John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, was both a military commander and a politician. Churchill was commander-in-chief of the English forces that fought in the War of Spanish Succession. While his military fame is secure, his political role is less well known – but along with Robert Harley and Sidney Godolphin, he was part of the Triumvirate who served Queen Anne.
Marlborough was born on May 24th, 1650. He was the third son of Winston Churchill who was a Royalist during the English Civil War. The war had impoverished the Churchill’s. Marlborough was educated privately and at St. Paul’s School in London. He furthered his education at Court where he served as a page to the Duke of York (the future James II). Marlborough married in secret. His wife was Sarah, the daughter of Robert Jennings.
Marlborough gained a commission in the Foot Guards in 1667. His sister Arabella, who was the Duke of York’s mistress, may well have aided his initial military career. Marlborough, however, made a name for himself during campaigns in Tangiers (1668 to 1670) and in the third Anglo-Dutch War from 1672 to 1674. While Marlborough’s military career went from strength to strength, so did the social rise of his wife Sarah. She became Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Anne, the youngest daughter of the future James II and who also became Queen Anne.
When James II became king Marlborough became second-in-command of the English army. It was Marlborough’s army that defeated the Duke of Monmouth in the summer of 1685, which cemented the royal authority of James. However, Marlborough opposed the king’s pro-Catholic views and his attempts to catholicise England.
In the 1688 Revolution he joined William of Orange’s forces at Axminster on November 24th. The next day, Sarah and Princess Anne left London and joined the rebels at Nottingham. To some Marlborough’s move was an obvious one. Though Marlborough continued to prosper in the reign of William, the king had little time for him as a person (though not as a military leader). The one overriding issue William found hard to juggle was the fact that as second-in-command of the king’s army Marlborough had simply upped sticks and moved over to William’s side as he advanced from Torbay in Devon. It was something he was never comfortable with as he placed loyalty above all else. For William, if Marlborough could do this in 1688, what was to stop him doing something similar in William’s reign? This was one of the reasons why William failed to honour Marlborough with becoming a Knight of the Garter. The honour had an air of chivalry about it – something that William did not believe that Marlborough had. However, William put aside his personal views on Marlborough and recognised his military value to the nation.
Under William III, Marlborough became the Earl of Marlborough in 1689 and joined the Privy Council. However, his political and military careers were thrown off track when he was arrested for a supposed part in a Jacobite plot to assassinate William. He lost all his offices and was imprisoned in the Tower of London for six weeks in 1692. He was brought back into the fold in 1694 as European issues came to the fore. It became clear that Louis XIV had not ended his attempt to take over more parts of Europe and many feared his design on Spain. Few were surprised when the War of Spanish Succession broke out.
Few things could have suited Marlborough more. Accused of being part of a plot to murder the king left him tainted in the eyes of some – even though the accusation was false. The war was a perfect way for Marlborough to demonstrate his loyalty and service to the king. He became Captain-General of the English Army in the Netherlands. He was also appointed Ambassador-Extraordinary with a brief to form a Grand Alliance against Louis. In August/September 1701 this was signed with Holland and with Emperor Leopold I. When William III died in March 1702, Marlborough became the political and military leader of the war effort against France.
The War of Spanish Succession dominated politics in Britain. Anne effectively left government to Harley, Godolphin and Marlborough – the Triumvirate. Politically, Marlborough was third in line to Harley and Godolphin and he was described as being politically timid. Marlborough relied on his two partners to raise the necessary finance for the war. Within the field of politics, Marlborough’s military reputation stood him in good stead. Politicians were certainly not subservient to Marlborough but they respected what he stood for.
It was in the War of Spanish Succession that Marlborough extended his fame. He was not a military innovator but Marlborough used what he had at his disposal to great effect.
“He was a soldier of genius who, without innovating, used the strategy, tactics and equipment of his day to perfection, and who performed miracles of organisation." (E N Williams)
Marlborough’s military success was great. He captured Bonn (May 1703) and was victorious at Blenheim in Bavaria (August 1704), Ramillies in the Netherlands (May 1706), Oudenarde in the Netherlands (July/August 1708) and Malplaquet (August/September 1709). In recognition of these victories, Queen Anne granted him £5000 a year for the duration of her life – though it was eventually to be made for his life. Emperor Leopold I made Marlborough Prince of Mindelheim – though the Bavarian town was returned to the government of Bavaria in the Peace of Utrecht.
In February 1705, the Queen and a grateful Parliament gave him the royal manor at Woodstock with its 16,000 acres of land on which he built Blenheim Palace – with the help of more public money.
However, the country became weary of the war and the financial burdens it brought. His influence at court was reduced when his wife was replaced as Anne’s favourite by Mrs Masham – a cousin of Robert Harley who was becoming more and more sceptic about the war. Marlborough and Godolphin had to rely on the Whigs to get anything through Parliament and many assumed that the Whigs had a vested financial interest in keeping the war going. In private, Marlborough was not supportive of the Whig belief that Spain had to be part of the peace settlement. However, with his position at court weakened, he publicly supported their “No peace without Spain" demand.
Anne turned to the Tories in 1710. Marlborough was dismissed on December 31st 1711 and Sarah was effectively removed from the Royal Court at the same time. After this, Marlborough sent his time travelling around Europe. However, he had taken the time to court support amongst Hanoverians.
When George I was crowned king in 1714, Marlborough had all his offices restored. This was a symbolic gesture of thanks and recognition by the king as when he was Elector George of Hanover, he would have been more aware than most of the threat of Louis XIV – a threat not keenly felt in a nation protected by the English Channel and the Royal Navy.
John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, died on June 16th 1722.