John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough: Part One (1650 - 1700) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough: Part One (1650 - 1700)

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John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough Part One (1650 - 1700) | Part Two (1700 - 22)

He commanded the armies of Europe against France for ten campaigns. He fought four great battles and many important actions...He never fought a battle that he did not win, nor besieged a fortress that he did not take...He quitted war invincible: and no sooner was his guiding hand withdrawn than disaster overtook the armies he had led.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...Every taunt, however bitter; every tale, however petty; every charge, however shameful, for which the incidents of a long career could afford a pretext, has been levelled against him.
- Winston Churchill (one of John's more famous descendents).

John Churchill is considered to be one of the greatest military geniuses England has ever produced. Henry V, Wellington, Nelson, Montgomery have all had their great victories and have been honoured by the English people because of it. But this man, who began his career as a lowly page at the royal court, became a highly influential statesman and architect of English victories in battlefields across the war-torn continent of Europe. This led the Duke of Wellington to declare, 'I can conceive nothing greater than Marlborough at the head of an English army'.

Early Life

John was actually the son of Winston Churchill, just not the wartime Prime Minister quoted at the start of this entry. Sir Winston Churchill was Comptroller of the Board of Green Cloth1, while his mother was Elizabeth Drake, sister of Sir John Drake of Ashe in Devon. He was born at Ashe on 26 May 1650, the second child and eldest son of an impoverished family. Winston had supported the Royalists during the Civil War and after the end of the conflict had been forced to pay a huge fine of £4,446. His motto - fiel pero pesdichado (faithful but unfortunate) - was rather apt. So the first ten years of John Churchill's life, under the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, were harsh.

In 1660 the great experiment that had been the Commonwealth was over, and the English monarchy restored, with Charles II ascending to the throne. Winston was rewarded for his loyalty to the crown and was made Commissioner for Irish Land Claims2 in 1662. He moved the family from Devon to Dublin. But the next year he was given a different posting, Junior Clerk Comptroller of the King's Household. The Churchills moved to London. During this period John studied at St Paul's School, but he showed little enthusiasm for his education.

Most of King Charles' rewards to his supporters had to be in the form of administrative posts or positions at the court because the King himself was not particularly well off. So in 1665, Arabella, John's elder sister, became Maid of Honour to Anne Hyde, the Duchess of York3. John was apparently quite handsome and well-mannered, and this stood him in good stead to follow his sister. This he did some months later when he was made page to the Duke, James.

Some Swashbuckling Adventures

James, Duke of York (and later King James II), had an almost boyish enthusiasm for all things military. He was forever inspecting the troops in the royal parks, and John, at an impressionable age, soon had his heart set on soldiering for a career. In 1667 he was commissioned as an Ensign (the lowest commissioned officer rank) in the King's Own Company in the 1st Guards. The Company sailed for Tangier in North Africa the next year. Charles had just married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza and Tangier was part of the dowry, but it needed defending. John spent three years there gaining experience in the field and tactical training while fighting the Moors.

By 1671 John was back in London and getting into all sorts of scrapes, mostly romantic in nature. He began a passionate relationship with Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland - one of the King's mistresses. In one account he is said to have been caught, literally, with his trousers down (Barbara's clothing was no doubt partial at best) by the King. John leapt out of the bed and hid in a wardrobe, but King Charles had done enough of the same sort of thing in his day that he was soon discovered. John fell to his knees and begged for forgiveness. 'You are a rascal,' the King said, 'but I forgive you because you do it to get your bread.'

In 1672 the Third Anglo-Dutch War broke out4 and John returned to fighting. In the Battle of Solebay off the Suffolk coast he was promoted to a Captain of the Lord High Admiral's Regiment. The French, who were attacking the Netherlands on land, laid siege to the town of Maastricht, supported by a small force of English soldiers. John earned much fame as part of a 30-man forlorn hope5. As a further boost to his growing reputation he is said to have saved the life of the Duke of Monmouth. In 1674 the anti-French English Parliament forced Charles to withdraw from the war, but English regiments remained to see the war through. John was appointed Colonel of one such regiment, and fought several hard battles (notably at Sinzheim and Entzheim), learning from the great French general Marshal Turenne.

Diplomacy (Marital and Political)

John lived up to his image of a swashbuckling romantic when it came to marriage. He married for love rather than money or rank. The beautiful Sarah Jennings was from the minor gentry, but her family had been brought low by debt. The Jennings, like the Churchills, were Royalists, and so Sarah was made Maid of Honour to the Duchess of York6. She soon became a close friend of James' daughter Anne (the future Queen Anne). In 1675, when Sarah was about fifteen, and John was a dashing young officer of 25. He was immediately captivated by her charms, and began an arduous courtship.

The problem was, as with many such men, John had a history of mistresses. Barbara Villiers was moving to Paris and Sarah must have thought this to be a sign John was looking for another mistress rather than a fiancée. And then there was his father Winston, who wanted his son to further his career prospects (and fill the family coffers) by marrying Catherine Sedley. But after a long exchange, John and Sarah married sometime in the winter of 1677-78.

Relations between the states of Western Europe were uneasy at this time. The main protagonists were England, France, the Netherlands and Spain. In 1678, John was sent on his first major diplomatic mission. He was to go to the Hague and negotiate a treaty with the Netherlands and Spain and perhaps pave the way for a war with France. Helped by his close friends and rising political star Sidney Godolphin, he learned a great deal and the negotiations were a success on a personal level. He had gained more political experience than many soldiers of his day. However, King Charles II of England ensured England did not go to war. Parliament was still firmly anti-French but Charles had struck up a friendship and private alliance with the French King Louis XIV.

Questioned Loyalties

England was still awash with the religious conflict that had persisted since the time of the Tudors. King Charles was officially (or politically) Protestant, but Duke James (still John's master) was overtly Catholic. A 'Popish Plot' was devised by corrupt English clergymen led by one Titus Oates, who claimed he had uncovered a Catholic plot to overthrow Charles and put James on the throne. In reality it was nothing more than a ploy by the Protestant clergy to exclude James from the succession of the monarchy and to generally discredit the Catholics. Nonetheless James was forced to go into exile in the Netherlands and John spent three years with him until he was allowed to return in 1682, following the revelation that Oates had fabricated the whole affair.

Back in London, John and Sarah continued to enjoy the advantages of a privileged position. John was made a peer in the same year he returned from exile, and became Baron Churchill of Eyemouth. He also added an appointment as colonel of the King's Own Royal Regiment of Dragoons to his list of offices. They now had enough wealth to keep two houses: one in London, staffed by seven servants; and Holywell House in St Albans, used as a country retreat for the family. The couple had already had two daughters, Harriet and Henrietta. When the 18-year-old Princess Anne was married to Prince George of Denmark, Sarah was offered a position in her household. This furthered the family's ties with the monarchy and the friendship between Anne and Sarah continued to blossom. John is said to have slipped easily into the role of chivalrous companion to the Princess, while Sarah was to become her closest confidante.


King Charles died in 1685 and Duke James became King James II, but James' Catholicism was not easily tolerated. James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, was one of Charles' many illegitimate sons. The Whigs7 and others with vested interests encouraged him to take the throne, which he regarded as rightfully his. He rose up in a peasant rebellion and the newly promoted Major-General Churchill was one of the men tasked with putting the revolt down. However, overall command of the army was given to Louis de Duras, 2nd Earl of Feversham. John was rather vexed at this because he knew the Earl to be a loyal though uninspired commander. The two sides met at Sedgemoor in Somerset on 6 July 1685.

The Duke staked it all on a surprise night attack on the Earl of Feversham's camp. The attack was held up by an unexpectedly deep ditch on one side of the camp, and after that John took control. He was not afraid to let his brilliance shine through and it was certainly him who won the battle, both by his tactics and courage on the field. Monmouth's rebellion was crushed, almost contemptuously in the end, by the man who had saved his life at Maastricht.

The Earl of Feversham was always going to get the glory for the victory, even though he had delegated most of his responsibility to his subordinate. In that August, however, John was rewarded in some fashion at least with a highly prestigious colonelcy in the Third Troop of Life Guards. After the victory, a bloody persecution of all those suspected to have had sympathies with Monmouth's rebellion swept the country. John felt betrayed. He had been denied command at Sedgemoor, and the victory he had won had not stopped blood being shed after the rebellion had been put down.

The Glorious Revolution

Now secure on the throne, King James II allowed his Catholic sympathies to shine through more strongly. He went about encouraging Catholicism in every way he could. Several nobles, though Protestant by upbringing, gave up their faith in order to maintain their position at court. But John had always been devoutly Protestant, and the sweeping Catholic reforms were beginning to disillusion him. He was now looking for a way to disassociate himself from the King.

His chance came in November 1688. The Dutch Prince William of Orange was King James' nephew, but had also married James' daughter Mary, meaning he had a strong claim to the throne. He was also a Protestant, which was more important. Various politicians (both Tories and Whigs), army officers and Church of England clergymen were desperate to get rid of their Catholic King and so a group of conspirators wrote and signed a formal invitation to William to invade and take the throne. John was not a signatory, but he expressed his loyalty to William's cause through a letter, part of which read thus:

Mr Sidney [Godolphin] will let you know how I intend to behave myself; I think it is what I owe to God and my country. My honour I take leave to put into your Royal Highness's hands, in which I think it is safe. I you think there is anything else I ought to do, you have but to command me, and I shall pay an entire obedience to it, being resolved to die in that religion that it has pleased God to give you both the will and the power to protect.

When Prince William landed with an invasion force of Dutchmen and English allies in Torbay, the now Lieutenant-General Churchill was once again placed in a role subordinate to the Earl of Feversham. William moved on to Exeter and James' army marched to Salisbury. This would be one of the defining moments in John's life, and it would be decided in the land of his fathers, the West Country.

Rule of England was already slipping away from James. His own daughter, Princess Anne, had written to Prince William wishing him luck. The officers and nobles in James' army were reluctant to fight, and one Lord Cornbury defected to William's side. John is said to have been ecstatic at the news and even began to openly encourage defection. Feversham pleaded to James for his arrest but the King took no action. Perhaps he was resigned to his fate.

On 23 November 1688, John slipped away from the army with some 400 men and rode to join William. He left a letter at the royal camp.

I am activated by a higher principle...I will always with hazard of my life and fortune (so much as Your Majesty's due) endeavour to preserve your royal person and lawful rights, with all the tender concerns and dutiful respect that becomes, sir, Your Majesty's most dutiful and most obliged subject and servant, Churchill.

Soon after James fled to France, abandoning his throne, with barely a shot having been fired. With him went his son, also called James8. William now ruled jointly with James' eldest daughter Mary, as William III and Mary II. His mostly bloodless take-over would later become known as the Glorious Revolution.

The Earl of Marlborough

John was rewarded for his treachery and made Earl of Marlborough, though William was still wary of his new ally. He was an influential man with a promising career still ahead of him, but there was always a chance he could turn traitor again. John owed all his successes to the old King James' patronage, and yet he had cast him aside. Many have attempted to elevate this action with tales of morality, patriotism and religious loyalties, but it is likely John was simply made the decision to further his own career.

William of Orange's primary reason for taking the English throne was that it gave it the opportunity to strike back at his hated enemy, King Louis XIV of France. France and William's homeland, the Netherlands, had been at war on-and-off for a long time and William dearly wanted to see the most powerful nation in Europe destroyed. England was militarily quite strong, but France's army was vastly superior to anything in Europe, and so William put together an alliance, giving the coming war its name.

The War of the Grand Alliance

The alliance's members were: the Dutch Republic, England, the Holy Roman Empire9, the Duchy of Savoy (in the Alpine area of north-western Italy), Spain, Portugal and Sweden. It was known as the Grand Alliance or the League of Augsburg. This map shows how the Empire was made up numerous nations and the borders of Europe before the war. The war was fought mainly in continental Europe, around the borders of France, but there were also battles between English and French colonial forces in North America, and against Scottish and Irish Jacobite (supporting the claim of the deposed James II) rebels against England.

John did not have a great part to play in the war, perhaps because William was still unsure of his loyalties. The conflict lasted from 1688 to 1697 but he spent only three years in the field, mostly in a subordinate role. He did, however, distinguish himself by a show of great courage at the Battle of Walcourt in the Spanish Netherlands (modern-day Belgium) in August 1689, where he commanded a contingent of 8,000 men.

John was largely relegated to the role of command of the forces on the British mainland during the war. It was a dull job, no doubt intended to keep him out of trouble, but he did gain useful experience in the organisation of the English military. William and Mary, however, distrusted Lord and Lady Marlborough for their influence with Princess Anne, who they saw as a rival for the throne. When Mary asked Anne to choose between the royals and the Marlboroughs she unhesitatingly stood by John and Sarah. The royal couple were increasingly wary.

William had to leave for Ireland to put down the Jacobite rebellion there in 1690. James had returned to try and take back his throne by raising an army of Irish Catholics. John was part of the Council of Nine which was appointed to advise the Queen on ruling in the King's absence, but this was little more than a formality. Queen Mary could not stand him.

William defeated James at the Battle of the Boyne, and began to make his way back to England with the army. Back at home, John was doing what he could to prepare for an invasion. He had only 6,000 regular troops, but plenty of volunteers. The French had naval superiority at this time, and there were signals that some kind of landing was to be made. But in the end, this threat came to nothing. James, retreating from Ireland, commandeered the French ships which would have led the invasion to take him back to France.

After William's victory, he returned to England and John Churchill was sent to Ireland to mop up the remaining rebel forces. John took Cork and Kinsale easily, showing his skill as a commander. Perhaps he was trying to show his king what a useful man he was to have around, and was angling for an independent command, but William would not trust him.

Marlborough Makes an Enemy

In fact, John was growing increasingly annoyed by his lack of recognition. He made a bid for a dukedom and the Order of the Garter, and failed in both attempts. The prestigious title of Master-General of the Ordance was also denied him. William preferred to surround himself with men from his native Netherlands, and this rankled him. John and William began a kind of war of words, one speaking out against the other. It is said that William felt so outraged by the Earl's behaviour that he would have challenged him to a duel had be not been king.

To make matters worse, John was hedging his bets again. It was not unlikely at this time that the deposed James, backed by France, would manage to regain the throne. John had been in contact with James, entreating him for a pardon for his betrayal. Others in the kingdom were doing a similar thing, and William knew it; but it was not treason. It was seen as an insurance policy, and not necessarily anything treacherous. But it still served to annoy the King further.

In 1692, while the Allies were taking a battering on the Continent (William had entrusted command to less able men and left John on the sidelines), Queen Mary became convinced Marlborough was actively plotting the downfall of the Protestant monarchy. On 20 January, he was dismissed from the army, banned from court and stripped of all his titles and offices. Various friends of his, in the military and civil service, defended him. Chief among these was his old friend Godolphin - a known Jacobite sympathiser.

John even spent six weeks in the Tower of London when he was implicated in a plot to restore James. In the end, the letters which had supposedly proved the Earl's guilt were exposed as forgeries, and he was released.

The Camaret Bay Letter

Even after John's release he had kept in contact with James. In 1694, the Allies unleashed a carefully-planned attack on the key French port of Brest. But the French evidently had prior warning of the attack because the town's garrison and defences were reinforced. The Allied landing at Camaret Bay was a disaster, and nearly all the invasion force was killed or captured. There was no evidence that John had tipped the French off, but it suited his enemies just fine to accuse him of it. It is thought that he did indeed send a letter to France mentioning an attack on Brest in May 1694, but it is certain the French had already been informed by another source (Godolphin is a prime suspect here).

Some sources claim that William actually requested John write the letter in order to draw French forces to Brest. The attack was supposed to be a mere feint while another invasion occurred elsewhere, and that the incompetence of the English commander had resulted in the feint becoming a full-scale battle. This argument largely relied on the fact it is difficult to believe Marlborough would betray English soldiers. We know he could betray kings, but perhaps he felt much more of a kinship to the common soldier. This is possible, but not probable. After all, he had deserted the English army for a largely Dutch force during the Glorious Revolution.

The Death of Queen Mary

Mary II died on 7 January 1695, and King William and Princess Anne made some attempt at a reconciliation. Anne was now the heir to the throne, after all. Lord and Lady Marlborough were allowed to return to court, but nothing more was accorded to them at that time. The next year John and Godolphin (among others) were implicated in yet another fabricated Jacobite plot, but this time very few believed the claims of the militant Sir John Fenwick. In 1698, the Treaty of Ryswick was signed and the War of the Grand Alliance came to a close.

Things became more relaxed in peacetime. Perhaps King William felt safer now France had been penned back to its own borders. Encouraged by various friends of John at court he offered him the post of governor to the Duke of Gloucester. His position on the influential Privy Council and his military ranks were restored. William was still a little cold towards the Earl, but relations had improved no end.

1The Board, taking its name from the table of green baize at which members sat, audited the accounts of the Royal Household and made arrangements for royal travel; it was one of the many 'councils' which existed under the umbrella of the Royal Household at this time.2At this time many English nobles were setting up estates in Ireland.3Arabella was soon to become the Duke of York's mistress (presumably much to Anne's annoyance) and mother to four of his children across two of his marriages.4The English and Dutch possessed the two largest and best navies in the world, and had been battling for world naval supremacy since 1652.5The first contingent of men (often volunteers) to attack a fortress. Through the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries infantry were armed with muskets which they fired en masse in huge volleys. The first men through a breach in a fortress wall would thus be met by a storm of musket balls, and few survived. Those who did were often given instant promotion for bravery.6By this time Duke James had moved on to his second wife, Mary of Modena.7The Whigs were one of the two main political parties in Parliament. The other was the Tories.8'The Old Pretender'. He and his son (Charles - 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' or 'The Young Pretender') would continue to make attempts - most half-hearted - to regain the throne throughout their exile.9A confederation of disparate German states which were essentially independent of each other. The Empire remained static while the borders of the states within changed, meaning parts of the Austrian (Habsburg) Monarchy were included.

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