Marlborough House was built for the 1st Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. John Churchill had carved out a name for himself on the battlefields of Europe sending the reign of the Sun King Louis XIV of France into a terminal eclipse. His wife Sarah had fought her way to the forefront of the English Court by becoming the confident and intimate (her enemies contended rather too intimate) of the ruling monarch and her girlhood friend, Queen Anne. But then Sarah’s husband had also occasioned ribald gossip when he had been plain John Churchill. According to legend, Charles II had caught the young man in a compromising position with the king’s chief mistress, Barbara Castlemaine. Instead of being angry the king is supposed to have declared: "You are a rascal, but I forgive you because you do it to get your bread." It was well known in court circles that Barbara Castlemaine was paying the young man handsomely for his nightly manoeuvres. He embodied the maxim that all was fair in love and war.
Compared to the monstrous Bleinheim Palace, Marlborough House was built on a more modest scale with Dutch red bricks. But then the former, until Sarah antagonised Queen Anne once too often, was paid for by the nation in thanks for the Duke’s impressive victories on the Continent. By contrast, the cost of Marlborough House was met from the Churchills’ own purse. Sarah was reluctant to spend more than was necessary for building work if she was footing the bill herself. The original house was only two storeys in height and as such was smaller than Clandon Park.
By 1817 the ducal family had sold the lease to the Crown, leading to a succession of royal personages occupying the house for well over a century. The tragic Princess Caroline, the only child of George IV, was the first to move in with her Belgian husband Prince Leopold. Queen Adelaide the widow of George’s brother and successor, King William IV was the next resident. The future King Edward VII set up home there when he reached his majority. When he became monarch he passed the house on to his son, the future King George V, and the latter’s wife Mary. Three queens and one prince, Prince Leopold husband to Princess Caroline who died in childbirth, spent the long years of their widowhood here. Sarah Churchill had set the pattern, remaining at Marlborough House for a further 22 years after her husband’s death in 1722.
Despite the royal connection Marlborough House retained its original name. But that is hardly surprising as the house contains two principal staircases and a saloon, whose stunning wall paintings commemorate three of the 1st Duke’s most celebrated Continental victories.
In 1959 Marlborough House became the International Headquarters of the Commonwealth of which Queen Elizabeth II is the titular head. Although they did sell tea and biscuits in the grounds Marlborough House does not have to pay its way in quite the same manner as other stately homes I have visited. Consequently, there were no glossy guidebooks or picture postcards on sale and strictly no photography allowed inside the house. Thus, the interior images are all taken from the 360 degree virtual tour on their website. This explains the distorted perspective in some of them. For example, on the Ramillies Staircase the poignant depiction of a redcoat soldier’s demise looks instead as if it is a scene lifted from Gulliver’s Travels.
As I approached the house I saw a small a plaque on an outer wall dedicated to Queen Mary, who had first came to live here as a young bride and returned as a widow. But perhaps her worst memories of Marlborough House came from a night in 1936. Having dined there earlier her eldest son, Edward VIII, came to her private apartments to announce he was going to abdicate the throne in order to marry the twice divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson.
Before I went in to the grounds of Marlborough I decided not to miss the opportunity to take exterior shots of the early 17th century Queen’s Chapel. It was built in the 1620s by Inigo Jones, the court architect who had also built the Queen’s House at Greenwich and the Banqueting House at Whitehall. The Queen’s Chapel was commissioned on behalf of Henrietta-Maria, the Catholic wife of King Charles I, so that she could hear mass in private whenever she was at the Palace of St James. What is left of the rest of the Tudor palace complex is now to be found across the road from the chapel.
Henry VIII first built his red brick palace with its turreted gatehouse in the 1530s. Despite various fires and changes in architectural styles, St James continued to be lived in by reigning monarchs for almost 400 years until Queen Victoria decided to make Buckingham Palace her principal London residence.
Behind the stained glass windows of the Chapel Royal would have laid the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales. I remember passing by the Chapel Royal in a taxi shortly before her funeral. It struck me that given the huge crowds who were then thronging the grounds of Kensington Palace it was odd that no-one kept vigil by St James where her body actually lay. Or perhaps they never realised she was there as the palace is not open to the general public, unlike other royal residences.
Entering through the main gates of Marlborough House I presented my black shoulder bag to the guard on duty for inspection. He seemed a little preoccupied.
“I was just daydreaming about lunch and the guy who’s supposed to be here isn’t”, he grumbled, before adding darkly. “That’s just like him!”
The Entrance Vestibule and the Grand Corridor were added in the 19th century as part of the general refurbishment of the mansion to provide appropriate accommodation for the future King Edward VII and his Danish bride Alexandra. There are two marble busts of the royal couple set in niches within the Grand Corridor. I was unable to linger in the Entrance Vestibule because of the large numbers of people wishing to enter the house. However, I did just have time to note the white stucco ceiling, the 19th century timber wall panelling and the ornate clock in its stone frame set high above the entrance door before I hurried up the white marble steps into the Grand Corridor. There were mirrored double doors at either end. The grey and white marble floor, the white panelling and the 5 oval sky lights made the room light and airy and proved a distinct contrast to the Baroque flamboyance of the Bleinheim Saloon.
This room was a riot of gilding, tapestries and wall and ceiling paintings. Given the military theme of the wall paintings, commemorating the 1st Duke’s defining victory at Bleinheim (now Blindheim in present day Southern Germany) in August 1704 against the combined Bavarian and French armies, it seemed rather incongruous that on the lower walls of the double height room were hung 5 large tapestries of peasants dancing around a maypole and generally cavorting and enjoying themselves. Although the white and pink marble fireplace did feature emblems of war, the dates 28th April 1863 carved into the wooden overmantle and 4th April 1903 inscribed at the base of the gilt and wood mirror, had nothing to do with battles but everything to do with the arrival of various members of the British royal family, who made Marlborough House their London home namely the future Edward VII and Queen Alexandra and the future King George V and Queen Mary respectively. Rather curiously, Mary had originally been engaged to Edward’s elder brother, Albert Victor but the latter had succumbed to influenza and died before the nuptials could take place. After a suitable period of mourning for the elder brother, Mary agreed to marry the younger sibling the following year. Poor Albert Victor, if it wasn’t bad enough losing his life and putative bride to his younger brother, he also lost his posthumous reputation, being accused of all manner of vices culminating in being portrayed in fiction as a vampire and on film as that most infamous of all 19th century serial killers: Jack the Ripper.
The Bleinheim Saloon contains marble busts of King George V and Queen Mary whilst they were still Prince and Princess of Wales. Incidentally, Mandip and I saw footage from the 1911 Delhi Durbar in which George and Mary were proclaimed Emperor and Empress of India when we visited an exhibition on the Maharajas: Splendour of India's Royal Courts at the Victoria and Albert museum a while back. I admired the royal couple’s fortitude. They were shown walking around under a blazing Indian sun in full ceremonial robes and with long ermine trimmed velvet trains, thereby regally prefiguring the Noël Coward song: Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
I left the Bleinheim Saloon to enter the hallway containing the Ramillies Staircase. Whereas the woodwork, hand rails and panelling date from the 1860s, the wall paintings were commissioned by the Churchills in the 1700s. They were executed by the appropriately named Frenchman, Louis Laguerre (la guerre being French for the war). They commemorate another resounding defeat for Laguerre’s native countrymen at the hands of Marlborough. Other paintings bear the legend Antwerp, Louvain, Brussels and depict soldiers off the battlefield being drilled or army provisions landing at a dock. There were also paintings in monochrome of classical images and emblems of war such as Hercules brandishing his club.
Not being a military historian of 18th century warfare it was not until later that I was able to understand the meaning of certain events in the paintings. In one, Marlborough is shown on horseback. Near him lie three corpses: two in the red colours of his own army and one apparently an enemy soldier. I had thought at the time that Marlborough was ignoring the fatalities as literally cannon fodder. I was wrong. One of the redcoats lying prone on the ground, his wig having falling off, is a Colonel Bringfield. He was helping the Duke back on his horse when he was slain. Perhaps mindful of the late Colonel’s family, the artist represents the Colonel’s fatal injuries as being a small bullet hole to the head. In reality the poor Colonel’s head was blown off his shoulders by a cannonball. It is Bringfield whose corpse seems to be on a scale with that of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver in the photograph. In his 2 volume Selected Epitaphs published in 1755 William Toldervy describes the memorial tablet left by the Colonel’s widow, Clemence, in Westminster Abbey. On it she states that her late husband James had been an aide de camp to Queen Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark as well as a Gentleman of the Horse to the Duke. James Bringfield was 50 years old when, in the somewhat bizarre words of the memorial, “he had his head fatally shot off by a Cannon-Ball.” Methinks having your head blown off is rarely going to prove anything other than fatal especially if the injuries are on a par with the contemporary engraving of Bringfield’s demise.
To my mind it looks as if high ranking enemy officers are suing for peace as they doff their hats and look rather cravenly in Marlborough’s direction. But he has other matter on his mind as it seems the battle is still furiously being fought elsewhere with the armies engaged in close combat. Another vignette shows redcoats stripping enemy corpses, looting enemy baggage trains and swigging down plundered wine. I later read that such tactics were deliberately employed by Marlborough as a way of goading his enemies into action.
At the top of the Ramillies staircase I was able to walk down the three steep steps to the gallery in the Bleinheim Saloon. The paintings on the upper part of the saloon show the victorious Duke accepting the surrender of the French armies. There were also scenes depicting Grenadiers crossing the River Nebel prior to battle, the poor foot soldiers up to their necks in the water. But my attention was caught by the ceiling paintings by the Italian artist Orazio Gentileschi. They had once graced the ceiling of the Great Hall at the Queen’s House in Greenwich. Shamefully, they were not only removed from their purpose built home, they were also cut down to size to fit the smaller ceilings at Marlborough House. They depict Peace surrounded by the 9 muses, the 4 Arts and the Liberal Arts. Much as I found the paintings of keen interest, I was more than a little daunted by the low rail of the balcony. It was roped off but I did not think it prudent to step too close to the edge to get a better view with so many people passing along the Gallery.
From the Gallery I stepped into the hall containing the Malplaquet Staircase.It was only later that I realised why the upper walls of the third storey, which had been painted to resemble marble, seemed so out of character with the rest of the staircase. The third floor had been added long after the staircase had been built. There were yet more scenes of corpses being looted, this time by women. Other paintings had shown even living prisoners being forced to remove all their clothing. One painting reminded me of a scene from Indian Jones where he is faced with a sword wielding assassin. Indian Jones simply shoots the man in a fit of exasperation at the other’s stupidity. In the painting, two men on horseback are duelling to the death, one with a cocked pistol and the other a sword.
The Wren Room was named after Sir Christopher Wren who had designed St Paul’s Cathedral. He had been commissioned by Sarah Churchill to build Marlborough House. At some stage the two of them had quarrelled and the indefatigable Sarah promptly decided that she was more than capable of completing the work herself, which she proceeded to do. I have no idea what the symbolism of the rams’ skulls in the ornate plaster ceiling or on the marble fireplace was meant to signify, if anything. After the polychromatic imagery of the previous rooms it felt quite strange to be in such an understated room. It had been used as a private Dining Room by the Churchills.
What is now known as the Delegate’s Lounge was fashioned out of a large drawing room and a state bedchamber. The room also contained Sarah’s closet and the servants’ stairs. There were two beautiful white marble fireplaces at either end of the room. The central panel of one seemed to depict the god Hermes as a small child with a fellow companion. Nearby sits Neptune on a rock and the children seem oblivious to the imperilled ships sailing on the choppy seas near a castle perched high on a cliff top. The central panel of the other fireplace seemed to show two men from the classical world trying to determine who had the largest weapon of war. It was in this room that Edward VIII had dined and no doubt drained the odd glass of alcohol before making his way up to his mother’s private apartments to give her the unwelcome news that he intended to abdicate in order to marry Mrs Simpson.
The Churchill’s State Drawing Room has been transformed into the Main Conference Room for the Commonwealth Secretariat and portraits of past Secretary Generals lined the room. I liked this room the least having developed an aversion to an overabundance of gilding as a decorative feature.
The last time Sarah Churchill was in the Green Drawing Room the walls were hung with black velvet and she lay in her coffin before being taken to Blenheim Palace to lie in the grand tomb she had had erected within the chapel there. The room contains a portrait of a woman in red velvet who might be Sarah or her daughter. Opinions on the matter are divided. Having read biographies of Sarah, I retain something of a soft spot for her as she, along with Admiral Lord Nelson, was once a near neighbour of mine, were it not for the small fact of the centuries dividing us. No respecter of person or of rank the incorrigible Sarah remained querulous until the end of her life. Just as her friendship with Queen Anne had come to an abrupt end as a result of her high handed behaviour, so too did her friendship with Queen Caroline of Ansbach, whose perfume is said to still linger in her former rooms at Hampton Court. Caroline never forgave Sarah for refusing to allow the royal coach to take a short cut over her estate at Wimbledon.
The Great Dining Room seems rather small. A film was playing on a loop showing a youthful Queen Elizabeth II talking with the late Indira Ghandi whilst on a royal tour of India in 1983. For the past 60 years the Queen alone has remained the one constant presence in the life of the Commonwealth of which she is head.
I had now come to the end of my tour of the house so made my way out into the grounds. There were flags ranged all along one wall, presumably representing the different nations making up the Commonwealth. Also in the grounds was a small thatched summerhouse which could be rotated to keep Queen Mary out of the glare of the sun. Inside there was a modern barbecue and what looked suspiciously like a crushed can of beer, neither of which are believed to have belonged to Queen Mary. Then again, perhaps the old queen liked to barbecue the odd hamburger and to swig back the beer on the sly as she pondered on just how close she had been to becoming the wife of Jack the Ripper.