Marlborough, p.7Richard Holmes
Winston might more accurately have described himself as faithful but busy. In 1662 he departed for Ireland, where young John attended the Dublin Free Grammar School. He returned to England in 1664, and it seems safe to surmise that John came with him, to become one of the 153 scholars at St Paul’s School. It is certain that Sir Winston bought a house in the capital, for Sarah Marlborough later recalled John showing her the family home in the City of London. The early records of St Paul’s School were destroyed in 1666, during the Great Fire, but a copy of Vegetius’ De Re Militari, with an annotation certifying that it was from that book that ‘John Churchill, scholar of this school, afterwards the celebrated Duke of Marlborough, first learnt the elements of the art of war’, survived.
Winston S. Churchill wondered how ‘our hero was able to extract various modern sunbeams from this ancient cucumber’.16 However, Professor Philip Sabin has recently suggested that military history might indeed be the most important legacy of the ancient world. While Vegetius’ first two books are perhaps of little value to succeeding ages, his third, in which he sums up Roman strategy, tactics and logistics, has been hailed as ‘the foundation of military learning for every European commander from William the Silent to Frederick the Great’. He emphasised the importance of seeking information to dispel the fog of war, while at the same time concealing one’s own strength and plans. Vegetius dealt with the principles of war fought for limited objectives, by no means an inapt comparison with the wars of the early eighteenth century. ‘Consult with many on proper measures to be taken, but communicate the plans you intend to put in execution to few, and those only of most assured fidelity,’ he suggested. ‘Or better,’ he added, ‘trust no one but yourself.’17 There could scarcely be a better description of John Churchill’s approach to generalship.
In 1665, with John still at school, his sister Arabella was appointed a maid of honour to the Duchess of York, wife of the king’s brother James. Given the close relationship between York and Arlington, and the latter’s role as royal pander, what followed soon afterwards should come as no surprise. Winston called on the fashionable portraitist Sir Peter Lely, and at some time in the very early 1660s Lely painted his eldest son Winston and his daughter Arabella in neo-classical dress. At this time Arabella was perhaps fourteen years old, and her remorselessly flat-chested portrait gives little hint that she was soon to prove irresistibly attractive to the Duke of York.
In 1659 James had contracted a secret marriage to Anne Hyde, daughter of Charles II’s adviser Edward Hyde, who as Earl of Clarendon was to dominate politics in the period 1660–66. Of the children she bore him only two, Mary (b.1662) and Anne (b.1665), survived infancy. The marriage was formalised in London in 1660, but James’s eyes and hands were for ever wandering, and he embarked on a series of affairs. In 1665 the gossipy Pepys identified a lady who ‘is said to have given the Duke of York a clap upon his first coming over’; the following year the eager duke was said to be ‘desperately in love with Mrs Stewart’, and on Easter Day 1669 Pepys, now frankly alarmed rather than merely gossipy, complained that the royal lecher ‘did eye my wife mightily’.18 We might style James gourmand rather than gourmet, and his taste in ladies, like his religion, was Catholic. Catherine Sedley, one of his mistresses, confessed that: ‘We are none of us handsome, and if we had wit, he has not enough to discover it.’19
Arabella Churchill was described by one contemporary as having a face of no more than ordinary feminine beauty, which made her a good deal more attractive than many of James’s ladies, but a very pretty figure. We are told that the ducal party was riding to a greyhound meet near York when Arabella’s horse bolted. She fell, and the Duke of York found her unconscious and dishevelled: the fact that underwear was not in general use at the time may well have increased the joy of his discovery. Arabella bore James at least four children, Henrietta FitzJames (b.1667), James FitzJames, later Duke of Berwick (b.1670) and, after Anne Hyde’s death in 1671 and James’s marriage to Mary of Modena in 1673, Henry FitzJames, later Duke of Albemarle (b.1673), and Arabella FitzJames (b.1674).
Lord Macaulay, whiskery jowls quivering, thundered that the complaisant John Churchill stood dishonoured by his sister’s behaviour, though Sarah Marlborough acidly wondered quite what ‘he could do when a boy at school to prevent the infamy of his sister’. Sir Winston could do little, even if he had the inclination to make the attempt, because in 1665 he was sent back to Ireland, leaving his family behind in London. At about this time John went to court as page to the Duke of York, and in 1667 he begged his patron for an ensign’s commission in the foot guards, which was duly granted on 14 September that year. There was no formal uniform for army officers at this time, but the guards, like the rest of the infantry, wore red, and young John would have turned out in a knee-length red coat with broad blue turned-back cuffs and a good deal of gold lace. It would have taken rare perception to have guessed just how much lustre he would bring to coats like that and the men who wore them.
The Army of Charles II
The army that John Churchill joined was the product of an uneasy union between George Monck’s regiments, which represented the New Model Army, instrument of parliamentarian victory in the Civil War, and the force of exiled royalists maintained by Charles in the Low Countries. In 1660 Monck, now the well-pensioned Duke of Albemarle in reward for his services, began the disbandment of his troops as their arrears of pay were met, and by Christmas that year only two regiments of this remarkable army remained: his own foot, the ‘Coldstream Regiment’, and his own regiment of horse. A force of around 6,000 foot and six hundred horse was maintained in Dunkirk, consisting partly of ex-parliamentarian soldiers and partly of royalists, including Lord Wentworth’s regiment of foot guards.
It soon became clear to Charles that he could not afford to maintain Dunkirk, and in 1662 he sold it to France. Some of the troops went to the North African city of Tangier, which had come to the crown as part of the dowry of Charles’s queen, Catherine of Braganza. Others went off to fight in Portugal, and still others were disbanded in Dunkirk or joined the French army as mercenaries: Lord Wentworth’s guards returned to England in 1662, and were amalgamated with Colonel John Russell’s 1st Foot Guards in 1665.
Charles did not share the widespread mistrust of standing armies, and Gilbert Burnet maintains that lord chancellor Clarendon agreed that such a force was needed to protect the king from riots and risings.
And there was great talk of a design, as soon as the army were disbanded, to raise a force that should be so chosen and modelled that the King might depend upon it; and that it should be so considerable, that there might be no reason to apprehend tumults any more.20
However, the Earl of Southampton, the lord treasurer, feared that while the New Model’s men had been ‘sober and religious’ the king’s would perforce be brutal and licentious, and the probable instrument of royal despotism. One of Samuel Pepys’s drinking companions certainly agreed with him:
They go with their belts and swords, swearing and cursing, and stealing – running into people’s houses, by force oftentimes, to carry away something. And this is the difference between the temper of one and the other.21
Charles’s army was small – 6,000 strong at its peak – and it would have been a wise man who predicted that it would eventually grow into a force of European stature. There were many who argued, throughout his reign and beyond it, that the Trained Bands of the City of London and the county militias, their officers appointed by local potentates and their men selected by ballot from lists provided by parish constables, were sufficient guarantee of domestic security. On 1 January 1661, however, a small armed group of no more than fifty Fifth Monarchy men under ‘Venner the cooper’ seized the north gate of St Paul’s. A plucky watchman cried out that he was for King Charles. They replied that they were for King Jesus, and piously shot him through the head. Venner’s men went on to beat both a detachment of musketeers sent across from the guard on the Royal Exchange, and the lord may
Charles had already raised a regiment of foot guards commanded by John Russell, one of the Duke of Bedford’s grandsons and a steadfast Civil War royalist. The king had brought a Life Guard of horse across with him in 1660, but it had subsequently been reduced in size and the residue sent to Dunkirk. As a consequence of Venner’s rising the officers and men of Albemarle’s Coldstream regiment of foot were disbanded (thus meeting the letter of the agreement that specified that the old army was to disappear) and then immediately re-enlisted. In 1684 a royal ruling made this ‘new’ regiment junior to Russell’s 1st Foot Guards, but the Coldstreamers made clear their disapproval by adopting the motto Nulli Secundus, second to none. Members of the 1st Foot Guards helpfully translated this as ‘second to one’ or ‘better than nothing’.22 The Life Guards were brought back from Dunkirk and augmented into three troops – the King’s, the Duke of York’s and the Lord General’s, with a Scots troop raised soon afterwards. At the same time Aubrey de Vere, Earl of Oxford, raised a regiment of horse, properly the Royal Regiment of Horse Guards but known, from the colour of their uniforms, as the ‘Oxford Blues’. This was based on a parliamentarian regiment, brought up to strength with royalist volunteers.
This process gave Charles II guards, both horse and foot, and with them came the realistic prospect of preserving order in the capital and escorting the monarch when he travelled in the country. There were also a number of isolated non-regimented garrison companies in key strongholds like Portsmouth, Dover and Hull, all now commanded by officers of suitable royalist credentials. Although the small standing armies of each of Charles’s kingdoms were theoretically separate, ‘In practice,’ as John Childs tells us, ‘all three were interdependent and formed part of the same large whole. Soldiers from Scotland and Ireland were raised to serve on the English establishment whenever forces were needed for foreign service.’23
Charles expanded his army beyond this tiny kernel for two reasons. Firstly, there were the demands of his foreign policy, and as John Churchill was to find himself swept up in the wars that this provoked, we need to grasp its essentials. The treaty of 1661, which established the conditions for Charles’s marriage to the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza, brought England the North African city of Tangier, intermittently under siege by the Moors, and it required garrisoning. Amongst troops raised for this dangerous task was the Queen’s Foot, which went on to become the 2nd of Foot, the Queen’s Royal Regiment, whose paschal lamb badge can still be found on the buttons of its lineal descendant, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. A brigade of one regiment of cavalry and two of infantry also served in Portugal itself in 1662–68.
Then there were forces needed for war on the Continent. A dominating influence across the whole of John Churchill’s active career was the desire of the French monarch Louis XIV to extend the borders of France and secure influence across a wider Europe. However, for much of Charles’s reign the government pursued a pro-French policy. This undoubtedly reflected Charles’s personal inclination. His mother Henrietta Maria was French, his sister Henriette-Anne was married to the Duke of Orléans, and his personal religious beliefs drew him strongly towards Catholicism. In 1670 the secret Treaty of Dover, pushed on by some of Charles’s advisers (including Winston Churchill’s patron Lord Arlington, who had succeeded the fallen Clarendon), provided for an alliance between Britain and France. Charles affirmed that he was ‘convinced of the truth of the Roman Catholic religion and resolved to declare it and reconcile himself with the Church of Rome as soon as the welfare of his kingdom will permit’. Louis XIV would send 6,000 soldiers to help him against any recalcitrant subjects, and would provide Charles with £140,000, half payable in advance of his declaration. Amongst the treaty’s other clauses was one which bound the two kings to declare war on the States-General of the United Provinces, and others which determined the arrangements for this war – including a generous annual subsidy for the British. Henriette d’Orléans visited her brother in 1670 and persuaded him to defer his declaration of Catholicity until after the war had begun.
In fact Charles did not need much convincing, for, with that finely-tuned survival instinct which his brother so signally lacked, he recognised that such a pronouncement would be profoundly unpopular, and he was reconciled to the Roman Catholic Church only on his deathbed. A bogus treaty, which excluded the awkward clause committing Charles to Catholicism, was signed in December by five of his ministers – Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley Cooper and Lauderdale – whose initials conveniently made up the word cabal, or conspiracy, giving us some indication of what many of their contemporaries thought of them and their policy.24
As a consequence of this policy, a brigade of infantry served alongside the French army against the Dutch in 1672–78. It included the Earl of Dumbarton’s Scots Regiment, which was to become the Royal Scots, the 1st of Foot, and the senior line infantry regiment in the British army, rejoicing in the nickname ‘Pontius Pilate’s bodyguard’.* There was also the Duke of Monmouth’s Royal English Regiment, an Irish regiment under Sir George Hamilton (replaced, when he was killed at Saverne in 1676, by Colonel Thomas Dongan), assorted cavalry, and further infantry battalions which were broken up, on their arrival in France, to reinforce existing units. We shall see more of this brigade later.25
The government’s policy of war against the Dutch in alliance with the French was not popular, not least because many Englishmen regarded the Dutch as good fellow-Protestants who were, into the bargain, the doughtiest of adversaries at sea. England pulled out of the Third Dutch War in 1674, and with the fall of the cabal soon afterwards the Earl of Danby, the king’s new chief minister, gradually redefined foreign policy so as to align England with Holland and against France. Charles was uneasy about the arrangement, but his sister Henriette’s untimely death removed what might have proved an insuperable obstacle. In 1677 the Dutch stadholder William of Orange, fast emerging as the chief obstacle to Louis’ ambitions, married the Duke of York’s daughter Mary. The jocular Charles was on hand to help the happy couple to their bridal bed, and as he drew the curtains around it he improved the tender moment with his expert advice: ‘Now, nephew, to your work! Hey! St George for England!’26
On 31 December 1677 England signed a treaty with the Dutch, agreeing to work towards a general peace on the basis of French surrender of key fortresses in the Low Countries, to recall British troops from French service, and to send men to fight alongside the Dutch and their allies the Spanish, who were, through most of the period covered by this book, de jure rulers of the Spanish Netherlands, that broad and often contested strip of territory between France and Holland. A further treaty was not ratified by the English, and Charles then characteristically attempted to avoid both breaking his agreement with France and actually entering the war on the other side. Eventually, in 1678, a force of almost 18,000 men was ready, part of it composed of regiments recalled from French service, and part from regiments newly raised for the war. The force was disbanded in 1679 without having been in action, but the experience of getting it to Flanders, sustaining it in the theatre of operations and bringing it back to England was useful for the future. In addition to this expeditionary force, genuinely part of the British army, there were also British troops, including a high proportion of Scots, in Dutch service too.
We can already discern, from the very beginning of John Churchill’s career, the second reason for Charles’s expansion of his army. He was besieged by Civil War royalists, many of them awash with extended families, who sought places for themselves and their adherents as a reward for past services and, by unspoken implication, a guarantee of future loyalty. Although in 1661 Parliament had undertaken to raise £60,000 to
Then I went with them to the Governor, as he was marching at the head of fifteen hundred men, and told him they were officers of His Majesty’s Regiment of Guards, gentlemen, and brave fellows; and that they and myself would own it an honour to take our pikes upon our shoulders, and wait upon him that day. He returned as many grateful expressions unto us, as if it had been the highest obligation that was ever put upon him, and he would not take us from our command.27
By the time Gwyn wrote his memoirs, though, he was serving as a gentleman trooper in the King’s Troop of Life Guards, then commanded by the Duke of Monmouth. Although a trooper in the Life Guards received four shillings a day, compared to the 2s.6d paid to a trooper in a line cavalry regiment, it is clear that Gwyn hoped for promotion, and that the prefatory letters opening his memoirs were (apparently fruitless) pleas for assistance. He told Charles II that he had ‘faithfully spent my prime years in your service’, and evidently hoped for more than a billet in the Life Guards. There were thousands of John Gwyns in the England of the 1660s (one contemporary survey identified 5,353 former officers), all clamouring for jobs, and the expansion of the army could gratify at least some of them.
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