John Churchill rose from modest means to become first Duke of Marlborough and the greatest general of his time.

On the morning of August 13, 1704, an English general stood on a low hill overlooking a nondescript Bavarian village on the north bank of the Danube River. Surrounded by staff officers, the senior commander watched impassively as his army— some 56,000 men arrayed in nine columns—deployed under the cover of an artillery barrage. Moving steadily forward, the soldiers advanced on the waiting enemy, whose infantry and cavalry gleamed in seemingly invincible array. Just after noon, the two great armies met, surging together in a battle that would save an empire, destroy a king’s imperial ambitions and secure the English general’s place as one of history’s greatest field commanders. The battle was Blenheim, and the Englishman was John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough.

Though destined to become arguably the greatest soldier of his time, John Churchill was born in 1650 under modest circumstances. His father, Winston, had supported the Royalist cause of Charles I and, with that monarch’s fall before the forces of parliament, had lost most of his land and income. Even the monarchy’s restoration in 1660 under Charles II, king of England, Scotland and Ireland, only marginally improved the family’s lot. What did jump-start the younger Churchill’s career was his elder sister Arabella’s influence as maid of honor to the Duchess of York and mistress to James, Duke of York—brother of, and next in line to, the king. Arabella was to bear James several children, including the future Duke of Berwick, later a marshal of France and an opponent of the Duke of Marlborough, his uncle.

With his sister’s help, Churchill became a page in the Duke of York’s court. He was exceptionally handsome, charming and able, qualities of enormous use in a courtier, and his rise was rapid. He served his military apprenticeship fighting the Moors in North Africa and was aboard the Duke of York’s flagship in 1672 at the naval Battle of Solebay against the Dutch. While serving alongside the French in 1674, he had occasion to observe the great marshal Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne. In all of these early military experiences, Churchill impressed superiors with his courage and competence. Like many other notable warriors, he watched, listened and learned.

Churchill loyally served the Duke of York, even after James’ controversial 1669 conversion to Catholicism. Following Charles II’s death in 1685, the duke rose to the throne as James II. The latter bore all the worst traits of the Stuarts: He was pigheaded, unwilling to take advice from anyone, and a terrible politician. Within three years of his coronation, following a sustained campaign to overthrow the established Anglican Church and place Catholics in key positions in government and throughout the army, James II had squandered the goodwill that had greeted him as legitimate successor.

In late 1688, Dutch Stadtholder William III of Orange arrived in England with his wife Mary—James’ eldest daughter—to launch a rebellion against the king. Churchill’s defection from James’ side, quite literally at the last moment, provided crucial impetus to what the English soon termed the “Glorious Revolution,” as it tallied so few casualties. Dual monarchs William and Mary represented the triumph of constitutional monarchy over the “divine right of kings,” which the Stuarts had championed to their great cost.

Despite his crucial role in bringing the new monarchs to power, Churchill was to have a rocky relationship with William and Mary. Nevertheless, the future duke—who was made earl of Marlborough in 1689—was to be an important figure in their reign. But while he was close to the centers of power, Marlborough was never given great responsibility. There were three major reasons for this. First, William appears never to have completely trusted Marlborough, given the latter’s prior close relationship to James. Second, Marlborough’s wife, Sarah, to whom he would have a deep and passionate attachment throughout his life, possessed a mercurial temperament and made an enemy of Queen Mary. Third, Sarah was also a close friend and household appointee of Anne, Mary’s sister and next in line for the throne. The result of these tangled relations was that William and Mary declined to use Marlborough to his full abilities.

In 1694 Mary died from smallpox. Soon thereafter, the health of her king, now styled William III, began to deteriorate—even as an increasingly complex international situation called for the diplomatic skills at which Marlborough excelled. Charles II, king of Spain, was in bad health and had no heir, so the European powers began vigorously negotiating an acceptable division of the Spanish Empire among French, Austrian Hapsburg, British and Dutch interests. Charles was determined to keep his dominion united and chose as his successor Philip, duc d’Anjou, grandson of French King Louis XIV, with the proviso that the crowns of France and Spain should never be united. Charles’ death in 1700 then brought Europe to the brink of a great conflict, to be called the War of Spanish Succession—in effect, the first world war.

Louis XIV accepted Charles’ will almost immediately, thus breaking agreements the European powers, including France, had made in anticipation of the Spanish king’s death. Desperate negotiations took place as the ailing William III and Marlborough cobbled together accords to unite Britain and the continental powers against France. The British king and his chief aide found it difficult to persuade the Tories in parliament to accept the anti-French alliance, but Louis XIV helped them with his September 1701 recognition of the late James II’s son, James Edward, as the rightful king of England, Scotland and Ireland.

William III died in March 1702 and was immediately succeeded by Anne, his late queen’s sister. So it seemed that Marlborough—with wife Sarah now positioned at the queen’s right hand— had arrived. Anne put him in charge of Britain’s policy, although the fractious members of the Tory-dominated parliament remained an obstacle. The care and feeding of the British parliament and the warring Tories and Whigs would consume much of his time and political efforts over the coming decade.

Marlborough held a general command over British and Dutch forces in the Low Countries, though the alliance’s convoluted internal politics kept him from overall command of all allied armies that had taken the field against France. At 52, Marlborough was already old by 18th century standards, but he displayed the vigor and energy of a far younger man. He assumed the title of captain-general of coalition forces in the Low Countries, but as the Dutch generals held veto power over whether their troops would fight a major battle, Marlborough could engage the enemy only with their permission.

Through skillful maneuvering in southern Holland, in early August 1702 Marlborough forced the army of French Marshal Louis François, duc de Boufflers, to march directly across the front of deployed allied forces. Despite the immediate prospect of a great victory, Dutch deputies refused to authorize a battle. Marlborough, realizing the continued functioning of the alliance was more important than a single battlefield victory, refrained from pushing the issue. The result was, in the words of James, Duke of Berwick, a leading French general, “very fortunate for us, for we were posted in such a manner that we should have been beaten without being able to stir.”

A similar opportunity to engage the French arose the next day, but again the Dutch vetoed battle. Two weeks later, for the third time in a month, Marlborough caught the French forces in a weak position. Once more the deputies demurred. Marlborough’s skillful maneuvering did bring the allies positional gains with the siege and capture of Liège, capping a successful effort to control the Meuse River. But while the captured cities and fortresses represented a major success, the repeated failure to engage the French can only be regarded as a serious tactical blunder.

By the end of the 1702 campaign season, Marlborough was engaged in complex diplomatic negotiations to maintain the alliance. On his return to Britain, Queen Anne made him Duke of Marlborough, a title that gave him a better bargaining position. The allied campaign of 1703 followed much the same pattern of the previous year. Again Marlborough proved himself a master at waging an 18th century campaign of maneuver and siege—particularly with his May capture of Bonn— but twice more the Dutch, reluctant to move the bulk of their troops outside Holland, vetoed requests to pursue and destroy the French. For the good of the alliance, Marlborough again checked his anger over the lost opportunities.

After years of frustration, 1704 witnessed what many historians consider Marlborough’s most brilliant campaign. While the allies had held their own in the Low Countries, the French had made major gains along the upper Rhine. In league with Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria, they were threatening to open up a strategic corridor to Bavaria, from which French-Bavarian forces could march on Vienna and knock the Austrians out of the war. Undoubtedly realizing the Dutch would never allow him to fight a major battle and alarmed by the Austrians’ peril, Marlborough determined to move his Redcoats up the Rhine, cross southern Germany and link up with Austria’s great general Prince Eugène of Savoy. Marlborough aimed to relieve pressure on Austria, a vital objective if that nation was to remain an effective member of the anti-French alliance. Yet it required all the Englishman’s skill at dissimulation and diplomacy to persuade the Dutch not only to allow him to withdraw his Redcoats for a campaign somewhere to the south—Marlborough never clarified his intention to throw in with the Austrians—and to take a number of key regiments with him.

Under a veil of secrecy and with exquisite logistical planning—including reliance on previously established supply caches along the route—Marlborough marched his army with astonishing speed up the Rhine to meet with Eugène. The swiftness of his move immobilized the French on the north bank of the Danube in Bavaria, unsure whether the Englishman would move up the Moselle or veer west toward Strasbourg. Once united, Marlborough and Eugène, who had never before met, formed an effective partnership. Skillful maneuvering eventually brought the 56,000-man allied force face to face with the 60,000-strong Franco-Bavarian army outside the village of Blenheim.

Marlborough’s success at Blenheim made him the leading soldier of his day and brought additional accolades—and rewards—from the queen and parliament. But his 1705 campaign was to prove far less successful. Marlborough returned to the Low Countries in early spring, determined to crack the Lines of Brabant, a 70-mile French defensive system that curved from Namur to Antwerp. Breaking this perimeter would allow the allies to strike at the heart of Flanders and perhaps spark another great battle—which Marlborough was sure he would win.

He achieved the first goal, but failed in the second. Deceiving French commanders as to where he would attack, Marlborough broke through a lightly defended sector north of Elixham. Though he caught the vanguard of the French army in a vulnerable position, he failed to order his Redcoats to attack, an action that would have brought on a general engagement. Within weeks the allies again caught the French at a disadvantage, but this time the Dutch again refused to engage.

On August 18 Marlborough once more caught the French in a weak position; this time a Dutch general named Schlangenberg, jealous of the Englishman’s successes, stopped the British artillery from moving up and then persuaded his fellow Dutch generals to halt the operation. French Marshal François de Neufville, duc de Villeroi, not only escaped but also had the cheek to suggest he had won a significant victory. Louis XIV, all too often the optimist, believed his marshal and drew the mistaken conclusions that Marlborough had lost his nerve and Blenheim had been a fluke. For his part, Marlborough was disappointed at having squandered three more opportunities to break a French army in the field.

If 1705 was a disappointment, 1706 was one of two years in the 18th century the British dubbed annus mirabilis, or “year of miracles” (the other referencing William Pitt’s victories in 1759). Marlborough took the field in a state of depression, but was astonished to discover the French army under Villeroi evidently had instructions from Versailles to seek battle and avenge Blenheim. The result was Ramillies, perhaps the most decisive battle in the 18th century.

The two armies collided on May 23, and Marlborough, in an almost exact repeat of Blenheim, began by attacking the French flanks. His Redcoats on the right feigned an attack that reached French lines on their left and was then recalled. The allied troops and cavalry, taking advantage of a low-lying depression that concealed them from French eyes, then reinforced the center. Since Louis XIV had insisted his commanders pay special attention to the British, their focus remained on the left.

Marlborough, however, redirected the allied attack on the center and the French right. A series of fierce skirmishes and a cavalry charge broke the French right and then smashed their center around Ramillies. Villeroi desperately tried to rebuild his collapsing line from the 50-odd cavalry squadrons still deployed on the left. But it was too late. The French suffered 13,000 casualties, the allies 3,500. Many of Villeroi’s men deserted and fled the field.

Ramillies was a disastrous defeat for the French, and the campaign season had barely begun. Marlborough spent the rest of the spring and all summer exploiting his victory, ultimately taking Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp, Bruges and Ostende. The allies recovered Brabant and Flanders, and by the year’s end virtually all of the Netherlands was free from Spanish rule.

Despite Marlborough’s year of great triumph, 1707 brought only disappointment. The Dutch and Austrians bickered over control of the Spanish Netherlands, now “liberated” from French control.

Of equal concern to Marlborough, the political situation in Britain was deteriorating rapidly. His wife was losing influence with the queen, and his close friend Lord High Treasurer Sidney Godolphin, a key player in keeping British politics on track, was losing the support of the Tories. The Whigs, anathema to the queen, were therefore gaining the upper hand in Westminster. The increasingly acrimonious domestic political gamesmanship hindered Marlborough’s ability to wage war.

Nor did 1707 bring great successes on the battlefield. Marlborough remained in the Low Countries, while Eugène, with logistical support from the Royal Navy, moved from Italy against the French port of Toulon. But Eugène evidently distrusted the Royal Navy’s ability to support his effort and hesitated. The French were thus able to strongly reinforce Toulon, and Eugène lost 10,000 men in his unsuccessful attempt to seize the port.

The following year brought Marlborough another battlefield triumph. Eugène arrived in Flanders with substantial reinforcements from Austria, and on July 11, 1708, their combined army of some 80,000 troops conducted one of the most difficult operations in war: Using pontoon bridges, their troops crossed Scheldt River at dawn almost directly in front of the divided and lackadaisical French command, and then fought and won the Battle of Oudenaarde. Marlborough and Eugène pinioned the 95,000-man French force to the north and northeast of Oudenaarde and then launched a devastating attack on the enemy’s right flank. Allied casualties were approximately 3,000, while the French lost an equal number on the battlefield, with a further 7,000 taken prisoner. Again, large numbers of French soldiers took defeat as a cue to desert.

This victory was important: Marlborough and Eugène had established standing superiority over the French, and with much of the summer before them, they sought to press their advantage. Marlborough’s plan displayed imagination and a grasp of military strategy far beyond the conventional military thinking of his age: He suggested moving the entire allied army straight through French defenses while switching the army’s lines of supply and communication to the English Channel and the waiting Royal and Dutch navies. This strategy would draw the French from their fortress cities into an open fight, to prevent the allies from ravaging northern France and perhaps even moving on the French capital. The Dutch were, as usual, extremely hesitant to expose Holland (although the French could hardly take advantage of the situation), but Eugène had the final say, and the Austrian prince—a continental soldier to his core—had no intention of placing his army in a position of reliance on sea power.

Thwarted yet again in the field, Marlborough had little choice but to return to the rigors of siege warfare. The conservative generals around him pushed the duke to take the great French fortress city of Lille. As with all sieges the duke pursued, Lille fell, but only after an extended effort that frittered away the summer campaign season. The victory was cold comfort to a general who understood how sea power was changing warfare.

The winter of 1708 brought more political troubles in England. The dominant Whigs in parliament were more interested in riding roughshod over the Tories than supporting the alliance. The Tories, in hopes of regaining power, were becoming vociferous antiwar critics. Closer to home, the Duchess of Marlborough’s position with the queen had hit rock bottom.

Marlborough thus entered the campaign season of 1709 confronting serious domestic and continental issues. Yet the allies retained considerable advantages, while the terrible winter of 1708–09, among the worst in European history, had brought France to the brink of starvation. Like two punchdrunk fighters, the opponents faced off on Sept. 11, 1709, in a murderous battle at Malplaquet. The allies drove the French from the battlefield but lost 25,000 killed and wounded. Europe was shocked, and Malplaquet gave the antiwar faction in England a propaganda windfall, their campaign led by the acid pen of author and Tory pamphleteer Jonathan Swift.

Malplaquet was Marlborough’s last set-piece battle, though in 1710 and 1711 he waged magnificent campaigns of movement and sieges so beloved by practitioners of conventional 18th century warfare. In 1710 Godolphin’s ministry fell, and the Tories came to power. In 1711 Marlborough was reduced to mere British commander in the Low Countries, losing his influence over a government eager to shed the burdens of war. His mastery at maneuvering the French out of their ultimate defensive line counted for nothing with the Tories in London. By year’s end Marlborough was dropped from command and later hounded out of the United Kingdom—to return only after Queen Anne’s death in 1714 led to reestablishment of the Hanoverian line.

The Duke of Marlborough must be counted among history’s ablest commanders, and he confronted great challenges beyond military campaigns and the winning of battles. He struggled to maintain political stability in an emerging representative government; to forge and preserve an alliance of irascible powers with differing interests; and to lead fractious, multinational armies into desperate battles against the mighty armies of Louis XIV, which had dominated the battlefields of Europe over the previous century.

Sir Winston Churchill, whose biography of Marlborough stands as one of the great monuments in the English language, wrote of his ancestor:

There is a picture in existence which reminds us of the length of Marlborough’s journey. The young officer, there shown bearing the lilies of France in the service of Louis XIV, had done his work. He marched by unexpected paths. 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 the glorious process that carried England from her dependency upon France under Charles II to ten years’ leadership of Europe. Although this proud task was for a space cast aside by faction, the union and greatness of Britain and her claims to empire were established upon foundations that have lasted to this day.


For further reading, Williamson Murray recommends: Marlborough: His Life and Times, by Winston Churchill, and Marlborough as Military Commander, by David Chandler.

Originally published in the May 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here