Woodstock Manor

One of the Most Egregious Teardowns in History: Imagine What Once Was

2001 His Grace the Duke of Marlborough and Jarrold Publishing

When you visit Blenheim, take the time to climb up the bluff across the lake from the palace. There you will find a small stone monument. Just a rock, you might say. Why take the trouble?

Imagine, if you will, Eleanor of Aquitaine galloping across this landscape in a fury to surprise her husband, Henry II, at his country manor, a place where he went to be alone with his lover, Rosamond de Clifford. At the house Eleanor spies on his spur a telltale ball of silken thread, which she follows as it weaves its way through a labyrinth to the bower of the fair Rosamond. The poor girl is quickly dispatched with a glass of poisoned wine, and Eleanor is avenged.

The stories of this royal threesome are a muddle of fact and myth. But here on this site a stone marks the spot of the great country residence, the royal manor house of Woodstock. A vacation home to the kings of England for six centuries, the manor house was the source of many strange tales.

We know very little about what the palace looked like. Its earliest known depiction, dated 1665, shows spired castle walls surrounded by the traditional moat. If you take the time to consult Blenheim: Landscape for a Palace, edited by James Bond and Kate Tiller, or pick up a local publication at the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock, called Introduction to Woodstock by J. M. Shelmerdine, you can learn what transpired behind those long-gone walls.

Its history, however, was of little concern to Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, who was determined to make Blenheim a tribute to her husband and so ordered the manor buildings torn down.

Unlike Blenheim Palace, the royal manor was not designed by an architect. Over time it just sort of grew. In its original form, sometime in the tenth century, it might have been a mere hunting lodge with a plain timber roof, for the Norman kings who came to hunt the vast number of wild animals that thrived in the surrounding forests. William the Conqueror's son Henry I, who reigned from 1100 to 1135, turned the area into a kind of wildlife preserve, enclosing it with a seven-mile stone wall and stocking it with lions, leopards and camels. Under the stewardship of Henry II—the one who married the infamous Eleanor of Aquitaine—besides using the manor for his trysts (Rosamond's legendary bower was said to be located just outside the manor's walls), he expanded the house grew into a rambling royal palace.

In the 13th century, Henry III added still more: six chapels, a kitchen, larder, wine cellar, stables and a gatehouse. Some 200 years later Henry VII added a magnificent fountain in the courtyard and several baths. The water arrived from a distant spring in wooden pipes on stone piers to the manor's cistern house.

By the 16th century, though, the huge manor was in need of "tyling and glasyng" before the next guest could take up residence. That would be a poor, bedraggled Princess Elizabeth, whose sister Queen Mary I had her jailed at the manor in 1554 with a hundred soldiers posted there to guard against her escape. "Much suspected, of me; Little proved can be, Quoth Elizabeth, Prisoner" was supposedly engraved on a gatehouse window.

James I used the manor in 1603, followed by his successor, Charles I, in 1634. By then there was even a tennis court. At the end of England's Civil War in the early 17th century, the palace was reported to be in ruins. Enter the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough in 1705. Their architect, John Vanbrugh, tried valiantly to save the manor, but he was no match for the duchess.

So traveler, when you visit Blenheim, the sites may not be all easily at hand; the mind's eye, though, will take you there.

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