Marlborough, p.47Richard Holmes
However gratifying the damage to the French Mediterranean squadron was, it was no real compensation for failure to take Toulon. Marlborough’s early confidence had waned, and even before he heard of the reverse he warned Godolphin that he had received letters from Chetwynd ‘and others from the army in Provence, and I am very sorry to tell you that I observe by all of them, that there is not that friendship and reliance between 58 [Savoy] and 48 [Eugène], as should be wished for making such a grand design succeed’.19 Even from a distance it was evident that the loss of Ste-Catherine was very damaging, and once he had definite news that the Allies had given up the siege he recognised that the strategic consequences of failure would be substantial. Godolphin blamed it on ‘the little good understanding between those princes, or rather, in truth, between the Imperial court and the Duke of Savoy’.20 Marlborough’s liaison officer with the expedition, Brigadier Palmes, took an age to return to report: at the end of September he was laid up ‘with a violent fit of the gout in the Westerwald’. However, Marlborough thought that Eugène would not serve with Victor Amadeus again, and felt that it would be best if he was sent to Spain in an effort to revive the Allied cause there. Marlborough spent much of the autumn worrying about the next year’s campaign, for it seemed certain to him that, with the war in Spain all but won, ‘the French will bend their greatest force this way, and I am almost persuaded will offer us battle as soon as they take the field’.21
While Victor Amadeus and Eugène had been involved in the Toulon expedition, Marlborough was engaged in an equally unprofitable campaign against Marshal Vendôme on the borders of Brabant. At first he assured Heinsius that he would not risk battle unless he was superior in strength, but privately he told Godolphin that, though he would take any favourable opportunity that presented itself, he had to be less than open with his Allies.
The true meaning of my letter to the pensioner is to let him see that I am not of the opinion to venture a battle, unless the advantages be on our side. I would have marched yesterday to Nivelle, but the deputies would not consent to it, telling me very plainly, that they feared the consequence of that march might be a battle. So that unless I can convince the pensioner that I am not for hazarding, but when we have an advantage, they will give such orders to the deputies, that I shall not have it in my power of doing good, if an advantage should offer itself … I take care not to let the army know that the Dutch are not willing to venture, since that must have an ill effect, and although it is a very unpleasant thing not to have full power at the head of an army, yet I do please myself that I shall do some considerable service this campaign; for I do believe that we shall find that the Elector [of Bavaria] and M. Vendôme grow insolent, by which they will either attack, or give me occasion of attacking them.
He concluded with a prescient warning that the Spanish Netherlands had not taken comfortably to their new ruler. He thought ‘the greatest part of this country’ was actually more inclined to Philip V than to Charles III, and blamed this on ‘the unreasonable behaviour of the Dutch’ in their administration of the ‘liberated’ area.22 Cadogan was similarly lukewarm about the prospects, warning Lord Raby that ‘The Deputies are relapsed into all their former fears and difficulties; which will be harder for my Lord Duke to overcome than to beat the Elector and Marshal Vendôme. I may venture to aver that if in fifteen days or three weeks at furthest we do nothing, you may reckon the campaign lost.’23
Part of Marlborough’s problem was that he now had to furnish garrisons for the territories conquered after Ramillies, while Vendôme in turn had fewer garrisons to find. Marlborough argued privately that his army was actually better than Vendôme’s, but it was probably rather smaller, a fact not calculated to encourage the Dutch to give battle. It was not until Vendôme had detached twenty battalions and eleven squadrons to help relieve Toulon that the balance of advantage passed to Marlborough, but there was little he could do with it. The Allies had the best of some marching and countermarching in filthy weather between the Scheldt and the Dender in late August and early September, and Vendôme’s army, outrunning its logistics, lost heavily from desertion, but no telling blows were struck, and by late September Marlborough was thinking about getting into winter quarters, well aware, as we have seen, that Allied failure in Spain and before Toulon would put him at a disadvantage for the 1708 campaign.
Politics and Plans
It was a difficult winter. Marlborough visited Heinsius twice before he returned to England, but they could not agree on a plan for 1708. After his return Marlborough received a long, unusually formal letter from Heinsius warning him that the war was slipping away from them. Spain, he argued, was lost. No good would come out of Italy or Germany, and the French, by concentrating against the British and Dutch in the north, might beat them there and end the war on favourable terms. Only Britain, far more prosperous than Holland, could change this state of affairs, by sending more troops to Flanders, the vital theatre for 1708, and by arranging a descent on the French coast and encouraging an expedition from Italy so as to prevent the French from concentrating. Marlborough told him that he overestimated British economic strength: if Heinsius knew of ‘the great scarcity of money in the country and the decay of trade in our sea ports you would not think our condition to differ much from that you represent Holland to be in’.
He regretted ‘how little the Emperor and the Empire have done for this war and for their own preservation and how little they seem disposed to exert themselves at present, when all is in a manner at stake’. He hoped that Eugène would be sent to Spain, and urged Heinsius to press Vienna to help ensure this. The emperor should also be reminded that Wratislaw had agreed that 20,000 men should be sent to Italy, for Victor Amadeus might be able to take the offensive if he was properly supported. Finally, a descent on the French coast did indeed have much to recommend it, ‘if the ill success we have hitherto had in those expeditions do not give too great a discouragement’. ‘I am so tormented with a cold in my head,’ concluded Marlborough, ‘that I am forced to make use of Mr Cardonnel’s hand.’24 This was not an implied slight, for Marlborough’s letter was frank and good-natured. His view of the coming year did not differ substantially from Heinsius’s, except for his confidence that Spain could ultimately be saved, but that December he was too over-stretched on the political front to frame a strategy for a war that now seemed to have developed a giddy momentum of its own.
The government was in real trouble soon after the first Parliament of the United Kingdom met. It was really the English Parliament of 1705 with forty-five Scots MPs and sixteen representative Scots peers, and sat for the first time on 23 October 1707. In December both Houses endorsed the official war aim of ‘No Peace without Spain’. The queen told the Lords that she would remain committed to an all-party government, and the Duumvirs discussed a scheme of Harley’s to get rid of the extreme Whigs and create a centrist ministry – something which the queen applauded. Harley’s own position was imperilled when William Greg, a clerk in his office, was found to be in treasonable communication with the French. Greg, apparently offered some mitigation of the grisly due process of law, resolutely refused to implicate his master. While Greg’s ghastly fate was still in the balance, Harley privately criticised the management of the war in Spain to the queen, and his associate St John subsequently raised the same issue in Parliament. Fewer than half the British troops designated for Spain had actually been at Almanza, he maintained: had the administration simply done what Parliament expected of it, the Allies would certainly have won.
The Duumvirs were incensed at what they saw as Harley’s betrayal. The queen tried hard to broker a compromise, the strain of which gave her ‘gout in her stomach’, and even said that she was prepared to part with Godolphin. On the evening of 8 February 1708 Godolphin and the Marlboroughs visited the queen to affirm that they would all resign if Harley was not dismissed. Godolphin spoke first, and the queen, ‘in respect of his long service’, gave him another day to consider his positio
Then entered the Duke, prepared with his utmost address. He told her that he had ever served her with obedience and fidelity … that he must lament he ever came in competition with so vile a creature as H[arley]; that his fidelity and duty should continue as long as his breath. That it was his duty to be speedy in resigning his commands, that she might put the sword into some other hand immediately, and it was also his duty to tell her he feared the Dutch would immediately on the news make a peace very injurious for England.
‘And then, my Lord,’ says she, ‘will you resign me your sword?’ ‘Let me tell you,’ says he, ‘your service I have regarded to the utmost of my power.’ ‘And if you do, my Lord, resign your sword, let me tell you, you will run it through my head.’
She went to council, begging him to follow, he refusing … 25
Harley had broken cover too soon, for he had too little Tory backing in either House. In contrast there was substantial support for the Duumvirs, and Prince George forcefully – and it seems decisively – took their part. Harley resigned: St John, Harcourt and Mansell departed in sympathy, and all were replaced by moderate Whigs. Although Sarah exaggerates Abigail Masham’s subsequent contact with the dismissed Harley, they agreed a list of cant names for their correspondence as early as May 1708: the queen was ‘Aunt Stephens’. For the moment, though, the connection was of no real political importance. Far more significant was the failure of a French attempt, in early March 1708, to land James II’s son, the twenty-year-old James Francis Edward Stuart, in Scotland. From the French viewpoint the expedition was designed at worst to force troop withdrawals from Flanders, and at best to bring the British to the peace table. There was indeed strong anti-Union feeling in Scotland, and a landing might have capitalised on this, but the expedition miscarried, with the capture of one ex-British vessel, the Salisbury.
The government capitalised on the failure of the expedition by calling a general election in which the Whigs won a handsome majority. The Whig grandees pressed their advantage by trying to get the queen to take their ally Lord Somers into the cabinet, and Godolphin told her that she should give way. She wrote to Marlborough, by then back on the Continent, to say that she would never consent to the inclusion of Somers, and asking for his support. Marlborough, in view of the February crisis, was now seriously concerned about his own survival, and told the queen that the Dutch were well aware of what had been happening, and would be likely to negotiate with the French if they felt that a threat to its leadership made Britain no longer a reliable ally. He then took up Sarah’s familiar line of warning the queen that the Tories were simply closet Jacobites. Her refusal to appoint Somers would, Marlborough warned, be ‘a demonstration … to everybody, that the Lord Treasurer and I have no credit with your Majesty, but that you are guided by the insinuation of Mr Harley’.26 The queen replied by assuring Marlborough that she agreed with him that peace could only be made on ‘safe and honourable terms’, but would not give way on Somers.
Marlborough knew that the crisis had weakened his authority, and he was aware that Anne and Sarah were now hardly on speaking terms. His true feelings towards Harley and Godolphin at this time are very hard to gauge, but it is likely that the real issue for him was whether, if Godolphin fell, his duty would oblige him to serve the queen under any ministry. We know that he had a view of Harley, but he does not deign to tell us what it was. ‘I have avoided saying anything to you of Mr Harley,’ he told Heinsius, ‘when I have the honour of being with you, you shall know my thoughts of him and everything else.’27 Their correspondence suggests that Marlborough and Godolphin were as close as ever, though it was no thanks to other Churchills. On 19 April Godolphin warned Marlborough that the queen’s intransigence ‘puts us into all the distraction and uneasiness imaginable. I really believe her humour proceeds more from husband than from herself, and in him it is very much kept up by your brother George, who seemed to me as wrong as is possible.’28
George Churchill, one of the first sea officers to offer his services to William of Orange, had commanded battleships at the battles of Beachy Head and Barfleur. He left the service in 1693 but returned after his brother had made his peace with the king, and had a seat on the Board of Admiralty. When Prince George became lord high admiral on Anne’s accession George was appointed to his council, and immediately engineered his promotion to admiral of the Blue, flying his flag aboard Triumph at Portsmouth for a few days just to make the point. Although Prince George remained in titular charge of the navy, Churchill was responsible for its day-to-day activities, and came in for increasing public and parliamentary criticism as French privateers like Forbin or Dugay-Trouin did much damage to British trade. He was a resolute Tory and steadfastly blocked the promotion of senior officers who were known to be Whigs, playing his part in the politicisation of the navy’s upper echelons and lending weight to Shovell’s assertion that ‘There is no storm as bad as one from the House of Commons.’29
By this time Marlborough, who had once encouraged his brother to sail along briskly in his slipstream, now had no time for George, but he could not associate himself with the Whigs’ repeated criticism of him, both because of family loyalty (despite his politics George remained one of the MPs for the family borough of St Albans until his death) and because Prince George, whose support was so important to the Duumvirs, disliked having his namesake criticised. The prince ultimately solved the problem of the awkward admiral by dying in October 1708. George left the Admiralty at once and retired to his house in Windsor Great Park, where he spent the remaining eighteen months of his life adding to his splendid collection of birds. He died without legitimate issue, and his enormous fortune, the fruit of long and assiduous perquisite-pecking (John was certainly no family exception in this regard), went to his natural son.
Not only did political squabbles in London make it unusually difficult for Marlborough to devote himself to strategy for the coming campaign, but he was concerned with a myriad of issues trickling out of the Ordnance Office and flooding from his responsibilities as captain general. He had some responsibility for French prisoners of war in British hands, and he also took the plight of British prisoners in French hands very seriously indeed. The former caused frequent correspondence with Godolphin, because Marlborough was scrupulous in ensuring that nothing he did would cause his colleague political difficulties. Thus, when a lady wrote to him about the comte de Lionne, a colonel taken at Blenheim, Marlborough at once passed the letter on to Godolphin.
The enclosed is a letter from a young woman of quality that is in love with the Comte de Lionne. He is at Lichfield. I am assured that it is a very virtuous love, and that when they can get their parents’ consent they are to be married. As I do from my heart wish that nobody were unhappy, I own to you that this letter has made me wish him in France, so that he might have leave for four months, without prejudice to her Majesty’s service, I should be glad of it. But if you think it should not be done, you will then be pleased not to speak to the Queen about it.
Charles-Hughes de Lionne was eventually exchanged with a British officer, and married Marie Sophie Jaeger, daughter of an innkeeper in the delightful town of Wissembourg on the Alsace frontier, in 1709. The marriage was not a success, and seven months later he was striving to have it annulled, a process which took till 1719.30 Officers allowed back to France on parole sometimes developed serious ‘illnesses’ in order to extend their stay. In July 1707 Marlborough had warned Godolphin that French officers on leave in France
have all written as if they were dying, but I have refused them, so that I hope the Queen will not give it to [Brigadier the marquis de] Blanzac, nor any of the others, for they have been long enough, and the others ought to have their turns.31
Scouller suggests that prisoners of war ‘were, in general, unwelcome. Almost the sole
Captured senior officers might profit from the attention of their own commander and the courtesy of the enemy’s. Cadogan himself had managed to get captured while out looking for forage during the siege of Tournai in 1706. Marlborough at once wrote to Sarah to say that:
poor Cadogan is taken prisoner or killed, which gives me a great deal of uneasiness, for he loved me, and I could rely on him. I am now sending a trumpet to the Governor of Tournai to know if he be alive; for the horse that beat him came from that garrison. I have ordered the trumpet to return this night, for I shall not be quiet till I know his fate.
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