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John Churchill,
Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722)

Born: 24th June 1650 at Ashe, Devon
Duke of Marlborough
Died: 16th June 1722 at Windsor Great Park, Berkshire

John Churchill came of good West Country stock, being the son of Sir Winston Churchill, Comptroller of the Board of green Cloth and an ardent Royalist, by Elizabeth Drake, sister of Sir John Drake of Ashe in Devon. He was educated at St. Paul's School in London, but his masters failed to inspire him with any literary tastes, or even to teach him the art of correct spelling. At the age of seventeen, he entered the army, where, with the assistance of his sister, Arabella, then mistress en titre of the Duke of York, he advanced rapidly. Churchill's handsome face and attractive manners also aided his rise, but he early showed his real military capacity by his conduct at the sieges of Nimeguen and Maestricht, where his gallantry earned him the praise of Turenne.

In 1678, he crowned an arduous courtship by marrying Sarah Jennings, one of Princess Anne's attendants. In pursuance of his interests, which were always his chief concern, Churchill shared the Duke of York's vicissitudes of fortune in the later years of King Charles II, and was raised to the peerage as Lord Churchill in 1682. The defeat of the rebels at Sedgemoor was largely due to his coolness, nor was there any reason to doubt his loyalty to the Duke as the new King, James II, until the success of William of Orange's usurpation was inevitable. It is true that Churchill was a firm Anglican and that, when the King's Catholic leanings became notorious, he had open communication with the Prince of Orange; but it is difficult to believe that religious scruples alone would have sufficed to change his allegiance, had he been unable to reconcile them with his worldly advantage.

Churchill’s desertion from James was a great accession of strength to William, for through the influence of his wife, he brought over also that lady's bosom friend, the Princess Anne. William soon created him Earl of Marlborough and a member of the Queen's Council. In 1690, the King further entrusted him with the command of an expedition against Cork, in which his military talents were for the first time indisputably shown. Yet, in spite of these honours, Marlborough was in correspondence with James. His motives are difficult to discern, but they must have been strong , for his judgment was seldom at fault. Some inkling of his dealings leaked out, however, and he was disgraced, together with his protectress, Princess Anne (1692). In later years, his correspondence with the Jacobites was renewed, but his overtures were never received with confidence. The story that he betrayed, to the French King, a plan of attack upon the port of Brest in 1694, and that the result was the defeat of the English troops and the death of their gallant leader Talmash, wears a different colour if we may believe that William actually suggested to Marlborough to write the information to France in the hope of diverting a large French army to the west. The attack on Brest had merely been intended as a feint, which Talmash's rashness pushed home. It is certainly difficult to think of Marlborough as a betrayer of English soldiers, whatever he might have been with regard to English and Dutch Kings.

The death of Queen Mary brought about Earl of Marlborough’s return to favour, but William bestowed no further post of trust upon him until 1698, when he became Governor of the little Duke of Gloucester, who died in 1700. In 1701, he was appointed to command the troops in Holland. Queen Anne's accession made Marlborough the most powerful man in England, Commander-in-Chief, Master-General of the Ordnance and a Knight of the Garter. By means of his wife's domineering influence, he was able to impose his views upon the Queen and to carry on the War of Spanish Succession with little fear of opposition at home. He became Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces and, after his first campaign, was promoted to a Dukedom (14th December 1702). His army was a motley force which he could only control by exercising the most unfailing courtesy and the most delicate tact, while at critical moments his dispositions were liable to be utterly frustrated by the timorous obstinacy of the Dutch deputies. Yet, at the end of nine years, he had four times routed the best armies and the best marshals of France, had captured numberless fortresses thought to have been rendered impregnable by the skill of Vauban, and was threatening to march on Paris itself. No leader was ever called upon to overcome greater obstacles before bringing his troops into action and no leader ever handled his men more consummately on the field of battle, or took more zealous care for their comfort and welfare in camp and on the march. He was rewarded with adoration by his soldiers and was able to expect of them marches and fights such as no one else could expect.

In Marlborough, a genius for administration, for diplomacy and for war were united. As a general, he had an unerring and instantaneous perception of his enemy's weak spot, together with that complete coolness of calculation which enabled him to form a sound and clear judgment in dealing with any situation, whether military or political. Thus, from 1702-11, his summers were spent in fighting the French, while, each winter he returned home to receive fresh honours and to secure his position. His fame reached its height after the campaign of Ramillies, one of the most brilliant ever fought. From this point his power at home waned. The intrigues of Harley and Mrs. Masham gradually undermined, at Court, the position of his Duchess and also that of the Whigs, on whom Marlborough relied. Swift's attacks, which began 1710, were most bitter and constant successes could not stifle the foolish cry that Marlborough was prolonging the war from motives of ambition. Finally, his own ill-judged demand of the Captain-Generalship for life gave his enemies an opportunity to overthrow him. In 1711, he was recalled and was violently assailed in Parliament. Next year, he retired abroad rather than face the ingratitude of his countrymen. On George's accession, he returned and was once more Captain-General, but was never seriously trusted or consulted. His health had long been weak and he took little part in public affairs. A third paralytic stroke finally ended his life at his chief residence, the Great Lodge (now called Cumberland Lodge) in Windsor Great Park, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey (but later removed to Blenheim Palace).

No adequate estimate has ever been written of Marlborough's complex character. In few men have greatness and meanness been so inextricably interwoven. Utterly lacking in idealism, intent only on his own advancement, of an extraordinary avarice, he yet possessed the moral force and the power of inspiring others without which no great commander can be truly great. In political life, he was unstable and unprincipled, yet he was singularly devoted, both as a husband and a father. Whatever his defects as a man and a politician may have been, in the field, he exhibited all the spiritual and intellectual qualities which mark a born general; and, judged by these alone, not even Wellington can claim to have equalled him as a soldier.

Edited from CRL Fletcher's 'Historical Portraits' (1919)

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