John Churchill Duke of Marlborough

Duke of Marlborough
Portrait of Marlborough
Born:26 May 1650
Earl of Marlborough:1689
Duke of Marlborough:1702

1 Marlborough's father and childhood at Ashe House

1.1 The Churchill family

Unlike the present day Marlboroughs John Churchill was not born well nor rich. His grandfather John Churchill was an attorney in county Dorset who took up arms for the crown in the civil war. His father Winston Churchill took the same side and was a successful commander in the royalist forces. He married Elizabeth Drake and was the writer of a pro-royalist book on heraldry. Being on the losing side in the civil war the Churchills were quite severily punished by parliament. Winston had to pay a fine of GBP 446 and 18s and succeeded in paying it off by 1651. This did however impoverish the young family.

1.2 The Drake family

On the contrary the Drake family had sided with parliament. Winston's mother in law Eleanor Drake lived in Ashe House near Axminster, which had been ruined by attacks from Royalist troops. From the end of the civil war till the restoration the Churchills therefore found shelter there. Winston Churchill was probably held out of all employments. The family was however busy enough with about ten children being born. From the surviving childrent the oldest was Arabella (1648-1730), next came our John in May 16501, then Admiral George (1654-1710) and General Charles Churchill (1656-1714).

1.3 Influence on his character

It is said that Churchill's character was formed in this house were two families of quite opposing views lived together in poverty. Though proving it is of course impossible, it forms a logical explanation for some of the major traits of his character. First his well known ability to dissimulate his feelings would have come in very handy in such a household. Second his life long ambition to gain financial independence, a goal which he would attain for even the present day generation of his descendants. Finally the avarice for which he would become known in the whole of Europe.

2 The Churchills under King Charles II

At the restoration of the monarchy under King Charles II in 1660, the fortunes of the Churchills took a turn for the better. On 8 May 1661 Winston Churchill entered the House of Commons for Weymouth2. He also became a commissioner of the Court of Claims in Ireland3. Later he became a clerk comptroller of the Green cloth, with a salary of GBP 48, 13 shillings 4 dimes, and the right to let about 4 people eat at the palace4. All this and fact that King Charles II owed him for his loyalty, enabled Winston Churchill to push his children to court.

3 John Churchill in the service of Prince James

3.1 John Churchill's early Career

Somewhere around 1665 John Churchill started his career as a page of honor to the Duke of York, just at about the same time as his sister Arabella became a lady in waiting to the Duchess of York5. By becoming the mistress of the Duke of York Arabella soon (her first child Henrietta was born in 1667) achieved a position of influence at court. Arabella could have doubtlessly pushed John's career, and probably did. John's appointment as an ensign on 14 September 1667 is not extraordinary at first glance. In detail this appointment was however not at all ordinary: John Churchill became ensign in the King's own company of the first foot guards6. In other words the best ensign position there was in the infantry.

3.2 Marlborough did not serve in the garrison of Tangiers

Most biographies have that John got his first front line experience while serving in Tangier from 1668 till about 1670. The account of this service goes back to a passage in Lediard, who in relation to Churchill's first appointment mentioned: ...he laid hold of the first opportunity to serve his country, and embark'd for Tangier, where, during the time he was in that garrison, he was in several skirmishes with the Moors7. This claim of Marlborough having been in the garrison of Tangiers and skirmishing with the Moors was made sixty years after the fact. As it lacks any direct evidence it's more than likely that this is a misinterpretation by Lediard, based on him having information that Marlborough embarked on the fleet for the Mediterranean before 1672. Any such fleet would sail to Tangiers, which was the center of British operations in that area. Such a misinterpretation is the more likely because Lediard mentions no year, and then omits he might have served on board the Mediterranean fleet in 1670. Later biographers pick up the fact that he might have sailed to the Med in 1670 or 1671 and conclude that he served in Tangiers before that. My conclusion is that Churchill did not serve in Tangiers, but stayed in England till 1670.

3.3 John Churchill might have sailed to the Mediterranean

On 21 March 1670 Charles II signed an order to pay to John Churchill the amount of 140 pounds which was due to his father. This so he could use this for his 'Equippage & other expenses in ye employment he is now forthwith by our command to undertake on board ye fleet in ye Mediterranean Seas'8. By itself this does not mean more than an intention to serve in this fleet. Because John Churchill stayed an ensign in the king's company up till June 1672, we can look for detachments of the guards serving on the fleet before March 1672. A further reason to do this is that Churchill later made a reference to him having been in 'Spain' at some time9. During 1670 and 1671 detachments of the First Guards went aboard the fleet10, but I've not found any details of Churchill actually being part of them.

3.4 Affair with Barbara Villiers

Early in 1671 John was in England and started an affair with Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, the mistress of Charles II and also a distant relative of John. This affair would last till 1675. The affair would also become the starting point of his fortune: One day when Charles II entered her bedroom John saved her honor by making a dangerous jump out of the window, a feat for which Barbara gave him 5,000 pounds. It is supposed that John used this money to buy the annuity of 4,500 pounds that gave him 500 pounds a year, a rather rare action for a young officer.

3.5 John Churchill in the war against the Dutch

It was during the 1672 war with the United Provinces that we get hard evidence of John Churchill having fought. On 6 March 1672 Sir Thomas Daniel's company was ordered to march to Gravesend and to embark11. On 13 March 1672 (before war had been declared) the fleet performed a treacherous and failed attack on the Dutch Smyrna fleet anchored near Whight. John Churchill was probably on board this fleet.

Next John was on the united Anglo-French fleet that was fitting out at Solebay. This is certain because afterwards Edward Pickes, lieutenant of the king's own company wrote in October 1672: ... he has been an officer but a year and I half in the regiment, and I have been near twelve, and in this last Summer's engagement, and he never in any. I hope his majesty will prefer the lieutenant to his own company, as well as the captain and the ensign (i.e. Churchill), for Sir Thomas Daniel is made our major; and Mr. Churchill, who was my ensign in the engagement, is made captain......12.

During the battle of Solebay on 7 June 1672 (28 May O.S.) John was part of Sir Thomas Daniel's company on the Flagship Royal Prince. The Royal Prince came under such heavy attack that the flag had to be transferred. John seems to have fought very well in this lost battle. Afterwards he was promoted from ensign to captain in the Admiralty regiment on 10 June 167213. John thus skipped the position of lieutenant. (The Admiralty regiment would later be incorporated into the second foot guards)

3.6 John Churchill goes to France

In December 1672 the admiralty regiment went to France and so did John. He next saw action at the siege of Maastricht in 1673 as a gentleman volunteer. He performed his most famous deed at Maastricht when he participated in repulsing a Dutch counterattack together with Monmouth and D'Artagnan (who got killed in this action). Soon afterwards Maastricht capitulated and John Churchill went home.

That fall he would again serve under Turenne in Westphalia, but peace with Holland ended this war in February 1674. One would expect that this meant that all English troops returned immediately, but this was not the case. Only part of the troops returned immediately and John got an appointment as a French colonel on 13 April 1674 in order to command an English regiment that remained in French service. With them he first fought in the battle of Sinzheim in June 1674. In the October 1674 battle of Enzheim his regiment 'scurchill' was mentioned14. He closed the year with the battle of Türckheim in December 1674.

4 Diplomacy and Love

4.1 Sarah Jennings

In the beginning of 1675 John Churchill was still in France, but it seems quite sure he did not see any combat that year. On 5 January 1675 John Churchill became Lieutenant-Colonel in the regiment of Colonel Charles Littleton15. August 1675 also saw him on his first diplomatic mission, that brought him back to Paris. It is supposed that this was about securing a subsidy from Louis, but this is not certain. It seems he left France in October. Later that year he met Sarah Jennings and fell in love with her, but did not achieve his goals for some time.

In 1676 his attempts to conquer Sarah were noted in the diplomatic correspondence of the French Ambassador. He remarked that Churchill preferred to serve the sister of Lady Hamilton rather that serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in Monmouth's regiment. Loving Sarah would however mean marrying her, and this was the main problem for the couple. When they married people would expect them to live according to their rank, and for this they lacked the means. It seems that Mary of Modena solved this problem somehow and the marriage came about in the winter of 1677-1678. John Churchill's appointment as colonel on 17/18 February 1678 perhaps made it possible16. The Churchills circumstances stayed mediocre however, and so Sarah and John had to live with his father Winston.

4.2 Diplomatic mission

On 5 April 1678 John Churchil left England in order to negotiate with the Spanish at Brussels about a possible English participation in the coming campaign against France. He next continued to The Haque where he concluded a treaty with William III, promising 20,000 men to him. On 1 may he was appointed to command an English brigade, but even though he left for the continent in September, the war was ended by the treaty of Nijmegen before he could prove his skill at commanding.

5 Follows James in Exile 1678-1682

5.1 Exile to the low Countries

In the winter of 1678 John returned to England. The fall of the Danby ministry and the rows created by Titus Oates then succeeded in causing the banishment of the Duke of York, who left for Holland. John and Sarah were forced to accompany James in his exile. First to Holland in March 1679 and later to Brussels. John accompanied him on a clandestine visit to England, and was again sent on a diplomatic mission to Louis, but these were both without lasting effects.

5.2 Exile in Scotland

In October 1679 James finally left his exile in order to travel to Scotland, arriving there late in the year. John accompanied him, but the pregnant Sarah stayed in London and gave birth to a son who died quickly. This exile was ended when James and John returned to England early in 1680.

Having grown to be one of the first confidants of James John could now expect to get a profitable appointment. For some time the court deliberated on the ambassadorship to the United Provinces or France, but fear of the Whiggish parliament made Charles order James to leave again for Scotland in October. This time both Churchills left for Edinburgh.

After having received a royal appointment James started to tyrannize Scotland in order to secure his succession there, and expected Churchill to exert himself to secure James' succession in England. While Churchill is said not to have agreed with this policy personally, it is prove of his abilities that James did not suspect his true feelings.

6 Diplomacy and Love

6.1 Holywell House

When they returned to England in the summer of 1682 Churchill was rewarded with the barony of Aymouth in Scotland. With Charles II securely on the throne the Churchills could again participate in court life, and it is said that he and Godolphin regularly played tennis with King Charles. In December 1683 he became colonel of the Royal Dragoons, a very profitable commission.

Somewhere around 1684 the Churchills built Holywell house on land belonging to Sara. It was here that their family life began to blossom with their daughters Henrietta and Anna. In July 1683 John was sent to Denmark to accompany Prince George of Denmark to London for a marriage to Princes Anne, James' daughter. The foundation for the Churchills' fortunes was then laid when Anne asked her friend Sarah to become a lady in waiting in her new household.

7 In the service of King James

7.1 Becomes wealthy

After the death of Charles II on 6 February 1685 James ascended to the crown. Churchill was immediately sent to Paris to thank Louis XIV for some subsidies. After his return to England he was made an English peer as Baron Churchill of Sandridge. He also became governor of the Hudson Bay Company, a profitable post.

7.2 Sedgemoor

In June Charles' bastard son Monmouth landed in England and started a rebellion to win the crown, this even though the ruling classes supported the new king. Churchill was promoted a brigade general and led troops against this rebellion, but the supreme command was with the Frenchman Feversham. The rebellion culminated in the battle of Sedgemoor, where Monmouth performed a surprise attack on the royal troops. Though Feversham was rewarded for winning the battle, public opinion saw John Churchill as the man responsible for the success. After the battle John heard that he had been promoted Major General on 3 July.

7.2 Cracks in John Churchill's loyalty

With the victory over the rebels John's royal master now became overconfident. He took measures to increase the royal army and fill it with Catholic officers. Up till then John had never had to take a position against the king, but now he did: In a trial against Lord Delamere in January 1686, he was one of the pairs that had to pronounce him guilty or innocent. Much to James' displeasure John was the first to pronounce a 'not guilty' in this trial.

James now continued his policy of appointing Catholics everywhere and dismissing Protestants. In short he succeeded in estranging from his rule those that had supported him against Monmouth. John probably appreciated that this policy could only lead to James' ruin. He therefore spoke with the Dutch, wrote to William III, and tried to get a post as commander of the British troops in Dutch service, but above all he associated himself with the protestant princess Anne.

8 Glorious Revolution

8.1 Salisbury

Some of the most influential lords now 'officially' invited William III to invade England. John also sided irrevocably with him by writing a letter to William by which he promised his support. When William landed in southern England on 5 November 1688 James reacted by sending his army to concentrate at Salisbury. Feversham was again in command of the English army, and that may very well have been the reason James promoted John to Lieutenant General on 7 November.

8.2 Desertion to William III

The first reverse for the Royal army was that Lord Cornbury left the camp and deserted to William III with 200 men. John had long been bent on switching sides and when he saw that a general conspiracy in the army wouldn't succeed, he left the army in the night of 23-24 November together with 400 officers and men. Is seems that together with other desertions, this was enough for James to lose the will to fight, and so William ascended the throne without bloodshed.

9 The Churchills under William III

9.1 The crown for William and Mary

After James had left England it was however by no means certain that William would become king. Even if one could agree on the crown having fallen of James' head, Mary would be the heir, not William. Even if one agreed upon William and Mary becoming joint sovereigns the crown would be law divulge to Anne in case Mary would die before William. In this affair the Churchills rendered William an important service when Sarah convinced Anne to give up her rights during the life of William. Churchill was confirmed in his rank of Lieutenant General, and under the supreme authority of Marshall Schomberg he started work on reorganizing the English army. Further favor followed in April 1689 when Churchill became Earl of Marlborough at the coronation ceremonies.

9.2 Walcourt

In May war was declared on France and Marlborough was sent to Flanders to command the English expedition forces. His forces became part of the army of the prince of Waldeck and were soon reckoned to be among the best of the army. In August Waldeck marched to Walcourt and took that city. On 25 August skirmishes then led to French Marshal d'Humières ordering an attack on Walcourt, and when this didn't work the French extended their attacks to the grounds east and west of the city. The allies then counter attacked with Slangenburgh leading their western wing and Marlborough the eastern. The French were broken and had to leave with losses of 2,000 men for the allies 300. Credit for the victory this time did go to Marlborough and next to his other appointments he got the profitable charge of colonel in the Royal Fuseliers.

9.3 Caught between two sisters

In return for her flexibility regarding the crown Anne now wanted to have parliament grant her an addition to her personal income, a wish that didn't please William and Mary. This led to quite a fight between the two sisters and the Marlboroughs were kind of caught in between with John serving William and Sarah serving Anne. Anne finally won this battle, but at the price of a rift in her relation to Mary.

9.4 Cork and Kinsale

In 1690 it was necessary for William to go to Ireland in order to defeat James. Marlborough was left in London and became part of the Council of Nine that had to assist Mary in government. When the lost battle of Beachy Head gave France supremacy of the sea Marlborough's first priority was the organization of forces to withstand a French invasion. After William's victory at the Boyne Marlborough came up with a plan. It was to conquer the harbours of Cork and Kinsale that kept the rebels communication to France. In August 1690 William wrote his permission to Marlborough.

Churchill sailed on 17 September. With about 6,000 men he landed at Cork, where he was joined by about 5,000 men sent by Ginckel. On 27 September Cork surrendered at discretion. He next went to Kinsale which fell to him on 15 October. Though by no means spectacular this little expedition was very important for the security of allied shipping, and Marlborough again got his credits.

9.5 Conflict with William

In the 1691 campaign Marlborough again commanded the English contingent in the allied army, but did not come in a position where he could achieve a success. Irritated by this and the fact that all royal favor went to William's Dutch favorites he started to campaign for changes late in 1691. Combined with the fact that he was suspected of plotting with Saint Germain and that tensions between Mary and Anne were running high again the king took a decision. In January 1692 Marlborough was sacked from all his appointments and required to leave the court. Soon his situation became worse when a conspiracy and a forged document landed him in the Tower from 4 May till 15 June. He was however acquitted in this case. Later historians have accused Marlborough of sending the Camaret Bay letter in May 1694, betraying the expedition to Brest to the French. This letter however only exists in a French translation and might very well be a forgery.

On 28 December 1694 Mary died and a formal reconciliation between William and Anne now came about. For Marlborough this meant he theoretically got somewhat closer to power, but William did not let him get closer. Indeed Marlborough was implied in a new conspiration: Jacobite conspirators had planned the assassination of William on 15 February 1696 but it failed, and Sir John Fenwick was tried as one of the conspirators. Fenwick now accused Marlborough, Godolphin, Russel and Shrewsbury of connections with Saint Germain, but these accusations were rejected by William. Marlborough then worked steadily towards his goal and Fenwick was executed in January 1697.

9.6 Marlborough reconciled with the king

It may have been that William looked far into the future and this made him bring about the reconciliation with Marlborough. However that may be, on 16 June 1698 it was announced that Marlborough became the governor of William of Gloucester and was reinstated in his dignity as member of the Privy Council and in all his military ranks. When William left for Holland in July 1698 Marlborough was even appointed as one of the nine members of a regency council. The death of the Duke of Gloucester on 30 July 1700 did not bring Marlborough out of William's favor. On a personal level the Marlboroughs saw their eldest daughter Henrietta married to the son of Godolphin in 1698. 1700 would see the marriage of their second daughter Anne to Lord Spencer, the son of Lord Sunderland.

10 Marlborough and the War of the Spanish Succession

10.1 Supreme Commander

Marlborough thus continued in high favor, and for a time there were even rumors that he would become one of the secretaries for foreign affairs. The crisis brought about by the Spanish Succession would however have a dramatic effect on Marlborough's career. On 31 May 1701 he was appointed supreme commander of English forces in the Low Countries, on 28 June he was named ambassador extraordinary to the United Provinces, and on 1 July they both went to Holland. Here he negotiated the treaty of the Grand Alliance that founded the new coalition against Louis XIV. When the king died early in 1702 he had already transferred his foreign policy to Marlborough.

10.2 Serving Queen Anne

From 1702 onwards Queen Anne became Marlborough's master. I hope to write about this later on.

11 Aspects of Marlborough's generalship

Marlborough is famous for three great victories; Blenheim, Ramillies and Oudenaerde, and the pyrrhic victory of Malplaquet. One can argue that these 3 great victories were made possible by the mistakes of his enemies, but this is a wrong way to appreciate these battles. Fought with about equal numbers Marlborough's aggressiveness and skillful maneuvering combined with the flawlessness of his conduct of battles gave Marlborough these victories.

What furthermore made Marlborough special was his ability to exploit success in battle: after a lot of victories we see him aggressively pursuing the beaten enemy, maximizing the effect of victory. Last but not least Marlborough no doubt had the eye of the master in managing an army. He looked after everything the army needed: pay, supplies, arms, maintenance, healthcare, all in such a way that for those who say battles are won in their preparation Marlborough would always win.

To sum it up:

  • He prepared his army better than anyone else.
  • His soldiers loved him
  • He was a very able maneuvrer
  • He was aggressive
  • He exploited his successes



12 Sources

The Duke of Marlborough is so famous that a constant source of biographies has been published about him. It all started with Lediard, got to a peak with Winston Churchill's biography and continues to date. I here give some highlights:

Other sources

13 Notes

1) The Book of the Axe containing a 'piscatorial' description of that stream and a history of all the parishes, by George P.R. Pulman, London 1854. Has a note on page 399; The following entries occur in the Register of Axminster Church; -'1650. John, the sonne of Mr. Winstone Churchill, was baptized att Ash ye 28 Daye of Jun, in the year of our lord God.'. Alternatively one might go for the facsimile in Winston Churchill's Marlborough: his life and times part 1.
2) See The history and proceedings of the House of Commons of England, V. 5 in the appendix has A list of the House of Commons, in the long, or pensioner, parliament, May 8th 1661, with Winston Churchill representing Weymouth.
3) Ditto page 18 of the appendix has that Sir Winston Churchill was a commissioner of the Court of Claims in Ireland, and by then a clerk of the green cloth. Also that he pushed his daughter to the Duke of York and got GBP 10,000 in boons.
4) L'estat présent de l'Angleterre traduit de l'Anglois Paris 1671 has Les deux clercs du tapit verd sont Sir Henry Wood & Sir Etienne Fox, & les deux Clercs controlleurs Sir Guillaume Borreman & Sir Winston Churchill. Ils ont chacun quarente-huit livres treize sols & quatre deniers de gages, etc.
5) L'estat présent de l'Angleterre traduit de l'Anglois Amsterdam 1669 has for the Duchess' household: Quatre filles d'honneur: Mademoiselle Arabelle Churchil 20 liv. sterlins.
6) English Army Lists and Commission registers, vol. 1 page 91 has this appointment. Literally: Churchill Ens. to the King's own company in Col. Russel's Reg. Mentioning as Captain of this company Colonel (sic) Thomas Howard. On page 92 it has the 26 September 1667 appointment of Thomas Danniel as captain of the King's own company. Mysteriously it then has the appointment of Sir Godfrey Lloyd on the next day as captain of the company lately of Thomas Danniel. On page 116 it becomes clear that on 18 April 1671 Thomas Daniel was still captain of the King's company, and therefore that this referred to the company which Thomas Daniel had left in order to become captain of the King's company. The entry on page 116 mentions the appointment of Edward Pickes as lieutenant to the King's company in the Foot Guards on 18 April 1671.
7) Lediard; page 18 of the version linked at the sources section above.
8) Life and Times; page 56 has this order printed. I assume that Chruchill edited the mentioned date 21 March 1670 from the O.S. 1669 to the New Style year 1670.
9) Cox edited by John Wade Volume 2 page 101 has a letter written from Meldert on 26 June 1707: The weather is so very hot, and the dust so very great, that I have this hour to myself, the officers not caring to be abroad till the hour of orders obliges them to it. It is most certain that when I was in Spain in the month of August, I was not more sensible of the heat than I am at this minute..
10) The Origin and History of the First Or Grenadier Guards page 151 for these detachments going on board the fleet in 1670.
11) The Origin and History of the First Or Grenadier Guards page 158 for parts of Sir Thomas Daniels ('The King's) company of the first guards going on board the fleet in early 1670.
12) The Origin and History of the First Or Grenadier Guards page 167 has Edward Picks letter to Sir Joseph Williamson.
13) English Army Lists and Commission registers, vol. 1 page 128 has this appointment. Literally: Capt. in the admiralty reg., colonel Chas. Littleton, company of Roger Vaughan, dated 10 June.
14) Marlborough in the battle of Enzheim and the scurchil regiment: Memoires des deux dernieres campagnes de monsieur de Turenne page 129.
15) English Army Lists and Commission registers, vol. 1 page 180 has this appointment. Literally: Lt. Col. of the Duke of York's Reg. of Ft. in place of late Lt-Col. Sr. Jno. Griffith.
16) English Army Lists and Commission registers, vol. 1 page 228 has this appointment. Literally: To command as Col. of a Reg. of Ft. in and for our service, with the date changed to 17 by HRH's desire.