Marlborough, p.53Richard Holmes
Anne recognised that at the same time that her relationship with Sarah – groom of the stole, first lady of the bedchamber, and keeper of the privy purse – had collapsed, she needed to retain Marlborough’s services. Yet he had made it clear to her that the continuing pressures of command were imposing a burden that he found all but intolerable. If she dismissed Sarah, then Marlborough might simply retire. Things were not helped by the fact that Sarah was now hard at work on the construction of Marlborough House, on Pall Mall just to the east of St James’s Palace. She wanted it (in contrast to the infinitely grander Blenheim) to be ‘strong, plain and convenient’, and Christopher Wren and his son responded with a two-storeyed house in brick with rusticated stone quoins. In order to pay for it, Sarah, with the queen’s knowledge, borrowed money from the privy purse, probably a total of £20,800, for which, as Anne’s biographer politely observes, ‘No repayments are shown in the extant records.’2
Although the political nation paused to watch the progress of the siege of Lille, recorded in detail in the London Gazette, the grim reaper did not check his stride. In early October Prince George was so ill that the queen could not attend the christening of Abigail Masham’s daughter, and on 25 October Godolphin warned Sarah that: ‘The Prince seems to be in no good way at all (in my opinion) as to his health, and I think the Queen herself now seems much more apprehensive of his condition, than I have formerly remembered upon the same occasion.’ It is a reflection on the state of Sarah’s relationship with the queen that she heard this from Godolphin, who had earlier told her that the leading Whig Tom Wharton ‘seemed very much to wish that Mrs Freeman would come to town. All my answer was, that I wished it at least as much.’3 On the twenty-sixth Godolphin complained to Marlborough that he was not writing often enough (‘how disagreeable it is to see 3 Holland mails come in successively without one letter from you’), and concluded that Prince George
has such a general weakness and decay of nature upon him, that very few people that see him have any hopes of his recovery. The Queen herself … begins to think ’tis hardly possible for him to hold out long. I pray God her own health may not suffer by her perpetual watching and attendance upon him.4
George died early on the afternoon of 28 October. The queen, ‘who continued kissing him until the very moment the breath went out of his body’, had to be helped away by Sarah. Godolphin warned Marlborough that the queen’s grief created ‘a new additional affliction which our circumstances did not need’, and said that unless he could return to England without delay ‘it will be next to impossible to prevent ruin’.5 For Marlborough the blow was as much personal as political. He had known Prince George since 1683, and the two men had always got on very well. Moreover, the Danes had provided one of the most reliable of the Allied contingents, and George had helped ensure that it stayed in the field. In May 1706, for instance, he told Marlborough:
I am very glad the Danish troops have been assisting to you, and hope that they will always do their duty however others behave themselves, nothing shall be wanting on my part to persuade their master to follow the interest of England in everything.6
The duke confessed that the news of the prince’s death ‘made such an impression on me that I have not been well for several days, insomuch that I was obliged to march last night in a litter, but have been all this day on horseback. I pray God to enable HM to support this great affliction.’7 Sarah, however, was little help to her mistress in the hour of her need. She declined the queen’s order to fetch Abigail Masham, and as they were leaving St James’s arm in arm, noted disparagingly that Anne ‘found she had the strength to bend down towards Mrs Masham like a sail’. The fact that the new widow ‘ate a very good dinner’ surprised her, and she ‘could not help smiling’ when the queen, addressing her as ‘dear Mrs Freeman’ for the last time, wrote to say that she had ordered ‘a great many Yeomen of the Guard to carry the Prince’s dear body that it may not be let fall, the Great Stairs being very steep and slippery’.8 There is no doubt that Sarah’s ‘unsympathetic analysis of the Queen’s grief is contradicted by every contemporary authority’.9
The queen was at first too prostrated by grief to oppose further Whig advances, but as the year went on she had recovered sufficient strength to fight a valiant rearguard action against the replacement of the moderate Earl of Pembroke, who had taken over as head of the Admiralty Commission not long after Prince George’s death, by the Whig grandee the Earl of Orford. The parliamentary session of 1708–09, whose first half was missed by Marlborough, did little but define Britain’s minimum terms for peace: Louis XIV should recognise Anne’s royal title and the Protestant succession, order Philip V back from Spain, expel the Old Pretender and demolish the harbour and defences of Dunkirk. The French king was in such financial difficulties that he had had the silver furniture at Versailles melted down, and there was widespread belief that he would be forced to accept a humiliating peace.
French and Allied delegates met at The Hague in April 1709. The Allies had agreed a list of forty terms which, in summary, would indeed have embodied a wholesale defeat for Louis. Marlborough, one of the British delegates, was sure that the French would accept, although he noted with irritation that Torcy, the French foreign minister, had been heartened by news of yet another Allied defeat in Portugal, which, he told Sarah, ‘makes our negotiation move slowly’.10 Overall, though, he assured her that:
there is not doubt of it ending in a good peace, but for some little time it must not be spoke of. You must have in readiness the sideboard of plate, and you must let Lord Treasurer know that since the Queen came to the crown I have not had neither a canopy and chair of state, which now of necessity I must have, so the Wardrobe should immediately have orders; and I beg you will take care to have it made so it may serve as part of a bed when I have done with it here, which I hope will be the end of this summer, so that I may enjoy your dear company in quiet, which is the greatest satisfaction I am capable of having. I have so great a head that you will excuse my saying no more by this post.11
Marlborough’s hopes of cutting a fine figure at the formal signing of the peace treaty were to be dashed. Torcy, ‘not having powers sufficient to agree all we insist upon’, sent the preliminary articles to Louis for his consideration.
The king was at his lowest ebb, well aware of the damage done by the war, a particularly harsh winter, and failed harvests. The frost killed vines in Provence, wine froze in its glasses at Versailles, and Mrs Christian Davies recalled that, not long after the capture of Ghent, ‘two of our sentinels were found frozen to death’. As Torcy tells us: ‘Sensibly affected by the distress of his people’, Louis ‘thought that he could not purchase peace for them too dearly’. Yet the Allies, notably by their insistence on ‘No Peace without Spain’, had pitched that price too high. Conditions 4 and 37 of the articles bound Louis to hand over Spain within two months or face a renewal of the war. He could not in honour order Philip to vacate his throne, and would not consent to using French armies to expel him from it. After intense soul-searching, in early June he rejected the Allied terms, and summoned his people to make a final effort to win peace with honour. It was a phenomenal achievement: one of his biographers is right to maintain that ‘The Revolutionaries of 1792–93 did not do much better.’ ‘I have conducted this war with hauteur and pride worthy of this kingdom,’ he told his people.
With the valour of my nobility and the zeal of my subjects, I have succeeded in the enterprises I have undertaken for the good of the state … I have considered proposals for peace and no one has done more than I to secure it … I can no longer see any alternative to take, other than to prepare to defend ourselves. To make them see that a united France is greater than all the powers assembled by force and artifice to overwhelm it, at this hour I have put into effect the most extraordinary measures that we have used on similar occasions to procure the money indispensable for the glory and security of the state … I come to ask for your counsels and your aid in this encoun
These were high words, not all of them honest, but they helped inspire genuine sympathy for a monarch who had confronted so much personal misfortune – and who was soon to lose both his son and his eldest grandson. There are moments in French history when military defeat has summoned up an unexpected reserve of national strength. The threadbare citizen armies of the new Republic were to trounce the pipe-clayed warriors of old Europe at the century’s close; in 1870–71 the Armies of National Defence fought with a determination that often astonished their opponents; and in 1916 the defence of Verdun tapped a vein of resolve and self-sacrifice whose outpouring bleached France for another generation. In 1709 the process was neither instant nor comprehensive, and Cadogan was to write at the year’s close that:
Great numbers of deserters come in daily, they are half starved and quite naked, and give such an account of the misery the French troops are in as could not be believed were it not confirmed by the reports and letters from all their garrison towns on the frontier.13
Yet a fresh spirit began to animate the French army, associated with its new commander in Flanders, Marlborough’s old comrade in arms, Claude Louis Hector, duc de Villars. Like many great generals before and since, Marshal Villars was not a comfortable fellow. His willingness to seek battle had often vexed a more cautious Versailles; an irascible man, he was hard on his subordinates, though he never asked more of them than he would freely give himself; and, no less to the point, he got on so badly with Max Emmanuel of Bavaria that he could not be used in Flanders as long as the Elector was there. With Vendôme out of favour, Burgundy a broken reed, Boufflers ill and Max Emmanuel tainted by failure at Brussels, Villars was simply too competent for his boldness or his hot temper to exclude him from command in France’s hour of need. ‘All I have left is my confidence in God and in you, my outspoken friend,’ said Louis, and his confidence was not misplaced.14 Nor was this all. On 10 June Louis sacked his billiards partner Chamillart, and replaced him as war minister with the capable and energetic Voisin.
The collapse of peace negotiations saddened Marlborough, who assured Sarah, even as he was on his way to the army to begin a campaign he had hoped never to fight, that:
I can’t but think that some way will be found before the end of this month for our agreeing, everybody having approved of the pleasuring thoughts of peace … I confess I thought it sure, believing it very much in the interest of France to have agreed with us; but since they seem to think otherwise, I hope God has a further blessing in store. I was in hopes to have had the happiness of being with you before the winter; I wish I could still flatter myself with these thoughts. I do wish you all happiness and speed with your building at London, but beg that may not hinder you from pressing forward the building at Blenheim, for we are not so much master of that as of the other.15
Marlborough’s concerns about Blenheim, whose completion depended on the grant of public money, reflected a deeper worry about the future. The Whigs were at the height of their ascendancy, but the Duumvirs knew that they had prejudiced their relationship with the queen, who still craved a balanced administration, by packing the government with Whigs. The death of Prince George and the increasing alienation of Sarah worsened matters, and although the Harley – Masham back door into the queen’s closet was not yet fully open, it was evidently ajar.
In the spring of 1709 Marlborough tried to tighten his grip on royal favour and gain public affirmation of his status as military leader of the Grand Alliance by persuading the queen to appoint him captain general for life. Unusually, he does not seem to have consulted Godolphin, his closest political associate; possibly because he knew that Godolphin’s own hold on power was weakening, and that securing the captain generalcy might enable him to swim while Godolphin sank. Neither did he speak to Sarah, probably because he deduced that any interventions she might make would be counterproductive. He weeded his own papers of most of the references which might have helped historians, but the painstaking forensic work of Henry L. Snyder, doyen of Marlburian scholars, now enables us to go well beyond the surmises of Marlborough’s early biographers.
Marlborough had always disliked party politics, but the Harley affair of early 1708 had, in the view of Arthur Maynwaring, shown him that ‘it will not be enough hereafter, to make no enemies. Something more of warmth and zeal will be requisite towards those men that will always applaud his actions and who, I verily believe, though they are sometimes a little forward and angry, do yet really love his person.’16 In short, urged Maynwaring, Marlborough should recognise his true friends and give more support to the Whigs, and he did indeed make a special trip to England to get Anne to include Lords Somers and Wharton in her cabinet. That autumn, stuck fast at Lille, Marlborough could only see, as Professor Snyder relates, ‘dismal prospects for the future. His support of the Whigs had placed him in a more vulnerable position, and he knew that if the Queen and her secret counsellors ever found the strength to turn out the ministry he too would suffer the loss of his places.’17
The Tories had used their parliamentary congratulation of Major General Webb to disparage the duke, and Maynwaring suggested that Marlborough’s supporters should riposte with some ‘Addition of honour … and not of wealth’. The somewhat sketchy evidence suggests that Marlborough made his first request for the captain generalcy for life when he was in England in early 1709, and, after the queen’s temporising response, for there was no precedent for the grant, repeated it later that year. Of the four letters he wrote to Anne on the subject only one, of 10 October NS, has survived.
God Almighty knows with what zeal and duty I have served you for all this many years, and all Europe as well as yourself are witnesses how far God has blessed my endeavours ever since your accession to the Crown. I have for some time with the greatest mortification imaginable observed your Majesty’s change from Lady Marlborough to Mrs Masham, and the several indignities Mrs Masham has made her suffer, of which I am much more sensible than of any misfortune that could have befallen myself, which has made me to take the resolution of retiring as soon as this war shall be ended. I was assured last winter of what I am convinced is true, that Mrs Masham has assured Mr Harley and some of his wretches that let my services or success be whatever they would, from thenceforward I should receive no encouragement from your Majesty … In order to know how far your Majesty’s intentions went in this project, I acquainted you of the desire I had of having that mark of your favour that my commission might be for life. You were pleased to judge it not proper.18
The queen replied on 25 October OS by telling Marlborough that she was not surprised to see him ‘so incensed against poor Masham since the Duchess of Marlborough is so’. She thought she had told him, in a previous letter, why she had refused his request, but concluded by saying that if he was of the same mind when he returned to England at the campaign’s close, ‘I will comply with your desires.’19
By the time he returned, however, the Junto peer Lord Orford had been forced upon the queen, and the influential clergyman Dr Henry Sacheverell had preached two inflammatory sermons attacking the government, the 1688 settlement and ‘by implication the Hanoverian succession’.20 The government duly impeached Sacheverell, and although he was found guilty after a divisive trial, his punishment was nominal, and it was in effect a defeat for the Whigs. When Godolphin told Marlborough that Sacheverell had been ‘found guilty of high crimes and misdemeanours’ by a mere seventeen votes in the Lords, he added that the Duke of Somerset, a great lord of the middle party, always high in the queen’s esteem since he had loaned her Syon House half a lifetime ago, had not voted. Somerset had claimed to be sick, said Godolphin, ‘but I fancy ’twas only profound wisdom kept him away from the House’. ‘So all this bustle and fatigue,’ he lament
By the time of the Sacheverell verdict worse was already afoot. Early in 1710, when the Earl of Essex died, the queen gave his post of constable of the Tower to Lord Rivers, and his colonelcy of a regiment of dragoons to Abigail’s brother Jack Hill, without consulting Marlborough, her captain general. After a period of intense political crisis the queen gave way over Jack Hill, encouraging Marlborough to set the seal on his victory by again requesting the captain generalcy for life, this time demanding both the appointment and Abigail Masham’s removal from court by means of a parliamentary address. The scheme misfired grotesquely. The Tories in both Houses opposed the measure on principle, and many moderates were swayed by strong personal loyalty to the monarch. The Duke of Argyll, Marlborough’s political opponent and personal rival (though also a general serving under his command), declared that ‘her Majesty need not be in pain; for he would undertake, whenever she commanded, to seize the Duke at the head of his troops, and bring him away either dead or alive’.22 Marlborough did his best to pretend that he had never supported the measure, but was forced to leave for the 1710 campaign in February, unusually early, to spare himself further humiliation.
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