John Churchill

From New World Encyclopedia

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough
June 6, 1650—June 27, 1722
John Churchill Marlborough porträtterad av Adriaen van der Werff (1659-1722).jpg
The Duke of Marlborough. Oil by Adriaan Werff.
Place of birth Ashe House, Devon
Place of death Windsor Lodge
Allegiance Kingdom of Great Britain
Battles/wars Monmouth Rebellion
• Battle of Sedgemoor
War of the Grand Alliance
• Battle of Walcourt
War of the Spanish Succession
• Battle of Schellenberg
Battle of Blenheim
• Battle of Elixheim
• Battle of Ramillies
• Battle of Oudenarde
• Battle of Malplaquet
Awards Order of the Garter

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (June 6, 1650 – June 27, 1722)[1] was an English soldier and statesman whose career spanned the reigns of five monarchs throughout the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. His rise to prominence began as a lowly page in the royal court of Stuart England, but his natural courage on the field of battle soon ensured quick promotion and recognition from his master and mentor James, Duke of York. When James became king in 1685, Churchill played a major role in crushing the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion; but just three years later, Churchill abandoned his Catholic king for the Protestant William of Orange.

Marlborough's influence at court reached its zenith with the accession of Sarah's close friend Queen Anne. Promoted to Captain-General of British forces, and later to a dukedom, Marlborough found international fame in the War of the Spanish Succession where, on the fields of Blenheim, Ramillies and Oudenarde, his place in history as one of Europe's great generals was assured. However, when his wife fell from royal grace as Queen Anne's favorite, the Tories, determined on peace with France, pressed for his downfall. Marlborough was dismissed from all civil and military offices on charges of embezzlement, but the Duke eventually regained favor with the accession of George I in 1714. Although returned to his former offices, the Duke's health soon deteriorated and, after a series of strokes, he eventually succumbed to his illness in his bed at Windsor Lodge on June 27, 1722. The World War II British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who was descended from John, wrote his biography.[2]

Early life (1650–1678)

Ashe House

The Duke of Marlborough's genealogy. With no surviving male heir, Henrietta became the 2nd Duchess of Marlborough. On her death in 1733, Anne's son Charles became the 3rd Duke of Marlborough.

John’s parents were Winston and Elizabeth Churchill. During the English Civil War, Winston had fought for the King and, like so many other cavaliers, was forced to pay recompense; in his case £4,446.[3] This crippling fine impoverished the ex-Royalist cavalry captain whose motto Fiel Pero Desdichado (Faithful but Unfortunate) is still today used by his descendants.

Elizabeth gave birth to 12 children, of which only five survived infancy. John was the eldest son, John, born on May 26, 1650.

After the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 Sir Winston's fortunes took a turn for the better, although he remained far from prosperous.[4] As a mark of Royal favor Winston was appointed Commissioner for Irish Land Claims in Dublin in 1662. While in Ireland, John attended the Free School, but a year later his studies were transferred to St Paul's School in London, after his father was recalled as Junior Clerk Comptroller of the King's Household at Whitehall. Charles' own penury, however, meant that he was unable to pay much of a salary. In 1665, Sir Winston's eldest daughter, Arabella, became Maid of Honour to Anne Hyde, the Duchess of York. Some months later, John joined her as page to her husband, James.[5]

Early military experience

Often accompanying the Duke inspecting the troops in the royal parks, John Churchill decided to pursue a military career. On September 14, 1667, soon after his seventeenth birthday, he obtained a commission as ensign in the King's Own Company in the 1st Guards, later to become the Grenadier Guards.[6] In 1668, he sailed for the North African outpost of Tangier, recently acquired as part of the dowry of Charles' Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza. Churchill stayed here for three years, gaining first-class tactical training and field experience skirmishing with the Moors.[7]

Back in London by February 1671, Churchill's handsome features and manner soon attracted the ravenous attentions of one of the King's most noteworthy mistresses, Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland.[8]

Battle of Solebay by Willem van de Velde the Younger. Churchill here learned the uncertainties and hazards of naval warfare.[9]

A year later Churchill went to sea again. Whilst fighting the Dutch navy at the Battle of Solebay off the Suffolk coast in June 1672, valorous conduct aboard the Duke of York's flagship, the Royal Prince, earned Churchill promotion (above the resentful heads of more senior officers) to a captaincy in the Lord High Admiral's Regiment.[10] The following year Churchill gained a further commendation at the Siege of Maastricht, when the young captain distinguished himself as part of the 30-man forlorn hope, successfully capturing and defending part of the fortress. During this incident Churchill is credited with saving the Duke of Monmouth's life, receiving a slight wound in the process but gaining further praise from a grateful House of Stuart, as well as recognition from the House of Bourbon. King Louis XIV in person commended the deed, from which time forward bore Churchill an enviable reputation for physical courage, as well as earning the high regard of the common soldier.[11]

Although King Charles' anti-French Parliament had forced England to withdraw from the Franco-Dutch War in 1674, some English regiments remained in French service. In April, Churchill was appointed colonel of one of these regiments. He then served with, and learnt from, Marshal Turenne. Churchill was present at the hard-fought battles of Sinzheim and Entzheim, for which he earned further praise – he may also have been present at Sasbach in June 1675, where Turenne was killed.[12] On his return to St James' Palace, Churchill's attention was drawn towards other matters, and to a fresh face at court.

From martial to marital matters

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, c.1700 by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Sarah Jennings, a Maid of Honor to the Duchess of York, Mary of Modena, second wife to James, Duke of York, attracted Churchill’s interest when he returned from the Continent in 1675.[13] Sarah was then about 15, and Churchill appears to have been almost immediately captivated by her charms and not inconsiderable good looks.[14] However, his amorous, almost abject, missives of devotion were, it seems, received with suspicion and accusations of incredulity – his first lover, Barbara Villiers, was just moving her household to Paris, feeding doubts that he may well have been looking at Sarah as a replacement mistress rather than a fiancée. Although Sir Winston wished his son to marry the wealthy Catherine Sedley, Colonel Churchill married Sarah sometime in the winter of 1677–1678, possibly in the apartments of the Duchess of York.[15]

Mid-life crises (1678–1700)

On returning to England, Churchill was appointed to the temporary rank of Brigadier-General of Foot, but hopes of promised action on the Continent proved illusory as the warring factions sued for peace and signed the Treaty of Nijmegen.

Plot and exile

A later painting of The Marlborough family by Johann Baptist Closterman. On the Duke's left are Elizabeth, Mary, the Duchess, Henrietta, Anne and John.

The iniquities of the Popish Plot (Titus Oates' fabricated conspiracy aimed at excluding the Catholic Duke of York from the English accession), meant temporary banishment for James – an exile that would last nearly three years. Churchill was obliged to attend his master—who in due course was permitted to move to Scotland—but it was not until 1682, after Charles' complete victory over the exclusionists, that the Duke of York was allowed to return to London and Churchill's career could again prosper.[16]

Made Baron Churchill of Eyemouth in the peerage of Scotland in December 1682, and with the additional appointment as colonel of the King's Own Royal Regiment of Dragoons the following year, the Churchills' combined income ensured a life of some style and comfort; as well as maintaining their residence in London (staffed with seven servants), they were also able to purchase Holywell House in St Albans where their growing family could enjoy the benefits of country life.[17]

The Churchills soon drawn back to court. With her marriage to Prince George of Denmark, the 18-year-old Princess Anne offered Sarah, of whom she had been passionately fond since childhood, an appointment to her household. Churchill treated the princess with respectful affection and grew genuinely attached to her, assuming, in his reverence to royalty, the chivalrous role of a knightly champion.[18]


Monmouth's execution on Tower Hill, July 15, 1685. Other rebels, including Daniel Defoe, were more fortunate and managed to escape.

When King Charles died in 1685, his brother succeeded him as King James II, much to the consternation of the bastard son of Charles and Lucy Walter, James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth. Urged on by various Whig conspirators (exiled for their part in the failed Rye House plot), Monmouth prepared to take what he considered rightfully his – the Protestant crown of England.

Newly-promoted Major-General Churchill was not placed in charge of suppressing the rebellion but served as second-in-command to Louis de Duras, 2nd Earl of Feversham. Monmouth's ill-timed, ill-equipped and ill-advised peasant rebellion floundered on the West Country field of Sedgemoor on July 6, 1685 (O.S). Although his role was subordinate to Feversham, Churchill's administrative organization, tactical skill and courage in battle in his first independent command was pivotal in the victory – the man who saved Monmouth's life at Maastricht had now brought about his demise at Sedgemoor.

Feversham received the lion's share of the reward, although Churchill was not entirely forgotten – in August he was awarded the lucrative colonelcy of the Third Troop of Life Guards – but the witch-hunt that followed the rebellion, driven by the bloodthirsty zeal of Judge Jeffreys, sickened his sense of propriety.

John Churchill in his thirties, attributed to John Riley. The Star of the Order of the Garter was added after 1707.

Churchill remained at court, but was anxious not to be seen as sympathetic towards the King's growing religious ardour.[19] James' Catholicizing of English institutions – including the army – engendered first suspicion, and ultimately sedition in his mainly Protestant subjects. Some in the King's service, such as the Earl of Salisbury and the Earl of Melfort betrayed their Protestant upbringing in order to gain favour at court, but Churchill remained true to his conscience, "I have been bred a Protestant, and intend to live and die in that communion."[20] The 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688 was to put this declaration to the test.

William landed at Torbay on November 5, 1688 (O.S). From there, he moved his forces to Exeter. James' forces – once again commanded by Lord Feversham – moved to Salisbury, but few of its officers were eager to fight – even James' daughter Princess Anne wrote to William to wish him "good success in this so just an undertaking."[21]

Churchill made the tactical decision to support the Protestant William, and switched allegiance. In return, he was created Earl of Marlborough, confirmed in his rank and appointed a member of the Privy Council. His elevation in the peerage led to accusatory rumors from James' supporters that Marlborough had disgracefully betrayed his erstwhile King for personal gain; William himself entertained reservations about the man who had deserted James.[22]

War of the Grand Alliance

Less than six months after James' departure for the Continent, England declared war on France as part of a powerful coalition aimed at curtailing the ambitions of King Louis XIV; but although the War of the Grand Alliance lasted nine years (1688-1697), Marlborough saw only three years' service in the field, and then mostly in subordinate commands. However, at Walcourt on August 25, 1689, Marlborough won praise from the Dutch commander, Prince Waldeck, – ." … despite his youth he displayed greater military capacity than do most generals after a long series of wars…. He is assuredly one of the most gallant men I know."[23]

Princess Anne c.1690 by Michael Dahl.

When he returned to England, Marlborough was presented with further opportunities. As commander-in-chief of the forces in England he became highly knowledgeable of all the intricacies and illogicalities of the English military system, and played a major role in its reorganisation and recruitment. William and Mary distrusted both Lord and Lady Marlborough's influence as confidents and supporters of the Princess; so much so that a resentful Mary asked her sister to choose between herself and the King on the one hand, and the Marlboroughs on the other - Anne chose the latter. For the moment though, the clash of tempers were over-shadowed by more pressing events in Ireland, where James had landed in March 1689 in his attempt to regain his throne. When William left for Ireland in June 1690, Marlborough was appointed a member of the Council of Nine to advise Queen Mary in the King's absence, but she made scant effort to disguise her distaste at his appointment – "I can neither trust or esteem him," she wrote to William.[24]

William's decisive victory at the Boyne on July 11, 1690 had forced James to abandon his army and flee back to France. After obtaining permission from William, Marlborough himself left for Ireland, capturing the ports of Cork and Kinsale in October, but he was to be disappointed in his hopes of an independent command. Although William recognized Marlborough's qualities as a soldier, he was still not disposed to fully trust anyone who had defected from King James, and loath to advance a career of a man whom he described to Lord Halifax as 'very assuming'.[25]

Dismissal and disgrace

The refusal of a dukedom and the Order of the Garter, as well as failing to be appointed Master-General of the Ordnance, rankled with the ambitious earl; nor had Marlborough concealed his bitter disappointment behind his usual bland discretion.[26] Using his influence in Parliament and the army, Marlborough aroused dissatisfaction concerning William's preferences for foreign commanders, an exercise designed to force the King's hand.[27] William, aware of this, in turn began to speak openly of his distrust of Marlborough; the Elector of Brandenburg's envoy to London overheard the King remark that he had been treated – "so infamously by Marlborough that, had he not been king, he would have felt it necessary to challenge him to a duel."[28]

Since January 1691, Marlborough had been in contact with James at Saint-Germain. The Duke was anxious to obtain the exiled King's pardon for deserting him in 1688 – a pardon essential for the success of his future career in the not altogether unlikely event of James' restoration.[29] William was well aware of these contacts (as well as others such as Godolphin and Shrewsbury), but their double-dealing was seen more in the nature of an insurance policy, rather than as an explicit commitment – a necessary element in a situation of unexampled complexity.[30] However, by the time William and Marlborough had returned from an uneventful campaign in the Spanish Netherlands in October 1691, their relationship had further deteriorated.

On January 20, 1692, the Earl of Nottingham, Secretary of State, ordered Marlborough to dispose of all his posts and offices, both civil and military, and consider himself dismissed from the army and banned from court.[31] No reasons were given but Marlborough's chief associates were outraged; the Duke of Shrewsbury voiced his disapproval and Godolphin threatened to retire from government; Admiral Russell, now commander-in-chief of the Navy personally accused the King of ingratitude to the man who had "set the crown upon his head."[32]

High treason

The nadir of Marlborough's fortunes had not yet been reached. The spring of 1692 brought renewed threats of a French invasion and new accusations of Jacobite treachery. Acting on the testimony of Robert Young, the Queen had arrested all the signatories to a letter purporting the restoration of James II and the seizure of King William. Marlborough, as one of these signatories was sent to the Tower of London on May 14 where he languished for five weeks; his anguish compounded by the news of the death of his younger son Charles. Young's letters were eventually discredited as forgeries and Marlborough released, but he continued his correspondence with James, leading to the celebrated incident of the "Camaret Bay letter" of 1694.[33]

For several months, the Allies had been planning an attack against Brest, the French port in the Bay of Biscay. The French had received intelligence alerting them to the imminent assault, enabling Marshal Vauban to strengthen its defenses and reinforce the garrison. Inevitably, the attack on June 18, led by the English General Thomas Tollemache, ended in disaster; most of his men were killed or captured – Tollemache himself died of his wounds shortly afterwards.[34]

Despite lacking evidence of the letter, Marlborough's detractors claim that it was he who had alerted the enemy. Although it is practically certain that Marlborough sent a message across the channel in early May describing the impending attack on Brest, it is equally certain that the French had long learned of the expedition from another source – possibly Godolphin or the Earl of Danby.

Queen Mary II. Mary died childless, leaving her sister Anne as heir apparent.


Mary's death on December 28, 1694 eventually led to a formal, but cool, reconciliation between William and Anne, now heir to the throne. Marlborough hoped that the rapprochement would lead to his own return to office, but although he and Lady Marlborough were allowed to return to court, the earl received no offer of employment.[35]

In 1696 Marlborough, together with Godolphin, Russell and Shrewsbury, was yet again implicated in a treasonous plot with King James, this time instigated by the Jacobite militant Sir John Fenwick. The conspiracy was eventually dismissed as a fabrication and Fenwick executed – the King himself had remained incredulous of the accusations – but it was not until 1698, a year after the Treaty of Ryswick brought an end to the War of the Grand Alliance, that the corner was finally turned in William's and Marlborough's relationship.[35] On the recommendation of Lord Sunderland (whose wife was also a close friend of Lady Marlborough), William eventually offered Marlborough the post of governor to the Duke of Gloucester, Anne's eldest son. He was also restored to the Privy Council, together with his military rank. However, striving to reconcile his close Tory connections with that of the dutiful royal servant was difficult, leading Marlborough to bemoan – "The King's coldness to me still continues."[36]

Later life (1700–1722)

A new Grand Alliance

When the infirm and childless King Charles II of Spain died on November 1, 1700, the succession of the Spanish throne, and subsequent control over her empire (including the Spanish Netherlands), again embroiled Europe in war – the War of the Spanish Succession. On his deathbed, Charles had bequeathed his domains to King Louis XIV's grandson, Philip, Duc d'Anjou. This threatened to unite the Spanish and French kingdoms under the House of Bourbon – something unacceptable to England, the Dutch Republic and the Austrian Emperor, Leopold I, who had himself a claim to the Spanish throne.

With William's health deteriorating (the King himself estimating he had but a short time to live), and with the Earl's undoubted influence over his successor Princess Anne, William decided that Marlborough should take centre stage in European affairs. Representing William in The Hague as Ambassador-Extraordinary, and as commander of English forces, Marlborough was tasked to negotiate a new coalition to oppose France and Spain. On September 7, 1701, the Treaty of the Second Grand Alliance was duly signed by England, the Emperor and the Dutch Republic to thwart the ambitions of Louis XIV and stem Bourbon power. William however, was not to see England's declaration of war. On March 19, 1702, the King, already in a poor state of health, died from injuries sustained in a riding accident, leaving his sister-in-law, Anne, to be immediately proclaimed as his successor. But although the King's death occasioned instant disarray amongst the coalition, Count Wratislaw was able to report – "The greatest consolation in this confusion is that Marlborough is fully informed of the whole position and by reason of his credit with the Queen can do everything."[37]

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Pictured here in his garter robes.

This 'credit with the Queen' also proved personally profitable to her long-standing friends. Anxious to reward Marlborough for his diplomatic and martial skills in Ireland and on the continent, Marlborough became the Master-General of the Ordnance – an office he had long desired – made a Knight of the Garter and Captain-General of her armies at home and abroad. With Lady Marlborough's advancements as Groom of the Stole, Mistress of the Robes and Keeper of the Privy Purse, the Marlboroughs, now at the height of their powers with the Queen, enjoyed a joint annual income of over £60,000, and unrivalled influence at court.[38]

War of the Spanish Succession

On May 15, 1702, England formally declared war on France. Marlborough was given command of the British, Dutch and hired German forces, but the command had its limitations: as Captain-General he had the power to give orders to Dutch generals only when Dutch troops were in action with his own; at all other times he had to rely on the consent of accompanying Dutch field deputies or political representatives of the States-General – his ability to direct Allied strategy would rely on his tact and powers of persuasion.[39] But despite being frustrated by his Dutch allies' initial lassitude to bring the French to battle, the war began well for Marlborough who managed to out-manoeuvre the French commander, Marshal Boufflers. In 1702, he had captured Venlo, Roermond, Stevensweert and Liege in the Spanish Netherlands for which, in December, a grateful Queen publicly proclaimed Marlborough a duke.

On February 9, 1703, soon after the Marlboroughs' elevation, their daughter Elizabeth married Scroop Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater; this was followed in the summer by an engagement between Mary and John Montagu, heir to the Earl of, and later Duke of, Montagu, (they later married on March 20, 1705). Their two older daughters were already married: Henrietta to Godolphin's son Francis in April 1698, and Anne to the hot-headed and intemperate Charles Spencer, Earl of Sunderland in 1700. However, Marlborough's hopes of founding a great dynasty of his own reposed in his eldest and only surviving son, John, who, since his father's elevation, had bore the courtesy title of Marquess of Blandford. But while studying at Cambridge in early 1703, the 17-year-old was stricken with a severe strain of smallpox. His parents rushed to be by his side, but on Saturday morning, February 20 the boy died, plunging the duke into 'the greatest sorrow in the world'; he later lamented to Lord Ailesbury – "I have lost what is so dear to me."[40]

Bearing his grief, and leaving Sarah to hers, the Duke returned to The Hague at the beginning of March. By now Boufflers had been replaced by Marshal Villeroi as commander in the Spanish Netherlands, but although Marlborough was able to take Bonn, Huy, and Limbourg in 1703, continuing Dutch hesitancy prevented him from bringing the French in Flanders to a decisive battle. Domestically the Duke also encountered resistance. Both he and Godolphin were hampered by, and often at variance with, their High Tory colleagues who, rather than advocating a European policy, favored the full employment of the Royal Navy in pursuit of trade advantages and colonial expansion overseas. For their part, the Whigs, although enthusiastic for the European strategy, had dropped all pretense at supporting the conduct of the war, accounting Marlborough and Godolphin guilty of failing to provide gains commensurate with the funds generously granted them in Parliament.[41] The moderate Tory ministry of Marlborough and Godolphin found itself caught between the political extremes. However Marlborough, whose diplomatic tact had held together a very discordant Grand Alliance, was now a general of international repute, and the limited success of 1703, was soon eclipsed by the Blenheim campaign of 1704.[42]

Marlborough writing the Blenheim despatch to Sarah, by Robert Alexander Hillingford. "I have no time to say more but to beg you will give my duty to the Queen, and let her know her army has had a glorious victory."[43]

Pressed by the French and Bavarians to the west and Hungarian rebels to the east, Austria faced the real possibility of being forced out of the war. Concerns over Vienna and the need to ensure the continuing involvement of Emperor Leopold I in the Grand Alliance, had convinced Marlborough of the necessity of sending aid to the Danube; but the scheme of seizing the initiative from the enemy was extremely bold. From the start the Duke resolved to mislead the Dutch who would never willingly permit any major weakening of the Allied forces in the Spanish Netherlands. To this end, Marlborough moved his English troops to the Moselle, (a plan approved of by The Hague), but once there, he resolved to slip the Dutch leash and march south to link up with Austrian forces in southern Germany.[44]

A combination of strategic deception and brilliant administration enabled Marlborough to achieve his purpose.[45] After covering approximately 250 miles in five weeks, Marlborough – together with Prince Eugene of Savoy – delivered a crushing defeat of the Franco-Bavarian forces at the Battle of Blenheim. The whole campaign, which historian John Lynn describes as one of the greatest examples of marching and fighting before Napoleon, had been a model of planning, logistics and tactical skill, the successful outcome of which had altered the course of the conflict – Bavaria and Cologne were knocked out of the war, and Louis' hopes of an early victory were destroyed.[46] The campaign continued with the capture of Landau on the Rhine, followed by Trier and Trarbach on the Moselle. With these successes, Marlborough now stood as the foremost soldier of the age; even the Tories, who had declared that should he fail they would "break him up like hounds on a hare," could not entirely restrain their patriotic admiration.[47]

The Queen lavished upon her favorite the royal manor of Woodstock and the promise of a fine palace commemorative of his great victory, but since her accession, her relationship with Sarah had become progressively distant.[48] The Duke and Duchess had risen to greatness not least because of their intimacy with Anne, but Sarah had tired of petty ceremony and formality of court life and increasingly found her mistress's company wearisome. For her part, Anne, now Queen of England and no longer the timid adolescent so easily dominated by her more beautiful friend, had grown tired of Sarah's tactless political hectoring and increasingly haughty manner.[49]

After the success of Blenheim, the campaign of 1705 brought little reason for satisfaction on the continent. Endless delays and evasions from his allies had once again frustrated Marlborough's attempts at any major offensive.[50] "I find so little zeal for the common cause that it is enough to break a better heart than mine," he confided to Anthonie Heinsius.[51] Although Marlborough had been able to penetrate the Lines of Brabant in July, Allied indecision had prevented the Duke from pressing his advantage.[52] But if 1705 had proved frustrating, 1706 was to provide ample compensation.

The King's Horse at the Battle of Ramillies, 1706. Marlborough can be seen on his white horse in the background.

On 23 May 1706, near the village of Ramillies in the Spanish Netherlands, Marlborough inflicted "the most shameful, humiliating and disastrous of routs" on French forces, this time commanded by Marshal Villeroi. Town after town fell, but although the campaign was not decisive, it was an unsurpassed operational triumph for the English general.[53] When Marlborough eventually closed down the Ramillies campaign, he had completed the conquest of almost all the Spanish Netherlands. Good news also arrived from the Italian front – Prince Eugène had routed the French army at Turin.

Falling out of favor

While Marlborough fought in Flanders, a series of personal and party rivalries instigated a general reversal of fortune. The Whigs, who were the main prop of the war, had been laying siege to Marlborough's close friend and ally, Lord Godolphin. As a price for supporting the government in the next parliamentary session, the Whigs demanded a share of public office with the appointment of a leading member of their 'Junto', the Earl of Sunderland, to the post of Secretary of State for the Southern Department.[54] The Queen, who loathed the Whigs, bitterly opposed the move; but Godolphin, increasingly dependent on Whig support, had little room for manoeuvre. With Sarah's tactless, unsubtle backing, Godolphin relentlessly pressed the Queen to submit to Whig demands. In despair, Anne finally relented and Sunderland received the seals of office, but the special relationship between Godolphin, Sarah, and the Queen had taken a severe blow and she began to turn increasingly to a new favorite, Abigail Masham. Anne also became ever more reliant on the advice of Godolphin's and Marlborough's fellow moderate Tory Robert Harley, who, convinced that the duumvirate's policy of appeasing the Whig Junto was unnecessary, had set himself up as alternative source of advice to a sympathetic Queen.[55]

The Allies' annus mirabilis was followed in 1707 with a resurgence in French arms in all fronts of the war, and a return to political squabbling and indecision within the Grand Alliance. Marlborough's diplomatic skill was able to prevent Charles XII, King of Sweden, from entering the war against the Empire, but Prince Eugène's retreat from Toulon, and major setbacks in Spain and in Germany had ended any lingering hopes of a war-winning blow that year.[56]

Marlborough returned to England and a political storm. The High Tories were critical of Marlborough's failure to win the war in 1707 and demanded the transfer of 20,000 troops from the Low Countries to the Spanish theatre. For their part the Whigs, infuriated by the Queen's appointment of Tory bishops, threatened to withdraw support from the government. To the Duke and Godolphin this necessitated further wooing of the Junto in order to win back their support (the Junto were full of zeal for the war and, like Marlborough, considered Spain a military sideshow).[57] Yet the more they urged the Queen to make concessions to the Whigs, the more they pushed her into Harley's hands; at every stage of this process, the wider the breach became between the Queen and her Captain-General.[58]

In 1708 Marlborough was able to regain the strategic initiative for the Allies. Despite his ill-health, and the initial loss of Bruges and Ghent to French forces, the Duke's victory over Vendôme at the Battle of Oudenarde on July 11, had demoralised the French army in Flanders; his eye for ground, his sense of timing and his keen knowledge of the enemy were again amply demonstrated.[59] Marlborough professed himself satisfied with the campaign, but he had become increasingly fatigued by the worsening atmosphere at court; on hearing the news of the Duke's victory the Queen initially exclaimed – "Oh Lord, when will all this bloodshed cease!"[60] Sarah also vexed the Duke. Relentlessly bombarding him with letters of complaint, he had at one point wearily replied – "I have neither spirits nor time to answer your three last letters."[61]

Marlborough's main battles and sieges in the War of the Spanish Succession. In the decade he held command, 1702–1711, Marlborough fought five great battles and besieged and captured over 30 enemy fortresses.

On October 22, Marlborough captured Lille, the strongest fortress in Europe, (Boufflers yielded the city's citadel on December 10); he also re-took Bruges and Ghent, but the Duke and Godolphin found themselves ever more uncomfortably placed between the Whig demands for office, and a Queen strongly disinclined to reconciliation. By November, the Whig Junto had gained ascendancy in British politics, reducing the Tories to an ineffective minority; but the more the Queen resisted the Whigs, the more Godolphin and Marlborough were attacked by them for not succeeding in persuading her to give way, and in turn, attacked by the Tories for endeavoring to do so.[62]

After the Oudenarde campaign, and one of the worst winters in modern history, France was on the brink of collapse.[63] However, formal peace talks broke down in April 1709 after uncompromising and exacting Whig demands were rejected by King Louis. But despite his opposition to Whig obduracy, Marlborough no longer had the support of the Queen he had once enjoyed, and, with the Whigs holding the reins of British policy, he played only a subordinate role throughout the negotiations. To compound his troubles, news arrived in August of fresh trouble between the Queen and his wife; Anne had informed Sarah that finally she had had enough of her bullying, writing – "It is impossible for you to recover my former kindness…."[64]

After outwitting Marshal Villars to take the town of Tournai on September 3, the two opposing generals finally met at the tiny village of Malplaquet on September 11.[64] Although the battle was a technical victory for the Allies, the cost in human life was high. The Allied casualty figures were approximately double that of the French, leading Marlborough to admit – "The French have defended themselves better in this action than in any battle I've seen."[65] Marlborough proceeded to take Mons on October 20, but on his return to England, his enemies used the Malplaquet casualty figures to sully his repute. Harley, now master of the Tory party, did all he could to persuade his colleagues that the Whigs – and by their apparent concord with Whig policy, Marlborough and Godolphin – were bent on leading the country to ruin, even hinting that the Duke was prolonging the war to line his own pockets.[66]

In March 1710, fresh peace talks re-opened between Louis and the Allies, but despite French concessions, the Whig government remained unwilling to compromise. However, support for the pro-war policy of the Whigs was ebbing away and, by a series of successive steps, the whole character of the government was altered. Godolphin was forced from office and, after the general election in October, a new Tory ministry installed. Although Marlborough remained a national hero and a figure of immense European prestige, it took urgent entreaties from both Prince Eugène and Godolphin to prevent the Duke from proffering his resignation.[67]

Marlborough and John Armstrong his chief engineer, possibly by Enoch Seeman. Depicted discussing the Siege of Bouchain.


In January 1711, Marlborough – 'much thinner and greatly altered' – returned to England; the crowds cheered but the Queen's new ministers, Harley and Henry St John were less welcoming; if he wished to continue to serve, he was to be nothing more than their obedient military servant.[68] The Queen, who had recently expressed her intention of dismissing his wife, remained cold.[69] The Duke saw Anne in a last attempt to save his wife from dismissal, but she was not to be swayed by his supplicatory pleading, and demanded Sarah give up her Gold Key, the symbol of her office, within two days, warning – "I will talk of no other business till I have the key."[70]

Notwithstanding all this turmoil – and his declining health – Marlborough returned to The Hague in March to prepare for what was to be his last campaign, and one of his greatest. Once again Marlborough and Villars formed against each other in line of battle, this time along the Avesnes-le Comte-Arras sector of the lines of Non Plus Ultra (see map).[71] Expecting another onslaught on the scale of Malplaquet, the Allied generals surmised that their commander, distressed from domestic turmoil, was leading them to an appalling slaughter.[72] But by an exercise of brilliant psychological deception,[73] and a secretive night march covering 40 miles in 18 hours, the Allies penetrated the allegedly impregnable lines without losing a single man; Marlborough was now in position to besiege the fortress of Bouchain.[74] Villars, deceived and outmanoeuvred, was helpless to intervene, compelling the fortress's unconditional surrender on September 12. Historian David Chandler writes – "The pure military artistry with which he repeatedly deceived Villars during the first part of the campaign has few equals in the annals of military history…. the subsequent siege of Bouchain with all its technical complexities, was an equally fine demonstration of martial superiority."[75]

For Marlborough though, time had run out. Throughout 1711, secret peace negotiations (to which Marlborough was not privy), had proceeded between London and Versailles. On December 17, 1711, the Queen was able to announce, that – "notwithstanding those who delight in the arts of war" – a sneer towards Marlborough – "both time and place are appointed for opening the treaty of a general peace." The Duke of Marlborough's services as Captain-General would no longer be required.[76]


The British representative, St John, had gained highly favorable terms but Marlborough, who was a close associate of George of Hanover, the heir to the throne, and still enjoyed the support of the King of Prussia and the Princes of the Grand Alliance, was wholeheartedly against a separate peace treaty between Britain and France. Harley and St John now determined once and for all to mastermind Marlborough's fall.[77]

On January 1, 1712, the Commissioners of Public Accounts laid a report before the House of Commons accusing the Duke (and others), of turning public funds to his own profit. Marlborough was confronted with two irregularities: first, an assertion that over nine years he had illegally received more than £63,000 from the bread and transport contractors in the Netherlands; second, that the 2.5 percent he had received from the pay of foreign troops, totalling £280,000, was public money and 'ought to be accounted for'.[78] On January 11, the Queen saw fit to dismiss Marlborough from all employments so – "that the matter might have impartial examination."[79] Marlborough however, was able to refute the charges of embezzlement. Concerning the first allegation he could claim ancient precedent: contractors had always paid a yearly sum as a perquisite to the commander-in-chief in the Low Countries. For the second charge, he could produce a warrant signed by the Queen in 1702 authorizing him to make the deduction – which had always been customary in the Grand Alliance since the days of King William – and that all the money received was used for providing him with the means of creating an intelligence network;[77] a Secret Service that had penetrated the court of King Louis.

Able speeches in Parliament were made on the Duke's behalf, but the Tories (whose propaganda campaign of discrediting the Duke had included the talents of the great satirist Jonathan Swift) were in the majority. When the vote was taken, it was carried by 270 against 165.[80] The Queen ordered the Attorney-General to prepare a prosecution against Marlborough, but St John, acknowledging the flimsiness of the government's case, was compelled to halt the impeachment proceedings – Marlborough's successor, the Duke of Ormonde, had himself already been authorized to take the same 2.5 percent commission on the pay of foreign troops.[81]

Return to favor

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough by Enoch Seeman. This late portrait shows Marlborough during his retirement possibly 1716/1717 after his stroke.

Marlborough, later to be joined by Sarah, left faction-torn England for the Continent. Reasons for his exile remain speculative, but wherever they travelled they were welcomed and fêted by the people and courts of Europe, where he was not only respected as a great general, but also as a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire.[82] Marlborough bore the exile better than his wife who complained – "Tis much better to be dead than to live out of England;" but further tragedy struck the aging Duke when news arrived of the death of his beloved daughter Elizabeth, Countess of Bridgewater, from smallpox.[83]

On their return to Dover on August 2, 1714, (21 months after departure), they learnt that Queen Anne had died only the day before. They left immediately for London, escorted by a 'train of coaches and a troop of militia with drums and trumpets'. With equal warmth the Elector of Hanover, now King George I, received Marlborough with the welcoming words – "My Lord Duke, I hope your troubles are now all over."[84]

Blenheim Column of Victory on the grounds of the Blenheim estate, Oxfordshire. Over 130 ft (40 m) high, it is surmounted by a larger-than-life-size Duke by Robert Pit.

Reappointed as Master-General of Ordnance as well as Captain-General, Marlborough became once more a person of great influence and respect at court. Together with the Hanoverian minister Count Bernsdorf, the Hanoverian diplomatist Baron von Bothmar, and Lord Townshend, Marlborough returned to the heart of government; but the Duke's health was fading fast. His central position was increasingly taken over by Robert Walpole and James Stanhope, so much so that during the 1715 Jacobite rising, he was only nominally in command, leaving it to the younger men to deal decisively with the crisis.[85]

On May 28, 1716, shortly after the death of his favorite daughter Anne, Countess of Sunderland, the Duke suffered a paralytic stroke at Holywell House. This was followed by another stroke in November, this time at a house on the Blenheim estate. The Duke recovered somewhat, but while his speech had become impaired, his mind remained clear, recovering enough to ride out to watch the builders at work on Blenheim Palace and its landscaped grounds.

In 1719, the Duke and Duchess were able to move into the east wing of the unfinished palace, but Marlborough had only three years to enjoy it. While living at the Great Lodge in Windsor Great Park, he suffered another stroke in June 1722, not long after his 72nd birthday. His two surviving daughters, Henrietta Godolphin and Mary Montagu, called on their dying father; but to Sarah, who had always felt the children an intrusion between herself and her husband, this was an unwelcome visitation. Only when the Duchess had made her third request for her daughters to leave the room did they go reluctantly and in ill-grace.[86] In the night hours the Duke began to slip away, and on the morning of June 27, 1722, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, died.


Marlborough is considered by military historians to be one of the great commanders in history. According to Chandler, he was "the greatest soldier produced by the British Isles in modern history."[87] The Duke of Wellington once remarked that "I can conceive nothing greater than Marlborough at the head of an English army."[88]


  1. All dates in the article are New Style (unless otherwise stated). The Old Style calendar as used in England differed by eleven days after 1700. Thus, the Battle of Blenheim is August 13 N.S or August 2 O.S.
  2. Winston Churchill, Marlborough: His Life and Times (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968, ISBN 068412405X).
  3. Correlli Barnett, Marlborough (Ware, UK: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1999, ISBN 9781840222005), 59.
  4. Barnett, 60.
  5. David G. Chandler, Marlborough as Military Commander (London: Penguin, 2000, ISBN 9780141390437), 5. Arabella later became one of the Duke of York's mistresses.
  6. Christopher Hibbert, The Marlboroughs (London: Viking, 2001, ISBN 9780670886777), 6.
  7. Chandler, 5. Details of this period are sketchy, but he appears surmised to have also served aboard ship in the naval blockade of the Barbary pirate-den of Algiers.
  8. Hibbert, 7: Churchill was 20, she was 29 when they became lovers.
  9. Barnett, 40.
  10. Hibbert, 9. Chandler names the ship simply as The Prince.
  11. Chandler, 7.
  12. Chandler, 8.
  13. Ophelia Field, The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (New York: St Martin's Press, 2003, ISBN 9780312314668), 8.
  14. Hibbert, 13.
  15. Hibbert, 15.
  16. Hibbert, 24. During his time in Scotland, Churchill was dispatched on various important diplomatic missions. His personal successes led to talk of him becoming British minister at The Hague.
  17. Hibbert, 27.
  18. Barnett, 135: As a trusted envoy, Churchill was assigned to bring back Prince George back to England.
  19. Hibbert, 36
  20. Hibbert, 37: Had he abandoned his faith he would also have alienated Princess Anne.
  21. Hibbert, 41.
  22. Hibbert, 46.
  23. Hibbert, 48.
  24. Chandler, 35.
  25. Hibbert, 50.
  26. Barnett, 22.
  27. Chandler, 46.
  28. Hibbert, 57.
  29. Hibbert, 54.
  30. Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples: Age of Revolution (London: Cassell, 2002, ISBN 9780304363933), 11.
  31. Barnett, 137: Queen Mary also demanded Anne should dismiss Sarah, which she refused to do.
  32. Churchill 2002, 12: John C. R. Childs in his British Army of William III: 1689-1702 (Manchester University Press, 1990, ISBN 0719025524), 63, states that the most serious misdemeanor in the eyes of William was his "role in alienating the British army officer corps from the Dutch and German generals."
  33. Chandler, 47.
  34. Hibbert, 67.
  35. 35.0 35.1 Chandler, 48.
  36. Chandler, 49.
  37. Barnett, 24.
  38. Edward Gregg, Queen Anne. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001, ISBN 0300090242), 153: £4m in today's money.
  39. Barnett, 31.
  40. Hibbert, 115.
  41. Hibbert, 119.
  42. Chandler, 121.
  43. Barnett, 121.
  44. John A. Lynn, The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667–1714 (New York: Longman, 1999, ISBN 0582056292), 286.
  45. Chandler, 128.
  46. Lynn, 294.
  47. Churchill 2002, 44.
  48. Barnett, 192.
  49. Hibbert, 207. Anne was a Tory; Sarah was a committed Whig who considered most Tories little better than Jacobites.
  50. Chandler, 157.
  51. Chandler, 154.
  52. Chandler, 164. Marlborough, for once making no attempt to hide his feelings, complained to the States-General, resulting in General Slangenberg's dismissal.
  53. Lynn, 308.
  54. Chandler, 186. Sunderland was Marlborough's son-in-law; he had married his daughter Anne.
  55. Barnet, 195. Abigail was Sarah's cousin and had been recommended by her for a minor court position.
  56. Chandler, 199.
  57. Barnet, 197.
  58. Churchill 2002, 59
  59. Chandler, 222.
  60. Barnett, 212.
  61. Hibbert, 232.
  62. Barnett, 214.
  63. Gregg, 279.
  64. 64.0 64.1 Barnett, 235.
  65. Chandler, 266.
  66. Barnett, 229.
  67. Chandler, 281.
  68. Barnett, 256.
  69. Hibbert, 267. The loss of his wife's offices would also be a severe blow to his own prestige.
  70. Hibbert, 268.
  71. Lynn, 79. The Non Plus Ultra lines were the last and most imposing entrenched fortifications designed to halt enemy raids and hinder the movements of enemy armies. The Non Plus Ultra lines ran from the coast at Montreuil to the River Sambre.
  72. Churchill 2002, 73
  73. Barnett, 259.
  74. Lynn, 343.
  75. Chandler, 299.
  76. Hibbert, 278.
  77. 77.0 77.1 Chandler, 302.
  78. Chandler, 302. The Tory Examiner, for which the poet Matthew Prior and Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift wrote, also accused the Duke of diverting money from the medical services to line his own pockets.
  79. Hibbert, 286.
  80. Hibbert, 285.
  81. Barnett, 267.
  82. Hibbert, 290. Marlborough lost the principality of Mindelheim at the Treaty of Rastadt, but retained the title which was passed on to future Dukes of Marlborough.
  83. Hibbert, 295.
  84. Hibbert, 298.
  85. Hibbert, 300.
  86. Barnett, 273.
  87. Chandler, Introduction to Marlborough as Military Commander.
  88. Elizabeth Longford, Wellington: Pillar of State (Academy Chicago Publishers, 1975, ISBN 978-0586041550), 412.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barnett, Correlli. Marlborough. Ware, UK: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1999. ISBN 9781840222005
  • Chandler, David G. Marlborough as Military Commander. London: Penguin, 2000. ISBN 9780141390437
  • Childs, John C. R. British Army of William III: 1689-1702. Manchester Univ Press, 1990. ISBN 0719025524
  • Churchill, Winston. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples: Age of Revolution. London: Cassell, 2002. ISBN 9780304363933
  • Churchill, Winston. Marlborough: His Life and Times. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968. ISBN 068412405X
  • Field, Ophelia. The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. New York: St Martin's Press, 2003. ISBN 9780312314668
  • Gregg, Edward. Queen Anne. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001. ISBN 0300090242
  • Hibbert, Christopher. The Marlboroughs. London: Viking, 2001. ISBN 9780670886777
  • Longford, Elizabeth. Wellington: Pillar of State. Academy Chicago Publishers, 1975. ISBN 978-0586041550
  • Lynn, John A. The Wars of Louis XIV, 1667–1714. New York: Longman, 1999. ISBN 0582056292
  • Miller, John. James II. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000. ISBN 0300087284


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