Marlborough, p.24Richard Holmes
The Tower of London, where Marlborough found himself in May 1692, was England’s principal state prison, though it also did duty as royal menagerie (the largest, most splendidly-endowed male lion in Charles II’s time had been called Rowley after his royal master), arsenal, mint and record office. Prisoners of consequence were usually lodged in apartments on either side of Water Lane, the cobbled street just inside the double drum-fronted Byward Tower, or in buildings opening off Tower Green. Their material conditions were often relatively comfortable, and they sometimes had their families with them: Sir Walter Raleigh’s son Carew was born in the Bloody Tower in 1605. The Countess of Ailesbury conceived in the Tower, and her husband blamed the fact that the birth wrecked her health on the governor’s refusal to allow a midwife to attend her. The comparatively gentlemanly conditions of detention meant that there were some escapes, the last of them in 1716 by the Jacobite Earl of Nithsdale, who slipped out in his wife’s clothes.
Marlborough, perhaps understandably, has left no account of his brief stay in the Tower, but the Earl of Ailesbury, mewed up there a few years later after being charged with plotting James’s restoration, reports that he was so courteously treated that he gave venison and wine to the captain, lieutenant and ensign of the company on guard. They felt unable to dine with him, but their colonel, the Earl of Romney (Henry Sidney, formerly a Williamite plotter, and now master general of the ordnance and colonel of the 1st Foot Guards), gave an order that was ‘gracious and gentlemanlike and entirely suitable to him’. ‘Pray go,’ he declared, ‘and if I was not engaged I would go there also.’61 Ailesbury walked for five hours a day across his thirty-three-foot room, daily completing fifteen ‘London miles’ and, because of the numerous nails in the floor, getting through a pair of shoes a fortnight. His stay there was sharpened not only by concern for his own fate (he was released on five recognisances of £10,000 apiece), but by his fears for his fellow prisoner Major General Sir John Fenwick, charged with conspiring to assassinate William, whose quarters were within earshot and who was plainly terrified of what awaited him. He was sentenced to a traitor’s death by an Act of Attainder (the last Englishman to be thus condemned), and was beheaded on Tower Green in January 1697. When the time came, though, ‘he behaved himself decently, nobly and well’.
Marlborough and his fellow accused were committed ‘close prisoners’, and visitors required orders from the Earl of Nottingham to get into the Tower. Anne warned Sarah that she and Prince George were likely to be placed under guard if the wind changed, allowing the French fleet, presumably escorting an invasion army, to leave Brest, and urged her to visit as soon as she could, because a meeting might be impossible later. Sarah was already at her wits’ end, for her younger son Charles was desperately ill. On 22 May, with his father still imprisoned, Charles died, and was buried without his father at the graveside. On 19 May Admiral Tourville, out from Brest with a following wind and forty-four sail of the line, met Admiral Russell’s larger Anglo-Dutch fleet. In a running battle which began rather well for the French off Cape Barfleur, and ended dismally for them in the bay of St Vaast-la-Hougue, Tourville was comprehensively beaten and his flagship Soleil Royal destroyed. In fact the victory did not rule out a future French-Jacobite invasion, for the French had made up their losses in two years, but it drew the moment’s sting and enabled Mary and her Council to proceed with some judgement.
William had already warned them that the arrests were ‘a delicate matter’, no doubt fearing that a trial might misfire. Anne assured Sarah on 12 May ‘that they cannot keep Lord Marlborough in the Tower longer than the [legal] term, and I hope, when Parliament sits, care will be taken that people are not clapped up for nothing, or else there will be no living in quiet for anybody but insolent Dutch or sneaking mercenary Englishmen’.62 Marlborough’s own confidence stemmed from early recognition that, whatever the government might once have had against him, the evidence which had put him in the Tower would not stand scrutiny. He told Danby, lord president of the Council, that any letter produced to incriminate him ‘must and will’ be shown to be a forgery. He assured the Duke of Devonshire, lord high steward, that ‘any such letter … must appear to be forged, and made use of only to keep me in prison’. Finally, he told Halifax that his counsel would move for his Habeas Corpus as soon as the next law term opened. He would demand bail, and urged Halifax to stand by him.63
This was not the correspondence of a man who had doubt about the outcome, and the incriminating letter was indeed soon exposed as a forgery, though a very clever one. Marlborough was kept in the Tower till 15 June, when he brought a writ of Habeas Corpus before the Court of the King’s Bench. The government demanded bail of £6,000, and when Halifax and Shrewsbury stood surety for him the queen spitefully struck them both from the roll of the Privy Council. Marlborough’s name was still on it, and she drew her pen through that too. In October Marlborough pointed out that Robert Young had been convicted of perjury (he later excelled himself and was hanged for coining), and that it was therefore unreasonable to keep him on bail, but the Council would not budge. By now a last attempt at reconciliation between Queen Mary and her sister had failed, and the two rival courts were in a state of ‘siege warfare’ in which the queen held all the advantages.
Princess Anne had leased Berkeley House in Piccadilly from Lord Berkeley, groom of the stole to Prince George, who was in turn to move into the Cockpit, although it would take some time for the arrangements to be put in train. In mid-August Anne’s court left Syon House for Bath, where they discovered that the mayor and corporation had been forbidden from showing them the ‘respect or ceremony’ owing to members of the royal family without specific leave from the queen. Anne, pregnant yet again, was scornful, and told Sarah that if they expected to get any change out of her by such small-minded behaviour ‘they will be mightily disappointed’. Sarah herself blamed this petty-mindedness on Lord Rochester.
I remember, when he was treasurer, he made his white staff be carried by his [sedan] chair-side, by a servant bare-headed; in this, as in other things, so very unlike his successor, my Lord Godolphin, who cut his white staff shorter than ordinary, that he might hide it, taking it into the chair with him.64
If Mary and her advisers hoped that all these petty humiliations would drive a wedge between Sarah and Anne, they were indeed mistaken. ‘I hope in Christ you will never think more of leaving me,’ wrote Anne, ‘for I would be satisfied to do you the least service, and nothing but death can ever make me part with you. For if it be possible I am every day more and more yours.’65
The Cockpit circle, strengthened by adversity, reunited at Berkeley House that autumn ‘in a companionship of wrath and misfortune’, and now joined by Shrewsbury. Marlborough remained in contact with Jacobite agents, though we may doubt Lord Ailesbury’s claim that this was now carried out with William’s knowledge to assist in his penetration of Jacobite plans. Sir John Dalrymple, later 1st Earl of Stair and then a key figure in the Williamite government of Scotland, believed that Marlborough was now a leading member of the opposition to the king, and capitalised on the fact that Parliament had been prorogued, and would not meet till November.
That interval gave time for Lord Marlborough, who was enraged at what he called the King’s ingratitude, to the Whigs and to himself, and whose favour with the next heir to the throne, high character in his profession, and above all whose power of industry and intrigue made his influence, though he was only a soldier, and in prison, be felt in every line of life in the kingdom, to prepare a regular and concerted opposition in Parliament.66
Meanwhile the War of the League of Augsburg trudged on. In June 1692 the French took the fortress of Namur on the River Meuse, a crucial cornerstone to the defence of the Spanish Netherlands, and went on to beat William at Steenkirk in August, killing both Mackay and Lanier in the process. When William returned in the autumn he found that Count Solms’ alleged desertion of his leading division at Steenkirk (‘Now we shall see how the bulldogs will
The naval victory of La Hougue encouraged William and his advisers to plan an attack on the naval base of Brest, with the dual intention of inflicting further damage on the French fleet and forcing the French to divert troops from the Low Countries to protect a coastline now apparently vulnerable to British and Dutch seapower. Such excursions were popular with the navy, which naturally secured the leading role, and with certain army officers, who hoped that their success in scrambling briskly up some French beach would not be overshadowed by a Dutchman. But their real merit was political: they gratified the trading interest in the Commons, which liked to see the naval cudgel brandished, and they seemed to reflect a genuinely ‘English’ approach to strategy, rather than the Continental commitment so clearly favoured by William. Many canny contemporaries, however, recognised that they generally accomplished very little, and Shrewsbury admitted to William: ‘The designs that we have on foot appear so frivolous that it is not very pleasant writing upon them.’68
Given his personal preference for concentrating on the Low Countries the Brest project was never William’s first choice, but his attempt to forge a Mediterranean strategy based on the maintenance of a powerful Anglo-Dutch fleet foundered when the huge ‘Smyrna convoy’ of Dutch and English merchantmen bound for the eastern Mediterranean was ambushed by the French off Cape St Vincent in June 1693. London’s losses alone equalled those of the Great Fire of 1666. William and his advisers were vociferously blamed, and the king had to part with Lord Nottingham. A fleet hastily dispatched to round up the Smyrna survivors and, so William hoped, form the nucleus of his Mediterranean fleet, was devastated by a storm, and so the Brest project emerged, faute de mieux, as the great hope of 1694.
It is easiest to tell the end of this disagreeable story first. Admiral Russell sailed from Plymouth on 2 June, and continued southwards with his main fleet after sending a squadron under Rear Admiral Berkeley to take Lieutenant General Tollemache’s little army into Camaret Bay on 7 June. As the squadron first stood into the bay the vigorous fire of the batteries covering the approaches to Brest proved that the element of surprise was long lost. That genial hero ‘Salamander’ Cutts offered to take fifty grenadiers ashore to sample the quality of the fire, of which he was something of a connoisseur. Tollemache affirmed that they could not in honour retreat, and Berkeley felt that he must not disappoint such courage.
On the following day the squadron stood close inshore and took on the batteries, while Tollemache landed, in the teeth of heavy fire, with fifteen hundred men. The attackers were assailed by infantry and cavalry on the beach itself, and attempts to withdraw were frustrated by the fact that the landing had taken place on a falling tide, and few of the boats could be refloated. Tollemache, hard hit, was carried to safety, but his wound became infected and he died in Plymouth: he was buried with his ancestors in the church of St Mary at Helmingham in Suffolk.69
William had that year reappointed Shrewsbury as one of his secretaries of state, and immediately after the disaster he told him of his surprise that the attack, which was ‘at discretion’, and dependent upon the opinion of senior officers on the spot, had not been better reconnoitred, for the French ‘were well apprised of our intended attack, and made active preparations for defence; for what was practicable two months ago, was no longer so at present’.70 It was evident that the French had known about the attack long enough to take steps to meet it, and Macaulay is among those who argue that the project was betrayed by Marlborough in a letter of 4 May 1694 to James II. The charge is very grave: this ‘Camaret Bay letter’ ensured that the landing failed and that Tollemache, Marlborough’s rival, was killed as its direct result.
The origins of the letter and its associated documents lie in the murky world of Jacobite politics. Captain David Lloyd visited London that March and claimed that he was received by Godolphin, Marlborough, Russell and Shrewsbury with protestations of support for the Jacobite cause. Marlborough gave nothing away: indeed, as he was out of office and had recently been accused of treason, it is fair to wonder what information he might have been privy to. Lloyd maintained that Godolphin, who was indeed a minister, told him ‘that Russell would infallibly appear before Brest, the land officers believing that the place may be insulted even though the sea officers were of a different opinion’, and Lloyd’s report on these conversations, some of them so similar that we must suspect collusion, arrived at Versailles on 1 May. However, the plan was ‘town-talk in London’ some time before this, and we know that the French began to strengthen their defences around Brest on 22 April: Vauban himself arrived there on the twenty-third. A letter written in England on 4 May would have taken some time to reach James at St Germain, and then be passed on to Versailles: it could only have arrived long after preparations to meet the landing were well advanced.
This far, then, even if the Camaret Bay letter is authentic, it was hardly the cause of the reverse. But the currents run deeper still. The letter, now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, is a French transcription of the original, and is not in Marlborough’s hand. It is in the handwriting of David Nairne, James’s under-secretary, and its heading affirms that it was translated from a ciphered document sent to France by the Jacobite agent Major General Edward Sackville. The original, if indeed there was one, has never come to light. It is, though, very hard to imagine a man as careful as Marlborough, only recently freed from suspicion of treason, writing a letter which would kill him if it fell into the wrong hands. Winston S. Churchill concludes that ‘Such evidence would not hang a dog,’ and it is hard to disagree.
Some historians, surmising that there can be no smoke without fire, and aware of Marlborough’s other contacts with the Jacobites, have concluded that he probably did write the original letter, though he did so only when he knew that it would be received too late for its information to be of any practical use. John Paget argues that ‘his offence seems to have been against James, in seeking credit for a service of no value, [rather] than against William’.71 C.T. Atkinson agrees that the material Marlborough disclosed was of no value, but nonetheless finds this ‘the meanest episode in his career’.72 Stephen Saunders Webb says that the letter was ‘a political ploy, not a betrayal of comrades. Marlborough had made an overdue payment on an unsavoury insurance policy.’73 They are rather like a shaky bench of magistrates who, unable to resolve a case to their satisfaction, decide to find the defendant guilty but then impose a token punishment. The fact remains that the evidence linking Marlborough with the Camaret Bay letter is slender. The assertion that he hoped to have Tollemache killed is patently ludicrous. How was he to expect that Tollemache, who as overall land commander had good reason to spare himself (and had the Salamander himself to hand for those dangerous tasks at which he excelled), would land with the first wave?
Sir Tresham Lever, Godolphin’s biographer, put the whole episode in the context of English politicians seeking to insure themselves against a Jacobite reviva
The tide of politics was beginning to turn in Marlborough’s favour. When corresponding with William over Camaret Bay, Shrewsbury, back in office but only recently a refugee in the Cockpit circle, wrote:
Writing upon this subject it is impossible to forget what has here become a very general discourse, the probability and conveniency of Your Majesty receiving my Lord Marlborough into your favour. He has been with me since this news to offer his services, with all the expressions of duty and fidelity imaginable. What I can say by way of persuasion upon this subject will signify but little, since I very well remember when Your Majesty discoursed with me upon it in the spring, when you were fully convinced of his usefulness; but some points remained of a nature too delicate for me to pretend to advise upon, and on which Your Majesty is the only and best judge; who if those could be committed to Your Majesty’s satisfaction I can but think he is capable of being very serviceable. It is so unquestionably his interest to be faithful, that single argument makes me doubt it not.75
The demise of Tollemache, coming so soon as it did after the deaths of Mackay and Lanier, undoubtedly helped Marlborough’s case. William was under continual pressure to employ more British generals, and he had just lost three of his best. Indeed, just as Sir John Moore’s death at Corunna in 1809 opened up the field for the future Duke of Wellington, so the fall of that brave and headstrong officer Thomas Tollemache left a yawning gap on the generals’ list.
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