim Palace.
Above: The chapel is where the remains of the 1st Duke of Marlborough and his wife lie.