Marlborough, p.46Richard Holmes
Marlborough was hauled unwillingly into the dispute, like some great gun required to breach a fortress wall, peppered by a volley of sharp letters from Sarah (‘I find when you writ most of them you had very much the spleen …’) warning him that he was not taking a sufficiently firm line with the queen. While Marlborough genuinely believed that the queen’s government could not go on without Godolphin, he was less worried than his great ally about the presence in it of Tories like Harley, and was drawn into the battle with a heavy heart. At the end of this remarkable campaign he found himself mired deep in politics and accused, once more, of weakness by his wife. He wrote glumly that he would never live to see Blenheim Palace finished,
for I had flattered myself that if the war should happily have ended this next year, that I might the next after have lived in it, for I am resolved on being neither minister nor courtier, not doubting the Queen will allow of it; but these are idle dreams, for while the war lasts I must serve and will do it with all my heart; and if I am at last rewarded with your love and esteem, I shall end my days happily … 135
These were poignant words from a commander at the very height of his powers.
The Equipoise of Fortune
Favourites, Bishops and the Union
Over the winter of 1706–07 the Duumvirs – Marlborough and Godolphin – strengthened their position, at last persuading the queen to make Sunderland a secretary of state, having both Tom Wharton and Godolphin himself promoted to earldoms, and getting most of the remaining Tories (save St John, Harley and two others) removed from office. They accomplished this at the expense of the ‘unquestioning allegiance’ of a queen who resented being exposed to the rapacity of the ‘Lords of the Junto’, as the Whig grandees were known.1 There was also a continuing decline in relations between Anne and Sarah. Anne herself was now overweight, dropsical and frequently in pain. Early in 1707 Sir John Clerk of Penicuick, one of the commissioners for the Union with Scotland, described her as
the most despicable mortal I had seen in any station. The poor Lady, as I saw her twice before, was again under a very severe fit of the gout, ill dressed, blotted in her countenance, and surrounded with plasters, cataplasms, and dirty rags. The extremity of her pain was not then upon her, and it diverted her a little to see company with whom she was not to use ceremonies, otherwise I had not been allowed access to her.
However, I believe she was not displeased to see anybody, for no court attenders ever came near her. All the incense and adoration offered at court were to her ministers, particularly the Earl of Godolphin, her chief minister, and the two secretaries of state [Harley and Sunderland], her palace at Kensington, where she commonly resided, was a perfect solitude … I had many occasions to think that few houses in England belonging to persons of quality were kept in a more private way than the Queen’s royal palace of Kensington.2
Yet Anne had lost none of her determination, and now, as an experienced monarch, was far less amenable to influence than she had been at the beginning of her reign. With her passionate affection for Sarah ‘rapidly decaying into aversion’, isolated, in increasing pain, and aware of her husband’s declining health, she slipped naturally into a friendship with Abigail Hill. For all sorts of reasons this never equalled her passion for Sarah, which had been as close to a relationship between equals as any friendship between monarch and subject could ever be. When Abigail married Colonel Sam Masham, groom of the bedchamber to Prince George, in Kensington Palace, probably in the early summer of 1707, Sarah was not informed, though she quickly concluded that the £2,000 drawn by the queen from her privy purse, of which she was the custodian, was a dowry. Had Sarah been balanced in her judgements, a virtue no one could ever ascribe to her, she might have reflected that this was the merest trickle of fortune by comparison with the powerful jets of royal favour which had played upon her own family, but she characteristically responded with an outburst of fury at Abigail’s ingratitude.
Sarah even ventured a comment on the ‘strange and unaccountable’ fact of the queen’s ‘having no inclination for any but of one’s own sex’, which does something to suggest that her own relationship with Anne had never been physical. It certainly shows that she wholly misjudged Anne’s relationship with Abigail, who was always (even after Sam was ennobled) servant, nurse and social inferior. Sarah would spend the rest of her days ranting on about Abigail’s ‘insolence and anger’, and the way she ‘spread with malicious zeal all manner of the greatest falsehoods about her’.3 At about this time Sarah fell under the influence of Arthur Maynwaring, a Whig playwright and pamphleteer who called himself her secretary but was adviser and publicist too. His own contributions to the dispute between the two women were predictably unhelpful, with A New Ballad to the tune of Fair Rosamond implying that Abigail’s hold on the queen was based on ‘Some Dark deeds at Night’.4
Yet there is no doubt that Abigail was dangerous to the Marlboroughs and Godolphin, because Robert Harley was her second cousin on her father’s side. Anne liked Harley, and used him to help secure a regimental colonelcy for Sam Masham, taking care that the regiment should remain in Ireland so that Sam could stay at court. As the war went on there was increasing concern about regimental colonels who enjoyed life in London while their men were on active service. In June 1706 Godolphin warned Marlborough:
There’s one thing more relating to the army I can’t observe to you without some indignation. Here is Major General Harvey and my Lord Mohun, a brigadier, walking in St James’s Park and every day in the chocolate house, while both their regiments are serving abroad. Though I instance only these two, I believe there may be a great many others in the same circumstances.5
However, with his regiment in Ireland Sam Masham was safe enough.
Abigail was never in fact ‘the great and supreme favourite’, as Sarah maintained.6 Harley was quite right to see that her influence with the queen was essentially negative. ‘You cannot set anyone up,’ he told her, ‘you can pull anyone down.’7 After Harley’s resignation in early 1708 Abigail proved invaluable as his eyes and ears at court. He was, though, a skilful politician in his own right, and popular with the queen because, as she thought, he supported her desire to see a broadly-based non-partisan government. Abigail Hill had far less impact upon his eventual political triumph than Sarah Marlborough, well aware of the influence she herself had wielded, ever imagined.
Although Anne resented Godolphin’s apparent partiality for the Whigs, neither he nor Marlborough was, strictly speaking, a party man. The death, in November 1706, of Dr Peter Mews, Bishop of Winchester, sometime captain of royalist horse and amateur artillery driver at Sedgemoor, created a minor political storm. Winchester was England’s richest diocese, and the Whigs hoped to see the appointment of one of their clerics. Godolphin had, however, promised the post to the Tory Bishop Trelawney of Exeter in return for his electoral help in 1705. The furious Whigs hoped for recompense by the appointment of their friends to Exeter, as well as to the providentially vacated see of Chester and the Regius chair of divinity at Oxford. The queen proceeded to nominate suitable candidates without asking Godolphin’s advice, though the Whigs at once blamed minister rather than monarch. Marlborough was involved, as he had his own (now disappointed) candidate for the Oxford chair, and the question of ecclesiastical appointments joined the business of the Board of Ordnance and the captaincy general amongst his papers for the following campaign.
Getting votes for the continuation of the war through Parliament proved easy, thanks to Ramillies and general confidence in the war’s successful outcome. The Scots had already ratified the Act of Union, but it was unpopular with High Tories, who resented the fact that the Act established Presbyterianism in Scotland, and who raised their familiar cry that the Church of England was under threat. They could not prevent the Union, which came into being on 1 May 1707, and saw the separate governments of England and Scotland replaced by a reconstituted government of Great Britain.
A Sterile Campai
The French had much to fear from 1707. Blenheim had dashed their hopes in Bavaria, Ramillies had lost them most of the Spanish Netherlands, and in the early autumn of 1706 Eugène had swept them from northern Italy. While the Alliance, its creaking machinery lubricated by English and Dutch gold, remained intact, France was visibly drained by the cost of a war which had been meant to be short but had already lasted for five years. Yet although Louis might weep bitter tears alone with Madame de Maintenon in her apartment, his public demeanour radiated regal fortitude, and early in the new campaigning season his armies won a victory which went to the very heart of French and Allied war aims.
On 25 April Galway was severely defeated by Berwick at Almanza, in south-east Spain. This was not in itself surprising, for Galway, with 15,000 men, was outnumbered by Berwick, with 25,000, and boldly attacked him after a wearing approach march. The attack was going perhaps better than it deserved when the Portuguese on Galway’s right broke, and Galway was badly beaten, losing over 4,000 killed and wounded and perhaps another 12,000 taken prisoner.8 Major General James Stanhope’s elegantly written report, sent to Marlborough from Barcelona, makes melancholy reading:
I cannot learn that five hundred men are escaped out of the whole body of the foot, which consisted of forty-three battalions, whereof I know not whether sixteen or seventeen were English, nineteen Portuguese, and the remainder Dutch. Of our horse, about three thousand five hundred are come off, but very few English or Dutch … My Lord Galway was wounded with a sword over the eye at the beginning of the action, charging with the horse. The accident contributed much to the confusion which followed. Our foot is by everybody said to have done wonders, which makes the loss of it so much the more sensible. I send this letter by a felucca, which is dispatched by the King to Italy, to ask for succours. I do not know what effect his solicitations will have, nor, indeed, do I know what to wish. If your Grace commanded the armies in Italy, I should not yet think our game desperate; for I should believe it possible for him who marched from Holland to the Danube to save the Empire, to march through Provence and Languedoc to save Spain. I know nothing else that can do it.9
Although Almanza did not signal the end of the war in Spain, which may more fairly be dated to Stanhope’s own undeserved defeat at Brihuega in December 1710, it was as decisive a blow to Allied aspirations in the Peninsula as Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim had been to Louis XIV’s hopes for hegemony in Europe. However, ‘No victory without Spain’ was to become a key plank of the Duumvirs’ foreign policy, and Marlborough certainly believed that the best way to Spain was, metaphorically, through France: if Louis XIV was reduced to the last extremity by military defeat elsewhere, then he would relinquish his support for Philip V. This conviction, far more than any desire on Marlborough’s part to retain active military employment, helped ensure the continuation of the war until both sides faced exhaustion.
It certainly encouraged Marlborough to support the Allies’ strategic grand design of 1707, an attack on the French naval base of Toulon by an army under Victor Amadeus, Duke of Savoy, and Prince Eugène, striking down from Savoy. This had first been bruited in late 1706, primarily as a means of weakening the French position in Spain. In December Marlborough told Heinsius: ‘We hope to make such a diversion that France will not be in any condition to send any considerable succours to Spain.’ The letter concluded: ‘My head aches so that you will excuse my making use of Mr Cardonnel’s hand.’10 Well might Marlborough’s affliction trouble him, for he had completed another round of diplomacy designed, among other things, to persuade German princes to contribute to the 28,000 soldiers in British and Dutch pay who were to join the Imperialists for the Toulon project.
He had also been sent on a mission to Charles XII of Sweden, then at war with Russia, and recently victorious over both Saxony and Poland-Lithuania, whose king Augustus II he had deposed, replacing him with his own man, Stanislas Leszczynski. The headstrong and implacable Swedish monarch – he abstained from women and alcohol, but enjoyed wrestling with bears – was in camp at the village of Altranstädt in Saxony, and Marlborough travelled there in April by way of Hanover. Louis’ agents had been encouraging Charles to attack the Empire, but his aim of ‘securing and supporting the Protestant religion’ made him an improbable ally even for Louis. However, he had threatened to intervene on behalf of the Protestants in Silesia, which brought him into conflict with Vienna; and Prussia, fearful of a widening of the Northern War, considered withdrawing from its commitment to the Allies.
Marlborough’s undoubted military status, and an opening address so flowery that some historians believed that he could never have brought himself to utter the words (but we must remember what a courtier he was), at once put him on good terms with the king. Charles was content to accept a guarantee from the emperor of freedom of conscience for his Silesian subjects. Marlborough’s mission was wholly successful, though it was not without its moments of tension, not least the problem of how to deal with the dethroned Augustus, a staunch supporter of the Allies, without the news of their meeting giving offence to Charles. The Swedish king did not break camp until he heard of the repulse of the Toulon expedition. There have been suggestions that he would not have tolerated an unequal peace treaty being imposed on Louis had the expedition succeeded, and had put pressure on Victor Amadeus to make it fail.11 In any event, with Toulon secured for the French he turned his back on western Europe and set off on his march into Russia, which ultimately led him to defeat and his army to destruction at Poltava in June 1709.
Marlborough characteristically declined to believe early accounts of Almanza, for they came from the French, and he was wise enough to know that first reports, good or bad, are seldom correct. But by May he was forced to admit that the reverse there ‘is greater than what was first reported’. Nevertheless he assured Heinsius that ‘if the army in Italy enters France early I no way doubt God Almighty will bless this campaign’.12 The expedition did indeed force Berwick to send troops from Spain, helping the Allies retain control of Catalonia. However, it accomplished little else. The emperor wanted to seize Naples, and, deaf to Marlborough’s assertions that it would fall easily enough once Toulon was taken, duly detached 10,000 men to attack it. Eugène did not work well with his ducal cousin, and in mid-July Marlborough admitted to Godolphin that ‘I shall be very uneasy’ if the march did not begin soon. Then he began to worry that Victor Amadeus might attack a more convenient but less advantageous spot, like Antibes. When Marlborough did at last hear from Eugène, in a letter written on the thirteenth, it was to be told that the French already outnumbered him, more were on their way, and ‘the enterprise is of the most perilous’.13 Marlborough told Godolphin that he should not be too concerned, as Eugène tended to see problems in principle and to overcome them in practice, ‘for it is his way to think everything difficult till he comes to put it into execution. But then he acts with so much vigour that he makes amends for all his desponding.’14
In the event, alas, Eugène had good reason for his despondency. Victor Amadeus and Eugène crossed the Var on 11 July and, with Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell and a powerful Anglo-Dutch fleet keeping pace with them, marched for Toulon. They took two weeks to accomplish a march that might have been achieved in one, and the British ambassador to Turin later lamented: ‘It was the opinion of every officer that if before coming to Toulon, we had not been so dilatory and cautious, we might have done a great deal.’15 Berwick’s reinforcements from Spain arrived to join Marshal Tessé just before the Allies reached Toulon. There were forty-six ships of between fifty and 110 guns in the harbour, with a number of smaller craft, and Louis was so concerned that they might be burnt that he ordered them to be sunk and refloated later: the three-deckers would lie with their upper decks out of the water. When Shovell went ashore to meet Savoy on 28 July he found the duke gloomy: work had not been progressing well, and he awaited Eugène’s arrival before deciding whether to press on. Eventually it was decided that heavy guns would
Despite the arrival of the guns, the Allies were never strong enough to mount a formal siege, but they did take the commanding heights of Ste-Catherine, just above the harbour, in early August. However, the French recovered them a week later in a sharp action in which the Prince of Saxe-Gotha, who had commanded the Imperialist right wing at Turin the year before, was killed. On 22 August Eugène and Victor Amadeus decided to fall back, having lost about 10,000 men in the enterprise. Eugène, railing against ‘cabinets, parliaments, states-general and courtiers’, thought that they had simply moved too slowly. ‘We ought, as I proposed, to have marched straightway to Toulon after the expulsion of the French from Lombardy,’ he wrote. ‘Nevertheless, but for the bravery and talents of Tessé, and the unfortunate affair in which my beloved Prince of Gotha fell, we should have been successful.’17
Shovell embarked the sick, wounded and artillery in his transports. He was, though, determined to do as much damage as he could before leaving. His battleships first took on the batteries covering the harbour, enabling a flotilla of bomb-ketches (small vessels each armed with a single mortar) to approach within range, and to lob their shells over an intervening spit of land. They spent eighteen hours bombarding the fleet and the dockyard, with its stores full of timber, canvas and cordage, before the fire of repositioned French guns forced them to withdraw. Two French warships were burnt, two more badly damaged, and most were not refloated in time to play a useful part in the war.
The destruction of the French fleet not only gave the Allies control of the Mediterranean, but it effectively saw the French abandon any hope of fighting the British and the Dutch in regular fleet actions, and rely on privateering instead. The episode had one mournful footnote. On its way back home Shovell’s squadron missed the entrance to the English Channel (all too easy with the primitive navigation instruments available) and three of his battleships were lost with all their officers and men, including Shovell himself, on the outer rocks of the Scilly Isles. The loss of the popular and competent admiral was a real blow.18
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