The palace was built by Sir John Vanburgh, and is considered a very august and well-designed building. Sir Joshua Reynolds declared that no architect understood picturesque building so well as Vanburgh, and Blenheim is thought to worthily illustrate this talent in its architect, "exhibiting in its design consummate skill in the perspective of architecture."
The northern front is very fine, of a mixed yet original style, and extends 348 feet from wing to wing, slightly enriched, especially in the centre, where a flight of steps leads up to the portico, which has Corinthian columns and pilasters, a pediment enclosing armorial bearings, and above this an attic, surmounted by tiers of balls, foliage, etc.
The park, which includes the royal demesne of Woodstock, is more than eleven miles in circuit, and at some distance in front of the palace is a fine piece of water, partly river, partly lake, that winds through a deep valley; there is a fine stone bridge over it, the central arch of which is 101 feet span. It unites two hills, and has a picturesque effect Near the bridge is Rosamond's Well. It now is a large stone basin, within a stone wall, supporting the bank, and is overhung with trees; the water flows from the well through a hole of about five inches in diameter, and is conveyed under the pavement into another basin of great size, fenced by an iron railing. It escapes from this second basin by means of a grating into the lake. It was near this well that Alice (in "Woodstock") is said to have met Charles II. disguised as an old woman, and it was on the bank by the, well that Eleanor, as it is traditionally said, encountered Rosamond.
Beyond the bridge, in the centre of a velvet lawn, stands a fluted Corinthian column, ¥30 feet high, surmounted by a statue of the great Duke in a Roman dress. The face of the pedestal opposite the house is covered with a long record of Marl. borough's great services to his country, supposed to have been written by Lord Bolingbroke. The other three sides of the pedestal have Acts of Parliament in regard to the same services engraved on them, the opinion of the parliament about the duke; and an abstract of the entail of the estates on the descendants of his daughters.
The interior of the palace is very magnificent, with paintings, tapestry, and a splendid collection of pictures by almost every great master. The huge wall-paintings are very remarkable. They were done by Sir James Thornhill, who was paid by the square yard, receiving 255. for each yard of painting. The Duke of Marlborough is represented in them in a blue cuirass, kneeling before a figure of Britannia, who is clad in white, and holds a lance and wreath. Hercules, Mars, etc., are also represented. There are tapestries of the Battle of Blenheim, and the battles of Wynendael, Dunnwert, Lisle, and Malplaquet.
In the library is a statue of Queen Anne by Rysbraeck, that cost 5,000 guineas.
The Duchess's sitting room contains a fine collection of enamels, and a series of miniatures, about ten or a dozen of which are portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots. The gardens of Blenheim contain 300 acres.
Of the old palace of Woodstock not a vestige now remains; but there is an original sketch of the ruins, we were told, at Blenheim.
The manor and park belonged to the Crown till the fourth year of Queen Anne's reign, when the sovereign, with the concurrence of Parliament, bestowed the honour and manor of Woodstock and hundred of Wotten on John, Duke of Marlborough, and his heirs, as a reward for his late victories, on condition that on the 2nd of August in every year for ever, he should present to Her Majesty, or to her successors at Windsor Castle, "one standard of colour, with three fleurs-de-lis painted thereon, as an acquittance for all manner of rents, suits, and services due to the Crown." This service is still, of course, performed, as the estate is held by it. In 1714, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, had the remains of the old palace at Woodstock taken down by the advice of the Lord Treasurer Godolphin. On its site two sycamore trees have been planted, the boughs of which now extend over the once celebrated spot.
Woodstock (formerly Vudestoc) means "woody place," and was from the first a royal abode. Here Ethelred, the king, held in 866 a Witenagemot; and in this sylvan palace the great Alfred pursued his literary work for his people, and translated the "Consolations" of Boethius. To the grounds in his day a deer-fold belonged - not a deer-park, the origin of which belongs to Henry Beauclerk's time - and we may imagine how the wise and gracious sovereign wandered in the delicious shades of the most picturesque and romantic of royal residences.
Henry I. had an enclosure made here for wild beasts, which in those days were considered a proper appendage to the state of monarchs Thus, at times, the roar of the lion may have been heard in the sweet glades of Woodstock. The king, moreover, placed there the wonderful animal never seen before in England - the porcupine. It was the gift of William de Montpellier to the king, and it was then believed that its quills were weapons of defence, which the animal could shoot at the dogs that hunted it. Henry's was not a large menagerie, and was bounded by a very high stone wall.
"King Henry was riding through his deer-fold on the third day after the Epiphany in 1123, with the two bishops of London and Salisbury, engaged in conversation with them, when suddenly the Bishop of London exclaimed, 'Lord king, I die!" and fell from his horse; he was carried into the palace speechless, and died the next day" 1
During the war for the succession between the Empress Maud and Stephen, Woodstock proved loyal to Henry's daughter, and the palace was garrisoned for the queen. Her son, Henry II., always regarded the place with favour, and resided much at his sylvan palace. Here he brought the lady of his love, supposed - with some reason - to have been his wife. She was Rosamond, the second daughter of Walter, Lord Clifford, whom he first saw, it is said, when visiting the nunnery of Godstow, where she was afterwards buried. To have her near him, he built or probably repaired an already existing maze or bower of vaults, or rather apartments underground, arched and walled with brick or stone. There is no doubt that these rooms were furnished with the best splendour of the time; they had underground passages runing a long way, so that Rosamond or her children might issue forth and ride, or walk in the fair country, at a safe distance from the palace; but when Eleanor was in France or London, the lovely park might be traversed by Rosamond; and probably many a moonlight stroll might have been hers and Henry's also. She had two sons, William Longepee, afterwards Earl of Salisbury, whose wife was the Lady Ela of Lacock Abbey (he derived both title and wealth from her); and Geoffrey, who became Archbishop of York.
It was to William Longsword that Henry said, "You have a better claim to the throne than any of them," alluding to his rebellious sons.
The ballads of the time tell that the queen found and killed Rosamond. Thus runs the ballad:-
There is, however, no real foundation for this story. None of the old historians or chroniclers relate it. They only say that when the queen had found Rosamond she treated her harshly, with violent reproaches and sharp menaces.
The story of her discovery is also differently told. Brompton, a very old writer, says that "one day Queen Eleanor saw the king walking in the pleasaunce or garden of Woodstock, with the end of a ball of floss-silk attached to his spur; unperceived by him she took up the ball, and the king walking on, the silk unwound, and thus the queen traced him to a labyrinth in the park, where he disappeared. She was full of secret suspicion. In what company could he meet with balls of silk in the park? She waited till business called him from Woodstock, then she hurried to the thicket, and discovered a low door. This she forced open, and found it was the entrance to a winding subterranean path, which led out at a distance to a sylvan lodge in the most retired part of the adjacent forest."
Another story is that Rosamond, surprised while sitting on a bank in the open air, fled, and the end of the clue remaining, the queen followed her to her retreat.
Henry imprisoned Eleanor for stirring up his sons to sedition, and Brompton says that Rosamond lived a long time with Henry after this, and Carte, in his "History of England," says enough to prove that Rosamond was not poisoned, but that through grief at Henry's ceasing to care for her, she became a nun at Godstow, where she lived twenty years, and was buried there.
It is quite likely that much of the domestic trouble of Henry's life was caused by his conduct with Rosamond Clifford. Eleanor was a mature woman when he, a boy of eighteen, married her for her possessions. Her reputation was not good, and her temper violent, but she was a woman of ability, and had great influence over her sons.
It is pleasanter to think of Woodstock when inhabited by the brave King Edward III. and his charming queen Philippa, for then true and pure affection and simple faith were resting within its glades, and there, too, wooing a damsel of the queen's, was the father of English poetry - Chaucer.
He was a king's page, and soon attracted the notice and favour of Edward III. by his poetical talents; it is also said that he aided John of Gaunt in his love affair with Blanche of Lancaster, and his poem, "Chaucer's Dream," is an allegorical history of this love story. Blanche was too nearly related to her gallant young wooer (according to the Church of Rome), to be married to him without a papal dispensation, and there was a long train of intrigues and solicitations before the obstacles to their union could be removed. At length the king's assent and the Papal dispensation were obtained, and they were married in May, 1359. Blanche was a great heiress, Kenilworth being one part of her inheritance from her father, the Duke of Lancaster, and John of Gaunt'' great power and wealth date from this marriage The poet, by his aid, won the warm friendship of Blanche and her husband. John of Gaunt must have been a faithful and fearless friend, for he stood boldly forth as the defender of Wicliffe Chaucer's fortune rose with his patron's, and the duchess gave hint the sister of her favourite lady, Catherine Swynford, for his wife - Philippa Rouet. Chaucer, therefore, was constantly about the court, and when at Woodstock, is said to have resided at a square stone-house near the park gate, that still bears his name, though it has been lately thought to have been not his, but his son Thomas's house, as Henry IV. gave Thomas the manor of Woodstock. But many of the rural descriptions in Chaucer's poems are evidently taken from Woodstock Park. He tells us that a park he describes "was a park walled with green stone," and Woodstock was the first walled park The description in "The Cuckoo and the Nightingale," of the morning walk he takes, was an exact picture of the way from Chaucer's house, through the park to the brook in the vale, under Blenheim. Woodstock is therefore classic ground. 2.
Mr. Kent has given us a very graphic sketch of the poet in his "Chaucer at Woodstock":-
Richard II. was frequently at Woodstock, and held a tournament at Christmas, 1389, in the park, at which a sad catastrophe marred the sports. John Hastings, Earl of Pembroke, a youth of seventeen, was accidentally killed in a tilt with John St. John, the lance slipping and piercing his body. How sadly that Christmas Eve must have set on Richard's festivities.
Most of the kings of England have visited Woodstock, or resided there at times. We have omitted to mention that Henry III. narrowly escaped being assassinated there by a mad monk. Edward 1. held two parliaments at Woodstock, and his second son, by Queen Margaret, was born here, and was known as Edward of Woodstock. The Black Prince was also born here.
Henry VII. added to the palace, and built the front gate-house, on which was his name and a rhyme, recording that he was its founder. It was in this very gatehouse that Elizabeth, his grand-daughter, was imprisoned by command of her sister Mary, and here she wrote with charcoal on a window shutter these lines:-
While the princess, in daily peril of death, was imprisoned here, she heard one day a milkmaid in the garden singing merrily, and "wished herself," says the old chronicler, "to be a milkmaid as she was, saying that her case was better and her life merrier."
Elizabeth's room remained till the gatehouse was taken down by Duchess Sarah. Its roof was arched; it was of Irish oak, and was curiously carved and painted with blue and gold.
Every one knows how resolutely the palace was defended by Captain Samuel Fawcet, who would have buried himself beneath its ruins had it not been surrendered by the king to the Parliament; and every one who has read "Woodstock" (and who has not?) must remember how the Commissioners of the Parliament were diverted from their destructive work by ghostly appearances, then ascribed to the devil, but afterwards found to have been tricks and illusions effected by a clever Royalist who had engaged himself as Secretary to the Commissioners. Cromwell allotted Woodstock to three of his adherents, and two of them pulled down their portions to sell the stone. After the Restoration, Woodstock reverted to the Crown. The witty but wicked Earl of Rochester obtained from Charles II. the offices of Gentleman of the Bedchamber and Comptroller of Woodstock Park.
As we have seen, it was bestowed by Anne on her General, Marlborough, and is now united with Blenheim.
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1. Saxon Chronicle.
2. John of Gaunt, after his second wife's death, married Catherine Swynford, and thus became Chaucer's brotherin-law.