Marlborough House

Marlborough House
Marlborough House.jpg
The south façade of Marlborough House
LocationLondon, SW1Y 5HX
Built1711; 310 years ago (1711)
ArchitectChristopher Wren
OwnerElizabeth II in the right of The Crown
Listed Building – Grade I
Designated5 February 1970
Reference no.1331701
Marlborough House is located in City of Westminster
Marlborough House
Location of Marlborough House in City of Westminster

Coordinates: 51°30′18″N 0°8′9″W / 51.50500°N 0.13583°W / 51.50500; -0.13583 Marlborough House, a Grade I listed[1] mansion in St James's, City of Westminster, London, is the headquarters of the Commonwealth of Nations and the seat of the Commonwealth Secretariat. It was built for Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, the favourite and confidante of Queen Anne. For over a century it served as the London residence of the dukes of Marlborough. It became a royal residence through the 19th century and first half of the 20th. It was leased by Queen Elizabeth II to the Commonwealth Secretariat beginning in 1965.


In its original form Marlborough House had just two storeys. This illustration of c.1750 shows the garden front.

In 1708, the Duke of Marlborough was granted a 50 year lease of the site from the Crown Estate at a low rent from Queen Anne, which beforehand had been partly occupied by the pheasantry adjoining St. James's Palace, and partly by the gardens of Henry Boyle, Queen Anne's Secretary of State.[2][3] The Duke left his wife entirely in charge of the design and building of Marlborough House; she wanted her new home to be "strong, plain and convenient and good". The architect Christopher Wren and his son of the same name designed a two-story brick building with rusticated stone quoins (cornerstones) that was completed in 1711. The Duke purchased the bricks cheaply in Holland while on campaign, and had them transported to England as ballast in the empty troop ships on their return journeys from depositing British troops.[4] Throughout the building process, the Duchess kept a close watch on even the smallest details and quarreled with the Wrens over the contractors they had hired. This led John Vanbrugh to joke that the Duchess had "the direction in chief to herself, with Sir Christopher Wren as her Deputy Surveyor."[2] Eventually she dismissed the Wrens and took control of the design herself.[5]

In 1727, Sarah's political rival Sir Robert Walpole purchased the lot between Marlborough House and Pall Mall through his protégé Thomas Ripley, reputedly to deny the Duchess a direct entrance onto Pall Mall. Wren had designed and built a gateway arch and screen in the front courtyard with this entrance in mind, which survives as a grotto.[6] Still intent on an entrance from Pall Mall, in 1729 the Duchess leased four houses to the west and had them demolished to create a "poky" diagonal entrance.[7]

In the 1770s, the 4th Duke of Marlborough hired the architect Sir William Chambers to add a third story to the house and architectural details like new ceilings and chimneypieces.[8][9] After his death in 1817 ownership was taken up by the Crown to be used as the residence of Princess Charlotte of Wales and her husband Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.[3][10] However, the Princess died before the purchase was completed, and her widower lived there alone for some time and was offered the Belgian throne in the house on April 22, 1831.[11] In the 1820s plans were drawn up to demolish Marlborough House and replace it with a terrace of similar dimensions to the two in neighbouring Carlton House Terrace, and this idea even featured on some contemporary maps, including Christopher and John Greenwood's large-scale London map of 1830, but the proposal was not implemented.[12]

Royal residence

This view of the entrance front published in the 1850s before Pennethorne's additions shows an additional storey on the wings. The wings later gained a fourth main storey, and the central section gained a third.

Located north of The Mall and east of St James's Palace, Marlborough House was primarily used by members of the royal family. The widowed Queen Adelaide was given the use of Marlborough House from 1831 until her death in 1849.[13]

From May to September 1852, the Museum of Manufactures, a predecessor of the Victoria & Albert Museum, housed its collections in Marlborough House.[14] From 1853 to 1861 Prince Albert arranged for the building to be used by the "National Art Training School", later the Royal College of Art.[15]

From 1861 to 1863, Sir James Pennethorne substantially enlarged the structure by adding a range of rooms on the north side and a deep porch for the Prince and Princess of Wales, later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, who made their home the social centre of London.[16] Their second son, the future King George V, was born at Marlborough House in 1865, and the family lived there until Queen Victoria died in 1901, when Edward acceded the throne and they moved to nearby Buckingham Palace. From the 1880s the term ‘Marlborough House Set’ came into usage to denote the Prince of Wales's fast living social circle, which included gamblers, bankers, and other "raffish" individuals.[17]

After his father moved to Buckingham Palace in 1901, the future King George V, now Prince of Wales, took up residence with his wife Mary of Teck and their children. Mary extensively redecorated to make the home more comfortable, and was reluctant to move to Buckingham Palace after her husband became George V in 1910.[18] In turn, Queen Alexandra again made Marlborough House her London home until her death in 1925. A late Art Nouveau-Gothic memorial fountain by Alfred Gilbert (1926–32) in the Marlborough Road wall of the house commemorates her.

Marlborough House – Rotating Summer House

In 1936, Marlborough House became the London residence of King George V's widow, Queen Mary, who survived George by 17 years. In the grounds of the house remains her pet cemetery. A thatch-roofed rotating summer house built for her is still in place.[19] A plaque to commemorate Queen Mary was unveiled by the Queen in 1967 in the exterior wall closest to the corner with the Mall.

Commonwealth Secretariat

After Queen Mary's death in 1953, Marlborough House continued to be used by various members of the royal family as a London residence before Queen Elizabeth II leased it to the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1965, an arrangement which continues today.


Eugène-Louis Lami, Entry to a Drawing Room at Marlborough House, 1871, Princeton University Art Museum

The nearly cubical saloon retains wall-paintings by Louis Laguerre of the Battle of Blenheim (at which the 1st Duke of Marlborough was overall commander for Britain and her allies; seat of the dukes of Marlborough is Blenheim Palace, one of England's largest houses). A cupola inserted in the ceiling is surrounded by paintings by Orazio Gentileschi and Artemisia Gentileschi [20]for the Queen's House, Greenwich, 1636. There are paired staircases flanking the saloon, with further battle pieces by Laguerre. Most of the interiors have been altered.[10]

Public opening times

Marlborough House is usually open to the public for Open House Weekend each September. The house is also open for group tours by prior arrangement.[21]


  1. ^ Historic England. "Grade I (1331701)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 4 April 2009.
  2. ^ a b Arthur Searle (1982). "'A Pleasing Example of Skill in Old Age': Sir Christopher Wren and Marlborough House" (PDF). British Library Journal. p. 37-44.
  3. ^ a b "Old and New London Vol. 4: Pall Mall". Cassell, Petter & Galpin. 1878. p. 123-139.
  4. ^ "Marlborough House opens its doors to the public". thecommonwealth.org. 6 September 2011. Retrieved 10 October 2020.
  5. ^ Ed Glinert (2012). The London Compendium. Penguin. p. 231.
  6. ^ James Stourton (2012). Great Houses of London. Frances Lincoln Ltd. p. 32.
  7. ^ "Pall Mall, South Side, Past Buildings: No 71 Pall Mall, Sir Edward Walpole's House". London County Council. 1960. p. 378-379.
  8. ^ Stourton, 2012; p. 35
  9. ^ Glinert, 2012; p. 230-231
  10. ^ a b Pervsner, Nickolaus; Cherry, Bridget (1973). The Buildings of England: London. I. Penguin. p. 470-ff. ISBN 9780140710120.
  11. ^ Henri Pirenne (1948). Histoire de Belgique (in French). VII: De la Révolution de 1830 à la Guerre de 1914. Maurice Lamertin. p. 26.
  12. ^ Greenwood Map of London 1830 Archived 3 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ F. H. W. Sheppard (General Editor) (1960). "Pall Mall, South Side, Past Buildings: Nos 66–68 (consec.) Pall Mall: The Junior Naval and Military Club". Survey of London: volumes 29 and 30: St James Westminster, Part 1. Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
  14. ^ John Physick (1982). The Victoria & Albert Museum: The History of its Building. p. 16.
  15. ^ Frayling, Christopher (1987). The Royal College of Art, One Hundred and Fifty Years of Art and Design. London: Barrie & Jenkins. pp. 35-42. ISBN 978-0712617994.
  16. ^ Jane Ridley, Marlborough House set (act. 1870s–1901) in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press; online text accessed 30 Nov 2010 (subscription site)[dead link]
  17. ^ Stourton, 2012; p.36
  18. ^ Stourton, 2012; p.36
  19. ^ "Marlborough House Gardens Virtual Tour". Commonwealth Secretariat. Retrieved 26 February 2012.[permanent dead link]
  20. ^ "Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) & Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) - An Allegory of Peace and the Arts". www.rct.uk. Retrieved 7 October 2020.
  21. ^ "Marlborough House opens its doors to the public" (Press release). Commonwealth Secretariat. 6 September 2011. Retrieved 20 January 2019.


External links

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