John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, in
John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, in his Garter robes

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (May 26, 1650June 16, 1722), in full The Most Noble Captain-General John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, Earl of Marlborough, Baron Churchill of Sandridge, Lord Churchill of Eyemouth, KG, PC (in addition to these English and Scottish titles he was also Prince of Mindelheim and a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire), was an English military officer during the War of the Spanish Succession. Churchill is generally considered the greatest military genius that Britain has produced. Historian Sir Edward Creasy wrote that "[he] never fought a battle that he did not win, and never besieged a place that he did not take."


Early years

John Churchill was born to Elizabeth and Sir Winston Churchill (the more famous holder of that name is a descendant) in the immediate aftermath of the English Civil War. His father had fought for the Royalists during the conflict and had suffered badly for it—they lived in very modest circumstances until the end of the Commonwealth. His staunch support for Charles II of England paid off with The Restoration, however, and one of the fruits of this was the appointment of 17-year-old John Churchill to the household of the man second in line to the throne, then–Lord High Admiral, the Duke of York. Joining the navy, he remained at court for a while, but saw turns of duty first in the Mediterranean and in the last of the Anglo-Dutch Wars. In the latter, he became a Marine officer, and was attached to the siege of Maastricht, his first taste of land battle. Having come to the attention of the French crown during this action, he moved on to the fighting in Alsace, where he fought with one of the leading generals of the day, Marshal Turenne.

Marriage and early career

That war ended in 1674, and Churchill settled down to peaceful life. In 1678, he married Sarah Jennings, who would come to fiercely present his interests at court while he was off fighting on the Continent. In 1682, then-Colonel Churchill entered the Scots peerage as Lord Churchill of Eyemouth. In the years to follow he engaged in various diplomatic missions to Spain and their former enemy, the Dutch United Provinces, largely in opposition to French interests. In 1685, Charles II died without legitimate issue, and Churchill's former employer, the Duke of York, became James II of England. Shortly thereafter James elevated him to the English peerage as Baron Churchill of Sandridge in Hertfordshire.

James II and the Glorious Revolution

Within a few months, the new king faced a series of rebellions, one of which was by the Duke of Monmouth. Churchill was promoted major-general in July 1685 and appointed head of the loyalist troops, then quickly subordinated to the Earl of Feversham. It is believed that this lack of confidence was what eventually turned Churchill from loyalty to the Stuart kings. Churchill nevertheless distinguished himself during the fighting, and became an important figure in the army.

In 1688, William of Orange invaded England with the support of most of the nobility, as James II was a Catholic and was clearly attempting to reintroduce absolutist rule into his kingdom, as well as toleration and even ascendancy for Romanism over the Church of England. James promoted Churchill to lieutenant-general in November and ordered him to engage and defeat the invaders; instead he deserted to the Orange cause, which caused most of the army to come with him and put James into a very difficult position. He quit the country for France rather than fight. The Glorious Revolution had been pulled off with far less bloodshed than anyone expected, and the Stuarts no longer ruled in Britain. In reward Churchill was appointed a Privy Councillor (hence the postnominal abbreviation "P.C.") in February 1689 and created Earl of Marlborough in April.

Marlborough was out of the public sphere to a large extent for the next few years, as William did not entirely trust the Stuart supporter. William's distrust was well founded, for in 1692 Churchill was discovered to be in secret correspondence with the exiled James II, and was publicly disgraced. It is miraculous that he suffered no further from his treachery. He was even able to intrigue further, by sending news of English troop movements to the French in William's wars on the Continent. With characteristic duplicity, however, he always contrived to send the information too late for it to be of any use. It must be noted, that while Marlborough was in habitual correspondence with the enemies of England, he never deserted William at moments of high peril, as he had deserted James II. While he was out of office and command, his most notable activity was some time as the Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company. The Canadian town of Churchill, Manitoba, a former Company outpost, gains its name from this connection.

Louis XIV wanted to dominate Europe by uniting the French and Spanish Crowns.
Louis XIV wanted to dominate Europe by uniting the French and Spanish Crowns.

Military service on the continent

The War of Spanish Succession begins

He returned to the forefront with events leading up to the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701. Philip, Duke of Anjou, the grandson of the King of France, Louis XIV, was put forward as heir to the throne of Spain, and rather than allow France to expand its power to such a great extent, a coalition of European powers including Britain, the Netherlands, Austria, and most of the smaller states and principalities of the Empire prepared for war, backing the rival Austrian claimant, the Archduke Charles. Portugal and Savoy joined the alliance ere long. William died in 1702, but not before he had successfully organized the anti-French alliance, and the war was prosecuted without him. Now came Marlborough's finest hour, for he proceeded to distinguish himself in the field of battle as no English general had done before him. His position and career at home also reached an apex.

William's successor, his sister-in-law Queen Anne, was completely under the domination of Marlborough's wife, and he enjoyed the new queen's confidence and favour; immediately upon her succession to the throne he was knighted as a member of the Order of the Garter (hence the postnominal abbreviation "K.G."), appointed captain-general of the English troops, and made Master-General of the Ordnance. The same year, the War of the Spanish Succession with France finally broke out into the open and Captain-General Lord Marlborough was made commander-in-chief of the Allied armies.

Early campaigns

The campaign of 1703 was indecisive overall, but Marlborough gained a substantial advantage in preempting Louis XIV's plans to invade the Netherlands by capturing the North Eastern fortresses of the Spanish Netherlands, Venlo and Roermond, and by overrunning the Electorate of Cologne and the Bishopric of Lige, two German allies of Louis. For these victories, he was made Duke of Marlborough, the title by which is best known. He is also credited with founding a new school of military strategy. European generals up to his time were of the old school, which subscribed to headlong pitched engagements with armies properly arrayed opposite each other in a "gentlemanlike" fashion, where victory was usually bought with heavy loss. On the field of battle he was vigilant and energetic, yet he was even more vigorous in pre-battle operations to secure the best advantages, such as circumventing flanks and positions, and deceiving and attacking an enemy when he was least expected. In one instance, he drove a French army of 60,000 men before him and seized half the duchy of Brabant (in modern day Belgium) with the loss of a mere 80 men. Yet when bloody and pitched battles were necessary, he never shrank from them, and personally lead his men into the hottest fray with a cool-headed courage that won him universal admiration.

Blenheim, and other victories

1704 brought the first notable campaign wherein Marlborough was able to show his full abilities. At the outset, his army lay on the Meuse and Lower Rhine, protecting the Netherlands from the French. However, Louis XIV had brought up another army into South Germany and united it with his Bavarian allies, and the combined force held the valley of the Upper Danube, seriously threatening Austria. Marlborough quickly realized that the more strategic theater lay in Bavaria, not on the Meuse. Accordingly he rapidly marched his force, including the reluctant Dutch, across Germany to Bavaria, whilst along the route he performed a series of brilliant feints that led the French to believe he was preparing to attack Alsace. While they scrambled to meet him there, he quickly struck across Wurtemburg using forced marches and arrived in the valley of the Danube. He then stormed the fortified Bavarian camp at Schellenberg, placed himself between the enemy and Austria, and thwarted any further advance on Vienna. He was then joined by a small Austrian army under Prince Eugene of Savoy, and the combined force was strong enough to take on the whole Franco-Bavarian army, which were 56,000 strong. He accordingly attacked, and won a great victory at the Battle of Blenheim. He captured all of Bavaria, and Austria was saved. The defeat was so crushing that Louis XIV was forced to retire behind the Rhine, and was never again able to threaten Germany. As quickly as he came, Marlborough hurried back to the Dutch Frontier, and was again on the Meuse by spring, threatening the Spanish Netherlands on their eastern front.

Missing image
The coat of arms of the Dukes of Marlborough

Later battles

In 1705 Marlborough was obliged to forgo an ambitious attack on the French via the valley of the Moselle, owing to the fact that Prince Eugene had been sent to fight in Italy. He therefore decided on an offensive in the Spanish Netherlands. The French, under Marshal Villeroi, had ranged themselves in a long line from Antwerp to Namur, covering every vulnerable point with fortifications. Marlborough wanted to fight a pitched battle at Waterloo, but the Dutch government withdrew their forces and prevented any decisive engagements. His opportunity came in the spring, however, when he induced Villeroi to concentrate all of the French forces in the Spanish Netherlands to defend the fortress of Namur. The consequent Battle of Ramillies (1706) was a crushing defeat for the French, and resulted in Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, all of Flanders and Hainaut falling into Marlborough's hands. All that remained to the French in the territory were the fortresses of Mons and Namur.

Marlborough was almost as able a diplomat as a general. No other personage within the anti-French alliance could keep together so divergent and fractious an assortment of armies. Without his astute guidance, they would have fallen into quarrelsome disunion. He had all the abilities of a statesman: patient, genial, sophisticated and practical. In 1707, Charles XII of Sweden, an old ally of France, invaded Germany from the rear, pursuing a quarrel with the Elector of Saxony. In great apprehension lest Sweden should interfere in the war and aid the French, Marlborough hastened to Saxony, visited Charles in his camp, and flattered and coaxed him into retiring without firing a shot. He also routinely weathered the periodic intransigence of his Dutch troops, and the Herculean task of leading so many armies and nationalities to victory. Marlborough's successes continued to mount, and led to his creation within the Empire as a Prince of the Empire and Prince of Mindelheim.

Prince Eugene was equally successful in Italy, capturing Milan and Piedmont in September 1707 and forcing the French to evacuate behind the Alps. Louis also suffered reverses in Spain itself, with risings by the Catalans in favour of the Archduke Charles, and Anglo-Austrian invasions resulting in the loss of most of eastern Spain, including Madrid and Barcelona. He finally sued for peace, offering to give up his grandson's claim to the Spanish Crown, as well as all of the Spanish Netherlands, if he were allowed to keep the Spanish possessions in Italy. While the Dutch and the Germans were in favour of accepting, he was rejected partly because the Emperor was set on gaining Milan, and also because Marlborough loved the wealth and glory the war brought him, and convinced London to reject the French offer. The resulting French counter-offensive in 1708 cost the allies most of their holdings in Spain and a fresh invasion in Flanders which managed to recapture Ghent for Louis. At the same time, the Duchess of Marlborough's hold on the Queen was slipping, and the Duke's position at court became tenuous. Nevertheless, Marlborough rallied his forces and fell upon the French and defeated them at the Battle of Oudenarde. On July 11, 1708, what was left of the French army retreated into France. Marlborough, reinforced by Eugene's Austrian troops, pursued them, thrusting into France and capturing the northern stronghold of Lille after a long siege (December 9, 1708). Louis was humiliated, even more than in 1706. Yet again he offered terms for peace, but the Allies made impossible demands of him, requiring him to surrender Strasbourg and several border fortresses, as well as guaranteeing to send an army to Spain to evict his own grandson if the latter refused to resign the Spanish crown. Louis could not brook fighting his own blood, and appealed to the nation to stand firm and resist the invaders. His armies were starving and his treasury was empty, but with a mighty effort France answered his call and a new army of nearly 100,000 men under Marshall Villars was collected and sent to relieve Marlborough's siege of Mons. Despite the strong entrenchment of the French, he attacked and defeated them at the Battle of Malplaquet in 1709, though with heavy losses. Consequently, Mons fell, and Marlborough proceeded to lay siege to the fortresses of Artois and French Flanders.

The main entrance to Blenheim Palace
The main entrance to Blenheim Palace

Dismissal from court

However, In 1710, two occurrences brought to an end Marlborough's military exploits and his ascendance at court. Firstly, Queen Anne finally threw off the Duchess of Marlborough entirely, dismissing her from her offices and banishing her from the court. The second was the fall of the Whig Ministry that had so long supported the continuation of the war. Incidentally, the chief Whig minister, Lord Godolphin, was intimately connected to the Churchills. Godolphin's son was married to Churchills daughter. The new Tory ministry began at once to negotiate with France. Marlborough, skillfully bursting through Villars' fortified lines, had just taken Bouchain, and was preparing to advance into Picardy, when he was recalled to England and replaced with the Duke of Ormonde. On his arrival, he was accused of embezzlement, of which he was undoubtedly guilty. Unfortunately his military genius was not matched by a high moral character, and he was known to be exceedingly fond of money. In 1711 It was proven that he accepted a kickback of 2.5% from the Emperor Joseph on all the British subsidies paid to Austria, amounting to the incredible sum of 150,000. He also took bribes amounting to more than 60,000 from contractors that supplied his armies. In vain he acknowledged the sums, and protested that they were proper and usual payments in times of war. His reputation suffered badly, and he retired to the Continent. Britain made peace with France in 1713 with the signing of the celebrated Treaty of Utrecht. The chief legacy of Marlborough's victories was the destruction of French hegemony in Europe.

Return to prominence, and death

The Queen died on August 1, 1714. After the succession of George I, Marlborough returned to England. By that time, the Whigs were once again in office. His reputation was irrevocably damaged from the 1711 revelations of his financial misdeeds, and they refused to serve under him and therefore he was unable to return to power. However, they gave him the lucrative, though nominal, post of Commander-in-Chief. He settled into retirement and spent most of his remaining days working on his new home, Blenheim Palace. At his death in 1722 he had been suffering from paralysis and softening of the brain. Although the duke and duchess moved into the palace, it was not completed until after the duke's death. In 1730, Sarah commissioned a joint tomb for the chapel, and her husband's body was returned there from Westminster Abbey.

Marlborough acquired a notable art collection, which was sold by his descendents in the 19th century to pay off debts.


Marlborough and his wife had five children:

When the Churchills' son John predeceased him, the title was allowed by a special Act of Parliament to pass to his eldest daughter in her own right. The title thus passed to Lady Henrietta Churchill. Lady Anne Churchill, married Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland, and from this marriage descend the modern Dukes of Marlborough.

Before his marriage, Marlborough was also associated with Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland. Her youngest child, Barbara, is assumed by most historians to be Churchill's daughter.

See also

  • John and Sarah Churchill were The First Churchills in the BBC television series with that title.


In Spain Marlborough is remembered in popular culture in a children's song: "Mambr se fue a la guerra, mire usted, mire usted, qu pena..."

Further Reading

  • Winston Churchill, Marlborough, Odhams 1933-6, 4 volumes, subsequently reprinted in 2 volumes.
  • Sir Charles William Chadwic Oman, "History of England", Edward Arnold, Eighth Edition, 1901.
  • Virginia Cowles,The Great Marlborough and his Duchess, Macmillan, 1983.
  • J. R. Jones, Marlborough (British Lives Series), Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Preceded by:
Sir Harbottle Grimston
Master of the Rolls
Succeeded by:
Sir John Trevor
Preceded by:
Commander-in-Chief of the Forces
Succeeded by:
The Duke of Leinster
Preceded by:
The Viscount Villiers
Master of the Horse
Succeeded by:
The Earl of Grantham
Preceded by:
Succeeded by:
The Duke of Ormonde
Preceded by:
The Earl of Romney
Master-General of the Ordnance
Succeeded by:
The Earl Rivers
Preceded by:
The Duke of Ormonde
Succeeded by:
Preceded by:
Master-General of the Ordnance
Succeeded by:
The Earl Cadogan

Template:End box

Preceded by:
New Creation
Duke of Marlborough Succeeded by:
Henrietta Churchill
da:John Churchill

de:John Churchill, 1. Herzog von Marlborough fi:John Churchill ja:マールバラ公ジョン・チャーチル nl:John Churchill sv:John Churchill Marlborough


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