Marlborough, p.13Richard Holmes
When James was summoned south by his brother in early 1680 John went with him, and urged Sarah to:
Pray for fair winds, so that we may not stay here, nor be long at sea, for should we be long at sea, and very sick, I am afraid it would do me great hurt, for really I am not well, for in my whole lifetime I never had so long a fit of headaching as now: I hope the red spots of the child will be gone against I see her, and her nose straight, so that I may fancy it be like the mother, so I would have her be like you in all things else.17
They were destined for cruel disappointment, for little Harriet (or Hariote, as her delighted father spelt her name) died in infancy, whether because those red spots were harbingers of something sinister, or for one of a dozen other reasons we cannot say.
James spent the summer of 1680 in London, and Charles hoped that he might be able not to order his brother into exile again. The Duke of York’s uncertain future made it hard for him to secure an appointment for his young protégé. Although the governorship of Sheerness, command of the Lord Admiral’s Regiment, and even the post of ambassador to France or Holland were spoken of, James was determined not to be separated from Churchill if he went into exile again. He was right to be concerned, for Charles feared that a new Parliament, due to meet on 21 October, would prepare a second Exclusion Act, and might even impeach his brother. The council was divided in its opinion, and James himself was all for facing down the opposition, and blamed the Earl of Halifax and the Duchess of Portsmouth for recommending his departure, but he reluctantly heeded his brother’s command to go back to Scotland. This time the Churchills could go north together, and they reached Leith after five days’ voyage.
James was not simply exiled to Edinburgh but was, by virtue of letters patent which John Churchill brought up to him in June 1681, the king’s commissioner in Scotland and effectively its viceroy. He had arrived in the aftermath of a rising by Covenanters, Lowland opponents of the episcopacy which had returned to Scotland with the Restoration. Monmouth had beaten them decisively at Bothwell Bridge near Glasgow in June 1679, doing much for his own reputation south of the border, but not snuffing out their resistance, which remained especially strong in the south-west. Many leading Covenanters fled to Holland, where they joined English opposition leaders who had escaped Charles’s reassertion of his authority, and, ironically, were soon joined by Monmouth himself, exiled at last by his exasperated father.
James persevered in the persecution of the Covenanters, often using Catholic highlanders as his chosen instruments, and there are those who see in his policy in Scotland in 1681–82 a foretaste of what he would have done in England after 1685 had he been given the chance. Judicial torture was still legal in Scotland, although it had to be authorised by the council. Gilbert Burnet, no unbiased critic, suggested that while most members of the council would have avoided watching a man being ‘struck in the boots’, as wedges were hammered in between an iron boot and his foot, James observed the process with ‘unmoved indifference’. The martyrology inevitably generated by this sort of conflict inflated some of the atrocities committed by the government and its supporters, but there is no doubt that some of James’s adherents plied boot, thumbscrews and smouldering cord with inventive zeal.
Churchill’s attitude to James’s policy in Scotland at this time helps us understand the process which was to lead to his decisive breach with his patron in 1688. James was anxious to be permitted to return to England, and early in 1681 sent Churchill to London to urge Charles not to allow Parliament to sit, to make an alliance with France, whose resultant subsidy would enable him to rule without Parliament, and then to summon him homewards. Churchill did his best for his master, but made it clear that he did not support James’s blustering threats to raise Catholic Scots and Irish to support him, which, after all, was precisely what many of his English opponents expected him to do.
When she was an old woman, Sarah recalled how much she and her husband had hated the persecution of the Covenanters.
I have cried at some of these trials, to see the cruelty that was done to some of these men only for their choosing to die rather than tell a lie. How happy would this country be if we had more of these sort of men! I remember the Duke of Marlborough was mightily grieved one day at a conversation he had heard between the Earl of Argyll … and the Duke of York. The Duke of Marlborough told me he never heard a man speak more reason than he [i.e. Argyll] did to the Duke and after he had said what he at first resolved, the Duke would never make an answer to anything, but ‘You shall excuse me, my Lord, You shall excuse me, my Lord,’ and continued so for a long time … I remember the Duke of Marlborough told me when we were in Scotland, there came a letter from Lewis the Grand to the Duke of York, writ by himself; which put all the family [i.e. household] into a great disorder, for nobody could read it. But it was enough to show that there was a strict correspondence between the Duke and the King of France.18
We must be cautious about accepting Sarah’s recollections at face value, for she could see, just as well as we can, how evidence of John’s growing concern at James’s policy might mitigate his action in 1688.
Yet her words cannot be brushed aside as the mutterings of a partisan octogenarian, for they are corroborated by those of John himself. James’s chief advisers at this time were Churchill, George Legge, later Lord Dartmouth, and the Duke’s brother-in-law Laurence Hyde, later Earl of Rochester.19 All agreed that James’s position would be much improved if he would consent to attend Anglican service, and the Earl of Halifax, the most supple of Charles’s ministers, warned that unless James complied ‘his friends would be obliged to leave him like a garrison one could no longer defend’. In September 1681 Churchill told Legge that they had failed to persuade James. ‘You will find,’ he wrote glumly, ‘that nothing is done in what was so much desired, so that sooner or later we must all be undone … My heart is very full, so that should I write to you of the sad prospect I fear we have, I should try your patience.’20
James soon found himself in conflict with the Earl of Argyll, who made his feelings clear by opposing a clause in the Scottish Test Act which sought to exempt members of the royal household from taking the Protestant oath of allegiance. Argyll swore the oath of allegiance himself, but qualified it by adding ‘so far as is consistent with the Protestant religion’, and went on to put his objections to the Test in writing. In December 1681 he was tried for treason, and James helped ensure that he was condemned to death. Churchill wrote at once to James’s private secretary Sir John Werden, an old friend, urging that James should show mercy, and received a hopeful reply: ‘now (in regard to your old friendship, which you put me in mind of) I hope he will have the King’s pardon and the effects of his bounty, and hereafter in some measure deserve both’.21 Argyll escaped from Edinburgh Castle shortly afterwards, and Churchill wrote at once to George Legge, hoping that the escape would not be taken too seriously. It was certainly not in the government’s interest to execute Argyll, for a treason conviction meant that his lands and hereditary jurisdictions were already forfeit. But now, in the Low Countries with so many of the opposition leaders, he was another of James’s embittered opponents, and when Monmouth rose against James II in 1685 he led a rebellion in the western Highlands but was speedily captured and, this time, beheaded.
As early as 1681 Churchill grasped the essence of what would eventually ruin James. He was usually physically courageous and, as a recent biographer observes, ‘had high standards of honour and integrity, from which he deviated only rarely’.22 Yet the Earl of Ailesbury, who risked life and fortune for James, wrote that Charles II ‘was a great master of kingcraft and I wish to God that his royal father and brother had been endowed with the same talent and for the same motives’. James, he thought, ‘wanted for nothing but the talent of his royal brother’.23 His religious conviction hardened moral courage but dissolved pliability, and as king he was to display ‘political incompetence’ laced with ‘sheer bad luck’.24 Ultimately he lacked judgement,
James was allowed to return to England in the spring of 1682, and set off from Leith for Yarmouth on 4 May, with Churchill among his entourage. Sarah remained in Edinburgh. On 19 July 1681 she had given birth to a daughter, Henrietta, who was baptised at St Martin-in-the-Fields on the twenty-ninth, and then left in Jermyn Street in the care of a nurse. John Churchill had not yet seen her. After a stormy four-day voyage they arrived in Yarmouth, and went by road to Norwich and thence to Newmarket, where Charles was enjoying the horseracing. While they were there John wrote to tell Sarah, still in Edinburgh, that he had just received a letter from London saying that Henrietta was very well. ‘Everybody seems to be very kind to the Duke,’ he added, hoping that his recall would be permanent, enabling the Churchills to move back to London. Indeed it was. Charles asked his brother to return to Scotland, wind up his affairs there and return with his wife and youngest daughter, Anne.
The ducal party sailed from Margate on the frigate Gloucester on 4 May accompanied by a small squadron, including the yacht Catherine with Samuel Pepys aboard: he had hoped to sail with the duke but the cramped conditions aboard Gloucester made this impossible. Early on the morning of their second day at sea, while most of the passengers were asleep, Gloucester struck the sandbank known as Lemon and Ore off Cromer on the Norfolk coast. After hanging on to the sandbank for some time she slipped off into deep water and sank almost immediately. The ship’s pilot, Captain Ayres, was court-martialled and sentenced to perpetual imprisonment for negligence, and Pepys told his old associate Will Hewer that Ayres was doubly guilty because ‘Sir John Berry, his master, mates, Col Legge, the Duke himself’ had all agreed that the squadron should stand out further from the land. Although the sea was calm and there were ships in close company, there may have been as few as forty survivors from perhaps three hundred passengers and crew.
The loss of the Gloucester was soon politicised. Some, of a Tory persuasion, maintained that James did his best to save the vessel, and Sir John Berry, the vessel’s captain, affirmed that his sailors were so devoted to the duke that ‘in the midst of their affliction and dying condition [they] did rejoice and thank God that his royal highness was preserved’. Others, of a more whiggish view, had James leading the rush for the only available lifeboat, shouting, ‘Save the dogs and Colonel Churchill.’ Gilbert Burnet, in this latter camp, wrote:
The Duke got into the boat: and took good care of his dogs and some unknown persons who were taken, from that earnest care of his, to be his priests: the long boat went off with very few in her, though she might have carried off above eighty persons more than she did. One hundred and fifty persons perished, some of them men of great quality.26
Lord Ailesbury, writing from the opposite viewpoint and with personal knowledge of many of the key players, also thought things were mishandled: ‘The Duke went into the shallop, calling out for Churchill, he being so greatly in favour.’ Ailesbury agreed that the boat could certainly have taken more passengers. Thomas Jermy, foot huntsman to the duke, managed to creep under the stern seat where he lay doggo and was mistaken for baggage. When the oarsmen discovered him they were so furious that they would have thrown him overboard had James not interceded.27
Samuel Pepys was an eyewitness, and saw that the one available boat, which had been taken astern below the windows of the duke’s cabin, was sent off with the duke and John Churchill in her ‘to prevent his being oppressed with men labouring their escapes’. George Legge told his son that there had certainly been avoidable delay. He had pressed the duke to get into the boat, but James first argued that he needed to stay to help save the ship, and then ordered his heavy strongbox to be loaded. The resolute Legge, who had been responsible for getting the boat round to the ship’s stern, bluntly asked James what the box might contain that could possibly be worth a man’s life, and James replied that he would rather hazard his own life than lose the box. Eventually only a few of the duke’s closest adherents got into the boat, and it is unlikely that there were many priests amongst them: Father Ronché, the queen’s almoner, swam for his life and found a plank to cling to. There may indeed have been dogs in the lifeboat, but we know that at least one went overboard, for the duke’s physician, Sir Charles Scarburgh, found himself earnestly disputing the possession of a plank with the creature Mumper (evidently not a King Charles spaniel, but something of a more martial stamp), who was eventually rescued.
Sarah, commenting on Thomas Lediard’s biography of her late husband, recalled that John had
blamed the Duke to me excessively for his obstinacy and cruelty. For if he would have been persuaded to go off himself at first, when it was certain the ship could not be saved, the Duke of Marlborough was of the opinion that there would not have been a man lost. For though there was not enough boats to carry them all away, all those he mentions were drowned by the Duke’s obstinacy in not coming away sooner.28
Sarah remembered that John had told her that the duke had given him his sword to prevent the boat from being stormed by panic-stricken men, and Sir John Berry agreed that Churchill had kept the boat free from intruders.
James himself told William of Orange that ‘considering the little time the ship was above water after she struck first’, the loss of life might reasonably have been greater, and if he had known that Ayres had survived the wreck he would ‘have been hanged up immediately, according to the custom of the sea’. Some other accounts emphasise that there was a delay between first impact and sinking, and if this is so one might conclude that James’s hesitation prevented more passengers from getting aboard the lifeboat, and his insistence that the ship might yet be saved probably delayed the issuing of an early order to abandon her. However, we cannot be certain how long Gloucester remained on the sandbank before slipping to her doom. Winston S. Churchill, with his own reasons for emphasising the delay, suggests that it was ‘about an hour’, but Sir John Berry, an eyewitness, though with a reputation at risk, recalled how ‘for a moment or two she beat upon the sands; then a terrible blow knocked off her rudder and tore her side open’.29
The loss of life was certainly not all James’s fault: more seamen and passengers might have survived had they been able to swim. The tubby Sir John stayed on his quarterdeck until the vessel sank, and then swam to the Happy Return, which had anchored just short of the sands. The duke’s equerry Edward Griffin saved himself by clinging to a chicken-coop, and the Marquis of Montrose was hauled from the sea into James’s boat. Among those lost were Lords Roxborough and O’Brien and a number of gentlemen, including Laurence Hyde’s brother James, the ship’s lieutenant, and it was this loss of genteel life (almost like a microcosm of the Titanic) that struck contemporaries. Pepys was ‘sensible of God’s infinite mercy’, for he had no doubt that he would have drowned had he been aboard Gloucester: ‘For many will … be found lost as well or better qualified to save themselves by swimming than I might have been.’30 James ordered donations to the widows and orphans of the drowned seamen, but there can be no doubt that the episode had done little to enhance his status in the eyes of many of those close to him.
The duke and his party set off for England aboard the aptly named Happy Return on 15 May. The journey was an unpleasant one for Mary of Modena, so heavily pregnant that she had to be hoisted aboard in a chair-lift. The homeward voyage took twelve days, and it may be that its discomfort contributed to the premature birth of Charlotte Mary, who lived only till October. Just over a month after her death, on 21 December 1682, John was rewarded for his services with the barony of Churchill of Aynmouth in the peerage of Scotland. This made h
Domestic Bliss, Public Prosperity
Lord and Lady Churchill settled in Holywell House, Sarah’s family home near St Albans. John’s income – now increased by his appointment to the virtual sinecure of command of the Third Troop of Life Guards on £1 a day – had been sufficient to enable him to buy Frances Tyrconnell’s share of the Jennings family home in 1681, and three years later the Churchills demolished the old house and built a new one, with elegant gardens and fish ponds. It was their favourite home. Sarah said in 1714 that however ordinary it might be, she would not part with it for any she had seen on her travels, and on St George’s Day 1703 John wrote whimsically to her that: ‘This being the season I hear the nightingales as I lie in my bed I have wished them with all my heart with you, knowing how you love them.’32
Churchill resumed court life with enthusiasm. Charles had long forgiven him for his affair with Barbara Castlemaine, and he was now one of the king’s regular tennis partners. He shared this honour with Louis de Duras, his comrade in arms from the Alsace campaign, who had now inherited his father-in-law’s peerage and become Earl of Feversham, and Sidney Godolphin: they were ‘all so excellent players that if one beat the other ’tis alternatively’. Godolphin, born on the family estate at Helston in Cornwall in 1645, was a short, ungainly and rather taciturn man. His poet grandfather had died fighting for the king in a West Country skirmish, and his father Francis – who sired no fewer than sixteen children – had raised a regiment of royalist foot.33 Like Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Francis Godolphin was rewarded after the Restoration, and in 1662 young Sidney became a royal page. He had married Margaret Blagge in 1675, though he lost her, all too early, to puerperal fever. John Evelyn wrote that ‘She was the best wife, the best friend, the best mistress, that husband ever had,’ and he saw how Sidney, ‘struck with unspeakable affliction, fell down as dead’.34 Their surviving child, Francis, was to marry the Marlboroughs’ daughter Henrietta in 1698.
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