John Churchill: Britain's greatest ever general?

History journalist, Andrew Southam, puts the spotlight on 1st Duke of Marlborough whose 300 year celebrations take place at Blenheim at the end of July.
Blenheim Palace (photo: P Seaward DJI)Blenheim Palace (photo: P Seaward DJI)
Blenheim Palace (photo: P Seaward DJI)

A lover in the royal Stuart household but later loyal husband, a captain who became a general, a ‘commoner’ who became a duke and probably Britain’s greatest soldier-statesman.

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), defeated nearly all the French generals especially at his 1704 Blenheim victory.

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Britain’s only private palace, the duke’s Blenheim home in Oxfordshire, commemorates his death 300 years ago on 30th and 31st July.

A portrait painting of 1st Duke of Marlborough (photo: Blenheim Park Trust)A portrait painting of 1st Duke of Marlborough (photo: Blenheim Park Trust)
A portrait painting of 1st Duke of Marlborough (photo: Blenheim Park Trust)

This pageant brings John Churchill’s story to life through historical re-enactments including Charles II’s horse races, cavalry charges and 17th century food, music and games.

Marlborough is a figure of controversy and colour.

Born to civil war politician Winston Churchill in 1650, he became a page to James, Duke of York, Charles II’s younger brother, thanks to his sister Arabella, who was the duke’s mistress.

John, a handsome man at court, bedded the King’s own mistress Barbara Villiers who bore him a child. He even charmed Villiers out of £5000 which she described as ‘much for very little service’!

Blenheim tapestry (photo: Blenheim Park Trust)Blenheim tapestry (photo: Blenheim Park Trust)
Blenheim tapestry (photo: Blenheim Park Trust)
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Court patronage helped him make junior officer in the Grenadier Guards.

And he married Sarah Jennings in 1677, unusually for love not dowry, frustrating his father who preferred other candidates. Susan was close to princess Anne (later Queen Anne) and recently portrayed by Rachel Weisz in the 2018 film The Favourite.

John was also close to the Duke of York, both nearly dying together aboard HMS Gloucester, which ran aground in Yarmouth in 1682. Other noblemen perished.

When James became king in 1685 and threatened protestant England with catholic policies, John commanded the infantry suppressing a rebellion. He became a major general and baron as reward.

Blenheim Palace Estate (photo: P Seaward DJI)Blenheim Palace Estate (photo: P Seaward DJI)
Blenheim Palace Estate (photo: P Seaward DJI)
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But Churchill grew uncomfortable with James’ passionate Catholicism and surprisingly switched sides. He now supported Dutch protestant Prince William of Orange who invaded England in 1688.

He wrote James an apology: “I hope the great advantage I enjoy under Your Majesty, which I own I would never expect in any other change of government, may reasonably convince Your Majesty and the world that I am actuated by a higher principle”

James fled to France. William and Mary became King and Queen in the Glorious Revolution.

Churchill became Earl of Marlborough in turn but couldn’t shake off rumours of deserting James for profit.

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He nonetheless commanded Britain’s campaign in the coalition against Louis XIV’s France. (The first female soldier, Christian Davies, served in his army masquerading as a man).

However, relations deteriorated with William III who didn’t trust Marlborough’s loyalty.

Remarkably, he maintained contact with the previous king he had betrayed in case of a comeback.

Indeed, fears that Marlborough was plotting with France to restore the Stuart kings caused his dismissal and five weeks in the Tower of London in 1692.

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A cool reconciliation followed after Queen Mary died in 1694: the Marlboroughs retained their political influence through Princess Anne.

Fears of France taking over the continent during the Spanish War of Succession, 1701-13, saw Marlborough become commander of the English army.

William died in 1702 allowing Marlborough’s patron Princes Anne to become Queen. Anne appointed him Captain-General and elevated his wife to new heights at court.

The Marlboroughs were the country’s new power couple!

He defeated France in a series of engagements, including Blenheim with outnumbered forces and even captured their commander.

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Anne elevated him to Duke in 1702 and afterwards granted him lands in Woodstock where he started building his palace in 1705.

Architects Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor designed the building and Capability Brown the grounds.

Marlborough won more battles between 1706 and 1709 stopping French expansion across Europe.

But home politics changed his fortune. His latest victory cost twice the number of French casualties helping his growing enemies in London.

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A new government wanted peace to restore British finances and Sarah had fallen out with Queen Anne. Rumours surfaced that Marlborough prolonged conflict for personal profit.

His final major victory in 1711 couldn’t prevent his downfall.

Just as he turned against James II, Queen Anne turned against her chief general, dismissing him over corruption allegations.

Criticised by his enemies and facing ruin for Blenheim’s expenses, Marlborough moved abroad: though still in contact with James II’s supporters called Jacobites.

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Queen Anne died in August 1714 the very day he returned for another reconciliation.

Hanoverian George I became king.

Incredibly, the Hanoverians reconciled with Marlborough and used him to beat the first Jacobite rebellion of 1715!

Aging and suffering strokes, he then returned to unfinished Blenheim dying in June 1722, Sarah and two surviving daughters by his side.

Historians continue to debate the duke’s sincerity while largely commending his military prowess and diplomatic skills.

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Marlborough certainly proved an inspiration for family descendent Winston Spencer Churchill, born at Blenheim, who defended the duke’s reputation.

And just as the duke served five monarchs, Churchill’s life straddled another five from Queen Victoria to George VI!

Pageant details can be found at Marlborough 300 Pageant – July 30-31, 2022 (