The English general and statesman John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), was responsible for the British victory at Blenheim in 1704, which is second only to the triumph of Waterloo in British military annals.
Though the Duke of Marlborough was active during three earlier reigns, it was under Queen Anne that he became famous. In the century-long (1689-1783) struggle with France, no war was longer or bloodier than that of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713), and Marlborough's role in that war was decisive. The son of an obscure squire, through his ability as soldier and diplomat Marlborough rose to the highest rank in the army and in the peerage, was given the palace of Blenheim by a grateful nation, and founded a distinguished family represented in the 20th century by Sir Winston Churchill.
John Churchill was born about June 1, 1650, at Ashe in Devonshire, was educated at St. Paul's School in London, and as early as 1667 had a position with the Duke of York and a commission in the guards. Strikingly handsome and charming, Churchill was also ambitious and acquisitive. He might have married for wealth and position, but he married for love, choosing the beautiful and imperious Sarah Jennings, already (1678) a favorite with Princess Anne. When the Duke of York became king, Churchill continued to enjoy his favor. He became Baron Churchill in 1685 and held military commands but took no active part in politics beyond consolidating his position with Princess Anne.
The Revolution of 1688 saw Marlborough desert James II at a critical point, and his wife helped persuade Anne to desert the King, her father. Churchill's assistance to the new king was rewarded. William III made him Earl of Marlborough and gave him commands in Ireland and on the Continent. A rift soon developed between the King and his sister-in-law Anne, and the Churchills were involved. When Marlborough was discovered writing to the exiled James, he was dismissed from his posts on suspicion of treason. Only in 1701, with war against France (over dividing up the Spanish Empire) about to break out, did William relent, appointing Marlborough commander in chief. Marlborough was then in his fiftysecond year; had he died at this point, his name would be practically unknown.
With William III's death (1702) Anne became queen, and she put Marlborough in charge of military and diplomatic affairs, with his friend Sidney Godolphin in charge of finances and Robert Harley manager of the Commons. It was this three-man team which successfully carried on the first 6 years of the war. These were also the years of Marlborough's great victories. Campaigns in 1702 and 1703 were uneventful largely because Marlborough was engaged in strenuous efforts to keep together the Grand Alliance against Louis XIV of France.
In the third year of the War of the Spanish Succession, Marlborough learned of the French plan to send an army through Germany to attack the Austrian capital, Vienna. Fearing that the cautious Dutch would recall their troops if they suspected his true design, Marlborough feinted an attack at France and then marched his troops clear across central Europe to the upper Danube. At Blenheim (near Augsburg) a decisive engagement took place on Aug. 15, 1704. The French forces were about equal to the Allied army under Marlborough—roughly 50,000. A cavalry charge across marshy land against the French center turned the tide. The cavalry broke through, and the enemy forces were disorganized and, by the end of the day, completely routed.
Marlborough had saved Vienna and had kept the empire in the war. At a single stroke he had also raised the prestige of British arms higher than at any time since Agin-court (1415). A hero and high in favor with the Queen, Marlborough was given a dukedom. Anne presented him with the royal manor of Woodstock and ordered a palace built for him there, named Blenheim after his victory.
No succeeding triumph was as splendid as Blenheim. At Ramillies (1706), Oudenaarde (1708), and Malplaquet (1709) the duke was successful, but each of these battles was costlier and less decisive than the one before. By 1709 France was ready to negotiate a peace, and the English people were becoming tired of the war. The breakdown of negotiations between France and England weakened Marlborough's position at home. His friend Godolphin had been forced into too close an alliance with the Whigs for either the Queen or Harley. In preaching favor to the Whigs, Lady Marlborough acted more as political tutor to Anne than as friend, and gradually the duchess lost the Queen's affection. With Anne's support Harley tried to take over the government. He failed in 1708 and was driven into opposition. Two years later he was able to realize his ambition. Anne dismissed Godolphin in August 1710 and made Harley lord treasurer.
Marlborough did not lose his post of commander in chief until late December 1711. Meanwhile, the new government negotiated a secret peace with France behind his back and accused him of corruption. The charges were dropped, but the duke was glad to see the last of the Harley administration on the death of Queen Anne. Marlborough was active in welcoming her German successor, George I, in 1714. He was given back his military offices; but by 1716, already broken in health, he suffered a paralytic stroke from which he never recovered. He died of a second stroke on June 16, 1722.
Marlborough's military dispatches are printed in Sir George Murray, ed., Letters and Dispatches of John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough (5 vols., 1845; repr. 1968). Much of his correspondence with Godolphin and others, from the manuscripts at Blenheim, is in William Coxe, Memoirs of John, Duke of Marlborough (3 vols., 1818-1819; 2d ed., 6 vols., 1820). Of the many biographies of Marlborough, two deserve special mention: Sir Winston Churchill, in Marlborough: His Life and Times (4 vols., 1933-1938; abridged in one volume, by Henry Steele Commager, 1970), is intent on vindicating his ancestor from Thomas Babington Macaulay's aspersions, and the work is full of special pleading; it prints little not already found in Coxe, but it has some splendid battle pieces. More accurate and professional, and much more modest in length, is Ivor F. Burton, The Captain General: The Career of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (1968).
Barnett, Correlli, The first Churchill: Marlborough, soldier and statesman, New York: Putnam, 1974.
Bevan, Bryan, Marlborough the man: a biography of John Churchill first Duke of Marlborough, London: R. Hale, 1975.
Cowles, Virginia, The great Marlborough and his duchess, New York: Macmillan, 1983.
Defoe, Daniel, A short narrative of the life and actions of His Grace John, D. of Marlborough, New York: AMS Press, 1992.
Jones, J. R. (James Rees), Marlborough, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Saintsbury, George, Marlborough, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.
Thomson, George Malcolm, The first Churchill: the life of John, 1st Duke of Marlborough, New York: Morrow, 1980, 1979.