SIR CHRISTOPHER WREN was commissioned to build Marlborough House for the first Duke of Marlborough, but it is to Duchess Sarah, 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 from Queen Anne and chose Sir Christopher Wren as her architect in preference to Sir John Vanbrugh, who was then building Blenheim Palace for the Duke. When she fell out with Wren and dispensed with his services, she herself supervised the completion of the house. It was, moreover, the London house of her long widowhood and it was here that she died in 1744.
The Duchess herself laid the foundation stone in 1709 and the house was finished in 1711. The actual design was probably drawn out by Christopher Wren, the younger, under the supervision of his father. It was a simple, dignified design, almost plain, and 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 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 Dukes of Marlborough
The Dukes of Marlborough occupied the house until 1817. 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, Marlborough House was given to them as their London home. After the Princess's death, Prince Leopold continued to use 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.
After the King's death, the Queen Dowager spent much time at Marlborough House and it was here that she gave a wedding banquet after the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Shortly after the death of Queen Adelaide, the house was settled on Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), with a view to it becoming his official residence on his reaching the age of 18.
Meanwhile, the building was put to various public uses. The Vernon and Turner collections of pictures - part of the National Collections - were exhibited on the ground floor. Later, the Government School of Design and the Department of Practical Art (by-products of the movement which led to the Great Exhibition of 1851) were granted accommodation in the rest of the building. Extensive alterations were necessary for the occupancy of the Prince of Wales in 1863 and those were planned by Sir James Pennethorne, chief architect of the Office of Works. The main effect of Pennethorne's alterations was to enlarge the principal rooms by knocking two or even three into one, providing extra accommodation in a northern extension and heightening the building.
The Duke of York
After the accession to the throne of Edward, Prince of Wales, the house was allotted to his second son, the Duke of York, who soon became Prince of Wales (and eventually King George V), the new occupation beginning in April 1903. On the death of King Edward VII, his widow Queen Alexandra returned to Marlborough House. Queen Mary, in turn, moved to Marlborough House on the death of King George V in 1936. She died here in 1953.
Marlborough House Today
In September 1959, the Queen placed Marlborough House at the disposal of the British Government as a Commonwealth centre and it came into use as such in March 1962. In 1964, the idea of an international and independent secretariat to service the growing Commonwealth was proposed, and Marlborough House became its actual headquarters in 1965. Today, it houses the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Foundation, and has been the venue for a number of independence negotiations and many Commonwealth conferences, including summit meetings of Commonwealth Heads of Government. The house was extensively renovated by the British Government between 1989 and 1993.