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War of the Spanish Succession: John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough


War of the Spanish Succession: John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough by Adriaen van der Werff

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Early Life of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough:

The son of Sir Winston Churchill and his wife Elizabeth, John Churchill was born at Ashe House in Devon on May 26, 1650 (O.S.). As a Royalist officer in the English Civil War, John's father was forced to pay recompense to the victorious Parliamentary forces leaving the family nearly destitute. Taken in by his grandmother, Lady Eleanor Drake, who had backed Parliament in the conflict, John spent his first ten years in relative poverty in a household rife with political tensions. With the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, his father's fortunes improved as he moved through several civil service posts.

Educated at the Dublin Free School and later St. Paul's School in London, John was appointed to be a page to James, Duke of York in 1665. A noted military leader, James exposed Churchill to army and navy matters developing a passion in his young aide. Pursuing this interest, he obtained a commission as an ensign in the King's Own Company, 1st Guards on September 14, 1667. Posted to Tangier for three years, he returned to England in 1671. Reunited with James, he served aboard the duke's flagship at the Battle of Solebay the following year.

A Rapid Rise:

Performing heroically, Churchill was promoted to captain in the Lord High Admiral's Regiment. Continuing to fight the Dutch, Churchill was present at the siege of Maastricht. Taking part in desperate assault on the fortress, he was again commended for his actions and rescued the Duke of Monmouth during the fighting. In April 1674, he was appointed to the colonelcy of an English regiment in French service. Serving under Marshal Vicomte de Turenne, Churchill developed his skills as a commander and earned the "esteem and confidence" of the French leader.

Politics & Intrigue:

Returning home in 1675, Churchill married Sarah Jennings, one of the Duchess of York's Maids of Honor, during the winter of 1767/8. Following a diplomatic mission to The Hague in which he distinguished himself, he was compelled to follow James to Scotland as the Catholic duke was sparring with those who wished to prevent his eventual ascension to the throne. In 1682, Charles succeeded in defeating the exclusionists and James returned to London. For his loyalty, Churchill was raised to Baron of Eyemouth in the Scottish peerage and made colonel of King's Own Royal Regiment of Dragoons.

In July 1683, Churchill was dispatched to escort Prince George of Denmark to England for his marriage to Princess Anne. Close friends, Anne immediately appointed Sarah as one of her Ladies of the Bedchamber, increasing the Churchill's influence at court. With this new association, they began to drift away from James. With the ascension of James to the throne in 1685, Churchill was called upon to aid in putting down a rebellion led by the Duke of Monmouth. Forced to serve as second-in-command to the Earl of Feversham, Churchill organized and effectively led the troops that defeated Monmouth at Sedgemoor on July 6.

Promoted to major general just before the battle he was rewarded with the colonelcy of the Third Troop of Life Guards for his performance. Remaining at court, Churchill distanced himself from James' increasingly Catholic regime. With the invasion of William of Orange and his wife Mary (James' daughter) in November 1688, Churchill was promoted to lieutenant general and rode out with the king. Openly encouraging officers to join the Orangist cause, Churchill defected to William on November 23. Crushed that he could not retain one of his loyalist servants, James fled to France and William and Mary took the throne.

Conflicts with William:

In April 1689, William created Churchill as Earl of Marlborough. This led many to speculate that Churchill's defection had been purchased by the new king. Conversely, William remained wary of Marlborough as he had deserted his greatest patron in his hour of need. As the Nine Year's War (1688-1697) raged, Marlborough only saw three years of active duty despite being one of England's best young commanders. During this time he played a key role in the victory at Walcourt and also captured Cork and Kinsale in Ireland.

Angered by William's withholding of honors and preference for foreign commanders, Marlborough began to quietly spread dissatisfaction through the army. Marlborough's position was weakened as he, along with politician and friend Sidney Godolphin, maintained correspondence with the exiled James. While loyal to William, these letters were viewed as an insurance policy against James' return. Tired of Marlborough's intrigues, Mary demanded that Anne dismiss Sarah from her retinue. Anne refused and on January 20, 1692, Marlborough was stripped of his ranks and positions.


Following several fraudulent plots that implicated Marlborough against the king and resulted in a brief imprisonment in the Tower of London, he began a slow rapprochement with William. Finally recalled in 1698, he was named governor to Anne's oldest son and his military ranks restored. With the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701, an ailing William dispatched Marlborough to The Hague to negotiate the Treaty of the Second Grand Alliance against France. With Anne's rise to the throne in March 1702, Marlborough was knighted, named Captain-General of the armies, and Master-General of the Ordnance.

With his friend Godolphin managing the political front at home, Marlborough traveled to the Continent to take command of the Allied troops. Capturing several towns in the Spanish Netherlands during 1702, including Liège, Marlborough was raised to duke by Anne. Frustrated by his allies and with a delicate political situation at home, Marlborough was unable to bring the French to battle in 1703. The following year, he was able to break loose and inflicted a severe defeat on the French at Blenheim. In the wake of the victory, Anne bestowed upon him the royal manor at Woodstock, while he was also made a prince of the Holy Roman Empire. Again hampered by his allies in 1705, Marlborough was able to move forward the following year and decisively defeated the Duc de Villeroi at Ramillies on May 23.

Despite the victories, the failure to defeat France in 1707, led the Marlboroughs influence with Anne to wane. Marlborough and Godolphin were repeatedly forced to woo the Whigs in Parliament to continue the war, while Anne became more distant. Returning to the army, Marlborough conducted a successful campaign in 1708, which included a victory at the Battle of Oudenarde. While fighting continued in 1709, the political situation in London had reached a crisis with the Whigs effectively taking power. Winning at Malplaquet in September, he was criticized for the casualties sustained.

Leading his final campaign in 1711, Marlborough succeeded in breaching the lines of Non Plus Ultra and captured Bouchain. At home, Sarah's relationship with Anne had completely collapsed and he was recalled at the end of the year. After defeating trumped up charges of embezzlement, the Marlboroughs departed for the Continent. Returning in August 1714, they learned that Anne had died the day before their arrival.

Rushing to London, they were warmly embraced by the new king, George I. Restored to his position as Captain-General, Marlborough became an influential figure at court. In declining health, he suffered several strokes in 1716. Largely recovering, he supervised the construction of Blenheim Palace at Woodstock. Shortly after his seventy-second birthday, Marlborough suffered another stroke and died on June 16, 1722.

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