John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough

by | 25 Jun 2012 | Leaders from History


John Churchill, the ancestor of Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, rose from relative obscurity to become the first Duke of Marlborough and one of the richest men in England. He served five monarchs (Charles II, James II, William & Mary, Anne) during one of the most turbulent periods in British history, betraying one master (the Catholic James II) when he changed sides at the decisive moment to support the Protestant William of Orange. Churchill was one of life’s great survivors. He personifies the kind of leader whose sharp wits, great achievements and consummate diplomatic skills enable them to survive a number of career-threatening (or, in Churchill’s case, life-threatening) regime changes and to emerge, unscathed, established and respected, when a number of their less sure-footed colleagues have fallen by the wayside.

A page at the court of King Charles II

Churchill’s father had supported the Royalist cause in the English Civil War, and been heavily fined by the victorious Parliamentarians for his pains. When Charles II was restored to the throne, he rewarded his impoverished supporter with a minor government position and took his young son, John, to court as page to Charles’s younger brother, James – the man who would become King James II and whom Churchill would both loyally serve and, later, desert.

As a young man at court, Churchill had an affair with one of Charles’s several mistresses, the beautiful Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland. This was unwise, as it could have cost Churchill the good opinion (to say the least) of the man who was both his monarch and his patron. Charles is said to have surprised Churchill and Barbara in bed together. Churchill pleaded, with obvious success, for their forgiveness and Charles, with the admirable tolerance of a man who never pretended that his own moral conduct was entirely above reproach, forgave them both and declared Churchill to be ‘a rascal.’

Villiers was to give the handsome young Churchill the equally handsome sum of £5,000 – enabling Churchill to buy a commission in the Guards and to embark on the military career that would make his fortune.

If you have at some point in your life visited Blenheim Palace in the Royal manor of Woodstock, Oxfordshire – the huge estate granted to Churchill by a grateful nation – and gazed up at the 41 metre Column of Victory in the palace’s beautiful grounds then you may, like me, have struggled to grasp the significance of the victory at Blenheim that resulted in such splendour for Churchill and his wife. Where is Blenheim? Who were we fighting and when? Why was it so important?

The Glorious Revolution

Churchill’s old boss became James II of England on the death of Charles. James, however, entirely lacked his brother’s easy charm and careful pragmatism. Charles had insisted that James’s two daughters by his first marriage should be raised as Protestants: Mary was later to marry the Protestant (and Dutch) William of Orange. William was himself an heir to the English throne: he and Mary shared the same grandfather, the executed Charles I, father of Charles and James. William and his wife were therefore cousins, and William’s father-in law, James, was also his uncle. All clear so far?

James’s first wife had died; James unwisely married the Catholic Mary of Modena who, even more unwisely, produced a son – a Catholic heir to the English throne. In 1688, a group of influential Protestants invited William of Orange to invade England, seize the throne, and rule the country with his wife Mary, James’s daughter, in James’s stead. The king’s army met William’s invading force at Salisbury; James suffered one of the nosebleeds to which he was prone and took this to be a bad omen; his commander, Lord Feversham, urged a retreat. James’s old supporter and most able soldier, Lieutenant-General John Churchill, quietly slipped over to the invaders’ side with four hundred officers and men. James fled to France. William and Mary reigned as joint monarchs; England’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ had been accomplished.

William and Mary never quite trusted Churchill. At one point he was imprisoned in the Tower of London on a charge of high treason, suspected of plotting to restore James to the throne. The nimble Marlborough was exonerated; after the death of William, and later of Mary, he rose again to fame under the rule of Mary’s sister, Queen Anne. War was brewing in Europe.

The reason North America isn’t French?

The king of Spain had died childless and left his throne to a grandson of Louis XIV of France (the ‘Sun King’). This new king of Spain would also be heir to the French throne, raising the alarming prospect of a united France and Spain.  Britain and her allies on the continent found themselves at war with the mighty Louis XIV. Churchill – by now the Duke of Marlborough – carried out a logistically brilliant and strategically deceptive march into Germany to support the British ally, Austria, against the invading French. The decisive battle (at Blenheim, in Bavaria) prevented what could have been French dominance of Europe. Had Churchill not won the battle, the future of Europe might have been very different: a united France and Spain could have become the dominant European power; France might well have retained control of Canada in the later ‘Seven Years War’ – and also of the lands that she claimed to the east of the Mississippi. The American War of Independence might still have happened, but the young United States of America might well have fallen to overwhelming French power in the region.

John Churchill is featured in Section 5 of History Lessons: Bringing People with You

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