Marlborough, p.20Richard Holmes
William arrived in Exeter on 9 November. Although the corporation tried to keep him out and the clergy refused to read his Declaration from the pulpit, as Bostaquet has told us, the townspeople greeted him rapturously. He remained there for nearly a fortnight, receiving a number of peers and gentlemen, and encircling Plymouth, whose garrison was to surrender without firing a shot. The Duke of Beaufort’s Gloucestershire militia, loyal to James, arrested Lord Lovelace and some of his supporters after a brief fracas, but elsewhere the mood of the West Country, angered but not cowed by the royal reaction to Monmouth’s rising, was very encouraging for William.
James ordered his army to concentrate on Salisbury Plain, with a cavalry screen under Sir John Lanier probing forward to find William’s outposts. By 15 November the Earl of Feversham, James’s captain general, was there with something over 20,000 men, and more still coming in. Many royal soldiers were already tired, for it was a long march for men from Scotland and Ireland, and it was scarcely encouraging to hear, long before the concentration was complete, that the first desertions had taken place: on 13 November Lord Cornbury and Colonel Thomas Langston, both close associates of Churchill, went over to William.
What was meant to be the mass desertion of an entire elite cavalry brigade of Lanier’s covering force misfired, partly because neither Cornbury of the Royal Dragoons nor Lieutenant Colonel Compton of the Blues got their men to follow them, although the more forceful Langston took most of the Duke of St Albans’ Horse into the Dutch lines. John Churchill’s nephew and James’s illegitimate son, the nineteen-year-old Duke of Berwick, had just arrived in Salisbury. He galloped after the brigade as soon as he heard that it had left for Warminster and claimed to have ‘rallied the fugitives, and brought the four regiments back to Salisbury, of which there were only about fifty troopers or dragoons, and a dozen officers missing’.6 Burnet calls Berwick ‘a soft and harmless young man … much beloved by the king’, but it is clear that had more of James’s commanders shown his spirit the campaign’s outcome might have been different.7
The fact that billets had been reserved for the entire brigade in William’s lines speaks volumes for the degree of coordination that existed. Even if the Williamites were disappointed by the actual number of deserters, the episode broke the ice, and there was a steady trickle of desertion thereafter, with officers and men slipping away to join William, each separate desertion contributing to the air of mistrust which overhung James’s army like a pestilential miasma. The Whig politician Sir Richard Onslow, whose annotations are printed in the 1833 edition of Burnet’s History of His Own Times, maintained that even at this early stage James’s personal morale was crushed by the desertions: ‘This ruined him, for I have been well assured that had he shown any courage and spirit upon the occasion his army would have fought the Prince of Orange.’8 Lord Ailesbury also reckoned that the rot spread from the top, and that the royal army could have fought: ‘Of both horse and foot the common men were well intended to the King’s service, and most of the lower rank of officers, some general officers, colonels, etc, the same.’9
One of the few flashes of resistance was sparked by a man with an abundance of fighting spirit. Patrick Sarsfield was an Irish Catholic Life Guards officer. Berwick called him ‘a man of an amazing stature, utterly void of sense, very good natured and very brave’. He met an Anglo-Dutch detachment at Wincanton on 20 November. When its officer declared that he was for the Prince of Orange, Sarsfield declared: ‘God damn you! I’ll prince you,’ and promptly pistolled him. He had the better of the fight, but pulled back when enemy reinforcements appeared.
John Churchill had been promoted lieutenant general on 7 November, two days after the landing. He joined the king, who had already been dismayed by the news of the first desertions, at Windsor, and on the seventeenth the royal party set off for Salisbury. Princess Anne was poised to play her own part in the betrayal, and on the eighteenth she told William:
I shall not trouble you with many compliments, only in short assure you, that you have my wishes for your good success in this so just an undertaking; and I hope the Prince [George] will soon be with you to let you see his readiness to join with you … He went yesterday with the King towards Salisbury, intending to go from thence to you as soon as his friends thought it proper. I am not certain if I shall continue here, or remove into the City; that shall depend upon the advice my friends will give me; but wherever I am, I shall be ready to show you how very much I am your humble servant.10
Both Prince George and John Churchill expected that their wives would escape from Whitehall before they themselves abandoned James, but events moved on more quickly than they expected. That autumn James was suffering from repeated nosebleeds, so copious and severe that some saw them as a sign of divine displeasure. Charles II had been similarly afflicted in moments of stress, and they may have been a family weakness. One eyewitness admitted:
I can never forget the confusion the court was in … The king knew not whom to trust and the flight was so great that they were apt to believe an impossible report just brought in that the Prince of Orange was come with twelve thousand horse between Warminster and Salisbury … Everybody in this hurly-burly was thinking of himself and nobody minded the king, who came up to Dr Radcliffe and asked him what he thought was good for the bleeding of the nose.
James was ‘much out of order, looks yellow and takes no natural rest’.11 A visitor to Salisbury
saw King James ride backwards and forward continually with a languishing look, his hat hanging over his eyes and a handkerchief continually in one hand to dry the blood of his nose for he continually bled. If he and the soldiers did chance to hear a trumpet or even a post-horn they were always upon a surprise, and all fit to run away, and at last they did so. All the nights there was nothing but tumult and every question that was asked ‘Where are the enemy?’ ‘How far off are they? ‘Which way are they going?’ and such like.12
At a council of war on 23 November Churchill and Grafton both recommended an advance, while Feversham spoke in favour of retreat, and James agreed. However, James seems to have accepted Churchill’s offer to go and inspect the outposts that night. Both James and the Duke of Berwick were later to maintain that this was simply an excuse to hand over James to the Williamites, or even to murder him: ‘A scheme was laid, and the measures taken up by Churchill and Kirke, to deliver the king up to the Prince of Orange.’13 We cannot tell whether this is true, although if so it would have required very slick coordination. More seriously, it would have involved Churchill in the face-to-face betrayal of his patron, which would have been wholly out of character.
There was no precedent for such confrontation in his past career, and indeed, he did his best to remain on terms of a kind with James and his son for the rest of his life. Early that December, when Clarendon told Churchill that James had informed his supporters in the House of Lords that a kidnap had been intended, he ‘denied it with many protestations, saying that he would venture his life in defence of his person; that he would never be ungrateful to the King; and that he had never left him, but that he saw our religion and country were in danger of being destroyed’.14 It is easy to dismiss this as the self-exculpatory whining of a successful traitor, but it goes straight to the heart of Churchill’s dreadful dilemma.
There was to be no kidnap, for no sooner had James agreed to the visit than he was overwhelmed by another nosebleed, and muttered, through his bloody handkerchief, that he was going back to London. Until that moment Churchill, for all his treasonable correspondence with William, may still have suspected that the royal army would receive the forceful leadership which might even now have enabled it to shake off its malaise. But it was now abundantly clear that James could not provide that leadership. He had abandoned his only reasonable war plan, and was about to abandon his army.
Yet even in his despair James could still lash out. When Percy Kirke, commanding a mixed brigade of horse and foot at Warminster, refused, with a temporising excuse,
Churchill left a letter for James trying to explain his decision.
Since men are seldom suspected of sincerity, when they act contrary to their interests, and though my dutiful behaviour to Your Majesty in the worst of times (for which I acknowledge my service is much overpaid) may not be sufficient to incline you to charitable interpretation of my actions, yet I hope the great advantage I enjoy under Your Majesty, which I own I would never expect in any other change of government, may reasonably convince your majesty and the world that I am actuated by a higher principle, when I offer that violence to my inclination and interest as to desert Your Majesty at a time when your affairs seem to challenge the strictest obedience from all your subjects, much more from one who lies under the greatest personal obligations to Your Majesty. This, sir, could proceed from nothing but the inviolable dictates of my conscience, and a necessary concern for my religion, (which no good man can oppose), and with which I am instructed nothing can come in competition. Heaven knows with what partiality my dutiful opinion of Your Majesty has hitherto represented those unhappy designs which inconsiderate and self-interested men have framed against Your Majesty’s true interest and the Protestant religion; but as I can no longer join with such to give a pretence of conquest to bring them to effect, so I will always with the hazard of my life and fortune (so much Your Majesty’s due) to preserve your royal person and lawful rights, with all the tender concerns and dutiful respect that becomes, sir, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and most obliged subject and servant,
It must, by any standards, have been an agonising letter to write. In it Churchill acknowledged that he was James’s creature, and surmised that he could not expect to prosper as well under any future government, although at the time nobody can have been sure what that might be. It was then perfectly possible that James might have remained king, though with sharply circumscribed powers, and in that case Churchill’s desertion must have been fatal to his prospects, as he himself implied: had he been certain that William and Mary would indeed succeed James then the first part of the letter would have been palpably absurd. His supporters would maintain that he was sincere in stressing the inviolable dictates of conscience and a necessary concern for religion, while his critics saw the whole document as transparent cover for self-seeking treason. ‘Churchill, as if to add something ideal to his imitation of Iscariot,’ thundered G.K. Chesterton (who, as a Roman Catholic, was parti pris in this debate), ‘went to James with wanton professions of love and loyalty, went forth in arms as if to defend the country from invasion, and then calmly handed the country over to the invader.’16
A middle course might be fairer. All Churchill’s life, both before and after the events of that rainy autumn, shows us a man whose experience of being on the losing side convinced him that it should not be repeated. In this he had much in common with many contemporaries who, like the vicar of Bray, would trim their sails to suit the wind. We have already seen that his suspicions of James’s maladroitness went back at least ten years, and that, whatever we may make of the commitment to Protestantism expressed in his letter, he was not prepared, as some of his countrymen were, to become a Roman Catholic. He thought that James, a winner in 1685, had become a loser by 1688, and was probably close to what Matthew Glozier identified as the bedrock of the army of his age, those ‘professional gentlemen officers in search of a livelihood, in conditions which did not unduly compromise their religious and social consciences’, who thought much the same.17 John Childs has a similar view of the bonds of professional identity which linked the wider army conspirators. Without the contribution made by the deserters in 1688, he suggests, ‘unconscious and vaguely dishonourable though it was, William might very well have been without any English army at all in the spring of 1689’.18
Churchill remained in treasonous contact with the Jacobites for the rest of his life. This is not because he was ideologically Jacobite (had he been so, then surely the moment to show his zeal would have been in 1688) but because he was never a man to burn his bridges. Yet we cannot doubt the contact. For instance, in February 1716, not long before Churchill suffered the first of his disabling strokes, an agent wrote to the Earl of Mar, leader of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, to say that Captain David Lloyd, another agent, had delivered a letter from the Old Pretender, James II’s eldest son, to Churchill,
to whom Davie downright forced his way. Mark [Marlborough] read the letter with respect. Davie urged and enforced the argument with tears, and drew tears from the other, who protested before God that he intended to serve Mr Keith [the Old Pretender] and would do it, and that his nephew [the Duke of Berwick] knew he intended it and in what manner. But that at present he cannot help some things. That he expects his nephew himself will come ere long, and that in the meantime Mr Keith should handsomely parry a little, and avoid a decision, till matters can be prepared.19
The Duke of Berwick later confirmed to Mar that: ‘Mark has been, it’s true, for these many years in correspondence with his nephew, and has always given assurances of his zeal for Mr Keith, but to this hour has never explained in what manner he intends it.’20 Berwick has it in a nutshell. It was never quite the right time, and the manner in which Churchill was to offer assistance to exiled king and pretender was never clear: but he was to go to his grave without ever wholly disowning the Jacobites.
In one sense it is not certain that Churchill was so very different to many of the senior army officers of our own generation. Few of these thought that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a good idea, and many went much further in private, arguing that it was possibly illegal and unlikely to be successful in the long term. But soldiering was their job, and there was certainly ample short-term satisfaction to be had from doing what they were paid to do, deposing a monstrous tyrant, and genuinely trying to make their bit of Iraq a better place in the process. Never underestimate the professional soldier’s desire to be exactly that, and do not expect that he will emerge with more credit from his moral contradictions than John Churchill did from his. It may not be easy to admire Churchill’s desertion of James, but it is less hard to understand it, and many, in all soul and conscience, would not have acted differently.
On 25 November James issued orders that Sarah Churchill should be put under house arrest in the Tyrconnells’ lodgings in St James’s Palace, while the wife of Colonel Berkeley, who had also abandoned James, should be confined to her father’s London house. Happily for the conspirators, news that James was on his way back to London reached the capital before the arrest orders. This ‘put the Princess into a great fright’, said Sarah. ‘She sent for me, told me her distress, and declared, that rather than see her father she would jump out of a window.’ Sarah went to Bishop Compton, who was hiding in Suffolk Street, and they arranged an escape plan. The princess retired to bed as usual on the evening of the twenty-fifth, locking the door of her chamber and telling her staff that she was not to be disturbed.
Early on the morning of 26 November Anne, accompanied by Sarah and Mrs Berkeley, slipped down some newly-built back
When James reached London he was shocked to find Anne gone. ‘God help me!’ he cried. ‘Even my children have forsaken me.’ Lord Mulgrave, his chamberlain, argued that even the desertion of James’s officers was as nothing when compared to the evidence of common purpose between Anne, Mary and William. He did not simply nurse a particular grievance against John Churchill, but believed that Anne’s escape had been organised by Sarah. By now it was evident that there would be no real campaign. Orders telling the garrison of Portsmouth to stock up for a siege simply increased the flow of desertions, and James had lost the war he never fought.
Most historians take the view that Feversham, useless from the start, was paralysed by James’s departure. It is, though, possible that Feversham had sniffed the way the wind was blowing. He was a Huguenot, and although he had left France long before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes he could never return there. If he wished to enjoy his English estates, he would need to make his peace with whoever sat on the throne after 1688, and like Churchill, he could not be sure who this might be. When Percy Kirke arrived at his headquarters under arrest, Feversham at once released him and allowed him to join William. This was not the act of an officer who thought that he might yet be on the winning side, but rather of someone anxious to make his peace with the victor, whoever he was.
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