That other great Churchill

John Childs reacquaints himself with one of our country's most revered military men

July 17, 2008


A tutor once said, half in jest, that the only interesting new book on the first Duke of Marlborough would be one that said he was no good, but such a radical reappraisal of the years of greatness between 1702 and 1712 is probably possible only by writing from a Dutch, German and Austrian perspective. Ivor Burton indicated a route forward in 1968 but the road has not been followed.

To the British, Marlborough remains a highly competent, indeed innovative soldier, who combined the talents of diplomat, politician, manager, strategist and battlefield general. Superior to nearly all his contemporaries during the War of the Spanish Succession, only Prince Eugene of Savoy and Hector Villars approached this level of professionalism and expertise, his tactical and strategic legacy of offensive action and decision through battle endured for over a century. All of this, of course, has been said many, many times before, most recently by Correlli Barnett, David Chandler and James Jones, so Richard Holmes needs an interpretative "angle".

In the first place, he has digested and incorporated much of the recent, revisionist historiography of Marlborough's earlier career, especially his role in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and subsequent dallyings with Jacobitism.

Secondly, Holmes emphasises Marlborough's fragility. A parvenu from the middling gentry impoverished by the Civil Wars, he acquired a dukedom through royal favour, although the honour was subsequently justified by achievement, and was never comfortable within the milieu of the upper aristocracy.

Conscious of the value of every penny, neither Marlborough, nor his greedy, grasping wife Sarah, was ever at ease in a world where wealth was taken for granted. Health was another frailty. The strains of high command induced migraines and, from as early as 1703, he talked repeatedly of his wish to lay aside high office and retire.

In addition to his fiscal, medical and social difficulties, Marlborough was politically insecure and utterly dependent upon favour and patronage - first from James II, then a reluctant and suspicious William III and, finally, Queen Anne - to create the opportunities through which his talents might shine. Above all, he retained his commands only through the continuance of the close relationship between Anne and the ill-tempered, menopausal Sarah: when that failed irrecoverably after 1708, the end was in sight.

Perhaps Marlborough's greatest fragility was the fact that he was English, the son of a nation that did not, and still does not, value the military. Following a run of successes, Marlborough's maladroit request to be appointed captain-general for life in 1709 smacked of Cromwell, James II and rule by standing army, and it tarnished his reputation among contemporaries.

Holmes's Marlborough offers specialists in the period little that is new, although some i's are dotted and t's are crossed: for instance, he suggests that the weakness in the Franco-Bavarian defences on the Schellenberg was discovered by accident and that the victories between 1704 and 1709 were both personal and political as well as strategic necessities.

Readers coming to Marlborough for the first time or refreshing an acquaintance will find a modern, up-to-date "life and times" written in a jaunty style, although references to current events may cause the book to date rather quickly.

Those who enjoyed Holmes's earlier works Redcoat, Soldiers and Dusty Warriors will know what to expect.

Marlborough: England's Fragile Genius

By Richard Holmes

Harper Press, 512pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780007225712

Published 5 May 2008

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