Life of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough

John Churchill, also known as the First Duke of Marlborough was a strategy genius of the Allied (Anglo-Dutch) forces in the War of the Spanish Succession. He leaded the combined forces in every major battles; his battle-seeker tactics made him the predecessor of Napoleon and the historiography examined him in that way. The way he informed Queen Anne about his victory is classy: “I have not time to say more but to beg you will give my duty to the Queen, and let her know her Army has had a glorious victory”. Why is it so special? He wrote this to his wife, Sarah, not his Queen…

Early Years

John Churchill was born on June 5th 1650 in Ashe from the father Sir Winston Churchill and Mary (Elisabeth) Drake. We don’t have much information about his youth: he was attended St. Paul’s School and his favourite reading was De Re Militaria from Vegetius. After that he joined the Grenadier Guards (in other source: Foot Guards) in 1667 September and served in Tanger to fight against the Moors in the next two years. There he served at the fleet in various ships and it was obvious he would join the Navy. After his marriage with Sarah Jennings (1677), the young John became well-known in the court, mostly on Tory side.

He was sent with Duke of Monmouth to France to fight against the Dutch in 1672 as the commander of the Grenadier Company (six thousand people). In the next five years, he learnt the basics of warfare from the best military strategist of his time (Turenne) and fought many battles as well (Battle of Entzheim, Siege of Maastricht), once saved the Duke’s life.

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough
Artist: John Closterman

The changing diplomatic environment took Churchill to the Dutch side to negotiate with William of Orange. From that on he served as a secret agent between Louis XIV of France, Charles II and Duke of York. He became a trusted member of the Stuart court, as they gave Churchill important missions like the suppression of the Monmouth Rebellion (1685). Surprisingly in 1688 he changed sides and joined William’s cause. They gave him the job to reorganize the army which was fought against France (Nine Years War, 1688-1697). In the next four years he was commuted between the Dutch and the rebelling Irish frontiers winning battle on each side (1689: Battle of Walcourt; 1690: Battle of the Boyne). After the latter victory he was created to the “Earl of Marlborough”. Even though he saved the kingdom and the throne several times, the King did not seemed happy with his performance as an royal politician. In 1692 he was dismissed from all his offices and later arrested and locked in the Tower. The main reason was his old links with the king James II and William’s court suspected him in treason. He was allowed to return to court three years later and after that he was appointed guardian to the heir-apparent Duke of Gloucester. After he and Queen Mary died (1695), William and Churchill became partners because of the constitutional problems of the succession (Anne had no direct heir). On 1702 25 December he made a Duke with a pension of 5000 pounds per year.

Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
The military genius

After his relief by William III of Orange, he was send to the Netherlands to gain the control of the combined Anglo-Dutch forces at the age of 52. The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) raged across the Western part of Europe, including the France, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, Bavaria. The military campaigns were fought from the French-Dutch frontline in Flanders, in Bavaria (to 1704) and in Italy as well, not to mention the Spanish field operations and the naval operations. The major battles of this conflict (Blenheim, 1704; Ramillies, 1706, Malplaquet, 1709;) was fought and won by Marlborough, defeating the French opponents.

In 1704 he turned the tide of the war within two months. The operation had two separate parts, as the great “March to the Danube” and the Battle of Blenheim (in German sources named after the town Höchstadt). There is a debate in the historical literature about the “mastermind” behind this operation: Marlborough himself or the Imperial council (with Count Wratislaw and Eugene). Either way, we do not want to decide the argument in this article, but we have to mention the fact that the British army had several options to attack the French-Spanish army, but Marlborough took the risk and moved to save the Imperial capital of Vienna instead. Nevertheless with his victory at Blenheim he kept the Holy Roman Empire in the war to fight together against France.

In his famous march he leaded nearly 20 thousand men (infantry, cavalry, artillery) from the Flanders to Bavaria without suffer great losses. There he fought the Bavarian troops at Schellenberg and later that Marlborough joined his forces with Eugene near Blenheim. The united French-Bavarian troops (leaded by Tallard) had to follow Marlborough there, where they lacked information, supplies and personnel as well. They did not want to risk a battle, so they camped three town with artillery and most of the infantry (Lützingern, Oberglau and Blenheim) leaving the cavalry in the centre. Marlborough’s plan was to attack and capture the enemy’s right flank in Blenheim in order to outflanked the French troops. From the tactical view it was a failure at the beginning: the British attack on Blenheim stopped as French reinforcement held the line, leaving the centre weak. With ordered Eugene on the right flank to halt the Bavarian advance, Marlborough ordered the entire army (left flank) to attack the weakened French centre and won. By the time of 7 p.m., Tallard was capture and the rest of the French-Bavarian was scattered and withdrew from the battlefield. The village of Blenheim hold to 9 p. m. as it nearly burnt down. The Allied force had won and Marlborough gained his objectives.

The Duke of Marlborough accepts the French surrender at Blenheim, 1704
Artist: Lambert de Hondt, Judocus de Vos

But it was that simple? There is a small quarrel in the literature about this shocking victory (because that was the first time when the French field army capitulate). Marlborough did not follow the classic basics of warfare, because he sought the battle, not to manoeuvring from it, taking a great risk of his army. This is why we can call him a plunger: he fought a well-trained, digged in enemy in a better position in order to get his vision of war done. Although there are some evidence prove else. Some author suggested that Marlborough used the attack on Blenheim a decay to lure the French troops into the city and then attack the weakened centre between Blenheim and Oberglau. They mentioned that he and Eugene observed the French order of battle from a church tower earlier that day and they planned this attack. Either way, Marlborough took the risk and defeated the French-Bavarian forces, saved Vienna and took the pressure elsewhere from the Flanders.

After the disappointing military season of 1705, Marlborough tried to take the war to Italy (where the Emperor Leopold I and Eugene was fighting) to make the decision there but Louis XIV had something else for him. To gain better position in the peace treaty he ordered Villeroy to attack Spanish Netherlands as they believed that the Allies were planning the siege of Namur. On 23 May 1706 the two armies crossed each other by accident: the two commanders ordered into line-of-battle right away and waited for the first move. Both armies were quite the same in numbers (60, 000 troops each side) but Marlborough had more cannons and the terrain was on his side too. After several times risked his life in cavalry charges he managed to make hidden moves from the French and get tactical advantage in the centre, concentrating his troops about 6 p.m. Villeroy was late as Marlborough’s army advanced he could not make a new defensive line in the rear and his position were overran by Allied troops. After this victory Marlborough captured several key positions in Flanders (Antwerp, Dunkirk, Menin, Dendermonde, Ath). The casualties were high on the French side: at least 13,000 had fallen and half of Villeroy’s army was last due to desertation and surrenders while Marlborough lost only about 4000 men.

The Pursuit of the French after the Battle of Ramillies
Artist: Possibly Louis Laguerre

In 1708 Marlborough and Eugene defeated another French general (Vendôme) in the battle of Oudenarde (11 July). The French troops ­ leaded by Duke of Burgundy (Louis XIV’s grandson) ­ prepared to renew the battle in the Flanders with 100,000 troops. On the other side the Allies were about to took the momentum in Flanders as they ordered Eugene to join Marlborough’s ranks in the Flanders. The French did not captured the Allied town of Oudenarde (just blockaded it) before Marlborough arrived with his force (mostly cavalry). This battle was not a classic 18th century one: the troops were deployed on route as they arrived the scene. The bloody infantry fighting on the Allied right side, Marlborough showed his cool head tactician skills: he ordered the newly arrived troops there to assist Eugene while he moved on the left with the rest. As the victory was assured he ordered the cavalry to pursuit the French troops, but the onset of night and the heavy rain ceased the attacks.

The Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Oudenaarde (1708)
Author: JWootton

Malplaquet was his last but unusually victory. The classic “Marlboroughian” way of engagement (attacking and luring the flank than attack the weakened centre) failed in the French general Villars, who ordered to fortify the centre with cannons. In this battle Marlborough showed his true skills of tactician as kept the cavalry and infantry together to push the advancing French counterparts several times. Although the numbers shows the difference: as calculation we can see that the Allied army had more men than the French one, around 90 thousand on each side. The fierce French resistance bought this Pyrrhic victory to the Allies as they could not harassed and pursue the retreating army. On the other side Villars was hit in the knee my a musket, later fainted and carried away and his second-in-command Boufflers took his stand as the leader. There is no “if” in history – but it is tempting the put the question to this personnel change: what would happen if Villars stayed in his position and fight the Allied army from Malplaquet? They would relieve Mons from Allied siege (September) and defend the Vauban-line once more and made Marlborough a fallen knight of the Empire.

Engraving of the Battle of Tanieres (Malplaquet) 1709
Author: Claude Du Bosc, after Louis Laguerre
The retirement and exile

Even though he pushed the French army back to the famous “Vauban-line” (called Non Plus Ultra, or Ne Plus Ultra “nothing further is possible). But the war raged on with little spirit: both coalition sought for peace, but the Allied forces had the upper hand quite some time. In late 1711 he accused in “financial irregularities” over bread-contracts  and payment issues. Even though he said that the latter was granted by William before but his political enemies want him out of the court. We can find rumours about the Queen’s letter: it was so insulting to Marlborough that he had pitched straight into the fire.

According to Haythornwaite, Marlborough’s last years were marked with failing health and sadness and his wife’s bad personality. After dismissed again from the court in 1711-1712 (31 December – 1 January) he left England to the Netherlands. As Winston Churchill put it out: “In England, he was a prey. In Europe he was a prince”. He died on 16 June 1722 at four o’clock in the morning beside Sarah and their children, without a male heir.

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough
Author: Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt and studio

Marlborough was the most famous British general of the 18th century, his reputation deals with Wellington. His military genius is testified on many battlefields in the late 17th and early 18th century, learnt from the best advisors of his time. On the battlefield he proved his capable of dealing with the unbeatable French forces, forced them to retreat several times. Although his actions caused surprise because his mastermind had different vision of warfare as we can find in the books. At Blenheim and Ramillies he made fake attacks on the flanks in order to concentrate his combined forces in the centre and lure the enemy to the threatened positions. He was the true leader of the combined Anglo-Dutch and many more princes’ army but he failed as a politician due to internal affairs. He was famous for as a diplomatic negotiator in the beginning, but he could not be there to sign the treaty of the war he won.


Falkner, James: Blenheim, 1704. Battle Story. Stroud, 2014.

Haythornthwaite, Philip J: Invincible Generals. Firebird Books, 1991.

Holmes, Richard: Marlborough. England’s Fragile Genius. London, 2008.

Kearsey, Alexander H. C.: Marlborough and his campaigns, 1702-1709. 2. ed. Aldershot, 1960

MacFarlane, Charles: A life of Marlborough. London, 1852.

Saintsbury, George: Marlborough. New York, 1886.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.