Churchill, John, Duke of Marlborough (1650–1722)

views updated


CHURCHILL, JOHN, DUKE OF MARLBOROUGH (16501722), soldier and diplomat. Frequently described as early modern Britain's greatest general, John Churchill was born on 26 May 1650, the son of Elizabeth Churchill and Sir Winston Churchill, an impoverished squire and member of Parliament. He attended Saint Paul's School and then in 1665, due to his father's influence, became page to the duke of York, later James II (ruled 16851688). On 14 September 1667 Churchill was commissioned into the army as an ensign in the Foot Guards. He served in Tangier from 1668 to 1670, saw duty with the allied fleet during the Third Dutch War (16721674), and was promoted to captain. In 1673 he accompanied the English contingent dispatched to assist Louis XIV (ruled 16431715) of France in Flanders and distinguished himself in military action at Maastricht (Maestricht, June 1673), his first major land battle. The following year he was appointed colonel of the English regiment operating abroad and performed gallantly at the battle of Sinzheim (1674).

In 1677 Churchill married Sarah Jennings (16601744), lady-in-waiting to Princess Anne, later Queen Anne (ruled 17021714). Churchill advanced rapidly. He was created Baron Churchill of Aymouth (Scotland) on 21 December 1682, elevated to the peerage as Baron Sandridge in 1685 and, upon the accession of James II (1685), promoted to major general (3 July 1685) and subsequently lieutenant general (7 November 1688).

With the Glorious Revolution (1688), Churchill promptly changed his allegiance to the new Protestant sovereign William III (ruled 16891702), who in 1689 rewarded him with the earldom of Marlborough (after which point he is commonly known as Marlborough) and appointed him a privy councillor. Marlborough was also granted a succession of commands between 1689 and 1691 in Flanders and Ireland, in which he was uniformly successful. He also served for a while as governor of the Hudson's Bay Company. Increasingly opposed to William's excessive preferment of his Dutch associates, Marlborough suddenly fell out of favor. In 1692 he was dismissed from his posts and briefly was imprisoned in the Tower of London on suspicion of communicating with Jacobite agents in a plot to restore James II with the support of French military intervention. As these allegations proved groundless, Marlborough was released and, upon reconciling with William, was restored to favor in 1698. He was appointed governor to the duke of Gloucester, was readmitted to the Privy Council, and was returned to his former military rank (18 June 1698). In the face of growing tensions over the Spanish succession, Marlborough was named commander in chief of the Anglo-Dutch forces in Holland (June 1701) and participated in the negotiations held at The Hague to devise a compromise settlement that would satisfy the various claimants and prevent European war.

Following the death of William III on 8 March 1702 and the subsequent accession of Queen Anne, Marlborough reached the peak of his influence. He was appointed captain general of the forces and master general of the ordnance, while his closest ally, Sidney Godolphin, first earl of Godolphin (16451712), became lord treasurer. Other Tory supporters took the remaining great offices of state.

Once The Hague deliberations broke down and France's aggressive actions made conflict inevitable, the English, the Austrians, the Dutch, and minor German allies concluded the Grand Alliance (15 May 1702) with a combined army under Marlborough's supreme command. In his first campaign during the War of the Spanish Succession (June 1702) Marlborough relieved pressure on the Dutch by securing a base of operation against French-held fortresses to the south. Overcoming intra-alliance dissension, he successfully pressed on to take the great fortress of Liège (October 1702). For this service he was created duke with a pension of £5,000 a year. He then advanced on the Moselle River. Deceiving the enemy by a feint against Alsace, he swiftly moved to open a crossing of the Danube River at Donauwörth, thus impeding a possible junction of French forces and their Bavarian allies. On 13 August 1704 Marlborough and his confidant, the Austrian commander Prince Eugène (16631736), defeated the main French army at Blenheima spectacular victory. This was the first major military setback of Louis XIV's reign, and it forced France onto the defensive and saved Austria from near certain invasion. On 23 March 1706 Marlborough won another crushing victory at Ramillies, which led to the expulsion of enemy troops from Italy and the Southern Netherlands. Marlborough and Prince Eugène repulsed a French counteroffensive at Oudenaarde (July 1708) and cleared the road for a direct advance against France. These exploits earned Marlborough a military reputation matched in the eighteenth century only by Frederick the Great (ruled 17401786) of Prussia and later by Napoléon I (17691821). In recognition Marlborough was made a prince of the empire, and by royal command the magnificent palace of Blenheim was built for him.

Domestically, however, Marlborough's position weakened due to relentless party politics and the growing estrangement between his wife Sarah and Queen Anne, whose former friendship had provided a critical link tying the operational direction of the war to the source of executive power at court. Using a variety of pressure tactics, Marlborough and his ally Lord Treasurer Godolphin managed for a time to coerce the pro-Tory queen into (reluctantly) appointing those congenial Whig ministers who supported their policies. But Sarah became supplanted in Anne's favor by Abigail Masham (d. 1734), an influential Tory sympathizer, and in politics the queen turned for advice to the able Tory leader Robert Harley (16611724). Support for the war rapidly declined. Moreover costs steadily mounted, as did war weariness on the allied side. Marlborough, increasingly isolated, was accused of continuing hostilities for personal profit and glory.

The parliamentary elections of 1710 brought in a new and powerful Tory ministry headed by Harley, which enabled Anne to dispense with the personally uncongenial Whig leaders and led to secret negotiations with France. Marlborough remained commander in chief until December 1711, when he was dismissed, falsely charged with corruption and forced into exile on the Continent. Although restored to favor with the accession of George I (ruled 17141727), Marlborough, prematurely aged by the strains of war, took no further part in public affairs. He lived in rural retirement until his death, following a paralytic stroke, on 16 June 1722. He was buried with great splendor at Westminster, though his body was later transferred to the chapel at Blenheim, where it was commemorated by an ornate mausoleum.

Bold, energetic, a superb tactician, and a gifted leader, Marlborough advocated swift, offensive action over elaborate maneuvers as the key to decisive victory. In this sense he transcended the military spirit of his age and foreshadowed the more innovative, energetic approach to war typical of the French revolutionary period. His urbanity and tact, discretion and diplomacy were further assets in defusing the inevitable tensions associated with coalition warfare and so made possible the unity essential for cooperation and victory.

See also Anne (England) ; Harley, Robert ; Spanish Succession, War of the (17011714) ; William and Mary .


Primary Source

Great Britain, Historical Manuscripts Commission. The Manuscripts of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough. London, 1881.

Secondary Sources

Burton, Ivor F. The Captain-General: The Career of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, from 17021711. London, 1968.

Chandler, David. The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough. New York, 1976.

. Marlborough as Military Commander. London, 1979.

Churchill, Winston S. Marlborough: His Life and Times. 6 vols. New York, 19331938.

Green, David Brontë. Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. London, 1967.

Thomson, George Malcolm. The First Churchill: The Life of John, 1st Duke of Marlborough. London, 1979.

Karl W. Schweizer

About this article

Churchill, John, Duke of Marlborough (1650–1722)

Updated About content Print Article