What’s the matter with the Marlborough historiography?
Given recent events, I decided it was time to explicitly take on the dominant Marlborough historiography. To be honest, I don’t particularly want to – at least not this particular aspect – since I’d thought we were well beyond this. But I guess I was wrong.
A series of posts will follow, so I’ll talk in broad generalities here. Specific details about particular authors and works and arguments will follow in successive posts. Feel free to comment or ask questions; in fact, I’d encourage it.
To start, historiography is the history of historians’ interpretations of a particular historical event, in our case, how English historians over the years have viewed Marlborough and his role in the War of the Spanish Succession (WSS). So here’s my brief rundown of how Marlborough has been interpreted throughout the past three centuries.
Talking it back to the war itself, Englishmen were divided into Tory and Whig camps. Strategically, the dominant debate was a continuation of that from the Nine Years War: whether a blue water naval strategy (generally the Tory position) or a Continental land war (Williamite and Whig) was best; there was also a related dispute over whether English soldiers in Europe should fight in Flanders or elsewhere, particularly in Iberia or by landing along the French coast or in the New World. Though a moderate Tory in politics, Marlborough generally sided with the Whigs, for a land war in Flanders. Through 1706 at least, Marlborough’s battlefield victories (Blenheim and Ramillies especially) won over all but the most die-hard Tories. Robert Horn’s book (Marlborough: A Survey) summarizes the hundreds of pamphlets, sermons, poems and the like praising the Duke during the war. Yet by 1711 English public opinion had shifted against a war that was a decade old, with nought but sieges ahead. Marlborough was accused of prolonging the war, fired at the end of the 1711 campaign, impeached and put on trial for corruption. He and his wife Sarah fled to the Continent, and returned only at the accession of George I.
I presented recently on the reception of Marlborough from the end of the war to circa 1740 – check out the post’s chart showing specific biographies of the Duke if you’re interested. In a nutshell, Marlborough’s prolific supporters won out in a politically Whig environment, when the ‘Whig interpretation’ of Marlborough as one of England’s greatest captains, and as a general who always sought to fight the decisive battle in the field, came to dominate the literature. This vigorous view of the Duke would continue throughout the 19C, when editors like Murray and Coxe published accounts of his campaigns based off of their access to the Blenheim Papers. This hagiographical trend even accelerated in the last century. Marlborough was the subject of numerous biographies in the Great Captain vein – a dozen within the last 120 years.
Even reading the Marlborough literature as a young grad student in the 1990s, I was a bit uncomfortable with the tone of these works, particularly the over-the-top Anglophone deification of the Duke. As I delved more deeply into the WSS-era literature, I was surprised at how completely the 20C historiography of Marlborough and the Spanish Succession aped what the Whigs were saying about the Duke during the war itself. As an academic historian, or any one who cares about understanding the past, this is a big problem for several reasons.
That an interpretation of any historical subject, much less one dealing with a powerful nation-state’s Great Captain, has remained essentially static for the past 300 years should raise a huge red flag for any academic historian, especially given the number of works on the subject. In almost all historiography, historians’ views change over time, or new historians change the reigning paradigm. New sources are examined, new methods applied, new questions asked, and as a result competing interpretations are advanced and debated. That’s what academic historians do. Change is to be expected given our general understanding of the development of the western historical profession. It was only in the 20C (or maybe mid-to-late 19C) that historians became academic professionals, professional in terms of source criticism and interpretative methods, professional in terms of expanding our conception of what subjects merit historical study, and professional in terms of questioning widespread assumptions about the past. Two major assumptions of past history were quickly recognized as problematic: the belief in Great Man history (the idea that singular men drove all significant historical change, in the military case “Great Captains”), and the tendency for nationalism and patriotism to shape (even hijack) interpretations of the past, most tellingly seen when authors whitewash the history of their own nation’s wars. Academic historians have been trying to redress these nationalistic and Great Man biases for a century. Even military historians, hardly a faddish group, recognized decades ago that it’s not all about national Great Captains.
In this context, some fatal weaknesses of the Marlborough literature should be obvious to anyone who has looked through it:
- The literature on Marlborough and the WSS is consistently unanalytical. The same Great Captain biographical narrative format dominates book after book, though we can throw in a few exceptions to this equation of ‘WSS = Marlborough’, e.g. a few monographs on the Iberian theater and the important yet still underutilized work by John Hattendorf. As a whole, however, the vast majority of the literature unfortunately remains purely descriptive and focused on Marlborough.
- The argumentation is stale. The fact that Churchill’s and Chandler’s biographies are reprinted multiple times decade-after-decade, and that new biographies are published that say the same thing over and over, illustrates the point. Even the arc of Marlborough’s career is the same in biography after biography. Whether Marlborough divulged plans to attack Camaret Bay is one of the few debates, but this rather minor point of history gains its force solely from whether or not this act of would-be-treachery (if that term even applies) tarnishes his reputation as an English patriot. There are no serious sustained debates about the Duke among military historians, much less among academic military historians. What exactly are people arguing about Marlborough? What broader historiographical debate is being addressed? For that matter, where is the recent scholarly monograph on the Duke? Where are the scholarly articles published in academic journals? As far as I can tell, the literature consists of a competition to see who can best represent how awesome he was while climbing up the bestsellers list.
- The source base is incredibly weak. Look through the bibliographies of these biographies and you will find the same small number of English sources over and over and over. Almost none of the massive volume of foreign sources are used by the vast majority of works, yet despite this fact, Marlborough’s biographers are more than happy to pronounce on the motivations of these foreigners. Based on what evidence? Why, what English contemporaries thought their motivations were, of course! Learning languages isn’t easy, nor is wading through multiple archives. But it’s not that difficult to be more circumspect describing what other people thought when you haven’t even looked at ‘their side of the hill’ (the ‘known unknowns’, if you will).
- Nationalistic biases make it difficult to come to terms with the implications of alliance warfare. Marlborough commanded a coalition army, a fact sometimes acknowledged, but never addressed head on. Instead, discussion of Marlborough’s diplomacy is primarily used as a way to beat up his Dutch, German and Austrian allies for not supporting English war objectives more blindly.
- The interpretation of those sources that are consulted is too often simplistic. For example, given the fact that there was a huge domestic debate over Marlborough, over strategy, and over the contributions of England’s allies to the war effort, mightn’t it be worthwhile to consider whether Marlborough’s supporters (not just his Tory opponents) were exaggerating their claims, or making points that served more as politically-motivated or patronage-enmeshed talking points rather than accurate reflections of the historical past? Maybe notice how Marlborough’s supporters changed their tune as the war situation evolved? Perhaps even notice that most of the strategic debate in the Spanish Succession was surprisingly similar to what the English public had argued in the previous war? Too often the literature’s ‘source criticism’ seems to consist of: “Aha! I found a source that supports the Duke, so let’s quote it!” Contextualize the sources you use.
- The literature on the Duke is embarrassingly Great Man-esque. He is said to excel at everything military, with not a single flaw, beyond his inability to politically outmaneuver his rivals and his stinginess. Not only that, but he controlled every aspect of the Allied military machine (and diplomacy to boot!) as well, down to the minutest detail. Diplomacy, logistics, siegecraft, the overall policy of England: he controlled them all – but somehow he bears no blame for the ultimate failure of the Whig strategy. As a result, any victory of Allied arms is automatically due to the Duke, whereas any failure is to be found at the hands of others. You may think I’m exaggerating, but not much.
All this being said, no historiography is completely monolithic. There have been a few changes to the historiography within the past decade or so, which I’ll address in time. Nevertheless, if recent comments from several academic military historians are any indication, these revisionist works appear to have had surprisingly little impact on the basic Great Captain narrative. Truth be told, I never really know how exactly to describe the Marlborough literature, since I’ve personally been arguing against the dominant view since the 1990s (in grad school). Several older revisionist accounts – to be discussed in a future post – have been sitting in libraries since at least the 1950s. The embarrassing fact, however, is that these challenges are simply ignored rather than addressed head on. This is a horrible sign for any historiography.
But perhaps this isn’t a surprise, since there are very few academic historians writing on “Marlborough’s war”, at least from a military perspective. Instead, for the past century the Marlborough historiography has been dominated by popular biographies written by amateur military historians, or by academic historians who write a Great Captain biography as a one-off. Look at the presses that publish and republish the Marlborough literature: almost none are academic publishers, although we’re starting to see more academic interest as university presses look to broaden the marketability of their catalog. History written by non-academic historians isn’t a problem in itself, but it is if they don’t take account of historical developments over the past century. To give an example of what the historiographical debate should look like, Mark Danley and I have had some interesting though inconclusive conversations/debates regarding whether Marlborough’s battle-seeking character was accepted or praised in the mid-18C – a discussion to be continued I hope. This is a significant analytical question that not only addresses the question of how monolithic the Marlborough historiography is, but which also relates to the debate over the ‘Military Enlightenment,’ as well as broader questions about the universality of military strategy. In short, the Marlborough literature is essentially popular military history – intended to tell a ripping yarn full of dramatic battles and bold marches (with all the boring trenchwork left out, and convenient scapegoats). A secondary, perhaps half-conscious, purpose seems to be making people feel good about (their) English military heritage. The vast majority of the Marlborough literature is not, in other words, academic history. Unfortunately this dominant Anglo view is too easily accepted by many academic historians who have not critically delved into the details of the war.
In future posts I will provide some examples of all of these points, but I thought it important to first set out the general framework for why we really shouldn’t be relying on Churchill’s biography. Eighty years later (that is an eternity in historiographical time), we shouldn’t be relying on a self-serving history of the Duke written by a British patriot who was not only a proud descendant seeking to defend his ancestor, but who saw his ancestor’s experience as offering lessons on the nature of British diplomacy and warmaking in the Interwar period. At the least, we really should examine it with a much more critical eye. The University of Chicago recently republished the massive work because it is highly-readable, and it undoubtedly earned them more profit than their average monograph. But that’s not a reason why we should use it as our touchstone.