Marlborough: England’s Fragile Genuis
John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough, is a difficult subject for a biographer. In his early years he is a cavalier courtier, and later both high politician in England, political head of the coalition against Louis XIV after the death of William III, and commander in chief. Soldier politicians are common, but high politics is frequently the epilogue, not a concurrent activity.
Richard Holmes’s strength is that he looks through Marlborough’s eyes at events. The abolition of the pike, yes the pike, trailed as late as 1700; the thin red line to deliver devastating fire power; the concern over the well being and morale of his troops. Marlborough’s achievement was to change his army into the force that Napoleon would recognise a century later. Holmes’s analysis of the campaigns is excellent, with its emphasis on the strategic manoeuvre, and Marlborough’s tactical control of the battlefield. Unfortunately, the maps are rather uninspired and sometimes located in pages distant from the narrative.
Holmes understands that Marlborough’s psychological trauma from the Civil War and his father’s financial distress dominated Marlborough’s motives: his acceptance of payment from his lover Lady Castlemaine, “He does it for his bread,” said Charles II; his betrayal of James II; his contact with the exiled Jacobites throughout his life; and his attitude to wealth and titles.
Holmes treats politics in less detail, over emphasises the role of Marlborough’s wife and underestimates the Queen’s political influence. By assuming that personal relationships and interest are the main political drivers, he neglects important policy differences over the union, church, succession and the war. One would not look to this biography for an understanding of Marlborough as high politician. However, if a biography’s main aim is that of portraying a person’s character, Holmes succeeds.