John Churchill was born in 1650, the son of a poor Devonshire knight. He was probably the most gifted military commander that Britain ever had. But more than that he was a political animal, gaining promotion by cultivating powerful friends. One of his earliest military campaigns was as an ensign in the 1st Foot Guards in the Third Dutch War 1672-4. The army was led by the Duke of Monmouth whose later rebellion Churchill was to destined to help crush. He also served in the French army under Marshal Turenne who referred to him as the 'handsome Englishman, with a rosy future'.
Churchill's first experience of court intrigue was when he had an affair with Barbara Villiers, Charles II's mistress. She gave him #4,500 which set him up for life. He became a faithful follower of King James II until it looked as if he was to lose his throne to William and Mary. He switched camps but Queen Mary never trusted him. Indeed he did maintain contact with the exiled James. It is a testament to his political talent that he managed to be created Duke of Marlborough in 1688. His military career was boosted by a hard-fought battle at Walcourt where he bravely led his troops in a decisive charge.
Unfortunately he was sent to the Tower in 1692 when his links to James were exposed. It was not until Queen Mary's death in 1695 that he was released from prison and returned to court. His career reached it's zenith when Queen Anne took the throne in 1702. He was given supreme command of the army, the first time such a position had been achieved by one General. He led a coalition of Bavarian, Austrian and English troops against the French. He achieved his most stunning victory at Blenheim on 13th August 1704 which brought him all the glittering prizes including the magnificent Blenheim Palace at Woodstock. His subsequent victories at Ramillies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet never matched the achievement at Blenheim.
The secrets of Marlborough's military success lay in his decisiveness. He had two maxims: 'Attack!' and 'Leave nothing to chance'. Against an enemy he was quite ruthless but he looked after his men very well. Military history is littered with horror stories of soldiers marching great distances on no food and worn out boots. 'Corporal John', as the men called him, ensured that money was made available to keep the army well supplied. When they stopped for the night, they found the camp already prepared for them by an advance party.
His appointments included:
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