Review of <i>Marlborough: England's Fragile Genius</i> by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes provides not only an engrossing work of military history, but also a vivid portrait of the political, cultural and social circumstances in which war was waged during Marlborough's era.

Marlborough by Richard HolmesBy Professor Brendan Simms, for

Richard Holmes has long been one of the principal public faces of British military history: a regular reviewer, broadcaster and author of books on topics ranging from the Civil War to the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today. He has now turned his hand to the Duke of Marlborough, best known for his central role in the War of the Spanish Succession against Louis XIV. Perhaps surprisingly, Marlborough has not had decent recent full-scale biographic treatment, though his direct descendent Charles Spencer has written a remarkable account of Blenheim, and David Chandler penned a very readable study of Marlborough as a commander. Holmes’s work goes well beyond both books, and makes extensive use of archival and printed sources to provide a rounded picture of the man in all his endeavours.

Military history often lends itself to hyperbole, but the author does not exaggerate when he described his subject as ‘Britain’s greatest general’. He has a reasonable claim to be the father of the legendary British infantry, which performed so well in Flanders, ‘High Germany’ and elsewhere in Europe throughout the eighteenth century and the Napoleonic Wars. Marlborough was also Wellington and Eisenhower rolled into one. Not only do the great and evocatively-described victories of Blenheim (1704) and Ramillies (1706) show him to be a tactician to rival the Iron Duke, he also possessed the tact and range to marshal an alliance of disparate and often disobliging subordinates from many different parts of Europe: Dutch, Prussian, Danish to name but the most important contingents. As Holmes reminds us, Marlborough was even made a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire by the grateful emperor; the Duke described his Swabian fiefdom of Mindelheim charmingly as ‘a place I liked much better than expected but not so, as to think of living there’.

Some of Marlborough’s most strategically decisive contributions were made off the battlefield. Thus in 1707, he left the western theatre of war and travelled to Altranstedt in deepest Saxony to meet the Swedish Warrior King Charles XII, fresh from triumphs over the Poles and Russians. Marlborough succeeded in persuading him not to press on into Germany, thus opening another front which would draw off allied forces desperately needed to fight the French. Holmes’s account of Charles’s camp life – short on women and alcohol, but enlivened by wrestling with bears – is particularly amusing.

Unlike many of Britain’s successful later generals, Marlborough’s early career was threatened as much by the scaffold as death on the battlefield. The author shows how he negotiated the pitfalls of the Monmouth Rebellion and the Glorious Revolution, showing ruthlessness and flexibility in equal measure, while always keeping open a line of communication to the Jacobite losers. Even at the end of his career, garlanded with military and civil honours, and the recipient of what would later become the vast pile of Blenheim near Woodstock in Oxfordshire, Marlborough was the victim of a politically motivated inquiry and temporarily forced into exile. As Holmes shows with copious, sometimes hilarious and often moving extracts from their correspondence, he was sustained throughout, and sometimes afflicted by his imperious wife Sarah. Her rise in the affections of Queen Anne, and subsequent displacement by Abigail Masham, forms a subplot of the book.

Marlborough: England’s Fragile Genius, is thus not only an engrossing work of military history, but also a vivid portrait of the political, cultural and social circumstances in which war was waged.

Professor Brendan Simms is Reader of International Relations and Newton-Sheehy Teaching Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge. He is author of Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire, 1714-1783 (Penguin, 2008).  

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