In August 1704 the duke of Marlborough led allied forces to a great victory at Blenheim. Dr Charles Littleton, Senior Research Fellow in our Lords 1660-1832 section, discusses the effect the news of victory had on British politics…
In these days of the internet, of Facebook and Twitter, and of 24-hour rolling coverage of news, we can take it for granted that information of what ‘is going on’, even on the other side of the world, is only an apparently instantaneous ‘click’ away. That was certainly not the case in the eighteenth century when long distances often had to be covered to convey the news of events far away. This lag in communication could often play havoc with the calculations and judgements of contemporaries.
Today marks the 310th anniversary – according to the Gregorian calendar which was then in use on the European continent, but which was only adopted in Britain in 1752 – of the Battle of Blenheim, the stunning victory in the War of the Spanish Succession for the Allied forces commanded by their captain-general the duke of Marlborough, by which the threat of a combined French and Bavarian occupation of Vienna and the Holy Roman Empire was stopped in its tracks. (The English of the time, still using the old Julian calendar, would have considered it 2 August, as it often appears in history books). Having won this decisive battle, Marlborough scribbled a hasty note on the back of a tavern bill to his wife Sarah, duchess of Marlborough announcing to her that the queen’s army ‘has had a glorious victory’. He entrusted this message to Col. Daniel Parke who set off with this note across continental Europe. It took him eight days to journey from the banks of the Danube deep in Bavaria to the English capital.
Those days while Col. Parke was making his way across Europe were uncomfortable for Marlborough’s fellow minister, the lord treasurer Baron Godolphin. The war had not been going well for the Allies for the previous two campaigns and there was no evidence so far that it would be any more successful this summer. Disgruntlement over the war and the way it was being waged had already led to the dismissal or resignation the previous April of numerous ‘High’ Tory members of the ministry and the formation of a new and inexperienced ministry. Furthermore the Scottish Parliament was aggrieved that the Hanoverian Succession ensured by the Act of Settlement of 1701, had been decided on by the English Parliament with little, if any, consultation with the Scots. Taking advantage of the perceived weakness of the Allied war effort, the Scottish parliament in spring 1704 had threatened not to raise money for the maintenance of Scottish troops in Marlborough’s army until the queen gave her royal assent to their Act of Security, which provided that upon the death of the childless queen, the Scottish Parliament would chose its own successor to the Scottish throne. This threatened the union of crowns of England and Scotland which had existed since 1603 and Godolphin had to use all his diplomatic and persuasive powers to convince the reluctant queen to give her royal assent to the measure on 16 August 1704, 5 August by the contemporary English reckoning.
The situation was transformed after Col. Parkes finally delivered Marlborough’s brief exultant message to the queen on 21/ 10 August. She immediately wrote back to Marlborough, overjoyed that the victory ‘will not only humble our enemies abroad but contribute very much to the putting a stop to the ill designs of those at home’. The earl of Peterborough similarly expressed himself to Marlborough shortly after the battle, asserting that its success would make Godolphin’s ‘winter campaign’ in the forthcoming session of parliament ‘easy’. Indeed the new ministry of moderate Tories was able to go into the next session of Parliament in late October with renewed confidence and purpose, justified in the earlier decision to jettison those most obstructive to Marlborough’s continental land war strategy. The ministry was also now on a stronger footing with regard to Scotland. Marlborough’s resounding military success made quite a difference in the calculations of those on both sides of the border. The ministry quickly retaliated against the earlier humiliation of the Act of Security by passing, with the vital assistance of the Whigs, who were to become the linchpin to the ministry’s parliamentary majority from this time, the Alien Act. This measure declared that, unless the Scottish Parliament appointed commissioners to negotiate a union of the two kingdoms, the Scots would after Christmas Day 1704 be considered ‘aliens’ in England, with all the severe travel and trade restrictions that entailed. Many Scottish statesmen, looking upon the result of Blenheim, must have felt it was wiser to side with the militarily resurgent Protestant country to the south which could produce a victory– in which, it is important to emphasize, the Scottish regiments played a large and important role – to a Catholic continental power harbouring the Jacobite Pretender which now appeared to be on the back foot. These pro-union Scots were able to push through legislation in Edinburgh, though often in the midst of turbulent scenes in the chamber and with razor-thin majorities, which appointed commissioners to negotiate the Treaty of Union, completed in 1706 and ratified by the Parliaments in both Edinburgh and Westminster in 1707.
Not only did the battle of Blenheim transform the course of the war, but it changed the balance of forces in English domestic politics, with the queen’s government turning away from her ‘natural’ supporters the High Church Tories to the Whigs in order to help prosecute the war. The events far away on the banks of the Danube furthermore helped form and shape the Anglo-Scottish Union, whose ultimate fate is now on the verge of being decided, three centuries on and in a very different European context.