Marlborough, p.78Richard Holmes
Here thou great Anna! whom three realms obey
Does sometimes council take – and sometimes Tea.
Lady Wentworth, Lord Raby’s* doting mother, stretched the language further than most. In August 1703 she told him that ‘an extreme wynde has brock one of your winds in your dyning room quite down’. Next year she reported that one of the family pet’s litter had found a good home, for ‘one of Fubsis puppys the Duke of Boffud has got’. In November 1708 she wrote to lament the death of poor Fubs: ‘As it leved so it dyed, full of lov leening its head in my bosom, never offered to snap at any body in its horrid torter but nussle its head to us and look earnestly upon me and Sue.’ She later hoped to persuade her son to marry the heiress Lady Mary Villiers, writing:
Why will you let Lady Mary then goe, she is young, ritch and not unhandsom, sum sey she is pretty; and a vertious lady and of the nobillety, and why will you not trye to gett her.14
Most educated folk could speak French, or something very like it. It was the Allied lingua franca, and Marlborough usually used it when corresponding with his Dutch or German confederates, and it was his sole means of contact with the future George I. It was an age when nationalism was less sharply defined than would be the case even a generation later. There were Huguenot refugees in the British army, Irish Catholics in the French army, and Swiss on both sides. Marlborough’s great military collaborator Prince Eugène of Savoy-Carignan was born in Paris, son of Eugène Maurice, prince of Savoy-Carignan and Duke of Soissons, and Olympia Mancini, a niece of Cardinal Mazarin and once a favourite of Louis XIV’s. Louis directed him into the Church, and when the young Eugène approached the king to ask for a commission in the army he was turned down. The reasons for the refusal remain obscure. There were rumours that Eugène had been too fond of other pages at court; his mother, caught up in accusations of witchcraft, was someone the king now recalled with horror, and in any case the lad was shockingly ugly. The refusal infuriated Eugène, who affirmed that: ‘No Huguenot expelled by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes ever cherished a stronger hatred against him.’ He admitted that he was emotionally engaged in the struggle against France.
I have entered it on more sides than one; and it is not my fault that I did not penetrate further. But for the English, I should have given law in the capital of the grande monarque and shut up his [wife, the former Madame de] Maintenon in a convent for life.15
Yet he was always happier in French, the language of his enemies, than in German, and in the polyglot style of the age signed himself Eugenio von Savoye.
If signatures can be one problem, dates are certainly another. Until 1752 Britain used the Julian calendar (‘Old Style’), whereas after 1700 all European countries except Russia switched to the Gregorian calendar (‘New Style’), which was eleven days ahead of it. Marlborough himself tended to use Old Style wherever he was, until halfway through the Blenheim campaign, when he announced that he would thereafter follow ‘the custom of the country’ and use New Style when abroad. Some correspondents gave both dates (e.g. August 2/13th) or added either ‘OS’ or ‘NS’ to make their meaning clear. I too adhere to the custom of the country, and date documents as their writers would have done: where there is a possibility of confusion I add ‘OS’ or ‘NS’ to the date. British contemporaries dated the beginning of each New Year not from 1 January but from 25 March. I follow the generally accepted practice of beginning the New Year on the first day of January.
Lastly, Charles II, James II, William and Mary, and Anne (until the Union of England and Scotland in 1707) ruled the three distinct kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, complete with their own peerages and parliaments. Yet in practice the army in which young John Churchill served included Scots and Irish regiments, and there were Scots and Irish soldiers within nominally English regiments. Although Wales was then subsumed within England, what was to become the 23rd Foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, had a decidedly Welsh feel even in Marlborough’s lifetime. I therefore write of a British army when contemporaries would have used the term English. To do otherwise would be fair neither to Captain Robert Parker’s Irish infantry nor to Lieutenant Colonel Jemmy Campbell’s Scots dragoons.
Regiments were generally known by the names of their colonels, and might in consequence change their titles quite often. Some of Marlborough’s regiments have clear descendants even in today’s abbreviated regimental structure. In other cases successive amalgamations have made the golden thread harder to follow, and in still other cases disbandments after the War of Spanish Succession cut off some of Marlborough’s regiments without legitimate issue. This is a matter rightly dear to the hearts of military antiquarians, but I shall rub along without worrying too much about bastion-ended lace here or sea-green facings there. The officers of the age did not wear uniforms as we would understand them, and not least of Marlborough’s contributions to the British army was to insist on the officers of horse and foot turning out in red coats. When he was born a red coat did not mean much on a European battlefield: by the time he died it meant a great deal.
* * *
* Thomas Wentworth (1672–1739), soldier and diplomat, 3rd Baron Raby and in 1711 1st Earl of Stratford of the third creation. Scion of a Yorkshire family related to Charles I’s favourite, Stratford, he was impeached for his role in negotiating the Treaty of Utrecht, and was created a Jacobite duke in 1722.
From the reviews of Marlborough: England’s Fragile Genius:
‘Unbeatable military history, with rattling narrative vitality, full of political plots, grand strategy, battlefield carnage and dynastic vainglory, and with a piercing empathy for commanders and cannon fodder alike’
RICHARD DAVENPORT-HINES, Sunday Telegraph, Books of the Year
‘As comprehensive an account of Marlborough as a single volume can hope to be … In his descriptions of the great set-piece battles [Holmes’s] eye for detail, grasp of subject, deployment of sources, and familiarity with physical terrain, which distinguishes all his military writing, combine to produce as lucid and vivid an account of warfare as one could ask for’
‘[Holmes] has certainly done his subject full justice by crafting a quite brilliant, judicious and fully rounded portrait that should go some way to restoring Marlborough’s reputation as a truly Great Briton’
‘Though [Richard Holmes] guides us sure-footedly through the political and diplomatic maze, it is his account of Marlborough’s organisation of the army and campaigns, and his lucid descriptions of the battles, that make this work outstanding’
‘Holmes depicts the moral and political landscape of an entire age in this rewarding biography … [He] is as thrilling on his subject’s romantic devotion to his wife … as he is on the battles’
‘Holmes tells the tale well and fairly, and on the whole elegantly. He has a good eye for the captivating detail and the illuminating quotation. While rightly concentrating on military matters, he fills in the international and political background skilfully … A thorough and readable book’
ALSO BY RICHARD HOLMES
In order of publication
The English Civil War (with Brigadier Peter Young)
The Little Field Marshal: Sir John French
Soldiers (with John Keegan)
The Road to Sedan
Riding the Retreat
War Walks II
The Western Front
The Second World War in Photographs
The First World War in Photographs
Oxford Companion to Military History (general editor)
Battlefields of the Second World War
Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket
Wellington: The Iron Duke
Tommy: The British So
In the Footsteps of Churchill
Sahib: The British Soldier in India
Dusty Warriors: Modern Soldiers at War
The World at War
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First published in Great Britain by HarperPress in 2008
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Richard Holmes, Marlborough
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