Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Secret History of the Building of Blenheim.

The secret history of this national edifice derives importance from its nature, and the remarkable characters involved in the unparalleled transaction. The great architect, when obstructed in the progress of his work by the irregular payments of the workmen, appears to have practised one of his own comic plots to put the debts on the hero himself; while the duke, who had it much at heart to inhabit the palace of his fame, but tutored into wariness under the vigilant and fierce eye of Atossa,1 would neither approve nor disapprove, silently looked on in hope and in grief, from year to year, as the work proceeded, or as it was left at a stand. At length we find this comédie larmoyante wound up by the duchess herself, in an attempt utterly to ruin the enraged and insulted architect!2

Perhaps this was the first time that it had ever been resolved in parliament to raise a public monument of glory and gratitude — to an individual! The novelty of the attempt may serve as the only excuse for the loose arrangements which followed after parliament had approved of the design, without voting any specific supply for the purpose! The queen always issued the orders at her own expense, and commanded expedition; and while Anne lived, the expenses of the building were included in her majesty’s debts, as belonging to the civil list sanctioned by parliament.3

When George the First came to the throne, the parliament declared the debt to be the debt of the queen, and the king granted a privy seal as for other debts. The crown and the parliament had hitherto proceeded in perfect union respecting this national edifice. However, I find that the workmen were greatly in arrears; for when George the First ascended the throne, they gladly accepted a third part of their several debts!

The great architect found himself amidst inextricable difficulties. With the fertile invention which amuses in his comedies, he contrived an extraordinary scheme, by which he proposed to make the duke himself responsible for the building of Blenheim!

However much the duke longed to see the magnificent edifice concluded, he showed the same calm intrepidity in the building of Blenheim as he had in its field of action. Aware that if he himself gave any order, or suggested any alteration, he might be involved in the expense of the building, he was never to be circumvented — never to be surprised into a spontaneous emotion of pleasure or disapprobation; on no occasion, he declares, had he even entered into conversation with the architect (though his friend) or with any one acting under his orders, about Blenheim House! Such impenetrable prudence on all sides had often blunted the subdolous ingenuity of the architect and plotter of comedies!

In the absence of the duke, when abroad in 1705, Sir John contrived to obtain from Lord Godolphin, the friend and relative of the Duke of Marlborough, and probably his agent in some of his concerns, a warrant, constituting Vanbrugh surveyor, with power of contracting on the behalf of the Duke of Marlborough. How he prevailed on Lord Godolphin to get this appointment does not appear — his lordship probably conceived it was useful, and might assist in expediting the great work, the favourite object of the hero. This warrant, however, Vanbrugh kept entirely to himself; he never mentioned to the duke that he was in possession of any such power; nor, on his return, did he claim to have it renewed.

The building proceeded with the same delays, and the payments with the same irregularity; the veteran now foresaw what happened, that he should never be the inhabitant of his own house! The public money issued from the Treasury was never to be depended on; and after 1712, the duke took the building upon himself, for the purpose of accommodating the workmen. They had hitherto received what was called “crown pay,” which was high wages and uncertain payment — and they now gladly abated a third of their prices. But though the duke had undertaken to pay the workmen, this could make no alteration in the claims on the Treasury. Blenheim was to be built for Marlborough, not by him; it was a monument raised by the nation to their hero, not a palace to be built by their mutual contributions.

Whether Marlborough found that his own million might be slowly injured while the Treasury remained still obdurate, or that the architect was still more and more involved, I cannot tell; but in 1715, the workmen appear to have struck, and the old delays and stand-still again renewed. It was then Sir John, for the first time, produced the warrant he had extracted from Lord Godolphin, to lay before the Treasury; adding, however, a memorandum, to prevent any misconception, that the duke was to be considered as the paymaster, the debts incurred devolving on the crown. This part of our secret history requires more development than I am enabled to afford: as my information is drawn from “the Case” of the Duke of Marlborough in reply to Sir John’s depositions, it is possible Vanbrugh may suffer more than he ought in this narration; which, however, incidentally notices his own statements.

A new scene opens! Vanbrugh not obtaining his claims from the Treasury, and the workmen becoming more clamorous, the architect suddenly turns round on the duke, at once to charge him with the whole debt.

The pitiable history of this magnificent monument of public gratitude, from its beginnings, is given by Vanbrugh in his deposition. The great architect represents himself as being comptroller of her majesty’s works; and as such was appointed to prepare a model, which model of Blenheim House her majesty kept in her palace, and gave her commands to issue money according to the direction of Mr. Travers, the queen’s surveyor-general; that the lord treasurer appointed her majesty’s own officers to supervise these works; that it was upon defect of money from the Treasury that the workmen grew uneasy; that the work was stopped, till further orders of money from the Treasury; that the queen then ordered enough to secure it from winter weather; that afterwards she ordered more for payment of the workmen; that they were paid in part; and upon Sir John’s telling them the queen’s resolution to grant them a further supply (after a stop put to it by the duchess’s order), they went on and incurred the present debt; that this was afterwards brought into the House of Commons as the debt of the crown, not owing from the queen to the Duke of Marlborough, but to the workmen, and this by the queen’s officers.

During the uncertain progress of the building, and while the workmen were often in deep arrears, it would seem that the architect often designed to involve the Marlboroughs in its fate and his own; he probably thought that some of their round million might bear to be chipped, to finish his great work, with which, too, their glory was so intimately connected. The famous duchess had evidently put the duke on the defensive; but once, perhaps, was the duke on the point of indulging some generous architectural fancy, when lo! Atossa stepped forwards and “put a stop to the building.”

When Vanbrugh at length produced the warrant of Lord Godolphin, empowering him to contract for the duke, this instrument was utterly disclaimed by Marlborough; the duke declares it existed without his knowledge; and that if such an instrument for a moment was to be held valid, no man would be safe, but might be ruined by the act of another!

Vanbrugh seems to have involved the intricacy of his plot, till it fell into some contradictions. The queen he had not found difficult to manage; but after her death, when the Treasury failed in its golden source, he seems to have sat down to contrive how to make the duke the great debtor. Vanbrugh swears that “He himself looked upon the crown, as engaged to the Duke of Marlborough for the expense; but that he believes the workmen always looked upon the duke as their paymaster.” He advances so far, as to swear that he made a contract with particular workmen, which contract was not unknown to the duke. This was not denied; but the duke in his reply observes, that “he knew not that the workmen were employed for his account, or by his own agent:”— never having heard till Sir John produced the warrant from Lord Godolphin, that Sir John was “his surveyor!” which he disclaims.

Our architect, however opposite his depositions appear, contrived to become a witness to such facts as tended to conclude the duke to be the debtor for the building; and “in his depositions has taken as much care to have the guilt of perjury without the punishment of it, as any man could do.” He so managed, though he has not sworn to contradictions, that the natural tendency of one part of his evidence presses one way, and the natural tendency of another part presses the direct contrary way. In his former memorial, the main design was to disengage the duke from the debt; in his depositions, the main design was to charge the duke with the debt. Vanbrugh, it must be confessed, exerted not less of his dramatic than his architectural genius in the building of Blenheim!

“The Case” concludes with an eloquent reflection, where Vanbrugh is distinguished as the man of genius, though not, in this predicament, the man of honour. “If at last the charge run into by order of the crown must be upon the duke, yet the infamy of it must go upon another, who was perhaps the only architect in the world capable of building such a house; and the only friend in the world capable of contriving to lay the debt upon one to whom he was so highly obliged.”

There is a curious fact in the depositions of Vanbrugh, by which we might infer that the idea of Blenheim House might have originated with the duke himself; he swears that “in 1704, the duke met him, and told him he designed to build a house, and must consult him about a model, &c.; but it was the queen who ordered the present house to be built with all expedition.”

The whole conduct of this national edifice was unworthy of the nation, if in truth the nation ever entered heartily into it. No specific sum had been voted in parliament for so great an undertaking; which afterwards was the occasion of involving all the parties concerned in trouble and litigation; threatened the ruin of the architect; and I think we shall see, by Vanbrugh’s letters, was finished at the sole charge, and even under the superintendence, of the duchess herself! It may be a question, whether this magnificent monument of glory did not rather originate in the spirit of party, in the urgent desire of the queen to allay the pride and jealousies of the Marlboroughs. From the circumstance to which Vanbrugh has sworn, that the duke had designed to have a house built by Vanbrugh, before Blenheim had been resolved on, we may suppose that this intention of the duke’s afforded the queen a suggestion of a national edifice.

Archdeacon Coxe, in his Life of Marlborough, has obscurely alluded to the circumstances attending the building of Blenheim. “The illness of the duke, and the tedious litigation which ensued, caused such delays, that little progress was made in the work at the time of his decease. In the interim a serious misunderstanding arose between the duchess and the architect, which forms the subject of a voluminous correspondence. Vanbrugh was in consequence removed, and the direction of the building confided to other hands, under her own immediate superintendence.”

This “voluminous correspondence” would probably afford “words that burn” of the lofty insolence of Atossa, and “thoughts that breathe” of the comic wit; it might too relate, in many curious points, to the stupendous fabric itself. If her grace condescended to criticise its parts with the frank roughness she is known to have done to the architect himself, his own defence and explanations might serve to let us into the bewildering fancies of his magical architecture. Of that self-creation for which he was so much abused in his own day as to have lost his real avocation as an architect, and stands condemned for posterity in the volatile bitterness of Lord Orford, nothing is left for us but our own convictions — to behold, and to be for ever astonished! — But “this voluminous correspondence?” Alas! the historian of war and politics overlooks with contempt the little secret histories of art and of human nature! — and “a voluminous correspondence” which indicates so much, and on which not a solitary idea is bestowed, has only served to petrify our curiosity!

Of this quarrel between the famous duchess and Vanbrugh I have only recovered several vivacious extracts from confidential letters of Vanbrugh’s to Jacob Tonson. There was an equality of the genius of invention, as well as rancour, in her grace and the wit: whether Atossa, like Vanbrugh, could have had the patience to have composed a comedy of five acts I will not determine; but unquestionably she could have dictated many scenes with equal spirit. We have seen Vanbrugh attempting to turn the debts incurred by the building of Blenheim on the duke; we now learn, for the first time, that the duchess, with equal aptitude, contrived a counterplot to turn the debts on Vanbrugh!

“I have the misfortune of losing, for I now see little hopes of ever getting it, near 2000l. due to me for many years’ service, plague, and trouble, at Blenheim, which that wicked woman of ‘Marlborough’ is so far from paying me, that the duke being sued by some of the workmen for work done there, she has tried to turn the debt due to them upon me, for which I think she ought to be hanged.”

In 1722, on occasion of the duke’s death, Vanbrugh gives an account to Tonson of the great wealth of the Marlboroughs, with a caustic touch at his illustrious victims.

“The Duke of Marlborough’s treasure exceeds the most extravagant guess. The grand settlement, which it was suspected her grace had broken to pieces, stands good, and hands an immense wealth to Lord Godolphin and his successors. A round million has been moving about in loans on the land-tax, &c. This the Treasury knew before he died, and this was exclusive of his ‘land;’ his 5000l. a year upon the post-office; his mortgages upon a distressed estate; his South-Sea stock; his annuities, and which were not subscribed in, and besides what is in foreign banks; and yet this man could neither pay his workmen their bills, nor his architect his salary.

“He has given his widow (may a Scottish ensign get her!) 10,000l. a year to spoil Blenheim her own way; 12,000l. a year to keep herself clean and go to law; 2000l. a year to Lord Rialton for present maintenance; and Lord Godolphin only 5000l. a year jointure, if he outlives my lady: this last is a wretched article. The rest of the heap, for these are but snippings, goes to Lord Godolphin, and so on. She will have 40,000l. a year in present.”

Atossa, as the quarrel heated and the plot thickened, with the maliciousness of Puck, and the haughtiness of an empress of Blenheim, invented the most cruel insult that ever architect endured! — one perfectly characteristic of that extraordinary woman. Vanbrugh went to Blenheim with his lady, in a company from Castle Howard, another magnificent monument of his singular genius.

“We staid two nights in Woodstock; but there was an order to the servants, under her grace’s own hand, not to let me enter Blenheim! and lest that should not mortify me enough, she having somehow learned that my wife was of the company, sent an express the night before we came there, with orders that if she came with the Castle Howard ladies, the servants should not suffer her to see either house, gardens, or even to enter the park: so she was forced to sit all day long and keep me company at the inn!”

This was a coup-de-théâtre in this joint comedy of Atossa and Vanbrugh! The architect of Blenheim, lifting his eyes towards his own massive grandeur, exiled to a dull inn, and imprisoned with one who required rather to be consoled, than capable of consoling the enraged architect!

In 1725, Atossa still pursuing her hunted prey, had driven it to a spot which she flattered herself would enclose it with the security of a preserve. This produced the following explosion!

“I have been forced into chancery by that B. B. B. the Duchess of Marlborough, where she has got an injunction upon me by her friend the late good chancellor (Earl of Macclesfield), who declared that I was never employed by the duke, and therefore had no demand upon his estate for my services at Blenheim. Since my hands were thus tied up from trying by law to recover my arrear, I have prevailed with Sir Robert Walpole to help me in a scheme which I proposed to him, by which I got my money in spite of the hussy’s teeth. My carrying this point enrages her much, and the more because it is of considerable weight in my small fortune, which she has heartily endeavoured so to destroy as to throw me into an English Bastile, there to finish my days, as I began them, in a French one.

Plot for plot! and the superior claims of one of practised invention are vindicated! The writer, long accustomed to comedy-writing, has excelled the self-taught genius of Atossa. The “scheme” by which Vanbrugh’s fertile invention, aided by Sir Robert Walpole, finally circumvented the avaricious, the haughty, and the capricious Atossa, remains untold, unless it is alluded to by the passage in Lord Orford’s “Anecdotes of Painting,” where he informs us that the “duchess quarrelled with Sir John, and went to law with him; but though he proved to be in the right, or rather because he proved to be in the right, she employed Sir Christopher Wren to build the house in St. James’s Park.”

I have to add a curious discovery respecting Vanbrugh himself, which explains a circumstance in his life not hitherto understood.

In all the biographies of Vanbrugh, from the time of Cibber’s Lives of the Poets, the early part of the life of this man of genius remains unknown. It is said he descended from an ancient family in Cheshire, which came originally from France, though by the name, which properly written would be Van Brugh, he would appear to be of Dutch extraction. A tale is universally repeated that Sir John once visiting France in the prosecution of his architectural studies, while taking a survey of some fortifications, excited alarm, and was carried to the Bastile: where, to deepen the interest of the story, he sketched a variety of comedies, which he must have communicated to the governor, who, whispering it doubtless as an affair of state to several of the noblesse, these admirers of “sketches of comedies”— English ones no doubt — procured the release of this English Molière. This tale is further confirmed by a very odd circumstance. Sir John built at Greenwich, on a spot still called “Van Brugh’s Fields,” two whimsical houses; one on the side of Greenwich Park is still called “the Bastile-House,” built on its model, to commemorate this imprisonment.

Not a word of this detailed story is probably true! that the Bastile was an object which sometimes occupied the imagination of our architect, is probable; for by the letter we have just quoted, we discover from himself the singular incident of Vanbrugh’s having been born in the Bastile.4

Desirous, probably, of concealing his alien origin, this circumstance cast his early days into obscurity. He felt that he was a Briton in all respects but that of his singular birth. The father of Vanbrugh married Sir Dudley Carleton’s daughter. We are told he had “political connexions;” and one of his “political” tours had probably occasioned his confinement in that state-dungeon, where his lady was delivered of her burden of love. This odd fancy of building a “Bastile-House” at Greenwich, a fortified prison! suggested to his first life-writer the fine romance; which must now be thrown aside among those literary fictions the French distinguish by the softening and yet impudent term of “Anecdotes hasardées!” with which formerly Varillas and his imitators furnished their pages; lies which looked like facts!

1 The name by which Pope ruthlessly satirized Sarah Duchess of Marlborough.

2 I draw the materials of this secret history from an unpublished “Case of the Duke of Marlborough and Sir John Vanbrugh,” as also from some confidential correspondence of Vanbrugh with Jacob Tonson, his friend and publisher.

3 Parliament voted 500,000l. for the building, which was insufficient. The queen added thereto the honour of Woodstock, an appanage of the crown, on the simple condition of rendering at Windsor Castle every year on the anniversary of the victory of Blenheim, a flag adorned with three fleur-de-lys, “as acquittance for all manner of rents, suits and services due to the crown.”

4 Cunningham, in his “Lives of the British Architects,” does not incline to the conclusions above drawn. He says, “I suspect that Vanbrugh, in saying he began his days in the Bastile, meant only that he was its tenant in early life — at the commencement of his manhood.” The same author tells us that Vanbrugh’s grandfather fled from Ghent, his native city, to avoid the persecutions of the Duke of Alva, and established himself as a merchant in Walbrook, where his son lived after him, and where John Vanbrugh (afterwards the great architect) was born in the year 1666. His father was at this time Comptroller of the Treasury Chamber. Cunningham thinks the Cheshire part of the genealogy “unlikely to be true.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53