Thursday, 29 August 2019

Churchill on Churchill Pt 1

I have an Audible account. I get a credit  every month, any single book costs one credit and, in the interests of efficiency I like to spend them on really long books. In the past this has lead to me downloading and listening to the Unabridged King James Bible and getting part way through Don Quixote.

I'm currently in the middle of my holidays and since I knew in advance I would be facing many, many hours in airplanes, airports and hotel rooms, I purchased, for one credit, another extremely long book.

This is 'Marlborough, his life and times' by Winston Churchill.

Marlborough is John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, a courtier, politician, diplomat and, crucially, general, around the beginning of the 18th century. He is also an ancestor of Winston Churchill, who was born in Belnheim Palace, a mansion built by and for Marlborough to commemorate his greatest military victory.

(From now on I will refer to Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister as 'Winston' or 'Churchill' and John Churchill Duke of Marlborough as 'Marlborough'.


I listen to this on my phone so I don't have direct access to the book to check details and provide quotes. I also know very little about the period, and the huge amount of information given in the book does somewhat sleet past me, so I'm ok on generalities but not on detail. Plus I'm only half way through the book. Its a million words long, comes in three or four volumes and takes about 70/80 hours in total to listen to. So my apologies for the many innacuracies, bad memory formation etc etc.



Like a lot of really extremely long books about one particular subject, (I'm thinking here especially of 'Black Lamb, Grey Falcon' by Rebecca West), when the subject is of a deep enough complexity, with enough 'moving elements' and with a wide enough range of interconnections, then the book becomes a kind of dual mirror showing us an image of its subject, and everything around them (as intended here specifically; 'Marlborough; His Life and Times') but also a lens on the personality of the writer and their feelings and attitudes. (And if you want to get post-modern about it, also the feelings and attitudes of you, the reader.)

In this case the book is about the culture and political position of England at the turn of the 18th Century, about Marlborough, and especially about Winstons VERY STRONG feelings about Marlborough.

Marlborough, it seems is someone it is very hard to have a neutral take on. He is Marmite. He has so many good and bad qualities that most writers just have to end up going one way or another with him. In particular, a historian, McCauly, damned Marlborough to hell in his history of those times.

So in rides Winston, with fresh access to recently rediscovered family documents and a great deal of available time, he is going to rescue the reputation of his ancestor from sad nerds like McCauly and reveal that he was in fact, the best Englishman ever, which for Winston, makes him essentially the best human ever, and that every decision he made was either genius, brilliant, the product of a bad day or in a handful of occasions, wrong.


This is one of the most insanely biased books of History I have read, its also very good. A brief note on what I think to be the difference between useful and corrupt bias in History.

Histories that deliberately ignore or 'forget' facts, that don't present or even pretend to consider counter-arguments. In short histories that change the factual record and the fragile substance of reality, these are evil.

Winstons history, so far as I can make out, is not like this. He does, genuinely, believe that almost everything Marlborough did was brilliant. However, he does not *lie*. He serves you the whole meal, and then simply spends a long time explaining *why* the olives taste weird, pointing out that the Wine, which tastes like trash is simply not to your palette and that the plate, while it has been cracked, has also been repaired, which in a way should give you much more reassurance than a simply whole plate. So he brings up all the details and elements you would need to shape your own opinion and then gives you his opinion. But its entirely possible, in fact likely, that you will get half a million words into 'M: HL&T' and come away with an entirely different opinion of Marlbrough himself.

Churchill is also writing a legendary history in the high style.

There are two kinds of history, the analysis, or taking-apart history, which flenses reality, questions everything and tilts facts and possibilities this way ans that, like a shell beneath a halogen lamp, this history is very useful and necessary and usually leaves you feeling somewhat dead inside and mildly despairing of the great dead machine of causality we are all trapped inside, and the Legendary or meaning-imbuing history, which also considers facts and strings them together but which is more about filling reality with the breath of life, like a baloon. This second history is full of excitement, individual incident and social detail, almost everyone is mildly heroic or mildly villianous, there are goodys and baddys. This History absolutely has reality going in a particular direction and the actions of the people in it were good or bad depending on whether they helped or hiNdered this process.

One of these histories helps us work out what reality is, but robs us of the strength we need to live in it, the other is more about giveing cultures and individuals the strength and sense of purpose to act in history. And one tends to be 'our ethnoculture is great, possibly the best ever' i.e. Homer, and the other tends to be 'our Enthnoculture = partially wrong' i.e. Thucydides. (Of course if you go too far into 'Our Ethnoculture = ALWAYS WRONG, probably WORST EVER' then you are back into a different kind of legendary history. You can also see these as 'modernist' or 'legendary' histories, though I suspect both viewpoints have existed together as long as there have been people.

And most big histories have both elements, and both are necessary to survival, perhaps. And both can be good or bad, though Legendary history is a lot more swingy between the two.

Winston Churchill is, perhaps unsurprisingly, writing 'Our Enthoculture = BEST EVER'. Its about the rise of the Prodestant (NOT Catholic), English Speaking (some Scots & Welsh also allowed), Free (as in, arguably somewhat more free than many other European peoples depending on how you account 'freedom') Peoples VS the total and utter French Catholic Tyranny of Louis XIV, who, as the exemplar of everything not English, not Protestant and definitely not free, is the worst human to ever exist (so far).

Your tolerance for the book will depend a great deal on your tolerance for that idea, which is probably lower than mine.

But this is the energy of the book, it lends it motive force. The bias is open and declared, not slinking about beneath the surface of the words. The facts are all in place. The prose is great. The descriptions are in -depth (you will need your map of Europe with you).

Free (Prodestant) Europe lies beneath the breibboned, high-heel of the French, who are rolling about everywhere kicking everyones ass. England in particular has a Catholic monarchy who are essentially in the pay of the French state. Will a Hero emerge? Yes. You have read the title of the book.


Marlborough rose on sex and beauty. His family were middle-range country gentry. They were split by the English Civil war, and this strange duality of loyalty pursues Marlborough as part of his character for the rest of his life. There is always a sense that he is, or could be, maybe, possibly, on both sides of any issue.

Marlboroughs dad was a classic High Tory Cavalier, God, King and Country all the way. He goes in deep with James II during this civil war and this loses the family their house when Cromwell wins.

HOWEVER, his grandma (or aunt?) who has title to the property, goes in deep with the Parliament, and this, after some very long and brutal court-cases, gets them their house and lands back. (The house is half burnt down).

HOWEVER, then the Restoration happens, bringing Charles II to power, now Parliament is out. However however, Churchills dad is still a local hardcore super-loyalst of note, plus Charles is trying to be reasonable, so there are no recriminations for his grandma being for Parliament.

(I'm reminded here of what a lot of Afghan families were said to do, which is send one son to the Mujadeen and the other to whoever is currently occupying the cities, so no matter what happens, they have someone on the inside.)

So this is how John Churchill grows up, in a family with some status, but very little money, in a half-burnt down (slowly being rebuilt) house, with a Parliamentarian matriarch and a Royalist dad, apparently both seemingly getting along. And with some very fortunate genetics, because both he, and his sister are considered to be highly attractive for the culture of the time.

This is John Churchills first step on the ladder of power; his sister is fucking the king (which a fair number of people were doing at the time). She gets him into the court as a Royal Page. He is young, good looking and famously, and this will be another deep theme in his life, amazingly agreeable, polite, well-spoken and well, just a CHA 18 guy. He is amazingly easy to be around, for most people, most of the time. (His astonishingly good social skills become a kind of inverse trap later on.)

The King likes him, the Kings mistress Barbara Villiers likes him. Everyone likes John Churchill, which is handy because, though his is circulating at the pinnacle of power of the English state, he is also the poorest person in the room, by quite a way.

Compared to Gen Pop he's still extremely privileged, he has a Gentry name and upbringing and his family has land. Compared to everyone at court he is very poor indeed. He has his looks and his charm and that's about it.

John Churchills second rung on the ladder of power is that he is fucking the Kings mistress (which the King half-knows about but doesn't really mind so long as its not too blatant, because Charles II thats how he rolls, John does have to literally jump out of a a window at one point). So he is the side-piece of the kings side-piece. This gets him a wedge of cash at one point, and a military commission, which forms the nucleus of his financial stability from that point on.

Marlborough likes fighting and seems to be good at it, and he is very good at diplomacy and politics. This is really the core of his ability, performing elaborate and complex diplomacy and translating that into successful military force.

He is also near-impossible to really know. He is incredibly polite, gracious and accommodating. He is also beautiful, and possibly (probably, though its very hard to tell) deeply subtly manipulative. He is almost Taoist in his ability to place himself in a position right at the centre of events and to essentially 'surf' the waves of incident, so that his rise and success, to any outside observer, seems to happen almost by accident. Time and time again he is in the right place at the right time to be afforded more and more power. This would be enough to make him the villain of a book by Dumas. But when given this power, he generally seems to do the right thing with it.


(She's played by Rachel Weitz in 'The Favourite'. In reality she was a blonde, but the relative level of beauty, hawkish foreign policy personal dominance and intelligence and the fact that she *may* be frigging off the Queen, who is certainly in love with her, are all on-point.)

One thing Marlborough doesn't seem to change or alter is his marriage once he makes it. He is relatively young and insecure when he encounters Sarah. She is also (relatively) poor, and not his families preferred match, and also seems to be highly suspicious of him. Like him she is very fair, and regarded as a great beauty.

Marlborough is a quasi-Tory by instinct, though really of no party, and Sarah is an absolute dyed-in Hawkish Whig from day one. They never really change in these basic affiliations. (And again, his family ends up split over the basic political questions of the day.) Its a time of deeply intense and obsessive (i.e. modern) factionalism in English politics, but John and Sarah remain a tight, coherent unit and, at least so far as we can see from their letters, they never break this bond.


Marlborough only really betrays one King.

Its just after the Restoration. Marlbrough is very closely attached to James II, the brother of Charles II.

England has a protestant culture (largely) and a Catholic ruling family. No-one is really comfortable with this but they were sick of Cromwell so they put up with it. The English middle and mid-ruling classes are utterly obsessed with the idea that the Catholic powers of Europe, especially France, are going to infiltrate their power structure and try to re-catholocise England by force and stealth. And that is a completely reasonable fear because that is exactly what the French monarchy wants to do, and in fact, thinks it is doing.

Everyone is being bribed by the French, its not a question of whether they *take* the bribes, but of whether they *act* on the bribes.
The Monarchy of Charles II is essentially bankrolled on the down-low by Louis.

So the King is in the pay of the French court, and there are varying levels of knowledge about this. But the King is also not really doing much for the French court. He is quite easy going and doesn't seem to be re-catholicising anything and is relatively chill and content to bang hotties and have great hair. Its not clear who is screwing who here. Its possible Charles is screwing the French by taking their money, promising to forward the Catholic cause and not really doing anything. Its entirely possible the French know this and are largely fine to simply take England 'off the board' with a cash injection.

The tenor of English politics is, everyone is worried about the Catholic/Prodestant thing, everyone is on the take *somehow*, everyone is low-key lying to or manipulating everyone else, there are varying circles of knowledge, no-one seems to really know what is going on.

Marlborough, as a very young and recently married man, navigates this in his position as a Main Guy to the Kings bigoted brother.

While Charles is very Lebowski-ish about things, James is, firstly, a lot less charming, and secondly, a lot more intensely Catholic. He is really deeply committed to the increasingly-unlikely and massively-unpopular recoversion thing. (Secretly.) And serving him in the most intimate capacity is Marlborough, this very protestant, but exquisitely obliging young man.

(Intimacy is another quality of the age. No-one seems to have much private space, by modern comparisons, very high-status people get barely any time alone. The King is woken up by people and put to bed by people, his every moment is a political act and political performance. So 'private space' as we would concieve of it, barely exists. It exists inside the skulls of the people involved and in those ever-shifting circles of connections.)

Charles dies and James becomes King.

This rapidly becomes utterly intolerable to the English ruling class. They could manage the religious divide when it was embodied in the person of a likeable, charismatic, moderate, super-chill and politically astute guy with amazing hair. James is not likeable, not charismatic, not moderate, has no chill and is politically stupid and somewhat nasty. A plot is hatched to bin the King and swap him out for William of Orange.

(Between James becoming King and becoming intolerable, there is actually another, failed plot to oust him by the Duke of Monmouth. This miscarries horribly, Monmouths rebellion is crushed and the southern peasantry/yeomenry that sided with him are destroyed, enslaved and shipped to Barbados, where their descendants still live.)

The sheer level of scheming, the massive quantity of the infiltration, conniving and persuading, the high level of secrecy required and the massive unlikelyhood of success make this a truly epic-level plot. Other histories would call this a successful invasion of England by the Dutch, Winston regards it as a Protestant Coup. Its both really. William invades, James's army and navy largely evaporate, William becomes King, James runs off to France to scheme eternally.

At the centre of this is Marlborough. At a key point he rides away from James in the night and joins up with William. How deep was he in the conspiracy? What did he know and not-know? Was he a driver of it? What information did he give away? We have no idea. As is usual for Marlborough, he simply seems buoyed up by events, like a leaf in the stream, carried to exactly the right place.

Its easy to see why people absolutely hate this guy. His manner is too easy. You never know when he is lying. He seems to get away with everything and to always be in the right place. Strategically, if you think of it sensibly, he is either supremely lucky or working insanely hard behind the scenes to make sure things turn out just right for him. Or both. But you have no idea how far ahead he is thinking, or what his plans are. He never seems frustrated or angry or frightened. He is just always there, smiling, charming, agreeable, regretful. Marlborough being Marlbourough, riding the wind like a kite.


William is a largely competent and completely uncaring King of England. He essentially regards it as a useful strategic element in his wars against France. He doesn't govern badly. He is definitely protestant and, this time, 100 per cent fighting French tyranny and not soaking up bribes on the side, so that's a plus. Everyone in England hates him. He is exactly what they asked for and they can't stand it.

The scheming continues. A clique of people in the ruling circles are absolutely exchanging conspiracy letters with the exiled James II in his French hideaway. As the situation was with Charles and the French, they are making big promises and not doing anything. Marlborough is amongst this set and is, by spoken word (he doesn't write anything down) absolutely conspiring against his new king with his old king.

However, he doesn't seem to actually *do* anything, or to surrender any meaningful information. Does William know some of his guys are writing to James on the side? He seems to. Does he know how much they are doing it or how much Marlborough is doing it? What the shit is going on? Again, who is manipulating who, how much and to what end? Its all incredibly creepy, suspicious and difficult to parse. Still, as a grand result of all this, very little takes place.

There is an opinion in history that Marlborough did in fact reveal plans for an attack on the port of Brest, which got people killed when the French prepared ahead of time. Winston Churchill thinks this is nonsense, or at least, that he didn't reveal anything the French didn't already know and weren't acting on. Its remarkable how much the claims and counter-claims, interpretations and counter-interpretations, are like a modern conspiracy theory. Someone, or everyone, was lying to someone, but their motivations and intentions are the subject of argument.

It is very misty around Marlborough.

He does OK in the William years but isn't really advanced much. The English are very tired of William and are lining up a number of post-William possibilities, one of which is Anne.

Its here we enter the realm of filmed history.


Sarah Churchill and Anne knew each other since youth.

Sarah was always blonde, beautiful, attractive and confident. Anne was a dumpling of middling intelligence but of very strong will. (And its curious how everyone comments that Anne was not very clever, but had a very strong personality nonetheless, and left her particular mark upon history despite being surrounded by highly intelligent manipulators. It seems being a little dense but utterly resolute can be a reasonable answer to manipulation.)

Anne seems blindingly obviously to be in love with Sarah from a young age. They write letters to each other with fake names.

Were they boning? God knows. Its impossible to work out the relative sexuality of anyone through the layers of culture and time. Its possible they were at it constantly, its possible the relationship was entirely chaste. Its possible, even likely that Anne didn't think of her feelings as anything we would currently consider 'gay'. But she was deeply and massively, and obviously from her letters, in love with Sarah, and she seems to have extended this love, affection and loyalty to Sarahs husband, Marlborough.

So when William dies and Anne becomes Queen, John and Sarah Churchill are right there beside her, as a tight little unit of loyalty, another leaf riding on the stream to exactly where it intended to be.


  1. Audible is nice.
    You should also try which has public domain audio novels. The readers are volunteers, some are great, some less so, but it's free.

  2. these long as hell book reviews have always been very powerful and important to me. i come back to them all the time.

  3. est un site web qui vend de la monnaie de jeu. Son professionnalisme et sa sécurité ont atteint le plus haut niveau de l'industrie, il est largement applaudi par les joueurs. Aujourd'hui, le kama dofus est vendu avec un rabais de 10%. Les joueurs qui le souhaitent peuvent aller acheter.

  4. That was "laugh out loud so you have to read it to your wife so she gives you strange pitiful looks" funny. Bring on part two

  5. McCauly was Lord Macaulay. He's almost entirely forgotten today but he was the greatest British historian of the 19th century. And, yeah, he hated Marlborough. Acknowledged his military brilliance and his 18 Cha and all, but just flat hated him.

    If you liked this book, then go and get Macaulay's "History of England". It's four fat volumes and it's not really a History of England. Like, the first third of Volume I takes you up to about 1640. Then the middle third of Volume I covers the next 40 years -- the Civil War, Cromwell, the Restoration and Charles II. Then James II becomes King and things really slow down as Macaulay drills down deep for a close-up. Of the four volumes, three and a half are really a deep, deep dive into a single generation of British history, 1680-1700.

    And it is AWESOME. As you say, that was a crazy intense period, full of events and full of conspiracy. There's more than enough material to keep it lively. And Macaulay has a good writing style -- REALLY good for a guy writing in the 1840s, when it was all Victorian prose with 500 word-long sentences. He sometimes gets carried away with miniature biographies -- he'll spend several pages talking about Lord So-and-So, who ends up playing a minor role in some event or other. But this is more than balanced by a relentless Victorian bitchiness. Macaulay knows who he likes and admires, and he knows who he loathes and despises, and he makes no bones about either.

    Think of it this way: Churchill's immense work on Marlborough is basically 1500 pages of REPLYING to Lord Macaulay. So if you want to see what got Churchill riled up in the first place, check out Macaulay. You'll like him, I think.

    Doug M.