The First Churchill

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Numerous biographies of the Duke of Marlborough have been published since his death in 1722. Some of them have been extremely laudatory; one writer for instance, called Marlborough “the greatest general and the greatest minister that our country, or perhaps any country, has produced.” Other biographers, while almost invariably acknowledging Marlborough’s outstanding military, political, and diplomatic talents, have pointed to the equally glaring defects of his character; his inordinate ambition, excessive greed, unscrupulousness, and shifting loyalties which so outweighed his virtues as to make Marlborough more odious than admirable, in the eyes of many biographers.

In the 1930’s, Marlborough’s most famous descendent, Winston Spencer Churchill, published a four-volume biography of the Duke which remains the standard work on the subject. George Malcolm Thomson’s The First Churchill does not supersede the monumental study by Winston Churchill, but it does have merits of its own. For one thing, Thomson emphasizes certain events and developments in Marlborough’s life which Churchill did not, and these give a slightly different perspective to the Duke’s conduct. Also, while Thomson clearly respects Marlborough, his admiration is more tempered than that of Churchill whose ancestor-reverence led him to excuse or explain away virtually all of the character flaws and personal mistakes made by the Duke. Furthermore, because Thomson’s is a single volume, the general reader would surely find it more manageable than the rather intimidating multivolume presentation by Churchill. Also, not least important, Thomson has crafted an excellent piece of writing in The First Churchill, well worthy of comparison with that of Winston Churchill who was an acclaimed master of English prose. Thomson’s writing style reflects his many years as a working journalist: it is terse, colorful, balanced, and probably more agreeable to modern readers than the slower-moving, nineteenth century style of Winston Churchill.

Some of the flavor of Thomson’s writing style may be shown by a quotation from the Prologue to The First Churchill in which he surveys social and political conditions in mid-seventeenth century England and Europe. It was, he writes,an age of cautious change and limited revolutions, of second thoughts about God and the state, of divisive loyalties and of treachery; an age of monarchs avid for glory; of subjects who dreamt of becoming monarchs. . . . Men built palaces as once they had built churches, palaces which were more than residences, more than headquarters, rather temples in which the god-ruler was adored and the munificence of the faithful was displayed. . . . The beautiful gave way to the grandiose. Insolence rather than spiritual pride was the fashionable sin.

There is more in the same vein; in all, a fine summary of the kind of society into which John Churchill was born, and the milieu in which his character would be molded.

John Churchill was born on May 26, 1650, the second child and first son of Sir Winston Churchill, a member of the Dorset gentry. Sir Winston had supported the royalist side in the English Civil Wars of the 1640’s; for that loyalty to the crown, he was punished with fines and property confiscation by the victorious Parliamentarians, leaving the family much impoverished at the time John was born. John’s avariciousness and close-fistedness as an adult can probably be attributed to the penury of his parents when he was a child. Sir Winston’s dedicated royalism and support of the Stuart monarchy would also be passed on to his children.

The family kept growing; Elizabeth Churchill gave birth to twelve children although, as was typical of the age, only five survived infancy. The Churchills continued to survive in relative poverty and social eclipse until 1661. Then, the Stuart dynasty was restored to the English throne in the person of Charles II. For his past services to the Stuarts, Sir Winston received appointment to a minor government post. This enabled the family to move to London and take up residence in Whitehall Palace. Young John was sent to study at St. Paul’s School; his older sister, Arabella, became maid of honor to the Duchess of York, sister-in-law to King Charles. Not long after, the beautiful Arabella “caught the eye” of James, Duke of York, the lecherous younger brother of the King. Gossips at the court would charge that Sir Winston himself provided his daughter for the Duke’s pleasure, in order to advance the Churchill family fortunes. Whether the charge is true or not, the ambitious Arabella “climbed into the Duke’s bed” to become another in a long line of York’s mistresses. Honors and largesse for the Churchill family from the Duke were soon forthcoming. John Churchill was appointed as page in the Duke of York’s household; his father received additional offices. The Churchill family was on its way upward.

John served as page to the Duke for several years, but his great desire was to become a soldier. Accordingly, in 1667, the Duke of York commissioned John an ensign in the Foot Guards regiment, and his military career was launched. Over the next five years, young Churchill gained considerable experience as a soldier, particularly in Flanders where the English had joined King Louis XIV of France in his wars against the Dutch. For his services in Flanders, Churchill was praised by D’Artagnan, the commander of the French musketeers, and promoted to the rank of captain by the Duke of York: he was not yet twenty years of age.

Meanwhile, John had also acquired a mistress; this was Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine. Barbara was already one of the concubines of King Charles himself but that counted for little in an age of loose morality. John and Barbara became lovers; he fathered one of her several illegitimate children, and she provided him with substantial sums of money, which he carefully invested. By the mid-1670’s, John Churchill had risen to the rank of colonel, had the advantage of a highly-placed mistress, an adequate income, and a good military reputation. On returning from the wars in Flanders in 1674, John met at Whitehall the woman who would be his wife, Sarah Jennings. Immediately and completely captivated, John wrote to Sarah: “I must ever love you as long as I have breath, do what you will.” He would have married at once, but Sarah’s family regarded the Churchills as beneath the Jennings in status, so Sarah kept postponing making a commitment. For three long years, John pleaded, promised,...

(The entire section is 2688 words.)