Marlborough House

Marlborough House

Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was commissioned to build Marlborough House for the first Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill (1650-1722), but it is to Duchess Sarah (1660-1744), that the building owes its existence. The idea of a town house was hers and it was she who secured a lease of the site on land adjoining St. James Palace from her friend Queen Anne. It was she who chose Sir Christopher Wren as her architect in preference to Sir John Vanbrugh, who was then building Blenheim Palace for the Duke. The actual design was probably drawn out by Christopher Wren, the younger, under the supervision of his father. It was a simple, dignified design. The house was "Strong, plain, convenient, and with no resemblance to anything at Blenheim" according to the Duchess's wishes. The house was built of red Dutch bricks, brought to England as ballast in the troop transports that had carried soldiers for the Duke's army in Holland. The Duchess laid the foundation stone in 1709 and the house was finished in 1711. She herself supervised the completion of the house after dismissing Wren because she felt that the contractors took advantage of him.

The only bravura was the splendid historical paintings of the Duke's battles, which line the walls of the central salon and the staircases. The principal room is the saloon which is two stories high. On the saloon wall are paintings of the Battle of Blenheim by Louis Laguerre. On the ceiling are Gentileschi's "Arts and Sciences" painted in 1636 for the Queen's House at Greenwich, then removed to Marlborough House by permission of Queen Anne. On the staircases to the first floor are more paintings by Laguerre of the Battles of Ramillies and Malplaquet.

In 1733, she tried to improve access to the house by making a new drive from the front entrance to Pall Mall but Robert Walpole, a bitter political rival, bought the leases of the houses there and obstructed the new gateway to spite her. The blocked up arch can still be seen. It was at the London house that Sarah spent much of her long widowhood beginning in 1722 and it was there that she died in 1744.

During an early 1770's renovation, Sir William Chambers added a third story and put in marble fireplaces. The Dukes of Marlborough occupied the house until 1817 when the land reverted to the crown.

Following the marriage of Princess Charlotte, only daughter of the future King George IV and heir presumptive to the throne, to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1816, Camelford House was given to them as their London home. After Marlborough House reverted to the crown in 1817, it was decided that it would be a better residence for Leopold and Princess Charlotte and the child she was expecting. Marlborough House was being readied for the family to move into for the winter season of 1817-1818. Tragically Princess Charlotte died before the house was ready. After the Princess's death, Prince Leopold used Marlborough House until he became King of the Belgians in 1831. In that year, King William IV came to the throne and Parliament provided that his consort Queen Adelaide should have Marlborough House for life in the event of her widowhood. Marlborough House is now used by the British government as a Commonwealth Center.

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