Biography of John Vanbrugh

Portrait of John Vanbrugh

Sir John Vanbrugh was a seventeenth/eighteenth century architect and playwright.

When and Where was he Born?

24th January 1664, London, England.

Family Background:

John Vanbrugh was the son of a tradesman and grandson of a Protestant refugee merchant from Ghent, Belgium.


Educated in France.

Timeline of Sir John Vanbrugh:

1666: The Vanbrugh family move to Chester.

1683: He studies architecture in France.

1686: Vanbrugh is given a commission in the Earl of Huntington’s regiment as an ensign but soon after resigns his post.

1688: He is imprisoned at Calais as a spy by the French.

1691: He is transferred to a prison in Vincennes.

1692: He is now transferred to the Bastille in Paris but is later released on parole.

1693: He returns to England.

1694: Vanbrugh takes part in the naval battle of Camaret Bay.

1695: He is promoted to a Captain in Lord Berkeley’s marine regiment.

1696: The plays “The Relapse” and “Aesop” are performed at Drury Lane Theatre.

1697: “The Provoked Wife” opens at Lincoln’s Inn Fields theatre in London and “Aesop, Part II” at Drury Lane.

1698: “The Country House” is performed at Drury Lane.

1699: Vanbrugh visits the site of the Castle Howard after he receives a commission from Lord Carlisle.

Castle Howard
Castle Howard from the rear gardens (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1700: The Kit Kat Club, a group of Whig reformers including Vanbrugh, sponsor a production of Falstaff. This is the first public proof that the club exists. “The Pilgrim” opens at Drury Lane. The foundation stone at Castle Howard is laid. He is permitted to build a house on site of the former Whitehall Palace which was destroyed by fire.

1701: Building of his house at Whitehall begins. This will later be satirised by Jonathan Swift as “Goose Pie House”.

1702: The cast and Vanbrugh himself are prosecuted for indecency for a performance of the “The Provoked Wife”. “The False Friend” is first performed at Drury Lane theatre. He is appointed as Comptroller of the Board of Works by Carlisle. Building work at Castle Howard reaches the roof.

1703: He begins work on the Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket, London. He spends most of his time at Maze Hill in Blackheath, then just outside London.

1704: He visits the works at Castle Howard.

1705: John Vanbrugh visits Woodstock in Oxfordshire where he is commissioned to build Blenheim Palace. The building is to be paid for by the British Government as a thank you to the Duke of Marlborough for winning the Battle of Blenheim earlier in the year. “The Confederacy” and “The Mistake” are performed at the new Queen’s Theatre.

1706: He visits Hannover in Germany. Leases out the Queen’s Theatre.

1707: “The Cuckold in Conceit” opens in London. He is employed by Lord Manchester to restore Kimbolton Castle.

1708: Vanbrugh finally sells the Haymarket Theatre. He works at Audley End near Saffron Walden.

1709: The main part of Castle Howard is now complete and he spends the summer there. He is now in dispute with the Duchess of Marlborough over parts of Blenheim.

1712: The works at Blenheim Pace finally come to a standstill.

1713: Vanbrugh’s term as Comptroller of the Board of Works comes to an end.

1714: He is knighted by the King, George the First. He sells his house, “Chargate”, to Lord Clare, who renames it ‘Claremont’.

1715: John Vanbrugh is reappointed as the Comptroller of the Board of Works. He works on designs for Claremont. He is also appointed Surveyor of Gardens and Waters.

1716: He spends the summer in the north of England. He succeeds Christopher Wren as Surveyor to the Greenwich Hospital. He quarrels with the Duchess of Marlborough over her granddaughter’s marriage to the Earl of Newcastle and relations break down completely and he resigns as architect at Blenheim leaving it up to his colleague Nicholas Hawksmoor to compete the project.

1718: He is not given the post of Surveyor-General of Royal Works.

1719: He marries Henrietta Maria Yarborough. She was then aged 26 and he 55. He begins building a new family home now known as “Vanbrugh Castle” in Greenwich. He also designs buildings for the garden at Stowe. Again he fails to become the Surveyor of the Royal Works. In need of money he mortgages Vanbrugh Castle to his brother.

1720: He and Henrietta move into “Vanbrugh Castle”.

Written Works:

1691–2: ” The Provoked Wife”.
1696: “Aesop”.
1698: “The Country House”.
1696: ” The Relapse, Or, Virtue in Danger.
1702: “The False Friend”.
1705: “The Confederacy”. “The Mistake”.
1707: “The Cuckold in Conceit”.

When and Where did he Die?

26th March 1726, London, England of an asthma attack.

Age at Death:



1719 to Henrietta Maria Yarborough. In 1719. She was then aged 26 and he 55.

Site of Grave:

St. Stephen’s Church, Walbrook, City of London, England.

Places of Interest:


Stowe House.


Kensington Palace, The Orangery.
Hampton Court Palace, State Rooms.


Seaton Delaval Hall, Seaton Deleval, between Blyth and and Whitley Bay. (now administered by the National Trust).
Barracks, Berwick-upon-Tweed.


Blenheim Palace, Woodstock.


Castle Howard, Malton.

Castle Howard
Castle Howard from the front (copyright Anthony Blagg)
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