Marlborough, p.9Richard Holmes
Barbara Castlemaine had a hearty sexual appetite. Even in her sixties, by then Duchess of Cleveland in her own right, she conducted what turned out to be a bigamous marriage with Robert ‘Beau’ Fielding. She had not lost her taste for elegant men. For his part Fielding hoped to marry money, somehow forgetting that he had recently wed a Mary Wadsworth, imagining her to be a wealthy widow called Mrs Deleau. He certainly did not help matters by sleeping with Barbara’s granddaughter Charlotte Calvert, and the furious duchess duly sued him for adultery, ensuring that his explicit love letters were read out in court and subsequently published.
By the time of John’s return to court Barbara Castlemaine had lost her place as the king’s acknowledged mistress. Charles had insisted on her appointment as lady of the bedchamber to Catherine of Braganza when she arrived from Portugal, warning: ‘Whosoever I find to be my Lady Castlemaine’s enemy in this matter, I do promise upon my word to be his enemy as long as I live.’47 She played a leading role at court, formed an alliance of mutual self-promotion with Sir Peter Lely (some of whose impact upon English portraiture we have already seen), and bore the king several children: Anne (b.1661), Charles, 2nd Duke of Cleveland and 1st Duke of Southampton (b.1662), Henry, Duke of Grafton (b.1663, though the king seems to have harboured some reservations about his paternity), Charlotte (b.1664) and George, Duke of Northumberland (b.1665). Charles was fond of his children, and had Catherine of Braganza been able to give him any, this story might have been very different. ‘He loves not the queen at all,’ thought Pepys, ‘but is rather sullen to her, and she by all accounts incapable of any children.’ In contrast, ‘The king is mighty kind to these bastard children and at this day will go at midnight to my Lady Castlemaine’s nurses and take the child and dance it in his arms.’48
By 1667 Barbara Castlemaine’s name had been linked with that of Henry Jermyn, courtier, dandy and successful property developer, and what one royal biographer calls Charles’s ‘generous affection’ had been warmly engaged by a maid of honour, Frances Stuart.49 That year Barbara was rumoured to be pregnant, and demanded that the king acknowledge the child, but he protested that he had not slept with her for the past six months. There was also a court rumour that he had nearly caught her with Henry Jermyn, who ‘was fain to creep under the bed into her closet’ to avoid royal detection. In January 1668 the king’s affair with the actress Mary Davis was widely known, but although Lady Castlemaine moved out of Whitehall into Berkshire House, opposite St James’s Palace, bought for her by the king, she remained on good terms with Charles, who paid her frequent visits. Her lovers during this period seem to have included the rope-dancer Jacob Hall, the actor Charles Hart, the playwright William Wycherley and, last but not least, Ensign John Churchill.
She was definitively supplanted in the king’s affection by Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, in 1671–72, but succeeded, largely because of the king’s regard for his children, in retaining significant influence at court. She was created Duchess of Cleveland in 1670, and her boys were granted arms testifying to their royal connection. In 1676 she left for Paris, to oversee the education of her daughters, and on her return to England in 1682 she found that her former power had evaporated. An ill-starred affair with the actor Cardell Goodman, not long before the no less unlucky marriage to Beau Fielding, made her something of a figure of ridicule. She died of dropsy in October 1709.
Some of John Churchill’s biographers see his affair with Barbara Castlemaine as simply a young man’s dalliance with an attractive and experienced older woman, but there is much more to it than that. Castlemaine was strong-willed and hot-tempered, capable of telling Charles that she would bring a child ‘into Whitehall gallery and dash the brains of it out before the King’s face’ unless he acknowledged paternity. She was a major political figure, deploying her formidable interest against all who crossed her. Castlemaine was an implacable enemy of Lord Clarendon, who as lord chancellor repeatedly opposed the king’s largesse towards her. When he left Whitehall in disgrace he saw her with Arlington and Bab May ‘looking out of her open window with great gaiety and triumph, which all people observed’.50
Her relationship with her kinsman George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was more changeable, and was enlivened by a public spat in 1668–69 when Buckingham engaged Lady Hervey to undermine Castlemaine, only to be decisively outmanoeuvred himself. She had declared her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1663, and favoured the French party at court, giving the French ambassador useful information on the attitude of the king and his ministers. Finally, she was a consummate accumulator of grants and pensions, and by 1674 she was worth, in theory, £12,000 a year. We should not concern ourselves with speculation about what Ensign Churchill might have learnt in the bedroom, though A.L. Rowse is doubtless right to call it ‘a very liberal education’, but he was certainly in a position to learn much about the manipulation of interest at court.51
Despite the family’s first successes after the Restoration, the Churchills were not well off, and John had not been able to buy promotion in the army. His relationship with Barbara changed all that. She gave him a present of £5,000, which he immediately converted into an annuity of £500 a year. The 4th Earl of Chesterfield, whose grandfather had been one of Barbara’s first lovers, benevolently attributed the gift simply to Churchill’s delightful manners and appearance.
Of all the men that I ever knew in my life (and I knew him extremely well) the late Duke of Marlborough possessed all the graces in the highest degree, not to say engrossed them; and indeed, he got the most by them, for I will venture (contrary to the custom of profound historians, who always assign deep causes for great events) to ascribe the better half of the Duke of Marlborough’s greatness and riches to those graces … while he was an Ensign of the Guard, the Duchess of Cleveland … struck by those very graces, gave him five thousand pounds, with which he immediately bought an annuity for his life, of five hundred pounds a year of my grandfather [the Marquess of] Halifax, which was the foundation of his subsequent fortune. His figure was beautiful, but his manner was irresistible, by either man or woman.52
Others ascribe the gift to an occasion when Churchill’s quick-wittedness prevented embarrassment. He was in bed with Barbara when the king arrived, and immediately jumped out of her window and made off across the courtyard: thus the payment was less for services rendered in bed than for alacrity in getting out of it. A similar version of the story has the Duke of Buckingham, then at odds with Barbara, pay a servant £100 for information on the lovers’ next tryst, and ensure that the king called on her at the worst possible moment. After Barbara’s prevarication over lost keys, Churchill was discovered naked in her wardrobe, and both he and Barbara knelt to beseech the monarch’s forgiveness. ‘Go; you are a rascal,’ said Charles, ‘but I forgive you because you do it for your bread.’ Winston S. Churchill speculates that ‘It may be that the two stories are one, and that untrue.’ But there is nothing inherently improbable in the encounter, and the words are very much in Charles’s tone. Moreover, by this stage his relationship with Barbara had cooled to one of friendship for the mother of part of his extensive brood, and, a serial adulterer himself, he could be generous in accepting the infidelities of others.53 Yet there is room to doubt just how far this generosity went in Churchill’s case, for we will see very shortly that he was in ‘the king’s displeasure’ at just this time.
Churchill never formally acknowledged his daughter with Barbara Castlemaine. She was styled Lady Barbara Palmer (for she was, in theory, an earl’s daughter, even if Roger Palmer did not actually sire any of his wife’s brood), though she was sometimes called Lady Barbara Fitzroy. However, Charles II never bestowed on her the surname which he gave to the acknowledged bastards that Barbara bore him, deliberately leaving her ‘without a token of royal bounty’. Her mother was either remarkably thick-skinned or had a broad sense of humour, because she took the child to Paris in 1676 and installed her in the Convent of the Immaculate Conception of Our L
The Dutch War
John Churchill’s affair with Barbara Castlemaine took place against a background of rising international tension. The Treaty of Dover had, as we have seen, bound Charles to support Louis XIV in his attack on the Dutch. Louis was characteristically pleased with himself in poising a mighty war machine over the heads of the Dutch. ‘After having taken precautions of all sorts,’ he wrote with his usual immodesty,
as much by alliances as raising troops, magazines, warships, and great sums of money … I made treaties with England, the Elector of Cologne, the bishop of Munster … also with Sweden, and to hold Germany in check, with the Dukes of Hanover and of Neuburg and with the Emperor … I made my enemies tremble, astounded my neighbours, and brought despair to my foes … All my subjects supported my intentions … in the army with their valour, in the kingdom with their zeal, in foreign lands with their industry and skill; France has demonstrated the difference between herself and other nations.55
It is easy to be attracted by the splendour of Versailles, the spectacle of the French court, or the saga of Louis and his mistresses, and to forget just what a challenge this devout and opinionated monarch presented to Europe.56 By invading Holland in the spring of 1672 he sought to improve upon the terms of the Treaty of Aix la Chapelle of 1668, which had given France useful gains on her northern frontier but had also left Dutch garrisons in Spanish-owned ‘barrier fortresses’ in an effort to restrict further French expansion. Louis’ apologists suggest that he launched the Dutch War in 1672 not simply because of ‘wounded pride or … insupportable arrogance’, though even they can scarcely deny a fair measure of both these commodities, but because France had good reason to control the ‘gates’ of the kingdom, especially Antwerp, and to achieve the ‘annihilation’ of the Dutch commercial fleet.57
To do this he presided over a nation whose nobility was largely exempt from taxation, and where famines (long unknown in England) regularly killed tens of thousands: perhaps 800,000 were to die in the severe winter of 1709. Judicial torture, outlawed in England and soon to be abolished in Scotland too, was routine in French criminal investigations. A shocked John Evelyn watched a suspect who had refused to confess to theft racked, a process which ‘severed the fellow’s joints in a miserable sort, drawing him out at length in an extraordinary manner’. The victim then had two buckets of water poured down his throat ‘with a horn (just such as they use to drench horses with)’, but still denied his guilt. The affronted investigator told Evelyn that under these circumstances they could not hang the fellow, but could at least pack him off as a galley-slave, ‘which is as bad as death’.58
The ‘affair of the poisons’, which diverted Louis’ court in the 1670s, eventually saw thirty-four people executed and almost as many sent to the galleys or banished. When the marquise de Brinvilliers was executed for widespread poisoning, after the customary tortures, the cultured Madame de Sévigné complained that the crowd around her pyre was so great that she had, disappointingly, only been able to catch a glimpse of the victim’s mobcap.59 A sketch by Charles le Brun of the marquise on her way to execution shows a plump face exhausted by pain. Nancy Mitford suggested that Mme de Brinvilliers’ ‘appalling tortures’ were ‘probably no worse … than those she had inflicted’.60 But one did not have to be a murderer to come to a bad end: a scurrilous cartoon of Louis’ equestrian statue in the place des Victoires, depicting the king being led in chains by four mistresses, earned hanging for the printer, the bookseller and, for good measure, the printer’s apprentice too.61
The republic which so affronted Louis was a federation of seven of the seventeen provinces of the Low Countries which had been under Spanish rule, and was governed by the States-General of the United Provinces, to which individual provinces sent delegates. The grand pensionary was its chief executive, and for some time successive ruling princes of Orange had been both stadholder (effectively an appointed constitutional monarch) and captain general. The British are fond of calling William of Orange, formally given both these offices in 1672, ‘Dutch William’. However, his principality of Orange was actually on the southern Rhône, his mother was Mary, daughter of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, he had inherited some German blood from his grandfather William the Silent, French blood came through his maternal grandfather, Scots blood from his maternal great-grandfather, James I, and Danish blood through the latter’s wife, Anne of Denmark. If he was Dutch it was by birth, residence and the most passionate conviction. Some have hailed him as ‘the First European’, and it was certainly thanks in part to his efforts that Louis’ imperial dreams were to evaporate.
The first French attacks went unsurprisingly well, the Dutch frontier garrisons being overwhelmed with scarcely a shot fired. The Dutch government offered to make peace on generous terms, but Louis, beset by the blindness that so often afflicts dictators, rejected its offer. A riot in The Hague saw the grand pensionary, Jan de Witt, and his brother murdered by the mob, and now, under the determined leadership of William, the Dutch settled to their task. They opened their dykes, flooding thousands of acres of fertile land, and when the French began the systematic destruction of Dutch towns resistance only deepened.
If the Dutch had begun the war at a disadvantage on land, they enjoyed a comfortable supremacy over the French at sea, and this is what the Treaty of Dover was intended to counteract. Charles repudiated his debts by declaring a Stop of the Exchequer in January 1672, issued a Declaration of Indulgence, granting toleration to both dissenters and Roman Catholics, the following month, and looked forward to the French subsidies which would enable him to fight a war, and, so he hoped, strengthen his army, without needing to ask Parliament for funds. The English and French fleets met at Portsmouth in May, and then cruised round to the coast of Suffolk, hoping to bring the Dutch to battle and then land troops in Zealand.
Ensign Churchill’s company of 1st Foot Guards, one of those embarked on the fleet, was aboard the Duke of York’s flagship Prince. On 28 May the Dutch under Admiral de Ruyter found the Allies at anchor in Southwold Bay, expecting an attack, with the French in a single squadron on the south of the line and two English squadrons to the north, and the wind coming in from the east-north-east, giving the Dutch the advantage. When the Dutch came into sight, with sixty-four ships to the Allies’ eighty-two, the Duke of York led the English off northwards against the main body of the Dutch, but failed to make his intentions clear to the French, who sailed southwards and engaged the weaker Dutch vanguard.
The English lost their battle. Lord Sandwich, vice-admiral of the kingdom and Samuel Pepys’s patron, who commanded the leading squadron, was killed, and his flagship Royal James was burnt. Prince was in the thick of things, as Captain John Narborough tells us.
His Royal Highness went fore and aft in the ship and cheered up the men to fight, which did encourage them very much … Presently when [Captain] Sir John Cox was slain I commanded as captain, observing his Royal Highness’s commands in working the ship, striving to get the wind of the enemy. I do absolutely believe no prince upon earth can compare with his Royal Highness in gallant resolution in fighting his enemy, and with so great conduct and knowledge in navigation as never any general understood before him. He is better a
Prince lost her captain and a third of her complement, and was so badly damaged that James shifted his flag to St Michael, and when she too was too badly mauled to serve as flagship he shifted it again to London. The French had done rather better, but there was a bitter dispute between two French admirals, and the whole episode was discouraging.
We might pause to consider how the battle reflected on James. That he had been brave is beyond question. But the fleet he commanded, drawn up in the expectation of battle, had been beaten, with loss, by a significantly inferior force. When he set off on the port tack with his two northernmost squadrons he did not order the French to follow. Perhaps, as the naval historian N.A.M. Rodger surmises, he might have thought it too obvious to suggest. However, it was his duty to have either agreed on a standard operating procedure or to have sent the appropriate signals. John Narborough became Rear Admiral Sir John Narborough soon after the action thanks to James’s patronage, and we can scarcely blame him for describing his patron’s behaviour in the best possible light. After the battle there was a disagreeable bout of ‘blame the foreigner’, and what was evidently a lost battle could be attributed to French negligence or cowardice. In fact James’s behaviour should not escape censure: one does not become a successful admiral simply by being brave.
Whatever the reasons for the defeat in Southwold Bay, it is evident that John Churchill, war hero or not, did not stand high in royal favour. On 25 October 1672 Sir Winston Churchill told the Duke of Richmond that:
My poor son Jack, that should have waited on Your Excellency thither, has been very unfortunate ever since in the continuation of the king’s displeasure, who, notwithstanding the service he did in the last fight, whereof the Duke [of York] was pleased to give the King a particular character, would not give him leave to be of the Duke’s bedchamber, although his highness declared he would not dispose of it to anyone else. He has been pleased since to let him have my cousin Vaughan’s company, but with confinement to his country quarters at Yarmouth.63
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