display | more...
One of the most brilliant English generals of any period, he was one of the chief commanders in the wars of the late 1600s and early 1700s that established England as one of the great powers of Europe, and following his defeat of France and Spain in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), elevated the newly-created union of Great Britain to be the chief imperial power of the world.

Born in 1650 as John Churchill (it seems to be disputed whether his birthday is 26th May or 24th June), his father was a minor royalist from Devonshire called Sir Winston Churchill. The name Winston has of course echoed through the Churchill family ever since. John was talented and handsome, and his cousin Arabella Churchill was mistress to the Duke of York. With these advantages and connections he advanced rapidly, and fought honourably in the wars against Holland. He was also a page to the Duke and secured the "favour" of the "voluptuous" Duchess of Cleveland... I think this means "fuck until the bedsprings wouldn't spring any more" but I might be reading too much into... never mind. The boy done good.

He was rapidly promoted; he was created Baron Churchill in 1680. He routed the rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth, a former patron, in 1685 after the death of Charles II, father of the illegitimate but ambitious duke. He was created Earl of Marlborough. He threw in his lot with the new king, the Dutchman William III, and fought bravely in his Irish wars.

At the same time his position was cemented by his beautiful, powerful, and ambitious wife Sarah Jennings. She became chief confidante to Queen Anne, while Churchill was commander in chief of British forces. She also had her own political power base in St Albans. In 1701 the War of the Spanish Succession began, and he achieved spectacular victories, notably at Blenheim, joining forces with Prince Eugene of Savoy; then at Ramillies, Oudenarde, and Malplaquet. He was created Duke of Marlborough, and was built a splendid new house called Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.

But for all the greatness of his achievements in Europe, at home there were political conspiracies against the Duke and Duchess. She was replaced in the Queen's affections by Abigail Masham (the "Mistress Masham" of T.H. White's lovely book Mistress Masham's Repose, a kind of sequel to Gulliver's Travels - but I digress), and his opponents accused him of huge misappropriations from army allowances. He was dismissed at the end of 1711, and did not return to England until the accession of King George I in 1714. The Duke died on 16 June 1722.