How the Duke of Marlborough Inspired Winston Churchill to Greatness

Churchill (Library of Congress)
In his prosecution of the Second World War, the British Bulldog looked to his ancestor, the hero of the War of Spanish Succession.

One of the most important people in Winston Churchill’s life was his sixth great-grandfather John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, who died more than 150 years before Winston was born. When Churchill (that is, Winston) was forced into the political wilderness in the 1930s, he wrote and published a massive biography of his ancestor. It is considered to be not only among his finest works but one that offers insight into Churchill’s courageous stand against Nazi Germany in the years before the Second World War.

Winston Churchill began the 1930s in political exile. As late as 1929 he had been chancellor of the Exchequer under prime minister Stanley Baldwin, but after the Conservative government fell he clashed with Baldwin over India (Churchill vehemently opposed self-government) and was not invited back to the front benches when the Conservatives returned to power in 1931. Churchill dedicated his years in exile to writing, to stay in the public arena but also to pay his bills.

As a child, Churchill probably would have heard stories about his famous ancestor, but it was as a young army officer in India that he would have had his first serious encounter with Marlborough. Lacking a university education, Churchill sought to educate himself during his military service in British India. There he picked up Thomas B. Macaulay’s History of England. Churchill threw himself into the work, finding most of it to his liking. It shocked him that Macaulay considered Marlborough to be not a heroic figure but a duplicitous one. Marlborough had once been the protégé of James, Duke of York, but during the Glorious Revolution of 1688 defected from him and helped install James’s rival, William of Orange, as king of England. During William’s reign, Marlborough found himself briefly arrested for communicating with the exiled James. To Macaulay all of this was evidence that Marlborough was an unprincipled careerist.

Determined to rehabilitate his ancestor, Churchill used his four-volume biography to defend Marlborough against charges of duplicity. Why did Marlborough defect from James to William in 1688? Churchill answered Macaulay by showing that Marlborough was motivated by his staunch Protestantism and his fear that James would try to restore the Catholic Church in England. And why did Marlborough continue to correspond with the exiled James afterward? Churchill replied that his ancestor was neither a Jacobite nor a traitor but someone who not only felt great anguish over the fate of his old friend James but also sought to keep his options open in the event that James reclaimed the throne.

Marlborough’s finest hour would come only after both William and James had died, during the War of Spanish Succession against King Louis XIV of France. In the preceding decades, the power of Louis XIV had swelled dangerously, and France had already clashed with England (alongside several other nations called collectively “the Grand Alliance”) in the years following the Glorious Revolution. By the time of William’s death, England and France were once again at war. England’s strategic position was in grave peril. Into this situation stepped Marlborough. Though kept at arm’s length by William since Marlborough’s brief arrest, Marlborough’s wife Sarah was close friends with William’s successor, Anne. That put Marlborough back in power as captain-general of the English Army.

Churchill saw Louis XIV as an existential threat not only to England but to all of Europe. Louis commanded a massive army and stood on the brink of achieving hegemony over the entire continent. Were he to take that next step and succeed, he would be able to marshal the resources of Europe to attempt an invasion of England. It is not difficult to see the parallels between the French threat of 1702 and the resurgence of Germany in the 1930s. Louis still had numerous enemies, but they were divided by geography, religion, and strategy. The task of checking French ambitions and uniting Louis’s opponents fell to Marlborough.

It appeared that Churchill was one of only a few people in England to see Hitler as a threat to Europe in the same way that Marlborough and his allies saw Louis XIV.

Marlborough proved himself to be an extraordinary general. Against French forces he won every battle that he fought, and with the Habsburg general Eugene of Savoy he built a friendship that blossomed into a military alliance that humbled the Sun King’s armies, sometimes against overwhelming odds. Marlborough was not only successful as a battlefield commander, he was also a strategist of genius. He used his position as commander of a vast alliance to develop and coordinate a continental strategy to wear down the French. Although political machinations back in England made it impossible for him to achieve a total victory over France, he and Prince Eugene still managed to save Europe from collapsing under the weight of a would-be hegemon.

Although Marlborough: His Life and Times was a critical success, it appeared that Churchill was one of only a few people in England to see Hitler as a threat to Europe in the same way that Marlborough and his allies saw Louis XIV. Churchill knew that Hitler’s ambitions were too big to be satisfied with just the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Hitler wanted to bring all of Europe under his heel, and he could be stopped only when his enemies realized what a danger he was and committed themselves to his defeat.

Once Churchill became prime minister in 1940, he proved that he had learned several key lessons from Marlborough. Like Marlborough, Churchill sought to wear down the enemy — in this case, the German armies — by fighting them at the periphery, a strategy that weakened the Wehrmacht and forced Hitler to fight the Soviets with one hand behind his back. Just as important, Churchill found his own Prince Eugene in Franklin Roosevelt (who had read and enjoyed Marlborough before the outbreak of the war). The alliance they formed proved crucial to defeating Hitler and saving Europe. Churchill set out in writing Marlborough to rescue his ancestor from what he saw as Macaulay’s distortions and outright lies. Along the way he found a soldier and strategist to serve as a model in his own struggle to save Europe.

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