Marlborough House in London has an enviable location right next door to St. James’s Palace, around the corner from Buckingham Palace and backing onto St. James’s park. The house itself is massive and has extensive grounds considering it is located in prime London real estate. No wonder then that when the house was no longer wanted by the original family that built it, the British Royal family took it over for 200+ years. Nowadays, it is the headquarters of the vestiges of the British Empire, the Commonwealth.
The History of Marlborough House
Marlborough House was built by Sir Christopher Wren considered one of the greatest English architects of all time. Amusingly, the lady who commissioned the house, Sarah Churchill, the first Duchess of Marlborough, wanted a house that was “strong, plain and convenient and good.” I’d say the architect filled that brief pretty well.
The Duchess herself laid the foundation stone in 1709. She was the one who really wanted a London townhouse because her husband the Duke was busy building their country town house, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. She had a tiff with Sir Christopher Wren, fired him and oversaw the completion of the house herself. The Duchess died at Marlborough House in 1744 having lived in the house for the 20+ years she had been a widow.
By 1817, Marlborough House had become a royal residence and used by assorted royalty including three widowed Queens and and three Prince of Wales. In the last half of the 20th century Marlborough House has been used by the British government as the headquarters for the Commonwealth Foundation.
I think it is terrific that this beautiful building was not destroyed but managed to find a purpose throughout the years. Here’s an archival Getty Images photograph of the British Royal family on the Marlborough House steps in the early 20th century.
Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough
So what did the Duchess do to get such a nice home? It helped she was BFF’s with Queen Anne for 25 years. Their relationship was intense and full of drama. She pretty much dominated the Anne throughout the years until she became queen and eventually developed a backbone. During this time, Sarah made lots of friends and enemies because everyone knew that she could influence Anne.
Queen Anne and the Duchess finally had a complete blow out. The Duchess got replaced by her cousin as Royal BFF. So what does Sarah do? Start a rumour that Queen Anne was a lesbian. Very middle school and very ballsy.
Sarah really was a piece of work. She worked hard to get the best for her husband and family. She was instrumental in getting her husband into a position of power in the government and elevated to being a Duke. Initially offered a dukedom, they turned it down because they couldn’t afford it. Dukes had to live in a certain style and Sarah as we know was stingy. So Queen Anne then not only offered up a dukedom but also money so they could live in style. Nice!
She married her children off to the best families in the land. Some of that same tenacity in the face of adversity would be shown by her descendants, Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales. One of her grandsons from her eldest daughter took over the Marlborough Duchy when Sarah’s own son and heir died.
There was also much speculation that the Queen and the Duchess were lovers because they were so close. None of it proven of course. In any event, the Marlboroughs made a fortune out of the Queen’s friendship.
Sarah used that fortune to become one of the richest women in Europe. She was really smart and made lots of smart property investments unusual in an era when women were told not to worry their pretty little head about business. Not bad for yet another daughter of the upper classes who was not expected to do much with her life except marry and produce children.
Marlborough House and Gardens
Marlborough House was built with red brick. Interestingly, this red brick was the ballast that was used in the ships of the first Duke of Marlborough when they returned to England after having brought him provisions for his troops. The Duchess was ahead of her time, recycling bricks, or maybe she wanted to save money for the inside of the house.
The inside of Marlborough House is what you would expect. There are massively high frescoed ceilings, grand staircases and lots of marble fireplaces.
I found the grand staircase with its paintings of the Duke of Marlborough being all warlike quite ironic. It was, of course, the military might of Britain that lead to the empire that created the need for a Commonwealth. And, of course, there is a repeated Roman motif. References to the Roman empire always add gravitas and culture.
The gardens are extensive. Frankly, anytime that you get labels called ‘west lawn’ and ‘east lawn’ in central London (!!), it is impressive. There are flags around the lawn perimeter of the Commonwealth countries. Among the oddities in the gardens are a revolving summer house that was moved to keep out the sun and a royal pet cemetery.
Visiting Marlborough House
I visited Marlborough House as part of Open House London which makes architecturally interesting houses open to the public for a weekend. Otherwise you need to book a tour through the Commonwealth Secretariat. It’s a beautiful building worth visiting if you have an interest in either Georgian architecture and/or the Commonwealth.