Dr Jonathan Foyle scales Britain's most iconic structures to reveal the buildings' secrets. Jonathan's journey takes him to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.
Browse content similar to Blenheim Palace. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
At the heart of England lies a palace that's not the residence of a king or a bishop,
but the reward to a man who freed Europe from domination.
This is Blenheim.
This is Climbing Great Buildings.
Throughout this series, I'll be scaling our most iconic and best loved structures
from the Normans to the present day.
I'll be revealing the buildings' secrets and telling the story
of how British architecture and construction developed over 1,000 years.
Today's great building is the finest example of the English Baroque style,
a style that lent itself to grandeur and ostentation.
It's just to the north of Oxford and home to the Dukes of Marlborough.
It is Blenheim Palace.
Blenheim Palace, built from 1705, is one of our best-loved stately homes, famous as the birthplace
of Winston Churchill, but its origins lie in the European wars of the 18th century.
The French King Louis XIV was determined to create
an empire to rival anything the world had ever seen.
His armies were rampaging across Europe.
However, one man stood in the way of total French domination.
John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough.
In 1704 he won a bloody and decisive victory over the French at the Battle of Blindheim,
destroying Louis XIV's ambitions to rule Europe.
Queen Anne, and by extension the joyful nation,
was so grateful for the victory, they gave Marlborough the Manor of Woodstock in Oxfordshire.
With it came a brand new palace, which would be paid for, it was understood, by the Royal purse.
So the Duke of Marlborough commissioned maverick architect
John Vanbrugh to commemorate his victorious battle in stone
and what Vanbrugh created is the finest and most imaginative English Baroque palace in the country.
I've been given unprecedented access to Blenheim so I can reveal
the secrets behind its construction and get a perspective of the palace never seen before.
Helping decipher this building is one of Britain's top climbers, Lucy Creamer.
No, you're going to break your leg if you do that.
I'm not. And a trusty team of riggers, along with all-action cameraman Ian Burton.
I'll climb 100 feet to reveal the meaning behind the many sculptural symbols that adorn Blenheim.
This is the French cockerel, it's being savaged by the English lion.
I'll reveal the secrets behind the construction of this wonder in stone.
Everything's stuck on using iron.
And I'll test the limits of my courage by shooting across a zipwire
to gain a unique perspective of this audacious Baroque masterpiece.
Blenheim is a monument to courage so I've got to exercise some.
Wherever you look at Blenheim Palace, the architecture tells
the story of the Duke of Marlborough's epic victory.
I'm starting my climb at the western entrance to see how the tale
of the Duke's heroism was translated into stone through flamboyant sculpture.
-How high do you reckon this is?
You know that Vanbrugh measured these in column inches.
-Let's do it, lady.
-Let's just climb.
John Vanbrugh had a varied and chequered career,
including stints as a merchant, a soldier and reportedly a spy.
Vanbrugh turned his hand to architecture when he was commissioned to design
Castle Howard in Yorkshire in 1699 but he was best known as the writer of bawdy and satirical plays.
I'm intrigued by the way Vanbrugh combined theatre and architecture.
He was the child of the swinging sixties - the 1660s -
and brought up in Chester, a city with lots of medieval architecture.
That must have influenced him. Then he became a soldier and was incarcerated in France.
That made his health suffer, and so the guy had seen some life
before he became a playwright and he used that experience to win over audiences.
He knows how to manipulate, to capture people.
And architecture's no different.
This is just a great play in form and space rather than words. It certainly captures me.
Vanbrugh's wonderful play in stone
is set within over 2,000 acres of rolling Oxfordshire countryside.
Everything about this palace is intended to be dramatic.
One of the first things that strikes you about Blenheim is the incredibly rich colour
of its Jurassic limestones, with hues ranging from pale pinks to deep burnt orange.
Don't you feel like we've climbed through the warm half of the spectrum?
The warm half of the spectrum?
Red and orange and yellow, the stone is all kinds of colours.
Yes, it's baffling.
One of the reasons for the vast array of colours was that shortly after construction began, it became
obvious that local quarries couldn't supply enough stone
to complete Vanbrugh's vision, so limestone had to be brought in from around the Cotswolds.
But limestone quarried from different sources contains varying levels of iron,
which leaches out, causing different levels of discoloration.
I have seldom seen a house so orange.
It's been on the sunbed too long!
Hasn't it! Like a gently toasted palace.
It's not just the ostentatious golden hues of Blenheim that give it its majesty.
It's the sense of proportion as inspired by the buildings of ancient Greece and Rome,
as translated by Renaissance architects.
With its sweeping symmetry, spreading forecourts and distinct classical accents,
Vanbrugh gave Blenheim the ancestry of great ancient civilisations.
The last great house I climbed was Burghley, dating to the late 16th century,
and it was delightfully different on each of its sides.
Through the 17th century, especially into the 18th, symmetry became the order of the day.
And Blenheim is a straitjacket of classical symmetry!
The kitchen court and the stable court are identical on both sides, despite their different functions.
But symmetry is only one of the motifs that Vanbrugh had to conform to.
The other was really the use of massiveness, the play of light
and shade and form and the way in which the portico slides out and creates a greater sense of scale.
It was all part of the game of designing in the Baroque age.
As a reward for England's epic victory over the French, Vanbrugh,
who was often criticised for the lack of subtlety in his plays,
was never going to let his audience forget
the achievements of his central character, the Duke of Marlborough,
so Blenheim is littered with flamboyant reminders of the Duke's finest hour.
That's fantastic, look at that!
You've got a good view there.
I love it!
Look at his big cartoon whiskers!
Little whisker holes!
This is the French cockerel that's being savaged by the English lion.
The lion looks really happy with himself.
And at a scale that makes that clear to you down on the floor, if you can
see him, but only by climbing can you see the fabulous details, the cockerel's bulging eyeballs.
Marvellous. And for an early 18th century audience,
flush with the success of having beaten the troops of Louis XIV,
this is a triumphal piece of theatre on Vanbrugh's part on a big stage.
From 40ft up, I can see how Vanbrugh manipulates classical architecture by mixing shorter,
plainer Doric columns with taller Corinthian columns
with more intricate capitals, he gives the building a real sense of both strength and grandeur.
The thing is it's got that character of the military.
-Mmm. Very sturdy, strong.
All the way around, it's all Doric and there's a fat, squat proportion, muscular-looking things,
and yet you get to the central section and there's this more feminine, Corinthian order
but that was a bit of an afterthought, that whole pediment being brought forward.
There's a whole section of Doric columns there
but he pulled them down, changed his mind halfway through.
Funny he could afford to do that.
It shows he's making it up as he goes along.
And, I think, as a designer, he's got a magpie brain because bits and bobs are all over the place.
It's not just one influence, it's all kinds of things being brought together.
From the outside, Blenheim is a vision in stone.
But its exquisite features wouldn't have been possible without iron.
By using iron to join the stonework together, it enabled more flamboyant masonry to be crafted,
as mortar alone would not have been strong enough to hold the stone together.
The ironwork, however, has been cleverly hidden from view.
Wow! Look! It's an elephant!
So it is! The rest of these are all flowers, I can't see any other elephants.
It must be where a mason's come along and repaired it and thought, "Do you know what?
"No-one will notice"!
Unless they've got a film crew and climbing gear.
I want to have a look at this.
We're at the buttock section of a warrior.
We've got the best side.
But the backside of sculptures is where you see the tricks
of how it's all assembled, because a complex thing, imagine cutting
this whole thing and lifting it into place, it's not going to happen, so everything is stuck on using iron.
There, look, iron pins.
Used to stick on the various parts.
That's typical, you see that?
-It's called a cramp.
They usually have lead around them to try to stop the iron corroding but it doesn't last forever.
So you get bits like that. It should've been somewhere like that.
And now it's come off. And you can see the socket where the iron was.
The iron rusts and of course it expands, forces the stone apart and then you're left with a liability
and there'll be other bits and bobs sticking out.
Just fragments of stone there.
It's not just the fine sculpture that's held together with iron.
Much of the masonry of Blenheim is fixed together with thousands of hand-made U-shaped iron cramps.
These cramps would lock the stones into place, giving greater structural strength, allowing for
quicker construction as the masons didn't have to wait for the mortar to set before continuing to build.
OK, John, show me how you shape it.
That's at the temperature now to start working.
You can't hang around at it.
If you work it well, you can genuinely generally do one side
-Because of course they will have cut stones to slot that into so the size has got to be accurate.
How long does it take you to take a bar, heat it and shape it?
To make one of these, I keep feeding those with bars readily available,
and you'd make 100 in a hour.
100 in an hour?
-Just one person?
You would probably have a feeder,
someone to look after the forge for you, and then you swap over. Work as a team.
And before mechanical fans came into being, you'd presumably have an assistant with bellows?
You'd have an assistant or if you were based near a water mill,
you'd have a water mill driving the bellows.
So if you had six competent blacksmiths, you could knock out 500 or so of these an hour?
-That should keep the place going.
But they'd soon use those quickly as well.
When restoring Blenheim Palace, masons now use stainless-steel as it doesn't rust or distort.
Having negotiated my way around to the north-west tower, I'm now ready for my next climb.
Look at that swan up there, taking it easy.
Lovely, very tranquil.
Just flies when it wants,
swims when it likes. But you're making the climb, lady.
-That's more like hard work.
You're fine. You're a professional now.
Well, what I want to see is, you see that tower over there?
There are four and Vanbrugh wanted to give his buildings something of a castle air,
-so I want to get up there, have a look and see how he did it.
I've found, in the course of this, I'm a pretty good dangler.
Yeah, you do a good impression of a dangler.
I'll get a T-shirt with, "born to dangle" on it.
Blenheim Palace may appear to be the epitome of the grand English stately home,
but having been built in the short-lived English Baroque style,
it's actually a rare gem in Britain's architectural landscape.
Jonathan, you keep mentioning this word Baroque architecture.
I've got no idea what it means.
Baroque comes from 16th century, early 17th century Rome.
It's basically architecture as theatre, which convinces people of authority.
So whether it's powerful church architecture,
or if it's grand palace architecture, it's all about persuading people.
-To make them awestruck.
And Blenheim Palace is truly awe-inspiring.
The beauty of its dramatic Baroque architecture is that it arrests the viewer and demands a response.
With its scale, rhythm and dizzying array of rich and gilded statuary,
one is constantly reminded of Marlborough's power and military accomplishments.
Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than at the top of the building's four towers.
-Well, how about that for a view, Luce?
-It's pretty good.
-It's the first time I've ever seen Blenheim, the whole lot, from one place.
Incredible, isn't it, when you take it in, and you realise that this giant pavilion we've just climbed,
to have three others like it for the sake of symmetry.
But you know, the person that's got to carve the ducal coronet gets an order for 16 of them.
One won't do here, will it?
By Monday, please.
These globes, they're on every roof.
Those two golden ones on the top.
But there is his coronet, on a big globe. Looks for anything like it's the world, you know?
This man, in English eyes, has conquered the world.
He's put himself on top of the world.
Yeah, 16 times!
But what a fantastic spot, though.
You can see to the horizon from here.
I wonder if they ever walked up on the lids and have a look and really enjoyed the place?
I wonder if it was a giant building site that was just a burden for their entire lives?
They've missed out if they didn't come up here.
Vanbrugh designed Blenheim to be a monument to Marlborough's epic victory,
but it was also supposed to be a home for the Duke and his wife, Sarah the Duchess of Marlborough.
Sarah was against Vanbrugh's appointment from the start,
wanting the much more experienced Christopher Wren.
She felt Vanbrugh had no concern for the family's comfort. Instead, he just wanted a show of ostentation.
Now, Jeri, what was it that Sarah and Vanbrugh disagreed on so much?
Just about everything. Sarah hated the whole project.
She hated the scale of Blenheim and what Vanbrugh had proposed,
even though the original building was much smaller
than what he finally ended up building.
She wanted everything to be neat and plain and useful. These were her watchwords.
So how did relations between Vanbrugh and Sarah play out?
Badly. She had her eye on the bigger picture and how much money was being spent.
This project cost £240,000 of Treasury funds and it wasn't even half-completed.
Now, if you compare that again with Castle Howard,
which cost £70,000 to complete, at roughly the same time, you can see the scale of the extravagance.
And had Vanbrugh not decided to leave of his own accord, he certainly would have been sacked.
So you have a building that's half completed, it's going to cost
a fortune, the client doesn't really want to live in it, how was this thing ever finished?
Well, in 1712 the building work was stopped and after Queen Anne's death
in 1714, a decision had to be made of what was going to happen.
The Duchess and the Duke, the Duchess really,
decided that they should complete the building because her husband had set his heart on it.
And so they spend their own money
and, to their great credit, within five years from 1716, the building was largely finished.
But obviously when people now look at this building, it is Vanbrugh's building.
And the difference, really, between a good building and a great building is the architect's vision.
Blenheim Palace is undoubtedly Vanbrugh's vision.
Despite he and the Duchess acrimoniously parting ways,
construction of the palace was completed the way he intended.
For my next climb, I need to nip down one story, but as I start my descent
I'm given a sharp reminder by Lucy that I still have a lot to learn.
Mate, no, you're going to break your leg if you do that.
-No, you won't break it, but it's going to get trapped underneath at the moment.
-Just go down a little bit more.
-If you could clarify!
-When I said break your leg, I just meant...
-"No, I meant break your spine!"
I just meant a gentle sprain.
Putting fears of my imminent death aside, one of the great
joys of climbing these buildings is that they reveal unexpected details.
What are these doo-dahs called?
-Dentils? That's a good name!
-Yeah, cos they're like teeth, aren't they?
-I like that.
Definitely need to watch the old dentils.
I'm descending back down the side of the tower
to enable me to investigate the magnificent north entrance,
the main focus of Vanbrugh's epic design.
Its scale and style more resemble the entrance to the Pantheon than a family home.
In order to get up close, I have to cross a zipwire.
Ian the cameraman goes first and shows me how it's done.
It's time again to throw caution to the wind.
Ready, Dr Foyle?
Well, Blenheim's a monument to courage, isn't it, so I've got to exercise some.
-Yeah. One, two, three... Woo-hoo!
Fabulous. Well, that's an improved view.
-That was great.
-That's great to see the pediment sculpture from here.
Can you see the cannon
at the bottom of that?
-Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
-It's only from here that you see it,
because from the ground floor, there's that sill in the way.
You have to stand back several hundred feet, to be able to start to take the full thing in.
and then in the middle is the coat-of-arms.
But around the coat-of-arms is the, "Honi soit qui mal y pense,"
of the Garter Knights. "Evil to him who evil thinks." It's a 14th century thing.
Edward III created the Garter Knights.
They're typical fighters of good against evil.
-And he is one and it makes it pretty clear he was.
You know, people still want to be knights,
even though it's the 18th century and the Age of Enlightenment.
You know, people are looking back
and respecting that kind of tradition.
One thing I hadn't really noticed, Luce, are those figures.
They're beautifully cut, aren't they, those characters on the parapet?
Slightly dandyish, really, for warriors.
-They've got a little tilt of the hips there!
-They're beautifully cut.
The female figure, it looks like the wind's just caught that drape of hers, doesn't it?
-Just enough to show off her shapely legs.
-That was great.
-It was really fun, wasn't it?
-I really enjoyed that, yeah.
As if the pediment wasn't enough to underline Marlborough's achievements,
Vanbrugh really rams home England's pleasure at her victory over the old enemy, France.
-They were met by a couple slaves, it looks.
Not looking so good these days.
Pretty unhappy characters, aren't they,
with their arms bound behind their back in some tortuous position.
Yeah, so this was a sign of wealth, or...?
Yeah, and do you know, I'm thinking, I think I recognise the pose of the one on the side,
because there's a famous Roman sculpture of The Dying Gaul.
The Gauls were the Roman French.
-And Georgian England loved copies of The Dying Gaul,
just to remind themselves of how much they didn't like France.
Over the top, there's that big golden globe.
I wonder if that's the sun? And if Louis's the Sun King,
then that's what he's done for his people, the sun rising up over
a really miserable bunch of enslaved people.
If that's right... I don't know if it's is right or not,
to what extent do you read into the stuff?
But that character then with her trident, if that is a take
on Britannia, and from the north front, she's seen in the foreground in front of that vanquished lot,
then here is in England's triumphant, France overthrown.
Bit of theatre, isn't it? And that would be Vanbrugh, architecture as theatre.
-It's just that we are, you know, we're in the scenery here, we're on the stage.
-We are behind the scenes.
Yeah, you can see how he's doing it.
-Just to peek down there into that Great Hall.
Through beautiful glass, it looks original. It's really rippled and bubbly.
-Yes, it is.
Let's have a look at the interior, shall we?
Yeah, let's get in there. It's massive.
How do we do that? No, not through that window?
-Do you have to get in there?
-You've got to climb through this small hole.
From the sublime to the ridiculous.
This tiny access hole will lead me to Blenheim's interiors,
which house the glorious library and two grand state apartments.
Although these apartments incorporated a state bedroom, their design meant they
were so opulent and formal that they weren't for daily living.
They were simply expressions of status and social hierarchy meant to impress guests.
By the turn of the 18th century, any Palace worth its salt in Europe
had to have a suite of state apartments linked by doors set enfilade,
that means like this, all in a row for ease of communication.
In this room, the green writing room, there's a tapestry, commissioned by Marlborough
himself, to show the submission of the French and his victory.
But the greatest set-pieces remain in the central block.
By this time, the medieval Great Hall had split into two reception rooms.
This one is the saloon, beautifully painted and now used as a dining space, but still,
the grandest of them all remains the Great Hall.
The epic Great Hall is the centrepiece of Vanbrugh's design.
Standing 67ft high, it was intended to inspire visiting guests
and give an almost religious feeling upon entering.
That's got to be the most complex climbing rig.
I'm trussed up like a Christmas turkey, just to get about 25ft off the ground.
But it will be worth it, because I want to get a closer look at the
central, the most impressive space at Blenheim Palace, the Great Hall. First look,
architecturally, with one row of round arches above another one, and then a clerestory,
it's like some take on a Romanesque cathedral.
And it has something of a religious aura about it.
Temple, cathedral, call it what you will,
I want to get to know it better, so up I go.
I'm just going to use the shunt rope, just to hold you
away from these lights, basically, Jonathan.
-Do you know how much these cost?
It's over £100. £250,000 each.
-Are they really?
-Yeah, so we need to be really careful.
With my eyes firmly fixed on those horrendously expensive lamps, I gingerly make my way up.
-You need to get into the middle of the room, please.
-Middle? OK. Nice and slow.
Like some Baroque astronaut.
-Brilliant, thank you.
It's good because I've now got a view of
the extraordinary south wall of the Great Hall.
And it's more than just a wall, it's a great niche
carved out of space, like the proscenium arch of a theatre, the kind of thing that Vanbrugh
might well have used. And it has great columns adding weight and drama to it.
There's a balcony, more or less level with me, where Mr Burton the cameraman sits.
And you expect an audience.
The portraits behind it give you a sense of that,
and there's a bust underneath so you meet Marlborough face to face when you come in the door.
Now this whole thing, the theatre, the temple-like atmosphere, is Vanbrugh
at his best. I mean, a playwright turned architect.
This entire glorious space is a fusion of things past and present.
It's unbelievably clever.
This whole magnificent room is looked down upon by one of Britain's
most exquisite examples of a Baroque ceiling.
It was painted by the same man responsible for creating
the wonderful artwork inside the dome of St Paul's Cathedral.
67ft up, the eye is drawn to the swirling painting, painted in 1716 by James Thornhill.
It shows the Duke of Marlborough, dressed in blue in the middle, as a warrior, kneeling to Britannia
and showing her of the battle plan of Blenheim, of which even Mars and Hercules are surprised and admiring.
He's surrounded by a host of gods, but there at the top is the muse of history, Cleo, and she writes in her
annals on his great victory at Blenheim as they usher him through to the temple of fame.
Ultimately, the Baroque was a short-lived era
in English architecture, spanning only around 40 years.
Soon after Blenheim, its grand ostentation proved too much
for more reserved British tastes, but its legacy is some of the finest architecture in the world.
Blenheim claims to be Britain's greatest palace,
but it was built of course not for a ruler, but for a family.
And to that extent, you might say it's the culmination of great house building in England.
But it's more even than that. It's a national monument, a statement
of pride after a major victory when England was in the ascendancy.
The only natural response to Marlborough's great victory was a fanfare in stone.
Next time, we move on to the 19th century to witness
industrial Britain's triumph over nature at Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Dr Jonathan Foyle, architectural historian and novice climber, scales Britain's most iconic structures, from the Normans to the present day, to reveal the buildings' secrets and tell the story of how our architecture and construction have developed over 1,000 years.
The next step of Jonathan's journey celebrating British architecture takes him to the epitome of the English stately home - Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. Built in the early 1700s as a reward for the Duke of Marlborough's defeat of King Louis XIV of France, it's one of the finest examples of English Baroque buildings in the country.
With unprecedented access to Blenheim Palace, aided by champion climber Lucy Creamer, Jonathan scales the building to investigate the innovations and techniques used to construct it and to decipher the stories and propaganda carved all over the building. He climbs over 100 feet to reveal the story of how a bawdy playwright, a brave general and his strong-willed wife combined and clashed to create this most audacious masterpiece. He zips across the courtyard to see how the duke's epic victory is celebrated in stone through flamboyant and satirical sculpture, and he dangles precariously inside the Great Hall trying not to break the lamps, worth 250,000 pounds, to get a view of the spectacular hand-painted ceiling.