1902 Encyclopedia > Duke of Marlborough

1st Duke of Marlborough
(full name: John Churchill Marlborough)
English soldier
(1650-1722)




DUKE OF MARLBOROUGH, JOHN CHURCHILL MARLBOROUGH (1650-1722). In the small manor house of Ashe, situated in the parish of Musbury in Devonshire, but hardly a stone's throw beyond the parish of Axminster, John Churchill the first duke of Marlborough was born 24th of June 1650. Arabella Churchill, his eldest sister, and the mother of the duke of Berwick, was born in the same house on the 28th of February 1648. They were the children of Winston Churchill of Glanville Wotton in Dorset and Elizabeth the fourth daughter of Sir John Drake, who after the close of the civil war received his son-in-law into his own house. For a year or two after the Restoration John Churchill went to St Paul's school, and there is a tradition that during this period he showed the bent of his taste by reading and re-reading Vegetius Be Be Militari. When fifteen years old he obtained a place in the household of the duke of York, and about the same time his sister Arabella became maid of honour to the duchess, two events which contributed greatly to the advancement of the Churchills. Next year, in 1666, he received, through the influence of his master, a commission in the guards, and left England for service at Tangiers. Such fighting as was waged with the Moors did not accord with bis feelings, and he soon returned to his own country. For a few years afterwards Churchill remained in attendance at the court, and it was during this period that the natural carefulness of his disposition was shown by his investing in an annuity a present of ¿£5000 given him by a court beauty. In 1672, when England to her shame sent six thousand troops to aid Louis XIV. in his attempt to subdue the Dutch, Churchill formed one of the company, and soon attracted the attention of Turenne, by whose profound military genius the whole army was directed. At the siege of Nimeguen Churchill acquitted himself with such success that the French commander predicted his ultimate rise to distinction. When Maestricht was besieged he saved the life of the duke of Monmouth, and received the thanks of Louis XIV. for his services. Early in 1678 he was married to Sarah Jennings, the favourite attendant on the Princess Anne, the younger daughter of the duke of York. Her father Richard Jennings, a Hertfordshire squire, had twenty-two brothers and sisters ; one of the latter married a London tradesman called Hill, and their daughter Abigail Hill afterwards succeeded her cousin the duchess of Marlborough as favourite to Queen Anne. Sarah Jennings had as little money as her husband, but "this deficiency was more than compensated for by an abundance of energy and ambition.

On the accession of James II. the Churchills received a great increase in fortune. Colonel Churchill had been created a Scotch peer in 1682, and as a reward for his services in going on a special mission from the new monarch to Louis XIV. he was advanced to the English peerage under the title of Baron Churchill of Sandridge in Hertfordshire, the village in which the Jennings's property was situated. A step in the army was at the same time conferred upon him, and when the duke of Monmouth attempted his ill-fated enterprise in the western counties the second position in command was bestowed on Lord Churchill. Through his vigilance and energy victory declared itself on the king's side. After the death of Monmouth he withdrew as far as possible from the administration of public business. Whilst on his embassy to the French court he had declared with emphasis that if the king of England should change the religion of the state he should at once leave his service, and it was not long before the design of James became apparent to the world. Churchill was one of the first to send overtures of obedience to the prince of Orange. Although he continued in a high position under James, and drew the emoluments of his places, he promised William of Orange to use every exertion to bring over the troops to his side. James had been warned against putting any trust in the loyalty of the man on whom he had showered so many favours, but the warnings were in vain, and on the landing of the Dutch prince at Brixham Churchill was sent against him with five thousand men. When the royal army had advanced to the downs of Wiltshire and a battle seemed imminent, James was disconcerted by learning that in the dead of night his general had stolen away like a thief into the opposite camp. For this timely act of treachery Churchill received another advancement in the peerage. He had now become the earl of Marlborough and a member of the privy council, a mark of royal favour which during this and the next reign was more than an unmeaning honour. William felt, however, that he could not place implicit reliance in his friend's integrity; and, with a clear sense of the manner in which Marlborough's talents might be employed without any detriment to the stability of his throne, he sent him with the army into the Netherlands and into Ireland. For some time there was no open avowal of any distrust in Marlborough's loyalty, but in May 1692 the world was astonished at the news that he had been thrown into the Tower on an accusation of treason. Though the evidence which could be brought against him was slight, and he was soon set at liberty, there is no doubt that Marlborough was in close relations with the exiled king at St Gertnains, and that he even went so far as to disclose to his late master the intention of the English to attack the town of Brest. The talents of the statesmen of this reign were chiefly displayed in their attempts to convince both the exiled and the reigning king of England of their attachment to his fortunes. The sin of Marlborough lay in the fact that he had been favoured above his fellows by each in turn, and that he betrayed both alike apparently without scruple or without shame. Once again during the Fenwick plot he was charged with treason, but William, knowing that if he pushed Marlborough and his friends to extremities there were no other statesmen on whom he could rely, contented himself with ignoring the confessions of Sir John Fenwick, and with executing that conspirator himself. Not long afterwards the forgiven traitor was made governor to the young duke of Gloucester, the only one of Anne's numerous children who gave promise of attaining to manhood. During the last years of William's reign Marlborough once more was placed in positions of responsibility. His daughters were married into the most prominent families of the land : the eldest became the wife of the eldest son of Lord Godolphin ; the second, the loveliest woman at the court, with her father's tact and temper and her mother's beauty, married the only son of Lord Sunderland. Higher honours were in store for his family, and they came on the accession of Queen Anne in March 1702. She had not been more than three days upon the throne before the knighthood of the Garter was conferred upon Marlborough. He was made captain-general of the English troops both at home and abroad, and master-general of the ordnance. The new queen did not forget the life-long service of his wife; three positions at the court by which she was enabled to continue by the side of the sovereign as closely as she had lived with the princess were united in her person. The queen showed her devotion to her friend by another signal mark of favour. The rangership of Windsor Park was granted her for life, with the especial object of enabling Lady Marlborough to live in the Great Lodge. These were the opening days of many years of fame and power. A week or two after the death of William it was agreed by the three great powers, England, Holland, and Austria, which formed the grand alliance, that war should be declared against France on the same day, and on May 4, 1702, the declaration was made by the three countries. Marlborough was made commander-in-chief of the united armies of England and Holland, but throughout the war his plans were impeded by the jealousy of the commanders who were nominally his inferiors, and by the opposite aims of the various countries that were striving to break the power of France. He himself wished to penetrate into the French lines; the anxiety of the Dutch was for the maintenance of their frontier and for an augmentation of their territory; the desire of the Austrian emperor was to ensure his son's rule over Spain. To secure concerted action by these different powers taxed all the diplomacy of Marlborough, but he succeeded for the most part in his desires. In the first year of the campaign it was shown that the armies of the French were not invincible. Several fortresses which Louis XIV. had seized upon surrendered themselves to the allies. Kaiserswerth on the Rhine and Venloo on the Meuse soon passed from the hands of the French to the English. The prosperous commercial town of Liege with its commanding citadel quickly capitulated. The successes of Marlborough caused much rejoicing in his own country, and for these brilliant exploits he was raised to the highest rank in the peerage, and rewarded with a handsome annuity. In the spring of the following year a crushing blow fell upon the duke and duchess. Their eldest and only surviving son, the marquis of Blandford, was seized whilst at King's College, Cambridge (under the care of Hare, afterwards bishop of Chichester), with the small-pox, and died on the 20th February 1703, in his seventeenth year. If the character of the youth which is given by Cole, the Cambridge antiquary, can be accepted as true, and Cole was not likely to be prejudiced in favour of the family of Churchill, his talents had already justified the prediction that he would rise to the highest position in the state.





The result of the campaign of 1703 inspired the French king with fresh hopes of ultimate victory. The dashing plans of Marlborough were frustrated by the opposition of his Dutch colleagues. When he wished to invade the French territory they urged him to besiege Bonn, and he was compelled to accede to their wishes. After this digression from his first purpose he returned to his original plan of attacking Antwerp; but, in consequence of the incapacity of the Dutch leaders, the generals (Villeroi and Bouffiers) of the French army surprised the Dutch division and inflicted on it a loss of many thousands of men. Marlborough was forced to abandon his enterprise, and all the compensation which he received was the capture of the insignificant forts of Huy and Limburg. After a year of comparative failure for the allies, Lsuis XIV. was emboldened to enter upon an offensive movement against Austria; and Marlborough, smarting under the misadventures of 1703, and conscious that the war cuuld only be _ brought to an end by more decisive measures, was eager to meet him. A magnificent army was sent by the French king under the command of Marshal Tallard, with instructions to strike a blow at Vienna itself. Marlborough divined the intention of the expedition, and, without communicating his intentions to his colleagues, led his troops into Bavaria. The two armies (that under Marlborough and Prince Eugene numbering more than fifty thousand men, whilst Tallard's forces were nearly ten thousand stronger) met in battle array near the village of Blenheim. The French commander made the mistake of supposing that the enemy's attack would be directed against his position in the village, and he concentrated an excessive number of his troops at that point. The early part of the fight was in favour of the French. Three times were the troops led by Prince Eugene driven back in confusion; Marlborough's cavalry failed on their first attack in breaking the line of the enemy. But in the end the victory of the allies was conclusive. Nearly thirty thousand of the French and Bavarians were killed and wounded, and in Blenheim alone ten thousand were made prisoners. Never was a victory more eagerly welcomed than this, and never was a conquering leader more rewarded than Marlborough. On his return to his own country he was received with enthusiasm on all sides. Poets and prose writers were employed to do him honour, and the lines of Addison comparing the English commander to the angel who passed over "pale Britannia" in the storm of 1703 have been famous for nearly two centuries. The manor of Woodstock, which was transferred by Act of Parliament from the crown to the duke, was a reward more after his own heart. The gift even in that form was a noble one, but the queen heightened it by instructing Sir John Vanbrugh to build a palace in the park at the royal expense, and, although the works subsequently caused much anxiety to the duke and duchess, £240,000 of public money was spent on the buildings.

The following year was not marked by any stirring incident. Marlborough was hampered by tedious formalities at the Hague and by jealousies at the German courts. The armies of the French were again brought up to their full standard, but the generals of Louis were instructed to entrench themselves behind earthworks and to act on the defensive. In the darkness of a July night these lines were broken through, and the French were forced to take shelter under; the walls of Louvain. Marlborough urged an attack upon them in their new position, but his passionate arguments were spent in vain, and when 1705 had passed away the forces of the French king had suffered no diminution. This immunity from disaster tempted Villeroi in the next spring into meeting the allied forces in an open fight, but his assurance proved his ruin. The battle of Ramillies (23d May 1706) ended in the total rout of the French, and caused the transference of nearly the whole of Brabant and Flanders to the allies. Five days afterwards the victor entered Brussels in state, and the inhabitants acknowledged the rule of the archduke. Antwerp and Ostend surrendered themselves with slight loss. Menin held out until three thousand of the soldiers of the allies were laid low around its walls, but Dender monde, which Louis had forty years previously besieged in vain, quickly gave itself up to the resistless Marlborough. Again a year of activity and triumph was succeeded by a period of languor aud depression. During the whole of 1707 fortune inclined to the other side, with the result that early in the next year Ghent and Bruges returned to the allegiance of the French, and Marlborough, fearing that their example might be followed by the other cities, advanced with his whole army towards Oudenarde. Had the counsels of Vendome, one of the ablest of the French generals, prevailed, the fight might have had a different issue, but his suggestions were disregarded by the duke of Burgundy, the grandson of Louis, and the battle, like its predecessor, ended in their defeat. After this victory Marlborough, ever anxious for decisive measures, wished to advance on Paris, but he was overruled. The allied army invested the town of Lille, on the fortifications of which Vauban had expended an immensity of thought; and after a struggle of nearly four months, and the loss of thirty thousand men, the citadel surrendered. By the end of the year Brabant was again subject to the rule of the allies. The suffering in France at this time weighed so heavily upon the people that its proud king humbled himself to sue for peace. Each of the allies in turn did he supplicate, and his minister endeavoured by promises of large sums of money to obtain the support of Marlborough to his proposals. These attempts were in vain, and when the winter passed away a French army of one hundred and ten thousand, under the command of Villars, took the field. On the 3d of August 1709 Tournay capitulated, and the two leaders, Marlborough and Eugene, led their forces to Mons, in spite of the attempt of Villars to prevent them. For the last time during the protracted war the two armies met in fair fight at Malplaquet, 11th September 1709, where the French leader had strengthened his position by extensive earthworks. The fight was long and doubtful, and, although the French ultimately retreated under the direction of Boufflers, for Villars had been wounded on the knee, it was in good order, and their losses were less than those of their opponents. The campaign lasted for a year or two after this indecisive contest, but it was not signalized by any such " glorious victory" as Blenheim. All that the English could plume themselves on was the acquisition of a few such fortresses as Douai and Bethune, and all that the French had to fear was the gradual tightening of the enemy's chain until it reached the walls of Paris. The energies of the French were concentrated in the construction of fresh lines of defence, until their commander boasted that his position was impregnable. In this way the war dragged on until the conclusion of the peace of Utrecht.

All that Marlborough had effected on the battlefield during these years of war had not prevented his position from being undermined by party intrigues at home. In the early part of Queen Anne's reign his political friends were to be found among the Tories, and the ministry was chiefly composed of members of that party. After a year or two, however, the more ardent Tories withdrew, and two younger adherents of the same cause, Harley and St John (both of whom were at present content to conceal their animosity to Marlborough), were introduced into the ministry. The duchess, partly through the influence of her son-in-law, the earl of Sunderland, and partly through the opposition of the Tories to the French war, had gone over to the Whig cause, and she pressed her views on the sovereign with more vehemence than discretion. She had obtained for her indigent cousin, Abigail Hill, a small position at court, and the poor relation very soon began to injure the benefactor who had befriended her. With Hill's assistance Harley and St John widened the breach with the queen which was commenced by the imperious manner of the duchess. The love of the two friends changed into hate, and no opportunity for humiliating the family of Marlborough was allowed to pass away neglected. Sunderland and Godolphin were the first to fall (July-August 1710); a few months later the duchess was dismissed from her offices; and, although Marlborough himself was permitted to continue in his position a short time longer, his fall was only delayed until the last day of 1711. Life in England had become so unpleasant that he went to the Continent, and he remained abroad until the death of Anne (1st August 1714). Then he once more returned to the shores of England and resumed his old military posts, but he took little part in public affairs. Even if he had wished to regain his commanding position in the country, ill health would have prevented him from obtaining his desires. Johnson, indeed, says, in the Vanity of Human Wishes, that "the streams of dotage" flowed from his eyes; but it is not desirable to examine too critically the assertions of a poem which relied for its success upon the strength of its comparisons. It is certain that at the time of his death he was able to understand the remarks of others and to express his own wishes. At four o'clock on the morning I of the 16th June 1722, he died at Cranbourn Lodge near Windsor. His remains were at first deposited in Westminster Abbey, in the vault at the east end of King Henry VII.'s chapel, but they now rest at Blenheim.

His widow, to whom must be assigned a considerable share both in his rise and in his fall, survived till October 1744. Those years were spent in bitter animosity with many within and without her own family. Left by her husband with the command of boundless wealth, she used it for the vindication of his memory and for the justification of her own resentment. Two of the leading opponents of the ministry, Chesterfield and Pitt, were especially honoured by her attentions. To Pitt she left ten thousand pounds, to the other statesman twice that sum and a reversionary interest in her landed property at Wimbledon. Whilst a widow, she received numerous offers of marriage from many titled suitors. She refused them all: from her marriage to her death her heart had no other inmate than the man as whose wife she had become almost a rival to royalty. Marlborough obtained his first start in life through a \ handsome pension, and his rapid rise to the highest position j in the state was due to his singular tact and to his skill in j the management of men. In an age remarkable for grace of manner and for adroitness of compliment, his courteous demeanour and the art with which he refused or granted a favour extorted the admiration of every one with whom he came in contact. Through his consideration for the welfare of his soldiers he held together for years an army drawn from every nation in Christendom. His talents may not have been profound (he possessed " an excellent plain understanding and sound judgment" is the opinion i of Lord Chesterfield); but they were such as Englishmen love. Alike in planning and in executing, he took infinite pains in all points of detail. Nothing escaped his observation, and in the hottest moment of the fight the coolness of his intellect shone conspicuous. His enemies indeed affected to attribute his uniform success in the field to fortune, and they magnified his love of money by drawing up balance sheets which included every penny which he had received, but omitted the pounds which he had spent in the cause he had sincerely at heart. All that can be alleged in excuse of his attempt to serve two. masters, the king whom he had deserted and the king who had received him into favour, is that not one of his associates was without sin in this respect.

The books on Marlborough are very numerous. Under his name in the catalogue of the British Museum there are 121 entries, and 32 under that of his wife. The chief works are Lediard's, Coxe's, and Alison's Lives ; a French memoir in 3 volumes, 1808 ; Marlborough's Letters and Despatches, edited by Sir George Murray (5 volumes); and Mrs Creighton's interesting summary. The descriptions in Mr John Hill Burton's Reign of Queen Anne of the battle scenes of Marlborough are from personal observation. A good account of his birthplace and country will be found in Pulman's Book of the Axe District; and for the home of the duchess the reader can refer to Mr Cussan's History of Hertfordshire. Long after the death of the duke there were many pamphlets written on the conduct of his wife from her appearance at court; but they relate to matters of little interest at the present time. (W. P. C.)






The above article was written by: W. P. Courtney.



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