John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough: Part One (1650 - 1700) | Part Two (1700 - 22)
John Churchill had shown his ambition from an early age. He had the talent to match the ambition and a powerful friend in the form of Princess Anne. But he had had his ambition thwarted on numerous occasions by his uneasy relationship with King William. He had little to do while Europe was at war, left at home as the king favoured his trusted Dutch generals. Peace broke out between the European nations, and John's relations with William improved with the death of the Queen.
An Uneasy Peace
As the War of the Grand Alliance faded away in Europe, the seeds of a new war were being sown. This was to prove good news for the now middle-aged Earl of Marlborough. He was looking for something to truly define his life, and this he would find in on the battlefield.
King Charles II of Spain died childless on 1 November, 1700, the last of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty. Before he died, however, he stated that his heir should be Philip, Duc d'Anjou, the grandson of the French King Louis XIV. This would effectively unite the two kingdoms, creating a huge world superpower. The Spanish colonies in the Americas had largely faded away by this point, but there were still dominions dotted around the globe, and the Iberian peninsula itself was worth fighting over. The main Spanish dominion in Europe, the Spanish Netherlands, are not to be forgotten either. The United Provinces of the Netherlands just to the north had once been a part of Spanish dominions, but they had won their liberty in a long war in the 17th Century. There must have been some in the United Provinces keen to unite 'the two Netherlands' under home rule again1. The Habsburg2 Emperor Leopold I also had a claim to the Spanish throne, and so opposed the succession of Philip. England and the Netherlands did not want to see the France they had fought to keep down during the War of the Grand Alliance become overly powerful again.
In a no doubt rather unexpected turn of fortunes, John was made Ambassador-Extraordinary to the council of nations in the Hague which was to put together an alliance to oppose France and Spain. He also commanded the English forces in Holland. Soon after, in September, 1701, a Treaty of the Second Grand Alliance was signed by England, the Dutch Republic, and the Austrian Empire. France prepared to defend itself, putting together a network of defensive fortresses in the north-east. William died in March, 1702, before war was officially declared, bringing Lord and Lady Marlborough's close friend Anne to the throne.
Anne showered the Marlboroughs with titles and honours in reward for their loyalty, friendship and support. She was, of course, also well aware of John's skills as a commander and wanted to keep him sweet for the coming war. Marlborough became Master-General of the Ordnance and he was made a Knight of the Garter and Captain-General of all English armies. Sarah gained the titles of Groom of the Stole, Mistress of the Robes and Keeper of the Privy Purse. Politically, they were now the most influential people in the royal court.
The War of the Spanish Succession
The defining period in John's life began when England declared war on France on 15 May, 1702. European alliances had been forged and the great powers were lining up for war. He was sent to the continent with command of all English, Dutch and hired German forces. However, there were certain limitations. He only had direct command over Dutch forces when they were fighting alongside his own English soldiers. At all other times he had to ask the consent of Dutch military or political officials. These officials were often rather obstinate and reluctant to take risks, but eager to take offence, meaning the greatest tact, eloquence and delicacy were required. John's experience in diplomacy proved invaluable in keeping the army together.
The war began well for the Allies. The Earl led an effective campaign in the Spanish Netherlands. By the end of the year he had captured the major towns of Venlo, Roermond, Stevensweert and Liege. Queen Anne made him a duke as a reward for his successes.
This period of military success and political rewards was followed by a period of grief in the Churchill family. John's eldest (and only surviving) son, also called John, died of smallpox early in 1703. He was 17. He had been studying at the University of Cambridge - the Duke had hoped he would make the Churchills into one of the great English noble families, and this began with a well-educated and influential male heir. He rushed to his son's side in time to be there when he died, and was plunged into incapacitating sorrow and grief. John now had only daughters left. Henrietta had been married to Godolphin's son Francis, Anne to the Earl of Sunderland and Elizabeth to the Earl of Bridgewater. Mary, his only unmarried daughter, was betrothed to John Montagu, heir to the Earl of Montagu, later in the year.
John was at an emotional low point in his life after the loss of his son, but he returned to Flanders in March, clearly unwilling to stew away in his grief. In 1703, he took Bonn, Huy and Limbourg, but he was not pleased with the way the war was going. He wanted to bring a large French army to a decisive battle so he could clear the whole of the Spanish Netherlands quickly, but the Dutch were not proving helpful, and the politicians at home were making life difficult.
Marlborough's staunch ally in Parliament was Sidney Godolphin, a moderate Tory (and now Lord High Treasurer), but they faced opposition from two sides. Some of the more radical Tories did not support a campaign on the continent at all, and were more interested in the use of the Royal Navy to make colonial gains overseas, especially in ousting the French from North America. The Whigs were enthusiastic about the European theatre but were worried about the money that was being spent on the war.
The Blenheim Campaign
Until now, England had concentrated its efforts in the Spanish Netherlands and the north-east of France, but things had to change. Austria was in dire straits. The French pressed from the west, and were now joined by soldiers from the Electorate of Bavaria, one of the many small German states. The Hungarians (one of the peoples of the Austrian Empire) were rebelling in the west. Marlborough devised an audacious plan to keep Austria in the war and drive back France's eastern armies.
John never expected the Dutch to co-operate. They would not condone anything which would result in the weakening of their forces in the Spanish Netherlands. So he went as far at the Dutch authorities would allow him and set up camp near the Moselle river, near what is now Luxembourg. He described his plan in a secret letter to the Austrian ambassador:
My intentions are to march with the English to Coblenz and declare that I intend to campaign on the Moselle. But when I come there, to write to the Dutch States that I think it absolutely necessary for the saving of the Empire to march with the troops under my command and to join with those that are in Germany... in order to make measures with Prince Lewis of Baden for the speedy reduction of the Elector of Bavaria.
He began with an army of 21,000, which was reinforced en route so he reached the Danube with 40,000 men. A French army of 30,000 men under Marshal Villeroi which could have attacked the Dutch in the Duke's absence, preferred instead to shadow his march, wary of the internationally-renowned general.
The march was a masterclass in meticulous military planning and secrecy. The bad weather was a hindrance, but he was equal to the task. The army marched for four days, then rested for one. Fresh boots and equipment were provided. Many have called this march 'the dawn of modern warfare' because it relied so heavily on logistical planning.
By the time John reached the Rhine, the French knew he was not attacking Moselle, but they did suspect he was attempting to attack Alsace and the city of Strasbourg. The Duke ordered bridges to be constructed across the Rhine in order to encourage this rumour, and Villeroi moved to Alsace to reinforce Marshal Tallard, who was encamped there with 10,000 men. John continued his march towards the Rhine. He was joined by 14,000 Prussians and Danes on the way, and aggressively drove away a French army twice the size of his at Schellenberg. Finally he linked up with Prince Eugene of Savoy and Prince Louis of Baden, forming an army some 110,000 strong.
After some more manoeuvring on both sides, Prince Eugene and Duke Churchill surprised the French forces with an army of 52,000 men near the village of Blindheim (Blenheim in English). The French, supplemented by Bavarian forces, had some 4,000 more men than the Allies, but after some hard fighting in the centre the Anglo-Austrian army broke through and captured 13,000 enemy troops. Another 18,000 were killed, wounded or drowned in the river Danube which wound its way along the south-west of the battlefield. The Allies lost fewer than 5,000 men.
With the main French field army in that area destroyed, Marlborough was free to run riot. Landau, Trier and Trarbach all fell in quick succession. Austria had a chance to recover since Bavaria had been knocked out of the war, meaning he would now have Austrian soldiers at his back as well.
At home, John was celebrated as a national hero. Even his Tory political enemies acknowledged his supreme military genius. Queen Anne gifted a royal manor at Woodstock to the Marlboroughs, and promised the construction of a magnificent palace to honour the victory - the future Blenheim Palace.
Marlborough in his Prime
Once again his allies frustrated him in 1705. Once again Dutch indecision prevented him from being able to bring about a decisive encounter. But at home, spirits were still high and he was still the most popular man in England.
In 1706, he had a chance to unleash his brilliance once again. In late May he fought another close battle against the French near the village of Ramillies. Once again the two sides were similar in numbers (around 60,000 men), and there was a point where a French attack in the centre routed the Dutch squadrons there and almost led to disaster. But John personally led two charges to drive them back, and the Allied cavalry on the flanks had a chance to cut down the French horsemen and attack the French centre from the side. He was nearly killed when one of his staff was helping him onto his horse. A cannonball flew between his legs and decapitated the servant, miraculously leaving him unscathed.
The Allies lost little over a thousand men, while 13,000 Frenchmen lay dead on the field and a further 6,000 were captured. For those who thought Blenheim was just a fluke, this was a resounding shock: a victory possibly even more decisive.
Things were going very well. The victory at Ramillies had paved the way for the conquest of nearly all the Spanish Netherlands, and in the south, Prince Eugene of Savoy had routed the French at Turin. It looked like things were all coming into place ready for the invasion of France itself.
Though the Spanish Netherlands were officially being claimed in the name of Archduke Charles, the Austrian Empire's candidate for the succession of the Spanish throne, they needed to be governed until the end of the war. At one point Marlborough was offered their governorship, but he knew he had to decline or risk becoming unpopular with his allies in the Netherlands.
While the war was being fought in Europe, English politics were changing. The Whigs had provided the main support for the war, but now they were pressuring Lord Godolphin to give them public offices in return for continued support in Parliament. The Queen was strongly anti-Whig, but Godolphin needed them, and asked Sarah Churchill to help him win the Queen over.
The relationship between Sarah and Queen Anne had cooled since the latter's accession to the throne. Sarah was getting bored of both the Queen and the royal court; while Anne was annoyed by Sarah's arrogant tactlessness. She might also have resented Sarah's strength and beauty for when they had been childhood friends, Sarah had always been the leader. John had always benefitted from Sarah and Godolphin's special relationship with the Queen, but the Whig affair soured it. Anne began to turn to new favourites. She began to favour Abigail Masham as her maid and the Tory Robert Harley for political advice.
Compounding this loss of political influence, the Allies had a bad time of it in 17073. The French regained the initiative and the Grand Alliance once again proved fractious. Other European states were eyeing the combatants up. Sweden saw a chance to gain some power and almost attacked Austria, but John's diplomacy prevailed. Godolphin and John had to keep going back to the Queen to ask for concessions to the Whigs in order to keep support for the war they wanted to fight. The Tories wanted more troops to be transferred to the Spanish campaign but the Duke saw this as a mere sideshow, and with every request John made of the Queen, they grew further and further apart.
In 1708, John was back to his winning ways. In July, with his old friend Prince Eugene, he beat yet another French army at the Battle of Oudenarde in Flanders. The French had no concerted plan while John and Eugene, commanding the wings of the army, surrounded and destroyed a quarter of the French force.
Meanwhile, the Duchess had grown increasingly wearisome. She complained to her husband about various supposed injustices she suffered at court, and was very vocal in her criticism of just about everything. The palace commissioned after Blenheim was far from completion (it would not be finished until 1722) and Sarah said it was little better than a pile of stones.
John had put up with increasing ill-health (by this time he was nearly sixty). After the Oudenarde campaign France looked to be defeated. The country was exhausted, and sued for peace. The Whigs, who were now in complete primacy in Parliament, were merciless in their terms for the ceasefire, so much so that King Louis rejected the demands.
The Whigs were causing real problems for John. If he had been allowed to take part in the negotiations for peace, things would arguably have been a lot better. To add to his list of worries, Sarah, who had once been his key link with the Queen, was no longer in Anne's favour. The Queen had finally grown tired of her.
John now had to press on in another campaign in September 1709 in an attempt to force France to capitulate. He duly won the battle of Malplaquet, the major set-piece engagement of the campaign, but things did not go completely according to plan.
The Allies slightly outnumbered the French, by 100,000 to 90,000, and attacked the French line confident in this and in the genius of their commander. They won, but casualties were heavy: 25,000 on the Allied side compared to 12,000 on the French. John proceeded to take Mons in modern-day Belgium.
The campaign was a success, but it wasn't the resounding victory England was used to from the Duke. Some suggested he might be losing his touch. Enthusiasm for the war was ebbing away as casualties mounted and costs rose, and in 1710 a new government, aiming for peace, came into power. Godolphin no longer held the office of Lord High Treasurer, and John was convinced all was lost. He considered resignation, but Godolphin and Eugene managed to persuade him to stay on as Captain-General.
Politically John was practically finished, but the people still loved him. Nobody could deny that he was a military genius. Lille, the greatest fortress in Europe, had fallen to his army with far lower casualties than expected. He had won numerous decisive victories, and even Malplaquet was tactically useful.
The Queen and her new ministers, notably Robert Harley, were having none of it. They made it clear on his return to England in early 1711 that in the future he would not be able to exercise any real political clout. He would do what he was told and win some battles.
The old Soldier's Last Campaign
In March, 1711, John returned to Flanders, again battling ill-health. The two armies faced each other along the border between Allied and French territory, extending from northern France in the west (south of Boulogne), east and then north to encompass Brussels. Marshal Villars commanded the French army. He had been present at Malplaquet and some Allied officers expected a repeat of that battle. The French line looked strong and to attack it seemed to be inviting a slaughter.
Then John played his favourite card: unexpected marches, kept secret, to turn the tables on his foe. The Allied army marched through the French lines at night, without losing a single man, marching 40 miles in 18 hours. He continued his offensive and took the fortress of Bouchain with relatively small loss of life. Villars had been comprehensively out-manoeuvred and out-foxed.
notwithstanding those who delight in the arts of war both time and place are appointed for opening the treaty of a general peace
- Queen Anne, speaking on 17 December, 1711.
English politicians wanted an end to the costly war and they wanted it now. Other European nations, such as Prussia and the Austrian Empire, would bear the brunt of the assault if France attempted expansion again, and so they wanted to press home the advantage. John largely thought that France was too dangerous not to weaken further, but he was to be overruled. He also made an ill-judged and ill-timed request to be granted Captain-Generalship for life.
During the political storm following Malplaquet, it was suggested that John was prolonging the war in order to maximise his financial gain. Now, in early 1712, he was accused of embezzlement, a charge encouraged by Robert Harley and Henry St John (otherwise known as Henry Boilingbroke), the Queen's new favourites. He was suspended from his offices while the matter was investigated.
He was chiefly charged with keeping for his own use the 2.5% levied on the pay of all foreign contingents in the army. Although John was able to show that he was not guilty of the charges laid against him - he had spent the £250,000 on the Secret Service - a vote in the House of Commons on whether to prosecute was passed, 276 votes to 165. The problem was that, though he had some loyal friends in Parliament, he had no clear-cut support from either the Whigs or the Tories. Many spoke for him, but most spoke against. His main allies were in the Grand Alliance. The Elector of Hanover wrote these lines:
We are fully convinced and satisfied that the Prince, Duke of Marlborough, has annually applied these sums to the Secret Service according to their destination and that his wise application of these amounts has forcibly contributed to the gaining of so many battles, to the passing of so many entrenchments and so many lines, successes which, after the blessing of God, are due in great part to the good intelligence and information which the said Prince has had of the movement and conditions of the enemy.
Henry St John knew full well his case was not exactly watertight, and in the end John was not prosecuted. But he was not returned to office.
Henry St John was the British representative at the peace negotiations. He obtained a ceasefire during the meetings in 1713 and 1714 which resulted in the Treaty of Utrecht but this was at the cost of relinquishing some British gains in the New World. The main British gains in Europe were Gibraltar and Minorca, while the French lost Hudson Bay, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and the island of St Christopher.
Life After The War
John must have been sick and tired of English politics at this point. He left for Europe in self-exile. Here he was celebrated by everybody, commoners and politicians alike. There was a prospect of him living out a comfortable retirement; he had enough private income in the form of the various acquisitions he had made during the wars. He was actually a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire. Mindelheim, in what is now southern Germany, was then a small principality which had been bought by the Elector of Bavaria before the war. After Blenheim, and the defeat of Bavaria, Marlborough was given its sovereignty.
He was later joined by his wife Sarah, and might have been hoping to settle down, but the Duchess was not happy with living away from her homeland. In the end they both returned on hearing the news their daughter Elizabeth had died of smallpox.
A New King
John was reappointed Master-General of Ordnance as well as Captain-General and went some way toward regaining his old influence, though now it was more the influence of a respected old warrior than anything else. His health prevented him from taking too big a part in government. During the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, he was officially appointed the military commander, but John knew well enough he should leave the real work to his subordinate commanders.
His favourite daughter Anne died in 1716, and in that same year he suffered two strokes. His mind was as clear and sharp as ever but his speech had become slurred and he spent most of his time in gentle pursuits, occasionally riding out to check on the progress of Blenheim Palace.
In 1719, John and Sarah moved into part of the unfinished palace. They had regained some of their old closeness now they were away from the intrigues of court, and lived happily together for three years. In 1722 he suffered another stroke. His two remaining daughters visited him but Sarah sent them away (she always felt they got between her and her husband), and in the small hours of the morning of 27 June, 1722, John Churchill died.
John was not exactly a moral man. He was undoubtedly motivated by his own self-interest and cared little for others. He obviouly had few political principles, yet he was a devoted and caring father, and was like a father to the men he led into battle. And, no matter what is said of his character, he was a military genius, perhaps unequalled in British history, who led ten brilliant campaigns to keep France from overrunning Europe.
- Winston Churchill, Prime Minister during the Second World War. He was in fact born at Blenheim Palace. His father, Randolph, was the third son of the seventh Duke of Marlborough. He wrote a two-volume history (Marlborough: His Life and Times) aimed at restoring the reputation of his ancestor, who was then remembered mainly for his treachery. The two parts total over 2,000 pages between them.
- Lady Diana Spencer. James II had a daughter by Arabella Churchill, John's sister, thus beginning the line of descent which ended with the Spencers.