Blenheim: The Sun King’s Waterloo

Claude Lefebre, Public Domainnknown artist, after Louis XIV, circa 1670, u

Claude Lefebre, Public Domainnknown artist, after Louis XIV, circa 1670, u

Before there was Napoleon Bonaparte, there  was Louis XIV, the Sun King.  He believed himself the greatest monarch the world had ever seen, so naturally he thought he might as well control all of Europe plus the British Isles, not just France.  In 1704, the War of the Spanish Succession had been going on for four years, and things were going well for the French.  Unlike many kings, Louis XIV was actually a soldier, and an accomplished one.

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, 1704, Adriaen van der Werff, Public Domain

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, 1704, Adriaen van der Werff, Public Domain

He met his match in John Churchill, who had risen through the ranks after beginning at court as a lowly page.  He had already attained the rank of First Duke of Marlborough when he stopped the French in their tracks.  He changed the course of European history.  Churchill/Marlborough did this through a combination of deceptive communications and wily maneuvering of his forces.  As I understand it, he marched his troops undetected through the Low Countries, pretty much surprising the French at a little Bavarian village called Blenheim.  The object was to keep the French from occupying Vienna, which would have broken up the delicate and ever-shifting balance among European powers.

Marlborough’s heroics ended Louis XIV’s dream of controlling all of Europe. The French suffered 30,000 casualties.  The French commander-in-chief, Marshall Tallard, was captured and hauled to England as a prisoner.  There were still battles left to fight, but the battle of Blenheim was a huge turning point in history.

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A grateful nation gave the 1st Duke of Marlborough the lands and the money to build a suitable tribute, a palace that would rival the Versailles of Louis XIV.  In fact, the cavernous entry hall at Blenheim is as impressive as anything I’ve seen at Versailles.  It’s more austere, though–suitable for the military theme of Blenheim. The palace was built in the English Baroque style, and contained 187 rooms. The construction was halted in 1711, after the Duchess of Marlborough had a terrible quarrel with Queen Anne.  In fact, the Duke and Duchess had to go into temporary exile on the continent until the Queen died in 1714.  After that, the Duke had to spend his own money to complete his palace.

Serious historians would not be much impressed by my analysis of the military situation. If I wanted to fully understand the War of the Spanish Succession and its many battles, I could study a large military exhibition at Blenheim Palace.  I thought about the military exhibit on my recent visit, but the tearoom was calling my name.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

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