Sarah, the first Duchess of Marlborough, wanted Christopher Wren to design and build Blenheim Palace. The 1st Duke, however, wanted John Vanbrugh.
Wren was sent to Woodstock to report on the site for the Queen, and said that he believed the build would cost the Queen £100,000. He eventually acted as a distant consultant for the building of the Palace, but it was Vanbrugh who was appointed as the architect.
Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was trained by Wren, was appointed assistant surveyor. He was working on St Paul's Cathedral when work on Blenheim Palace started.
Laying the Foundations
Vanbrugh created a model of his planned Palace for the Queen and the Duke. This plan was displayed at the gallery in Kensington, London but it has sadly since been lost.
The foundation stone was laid beneath the bow window at 6pm on 18th June 1705. The stone was 8ft square, finely polished and upon it were the words laid in pewter, 'In memory of the Battle of Blenheim. June 18th 1705'.
At the stone laying ceremony, history remembers that there was “several sorts of music; three Morris dances; about 100 buckets; bowls and pans filled with wine; punch and cakes prepared for the better sort; and under the Cross, eight barrels of ale with an abundance of cakes for the common people”.
Finding the stone to build the rest of the Palace was not as easy as first hoped. Vanbrugh had expected to be able to take the stone from the Park, but after they had opened up four quarries in the Park, he realised the stone was not good enough to be used for the Palace.
The masons believed it might serve for inside walls but it was not strong enough for the outside. Consequently, stone was brought in from the nearby Cornbury Estate, owned by Lord Rochester, and from 22 quarries in the Cotswolds. In 1706, there were 136 carters bringing stone from the Burford and Taynton quarries alone.
Stone from outside the Cotswolds, including Portland Stone and Plymouth Stone, was used for the entrance steps and the paving. This stone was brought by barge to Abingdon (south of Oxford) and then by road to Woodstock.
Craftsmen/women involved with the building of Blenheim
As you might expect for such a building, the construction of Blenheim Palace involved a great number of people.
The Strongs - Edward Senior, Edward Junior and Thomas (brother of Edward Senior) were the most respected and capable stone masons on site at Blenheim. They also part-owned the quarries at Taynton and Barrington, from which came a considerable amount of stone for the Palace.
Christopher Wren certainly considered them to be the leading builders of the time. Thomas Strong laid the first stone of St Paul's Cathedral while his father placed the last.
Elizabeth Bennet was one of the blacksmiths on site at Blenheim, and she mended many of the wheelbarrows.
Josiah Key was the aptly named locksmith.
Langley Bradley was responsible for the clock in the tower between the Kitchen (East) Courtyard and Great Courtyard - it has three bells and chimes on the quarter hour. The clock at St Paul's Cathedral is also by him, built using a sundial to ensure accuracy.
At Blenheim, there were four sundials - all by John Rowley.
Grinling Gibbons was responsible for the majority of the stone carving at Blenheim. This includes the lions and cockerels in the Great Court, the pillars, finials and 22 statues. He is usually known for his wood carving but the only example we have of this at Blenheim Palace is in the Bow Window room - now a dining room in the private apartments. It was said that Gibbons would hide an empty pea pod somewhere in his carving if he had not been paid - and a full pod if he was paid.
Woodstock Manor House
In the early 1700s, Woodstock Manor was a rambling building which had fallen into disrepair over the preceding centuries. Vanbrugh wanted it left as a romantic ruin but Sarah disagreed. Vanbrugh, a lover of history, ignored Sarah and set about making repairs to it.
Vanbrugh actually moved into the Manor as he found it a very useful place from which to keep an eye on the building progress of the Palace. Sarah got wind of this and so visited Woodstock to see at first hand how matters lay. She was shown around the Manor by a caretaker who, unaware of Sarah's feelings on the place, praised the improvements that had taken place - Sarah was seething inside but showed no sign of what she was feeling.
Woodstock Manor House was duly pulled down and the rubble used as foundations for the Grand Bridge. Today, a stone plinth marks the spot where the Manor House stood. You can see it if you look at the side of the bridge opposite the Palace
Henry Wise, the Landscape Architect, helped to dig the foundations of the Grand Bridge alongside Vanbrugh.