10 things you might not know about Blenheim Palace – ‘the real Downton Abbey’

Steeped in history, Blenheim Palace is today one of the most popular tourist attractions in the UK. Considered by many to be ‘the real Downton Abbey’, Blenheim was built in the early 18th century as a gift to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, from Queen Anne in thanks for his victory at the battle of Blenheim on 13 August 1704. Blenheim Palace was the birthplace of Winston Churchill and later served as a convalescence hospital during the First World War

Blenheim Palace in a c1880 print from ‘A Series of Picturesque Views of Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland’, edited by Reverend FO Morris, Volume I, William Mackenzie, London. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

But how much do you know about the history of Blenheim Palace? Here, we bring you 10 facts…

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  • Blenheim Palace was built in the early 18th century to celebrate the victory over the French in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), a conflict between European powers – including a divided Spain – over who had the right to succeed Charles II as king of the country. The palace was a gift to John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, the military commander who led the Allied forces in the battle of Blenheim on 13 August 1704.
  • Blenheim Palace was built after Queen Anne granted John Churchill’s family the ruined royal manor and park at Woodstock in west Oxfordshire. She also dedicated funds – thought to be £240,000 – to build the country house to commemorate his achievements.
  • Blenheim Palace is the only non-royal, non-episcopal [not pertaining to the Episcopal church or system] country house in England to hold the title of palace.
Blenheim Palace. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)
Blenheim Palace. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)
  • It is an example of 18th-century Baroque architecture – that is, an exuberant and luxurious building style that originates in late 16th-century Italy.
  • Sir Winston Churchill was born at the palace on 30 November 1874. He spent much of his childhood there, both before he went to school and during school holidays. But, the National Churchill Museum explains: “In the custom of the day, he was raised by a nanny and sent to boarding schools. It was a lonely and hard life for a sensitive and imaginative child.” Churchill proposed to his wife, Clementine Hozier, in the Temple of Diana summerhouse in the palace gardens on 11 August 1908. He is quoted as having said: “At Blenheim I took two very important decisions; to be born and to marry. I am content with the decision I took on both occasions.”
  • Blenheim palace was used as a convalescence hospital for wounded soldiers during the First World War. During the Second World War, between 1939 and 1940, more than 400 boys were evacuated to the palace from Malvern College. For one academic year the college used the State Rooms as dormitories and classrooms – and the boys even had lessons in the bathrooms, according to a spokesperson for the palace. Meanwhile, Blenheim Park was used by the Home Guard, and the lake for preparation for the D-Day landings. The country house was later used by MI5.
Wounded soldiers playing football outside Blenheim Palace, c1916. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Wounded soldiers playing football outside Blenheim Palace, c1916. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
  • Blenheim Palace opened to the general public for the first time in 1950.
  • It is today home to the 11th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough.
  • The original gardens by Henry Wise, Queen Anne’s gardener, are said to have been designed in the formal style of the famed gardens of Versailles in France. In 1764, the landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716–83) was commissioned to create a new landscape for the 2,000-plus acres of parkland that surround the palace. “The visionary master landscaper constructed the Great Lake and planted thousands of trees in his ten-year tenure here, engineering a landscape that appears natural but is actually ‘contrived to pleasing effect'”, says Blenheim Palace.
  • In the northern part of the park stands an 134 ft tall Column of Victory. It is crowned by a lead statue of the 1st Duke of Marlborough, and shows him dressed as a Roman general.
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This article was first published by History Extra in October 2014