Marlborough, p.39Richard Holmes
The king would hear that he had lost over 34,000 men, including about 14,000 prisoners, the latter such a millstone round the necks of their captors that Cardonnel was soon complaining to Ellis, ‘We know not how to dispose of them … if we could get well rid of these gents I hope we might soon make an end of the campaign on this side, for the enemy will hardly make another stand.’94 Soon afterwards Mrs Davies testified to the abject misery of the captives, most stripped to their shirts and some even ‘naked as from the womb’. There were also about a hundred guns, 129 infantry colours and 110 cavalry standards, and a whole mass of impedimenta, not to mention ten general officers. So many senior officers had been taken that normal arrangements for exchanging them on a rank-for-rank basis broke down altogether. Marshal Tallard remained in gentlemanly confinement in Nottingham for the next eight years. He lived in Newdigate House in Castlegate, showed his captors how to make lace and proper bread, cultivated celery, hitherto not eaten in England, and, so the Whigs complained, organised shipments of champagne and burgundy for deserving anti-war Tories. When he returned to Versailles, Tallard was well received, though he never commanded again, and remembered the plain of Höchstädt as much for the staggering scale of his defeat as for the fact that his youngest boy, serving on his staff, had been pistolled by one of Bothmar’s dragoons.
The Allies had lost 14,000 killed and wounded, 9,000 of them in Marlborough’s wing. The Dutch had lost almost the same as the British (2,200 to 2,234), and the Danes, who carried Lutzingen at the day’s end, a dreadful 2,400. It was a victory which did not simply change the balance of the war in Germany at a single bloody stroke, but gave Marlborough and his men a cachet which they would retain until the very end of the conflict. The campaign had begun for Marlborough in political and military uncertainty and marital discord. That evening he borrowed a scrap of paper from an aide (it had begun life as a tavern bill, and then done duty for some logistic calculations) and wrote, neither to his queen, nor to his old friend Heinsius, but to the dearest woman in the world. Scarcely was its ink dry than the dashing Colonel Dan Parke galloped off with one of the most famous scribblings in British military history.
I have not time to say more, but beg you will give my duty to the Queen and let her know her army has had a glorious victory. M Tallard and two other generals are in my coach and I am following the rest. The bearer, my aide de camp Colonel Parke, will give her an account of what has passed. I shall do it in a day or two by another more at large.95
The Lines of Brabant
Ripples of Victory
It took the hard-riding Dan Parke eight days to reach London, and Sarah immediately sent him on, hot-hoofed, to Windsor. When he arrived the queen and Prince George were playing chequers on the terrace. Anne told Sarah that ‘this glorious victory … next to God is wholly owing to dear Mr Freeman’.1 It is, though, noticeable that her letter to Marlborough himself was rather warmer than that to Sarah. The duchess had, over the past year, devoted herself to dislodging the remaining High Tories from government just as surely as her husband had concentrated on beating the French and Bavarians. The Duke of Buckingham, lord privy seal, was, for the moment, her own Schellenberg, though she did not defeat him till the following year. She justified her intransigence by telling Anne that she was simply telling her the truth, but although she seems to have been blissfully unaware of the fact, she was doing serious long-term damage to her relationship with the queen.
Blenheim was almost as much of a shock to the Tories as it was to Louis. They at once did their best to belittle it by equating it to Sir George Rooke’s capture of Gibraltar, enabling Sarah, at her vituperative best, to snap that Blenheim was apparently ‘an unfortunate accident, and by the visible dissatisfaction of some people on the news of it one would imagine that, instead of beating the French, he had beat the Church’.2 Marlborough, always nervous about his wife’s political views, at first tried to avoid getting involved in her assault on Buckingham, but eventually he fell into step, and told Godolphin that Buckingham should go and be replaced by the Whig Duke of Newcastle. There is, however, good reason to doubt his personal inclination in the matter, for on 20 October 1704 he had told Sarah: ‘I am very little concerned what any party thinks of me … I will endeavour to leave a good name behind me, in countries that have hardly any blessing but that of not knowing the detested names of Whig and Tory.’3
That autumn the political scene was enlivened by an attempt by the Tories to tack an Occasional Conformity Bill onto a Bill modifying the land tax. This was a piece of constitutional sharp practice, for the Lords could not, by well-established precedent, throw out a financial Bill, and the Tories hoped to bring in their favourite measure through the back door.4 Salamander Cutts, as an Irish peer able to sit in the Commons and, as governor of the Isle of Wight, every bit as able (despite frequent absences to smell gunpowder and deal with perennial money worries) to secure his return for the borough of Newport with its twenty-four electors, regarded the decision as ‘of the utmost importance’, for the success of this sort of tacking would have produced irreconcilable enmity between the two Houses, forcing the queen to dissolve Parliament and imperilling ‘the common cause against France’.
The queen, who attended several sessions of the Lords, sitting ‘at first on the throne and after (it being cold) on a bench by the fire’, was annoyed by the Tack, as it was known, and her support helped Marlborough and Godolphin come through the session safely. However, with the struggle over the Tack at its height, Sarah had again, in her unyielding way, warned Anne that all Tories were closet Jacobites, and just as characteristically declined to back off when the queen warned her that there was a national unity which went beyond party. Anne warned Godolphin that her relationship with Sarah had now changed fundamentally: ‘I can’t hope as you do, that she will ever be easy with me again. I quite despair of it now, which is no small mortification to me.’5
Publicly the queen could not have been more affable, and it was the apotheosis of the Cockpit circle, now on the verge of breaking up for ever. Marlborough returned home on 14 December, and the following day Parliament recorded its thanks to him for his stunning victory. He brought with him thirty-six senior French officers and the colours and standards captured by his wing of the army, which led to the unlucky Lieutenant General Hompesch being reprimanded by the Estates-General for not retaining those taken by the Dutch. On 3 January 1705 the trophies were marched from the Tower to Westminster Hall, in a display that, as Winston S. Churchill so correctly emphasised, underlined the break with France, ‘whom men in middle age could remember as England’s disdainful paymaster’. On 17 February the queen told the Commons that she proposed to give Marlborough the royal manor of Woodstock, some 15,000 acres, worth £6,000 a year, and asked the House to vote him sufficient money to build a palace of a scale commensurate with his triumph. Sir John Vanbrugh was appointed the architect, and soon had a scale model to show the queen.
At the beginning of the project Marlborough was passionately enthusiastic about Blenheim Palace, as he named his yet-unbuilt new home, and looked forward to retiring there. In July 1705 he thanked Godolphin for his ‘friendship and care’ in helping make a start on Blenheim, ‘in which place I flatter myself to enjoy your company and some quiet days before I die’.6 His letters to Sarah are full of detailed instructions, like those in a missive written from the little town of Loos, which would mean something to British soldiers in September 1915:
When you are most at leisure let me know some particular of what you directed when you were last at Woodstock … The two suites of hangings that were made at Brussels at Vanbrugh’s measure cost me above eight hundred pounds, so that if possible they should serve for the rooms they were intended for, being sure in England there can be none so good or fine. If Lord Treasurer [Godolphin] and Vanbrugh approve of it, you may keep one of the marble blocks, so that the room where you intend your buffet, may be well done; I remember you were desirous of having one, but if you
The exiled Earl of Ailesbury, who sometimes dined with Marlborough in camp, recalled that they once ate ‘at his little table, which he loved much, and, being post-day, the meal was not long’. Ailesbury much hoped to be allowed to return to England, but eventually came to realise that he would only receive ‘fair obliging words and no performance’ from the duke, for Ailesbury’s steadfast record of support for James II made him unacceptable to most English politicians. However, Marlborough, with his ‘excellent and even temper of mind’, encouraged him to believe that he would eventually return home, and showed him a plan of Blenheim, even pointing out a room and saying, ‘This is for you when you come to see me there.’8
At its beginning, Sarah was dismayed by the Blenheim project, complaining of ‘the madness of the whole design [and] I opposed it all that was possible for me to do’.9 Given Marlborough’s evident commitment to the scheme, she did her best to see it through, though she was not in the least temperamentally suited to dealing with folk with egos of their own. Blenheim was designed to be ‘monument, castle, citadel and private house, in that order’, intended to rival Versailles in the sheer opulence and scale of its Baroque glory.10 Vanbrugh, its original architect, affirmed that it ‘stares us in the face with a pretty impudent countenance’, and it was certainly meant to.
The extraordinary expense of the build, which eventually cost around £300,000 (the wonderful Castle Howard, built at the same time, was a mere £40,000), made it every bit as much of a visible symbol of hatred for the Marlboroughs’ enemies. Sarah fell out with Vanbrugh as she fell out with so many others. He called her ‘the B. B. B. B. the B Duchess of Marlborough’, but she had the last laugh, personally banning him from the grounds so that he never saw the finished building. There were endless squabbles with architects and craftsmen. She agreed to pay Sir James Thornhill twenty-five shillings a square yard for his huge allegorical painting on the ceiling of the hall, but when the total bill came to £978 objected that this was ‘a higher price than anything of that bigness was ever given for Rubens or Titian’. Payment was made with the worst possible grace, and Thornhill was never asked back.
As Sarah expended her political capital, so building faltered as government money dried up. In October 1710 an Oxford clergyman told Robert Harley that:
The debt to the workmen at Blenheim that is known is above £60,000. They owe to Strong the mason for his share £10,500. It will go hard with many in this town and the country who have contracted with them. The creditors begin to call on them and can get no money at Blenheim. One poor fellow, who has £600 owing to him for lime and brick, came on Saturday to Tom Rowney [an Oxford MP] to ask for a little money he owes him. Tom paid him immediately. The fellow thanked him with tears, and said that the money for the present would save him from gaol.11
Sarah’s final break with the queen in 1711 would see her vacate her apartments at St James’s, taking all the fixtures and fittings with her, down to fireplaces and doorknobs. In return the queen stopped paying for work at Blenheim, saying that ‘She would not build the Duke a house when the Duchess was pulling hers to pieces.’12 Sarah was undaunted. ‘As the building will never be finished at Blenheim,’ she wrote, ‘it will never be any advantage or pleasure to My Lord Marlborough or his family, but will remain now as a monument of ingratitude instead of what was once intended.’13
By 1712 the place was like a huge builders’ yard, daubed with anti-Marlborough graffiti, ‘a chaos which nobody but God Almighty could finish’. After Marlborough returned from voluntary exile with the accession of George I the Blenheim debt was formally acknowledged, but no more public money was forthcoming, and he resolved to finish the place at his own expense. However, he refused to pay crown rates for the work, and many master-craftsmen, Grinling Gibbons among them, never returned. Marlborough stayed there briefly in 1719 and 1720–21, but the house he so longed for never delighted him as he had hoped: he attended the first party there, in 1719, incapacitated by a stroke, and there is a poignant description of him being helped around the half-completed grounds by Sarah, like a blasted oak in a blighted landscape. All this unhappiness, though, was yet to come, and for the moment there was abundant cause for celebration.
On 15 June 1704, with the battle of Blenheim still unfought, Wratislaw had told Marlborough that the emperor proposed to make him a sovereign prince, with a seat in the Imperial Diet. Marlborough, as we saw in the last chapter, wished to accept the title; not simply because it would be an honour to the queen and himself, but also because it would increase his authority amongst the foreign noblemen who served under his command. He felt, though, that it might actually be easier to take it ‘when the business of the war is over’. Sarah, once uneasy about a dukedom, was no more enthusiastic about a principality, and evidently advised against it, though the letter in which she did so is now lost. On 25 August Marlborough told her that ‘I shall do what I can to have it delayed since you think that is best.’14 Anne’s consent to the grant was required, for English monarchs were touchy about their subjects’ acceptance of foreign honours. Queen Elizabeth I, less than impressed by a young gentleman who swaggered back from the Turkish wars as an Imperial count, immediately locked him up, sharply observing that: ‘My dogs shall wear no collars but my own.’
Anne, more generously disposed than her royal predecessor, consented to Marlborough’s elevation. On 28 August he heard from the emperor that he had been created a prince of the Empire, but at once wrote to Godolphin to point out that the business had not been done properly: notice should have been given to other princes, and the fief from which his title would derive should have been named. This may, as his opponents were to suggest, have been designed to ensure that there was an estate which would generate some income, or it may simply reflect Marlborough’s intention, agreed with Sarah only a few days before, to delay the matter if he could. It was not easy for the emperor, warned by Wratislaw of the new prince’s sensitivities on the matter, to find a suitable principality, but eventually a fief ‘about fifteen miles square’ was carved out of Imperial lands in Swabia to create the principality of Mindelheim: it brought in a welcome £2,000 a year. Marlborough visited it once, in the spring of 1713. ‘Stayed but four days at Mindelheim,’ he wrote, ‘which place I liked much better than expected but not so, as to think of living there.’15
It was a remarkable achievement for a man born plain Jack Churchill to become an Imperial prince. It made no difference to his style or title in Britain, and, contrary to the allegations of his opponents, he never expected British officers to call him ‘Your Highness’, and we may doubt whether men like Orkney and Cutts, who faced down the Régiment de Navarre at Blenheim, would have put up with such fripperies. The Dutch and other allies, however, promptly acknowledged the title, though it was not until 1706 that Heinsius amended his abbreviated honorific from VE (for Votre Excellence) to VA (for Votre Altesse). When the Allied candidate for the throne of Spain wrote to tell him of the disaster to Stanhope’s army at Brihuega, which was in fact to prove fatal to his interests in the Peninsula, it was to ‘My Lord Duke and Prince’ that the letter was addressed.16 The happy prince continued to sign himself ‘Marlborough’ (often, in practice, simply ‘M’), but when dealing with foreign dignitaries about important matters he was ‘Le Pr et Duc de M’, though such formality was rare, and often designed to lend weight to a missive or to show reciprocal respect.
In May 1703 the enormously rich Ralph, Earl of Montagu, who enjoyed what Edward Gregg penetratingly calls ‘a singular reputation for profitable dishonour’, had suggested that his heir Viscount Monthermer should marry Lady Mary Churchill. Marlborough had objected on the grounds (rather less reasonable then, when child marriages were not uncommon, than they would be now) that both parties were only fourteen, but in 1705 he agreed to the uni
The general election that spring was something of a personal triumph for the queen, now committed to maintaining balance between the two parties, for neither gained an absolute majority. She had, however, already made clear her support for Marlborough and Godolphin: on the eve of the election Marlborough personally called on Buckingham to demand the privy seal, like a commander receiving the keys of a captured fortress, and it was duly given to Newcastle. There were significant gains for the Whigs, although they were not able to dispose of all the ‘Tackers’, and eventually the balance of power was held by the moderate Tories, ‘sneakers’ to their Tacking friends.
What seemed to offer so much hope for the future, essentially a coalition government under the eye of a queen firmly disposed to rise above faction, was not destined to last, and the ingredients of lethal dissension grew steadily. That spring Godolphin had to threaten to resign to get Lord Sunderland, the Marlboroughs’ Whig son-in-law, appointed extraordinary envoy to Vienna, and he repeated the same ploy to get prominent Whig divines made bishops. Tellingly, it took him a week to inform Harley, his closest ministerial colleague, of Sunderland’s appointment. These signs of future breakdown would have been invisible to all but the most prescient contemporaries, and we must not give this post-Blenheim election more significance than it warrants. But, like Marlborough’s principality and the victory parade through London, it did mark a turning point.
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