“he, who surpass’d all the Heroes of Antiquity”: John Churchill, 1st duke of Marlborough

2022 marks the 300th anniversary of the death of John Churchill, 1st duke of Marlborough. Dr Robin Eagles reconsiders the career, and end, of one of the country’s most successful military commanders, the victor of Blenheim, Ramillies and Malplaquet, but also a hugely important political figure.

The young John Churchill had had to make his own way in the world. Although his father, Sir Winston Churchill, was a landed gentleman, well-regarded by the Restoration regime, there was little money. Famed at first for his good-looks and exquisite manners, Churchill started his career at Court, where he attracted the attention of his distant cousin (and the king’s mistress), Barbara Villiers, duchess of Cleveland. Churchill’s grandmother, Eleanor, had been a sister of James I’s favourite, George Villiers, duke of Buckingham. They had a child together, but the scandal did not impede his progress. Having started out as a page to the duke of York (future James II) Churchill became increasingly associated with the York household and at some point in 1677 or 1678 he married another impoverished courtier, Sarah Jennings (or Jenyns). Like Churchill, Jennings was well-connected but strapped for cash. Together they would become one of the foremost power couples of the period.

Through the mid-1670s and into the 1680s Churchill steadily built a reputation as a courtier, diplomat and, increasingly, as a soldier. In 1682 he was made a Scottish baron and in May 1685 an English peer as Baron Churchill. However, despite owing so much to the newly crowned James II, Churchill was genuinely uneasy about the king’s religious policies and in 1688 he was one of the first of James’s inner circle to defect to William of Orange. He was rewarded with promotion as earl of Marlborough in 1689 but his relationship with William was never easy. In 1692 he was removed from his posts and almost certainly made his peace with the exiled court.

A portrait drawing of the bust of John Churchill. He is wearing armour and a dark blue mantle trimmed with white fur. He has a powdered full-bottom wig on.
(c) British Museum, Gg,1.466

One reason for Marlborough’s difficult relations with William was both his and his countess’s close friendship with the family of Anne of Denmark (future Queen Anne). They became identified with Anne’s alternative Court, with which William was often on especially poor terms. Anne’s accession, then, began a period of spectacular success for both the Marlboroughs. From 1701 Marlborough became commander-in-chief of the allied forces and the following year was distinguished with the title of Captain General. It was his service during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713) which resulted in his best-known achievements, above all the victory at Blenheim, and led to him being rewarded with a former royal hunting estate in Oxfordshire, where a new palace was constructed for him. He was also promoted in the peerage to a dukedom; the Emperor made him a prince.

However, Marlborough was much more than a talented tactician on the battlefield and a clever courtier. Working together with Godolphin, he was also a supremely influential political operator. Unfortunately for him, things began to unravel following Robert Harley’s assumption of power in 1710. The queen’s passionate friendship with Duchess Sarah also proved a decidedly mixed blessing and after the queen and duchess fell out in 1711 both were out of favour. In 1712 Godolphin died and the Marlboroughs found themselves in exile.

George I’s accession offered the Marlboroughs an opportunity to reset. Marlborough had toured the continent during his exile warning of threats to the Act of Settlement, which would prevent George from becoming king. However, although the duke and duchess were welcomed back with open arms, he did not get the post he really wanted, that of groom of the stole – the closest household officer about the new king. Plus, it was increasingly to a newer generation of politicians that power now shifted, with Robert Walpole and his brother-in-law Viscount Townshend, alongside the Marboroughs’ son-in-law, Sunderland and James Stanhope, vying for supremacy. Marlborough was left ‘bowing and smiling in the antechamber’ while the others got on with managing events where it mattered. In 1716 Marlborough suffered two strokes and from that point on he was a figurehead only with much of the family influence wielded by his duchess.

Over the remaining years there were legal struggles over the construction of the palace at Blenheim. Designed by Sir John Vanbrugh it quickly became a far more ostentatious pile than either duke or duchess had originally intended and the cost of it proved a crippling embarrassment. It was not long after a high-profile case in Parliament, arising from a dispute with the builders, that Marlborough fell into his final illness and died, perhaps fittingly at the more modest Cranbourne Lodge near Windsor.

Despite being somewhat marginalized at the end, Marlborough was given a suitably grand ceremonial funeral to see him off. Although he died in June it was not until August that everything was ready and the funeral cortege, surmounted with a suit of armour, trundled off to Westminster Abbey, where he was to be buried until a new mausoleum at Blenheim could be completed for him. One newspaper described how the occasion was ‘celebrated with unparallel’d Magnificence’, a fitting end for ‘he, who surpass’d all the Heroes of Antiquity’ [Daily Journal, 10 Aug. 1722]. The hearse – an open chariot ‘after the Model of Queen Mary’s – was accompanied by a huge procession, including 72 Chelsea Pensioners, in spite of the duchess’s concerns that ‘the wicked enemies to the poor Duke of Marlborough might not say something disagreeable’ at the sight of a mass of a mass of aged, wounded veterans. She need not have worried and when the procession finally set off on 9 August it made its way through the streets of London ‘in the best order of anything (of the kind) that has been seen this many years’. [Harris, 244-5]. Minute guns sounded from the Tower of London, and at around 6pm three rockets were let off from the Abbey roof to signal to the army to fire a salute. Following his interment, four officers snapped their staves and threw them into the vault.

Not everything was managed with such decorum. On the morning of the funeral government messengers raided the premises of the Jacobite newspaper man, Nathaniel Mist, whose journal had criticized the duke. They were not able to stop others from scattering flyers in the streets traducing his memory. There were also problems closer to home. Marlborough left no son and by the time of his death, Duchess Sarah had fallen out with her daughters. She would continue to exert tempestuous political influence for the rest of her life, outliving her husband by 22 years. She survived to see George II on the throne, to outlive Queen Caroline and only just missed out on the 1745 Rebellion.

RDEE

Further reading:
Frances Harris, A Passion for Government: the life of Sarah duchess of Marlborough (OUP 1991)

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