Authors: Richard Holmes
England’s Fragile Genius
I am so entirely yours, that if I might have all the world given me, I could not be happy but in your love.
The Hague, 20 April 1703/Ropley, 20 February 2008
Our horsemen had now the better of the fight; but soon we beheld fresh bodies of horsemen, hastening to the relief of their half-defeated squadrons. Marlborough was at the head of this reserve of cavalry … I can still see him as, undaunted and serene, he rode forward amid the cheers of his troops, shouting ‘Corporal John’, the name they had given their hero; he was surrounded by his staff, evidently receiving his commands. I fell on his men with my whole regiment; he narrowly escaped being made prisoner – oh! That heaven was so unpropitious to France – but he was extricated, and my troopers were compelled to retreat.
, commanding an
Irish regiment in French service, Ramillies, 1706
This is a world that is subject to frequent revolutions
Some will tell you that John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, was Britain’s greatest ever general. John Keegan and Andrew Wheatcroft, two wise judges, affirmed that:
There was no talent for war which he did not possess. He had imagination and command of detail to plan a grand strategy: he was an able generalissimo of allied armies, always ready to flatter a foreign ruler for some political advantage. His capacity for innovation really lay off the battlefield … But his greatest strength lay in his attention to the economic underpinning of the war, and in his concern for the morale and welfare of his men … In this combination of military virtues Marlborough’s greatness nestled, but most of all in his understanding that the army was precious and that its value resided in the officers and men who made it up.
Winston S. Churchill concluded his six-volume biography of his distinguished ancestor by declaring:
He had consolidated all that England had gained by the Revolution of 1688 and the achievements of William III. By his invincible genius in war and his scarcely less admirable qualities of wisdom and management he had completed that glorious process that carried England from her dependency upon France under Charles II to ten years’ leadership of Europe … He had proved himself the ‘good Englishman’ he aspired to be, and History may declare that if he had had more power his country would have had more strength and happiness, and Europe a surer progress.
Another assessment added private virtue to public achievement to make Marlborough the very model of the Christian soldier:
He was by nature pure and temperate, kind and brave. He had supreme genius, personal beauty, and the art of pleasing. He was born to shine in courts, and understood the graces of life to perfection. He met with glory and ingratitude, infamy and fame. So, moving splendidly through a splendid world, he saw more fully to the share of most men, of human nature and the human lot.
He was honourable in his public life because he was also honourable in his private life. He was kind and chivalrous abroad, because he was kind and chivalrous at heart, and in his own home, and to his best beloved. He had a deep, strong faith, which never failed him.
Marlborough’s contemporary, Archdeacon William Coxe, concluded his three-volume biography, which still repays study, with the lapidary declaration that he was simply: ‘THE GREATEST GENERAL AND … THE GREATEST MINISTER that our country, or any other, has produced.’
In his multi-volume history of the British army published in 1910, Sir John Fortescue, never a man to shy from a harsh verdict when he thought it justified, wrote of how Marlborough’s
transcendent ability as a general, a statesman, a diplomatist and an administrator, guided not only England but Europe through the War of Spanish Succession, and delivered them safe for a whole generation from the craft and ambition of France …
Regarding him as a general, his fame is assured as one of the greatest captains of all time; and it would not become a civilian to add a word to the eulogy of great soldiers who alone can comprehend the full measure of his greatness.
Fortescue wrote that Marlborough, like Wellington,
was endowed with a strong common sense that in itself amounted to genius, and possessed in the most trying moments a serenity and calm that was almost miraculous … With such a temperament there was a bond of humanity between him and his men that was lacking in Wellington. Great as Wellington was, the Iron Duke’s army could never have nicknamed him the Old Corporal.
Elsewhere, citing an approving comment in the papers of an officer in Marlborough’s army, Fortescue mused: ‘What modern decoration (save the Victoria Cross) could compare to a word of hearty praise from Corporal John himself?’
However, it was hard even for Fortescue to ignore the fact that Marlborough had detractors during his lifetime, though he maintained that the duke’s ‘fall was brought about by a faction, and his fame has remained ever since prey to the tender mercies of a faction’.
Some of Marlborough’s warmest admirers acknowledge that there was indeed another side to the man. Although Charles Spencer, like Winston S. Churchill, has some of Marlborough’s blood in his veins, he is a wise enough historian to admit that: