Biographies: Sir John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722)

Figure 1.--This detail shows the son of John Churchill, First Duke of Marlbourough. I'm not sure when the portrit was painted or who the artist was.

The First Duk of Marlbourough was one of the greatest commanders in British military history. He was a great strategist and a shrewd diplomat who led English and allied armies in important victories over the French, most notably at Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706), and Oudenaarde (1708). He played a key role in thwarting the designs of Louis XIV. Wellington an Montgomery are better known today, but it was Marlbourough who managed to prevail even though the weight of superior numbers andresources were not in his favor. His critics charge that he had an inordinate love of wealth and power and had inconstant political loyalties. One of his descents, Winston Churchill, also played a prominent role in European history.


John was the son of an Sir Winston Churchill, a squire of limited means, buta member of Parliament. He had the means, however, to provide for his sons in the court of Charles II after the restoration.


John was born in 1650 in Ashe, Devon, a county in southwestern England. We have no information about his childhood at this time.

James II

John in 1665 was a page of the Duke of York (James II). His father bought a commission for him in the army in 1667. While became famous for fighting with th Dutch against the French, as a young officer he fought in the third Dutch War (1672-74), he served with the allied fleet that was defeated at Solebay (1672) and later with English troops sent in 1672 to assist Louis XIV against the Dutch, destinguishing himself at Maastricht with the Duke of Monmouth. He rose rapidly on his ability and with the Duke of York’s patronage. Churchill in 1685 helped crush the rebellion the Duke of Monmouth. James raises Churchill to the peerage and made him a major general in his army.


Churchill about 1678 marries Sarah Jennings. It eas a marriage of love and brought no money which Churchill badly needed. She did bring influence as she was an attendant and friend of Princess Anne.

William of Orange

Churchill, a protestant, begins to fear the religious policies of the openly Roman Catholic king. Concerned about his future, Churchill corresponds with William of Orange (later William III), husband of Princess Mary, a daughtr of Charles I. Churchill supports William against James in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He is was created earl of Marlborough at William’s coronation in 1689. Marlborough was successful as a military commander in 1689 and 1690, but William’s poor treatment of his wife's friend Princess Anne offended him. William began to resent Marlborough’s ambition and ability. Marlborough like many other notables of the day secretly communicated with the exiled James II. When this was discovered he lost royal favor (1692-98), including a brif stay in the Tower of London.

Queen Anne

France at the turn of the 18th century was a the heigth of its power. Louis XIV was driving for supremecy and trying to seize the low countries. Churchill in 1702 with the ascension of Princess Anne returns to powr and reaches the height of his power. His military abilities and gift for diplomacy come the fore during the War of the Spanish Succession. Churchill helps to hold together the anti-French alliance and mastermind some of the greatest military vicyories in European history. He with the Prince Eugene of Savoy together win notable military victories as Blenheim (1704), Oudenarde (1708), and Malplaquet (1709). Churchill with is own command is given credit for the victory at Ramillies (1706). These and other vicories are still studied as materpieces of military command and changed the ballance of power in Enrope. Queen Anne make Churchill a duke in 1702. His political scendancy was due in large measure to his wife Sarah's friendship with the Queen Anne. Churchill and his friend Sidney Godolphin with Queen Anne change their political alegencies. Earlier they had supported th Torries. Now they turn to the Whigs. The war with the French was the main issue. The Whigs supported the war while the Tories opposed it. They secured the dismissal of Robert Harley in 1708 and were thus momentarily paramount in English politics. Sarah, however, quarreled with Anne, who turned increasingly to Abigail Masham--Harley’s cousin. The war was becoming increasinly unpopular, chifly because of the cost. Chutchill's enemies accused him of unecessarily prolonging the war for personal glory. The Whig Government fell in 1710 and the Tories Harley and Henry St. John (later Viscount Bolingbroke) rose to power. Churchill was falsely charged with misappropriating public funds and was dismissed from office in 1711. He lived in self imposed exile in Holland which he had so ably defended until 1814.


Two historic buildings are associated with Johb Churchill, the Duke of Marlbourough and his wife Sarah. Blehheim Palace is among the most grandiose in England.

Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Place, named after Churchill's greates victory, is one of the most crticised buildings in England. Just as Hampton Court got Wooolsey in trouble with Henry VIII, Blenheim Palace caused Churchill's contemporaries to fear his motives and grandiose view of himself. As a result, the Palace was sharply criticized and tarnished Churchill's reputation. Blenheim was built in the baroque style between 1705 and 1725 at Woodstock, Oxfordshire (England). The palace was designed by Vanbrugh and was a gift from Queen Anne in gratitude for the Duke's victories over the French. The magnificent gardens were laid out by Capability Brown. Ironically, the excesses involved in building Blenheim ended up in tarnishing that reputation. Blenheim was the birthplace of Winston Spencer Churchill who was also married at Blenheim. Perhaps it was here that he acquired his sence of history. The Duchess, Churchill's wife, appears to have had more to do with Blenheim Palace in the end than her husband who was often away on the Continent fighting the French. After her husband died, she furnished it as a monument to his military glory.

Marlbourough House

Marlborough House has the destinction of being designed, but nor entirely built by Sir Christopher Wren, or more likely his son Christoopher. It was to be first Duke of Marlborough, the illustrious relation of Winston Churchill. It was his wife Duchess Sarah who had the idea of a London town house. She obtained a lease of the site from Queen Anne and chose Sir Christopher Wren as her architect. Her husband has chosen Sir John Vanbrugh to build Blenheim Palace. Sarah was a strong-willed woman and had her own ideas about the house. The Duchess laid the foundation stone in 1709 and the house was completed in 1711. She quarled with Wren and fired him. She then persoanalized completion. After the Duke died, Sarah lived for many years at Marlborough House until her death in 1744

George I

Upon the death of Queen Anne, Hanovarian George I becomes king. Churchill returned to England in 1714 from self-imposed exile. He is given chief command of the army again, but by this time his heat had begin to deteriorate and he takes little further part in public affairs. Churchill died in 1722 at Windsor.


We have some limited information on Marlbourough's descendents. His son John, presumably the 2nd Duke of Marlbourgh is depicted in the detail shown here (figure 1). The 9th Duke of Marlbourogh with his family, including the 10th Duke of Marlbpitough was painted by Sargeant. The Duke like many other titled English many had married a rich American heiress, in this case Consula Vanderbelt. Lord Randolph Churchill (1849-95) was the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. He played a prominent role in 19th century British politics. He was for a time talked about as a possible prime minister. He married Jennie Jerome, a wealthy American heiress. Marlbourough was such an important figure in British British history, would have been difficult to conceive of an ancestor who could play a more important role. Marlbourough's most famous ancestor was of course Winston Churchill, Britain's indomitable World War II prime minister, son of Lord Randolph.


Ashley, M. P. (1939, repr. 1957).

Chandler, David. Marlborough as Military Commander, 2nd ed. (1979).

Churchill, Winston S. (1933-38, repr. 1982).

Thompson, George Malcolm. The First Churchill (1979).


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Created: June 15, 2002
Last updated: 11:21 PM 7/20/2011