Marlborough, John Churchill, Duke of

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Marlborough, John Churchill, 1st Duke of

British Major-General (1685-88), Lieutenant-General (1688-1702), Captain-General of the British army (1702-1711)

born 26 May 1650 (Old Style), Ash Manor, Musbury, Devonshire, England

died 16 June 1722 (O.S.), Cranbourn Manor, Windsor, England, Great Britain


John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough – Source: Wikimedia Commons

John Churchill was born in the small manor house of Ash, in Musbury, Devonshire, near Axminster, on 26 May 1650. He was the son of Winston Churchill of Glanville Wotton in Dorset and Elizabeth the fourth daughter of Sir John Drake, who died in 1636; his widow, after the close of the civil war, received her son-in-law into her own house.

From 1663 to 1665 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 ‘’De re militari’’.

In 1665, John Churchill, then fifteen years old, became page of honour to the Duke of York, and about the same time his sister Arabellabecame maid of honour to the duchess, two events which contributed greatly to the advancement of the Churchills.

On 14 September 1667 (O.S.), John Churchill received, through the influence of his master, a commission in the Guards, and left England for service at Tangier but returned home in the winter of 1670-1671. For a short interval Churchill remained in attendance at the court.

In June 1672, when England sent 6,000 troops to aid Louis XIV in his attempt to subdue the Dutch, Churchill was made a captain in the company of which the Duke of York was colonel, and soon attracted the attention of Turenne, by whose profound military genius the whole army was directed. At the siege of Nijmegen, Churchill acquitted himself with such success that the French commander predicted his ultimate rise to distinction. When Maastricht was besieged in June 1673, Churchill saved the life of the Duke of Monmouth, and received the thanks of Louis XIV for his services. In 1678, he was married to Sarah Jennings, the favourite attendant on Princess Anne, younger daughter of the Duke of York. Her father was Richard Jennings of Sandridge, near St Albans.

On the accession of James II, the Churchills received a great increase in fortune. Colonel John Churchill had been created a Scotch peer as Lord Churchill of Eyemouth on 21 December 1682 (O.S.). Then, on 14 May 1685, 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. When the Duke of Monmouth attempted his ill-fated enterprise in the western counties, the second position in command of the king's army was bestowed on Lord Churchill. On 3 July 1685, he was raised to the rank of major-general. Through his vigilance and energy at the Battle of Sedgemoor (July 6) 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, but both he and his wife remained the favourite attendants of Princess Anne. Whilst on his embassy to the French Court, Major-General Churchill 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, to whom he had gone on a commission in 1678. 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 promoted to be lieutenant-general (7 November 1688) and was sent against him with 5,000 men. When the royal army had advanced to the downs of Wiltshire and a battle seemed imminent, James was dismayed at finding that in the dead of night his general had stolen away like a thief into the opposite camp.

Churchill was sworn as a privy councillor on 14 February 1689 and on 9 April became Earl of Marlborough. 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 in June 1689 with the army into the Netherlands, and in the autumn of 1690 into Ireland where, owing to his generalship, Cork and Kinsale fell into his hands after short sieges. For some time there was no open avowal of any distrust in Marlborough's loyalty, but in May 1692 he was 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 Saint-Germain, and that he even went so far as to disclose, in May 1694, 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 of 1696 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 accusation of Sir John Fenwick, and with executing that conspirator himself. In 1698 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; Henrietta, the eldest, became the wife of Francis, 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 Charles, Lord Spencer, the only surviving son of the Earl of Sunderland. Higher honours came on the accession of Queen Anne in March 1702. He was at once appointed a Knight of the Garter, Captain-General of the British 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 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, Great Britain, the Dutch Republic and the Holy Roman Empire, which formed the Grand Alliance, that war should be declared against France on the same day.

On 4 May 1702, the War of the Spanish Succession was declared by the three countries. Marlborough was made commander-in-chief of the united armies of Great Britain and the Dutch Republic, 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 Holy Roman Emperor was to secure that his son Archduke Charles should 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 campaign of 1702, it was shown that the armies of the French were not invincible. Several fortresses which Louis XIV had seized upon surrendered to the Allies. On 15 June, Kaiserswerth on the Rhine surrendered and, on 23 September, Venlo on the Meuse. On 29 October, the prosperous commercial town of Liége with its commanding citadel capitulated. The successes of Marlborough caused much rejoicing in his own country. On 14 December, for these brilliant exploits he was raised to be Duke of Marlborough, and received a grant of £5000 per annum for the queen's life.

In the spring of 1703, a crushing blow fell upon the duke and duchess. Their eldest and only surviving son, the Marquess of Blandford, was seized whilst at King's College, Cambridge (under the care of Francis Hare, afterwards Bishop of Chichester), with the small-pox, and died on 20 February (O.S.), in his seventeenth year. 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. On 15 May, Bonn surrendered, whereupon he returned to his original plan of attacking Antwerp; but, in consequence of the incapacity of the Dutch leaders, the generals (Villeroy and Boufflers) of the French army surprised the Dutch division on 30 June 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 Limbourg.

For the campaign of 1704, after a year of comparative failure for the Allies, Louis XIV was emboldened to enter upon an offensive movement against Austria; and Marlborough, smarting under the misadventures of the previous year, was eager to meet him. A magnificent army was sent by the French king, under the command of Marshal Tallard, to join the forces of the Elector of Bavaria and to march by the Danube so as to seize Vienna itself. Marlborough divined the intention of the expedition, and while making a feint of marching into Alsace led his troops into Bavaria. On 13 August, the two armies (that under Marlborough and Prince Eugène numbering more than 50,000 men, whilst Tallard's forces were nearly 4,000 stronger) met in battle near the village of Blenheim on the left bank of the Danube. 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 Eugène, which were attacking the Bavarians, the enemy's left wing, driven back in confusion; Marlborough's cavalry failed on their first attack in breaking the line of the enemy's centre. But in the end the victory of the Allies was conclusive. Nearly 30,000 of the French and Bavarians were killed and wounded, and 11,000 of the French who had been driven down to the Danube were forced to surrender. Bavaria fell into the hands of the Allies. Never was a victory more eagerly welcomed than this, and never was a conquering leader more rewarded than Marlborough. 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 noble, but the queen heightened it by instructing Sir John Vanbrugh to build a palace in the park at the royal expense, and £240,000 of public money was spent on the buildings. He was also created a prince of the empire and the principality of Mindelheim was formed in his honour.

The campaign of 1705 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 near Tirlemont, and the French were forced to take shelter under the walls of Louvain. Marlborough in vain urged an attack upon them in their new position, and when 1705 had passed away the forces of the French king had suffered no diminution.

In the spring of 1706, this immunity from disaster tempted Villeroy into meeting the Allied forces in an open fight, but his assurance proved his ruin. On 23 May, through the superior tactics of Marlborough the battle of Ramillies 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 3.000 of the soldiers of the Allies were laid low around its walls, but Dendermonde, which Louis had forty years previously besieged in vain, quickly gave itself up to the resistless Marlborough.

In 1707, again a year of activity and triumph was succeeded by a period of languor and depression. During the entire year, fortune inclined to the other side.

In July 1708 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 Vendôme, one of the ablest of the French generals, prevailed, the fight might have had a different issue, but his suggestions were disregarded by the Duc de Bourgogne, the grandson of Louis XIV, an, on 11 July, the battle, which raged on the high ground above Oudenarde, 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 though. On 9 December, after a struggle of nearly four months, and the loss to the combatants of 30,000 men, the citadel was surrendered by Marshal Boufflers. 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 Torcy his minister endeavoured by promises of large sums of money to obtain the support of Marlborough to his proposals. These attempts were in vain.

In 1709, when the winter passed away, a French army of 110,000 men, under the command of Villars, took the field. On 3 September, Tournai capitulated, and the two leaders, Marlborough and Eugène, led their forces to Mons, in spite of the attempt of Villars to prevent them. On 11 September, for the last time during the protracted war the two armies met in fair fight at Malplaquet, on the south of Mons, 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 British could plume themselves on was the acquisition of a few such fortresses as Douai and Béthune, 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. On 24 July 1712, Marshal Villars defeated the Imperial army of Prince Eugène de Savoie at the Battle of Denain. The war then dragged on until the conclusion of the Peace of Utrecht in June 1713.

These victorious campaigns had not prevented the position of Marlborough 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 under Sidney Godolphin 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, were introduced in May 1704 into the ministry. The duchess, partly through the influence of her son-in-law, the Earl of Sunderland, who came into office against the queen's wish on 3 December 1706, 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 neglected. Sunderland and Godolphin were the first to fall (July-Aug. 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 Great Britain had become so unpleasant that he went to the Continent in November 1712 and remained abroad until the death of Anne (1 August 1714).

Then Marlborough once more returned to Great Britain 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

At four o'clock on the morning of 16 June 1722 (O.S.), Marlborough 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 in a mausoleum in the chapel at Blenheim.

His widow, to whom must be assigned a considerable share both in his rise and in his fall, survived till 18 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 Whig 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 titled suitors. She refused them all.

The rapid rise of Marlborough to the highest position in the State was due to his singular tact and his diplomatic skill in 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 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 attempts 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.


This article incorporates texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 17, 1911 – “Marlborough, John Churchill, 1st Duke of (1650-1722)”