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John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

English history is full of influential figures, and not all of them were kings. In this lesson, we're going to explore the life and legacy of John Churchill, and see how this Duke managed to impact English history.

John Churchill

If you ask most Americans to name any British politicians, there's one person who's almost always going to make the list: Winston Churchill, prime minister of the United Kingdom during WWII. Churchill was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, and as is common in British politics, he came from a pretty distinguished lineage.

While the Churchill family had some noble bearings back as far as the 12th century, they really came into power under John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. John Churchill has been called the greatest military commander in British history, and his influence touched the reigns of several English monarchs during some of the nation's most tumultuous years.

John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough
john churchill

Early Life and Career

John Churchill was born in 1650, son of a man named Sir Winston Churchill (the name runs in the family), just as the English Civil War was ending between the King and Parliament. The Churchills fought for the King, and when King Charles II returned from exile in 1660 the Churchill family found a greater place in the noble courts.

Young John became a page to James, Duke of York. While the position of page was a relatively lowly one, it did give John a good opportunity. After all, the Duke of York was the King's brother.

The Duke of York was a military man, and that passion influenced Churchill from a young age. John served in the military as early as he could, and eventually wound up fighting against the Dutch in 1672. He was promoted to the rank of captain, where his brilliance as a military commander first began to appear. After war with the Dutch ended, Churchill was sent to negotiate.

The Monmouth Rebellion

John Churchill finally made it back to England around 1678, but the monarchy was back in crisis again. James, Duke of York rewarded Churchill for his loyalty in this crisis by granting him the title of Lord Churchill of Eyemouth. Later, when James married his daughter Anne to a Danish prince, John Churchill's wife became one of the princess' ladies-in-waiting. The Churchill family was definitely on the rise.

In 1685, King Charles died and James, Duke of York, became King James II. A rebellion soon broke out, however, as one of Charles' illegitimate sons (the Duke of Monmouth) claimed that he was the rightful heir to the throne.

With the Monmouth Rebellion, England was plunged back into war. Churchill received command over a portion of the King's army, and although he wasn't in charge of the entire army his tactical brilliance ended up making all the difference. James II won the war and kept his throne.

James II
James II

The Glorious Revolution

Churchill was in a good position after the rebellion, but there was a potential problem. James was Catholic, and becoming strongly anti-Protestant. Churchill was Protestant (as was most of England). Some supporters of Parliament started hatching a new plan: to overthrow James and replace him with a Protestant ruler. Their candidate: The Dutch prince William of Orange.

By the time William of Orange landed on English soil in 1688, thus beginning the Glorious Revolution, John Churchill had become one of his supporters. Churchill abandoned the man to whom he owed so much and joined William. Allegedly, it was the loss of Churchill that hurt James so badly that the King fled to France. William claimed the throne of England with hardly a single shot fired.

For his support, King William III named Churchill the Earl of Marlborough in 1689. Soon, Churchill was the commander of all the King's troops in England, and in charge of defending the nation from James' attempted return (which Churchill successfully did).

Churchill, however, wanted more and after being passed over for another title, began to raise discontent within the army over William's policies. William started distrusting Churchill, and soon the Earl found himself accused of sympathizing with enemies and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Churchill and Anne

In 1694, William's wife Mary died and princess Anne (who Lady Churchill had served) became heir to the throne. Anne helped ease the tensions between the Crown and Churchill, although their relationship would never fully recover. When William died, Anne became Queen of England, and Churchill became the de facto top military commander in the nation.

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