Marlborough, p.21Richard Holmes
The campaign ended more in farce than tragedy, with cities, towns and garrisons declaring for William, and marching parties of loyal troops finding themselves swamped in a hostile countryside. By mid-December the remains of James’s army, thoroughly disheartened, was cooped up around Windsor and Uxbridge. Shortly before fleeing to France, James sent Feversham a badly-worded letter which included the sentence, ‘I do not expect you should expose yourselves by resisting a foreign army and a poisoned nation.’ Feversham saw this as an instruction to disband the army, and set about doing so, although his orders reached only a small proportion of the soldiers still loyal to James. Elsewhere there were murderous attacks on Catholic officers and men, and the Protestant residue of Lord Forbes’s Regiment, left behind in Colnbrook after the departure of the disbanded Catholics, averted a large-scale attack by fiercely anti-Catholic local people only by demonstrating, to a helpful local minister, how well the men could recite the responses of the Anglican liturgy. Disintegration was not what William wanted, for he hoped to use the English army in his struggle against Louis XIV, and when Feversham went to Windsor on 18 December to invite William to make his formal entry into London he found himself arrested. William soon forgave him and made him master of the Royal Hospital of St Catherine, near the Tower of London.
James made one attempt to flee to France on 10 November, but was caught by some Faversham fishermen, who, taking him for an escaping Jesuit, behaved with such effrontery that they were later specifically exempted from the general pardons promised by the exiled king. Lord Ailesbury found him with several days’ growth of beard, looking, he thought, like Charles I at his trial. He had James shaved and gave him a clean shirt, and for a moment it seemed that he might just re-establish himself. But most of his former supporters had now abandoned him, William wanted him out of the country, and James himself was anxious to join his queen in France. He repeatedly inveighed against the traitorous Churchill as he travelled from Ambleteuse, on the Channel coast, to St Germain en Laye, which was to house his exiled court.
Settling the Crown
A Convention Parliament met in January 1689. The Commons eventually concluded that James had effectively abdicated, while some of the Lords maintained that he had deserted, and that Mary was already queen by hereditary right. William and Mary were eventually declared joint monarchs, with succession going to whichever of them survived. Thereafter the crown would pass to their children, though it was most unlikely that they would have any, and then to Anne and her children. Anne later referred to this agreement as her ‘abdication’, and Churchill and Dorset carried word of it to the Lords on 6 February. In conversation with Halifax, now one of his most trusted advisers, William acknowledged that he had depended upon the Churchills to secure this agreement.
[William] said that Lord Churchill could not govern him nor my lady, the Princess his wife, as they did the Prince and Princess of Denmark.
This showed 1. that Lord Churchill was very assuming, which he did not like; 2. It showed a jealous side of the Princess, and that side of the house.
… The foregoing discourse happened upon the occasion of its being said that Lord Churchill might perhaps prevail with the Princess of Denmark to give her consent [for William to precede her in the succession]. That made the sharpness; it seems that there was not compliance, etc.22
Sarah, for her part, believed that William, now safely on the throne, thought that ‘the Prince and Princess were more use than they ever were likely to be again’.23
The Churchills, on the winning side in the autumn of 1688, were beginning to drift slowly towards uncomfortable middle ground by the following spring, and soon passed beyond it to more wintry headlands. Quite possibly the tension between William and Churchill was founded in the very act of Churchill’s betrayal of James, for however much it suited William, it was not an encouraging precedent. Ailesbury thought that although ‘the king was in a manner necessitated to make use of [Churchill’s] services … at heart he never esteemed him’.24 Some myths, though, can be jettisoned easily enough. The Jacobite Life of James II has Churchill greeted, on his arrival at the Williamite camp in October 1688, by William’s second in command, Frederick Schomberg, soon to be Duke of Schomberg in the English peerage, with the words that ‘He was the first lieutenant general he had ever heard that had deserted from his colours.’ Schomberg was a professional soldier who had been a marshal of France until the Revocation, and who would soon die in battle fighting French and Irish soldiers on the Boyne. He was unlikely to criticise another officer for changing sides because of religious scruple. Moreover, Churchill had a portrait of Schomberg painted to hang at Holywell, an improbable act had Schomberg offered him such an insult.
However, Churchill’s conduct in the House of Lords during the succession debate cannot have pleased William. Although he signed the Act of Association, by which seventy peers bound themselves to support the principles of William’s declaration, in January 1689, he voted for the extreme Tory solution to the constitutional puzzle, a regency which would govern on behalf of James, who, as lawful king, could not be deposed. This was certainly the solution then favoured by Princess Anne, who was pregnant again, and who was, so Clarendon thought, worried about ‘anything that should be of prejudice to her and her children’. The following month, when the Lords voted in favour of having a monarch rather than a regent, Churchill was absent, pleading sickness.
However, once the settlement had been agreed, Princess Anne made it clear that she supported it. Her friends were rewarded. Prince George was made Duke of Cumberland, which gave him a seat in the House of Lords. Churchill was elevated to the earldom of Marlborough on 9 April 1689, two days before the coronation of William and Mary, in recognition of the part he had played in undermining the morale of James’s army and in helping persuade Anne to agree to the constitutional settlement. He was also sworn of the Privy Council, and made a gentleman of the king’s bedchamber.
Marlborough, as we can at last call him, carried out his first official acts for his new sovereigns by assisting in the remodelling of the army, an urgent task if the damage done by Feversham’s disbandment was to be rectified, diehard Jacobites removed and reliable officers promoted. There was a measure of urgency, as regiments were already being shipped abroad for the opening of the 1689 campaigning season, though there was no formal declaration of war between England and France in May. There was one major mutiny, tragically amongst the Scots veterans of Dumbarton’s Regiment, who at first refused to go abroad. Other regiments trailed such a comet’s tail of deserters as they marched for ports of embarkation that they were disbanded and their remaining soldiers posted to more reliable units.
Some officers resigned, either because they remained loyal to James or because they had simply had their fill of soldiering. Others were fingered as unreliable by resolute Williamites in their regiments. Major James Maitland of the Scots Guards kept his battalion well in hand as it marched to Ipswich, where secretary Blathwayt ordered him to ‘send an account in writing of what may concern the regiment and of what officers are removing and fit to be preferred’. Old loyalties were rewarded: the Earl of Oxford became colonel of the Blues again, and Lieutenant Colonel John Coy (a Tangier veteran whom we last saw as a dragoon captain at Sedgemoor, covering the Parrett bridges) was promoted to the vacancy created when his Irish Catholic colonel, Richard Hamilton, was imprisoned in the Tower. William courted some senior professionals who had the experience to help the army through its travails. Our old acquaintance Colonel Theophilus Oglethorpe was pressed to declare for William and Mary, but retired coolly to his house at Godalming in Surrey, and soon added to the growing number of officers and ex-officers arrested later that year on suspicion of Jacobitism.
Ailesbury, with his own axe to grind, tells us that he asked Schomberg for a commission, but Schomberg sent his secretary to tell him that ‘The army is new modelling, and all is done in the Prince’s closet … My Lord Churchill proposes all, I am sent for to say the Genera
Ailesbury predictably goes on to say that Marlborough was primarily interested in making money. ‘The harvest my Lord Churchill made by this was vast,’ he writes, ‘for all was sold.’27 This must be treated with some caution, not least because Marlborough himself was ordered to the Continent on active service that spring, and much of the practical work of remodelling was completed by a commission ‘for reforming abuses within the army’, whose military members included Major General Sir John Lanier, Major General Percy Kirke and Brigadier General Charles Trelawney. Moreover, while Marlborough knew the army’s senior officers, so great an influx of junior officers was required that much of the work was done by busy regimental colonels: the Earl of Meath found forty-one new officers for the future Royal Regiment of Foot of Ireland.
However, even by 1689 the image of the Marlboroughs as unfailingly rapacious was already firmly established. Ailesbury walked round the garden at Holywell with Sarah Marlborough a year later. ‘Lord,’ said Sarah, with her favourite beginning-of-sentence emphasis, ‘they keep such a noise at our wealth. I do assure you that it doth not exceed seventy thousand pounds, and what will that come to when laid out in land, and besides we have a son and five daughters to provide for.’28 She and John were now thinking far beyond the modest accomplishments of the early years of their marriage: their ambitions were fast becoming dynastic.
Marlborough was a natural choice to command the British force of 8,000 men sent to the Low Countries in the spring of 1689. He was senior and experienced, and William might have thought it safer to send him to the Continent rather than to Ireland, where James had arrived in March, in case his newly professed loyalty became strained. Marlborough’s contingent formed part of the small army commanded by Georg Friedrich, Prince of Waldeck, intended to hold in check a French army of around 40,000 under Marshal d’Humières, which had moved into the southern portion of the Spanish Netherlands at the beginning of May. The main French effort was to be made on the Rhine, and d’Humières was simply bidden to remain where he was. Waldeck, with roughly the same number of men, felt unable to dislodge him.
Marlborough had made his mark even before his men had fired a shot in anger. The events of the past six months had left the army confused and humiliated. In many regiments officers and men had not yet got to know one another; William’s preference for all things Dutch was especially galling to the foot guards, who saw the Dutch Blue Guards replace them on duty in London, and there were still some Jacobites in the army who, usually when in drink, noisily aired their affection for James II. Desertion, that running sore of the armies of the age, was a major problem, and was not helped by the ease with which an agile man could slip between allied or even enemy contingents, scooping an enlistment bonus every time he did so. Many observers believed that the débâcle of 1688 was a fair comment on the British army, and we cannot blame them. Even Waldeck, not history’s liveliest general, thought that Marlborough’s soldiers suffered from ‘sickness, slackness, wretched clothing and the worst of shoes’.
The campaign that follows is Marlborough in miniature. He had three months to train and discipline his army before exposing it to the test of battle. He drilled it hard, worked tirelessly at getting uniforms, arms and equipment into order, and by July Waldeck was reporting to William that he could not ‘sufficiently praise the English’, and that he found ‘the whole so well ordered that I have admired it, and I can say that Monsieur Milord Marlbrouck and the Colonels have shown that their application has had a good effect’.29
On 26 August Waldeck crossed the Sambre near Charleroi and camped, some ten miles further south, just north of the small walled town of Walcourt. He probably did so simply to give a fresh opportunity to his foraging parties. These were not small groups of soldiers striving to buy or steal food for themselves (although some men seized any opportunity to take extra rations or even to desert), but organised parties bent on collecting hay for the cavalry. At this time of the year hay had already been mown, but earlier in the season they would have been compelled to cut grass themselves. The armies of the age usually contained two horses (mounts for the cavalry and officers as well as draught animals for guns and wagons) for every three men. A force the size of Waldeck’s needed to find some 25,000 pounds of hay a day during the campaigning season, and it was impractical to carry it long distances. Like sharks, constantly on the move to keep water passing through their gills, the armies of the era needed to amble across the landscape to bring fresh forage within their reach.
Armies engaged in foraging were axiomatically vulnerable. D’Humières had, in any case, recently been reinforced, and as soon as he saw that Waldeck had his foragers out he attacked them. On 27 August a single British battalion under Colonel Hodges was posted in the valley about two miles south of Walcourt to act as a rallying point for the foragers, and there were Dutch horse and dragoons further south. As the French advanced northwards the Allied cavalry patrols fell back in contact with them, giving the foragers time to get away. Marlborough rode forward at about 10 a.m. to find Hodges’ men, who had ‘lined some convenient hedges’, in good order but under growing pressure, though happily the ground did not allow the French to hook round on either side of the battalion. With the aid of some cavalry of his own, he brought Hodges back, first to a watermill halfway to Walcourt, and then right back to join the rest of his force, on the high ground just east of Walcourt itself, though not before Lieutenant Colonel Graham and Captain Davison had been mortally wounded and about thirty men killed.
At this stage d’Humières could quite well have broken off the action without discredit: if he had failed to catch the foraging parties he had at least brought the process to a premature halt. But, inflamed by the clash so far and unaware that Waldeck had now concentrated his whole army in and around Walcourt (the great hill on the town’s east not only offered excellent fields of fire to Marlborough’s guns, but screened from view the troops behind it), he pressed his attack. It is possible that the poor reputation then enjoyed by British troops induced him to take risks he might have deemed inappropriate with others. The defences of Walcourt itself were old and ramshackle, and the place was held by a single Luneburg regiment. A determined party of Gardes Français piled faggots against the town’s gates and tried to set them alight, but Waldeck reported that ‘most of them were killed’. At about 2 p.m., Brigadier General Thomas Tollemache took his own Coldstream Guards and a German battalion into the town to strengthen its garrison, and further French assaults were beaten off with heavy loss.
Marlborough was to become a master of feeling the balance of a battle, and Walcourt helped him develop this quality. When d’Humières’ men were played out by successive attacks on the town, Waldeck ordered a counterattack. At about 6 p.m. Major General Slangenberg’s Dutch infantry went forward on his right, and on his left Marlborough personally led the Life Guards and the Blues in a charge that broke the leading French infantry (the French acknowledged six guards battalions ‘for the most part ruined’) and decided the battle at a stroke. He would have done even more damage had d’Humières’ cavalry commander, Claude de Villars (a veteran of the siege of Maastricht, where he and Marlborough had been on the same side), not led his own horsemen into the battle to help the beaten infantry limp away. The French lost perhaps as many as 2,000 men (including a brigadier general and the colonel of the Royal-Champagne infantry regiment) and six guns to no more than three hundred Allied casualties.
Although Waldeck was n
Court and Country
While Marlborough was winning laurels abroad, at home Sarah was in the eye of a rising storm, whipped up by the personal rivalry which was characteristic of court life. In this case it involved the children of Sir Edward and Lady Villiers. They were distant relatives of the Marlboroughs, and the children had been playmates of Queen Mary. In 1685 Willem Bentinck, William’s closest adviser, had been sent to England to congratulate James on his succession. Anne had warned him to ‘check the insolence’ of one of the Villiers girls, Elizabeth, now William’s mistress, to her royal sister Mary. As Bentinck was then married to Elizabeth’s sister Anne he did not much appreciate the mission, and there was thereafter friction between Anne and Bentinck, created Earl of Portland in 1689.
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