Marlborough: The Improbable Genius

John Churchill Duke of Marlborough battles

He is unfortunately a name that is not likely to be well-known beyond the circles of history students and buffs, but he has often been mentioned as the greatest man to ever command British forces on a field of battle, including by the Duke of Wellington, whose campaigns against Napoleonic France so often overshadow him. Yet it was he who was not only very arguably the better general, but the one who faced the greater challenge on the more decisive stage of history – and seized it with the boldness and supreme confidence that was so typical of his character. In so doing, he made his fortune and won undying glory on the lips of his countrymen. If ever there were a figure that personified the old adage “Fortune Favors the Bold” he is a prime contender.

This status was far from pre-ordained for John Churchill. Born in 1650 to a gentrified but impoverished family, young John came of age in a very unique time in English history. Just the year before, King Charles I was beheaded. The English civil wars established a short-lived republic on the isle. His father, Winston (not to be confused with his famous descendant and namesake) had the bad luck to be on the losing Royalist side of the conflict, and his fortunes were quashed as a result. One thing young John would have learned in his childhood under Oliver Cromwell’s “republic” was that nothing was going to come to him. If he wanted to make something of himself in this seemingly upside-down world, John would have to do so on his own initiative. He was neither born into wealth nor great status, and would have to earn it on his own.

John Churchill 1st Duke of Marlborough
Marlborough at around age 38.

The Middle Years:

Fast forward some time. It is now the fateful year 1688. The monarchy was restored, but it is in crisis once more, as the openly Roman Catholic James II succeeded his brother Charles II on the throne. In a staunchly and increasingly Protestant England, this was unpopular to say the least. Nevertheless, it was in James’ service while he was heir to the throne that John began to carve out a niche for himself. He’d been instrumental in putting down the Monmouth Rebellion against the new king only three years before. However, the winds of revolution were blowing in England once more, and John could sense their direction.

Horrified at the prospect of a Roman Catholic heir succeeding James, an invitation had been sent to William of Orange and his wife Mary (James’ own daughter) to invade and overthrow the King. John, for many years James’ employee, abandoned the patron that got his career started, explaining that his Protestant faith compelled him to make the decision. This may be true to some extent, but it is a certain plausible deniability as well. John was determined not to be on the losing side of history like his father was and made sure that such a scenario did not come to pass. For his actions, William and Mary rewarded John with a new title which would give him a new name. He was now the Earl of Marlborough.

Some might describe Marlborough’s actions as a gross betrayal. They were certainly unscrupulous. However, we can sympathize. The life of every man is going to have numerous crisis points wherein things we value will conflict. Advancement in life or even base self-preservation may test even the closest of friendships. I won’t claim to have all the answers to these situations. What I can tell you is that the road is difficult, and that each man should have a clearly defined set of goals to achieve. No one else is going to live your life for you and you must decide what is important to you – and be willing to live with the consequences of your actions.

While it may seem that Marlborough had it made after 1688, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, life under William and Mary presented a new series of hardships, and his relations with them were not always good, guaranteeing lack of clout. He very often found himself on the outside looking in. Among his setbacks was imprisonment in the Tower. You see, he continued his correspondence with the now-exiled James II, and there was suspicion that he may have been amongst a group of plotters to restore him to the throne. While this plot was later revealed to be a forgery, Marlborough’s situation did not improve. It would instead take another relationship to get him to where he truly wanted to be in life.

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough family
The Marlborough family.

Becoming a Duke:

Long before the previous events, John Churchill married Sarah Jennings, a woman of similar background to himself but would prove monumental for his rise to the pinnacle of society. In her social circle was James II’s younger daughter, Anne, who became Queen after William died in 1702. Their intimate friendship assured Marlborough’s position at a critical time. War was again brewing with Louis XIV’s France, and the coming conflict (the War of the Spanish Succession) would indeed decide the international power structure arguably to this day. Marlborough had served with some distinction in William’s earlier wars, but his rocky relationship with the King assured an ultimately unfulfilling role. Recognizing his talents toward the end of his life, William carefully nudged Marlborough into a position of influence, and Anne promptly confirmed and expanded it. Marlborough was now Captain-General of the English and Allied forces against France, Master General of the Ordnance (a high military rank that was essentially in charge of all logistics), and ambassador extraordinary to the Dutch Republic. A string of victories in 1702 prompted Anne to elevate Marlborough to a Duke.

Marlborough as Soldier and Statesmen:

His elevation did not simply come from his friendship, for Marlborough’s talents were just as extensive on the battlefield and in the mess halls as in the court. He kept his army well-supplied and fed. His relationship with his troops was so good that he was affectionately known among them as “Corporal John” for his constant care and concern for their welfare. He understood very clearly that his men needed to be well treated and fed so that they could always be in optimal fighting condition. This skilled preparation of his army is as much a part of his success as his mastery of marching and fighting and his cunning with strategy and tactics.

During this time Marlborough also proved himself to be an extremely talented negotiator and diplomat, skillfully navigating the complex political situation of the Grand Alliance against France, dealing adroitly with difficult people on a routine basis.

So far, we’ve seen that the ability to take reverses in stride and never lose sight of his goal was vital to Marlborough’s career, indeed, as vital as his vast talents. Many men may have given up after the series of reverses he’d suffered under William and Mary. Now his perseverance (and his social circle) was beginning to pay off. But the ultimate test was still to come, one which would make or break Marlborough for all time. When reading, ask yourself: how would you react?

John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough Blenheim Palace

The Blenheim Campaign:

1704 was the most critical year of the War of the Spanish Succession. Bavaria had allied itself with France, and Louis XIV, old now but still as ambitious as ever, had his sights set on a victory that would guarantee him a position of immense strength. His plan was to use the territory of his new ally and march a combined Franco-Bavarian force to sack Vienna and knock Austria out of the war.

Marlborough knew what the French would attempt, but he had a major problem on his hands. In the Duke of Wellington’s praise of his predecessor, he mentions how Marlborough had Dutch politicians constraining his movements and thus his overall effectiveness. For the Dutch the move made sense. They wanted their army on hand to defend against a French attack, but this situation could have led to a catastrophe in 1704. If Austria were taken out of the war, Louis could concentrate his forces against England and the Dutch, making the situation immensely more dangerous for the latter. Marlborough saw this while most others did not. He knew the utter futility of staying north while the decisive action of the year would be taking place on the Danube. He was now at a crossroads. He could either stay up north and please most of the Dutch authorities, or he could march south to relieve the situation on the Danube. Marching south required Marlborough to take enormous risks. It would be long and arduous, fraught with all the difficulties of logistics and multiple enemy armies to contend with. The march would also be a direct contravention of his orders (to advance no further than the Moselle, as he had agreed with the Dutch authorities), which carried enough risk in itself. If he were to lose, one could expect quite a horrid fate for Marlborough indeed.

However, while lesser men would have seen only risk and likely have stayed behind, fearful of the consequences of defying orders and especially of failure, Marlborough saw an opportunity. He knew that the French would be caught by surprise by his movements (they too, knew what Marlborough was supposed to do). He also knew that if he could defeat Louis’ Franco-Bavarian forces, he could save Austria and deal the French a crushing blow. Indeed, the bigger risk that Marlborough likely saw was doing nothing while the pieces on the board were moving to crush his cause.

John Churchill Duke of Marlborough Blenheim march to the Danube
Marlborough’s march to the Danube

Marlborough began his march toward the Danube in May. Along the way, he met for the first time Prince Eugene of Savoy, who would become his enduring co-commander. Eugene was by all rights at that point Marlborough’s senior as a general. Long feted in the Imperial court, he’d fought both the French and the Ottoman Turks, winning the Battle of Zenta against the latter and inflicting one of the most crushing defeats in history on them. Jealousy can often be seen between rival commanders in military history, and it could have been easy for anyone to be jealous of such an accomplished partner, fearing diminution of one’s own reputation and glory. Instead, Marlborough treated Eugene with complete courtesy and respect, and the two cultivated a close professional and personal relationship. The result was one of the most formidable teams in military history, and the French would be its victim.

Two months after their first meeting, Marlborough and Eugene won the Battle of Blenheim. The Franco-Bavarian forces were shattered: suffering over 30,000 casualties with 13,000 captured, including one of the French field marshals. Throughout the entirety of the campaign Marlborough never ceded the initiative, and now it paid off in dividends. Blenheim was the greatest triumph of English arms since Agincourt 300 years before, and from that point forward France was on the ropes. It is more due to politics that a crushing victory in the war wasn’t achieved.

Duke of Marlborough Eugene of Savoy Blenheim
Marlborough greets Eugene after their victory at Blenheim.

Marlborough had at last attained his aristeiahis great moment of glory. More victories- and more hardships would follow, but Marlborough had reached the pinnacle of his life. He was 54 years old.

Duke of Marlborough Equestrian

There are some final notes that readers will take to heart: the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, was a notoriously cantankerous and difficult woman to deal with. Indeed, this is why her friendship with Anne deteriorated during Marlborough’s later career. She made many powerful enemies in her long lifetime. Despite this, John maintained Sarah’s complete affections, and in an age where promiscuity among high-status women was by no means uncommon (the Duke and Duchess’ own daughter engaged in an extramarital affair, for instance) there are no suspicions of Sarah seeking out another man. She was utterly devoted to her husband (and he to her), and may have lost favor with the Queen due to her adamant support of his undertakings. This alone speaks volumes as to his character as a man.

Aside from all of this, Marlborough showed a remarkable degree of stoicism. In a career marred and held back more from the duplicity, incompetence, and cravenness of most of those he had to work with, Marlborough could have easily been frustrated, given up, thrown tantrums or brought his own cause down just to see his enemies succumb.

Instead, Marlborough took it all patiently. His degree of self-control was one of the most vital aspects of his success in life. The great military historian J.F.C. Fuller wrote of him:

Courageous and patient, he possessed what so few men of genius are endowed with – the ability to suffer fools gladly. Nothing unbalanced him, whether it was the stupidity of his allies, the duplicity of the politicians, or the ability of his enemies.

That stoicism, combined with his remarkable strength and fortitude, are the two keys that make great men.

Lessons from the Duke of Marlborough:

  1. The great moment will more likely than not, fail to come to you. You need to seize it. The initiative is your ultimate ally. Unless you are born wealthy, your fortune will not make itself.
  2. Have your goals in life and achieve them. Be prepared to accept the consequences of your choices along the way, for you may need to make harsh decisions.
  3. Persevere. Life will give you many reverses of fortune. You can’t achieve your aristeia if you give up.
  4. You must be willing to take risks (when appropriate and necessary, of course). Greatness doesn’t come without risk. Doing nothing is the biggest risk of all, as it means letting something else dictate your life- a sure marker on the road to mediocrity.
  5. The cultivation of enduring friendship is vital, both for happiness and fulfilling success. As Marlborough showed with Eugene (and vice-versa), high-status, valuable men do not get jealous of other valuable men. They complement each other. You won’t maximize your own potential without others helping you along the way. While Marlborough and Eugene were both military geniuses with astounding solo successes, they achieved far more together than either could have accomplished alone.
  6. Your social circle will make or break you.
  7. Preparation is by far the greatest part of victory. You, and those working under you, must be in optimal condition to win at all times. This will earn you their affection and grant your banner victory and glory.
  8. You must learn to patiently deal with foolish and incompetent, but nevertheless influential people who will do all they can to hold you back. Your emotions must be kept in check as you do what you can to satiate and outmaneuver them.
  9. It is never too late to become a great, valuable man. Marlborough reached his aristeia when he was 54 years old. Many people at that time didn’t even live that long. It is only too late when your mind is gone or when your corpse is burned or buried.

Note: This article originally appeared in the archive on July 29th, 2013.