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John, Duke Of Marlborough
About noon, on June 24, 1650, John Churchill, afterward Duke of Marlborough, was born at Ashe, in Devonshire. His school-days were soon over; for his father, Sir Winston Churchill, having established himself at court soon after the restoration of Charles the Second, was anxious to introduce his children early into life, and obtained for his son the situation of page of honor to the Duke of York, at the same time that his only daughter, Arabella, became maid of honor to the duchess.
While at school, young Churchill had discovered in the library an old book on military subjects. This he read frequently, and conceived such a taste for a martial life, that he longed to distinguish himself as a soldier.
The Duke of York held frequent reviews of the guards. Churchill had not long been his page, before the duke noticed his eagerness to be present on these occasions. Pleased with this indication of military ambition, the duke suddenly inquired one day, "What can I do for you, Churchill, as a first step to fortune?"
The page threw himself on his knees before the duke. "I beseech your Royal Highness," he entreated, with clasped hands, "to honor me with a pair of colors."
"Well, well," said the duke, smiling at the lad's earnestness, "I will grant your request by and by;" and his young favorite had not long to wait before he got the post for which he had petitioned.
The youthful ensign, scarce fifteen years of age, first embarked for Tangiers; and although his stay was short, yet in the sallies and skirmishes with the Moors he showed that even now he possessed that courage and ability which in after years placed him at the head of all the heroes of his time.
Before the year in which he left England had expired, he was again in his native country. He then accompanied the Duke of Monmouth to the continent, to assist France against Holland. The Prince of Conde and Marshal Turenne, the greatest generals of that time, commanded the French army, so that Churchill had very favorable opportunities of improving his military talent and genius.
A French officer, during the siege of Nimeguen, had failed to retain a post of consequence, which he had been appointed to defend. The news of its loss was brought to Turenne.
"I will bet a supper and a dozen of claret," instantly exclaimed the marshal, "that my handsome Englishman will recover the post with half the number of men that the officer commanded who lost it."
Churchill was despatched with a small company, and, after a short but desperate struggle, retook the post, won the marshal his wager, and gained for himself the applause and admiration of the whole army.
Next year, at the siege of Maestricht, Captain Churchill again distinguished himself. At the head of his own company, he scaled the ramparts, and planted the banner of France on the very summit, escaping with a slight wound. Louis XIV. was so highly pleased with his conduct that he thanked him at the head of the army, and soon made him lieutenant-colonel. The Duke of Monmouth afterward confessed to the king, that he was indebted for his life, on this occasion, to our hero's gallantry and discretion.
On his return to England, he was made gentleman of the bedchamber and master of the robes to his earliest patron, the Duke of York. At this period he was captivated by the beauty of Miss Sarah Jennings, daughter of a gentleman of ancient family, and maid of honor to the duchess. Their marriage took place in 1678.
The services Colonel Churchill continued to yield the royal brothers did not pass unrewarded. He was created Baron Churchill of Agmouth, in Berwickshire; and a friendship sprung up between Lady Churchill and the Princess (afterward queen) Anne, who, when she married Prince George of Denmark, got her friend appointed lady of her bedchamber.
The day after James II. was proclaimed, he made his favorite, lieutenant-general. The battle of Sedgemoor, in which the ill-fated Duke of Monmouth with his rebel army was defeated, was won chiefly by Churchill's courage and decision. Till the closing scene of James's reign, there is little stated of Lord Churchill, although it is known that he used his influence with his royal master to prevent the arbitrary system of government the king endeavored to introduce. Finding the monarch determined to persist in his encroachments, Lord Churchill felt it his duty, however painful, to go over to the Prince of Orange, by whom he was received with distinguished marks of attention and respect; and, two days before his coronation, the prince raised him to the dignity of Earl of Marlborough.
The affection the earl still felt toward his late benefactor, the ex-king, led him into a correspondence with him. This, being discovered, brought the displeasure of King William upon him, and for some time he was deprived of all his appointments. At length a governor being wanted for the young Duke of Gloucester, son of the Princess Anne, the king, as an earnest of his returning favor, conferred this honor on Marlborough. "Teach him, my lord," said his majesty, "to be what you are yourself, and he will not want accomplishments."
On the accession of Queen Anne, Marlborough was made captain-general, master of the ordnance, and a knight of the garter. Soon after, he was sent to Holland to aid the Dutch against the French. He was appointed by them generalissimo of the forces, with a salary of #10,000 a year. With his army he crossed the river Meuse, and advanced to the siege of Rheinberg. "I hope soon to deliver you from these troublesome neighbors!" he exclaimed to the Dutch deputies who accompanied him on a reconnoitring party; and had it not been for the timidity of the Dutchmen he would have fulfilled his intentions. He however, took three towns out of the hands of the French, and the campaign ended by the taking of Liege.
Marlborough soon returned to England, when the queen created him Marquis of Blandford and Duke of Marlborough, an honor he reluctantly accepted, and chiefly because it would give him more consideration if again called upon to serve his country abroad.
In 1703 the duke was once more in Flanders, leading operations against the French with his usual success.
The celebrated Prince Eugene was appointed his colleague; and the first time these two generals met, they conceived that mutual esteem and confidence, which afterward rendered them partners in the same glory.
At the head of a noble army, the two generals penetrated into the heart of Germany, driving the Elector of Bavaria before them, ere his French allies could join him. It would take too much space to describe all the victories, and relate the details of the burning of three hundred towns, villages, and castles! These stern necessities of war were far from pleasing to Marlborough, who grieved to see the poor people suffering from their master's ambition. The Elector shed tears when he heard of these devastations, and offered large sums to prevent military execution on the land. "The forces of England," replied the duke, "are not come into Bavaria to extort money, but to bring its prince to reason and moderation. It is in the power of the Elector to end the matter at once by coming to a speedy accommodation."
But the Elector knew that Marshal Tallard, with a powerful French army, was approaching; and, buoyed up by expectation, replied, "Since you have compelled me to draw the sword, I have thrown away the scabbard!"
Prince Eugene had hastened from the Rhine to join Marlborough, with a force of eighteen thousand men, and reached the plains of Hochstadt by the time Tallard joined the Elector. As the prince and Marlborough proceeded to survey the ground, previous to taking up their position, they perceived some squadrons of the enemy at a distance. The two generals mounted the steeple of a church close by, and, with their glasses, discovered the quarter-masters of the enemy marking out a camp between Blenheim and Luetzingen. Charmed beyond measure, they resolved to give battle before the enemy could strengthen themselves in their new position. Some officers, who knew the strength of the ground selected by the enemy, ventured to remonstrate, and to advise that no action should be hazarded. "I know the dangers of the case," said Marlborough, who had not made up his mind without due consideration, "but a battle is absolutely necessary; and as for success, I rely on the hope that the discipline and courage of the troops will make amends for all disadvantages." Orders being issued for a general engagement, the whole army commenced preparations with cheerfulness and alacrity.
Marlborough showed that he was resolved to conquer or to die in the attempt. Part of the night he passed in prayer, and toward morning received the sacrament. Then, after taking a short sleep, he concerted the arrangements for the action with Prince Eugene, particularly pointing out to the surgeons the proper place for the wounded.
The forces of the duke and the prince formed an army of 33,500 infantry and 18,400 cavalry. They were opposed by a force of 56,000 men.
About six o'clock in the morning, Marlborough and Eugene took their station on a rising ground, and calling all the generals, gave the directions for the attack. The army then marched into the plain; and being formed in order of battle, the chaplains performed service at the head of each regiment.
The morning being hazy, the French and Bavarians did not even suspect the approach of their enemies, and were completely taken by surprise. A large gun boomed forth the signal for the onset; and as great a battle was fought as the memory of man ever heard of. A panic seized the whole of the troops which composed the right of the French army, and they fled like a flock of sheep before the victorious English,--deaf to the threats and entreaties of their commanders, and without observing whither their flight led them. A body of cavalry, the best and most renowned in the whole army, seized with fear, hurried away Marshal Tallard with them in their flight; and, void of all thought, threw themselves by squadrons into the Danube, men and horses, officers and troopers together. Some escaped; but the greater portion, who had sought to avoid an uncertain death on the field of battle and honor, found a certain and shameful death in the river. The poor marshal, after vainly endeavoring to stem this torrent of despair, was obliged to surrender himself a prisoner of war with several other general officers in his company. The defeat then became complete. Of all the infantry the marshal had brought to the assistance of the Elector, only two battalions escaped; eight and twenty battalions were taken prisoners; and ten were entirely destroyed!
The French, for many years, had never sustained any considerable defeat; and in consequence, had looked upon themselves, and had been regarded by other countries, almost as invincible. But now the charm was broken.
After the battle, when Marshal Tallard was brought into the duke's tent, the marshal exclaimed with emphasis, "Your grace has beaten the best troops in the world!"
"I hope," quickly rejoined the duke, "that you except the troops which defeated them."
The news caused great joy in England, except to a discontented party, who considered that "it would no more weaken the power of the French king, than taking a bucket of water out of a river." Marlborough's answer, when he heard this, was, "If they will allow me to draw one or two such buckets more, we may then let the river run quietly, and not much apprehend its overflowing, and destroying its neighbors." Queen Anne, however, as a monument of victory, commanded a splendid palace to be built for the duke, at her own expense, to be called Blenheim.
It would fill a large volume to relate all the victories of the Duke of Marlborough, none of which, however, exceeded the Battle of Blenheim in importance. One, some years afterward, called the Battle of Malplaquet, was a better contested fight, and perhaps ranks next; in truth, after this battle, France never again ventured to meet Marlborough in the field.
At three o'clock in the morning of September 11, 1709, the confederated troops (for Eugene, with his army, was still with Marlborough) began to raise their batteries, under cover of a thick fog, which lasted till half-past seven. When it cleared away, the armies found themselves close together, each having a perfect view of the other. Marshal Villars commanded the French army. He was adored by his troops, who placed unbounded confidence in him; and as he now rode along their ranks the air rang with "Long live the king!" "Long live Marshal Villars!" The right wing was commanded by Marshal Boufflers.
A discharge of fifty pieces of cannon from the confederates was the signal for battle, which commenced a little after eight. Each army had between ninety and one hundred thousand men, and the battle raged for some time with unexampled bravery. All the duties of a skilful general were performed by Marlborough; and late in the day the French army left the field in the possession of the allies, both armies having fought with almost incredible valor. The loss of the French was fourteen thousand men; the allies, though victory was on their side, lost nearly twenty thousand.
An officer of distinction in the French army, writing an account of this battle said: "The Eugenes and Marlboroughs ought to be well satisfied with us during that day; since, till then, they had not met with resistance worthy of them. They may say, with justice, that nothing can stand before them; for what shall be able to stem the rapid course of these two heroes, if an army of one hundred thousand of our best troops--posted between two roads, trebly entrenched, and performing their duty as well as brave men could do--were not able to stop them one day? Will you not, then, own with me, that they surpass all the heroes of former ages?"
With his usual humanity, Marlborough's first care, at the close of the action, was the relief of the wounded. Three thousand Frenchmen who lay on the field shared his attention, with the wounded of his own army; and he immediately arranged means for conveying them away. Still, next morning--the day set apart for burying the slain--notwithstanding his care, when riding over the field he saw among the heaps which covered the plain, not only the numerous bodies of the slain, but of the dying also. Nor did he feel only for the sufferings of his companions in arms; the groans of wounded enemies, and the sight of their mangled limbs, equally awakened his compassion. Learning also, that many French officers and soldiers had crept into the neighboring houses and woods, wounded, and in a miserable condition for want of assistance, he ordered them every possible relief, and despatched a messenger with a letter to the French marshal, humanely proposing; a conference to arrange the means of removing these wretched sufferers. By this humanity the larger portion of not fewer than thirty thousand men, to whose sufferings death would soon have put an end, were saved. The officers gave their word that they would not serve against the allies till they were regularly exchanged; and the common soldiers were to be considered as prisoners of war, for whom an equal number of allied troops were to be returned.
Many, many battles, too numerous to mention, were gained by this great commander. When he came back to England, at the peace, he for some time distinguished himself as an able statesman; but incurring the displeasure of the queen, and that of the party then in power, he found his situation so painful, that he determined to leave the country till the course of events should again run in his favor. He left Dover without any honors, as a private passenger, in a packet-boat; but on its arriving off Ostend, as soon as the townspeople knew that the Duke of Marlborough was on board, they made a salute of all the cannon toward the sea; and when the vessel entered the harbor, they fired three rounds of all the artillery on the ramparts. The people crowded round him, and shed tears at the ingratitude of his nation. Some, full of astonishment at the sight of him, said, "His looks, his air, his address, were full as conquering as his sword." Even a Frenchman exclaimed, "Though the sight is worth a million to my king, yet I believe he would not, at such a price, have lost the service of so brave a man."
Marlborough remained at Aix-la-Chapelle till the death of the queen. On August 1, 1714, the day George the First was proclaimed, the duke and duchess landed at Dover. Marlborough's reception was truly a contrast to his departure. Now the artillery thundered forth a welcome; while thousands of spectators hailed the return of the voluntary exile. Passing on to London, he was met at Southwark by a large body of the burgesses, who escorted him into the city; and thence, joined by many of the first merchants, the nobility, and gentry, he proceeded to St. James's, amid the joyful acclamations of the crowd, "Long live the king!" "Long live the Duke of Marlborough!"
Old age had now laid his withering hand on the duke. For nearly two years he continued to enjoy the favor and confidence of the new king, who, on one occasion, said, "Marlborough's retirement would give me as much pain as if a dagger should be plunged in my bosom." But he soon was obliged to retreat to Blenheim, where he spent six years of declining life among his family and friends. At length, after a violent attack of palsy, the disease from which he suffered, he lay for several days expecting death. Early in the morning of June 15, 1722, he resigned his spirit, with Christian calmness, into the hands of his Creator.
The duke was nearly seventy-three when he died. His remains were interred with every honor in Westminster Abbey, but soon after were taken up, and conveyed to the chapel at Blenheim, and laid in a magnificent monument, which the duchess had erected for this honorable purpose.