John Churchill was born at Ashe House in Devon on 26th May 1650. His father, Winston, became impoverished after supporting the Royalist cause during the English Civil Wars. Despite these humble beginnings, John Churchill would come to serve five monarchs during his lifetime and witness the beginnings of British global power.
Since his father was on the losing side of the English Civil War, the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 brought with it new fortunes. Winston was elected Member of Parliament for Weymouth and received rewards for losses during the War. He remained however, far from prosperous. John was sent to school firstly in Dublin and later at Saint Paul’s School whilst his sister, Arabella, became Maid of Honour to Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, sister-in-law of Charles II. John Churchill joined his sister at court as a page to James, Duke of York, the King’s brother in 1665.
In 1667, John Churchill received a commission to join the King’s Own Company which would later become the Grenadier Guards. His early military career saw him travel to Charles II’s wife, Catherine of Braganza’s dowry territories in North Africa. He also fought the Dutch at Solebay and Maastricht where he gained recognition for formidable bravery and was personally commended by Louis XIV of France. On one of his returns to London in 1671 and according to John’s biographer and descendant, Sir Winston L. S. Churchill, he had a liaison with Charles II’s mistress, Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland before returning to sea in 1672. Despite English withdrawal from the Franco-Dutch War in 1674, Churchill continued to serve with the French in the Low Countries.
Churchill finally returned to the Royal Court in 1675 and began to court Sarah Jennings whom he married sometime in the winter of 1677-1678 according to his biographer. They had seven children between 1679-1690.
In 1678, a new coalition of Anglo-Dutch forces were marshalled against France in order to curb the power of Louis XIV. Churchill’s travels to the Netherlands brought him into contact with William, Prince of Orange (the future William III of England, Scotland and Ireland) who was reportedly impressed with Churchill’s diplomatic and military skills. The proposed war however, did not take place due to Charles II backing out and instead, Churchill returned again to London where his patron, James, Duke of York was facing trumped up charges of conspiring to bring Catholicism back to England. Between late 1678-1682, the Duke of York was exiled to the Low Countries and eventually to Edinburgh, joined by Churchill.
Churchill’s return to Court life in 1682 and was given the task of escorting George, Prince of Denmark to England to marry the Duke of York’s daughter, Anne (later Queen Anne). Princess Anne quickly appointed Churchill’s wife, Sarah to her inner circle, they being friends ever since childhood.
In 1685, Charles II, after an almost 25 year reign which had earned its special place in history, died. His brother, James, Duke of York immediately became James II of England and VII of Scotland. John Churchill also immediately saw the benefits by being granted a seat in the House of Lords and appointed Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a fur trading business still in existence today! The new James II and VII was however, a Catholic and soon, Charles II’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, rebelled against King James in order to claim the Crown for himself. Churchill’s role in the Monmouth Rebellion was not as major as his future victories but he was nonetheless at the Battle of Sedgemoor which saw the rebellion crushed and he was made a Major General.
Churchill’s most significant political moves would come during the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ (some call it the Dutch Invasion) when, feeling his own religion undermined, as an Anglican Protestant but also for self-interest, he left King James’s service at the easiest opportunity after William, Prince of Orange landed in England in 1688. Even James II’s daughters deserted him: Mary married William of Orange and Anne openly encouraged defections to the Orangist of which Churchill eventually did. When King James fled London, William entered and both he and his wife had their Coronation in 1689 and became known as William III and Mary II as a joint monarchy. At the Coronation honours, Churchill was made Earl of Marlborough. There has been some criticism of Churchill because of his treachery in leaving James II as he owed much of his life and career to him. Nevertheless, in times of political upheaval, allegiances can quickly change.
The new Earl of Marlborough soon found himself in a new coalition against Louis XIV between 1689-1697 and gained approval and recognition from his European contemporaries for his organisation and skills. However, during the 1690s, the Marlborough family’s increasing closeness with Princess Anne brought with it suspicions from the joint monarchs William and Mary. Churchill was refused the prestigious Order of the Garter and began to challenge William III’s authority in Parliament. Churchill, since the defeat of James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, had been in contact with the exiled King and sought a pardon for deserting him. The reasons for this is more of an insurance policy in case James II regained the throne which was not entirely unlikely at the time. William III was aware of this. Queen Mary in 1692, ordered Princess Anne to dismiss Lady Sarah Churchill but refused and John was relieved of all his duties without explanation and was imprisoned in the Tower of London based on forged letters representing treason. After five weeks, his innocence was proved and he was released. His son, Charles had died during his imprisonment.
In 1694, Mary II died and there was some rapprochement between William III and Princess Anne, now heir to the throne. This allowed the Marlboroughs to return to Court albeit without many duties. It was not until 1698 that John would receive a significant post. He was given the Governorship to Anne’s eldest son, The Duke of Gloucester and he was restored to the Privy Council.
It was the beginning of the 18th Century in which Marlborough would excel. In 1700, the Spanish King, Charles II died and bequeathed his entire Kingdom and Empire to Louis XIV’s grandson, Philip thereby uniting the French and Spanish Crowns, something unacceptable to England, the Netherlands and the Habsburgs. In 1701, an alliance was formed between the three but in 1702, William III died, leaving Anne to succeed as Queen. This served the Marlboroughs extremely well and John was appointed to high military positions and would conduct the War of the Spanish Succession as overall Commander of Coalition forces.
In 1703, the Earl of Marlborough was appointed a Duke after successfully capturing several towns from the French in the Low Countries. Unfortunately, for the Churchill dynasty, John’s eldest son died whilst at the University of Cambridge after a bout of smallpox which left the Marlboroughs in the deepest of sorrow and without an heir to the Dukedom.
In late 1703, the Habsburgs were facing a three front war against Bavaria, France and Hungarian rebels and were in danger of being knocked out of the War. The Duke of Marlborough sought to aid the Austrians and initiated his most famous campaigns on the Continent. On 13th August 1704, Marlborough crushed a Franco-Bavarian army near Blindheim in Bavaria, thus protecting Vienna from occupation. Considered his greatest victory, Queen Anne granted Marlborough in 1705, the right to construct a house in Oxfordshire. This house would become Blenheim Palace, finally constructed in 1733, as a gift from a grateful nation.
The Duke of Marlborough’s next major engagement took place at Ramillies in the Low Countries in 1706 which routed the French Army and enabled the conquest of many Dutch towns. Marlborough’s successes on the Continent was in contrast to the domestic politics of England where his wife, the Duchess of Marlborough was becoming increasingly estranged from his childhood friend, Queen Anne. They had political differences, the Duchess being a Whig and the Queen a staunch Tory. John’s return to England after Ramillies resulted in Parliament allowing his lands and titles to be succeeded by his male and female descendants, thus solving his own succession problems for his Dukedom. Nevertheless, his family’s influence with the Queen was rapidly deteriorating and he returned to the field achieving victory at Oudenaarde in 1708 and Malplaquet in 1709, pushing the French out of the Low Countries and besieging Lille with his friend and co-Commander, Prince Eugene of Savoy. Malplaquet however, had seen high casualties and his enemies used this against him. Negotiations took place in 1710 for peace but Marlborough felt this unacceptable and his wife, Sarah, was dismissed in 1711 by the Queen, The Duke was dismissed months later due to his opposition to peace with France.
Marlborough, witnessing England implode into political turmoil, left for the Continent in 1712 for Vienna where his wife joined him in 1713. He accompanied the Habsburg armies and the Marlboroughs were eventually called back to the now Kingdom of Great Britain in 1714 and upon landing in Britain, Queen Anne had died. He held several offices at the new Hanoverian Court of George I (Anne’s successor) and played a part in suppressing the First Jacobite Rebellion of 1715. In late 1715, the Duke suffered a series of debilitating strokes and he and his wife finally left for Blenheim Palace (still under construction) where he died on 16th June 1722. He was initially buried at Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey but at his wife, Sarah’s death in 1744, his body was placed next to hers at a vault in Blenheim.
John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough was no doubt one of the greatest military commanders of his time. Blenheim and Ramillies being his greatest victories. Marlborough was an incredibly ambitious man who indeed sought position and wealth and was an opportunist (alongside others of his time) during the upheavals of 1688-1689. Nonetheless, his legacy still lives on at the magnificent Blenheim Palace, where his descendant and biographer, Winston Churchill would also lead Britain through a War which earned him a place alongside his great ancestor.