Duke of Marlborough

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough

Marlborough: His Life and Times. By Winston S. Churchill. 4 vols. (London: George G. Harrap and Company, 1933-38).

Not a whit less important than his deeds and speeches are his writings, above all his Marlborough—the greatest historical work written in our century, an inexhaustible mine of political wisdom and understanding, which should be required reading for every student of political science.—Leo Strauss, in a eulogy to Churchill

I haven’t enjoyed anything more in years than your Marlborough. I am about a third through it, savouring it as an epicure, and I shall finish it this week. If I had—which God forbid—to deliver an address on you, I should say ‘Read Marlborough and you may then picture yourself listening to Winston as he paced up and down the Cabinet room with a glass of water in one hand and a long cigar in the corner of his mouth.’ I can hear your chuckles as I read it… —Stanley Baldwin, in a letter to Churchill

For nearly ten years, in the prime of his life, Winston Churchill wrote the biography of his greatest ancestor, John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. To write the life of the man who protected the liberties of Europe and the Protestant religion by breaking the power of Louis XIV was a project that Churchill had long in contemplation: from childhood he read everything he “came across” (I 18) about Marlborough.[i] A monumental work of more than two thousand pages, in four volumes, Churchill’ s Marlborough: His Life and Times served as the capstone of his own political education. In the aptness of its prose, in the grandeur of its theme, in the fullness of its portrait of an epoch, the book ranks with the histories of Gibbon, Macaulay, and Hume. Marlborough is Churchill’s masterpiece; if he had written nothing else, his evocation of this “great shade” (I 19) would assure him a leading place in English letters.

Yet this book might never have been written. Churchill’s reading had shown him the greatness of Marlborough; but he had also read of his coming of age in a dissolute court, of his treachery to several sovereigns, and of his notorious avarice. For generations some “of the most famous writers of the English language” had made Marlborough their target and “vied with one another in presenting an odious portrait to posterity” (I 17). First place among them goes to the great Whig historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose History of England from the Accession of James II, published in the middle of the nineteenth century, told the story of Britain’s greatness, tracing the roots of her liberty and prosperity to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Macaulay’s hero is William of Orange, who crossed the Channel to save England from a king who had subverted the constitution and plunged the country into Popish tyranny. Marlborough was one of Macaulay’s villains: a figure less hideous than Lord Jeffreys, who gloried in the judicial murder of decent citizens for their opposition to the tyranny of King James; but one whose villainies appear in sharper relief because of his undoubted talents and abilities. Macaulay’s Marlborough is a man who carried selfishness, bad faith, and mendacity to the highest pitch.

With the rest of his generation, Churchill learned modern history from Macaulay, whose considerate preference for the British constitution, perfected through the years, over every other had helped to form the confidence of Victorian Britain. But Churchill had a closer bond with Macaulay than most of his contemporaries: his earliest triumph at school had been his faultless recitation of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, and his reading of Macaulay when he was a young officer in India had helped to form his prose style. With a pang Churchill had discovered the historian’s judgment of his ancestor, and for years it put him off writing the life of Marlborough.[ii] But at length he learned to see the story differently. Despite his hesitations, “two of the most gifted men” he knew encouraged the project, Lord Balfour and Lord Rosebery. Lord Balfour pressed it upon him” with compelling enthusiasm”; over lunch with Lord Rosebery the last obstacle was removed.[iii] “Lord Rosebery said, ‘Surely you must write Duke John[as he always called him]: he was a tremendous fellow.’” Churchill replied that he had admired him from his earliest years,

but that Macaulay’ s story of the betrayal of the expedition against Brest was an obstacle I could not face. The aged and crippled statesman arose from the luncheon table, and, with great difficulty but sure knowledge, made his way along the passages of The Durdans to the exact nook in his capacious working library where “Paget’ s Examen” reposed. “There,” he said, taking down this unknown, out-of-print masterpiece, “is the answer to Macaulay.” (I 18)

Churchill’ s discovery of John Paget, whose refutation of Macaulay he so admired that he arranged for his book to be republished in 1934 and wrote the preface[iv], helped him to conclude that Macaulay’ s aspersions on Marlborough’s conduct and character sprang not from a considerate judgment but simply from a decision” in the plan of his history that Marlborough was to be presented as the most odious figure in his cast”(I 130). Paget’s defense of Marlborough’ s conduct at the time of the Brest expedition “has been judged valid by modern opinion” (I 18); yet this “ brilliant but unknown” writer, and others who have taken Marlborough’s side, have made little headway in removing the prejudice against him. “Few have been finer word-spinners” than Macaulay, “who sought to reign” over the” domain of history and letters” (I 131-32), and thus far the weight of his reputation has protected his slander of Marlborough. The Duke himself never wrote an apology for his conduct: his “life is only known by his deeds”(I 131). Churchill’ s life of Marlborough will provide that apology, and he expects, “for one reason or another” which he leaves the reader to ponder, to have a better opportunity than the others did to capture the attention of his countrymen”[v] The court is attentive,” he writes in the introduction to the first volume, “and I shall not be denied audience”(I 19).

Churchill’s life of Marlborough, then, is partly a polemic against Macaulay-an attempt to discredit his portrait of one man in a work that Churchill nonetheless admires. The historian made many charges against Marlborough; the gravest one, and a number of others, will be taken up in their proper places below. But the heart of his indictment was that Marlborough cared only for himself. Macaulay claimed that his selfishness took many forms, none of them commendable; but what characterized him most was excessive love of money, which made him both stingy and avaricious. In introducing him to the reader, he laments that the man “was thrifty in his very vices,” and later he remarks that Marlborough valued his talents “chiefly for what they would fetch.”[vi] All though his biography, and especially in a chapter called “Avarice and Charm,” Churchill weighs the evidence concerning these unamiable flaws, and he achieves a measure of success in clearing his ancestor of the charges. This vindication has not convinced one recent biographer of Churchill, who wrote that “Churchill was inconsistent” in explaining his ancestor’s reputation for greed, sometimes admitting it “as the fault of a great man,” sometimes defending it “as the understandable product of an impoverished youth,” and sometimes transforming it “into wholesome thrift.”[vii] One may generally accept this summary of Churchill’s approach without granting that he was any more inconsistent than his subject.

Churchill admits that “Marlborough lay under reproach” for his parsimony (I 408). We have so many stories of his stinginess, from leaving i’s undotted to save ink to borrowing money to call a taxi and then walking home to save it, that he must have had some penchant for this vice, even if particular stories are spurious. But, as we shall see, Marlborough did grow up in straitened circumstances that made lavish spending impossible and engendered a life-long repugnance for waste. Churchill gives evidence that his thrift did not prevent him from being faithful, kind, and generous to his family, to his friends, and to his soldiers. Though it made him unpopular with officers who expected their general to keep an elaborate table, his unseemly concern about economy made him popular with the troops, who saw only that “he always took care that they got their rations and pay punctually,” and with the country people, who were always paid promptly for their supplies” (I 415). Churchill connects Marlborough’s “habits of personal thrift and self-denial” with “his character as a gatherer, as a builder and a founder,” and he concludes “that though he took all the emoluments, perquisites, and commissions which belonged to his offices and appointments, he never took bribes or any money that was not his by usage or law” (I 423; cf. II 68-69, 499-504, 935-38). He points out that Macaulay borrowed his most “poisonous” charges of Marlborough’s corruption from a scurrilous Jacobite pamphlet. One wishes, however, that Churchill had forborne from also pointing out here that Macaulay himself managed to save the greater part of his salary in India “by living below the style expected in the East from officers of the highest rank” (I 422).

Churchill thinks of his biography of Marlborough as a long overdue correction of the historian’ s unfairness to his ancestor. Yet he has a profound sympathy for many of Macaulay’s themes, and draws on his description of Britain in the time of the Glorious Revolution. Without sharing Macaulay’s uncritical enthusiasm for the Whigs, Churchill silently accepts his History of England as the foundation for his own study. This fact, which appears undeniably when one reads the two works in tandem, should not mislead the reader into diminishing Churchill’s revision of Macaulay. The extent of that revision is obscured by the fact that in his biography Churchill refers to Macaulay only to refute his charges against Marlborough. As the combative tone of his introduction to the first volume suggests, however, Churchill understands himself as Macaulay’s rival, and his correction about Marlborough changes the focus of the whole story. Macaulay writes of the Glorious Revolution that laid the foundation for Britain’s greatness, and his hero is the king who restored liberty under law. His history breaks off abruptly with the death of King William III. Churchill argues that the work of William was unfinished when he died, as the work of Macaulay was as well that it remained to defend the Glorious Revolution against the unbroken power of France, and that it was Marlborough who completed the foundation for Britain’s greatness by the victories over Louis XIV that William had sought in vain (cf. I 510-11).

It has been remarked that Churchill’s scholarship in the biography “seems formidable, as in no other of his works.”[viii] Without forsaking the usual grandeur of his prose style, which sets it far above ordinary academic writing, Churchill seems to have wanted to write a book that would meet the peculiar standards of professors as well as making its mark on the opinions of the general public. One critic has charged that “ Churchill started dictating his biography before he had really begun to read about Marlborough—he knew nothing about his subject but he knew what he wanted to say.”[ix] One would think that having read everything he had come across about Marlborough since his childhood would be sufficient preparation to begin writing. The energy which went into his research is remarkable.[x] His footnotes do not demonstrate and demand a command of five foreign languages, as Macaulay’s do, but they do indicate a command of a remarkable range of sources, including foreign documents which provide “a quarry in which few English picks have clinked” (I 493). We shall have occasion to notice some of Churchill’ s discrete additions to our knowledge about Marlborough, through the discovery of sources hitherto unknown. His detective work in uncovering the truth about the memoirs attributed to King James and the Jacobite records in Paris is particularly impressive. He was likewise vigilant in correcting errors made by previous historians, incidental and otherwise.[xi] Always he took pains to include the strongest evidence he could find against the claim he wished to vindicate, so that the reader would not find his book spoiled by unquestioning partisanship or family loyalty at the expense of the truth. Churchill was eager to avoid the imputation or the fact of having a parts pris of the sort that he had discerned in Macaulay.

We end this brief sketch of Churchill’ s differences with Macaulay by considering their contrasting views of progress. The theme of Macaulay’s history is the improvement of England through the modern ascendancy of liberty and commerce: the sordidness and insignificance of human life and endeavor in the days of yore, and the comfort and prosperity that men enjoy because of modern progress, are pointed out with magisterial confidence that nineteenth-century life is to be preferred. No effort is spared to show the reader how grateful he should be for living in modern times, and how dangerous and unpleasant his lot must have been if he had been so unlucky as to live earlier. From Macaulay, the Victorian reader learns a certain smugness, but that feeling is never unmixed with relief. The contrast between Marlborough’s times and his own is also a theme for Churchill. But his preference for the twentieth century is as doubtful as Macaulay’s preference for the nineteenth century is clear. Modern life is more comfortable, but incomparably less grand. A man of mark in Marlborough’s time lived blithely unrestrained by majority opinion; in default of such a check, he had nothing to guide him but his own honor and the reputation he sought to gain among his peers. “It is strange indeed,” Churchill writes, “that such a system should have produced for many generations a succession of greater captains and abler statesmen than all our widely extended education, competitive examinations, and democratic system have put forth” (I 40). He admits that “these were the ages of Pain,” but he argues that

in some ways our forerunners attached more importance to human life than we do…. Their faculties for wonder and indignation had not been blunted and worn away by the catalogues of atrocities and disasters which the advantages of the electric telegraph and the newspaper press place at our disposal every morning and evening. Above all, they were not in a hurry. They made fewer speeches, and lived more meditatively and more at leisure, with companionship rather than motion for their solace. They had far fewer facilities than we have for the frittering away of thought, time, and life. Altogether they were primitive folk, and we must make allowances for their limitations…. (I 42- 43; cf. 568)

The task of the commander in war was also different in those days. In Marlborough’s wars the commander “sat his horse, often in the hottest fire, holding in his mind the position and fortunes of every unit in his army.” His troops looked to his courage as a standard for their own, and he often went to the place where the battle was most doubtful. The modern general commands so many men that he rarely sees the battle himself. For him, “personal encounters are limited to an unpleasant conversation with an army commander who must be dismissed, an awkward explanation to a harassed Cabinet, or an interview with a representative of the neutral Press.” The age in which a great commander might exercise his “sublime function” has now “vanished for ever” (I 570-71), and Churchill notes its passing with no small measure of regret.[xii] Marlborough lived life in its grandeur and its pain in the age of the Glorious Revolution. Bearing in mind the differences between this setting and our own times, we turn now to Winston Churchill’ s story of his life.

John Churchill was born into the England of Oliver Cromwell. The civil war between Cavaliers and Roundheads had divided his own family. His maternal grandmother, Lady Drake, was “of good affection” (quoted at I 22) to the Parliament, while his father Winston was an ardent Royalist who wrote an erudite tome to uphold the divine right of kings. The war had taken a heavy toll within the family circle. Lady Drake’ s house at Ashe had been burnt by the Royalists, and the lady forced to flee to Lyme for safety, “almost naked and without shoe to her foot” (quoted at I 22). Not many years later, the triumphant Roundheads charged Winston Churchill with having been a captain in the king’ s army and fined him £446 18s. (I 25-27).

When the civil war ended in the West Country, “Lady Drake sate indignant on the winning side amid her ruins” (I 27), and her impoverished son-in-law and his family lived in the same house with her for thirteen years. Thus Winston’ s son John grew up, perhaps, “in a home where wants were often denied, and feelings and opinions had nearly always to be repressed” (I 31). The facts about John Churchill’s childhood are few, and our author contributes to their meager stock by discovering the entry of his birth in 1650 in the parish register of St. Michael’s, Musbury (I 30), which had eluded previous biographers. But he speculates that John might have learned both “a hatred of poverty and dependence” and “the need of hiding thoughts and feelings” from the war-torn and divided household, together with “the importance of having friends and connections on both sides of a public quarrel” (I 31). The boy’s education must have profited from the example of his mother Elizabeth, who had to mediate between her mother’s parliamentarism and her husband’s royalism.

Our author quotes The Lives of the Two Illustrious Generals as providing” the only information we have on John’s education”; “the unknown author” of that work, which was published in 1713, claims that “his tender Parents” spared no care to impart to him “a Liberal and Gentile Education,” engaging a local clergyman to “instill sound Principles of Religion into him, that the Seeds of humane Literature might take the deeper Root” (I 32).[xiii] When his father was named a commissioner for Ireland, the son attended the Dublin Free Grammar School; later, when the family returned to England, he was enrolled at St. Paul’s School. In the days before “our widely extended education,” liberal learning was limited to a few, and even those few “read few books,” which, however, they studied and digested “thoroughly.”

In particular, “they were all deeply versed” in the Bible of King James and the Book of Common Prayer (I 40-41). From this circumstance we may suppose that John’s education, both in the hands of the clergyman and afterwards in school, opened to him some few fine books, amongst which no doubt were these. The only other book mentioned by Winston Churchill in recounting the early years of his illustrious ancestor is Vegetius’ s De Re Militari, from which John is supposed to have learned the art of war. Some biographers doubt that the lad’s Latin would have been adequate to the task of comprehending Vegetius, while others aver “that by some occult dispensation our hero was able to extract various modern sunbeams from this ancient cucumber” (I 46). Certain it is that John Churchill’ s book learning never completely freed him from his inability, pointedly noted by Macaulay and ruefully admitted by our author, to “spell the most common words of his own language.” Yet, as Macaulay promptly admits, in the sequel “his acute and vigorous understanding amply supplied the place of book learning”;[xiv] and we move now to the scene where his political judgment was polished by daily observation and practice.

The Restoration which put King Charles II on the throne had also improved the political fortunes of the Cavaliers: Winston Churchill sat in the Cavalier Parliament for eighteen years beginning in 1661, and his appointment as commissioner for Ireland has already been mentioned. Several years later, the Duchess of York offered Winston’s eldest daughter, Arabella, an appointment as maid of honor. Arabella had no particular success at court until one day she fell off her horse in a riding party that included the Duke, afterwards King James II; he “was inflamed by the spectacle of beauty in distress and also in disarray”(I 47), and Arabella became his mistress. So far from being mortified by her shame, her family rejoiced at the favor of the King’ s brother and heir, who by making Arabella’s father four times a grandfather did him an honor that was “no mere formality” (I 186). One of these by-blows was James Fitzjames, the Duke of Berwick, who eventually became a general in the French service and exceeded in perspicacity the native marshals who opposed his mother’s younger brother. That brother, John Churchill, at about the age of sixteen now took his place as a page in the service of the Duke of York, in whose household he remained until he crossed over to William of Orange in 1688. When the young Churchill evinced a strong interest in the army, he was made an ensign and seems to have served at Tangier, where he fought against the Moors.

Upon his return to England, he rose to share the favors, or probably to win the preference, of the Duchess of Cleveland, sometime mistress to the King. Previously she had shared an affectionate friendship with the young officer, and now “desire walked with opportunity, and neither was denied” (I 59). It was she who favored Churchill with a gift of £5000 to which his detractors give the color of a payment; it was this gift which Churchill used to buy an annuity from Lord Halifax, a shrewd investment which provoked Macaulay’ s memorable, if unjust remark that he was “one of the few who have in the bloom of youth loved lucre more than wine or women.”[xv] If our author inclines rather to credit his ancestor’s entanglement to “those overpowering compulsions which leap flaming from the crucible of life itself “ (I 92), and to second Paget’ s defense of a man who “corrupted no innocence” and “invaded no domestic peace,”[xvi] he presents the facts to the reader and lets him choose” according to his temperament and inclination” (I 64). Though historians” diligently fail to avert their eyes” from these scenes of a dissolute court, our author allows that the reader must inevitably find them “a painful interlude” (I 39, 47).

In his early twenties John Churchill had remarkable success in his military career. Louis XIV made war on Holland, and England, which under King Charles II had secretly contracted an alliance with France, also declared war on the Dutch. In 1672 the Duke of York led the defense of the English fleet, which was heavily outnumbered by the Dutch, against the attack by Admiral De Ruyter at the Battle of Sole Bay, and Churchill distinguished himself so much as to earn a double promotion. The next year Churchill was one of a few English officers who fought under the Duke of Monmouth at Louis’s siege of Maestricht. The fortress was attacked at “a half-moon work in front of the Brussels gate,” and after three assaults it is said to have been Churchill who finally “planted the French standard on the parapet of the half-moon” (I 89). The Dutch counter-attacked, and Churchill, together with Monmouth and the famous French officer d’ Artagnan, led the fierce allied resistance; Churchill was wounded and afterwards publicly thanked by the French king. Monmouth commended him to Charles II as “the brave man who saved my life” (I 92). England made peace with Holland in 1674, but a reduced number of English troops remained in the French service. Churchill, skipping two more ranks at a bound, rose to the command of an English regiment under Marshal Turenne and fought against the Empire in the Battle of Enzheim. In that battle, as Churchill wrote afterwards to Monmouth, half of the French foot “was so posted that they did not fight at all”; for all its characteristic restraint, his dispatch “does not conceal the resentment of a Colonel whose soldiers have been ill-used and slaughtered in a foreign quarrel” (I 103). Our author concludes that it “is going too far” to assert, as is customary, that his great ancestor “learned the art of war from Turenne”:

No competent officer of that age could watch the composed genius of Turenne in action without being enriched thereby. But no battle ever repeats itself. The success of a commander does not arise from following rules or models. It consists in an absolutely new comprehension of the dominant facts of the situation at the time, and all the forces at work. Cooks use recipes for dishes and doctors have prescriptions for diseases, but every great operation of war is unique. The kind of intelligence capable of grasping in its complete integrity what is actually happening in the field is not taught by the tactics of commanders on one side or the other—though these may train the mind—but by a profound appreciation of the actual event. There is no surer road to ill-success in war than to imitate the plans of bygone heroes and to fit them to novel situations.

Churchill fought with Turenne in other campaigns, and he continued to think intensively about war, as he had “ever since he came of age,” while having the chance to learn “every detail of active service” (I 105-106).

But not all of his exploits were made under the planet of Mars (I 100). In 1675 John Churchill first began to feel that “mysterious command of a man’s spirit to unite himself forever . . . to a being all his own” (I 119). From about the time when he began to dance with Sarah Jennings, whom he met in the court circle, the Duchess of Cleveland was forgotten. John and Sarah loved each other “not at first sight indeed, but at first recognition,” and “it lasted for ever; neither of them thenceforward loved anyone else in their whole lives, though Sarah hated many” (I 108). Our author provides specimens of their love letters which were better left tied fast with velvet ribbon: treacle and profuse on his side, “short, severe, and almost repellent” on hers (I 109). Despite the slanders later penned in Queen Zarah by Mrs. Manley or “a scribe of the same kidney” (I 120 n. 1), it was not by any trick, but rather by her fierceness, that Sarah gained his hand. Churchill had refused a place in Monmouth’ s regiment in order to be with her; but his parents urged him to marry a rich girl, and he was at a loss to see how he and Sarah could make a living. Against his quandary she maintained “a steady, bayonet-bristling front”(I 117), prudently anticipating Tocqueville’s admonition that a woman ought not to trust a man who “is perfectly free to marry her and does not do so.”[xvii] As she wrote John, “If it were true that you have that passion for me which you say you have, you would find out some way to make yourself happy—it is in your power” (I 121). John, who had written her that if she loved him, his “happiness would be so great that it would make me immortal,” was “panic-stricken” at the thought “that he and Sarah might miss one another, might drift apart, might pass and sail away like ships in the night” (I 123, 125).

It was at this moment that this man, execrated for his avarice by Macaulay, surrendered his inheritance to pay off his father’s debts, and that the couple’ s financial prospects were most unpromising. Yet John did not weaken in his purpose, and he found “some way” to marry Sarah “some time in the winter of 1677-78” (I 117, 129). Macaulay can only explain John’s decision to marry by saying that “he must have been enamoured indeed” for his love to have “ prevailed over his avarice”;[xviii] but our author discerns in Macaulay’ s incredulity his little understanding for “the glory of that wedlock in which the vast majority of civilized mankind find happiness and salvation in a precarious world”(I 130). In his marriage, as he did on the field of battle, John Churchill dared all and dared well (I 423). After his death, when his aging widow was courted by the Duke of Somerset, she rejected his suit with this memorable testament to her husband: “If I were young and handsome as I was, instead of old and faded as I am, and you could lay the empire of the world at my feet, you should never share the heart and hand that once belonged to John, Duke of Marlborough.” Winston Churchill was so stirred by her tribute that he quoted it twice, here at the beginning of the marriage and again after Marlborough’s death (I 131, II 1038) making it the frame within which we survey the events of a marriage that stretched from impecunious beginnings to the greatest honors under the crown.


During his first ten years in the household of James, John Churchill grew to maturity; during his second ten years, after his marriage, a rift began to grow between him and his master. In part, the divergence arose from his patron’s character. The Duke was returning to London by frigate with a considerable retinue when the ship foundered, and only forty people were saved out of the three hundred on board. The catastrophe was aggravated by the Duke’s false sense of courage, which made him delay in abandoning the ship, leaving his compatriots to die a miserable death as he left at the last minute in the only available boat, accompanied by his priests, his dogs, and a few close friends like Churchill. Though Churchill said nothing to James, what he told Sarah made it clear that in this extremity he had seen to the bottom of the Duke’s soul and looked on him with “deep disapproval”(I 157-58).

More fateful was the difference of religion between Churchill and James: though Churchill handled “many a secret or delicate negotiation” for the Duke, and his presence as a Protestant in James’s household “could be paraded as a proof of the toleration of the heir to the throne,” he could not be part of the Duke’s “close, fervent necklace of priests and co-religionists” (I 145). At the same time, his attachment to James, though still strong, was gradually being replaced by an attachment to the Duke’ s daughter, the Princess Anne, who had been Sarah’s playmate from the tenderest years and had grown to love her in a “romantic, indeed perfervid” way (I 166). The unusual closeness of the tie can be gathered from the fact that later, when both Sarah and Anne were young wives, the Princess suggested that they overcome the distinction of rank between them by using pen names in their intimate correspondence. Thus the future Queen became Mrs. Morley, Sarah became Mrs. Freeman, her husband became Mr. Freeman, and while the Princess showed the Churchills every mark of special favor, John Churchill came to regard himself as Anne’s “protector and guide”:

He was her shield against the shocks and intrigues of politics and stood between her and the violent men of both parties. To secure her safety, her well-being, her peace of mind against all assaults, even in the end against Sarah herself, became the rule of his life. Never by word or action in the course of their long association, with all its historic stresses—not to the very end—not even in the bitter hour of dismissal—did he vary in his fidelity to Anne as Princess or Queen, nor in his chivalry to her as a woman. (I 167-68)

By the command of King Charles II, Princess Anne, like her elder sister Mary, had been raised strictly a Protestant, and she thought of the Church of England as “the one sure hope in this world and the next” (I 168). The difference of religion that separated the Churchills from James was no bar to the closeness of their ties with his daughter.

At the beginning of 1685 Churchill was in his middle thirties and “in a position to judge men and affairs upon excellent information” (I 178). He had witnessed “the five years’ pitiless duel between King Charles II and his ex-Minister Shaftesbury,” which engendered the English party system as the “sides in the Great Rebellion” gave place to “parties, less picturesque, but no less fierce.” He had observed the patience of the King while the Whigs were ascendant and his craftiness in treating the claims of the Duke of York in the face of widespread fear of “Popery and Slavery.”[xix] With growing disaffection he had watched James’s misgovernment of Scotland during his northern exile in that kingdom and his testy refusal to make any compromise with a nation deeply attached to the Church of England; as early as 1681 he had written his cousin that because of the Duke’s obstinacy “sooner or later we must be all undone” (I 155).

With growing comprehension and admiration he had watched the famous Halifax trimming between the extremes of both parties and swimming “instinctively against the stream”; our author avers that “whether or not John learned war from Turenne, he certainly learned politics from Halifax” (I 173-74). The King had bested his foes. The future was clouded by his brother’s lack of sympathy with the dominant religion of England. His bastard son, the Protestant Duke of Monmouth, had pretensions to the throne and many well-wishers among the Whigs. Across the sea William of Orange, Stadtholder of Holland and husband of James’s elder daughter Mary, surveyed the English scene with the sympathy of Protestants and “a steady confidence in his capacity,” when the moment came, to break his father-in-law’s neck. The King might have hoped that the prospects would improve with time, but “he could not measure the deep inroads which continuous sexual excitement had wrought upon his vigorous frame” (I 177). In January of that year he died in the fifty-fifth year of his age, leaving an anxious nation in the hands of his brother James.

The new king made a prosperous beginning by his moderate demeanor and by assurances to his countrymen that he would respect their religion. He was not, indeed, successful in persuading all Englishmen to be his well-wishers. In his Dutch exile the Duke of Monmouth, convinced by flatterers that his moment had come, left the arms of Lady Wentworth (who loved him well, but “loved also that he should be a king”[I 184]) and against his better judgment made a descent on England. Both his aims and his following were uncertain. He sought to depose King James II, but his own pretensions to the throne rested on the flimsy chance that King Charles II had secretly married Monmouth’s mother. He would have been willing to accept the throne from a people grateful for their deliverance from a Popish prince, but he did not quite feel justified in claiming it for himself. Yet many were unwilling to fight to depose King James except for the sake of the rightful king.

When at length Monmouth yielded to persuasion and had himself proclaimed king, he outraged some of the Whigs without reassuring the Royalists. Even his odd moniker, “King Monmouth,” chosen to avoid the confusion of his being also “King James II,” suggested his irresolution and had a false ring. Though disaffected Protestants in the West Country adhered to his cause, the parliamentarians and Protestants at court came to the defense of the King. Monmouth’s descent began badly, as he tossed nineteen days in the Channel, and it ended ignominiously with the vain and cowardly effort he made to escape with his own skin, leaving the men who had rallied to his side to be cut to pieces by the King’ s regular troops. Monmouth’s expedition is a testament to the impotence of false hopes, to the difficulty of treason, to the empire of chance in human affairs, and to the littleness of Monmouth himself, who never justified the hopes of his friends or the fears of his enemies. He was bested by the troops of the King, nominally under the command of the Frenchman Feversham, who was said to have slept through the key battle, but actually animated by John Churchill. Monmouth was caught cowering in a ditch, disguised as a shepherd, and paid for his rebellion with his head. Churchill had to content himself with honors second to those of Feversham, who had been made the commander because he was a Catholic, and he was left to consider the limits of the trust that the King reposed in him.

Monmouth’s ill-fated descent was followed by military reprisals in the Continental style superintended by Feversham, who lacked an Englishman’s regard for civil liberty, and then by the infamous “Bloody Assize,” under the direction of the Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys, in which West Country Protestants were condemned, despoiled, and sold into slavery on the least suspicion of involvement with the rebels. Churchill took no part in the military reprisals, but he did arrange an audience with the King for the sister of two Baptists condemned to death. As the lady stood in the antechamber awaiting her audience with the King, however, Churchill had to warn her that the marble mantle-piece was “as capable of feeling compassion as the King’s heart” (quoted at I 200); and indeed her brothers were both hanged. Encouraged by Monmouth’ s defeat and the loyalty of Parliament, the King began to unfold his ambitious plan to “make England a Catholic country and himself an absolute monarch” (I 201). He sought the repeal of the Test Act, which required that public officials be Protestants, and of the Habeas Corpus Act, and he was eager to establish a strong standing army, leaving Catholic officers appointed during the rebellion in their posts.

The Cavalier Parliament, whose devotion to monarchy was matched only by adherence to the Church of England and abhorrence of a standing army, gradually made the hideous discovery that the King was conspiring to subvert the constitution and religion of England. Fearing the restive spirit of the House of Lords, who had begun to regard his plans with no very friendly eye, the King prorogued Parliament, and it never met again during his reign. By assertion of the dispensing power, unknown to the constitution but now recognized by a court of judges hand-picked for subservience, James excepted his co-religionists from the Test Act and introduced them into the high offices of church and state. The King had begun with the good wishes of Parliament, and with restraint and judgment he might have persuaded his countrymen to ease the restrictions against Catholics. Now instead, among the most devoted Royalists, support began to melt away because of the “infinite imprudence” (I 205) of his policies.

 “In those days,” our author writes, “the King was the actual head of the executive Government; he chose his own Ministers and settled his own policy. There was no recognized right of opposition to the Government…. Indeed, the distinction was very nice between opposition and treason” (I 205). The Established Church preached above all the subject’s duty to obey the King. Yet James’s designs engendered resistance, and in one of its earliest manifestations Churchill bulked large. As the junior juror in the trial of Lord Delamere before the House of Lords, on a jury chosen for their opposition to the politics of the defendant, it fell to Churchill to give his verdict first. Delamere was undoubtedly “a dangerous Whig”(I204), but his complicity in Monmouth’s rebellion had not been proven. Churchill led the thirty jurors in unanimous acquittal of the defendant, much to the irritation of the King.

For the next several years, he watched unsympathetically as the King’ s provocations increased, giving offense to “above nine parts in ten of the whole people” (I 215). The King published his first Declaration of Indulgence in April 1687 and began to force Catholics upon the universities. He bid for the support of Protestant Dissenters against the Established Church, seeking to form a curious coalition of extremes against the center; but the persecution of all Protestants by his French ally after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes left the Puritans with many suspicions. A year later he published a second and broader Declaration of Indulgence and ordered that it be read out from every pulpit. When the bishops refused, he sent them to the Tower. At the same time, the Queen surprised the nation by giving birth to a son, upsetting previous expectations that an interval of Papist tyranny would end with the accession of another Protestant. The prospect of permanent Catholic rule was intolerable. Whigs muttered that “a suppositious child” had been smuggled into the Queen’s bedroom in a warming-pan; and the nation, with a “characteristic instinct and ingenuity . . . for reconciling facts, law, and propriety with public interests and their own desires,” eagerly adopted this legend as an article of faith (I 239-40; cf. I545). But by this time the King’s plot had given rise to a national counter-plot: behind the King’s back, the ill-used nation looked with hope to William.

The Prince of Orange had long observed the disgruntlement of England in alliance with the Catholic King of France, and he meant to use his own claim to the throne to detach England from Louis’ s sphere. Yet he had no wish to repeat as tragedy the story that Monmouth had already traced as farce. As Monmouth’ s more serious rival, the Prince had had some part in the failure of his expedition. William might have prevented Monmouth’s ships from leaving Holland to cross the Channel, but somehow Monmouth was suffered to depart. Then William repatriated the English regiments stationed in Holland with alacrity so that they could contribute to the defeat of Monmouth, and even offered to command them himself-an offer that the King made haste to decline. For some years, since Monmouth’s venture, William had received pleas from English statesmen to relieve the ills of England, and for as long he had insisted on written pledges of support in case he made the descent. Churchill had been one of the first to give a guarantee, writing in March 1687 to assure the Prince of Orange that he would be true to his religion and that William could count on the same devotion from the Princess. He was “resolved, although I cannot live the life of a saint, if there be ever occasion for it, to show the resolution of a martyr” (quoted at I 213).

Fifteen months later he wrote again to William, consigning his honor to your royal highness’s hands, in which I think it safe,” and assuring him of his “entire obedience” (quoted at I 2240). Our author, calling this letter “a deadly guarantee,” contrasts John Churchill’s eagerness to give “such a hostage” to William with “his life of reticence, diplomacy, and precaution” (I 240). In fact, Churchill had become one of the Prince’s principal agents in the national counter-plot and took the leading part in managing the defection of the army from his master the King. The success of William’s enterprise would depend on the skill of his confederates in privily knitting together a vast web of fellow conspirators ready to adhere to him when he made the descent, but to act in concert against the King was treason; and Churchill, working from his post “at the King’s side in his bedroom, at his toilet, behind his chair at meals, and on horseback beside his carriage, just as he had been since he was a page,” excelled in this delicate work. He seemed untroubled by the strains of conducting treason under his master’s nose:

On the surface he showed no trace of embarrassment. He possessed to a degree almost sublime the prosaic gift of common sense. His sure judgment and serene, dispassionate nature enabled him, amid the most baffling problems of interest and duty, to dwell inwardly and secretly at peace with his gravely taken decisions; and, of course, without further self-questionings to take in due season all measures necessary to render them effectual. (I 221)

Churchill had decided that the designs of the King threatened the constitution and the religion of England, and that armed power in William’s hands was the effectual means of resistance. He did not shrink from the consequences of his decision: certainly this was treason, but coolly resolved and blandly conducted, without melodrama.

Winston Churchill is concerned to present the circumstances and ramifications of his ancestor’ s decision to adhere to William—the more so because that decision was considered an ungrateful betrayal by Macaulay and others. We can understand the choices open to John Churchill by surveying the parts taken by others. With deep disgust the nation had watched the Earl of Sunderland become a Catholic in order to ingratiate himself with the King. As the King’ s principal minister, he had encouraged his “autocratic and Papist designs” (I 242) until they had led to James’s ruin. Then, when it was too late to regain the nation’s confidence, he had urged the King to temporize with the grievances of his opponents rather than to grasp the profferred aid of his French ally. These enthusiasms and backslidings, which helped undo the King, against all odds left the Earl still on his feet in the new regime. Some imputed a deep design to Sunderland’ s bad counsel. But our author has a likelier explanation: the Earl was “one of those dangerous beings who, with many gifts of mind, have no principle of action; who do not care what is done, so long as they are in the centre of it; to whom bustle, excitement, intrigue, are the breath of life; and whose dance from one delirium to another seems almost necessary to their sanity” (I 243).

John Churchill was not tempted by Sunderland’s choice of opportunistic apostasy and reckless advice. That he meant to stand by his religion he had told both James and Louis from early in the reign (I 183, 215). But Sunderland’s irresponsibility was not the only kind. Monmouth had been raised to the summit of armed uprising by the popular discontent and then taken fright, leaving the brave knot of simples at his side to the awful vengeance of the King. A course as irresponsible was open to John Churchill, and it is a course with a specious attraction for modern men used to politics with lower stakes. Nowadays a man who has discovered irreconcilable differences with the government in which he serves can simply resign and retire to the country. If he runs the risk of being forgotten by most, still he will not be blamed by many. It would not have been so easy for John Churchill:

No one who had been so close to the sovereign could, while he was in the full flush of manly activity and acquainted with so many secrets, retire without incurring the gravest suspicions. Instead of dwelling at Holywell with his family, he would probably have found himself in the Tower. He could, no doubt, have attempted to leave the kingdom and follow the long string of refugees and exiles who gathered in the Netherlands. But a simple flight like this would have been only to abandon simultaneously his King and his country; at once to desert the cause of Protestantism and to leave the Princess Anne, who had hitherto followed his guidance and depended so much upon him, in complete isolation.

Churchill had tried to arrange for the Princess to go to The Hague, where he and Sarah would have accompanied her. He had tried to obtain the command of the British troops in Holland, where he could have been of service to William. Both courses had been closed to him by the King. He might simply have flown, but to fly would have reduced him “ to a cipher” and destroyed “all his means of service to causes which profoundly stirred him” (I 222); under the circumstances, he would have been culpable, as Monmouth was, for leaving behind people who trusted and depended on him. So he remained in the household of the King, who knew his mind and kept him on “at his own risk”(I 223).

Against the execrations of John Churchill’s critics Winston Churchill outlines the choices available to his ancestor. The critics grant that William’s accession was a “wonderful deliverance of which all stood sorely in need,” but nonetheless they criticize Churchill’s desertion from the King. Since loyalty to the King ought not to require a man to act in a way “contrary to a man’s conscience and to the interests of his native land,” our author concludes that Churchill was justified in leaving him. The only questions, he writes, are “When? and How?” Would the critics be right to suggest that Churchill should have departed earlier? But to have left James when he wrote his first letter to William, or even his second, would have been premature, given the signs that the King might reverse his policies; while to have left him in the fall of 1688, after hopes of improvement had disappeared, would also have been to leave William already tossing on the seas, counting on help that Churchill could give him only if he stayed at his post (I 252). Such “a flight from responsibility” would only have been “treachery in another and an abject form. It was a hideous situation into which he had been drawn,” our author concludes,

by no fault of his own, by no unwise or wrongful action, by no failure of service, by no abandonment of principle. But it was a situation which had to be faced and dealt with calmly and sensibly in the manner most likely to minimize the public dangers and sufferings, and to procure a good result for his country and for himself. Moreover, in conspiracies and rebellions the penalties for failure are rightly so severe that all who are unluckily drawn into them have not only a vital need for themselves, but also a duty to others associated with them and to the cause at stake, to ensure success, and above all bloodless success, by forethought and every well-concerted measure. To lure, like Monmouth, associates and humble followers on fools’ errands to their doom can find no defenders. Thus Churchill had to go through with his undertakings, and by such steps as were likely to win. (I 253)

Our modern morality, which in the way of Immanuel Kant makes more of intentions than it does of effects, is too critical of the man who makes practical choices in circumstances less than fully choice worthy, as circumstances always are, and too friendly to the man who refrains from taking any part in practical choices lest he find himself required to take responsibility for those circumstances. The circumstances in which John Churchill found himself were certainly repellent, yet it would have been shameful for him to have taken the course that his critics seem to prefer. Well may our author charge those critics with “some confusion of thought” (I 252; cf. 270, 822-23).

Churchill’s betrayal was the most galling of all to the King, both because it was so unexpected and because it ended his false hopes of a loyal resistance to the Prince of Orange. It left the King crying down vengeance upon him and secretly despairing. Afterwards wild stories circulated about the part Churchill took in the rebellion. Some said that he had sought to deliver the King to his enemies, and had himself “undertaken to stab him in his coach.” Noting that “even Macaulay” does not adopt this accusation, our author shows that it would hardly have been in Churchill’s interest to murder the King, since William could have strengthened his position by rigorous punishment of the assassin. Silently adopting a phrase from Macaulay, he rejects the slander on “these low but solid grounds” (I 259). What is not in dispute is that on the night of November 23, 1688, after arranging for Princess Anne to join William’s camp shortly thereafter, John Churchill left the army of James as it gathered to oppose the Prince of Orange, accompanied by about four hundred officers and troopers. He left the King a letter explaining that his departure was “actuated by a higher principle” than his own interest—by “the inviolable dictates of my conscience, and a necessary concern for my religion (which no good man can oppose)…” (quoted at I 263). Between servant and sovereign there had arisen different views of what England ought to be. The King sought a Catholic England, allied with France, aiming to extirpate Protestantism in Europe. His departing general

saw the rise of Britain to the summit of Europe, curbing and breaking with the aid of William of Orange the overweening power of France. He saw himself, with the Dutchman if need be, or under England’s Protestant Princess, advancing at the head of armies to the destruction of that proud dominion. He may even have seen at this early time the building up upon the ruins of the French splendour of a British greatness which should spread far and wide throughout the world and set its stamp upon the future. (I 264)

After Churchill’s desertion the King collapsed in spirit, and thenceforth his only thought was to escape to France with his wife and son. The success of that desertion in provoking the King’s own desertion made it, “although compulsory and inevitable, the most poignant and challengeable action of his life”(I 265).


When James had quitted the soil of England, the nation welcomed William and Mary as their new sovereigns, and John Churchill found a high place in the King’ s favor. At the coronation, in April 1689, he was created the Earl of Marlborough: gratifying for him and convenient for us, since henceforth his descendant, our author, can without confusion be called simply Churchill. He was given the job of reconstituting the English army, and in May led it in the allied campaign against the French in Flanders. Finding the troops “in very poor condition,” he made great improvements in both “training and discipline”(I 278) and had good success under the Prince of Waldeck at the Battle of Walcourt that August.

But a dispute arose between Queen Mary and her sister Anne about the Princess’s income in which the Marlboroughs took the side of Anne, and their relations with William grew cooler. The next year the King did send Marlborough to command an Irish expedition, and he succeeded in the capture of Cork and Kinsale, which the British military historian Fortescue judged to be “far the most brilliant achievements of the war.”[xx] But in the campaign after that the Irish command went to a Dutchman, while Marlborough served in Flanders with the King—under whom, Churchill supposes, he learned “some methods of war to be avoided” (I 294). William was a consummate statesman but not an inspired general. His propensity to favor his own countrymen was unpopular in England, and no one suffered more from his refusal to trust English officers than Marlborough did. The Earl began to “come to the conclusion that William meant to keep him down,” and “he took it all very much amiss”(I 306). He felt his ability to “reshape the scene,” but more than ten years “were to pass before he was again to exercise a military command” (I 309), and he needed all the patience he could muster.

During that time, darker days were to come. Marlborough moved politically with Halifax, who grasped “the essential interest of England.” Churchill explains that “it was an epoch of divided loyalties, of conflicting interests, of criss-cross ties, of secret reserves and much dissembling.” Because there was not yet any idea of a loyal opposition, and “resistance to a misguided king was treason,” statesmen could not easily manage to survive a change of the government. But they “often endeavoured when possible to minimize their risks and to mitigate for themselves and their families the consequences of a dynastic change” (I 298-99). Since no such risks remain for modern men, we are inclined to mistake the overtures that statesmen then made to the exiled King as treasonable. Historians have reasoned from scanty evidence that all of William’s ministers were disloyal to him and treacherously encouraged a restoration of James.

There is evidence that William himself was more understanding: if he did not encourage, he at least connived at the respects that his chief ministers paid to James at Saint-Germains. But there is no doubt that Marlborough, like many others at court, maintained a correspondence with the exiled King; what is worse, he opposed William and seemed to the Jacobites to favor a restoration of James, whom he had abandoned in 1688. This was “the most unhappy and questionable period in Marlborough’s life,” and Churchill does not try to clear his ancestor of every charge against him. He admits that “no complete justification will be found,” but he advises the reader that

the picture is not one to be painted in bold blacks and whites. We gaze upon a scene of greys shading indefinably, mysteriously, in and out of one another. A mere recital of facts and outlines would give no true description without a comprehension of the atmosphere. We have to analyse half-tones and discern the subtle planes upon which the subject depends for its interpretation. Finally we have, to some extent, to judge the work by standards different from those which now prevail. (I 321-22)

This correspondence with the exiled court was the background for the nadir of Marlborough’ s position in the new reign, in 1692-93. The Jacobites hoped to make a descent upon England, and a forged document appeared in London which purported to be Marlborough’s pledge to capture William and to aid in the restoration of James. Marlborough was arrested and thrown into the Tower. Sarah was so dismal that the Princess urged her, “for God’s sake,” to take care of herself “and give as little way to melancholy thoughts as you can,” suggesting that she might improve her spirits by drinking asses’ milk (quoted at I 355). Marlborough himself protested his entire innocence, and in the sequel he was released after the forgery was exposed. But his contacts with Saint-Germains made him anxious throughout that the color of treason would attach to his correspondence if other documents chanced to come to light. “His nerves were steel” (I 361), but it was a narrow escape.

Marlborough has not escaped the censure of historians for betraying William’s plans for an expedition to Brest. In the spring of 1694, William planned to attack the French fleet in the harbor of Camaret Bay, both in hopes of destroying French naval power and as a diversion from the main front in Flanders. When the British forces under General Tollemache put in at Brest on June 6, they were repulsed by a terrible fire, leaving behind more than a thousand men dead. The French were better prepared than the General expected. Tollemache, who received a mortal wound in the battle, died claiming that his expedition had been betrayed. Macaulay asserts that the French had received intelligence of William’s plans from a letter written to James at Saint-Germains by Marlborough, who wanted to destroy the reputation of Tollemache, his former subordinate and military rival. It was “this basest of all the hundred villanies of Marlborough,” he writes, that consigned the brave Tollemache “to a fate never to be mentioned without shame and indignation.”[xxi] Churchill points out that the secret of the Brest expedition had not been closely held, that the French had received intelligence of the plan from a number of sources, that the English knew it ahead of time, and that Tollemache was peculiarly obstinate in insisting on the attack even though he knew the place to be prepared.

Not just Marlborough, but “Shrewsbury, Russell, Godolphin, Sunderland, Halifax, and later Somers, together with many other less important figures,” are supposed to have been unfaithful to William, and historians have depicted “them all as cheats and villains of the deepest dye” (I 311). Churchill explains how William’ s advisors might have misled the Jacobite agents about their real intentions by giving them compromising information that they knew the French already had. He even invents an imaginary conversation between William and Godolphin, “probably more true to life and reality than the monstrous assumptions which historians have adopted” (I 372 n. 1) showing how his advisors might have befuddled the Jacobites with William’ s knowledge and approval. Marlborough’s relations with Saint-Germains were part of his intelligence gathering: he obtained useful information from the Jacobites and gave them nothing useful in return. Early in 1704, for instance, Marlborough would learn as he entertained the Jacobite agent Hooke that the Duke of Berwick, most formidable of the French generals, had been sent to Spain, far from his own intended march to the Danube. For decades Marlborough was to keep up a friendly correspondence with the exiled court. Somehow, though, the hopes he held out to the Jacobites never quite materialized. “And so,” Churchill explains,

a month or perhaps a week later—a swift march, a sudden assault, thrusting out of a cloud of honeyed words and equivocation, changed fortunes in the field. Webs of intrigue, crossings, double-crossings, stratagems, contrivances, deceit; with smiles, compliments, nods, bows, and whispers-then crash! sudden reversion to a violent and de- cisive military event. The cannon intervene. (I 330)

Marlborough was a master of deception (cf. II 303), and if historians are also deceived about his real intentions, it may simply be that his deceptions have continued to work, sometimes to the detriment of his own reputation, long after they have finished serving their practical purpose of perplexing his enemies.

But Marlborough’ s supposed betrayal of the Brest expedition, which originally dissuaded Churchill from writing his life, poses problems for his defenders even if his letter gives no information but what the French already had by other hands. Those defenders, led by Paget, whose book Lord Rosebery had recommended to Churchill, have satisfactorily shown

that Marlborough’ s letter was not the means by which the French learned the news; that their preparations had begun at least a month before; that Marlborough knew from Godolphin that the French were aware of the plan; that he only sought to ingratiate himself with James II by revealing what was already known; and that he delayed sending the news until he was sure it would arrive too late to influence events. (I 374)

Yet our author cannot be satisfied with these excuses in Marlborough’s defense.[xxii] Even if they acquit him of the charges put by Macaulay, the Camaret Bay letter gives “precise details,” about the number of regiments and ships, and about the dates on which they were to be deployed, which might have been of use to the French had the English attack been delayed. “Although the letter did not influence events,” Churchill writes, “it might have done so. If it were ever written it must leave upon the character of John Churchill an ineffaceable and fatal stain.” It is no part of Churchill’s purpose to make apologies for a man who betrays his fellow soldier: “. . . in every age the loyalty of a general to his comrades in the army, to the troops he has led and may lead again, is an inflexible obligation” (I 375). But did Marlborough actually write the letter? Both his critics and his defenders have supposed that he did. When Churchill looked into the provenance of the letter, however, he was surprised to discover that no such letter existed, but only what purports to be a copy of it, in French translation.

The existing letter, supposedly sent as a ciphered communication across the Channel from the Jacobite spy General Sackville to the Earl of Melfort in Saint-Germains, and then transcribed by his Under Secretary, gives the gist “of a letter or possibly of a verbal message” said to have been received from Marlborough. Churchill concludes that “such evidence would not hang a dog” (I 380). Melfort, the supposed recipient of the letter, had just been dismissed by James because of his disreputable zeal for Rome, and it would have been to his advantage to show his indispensability as James’s link to Marlborough. That Melfort might have concocted this letter with that aim in view is suggested by the crude attempt, by means of a cover letter, to insinuate that his rival, Lord Middleton, was unreliable. Seven years later he “got into trouble for a treacherous trick with another letter” (I 383); and Churchill suspects that he and his Under Secretary forged both letters in order to advance their position at court. He admits that he cannot prove the forgery, but he shows that Melfort possessed both the motive and the mendacity to have done it.

The only other original evidence we have of Marlborough’s betrayal, and the one relied on by Macaulay, is the autobiography left by James, which mentions the letter. Here again, Churchill discovers that the document is not what it seems. James did make some notes for an autobiography, but they ended with the Restoration in 1660. Those notes, together with records of the years between 1660 and the King’s death in exile in 1701, seem to have been the source of the document we have, The Life of James II collected out of Memoirs writ of his own hand; but the material had to be knitted together before it could serve as “that fountain” to which “during the eighteenth century a few select persons came from time to time to sip and drink, or even to carry away a beaker or two”(I 314). Both internal evidence, such as a reference in the book to the late King James, and external evidence, such as a letter hitherto unpublished that names William Dicconson, a clerk at Saint-Germains, as the author, suggest that the document we have was written after James’s death under the direction of his son, the Old Pretender, as biography rather than autobiography.

Since there were no records from James himself about the years in question, all evidence about the supposed misdeeds of Marlborough and William’s other ministers had to come from other sources. Churchill shows that Dicconson, in compiling James’ s memoirs, had in hand the so-called Nairne Papers, including the Camaret Bay letter that we have already considered. But the Nairne who compiled them is the very Under Secretary to Melfort in whose handwriting we have the forged letter. The accounts of Marlborough’s treachery in the two documents prove to have but one source, which we have already seen to have been discredited. Whatever communication Marlborough had with the exiled Jacobites, he was false neither in intention nor in fact “to the cause of Protestantism and constitutional freedom, “nor did his actions jeopardize” the safety of England or the lives of her soldiers and sailors” (I 322). On the strength of this evidence, some of it unknown to Macaulay, Churchill thinks that the great Whig historian owes his ancestor an apology.

During the first years of the 1690s, Marlborough’s relations with William, though not treacherous, were certainly antagonistic. A divergence of interest had arisen between him and the King, who feared “this ambitious, aggrieved, outspoken, calculating, bland, and redoubtable personality” and denied him all employment, despite his superior military talents (I 341). For his part, Marlborough “had sunk now to the minor and unpleasant position of being a critic of mishandled affairs with whose main intention he agreed”(I 364). Churchill asks “whether his actions were dictated by undue self-interest,” remarking that

Reasonable care for a man’ s own interest is neither a public nor a private vice. It is affectation to pretend that statesmen and soldiers who have gained fame in history have been indifferent to their own advancement, incapable of resenting injuries, or guided in their public action only by altruism. It is when self-interest assumes a slavish or ferocious form, or when it outweighs all other interests in a man’s soul, that the censures of history are rightly applied. (I 322; cf. II 223-24)

With his own interests neglected, with the Princess Anne subjected to the indignities of a “Court guerrilla” orchestrated by the Queen (I 364), Marlborough was justified in his asperity towards the King. Yet the cause of the dispute suddenly disappeared at the end of 1694 with the death of Queen Mary. William was not a man to hold a grudge: it is arguable that “his wise tolerance and prudent blind eye were the perfection of his statecraft”(I 339). Marlborough’ s influence began to grow again, and eventually he was appointed governor of Anne’s eldest son.

By the end of 1696, William was “at the height of his glory.” Louis XIV decided to make peace with the allies, hoping that William’s Grand Alliance would dissolve as soon as the pressure of war was removed. The Peace of Ryswick was “the most solid check that Louis had yet sustained,” yet as a gambit for weakening his enemies it soon had good success. William saw that the allies might be safe only if he could “deal with Louis XIV as an equal,” but for that he needed a considerable British army (I 427). Parliament was disposed to think that the end to war meant an end to danger:

This phase has often recurred in our history. In fact, it has been an invariable rule that England, so steadfast in war, so indomitable in peril, should at the moment when the dire pressures are relaxed and victory has been won cast away its fruits. Having made every sacrifice, having performed prodigies of strength and valour, our countrymen under every franchise or party have always fallen upon the ground in weakness and futility when a very little more perseverance would have made them supreme, or at least secure. (I 427-28; cf. II 22)

Most of the army was dissolved, and what remained of its horse “was largely occupied in hunting down their old comrades-in-arms now driven into outlawry”(I 429). The King’s plea for Parliament to allow him the strength to maintain England’s position abroad was lost in the jealousies of domestic parties. The House of Commons “were ignorant or disdainful” of the requirements of foreign policy (I 444). William was more dependent on the good will of parties than any monarch before him had been, and he and Marlborough entertained a common strategic understanding and a common distaste for the narrowness of partisan politics.

Meanwhile “the feeble life-candle of the childless Spanish King,” which had survived the last thirty years against all expectations, “burned low in the socket” (I 451). All Europe was concerned about the Spanish succession. There were three claimants: the French Duke of Anjou, the Austrian Archduke, and the Electoral Prince of Bavaria. England and Holland could not afford to have Spain fall into the hands of France. The combatants of the late war, reluctant to make war again, joined hands in 1698 and signed a treaty naming the Electoral Prince as heir. Austria and Spain resisted the treaty, and the Electoral Prince inconveniently died. The nations persisted in their attempt to settle the succession peaceably. A second treaty, negotiated in 1699, named the Archduke as heir; but still the King of Spain resisted, and his will gave the kingdom to the Duke of Anjou. Louis XIV decided to renege on the treaty and support the will, with ruinous consequences for his opponents: at one stroke the fortresses of the Spanish Netherlands fell peacefully to France, and William’s military conquests of eight campaigns “melted like snow at Easter” (I 462).

From that moment war was all but certain: all that was wanting was an immediate provocation. William sent Marlborough as ambassador plenipotentiary to Holland to concert the last effort to negotiate peace or, more likely, to concert preparations for a new Grand Alliance of England, Holland, and the Empire, with a host of lesser powers, against the power of France. The exiled King James died, and Louis’s recognition of his son as the rightful king provided the spark that was needed to ignite the dry tinder and unified England against him. In its extremity the nation was once again ready to make sacrifices for its liberty. But William’s campaign to humble the power of Louis, for which he had prepared the nations of the Grand Alliance, would have to proceed without William to guide it. Just as the world was going to war, the King died, leaving Marlborough to guide the councils and lead the armies of the new Queen (I 484).

Anne and the Marlboroughs welcomed the “sunshine day” which she had foreseen during the difficult days of William’ s reign (quoted at I 357). She announced pointedly to her subjects that she knew her own heart “to be entirely English” (I 499), and she set out, with the advice of Marlborough, “to bring prosperity and glory to the realm” (I 500). The Queen gratified “many special desires”: her husband was made Generalissimo and Lord High Admiral, and Marlborough was made Captain-General and Quartermaster of the armies. Marlborough, who became the leading Englishman under the crown, “had one general purpose”: to lead the nations of the Grand Alliance in breaking the power of Louis XIV (I 502). Churchill writes drily that the Queen and her minister “had not waited to begin their political studies until after the death of King William had been formally announced”(I 528). The new government was quickly formed, with Sidney Godolphin as Lord Treasurer, acting for Marlborough at home. A few days after Anne’s accession, Marlborough arrived in Holland, where his influence was scarcely less than it was in England, and Churchill discerns “his hand closing upon affairs.” He announced that “the only change” resulting from the death of the King would be “that the Queen does not take the field” (I 516). Speedy assurances were likewise conveyed to the Empire. But there was another change, about which he remained prudently silent with the Dutch, though he hinted at it in his conversations with the Empire: with the death of William, the first place in the alliance had passed from Holland to England.

There remained the question of who would command the armies of the Grand Alliance. The Queen was eager for the honor to go to her husband, Prince George, and Marlborough used “every argument” (I 524) to persuade the Dutch to put him at the head of the armies. He breathed not a word of his own ambition to hold the supreme command. With equanimity he imagined how he might serve under Prince George and “nevertheless govern the event,” for “the best obtainable was nearly always good enough for him”(I 525). But “it was well known in Holland that the Prince Consort’s intellect and ability were extremely modest”(I 523). By  “doing everything that a man could be asked to do against his own interest in complete sincerity and with force and skill” (I 524), Marlborough left the Dutch thinking only of him. For some time the question remained undecided. When at length the Queen was persuaded that her husband would not be chosen, she was very pleased for the command to go to Marlborough, who by indirection had attained his heart’s desire.

The war began so slowly that at the end of the first summer Marlborough made a professional apology to the French generals for not fighting. His statement was intended more to shame the Dutch than to vindicate his military reputation with the French. He enjoyed something less than supreme command. He was styled the Deputy Captain-General of the Dutch Republic; but the only Captain-General above him was the States-General, who saddled him with itinerant deputies empowered to prevent him from fighting. Certain conventions of war had the Dutch firmly in their grip. Campaigns lasted for a few months in the summer. Territory was held by fortresses, refined over many years by the intricate art of military engineers. Generals prospered when they protected their own fortresses and reduced those of the enemy by siege. Protecting their armies took precedence over destroying those of the enemy, because to court battle was to risk too much.

Full-scale battles were rare, and usually the result of blundering. A successful military campaign ended with the capture of one or two fortresses and a prudent general who had been “victorious without slaughter” (I 692). Everything was geared to reduce risk. Such cautious conventions, which are hardly unique to Marlborough’s place or time, may indeed be sensible rules for armies governed by ordinary generals. Since “most wars are mainly tales of muddle” (I 569), it is well if the army can be kept safe. But for a general like Marlborough, the main use of conventions was to predict his opponents’ expectations. Enforced on him by fearful mediocrities, the conventions only compounded his military challenge. Galled and frustrated though he was, Marlborough always maintained a respectful mien toward the busybodies who confined him, and then formed a new plan to replace the one they had ruined (I 590-91). Generals often complain of political interference, but never in ten campaigns at the head of the Grand Alliance did Marlborough exercise the art of war without political constraints. His victories are more than strategic: always he had to find a way not just to beat the French on the field, but also to form a political consensus to support his conduct of war. Marlborough served until at least 1710 not only as Captain-General but also as the Queen’s first minister and as the leading statesman of the alliance, and his achievement is political even more than it is military (I 553-54, 650-51, 921, 937-38).

Not that Churchill means to diminish the significance of his ancestor’ s success in the field. Far from it. Marlborough’ s victories in battle are the fountain of his fame. Modern historians often subordinate military history to political and diplomatic history (or, more recently, to economic and social history); but Churchill never underestimates the importance of battles. He holds that they are “the principal milestones in secular history,” even if modern historians resent “this uninspiring truth”: for “great battles, won or lost, change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new moods, new atmospheres, in armies and in nations, to which all must conform” (II 381). Marlborough’ s military achievements are admitted even by his severest critics. In ten years of war he “won four great battles and many secondary actions and combats,” and took thirty fortresses by siege, breaking the military power of France (II 872). “It is the common boast of his champions,” Churchill writes,

that he never fought a battle that he did not win, nor besieged a fortress he did not take. Amid all the chances and baffling accidents of war he produced victory with almost mechanical certainty. Even when fighting in fetters and hobbles, swayed and oppressed by influences which were wholly outside the military situation, he was able to produce the same result, varying only in degree. Nothing like this can be seen in military annals. His smaller campaigns were equally crowned by fortune. He never rode off any field except as a victor. He quitted war invincible: and no sooner was his guiding hand withdrawn than disaster overtook the armies he had led. Successive generations have not ceased to name him with Hannibal and Caesar. (I 15)

Our author attributes Marlborough’s astonishing success to his “genius,” by which he means “the daemon in man” which lets him make the crooked straight and the rough places plain. The maneuvers of war seem simple when described in a textbook, and all of them admit of equally simple counter-maneuvers. Churchill argues that the “qualitative character of the manoeuvres,” in the relative positions of armies, is “meaningless apart from their quantitative data, “which alone present the circumstances to” decide whether a correct conventional manoeuvre is right or wrong. These circumstances include

the numbers and quality of the troops and their morale, their weapons, their confidence in their leaders, the character of the country, the condition of the roads, time, and the weather: and behind these the politics of their states, the special interests which each army has to guard, together with many other complications. And it is the true comprehension at any given moment of the dynamic sum of all these constantly shifting forces that constitutes military genius.

 Such genius is eminently practical knowledge rather than book learning. After the battle, critics can easily find reasons why one general failed and the other succeeded. But the right course is not so easily discerned on the battlefield. The greatest commanders, with unerring knowledge of what to do and when to do it, “seem to move their armies about ‘as easily as they ride their horses from place to place,’” and their campaigns “often seem so simple that one wonders why the other fellow did not do as well.” Military genius is a godlike quality, “much rarer than the largest and purest diamonds,” which almost infallibly draws “order and design” out of the “hazard and confusion” that greet the eyes of ordinary men (I 568-69; cf. 483, 655, II 619).


In the 1702 campaign, Marlborough immediately put the French on the defensive and wanted to fight a battle to destroy their army (I 592); but the Dutch held him back. More than one fine chance was lost, and Marlborough had to content himself with the capture of several fortresses. Still, the fruits of the campaign were “many times greater than all that King William had gained in eight campaigns” (I 605). Queen Anne was so pleased with Marlborough’ s success that she created him a duke. The next year, Marlborough planned what he called “the great design,” by which he hoped to capture Antwerp and Ostend (I 660). This complicated plan, which might have succeeded if Marlborough had had “the authority of Napoleon,” was postponed because of the Dutch insistence on capturing Bonn, and then frustrated when the Dutch commander was allowed to substitute “a pillaging excursion,” of no military value to the army but lucrative to him, for the attack on Ostend (I 661- 62).

The Dutch propensity to look to their own good at the expense of the good of the alliance was also evident in their attempt to seize newly captured territory in Guelders to which their Imperial allies had traditional claim. Marlborough, looking to the requirements of the alliance as a whole, resisted the Dutch opportunism and chafed at their resistance to battle. Decidedly he declared that he should “not be very fond of staying with an Army that is to do no more but eat forage” (quoted at I 682). Meanwhile, in the southern theater of the war, the Empire was in danger of being lost to the French, “yet the downfall to the Empire meant the loss of the war”(I 676). The Dutch were praising Marlborough for his “victory without slaughter,” but he grimly foresaw “slaughter without victory” if the French were suffered to continue (I 692).

By 1704, the Imperial ambassador Wratislaw was pleading with Marlborough to come south to stave off a French victory. Only after the Empire had agreed to let him have a free hand as general did he agree to undertake the campaign that he longed for. Discarding his deference towards the States-General, Marlborough informed them that the Queen had ordered him to march to Coblenz and that he would follow that order. The Dutch were so fearful of a French victory that they allowed Marlborough to take some troops south, though he was dissembling about how far south he planned to go. Later they asked for their troops back at least twice, but needless to say did not get them. Though he meant to march to the Danube, Marlborough had it noised about that he planned a campaign on the Moselle. What Churchill calls “a scarlet caterpillar, upon which all eyes were at once fixed, began to crawl steadfastly day by day across the map of Europe, dragging the whole war along with it” (I 749). The progress of this caterpillar, whose color came from “the variety of tints in red, scarlet, and crimson prevailing in the British uniforms” (I 749 n. 1), is dramatically shown in Churchill’ s book by a series of maps in which Marlborough’ s progress toward the Danube is boldly marked in scarlet.

With his march Marlborough had seized the initiative. The French plans were put in abeyance until they could know whither he was marching, and the route he chose left them guessing whether his campaign would be on the Moselle or higher up the Rhine. They also had to contend with the possibility that he might put his soldiers on boats and float them quickly back down the river. The march was planned with “embracing forethought.” Never had the Germans seen such well-built wagons, which they dubbed “Marlbroucks,” and never had they seen “an army that paid its way, pillaged nothing, and seemed so orderly and good-tempered” (I 758). Never had the army seen a march so well planned, or a commander who arranged for the delivery of new shoes to each soldier part way toward the goal. His troops were good, and their march was rapid. The French were left baffled. By the time that Marlborough’s army left the system of the Rhine to strike out for the Danube, the French Marshal Tallard was asking Louis for more men and a covering army.

In Bavaria, Marlborough met his great comrade in arms, Prince Eugene of Savoy, who fought in the service of the Empire, and also the aging Margrave of Baden. While Eugene commanded the covering army on the Rhine, Marlborough planned to capture the fortress of the Schellenberg on the Danube, which would afford a new line of secure communications for the army. When the Margrave objected to this plan, Marlborough retorted “that his troops had this failing, that they could not remain in the field without bread” (quoted at I 788). The French Marshal Villars had warned his Bavarian allies that the Schellenberg should be fortified, but his “warning had passed unheeded” (I 787). Marlborough pressed his troops to the attack sooner than the French had thought possible, and they were caught with their defenses unprepared. The defenders of the fortress, led by Marshal d’ Arco, were alarmed by the loud yells of the English. The allies massed their troops against his key position, inducing him to denude others in order to protect it, and then took advantage of his disrupted defenses to pierce them where they were weak.

The attack was pressed with unusual “disregard of human life” (I 799), and the allies were victorious, though the Margrave’ s toe was contused. Capture of the Schellenberg, the first of Marlborough’s memorable victories in the War of the Spanish Succession, opened the way to the devastation of Bavaria, a sad military necessity. The Margrave left to besiege Ingolstadt just before Eugene began to move his army secretly toward a convergence with Marlborough’s. As morning broke on August 13, the Margrave had no inkling that a great battle was about to be fought as he sat before Ingolstadt, forty miles away. Marlborough and Eugene had passed up the chance to recall him, even though it left their army weaker than the French. Before the battle, Marlborough had actually sent him ten more squadrons “to put him at his ease” (I 835). Churchill cannot think of any other situation in history in which a commander deliberately discards his numerical advantage before a great battle. He writes that the Margrave’s “military epitaph for all time must be that the two greatest captains of the age, preeminent and renowned in all the annals of war, rated, by actions more expressive than words, his absence from a decisive battlefield well worth fifteen thousand men”(I 836). As for the French commander, Marshal Tallard, that morning he thought that Marlborough was retreating.

Suddenly he discovered that Marlborough and Eugene were about to attack. The opposing armies faced each other next to the Danube. The English troops on the allied left made a concerted attempt to seize Blenheim, the village which gave its name to the battle. Clerambault, who commanded the troops in Blenheim, called in eighteen extra battalions to meet the English attack, denuding the French center. The defenders of the village gave ground until they were all penned inside Blenheim so tightly that they could barely move, with a contracting circle of English troops outside. Marlborough then attacked the empty French center with an advantage of two or three men to one. The French were routed, and Tallard tried to organize a retreat of the troops inside Blenheim. He was captured before he could reach the village. The French soldiers trapped at Blenheim, deserted by Clerambault, who took flight and drowned in the waters of the Danube, were left leaderless in the ensuing crisis. Many drowned trying to swim to safety, others were cut down trying to break out of the village, and the rest were rounded up as prisoners.

Marlborough wrote Sarah that the Queen’s army had had “a glorious victory”(quoted at I 863). He treated Marshal Tallard, who had lost his son in the battle, “with the utmost attention, consideration, and politeness” (I 875). The Margrave, who soon realized that he had missed the greatest battle of the war, was mollified by being given the honor of dividing the French prisoners between Marlborough and Eugene. With the destruction of the French army ended Louis’ s hopes of breaking the Empire, and henceforth he had to content himself with more modest ambitions. The march to the Danube, and the ensuing Battle of Blenheim, made Marlborough’s military reputation. No longer was he thought of “as a favoured Court personage” who owed “his influence entirely to the Queen’s affection for his wife” (I 573; cf. 118 703). The grateful Emperor resolved to make him a prince of the Empire. When Marlborough returned to London that winter, he was hailed by his countrymen of every rank. Foreign observers were surprised to see the English, “who could quarrel so fiercely with one another,” united in rejoicing at the victory (I 915). The Queen honored Marlborough by undertaking to build him “a splendid palace which, in memory of the victory, was to be called the Castle of Blenheim” (I 918).


In 1705, Marlborough planned to fight on the Moselle, but the campaign was a frustration. “As usual,” his own friends gave him the most trouble (I 944). The Dutch tried to save money by contracting with an inferior commissary, leaving the troops ill provided. The Margrave sat building his palace at Rastadt and nursing his injured toe. Only a part of the troops he had promised arrived, under his second-in-command, and they arrived late. Churchill judges that Marlborough ought to have abandoned his design. Instead, “to use his own phrasing, he ‘opinionatred’ the matter. He tried to compel events beyond any fortune that men may hope from the gods” (I 941). The Dutch were relieved when he gave up the attempt: they “felt in their bones that they were always in jeopardy when they rode with him”(I 944 45; cf. 599, 608, 671- 72, 677-78, 692-93). Later that year, Marlborough made a surprise attack at dawn on the French lines in Brabant, but the Dutch were too timid to allow him to bring Marshal Villeroy to battle. “Thus,” Churchill writes, “set the star of the Dutch Republic”: he traces the decline of William’s proud nation to their failure of nerve here, as they “wore out Fortune with their sluggish precautions.” Nothing “could appease the insulted gods,” and thenceforward the Dutch “sea-power and their share in the New World” fell to England (I 978-79). Villeroy felt that he had escaped almost by a miracle from “a furious wild beast,” but he and Marlborough would meet again at Ramillies (I 990).

Churchill quotes a letter of Marlborough, written that summer to Godolphin, in which he avows that he has “no other ambition but that of serving well her Majesty, and being thought what I am, a good Englishman….” That letter confirms Churchill’s claim that Marlborough, for all his equanimity, “had one sensitive spot”: for “he sought not only glory but appreciation.” He was vexed when the Tories averred that his victory at Blenheim was only a stroke of luck, and he complained in the same, letter of “the base ingratitude of my countrymen….”(II 24-25, Marlborough’ s emphasis; cf. II 20). To the delight of Sarah, a Whig partisan, he and Godolphin broke with the Tories. Marlborough always favored a non-party administration, but at this point the Whigs were strong enough to form a government by themselves. Gradually they forced themselves on the Queen, who felt a natural affinity for the Tories and resented the Whigs’ importunacy; her relations with Sarah cooled, poisoned in part by a lesser relation of the Marlboroughs, Abigail Masham, whom Sarah had originally introduced at court. As Abigail grew in power, she conspired with Robert Harley, later the Earl of Oxford, who gained the confidence of the Queen by his sympathy with her preference for the Tories. In time this intrigue, which prospered with the Queen’s blessing, caused the downfall of the Whigs, and also the fall of Marlborough. Churchill calls Abigail “probably the smallest person who ever consciously attempted to decide, and in fact decided, the history of Europe”; but the fact remains that from 1705 Marlborough had to deal with “a new power,” who was to save France “as surely, though scarcely as gloriously, as Joan of Arc” (II 283, 286; cf. I 433-35).

His efforts to defeat “the formidable enemy,” who were always “the least of his troubles” (I 681; cf. 494), and to hold together the fractious alliance, henceforth unfolded in despite of his weakening position with the Queen. This fact was not lost on the French, who hoped to recover from their calamities by persevering until Marlborough fell (II 473). The fortunes of England, and even more those of the Grand Alliance, which he faithfully served, came to coincide with Marlborough’s own fortune; but his very success began to weaken his influence. When Europe cowered before the power of Louis XIV, no one could do without Marlborough. As their fear of French power diminished, however, the statesmen of the alliance began to look to their positions in a postwar Europe no longer dominated by France (II 555). Particular interests overwhelmed their devotion to the common interest which Marlborough had come to personify. For particular interest and the common interest were one only in the person of Marlborough, and the decline of his power meant the decline of the alliance (II 486, 639-41).

The 1706 campaign began with a French threat to Flanders. Though Marlborough needed a victory to improve his own position, he “began his most brilliant campaign” (II 84) by deciding to relinquish troops needed in another theater of the war. He expected to be forced to stand on the defensive, which would prevent any signal success. But he did not know that Louis had been urging Villeroy to bring him to battle; “and now Fortune, whom Marlborough had so ruefully but sternly dismissed, returned importunate, bearing her most dazzling gift”(II 94). As the Battle of Ramillies began, Villeroy transferred his best troops to meet Marlborough’ s attack on his left. Marlborough’s troops were deployed in a convex front, and at the crucial moment he took advantage of his command of the chord of the crescent. Rapidly transferring his cavalry from his right to his left, he attacked the French horse with a numerical advantage of five to three. The cavalry of the Maison du Roi fought bravely but were routed. The French oboes scattered as the English cannons roared.

Just as Villeroy was expecting the battle to begin, he discovered “that it was lost beyond repair” (II 113). The victory belonged to Marlborough alone, and Churchill concludes that the Battle of Ramillies shows “what a general can do with men” (II 136). The victory was magnified by “unrelenting pursuit”: the battle “conquered the Netherlands,” as “cities and towns, the masterpieces of Vauban, any one of which would have been the prize of a campaign of King William, capitulated on all sides” (II 119). The Emperor appointed Marlborough Viceroy of the Netherlands; he declined the honor in order to maintain the confidence of the Dutch, but thereafter they always suspected that his interest diverged from theirs. The French were fascinated with Marlborough and impressed with the gentleness of his conduct toward prisoners: his admiring descendant writes that he perfected “the art of conquest” by making “the vanquished grateful for his praise” (II 135).

In the next year, with his political base failing at home, Marlborough had to play a waiting game as the main campaign unfolded in the south of France. He had set in motion a daring plan to capture Toulon, but Eugene, “a land animal” who mistrusted sea power (II 246), was loathe to cooperate with the British navy. The campaign was abortive, and Marlborough was left sitting in Flanders. In 1708, Eugene came north to fight under Marlborough. The French had seized Ghent and Bruges with the aid of their inhabitants, who resented the harshness of Dutch rule. When Eugene met him, Marlborough, who “was only a man,” was sunk in gloom (II 349). But the arrival of Eugene cheered him. The French, under Marshal Vendome, had invested Oudenarde, and Marlborough resolved to attack them. His army moved with “astonishing speed” (II 355) and surprised the French: “Vendome at first refused to believe the news” and said that “the devil must have carried them” (II 359-60). The allies attacked, and the French advance guard was routed. Only gradually did the French join battle. Vendome himself plunged into the local conflict on his right and pulled troops from the French center. He sent word to the Duke of Burgundy to attack on the left, but his order was countermanded because the ground was thought impassable.

By this time Vendome had forgotten his duties as supreme commander and “was fighting with a pike” (II 368), unaware of the inaction on his left. Suddenly the crowd of French “princelings” watching the battle in the rear discovered that the allies had surrounded them, trapping them like fish in a net. “The meshes were large enough to let the greater part of the catch escape,” and much of the French army, now in complete disarray, melted off into the night (II 378). When Vendome finally looked up from his struggles, he ordered an immediate retreat, blaming Burgundy for the defeat. Churchill likens Oudenarde to a modern battle, both because the armies joined battle gradually and almost accidentally, and because after it was over the French “lied zealously to prove that nothing had happened”(II 356). The dispersion of the French army opened the way to the capture of Lille that fall, and eventually the French King ordered his troops to abandon the field, despite “the forfeits which must be paid when one side ceases fighting and the other continues” (II 465). The campaign ended with the recapture of Ghent and Bruges, and Marlborough wrote Sarah “that France will with terror remember this campaign for a long time” (quoted at II 471).

By the end of 1708 there was no doubt that the allies had won the war. Marlborough’ s power was broken, but his cause was triumphant. The French “Grand Monarch still stood magnificent at bay,” but with his heart broken and longing for peace (II 485). Marlborough’s enemies at home conspired to bring him down after the war was over. But the peace that was sought by all was postponed. The success of the allies had made them greedy in their demands upon the French and contentious amongst themselves. The French, suffering from a great frost after their misfortunes on the field, had sought peace at any price; but by the middle of 1709 they began to hope to secure better terms by outlasting Marlborough. Louis refused the allies’ harsh demands, and Marshal Villars assumed command of the French armies. Another great battle was fought late that summer. The two armies were in close proximity in Flanders, and Marlborough resolved to encourage Villars to attack. He deployed his troops so that the French commander could occupy the gap between two small woods that separated the armies.

Villars took the bait, and the armies joined battle at Malplaquet. Marlborough pressed the attack through the wood on his right, which the French had thought impassable. The French transferred troops from the center to meet the attack, and with tremendous carnage the allies captured the wood. Marlborough ordered an attack on the center and broke through the denuded ranks of the French. Villars was wounded, and the French were for a time in disarray. The Duc de Boufflers, who assumed the command, ordered a general retreat; and the battle had been so bloody that the allies could not make any pursuit. For the fourth time, the allies had won a great battle; or at least they were left in possession of the field. The casualties at Malplaquet were so high that the allies could not afford another such victory. Marlborough was appalled at the slaughter and put the money in his military chest toward care for the wounded of all nations.

The next year Villars stood on the defensive, and the French were expected to sue for peace. Marlborough, either thinking that time was on his side or that God was not (II 695), decided not to attack. He could at tempt nothing that was not sure to succeed, since a failure would have finished him at home (II 19, 700). The Queen asked for Godolphin’ s resignation that summer, and by fall the Whig administration had succumbed to Harley’s machinations. King Louis was delighted, and the allies were alarmed, fearing that “the will-power of the Islanders, for so long the supreme factor in the struggle, seemed about to fail. “Worse still, it began “to be exerted in the contrary direction”(II 723). The new government sought to humble Marlborough by removing his power of appointments to his own army. By the time of his last campaign, in 1711, he had lost his place in the English government and conducted his troops as “general only” (II 829).

Again Marlborough met with success: Churchill calls his capture of Bouchain, where he conquered “a fully garrisoned fortress” with fewer men than the French army that sat down beside him, “an amazing operation” (II 858, 872). But by this time the English government was secretly negotiating for a separate peace with France. In the winter, the Queen dismissed Marlborough from all employments, and Europe was “astounded” by her prodigious ingratitude (II 917). In 1712, Europe would be shocked by the treachery of the English government, which had secretly ordered the new commander, the Duke of Ormonde, to collaborate with the French and to betray his own allies on the field. “Nothing in the history of civilized peoples,” Churchill writes, “has surpassed this black treachery” (II 945), which justified the curses called down upon “Perfidious Albion” (II 885).

Marlborough, convinced that the new policies would make England’s name “odious to all other nations” (II 967), resolved to go into exile. He worked closely with the House of Hanover to assure a smooth accession of King George I after the death of Anne in 1714. In the new reign his enemies were humbled and he was reinstated as Captain-General, but by that time he was an old man. He retired to the palace which was still being built at Blenheim. In his last years Marlborough would look “to the great stones rising round him into a noble pile” and think of the castle as the monument that would carry his name to the last generations. His descendant, Winston Churchill, would be born there in 1874. Only one remark by Marlborough remains to give us an idea of his thoughts in those waning years of life, when “noble spirits yield themselves willingly to the successively falling shades which carry them to a better world or to oblivion.” Churchill tells us that “one day he paced with failing steps the state rooms of his palace, and stood long and intently contemplating his portrait by Kneller. Then he turned away with the words, ‘That was once a man’”(II 1036). Marlborough died quietly at Blenheim Palace in 1722, and Sarah was at his side.


Marlborough’s rise to glory and his dramatic fall offer Churchill the matter for a biographical epic, a tragic story to show the extent and the limits of human power, Marlborough lived “in days when dukes were dukes” (I 740), and he rose to be “the greatest servant, who remained a servant, of any sovereign in history”(I 905; cf. 1508-509, 740). Churchill writes in the preface to the fourth volume of his biography that his impression of Marlborough’s “size and power has grown with study” (II 492). In his second preface, his ancestor appears to him “as an Olympian figure making head against innumerable difficulties and opponents in every quarter . . .”; his letters and deeds show him to be “a majestic, sagacious, benignant personality, making allowances for everybody, enduring every vexation with incredible patience, taking all the burdens upon his own shoulders, tirelessly contriving and compelling victory, running all risks and always ready, as he phrased it, to die for Queen and country”(I 493). On the last page of his biography, Churchill avers that the Duke’s “invincible genius in war and his scarcely less admirable qualities of wisdom and management” freed England from dependency, while “the union and the greatness of Britain and her claims to empire were established upon foundations that have lasted to this day” (11 1040). Yet when his life’s work was done, when he had protected the liberties of Europe and the Protestant faith against the designs of Louis XIV, when he had laid the foundations of England’ s future greatness, an ungrateful Queen stripped him of every office and left him a private man. In considering lost chances for peace in 1706, Churchill adverts to “the mysterious law which perhaps in larger interests limits human achievement, and bars or saves the world from clear-cut solutions…” (II 191); two years later, when Marlborough has gained his cause but lost his power, Churchill mentions “the weariness moral and physical which drags down all prolonged human effort….”(II 485). Human deeds seem to be measured and restrained by a standard above human power. Ineluctably we look to the heavens.

Churchill’s biography is filled with his witness to the presence of a power that is more than human—to the importance of religion in human life. The “shades” evoked by Churchill led their lives in a Christian Europe. They were intimately familiar with the Bible and the prayer book. Marlborough left James, and the Glorious Revolution deposed him, in order to spare England from Popish tyranny. The most furious partisan strife in the reign of Anne turned on religious questions (I 553). The war against Louis was fought to preserve and protect the Protestant faith. The Emperor prayed to God to give the allies victory at the Battle of Blenheim (I 835, 888-89). The pious Lieutenant-Colonel Blackadder, who served under Marlborough, always discerned the finger of God in the allied victories (I 853, II 134-35, 391, 619-20). The warring nations, for all their mortal differences, were restrained by common adherence to Christian mercy, unlike twentieth-century nations which have shaken themselves free from “illogical, old-world prejudices” (I 556). The older plural gods of the pagans are present also, not always distinguished by Churchill from the Christian God. Fortune is personified and bears gifts to Marlborough (II 94). Lesser men are punished for their presumption when they try to accomplish feats that the gods allow only to their favorites (II 377; cf. I 978-79). Marlborough himself is struck down when he tries to do more than the gods allow to any man (I 941; cf. II 702). Marlborough’s religion makes him serene as he prepares for battle (I 845), and he offers prayers to “the great God of battles”(quoted at II 694; cf. I 716). In his extremity he refrains from fighting when he fears that God has forsaken him (II 695).

We have seen in Churchill’ s portrait of Marlborough the “god-like” power of the great commander to shape the course of human history. At times, extraordinary men can take responsibility for human affairs and mimic the power of gods. Churchill rejects the fatalistic piety of the Emperor and of Blackadder which attributes all to powers above us and leaves no room for human choice. But he also doubts the presumption of human beings who acknowledge no power above themselves. Even as he describes the rewards that Marlborough gathered after his victory at Blenheim, Churchill foresees his inability to prevent his own fall:

…a time was to come when England needed for her guidance some high qualities beyond the constructive and acquisitive genius with which he was born, and when through the lack of these Queen, country, and servant were to taste griefs they had not deserved. The pursuit of power with the capacity and in the desire to exercise it worthily is among the noblest of human occupations. But Power is a goddess who admits no rival in her loves.

Churchill cautions the reader not to suppose, however, “that such a moral was ever drawn by Marlborough” (I 918-19). His ancestor was eminently a practical man. He was decidedly of the view, as he wrote to his wife, that though “we may not have long to live in this world,” we ought not to live retired from it; “for I am persuaded that, by living in the world, one may do much more good than by being out of it…” (quoted at I 674). Assuredly he knew that his power had limits. He never forgot that there would not be a war unless the other side, too, thought that they had a chance to win (I 95); and again and again he and Godolphin, meditating on the limits of their power, compared their lot to slaves who had to row in the galley (I 699, II 274, 439, 509). But Marlborough reflected on his achievements as a dynast, not as a philosopher (II 754; cf. I 619-20). We have no evidence that he contemplated his limits with the same philosophical interest that Churchill shows as a biographer. Instead, he took pleasure in knowing “that he had made his fortune, that he had founded his family, and that the stones of Blenheim Palace would weather the storms of a thousand years. Such were the stubborn consolations of this virtuous and valiant builder who built noble monuments beneath the stars”(I 919).

Human mortality sets the term to the accomplishments of the most godlike man, and Churchill remarks that it was not given to Marlborough even to choose how he would die (II 1036-37; cf. II 862). Nor is it

given to princes, statesmen, and captains to pierce the mysteries of the future, and even the most penetrating gaze reaches only conclusions which, however seemingly vindicated at a given moment, are inexorably effaced by time. One rule of conduct alone survives as a guide to men in their wanderings: fidelity to covenants, the honour of soldiers, and the hatred of causing human woe. (II996; cf. I375, 899, 904)

For a practical man like Marlborough, honor is the best guide. The need for such a standard in human affairs may help to account for the curious fact that Churchill, after his historical discussion of Marlborough’s education, returns to the theme in two brief remarks in the very center of his biography. They are phrased in almost identical terms. Towards the end of the second volume, he remarks that Marlborough “writes rugged, strong English, not unworthy of the Shakespeare that was his main education” (I 959). In the preface to the third volume, he writes that “although no scholar, and for all his comical spelling, he wrote a rugged, forceful English worthy of the Shakespeare on which his education was mainly founded” (II 20). Yet there is no mention of Shakespeare in Churchill’s chapter on Marlborough’s education, nor anywhere else in the book. Perhaps Shakespeare was Marlborough’ s “main education” be- cause Shakespeare is the English poet par excellence, the man whose plays teach English readers what it means to be an Englishman. Even if we never see him reading Shakespeare, perhaps Marlborough showed that “his education was mainly founded” on Shakespeare by living the life of “a good Englishman.”

[I am grateful to Joseph W. Alsop, who encouraged me to write on Churchill’s Marlborough, and to the Earhart Foundation and the University of Alaska, Anchorage, for grants which assisted in the preparation of this essay.]

This essay appears with permission from the Political Science Reviewer where it originally appeared.

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[i] Winston S. Churchill, Marlborough: His Life and Times, 4vols. (1933-38; reprint in 2 books, London: George G. Harrap and Company, 1947), I 18. Parenthetical references in the text refer to book and page in this edition, which is more widely available than the original editions and identical in content (except for its incorporation of Churchill’s revisions of vol. I in 1934) but different in that it has only two series of pagination. Emphasis in quoted matter is Churchill’s unless otherwise noted.

[ii] Churchill, My Early Life: A Roving Commission (London: Thornton Butterworth, Ltd., 1930), 32, 126.

[iii] Cf. the account in Randolph S. Churchill and Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, 8 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1966- ), V 47.

[iv] John Paget, “The New Examen” (1861; reprint with introduction by Winston S. Churchill, Manchester: Haworth Press, 1934), ix-xv. Churchill’ s introduction deserves to be read for its description of “the immense service which Lord Macaulay has rendered to the English-speaking peoples”(xiii); cf. the note to the revised edition of the first volume of his Marlborough, I 20-21, and R. Churchill and Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, V 501.

[v] Paget, The New Examen, 31, had to content himself with “the still small voice of truth.”

[vi] Thomas Babington Macaulay, History of England from the Accession of James II, 4 vols. (New York: Dutton, 1966), I 346, III 46.

[vii] Piers Brendon, Winston Churchill: An Authentic Hero (London: Methuen, 1984), 122.

[viii] Manfred Weidhorn, Sword and Pen: A Survey of the Writings of Sir Winston Churchill (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974), 113.

[ix] Brendon, Winston Churchill, 122.

[x] R. Churchill and Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, V passim, provides interesting glimpses into the composition of Churchill’s biography: see esp. 437-38, 730.

[xi] See, e.g., Churchill, Marlborough, I 81 n. 2, 90 nn. 1 and 2, 134, 157 n. 1, 443 n. 1, 473-74, 751 n. 1, 862, 874, II 522 n. 4.

[xii] Many of the same themes occur in a collection of Churchill’s essays published in the same decade as his Marlborough. See Amid These Storms: Thoughts and Adventures (New York: Charles Scribner’ s Sons, 1932) and my essay “A Kind of Dignity and Even Nobility: Winston Churchill’s Thoughts and Adventures,” The Political Science Reviewer 16 (1986): 281-315.

[xiii] C.M. [initials at the end of the dedicatory epistle to John, Duke of Montague], The Lives of the Two Illustrious Generals, John, Duke of Marlborough, and Francis Eugene, Prince of Savoy (London: Printed for Andrew Bell and J. Phillips, 1713), 6.

[xiv] Macaulay, History of England, I 345; cf. Churchill, Marlborough, I 466, II 20.

[xv] Macaulay, History of England, III 46, quoted by Churchill, Marlborough, I 63

[xvi]  16. Paget, The New Examen, quoted by Churchill, Marlborough, I 64.

[xvii] Alexis de Tocqueville, De la Democratieen Amerique, ed. J.P. Mayer, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1951), II 213. In this respect, Sarah is like a precocious American girl; cf. what Tocqueville says about England on the previous page.

[xviii] Macaulay, History of England, II 72, quoted by Churchill, Marlborough, I 129.

[xix] Churchill, Marlborough, I 160-61; cf. 445, II 295, 509-10, 652-53. For the significance of the beginnings of party government in England, see Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., Statesmanship and Party Government: A Study of Burke and Bolingbroke (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965).

[xx] Fortescue, John William, A History of the British Army, 13 vols. (London: Macmillan and Company, 1899), I 350, quoted by Churchill, Marlborough, I 293.

[xxi] Macaulay, History of England, III 45, IV 98-101.

[xxii] Paget, The New Examen, 15-30

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