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.

Recent Marlborough Biographies

Recent Marlborough Biographies (from 2002 AHA paper). More since.

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.

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18 responses to “What’s the matter with the Marlborough historiography?”

  1. Björn Thegeby says :

    Hear, hear,
    However, my gut feeling is that he would still count as a great figure, if a much more complex (and less trustworthy) one than in the hagiography. Just for fun, I recommend you “Henry Esmond” by W M Thackeray, which gives a much more nuanced description of the period than most historians can manage. I don’t mean in historical detail, after all it is fiction, but in the way the uncertainties and pressures on the characters are reflected in their actions.

  2. Ralph Hitchens says :

    Very good post! Not having studied (much) the army side of the WSS beyond some battle analysis, I’ve heretofore accepted the standard portrayal of Marlborough. Certainly I’ll welcome more nuance.

  3. Averrones says :

    It seems that academic articles on Marlborough are a far better diet than these books…

  4. Wienand Drenth says :

    Looking forward any further posts! It would help, I think, if Olaf van Nimwegen’s thesis on the logistics during the WSS was translated in English (assuming people would read it — after all, the book isn’t titled “Marlborough as master of logistics”). He for sure gives a more balanced and nuanced view on 1702 – 1713.

  5. William Young says :

    Reblogged this on Military History.

  6. Edwin Groot says :

    Very interesting indeed. It isn’t just Marlborough, but these kind of discussions and questions can also be raised on Wellington, who also led a coalition army of Dutch, English and Germans against the French.

    • jostwald says :

      Indeed. I think it’s a combination of Great Captain-itis and Anglocentrism. Not to say other countries (certainly the US) don’t have similar issues.

  7. Bill Stewart says :

    Excellent observations but I somehow doubt there is much appetite in the academic community to take on a project like this. For example, note the disdain in Lauro Martines latest work Furies in the introduction. It appears that only decisive battles deserve any attention and minimally at that in his view. The notion of engaging with a great man is so far outside the bounds of what is respectable it is difficult to see who would have the fortitude to throw away their career on a deep scholarly study of Marlborough. As a result, the field is left to those content to repeat the same tropes.

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for the interesting thought regarding respectability in academia – it certainly seems that War & Society is still far more palatable in academia than anything strategic, operational or tactical.
      Military historians are already second-class citizens in academe even before they earn their PhD, so I wonder, practically, how much a Great Captain topic would hurt their already-low chances of an academic career? [It could conceivably help them at teaching schools, where departments care more about the obvious undergrad interest in military history courses]. Most of the academic military historians I know in the US who managed to get academic teaching positions are either: in their 60s+, i.e. hired before the fallout from Vietnam and before the explosion of alternative subjects to study; or work at non-flagship schools, either small Directional State Universities like myself or colleges or military schools. The few at MA/PhD programs I do know are indeed much more W&S, at least in their first major publications, or else they’re at the handful of schools that are intentionally embracing military history programs (e.g. Univ North Texas).
      So in that sense, I wonder how much we have to fear writing about Great Captains since we’re on the margins as it is – though one could counter that if you’re a starving peasant on the margins you can’t afford to make any mistakes. Another could argue that people who want to become academic military historians are already ‘full of fortitude’ for sticking with an unfashionable topic at the PhD level and facing a daunting job market. Personally, back in grad school I started out trying to be War & Society for fear of not getting a job, wanting to write my dissertation on the siege of Douai 1710 from the besieging and besieged perspective. But I found out at the archival research phase that the sources didn’t have the W&S info I needed and had tons of detail on the siege tactics and operations (I then realized why so many W&S studies are piles of anecdotes and/or cast their net over such expansive periods/places). Over the next couple years of sputtering and procrastinating with databases, I realized that I wasn’t interested enough in the W&S questions to write a PhD on them, but I had lots of sources on the details of siegecraft. When I finally narrowed my focus to a tactically-focused study of siegecraft, it was written within months. Then I went on the job market. With a 2000 article on decisive battle and a dissertation and book contract on siege tactics as a microcosm for military culture, I couldn’t hide my research focus, though well-meaning advisors suggested I try. The rest is history, as they say. Fortitude or folly or fortune – you be the judge.
      I think military historians probably also console themselves with the knowledge that there’s a broader history-reading public interested in our subject, and it wants us to write about Great Captains. Maybe they even convince themselves that this makes them more marketable in academe. University presses seem very interested in publishing such works to buoy their sales. But I don’t know if that prestige necessarily translates into academia: “Yeah, you published with Yale/Harvard/Oxford/Cambridge, but it was only military history.”
      That Martines doesn’t seem to have focused on military history till recently may be an example of the success strategy required of wanna-be academic military historians. A similar pattern of publication can be seen with J.R. Jones, Roger Manning, Charles Carlton, and Wayne Lee, i.e. first/early books on non-military, or at most W&S, topics. Whether intentional or not (as you suggest, authors of W&S works are as likely to be non-military historians dismissive of traditional military history as they are traditional military historians bidding their time), this pattern certainly echoes one strategy bandied about in grad school: mask your interest in military history until you get hired/tenured, and then you can write what you want. Not saying that you’ll get hired and tenured with that strategy. Just that several successful academic historians fit that pattern, so it may be the best way to increase your odds to ‘live to publish another day.’
      In short, I’m not quite ready to let academic military historians off the hook. At the least, there are opportunities for the tenured and promoted, those who already have an established career, to write about commanders like Marlborough in interesting ways – there are still plenty of academic biographies being written; historians change their focus all the time; such a book will get published; such a book will get read. But most academic military historians choose not to – a recent exception being Geoff Mortimer’s work on Wallenstein. Those few who do write about Great Captains appear to stay well within the Great Captain paradigm. Even worse, if they don’t write a biography on the Duke, they still repeat the same Great Captain paradigm in the chapter(s) where they talk about command and leadership, or when they discuss operations. The side-by-side co-existence of W&S with Great Captainitis in a single author strikes me as particularly odd.
      Apologies for the rambling.

      • Bill Stewart says :

        I think there are two separate issues at play.

        The first issue is the repetition of the Duke’s brilliance as a matter of accepted fact. In the absence of a scholarly examination of the Duke’s record, it is difficult to overturn an entrenched trope, if that is not the prime focus of your study. I can attest to this challenge. I am a recent PhD graduate whose thesis topic was a somewhat controversial general in the First World War (yes I know I have no chance of an academic career). A commonly repeated assertion was the general was selected for command and retained because of his ties to the ruling party. This assertion was repeated so often that it hardened into fact. Further, the assertion on the surface made sense, but it was only when I tried to test its veracity that I found the contrary – the general was not active politically and leaned towards the other party. This required a great deal of effort to determine his actual political affiliations so it is not surprising that the incorrect assertion was so often repeated.

        In the Duke’s case there are three obstacles to a proper scholarly study. First, there is the scholarly disdain for biography as a lesser form of history – what young historian would want to blot their record with such a backward topic. Next is the scorn for great man history and especially military great men. Finally, and probably most fatally is revising the Duke’s reputation, if appropriate, will be sure to cause a backlash amongst the buying public. Will the likely audience want to read a work that overturns a comfortable assumption?

      • jostwald says :

        Good points. Conveniently simplistic narratives are hard to kill not only because of their repetition and because they require so much work to disprove, but also because they have layers of embedded counter-arguments (with a single simple idea at its core). The most powerful ideas are the ones that seem to have rebuttals to every objection.

        But, frankly, all that was as true of the conventional wisdom on Vauban before my Vauban under Siege came out: I’d like to think I’ve changed some minds, and certainly the book is much more popular (in citations if not sales) than I would have thought – you know you’re on to something when the French are plagiarizing copying your ideas. So I may actually be the best candidate for the task, since I’m tenured at a teaching university (not under a publish-or-perish regimen), nor do I fear risking that imminent invitation to sit upon an endowed chair at a Research I – no delusions of grandeur here. Admittedly attacking Marlborough and battle-centrism will definitely be more challenging than Vauban, because Vauban wasn’t really a Great Captain, just a technician. Nor am I under the impression that my scholarly work will shoot up the bestseller list. It will be published with an academic press, so I know I will necessarily be limiting my audience from the start – I’d be happy if I only managed to convince 66% of academic military historians.

        In any case, two questions I’ll be paying attention to: 1) assuming my book gets picked up by a scholarly press, will they want it to conform to the popular view of Marlborough, or will the gain of even a slightly broader readership be good enough for them? I might get to test that old public relations adage that controversy always sells. 2) When it gets published, we’ll find out what the public reaction will be. I’m not encouraged by the recent review of the Marlborough book, but book reviews are always a crapshoot, and hopefully more rational heads will prevail. Plus I’ll have the advantage of Planck’s constant: change coming as the old generation dies off. Frankly, I’ve been more impressed with the comments on the blog – not sure what it says about the subfield when non-professional historians seem to have a better grasp of the issues than some senior scholars. We really have to get away from narrow national(istic) history.

        Good luck with the job hunt BTW.

  8. John Diamond says :

    Great article and being a devotee of the Wars of Louis XIV my main interest is the War of the Spanish Succession. I own or have read just about every book you list above….and it is something that I have given a great deal of thought to. I am tired of reading that the Duke’s failures were all the fault of the Dutch and that his succeses were all due to his own genius. As a History Teacher and someone who has studied historiography I am finding it increasingly frustrating not to find more debate and discussion. To do this for this period we would need more Austrian (Imperial) and Dutch information. two articles that do begin to consider this are :
    The Seamy Side of Marlborough’s War Author(s): Godfrey Davies Source: The Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Nov., 1951), pp. 21-44

    The “Decisive” Battle of Ramillies, 1706: Prerequisites for Decisiveness in Early Modern Warfare Author(s): Jamel Ostwald Source: The Journal of Military History, Vol. 64, No. 3, (Jul., 2000), pp. 649-677
    I have copies if you wish an emailed version.
    The first discussed, what we would consider ‘corruption’ in the logistic demand and supply of Marlburough’s armies and the second reconsiders the idea that Marlborough’s battles were ‘decisive’…..but his inability to exploit this was thwarted by the Dutch…in fact the very nature of warfare and the terrain of the Flanders theatre of operations were the inhibiting factors.
    Great discussion! Thank you!!

    • jostwald says :

      Glad you enjoyed the post. I think I have a copy of the second journal article around somewhere… 😉 [I just now realized that I never actually put my name on the About Me page. Oops.]

    • Martin H T Jourdan says :

      I have just come across this website and your comment having started a MA in Military history. My subject, simply put is ” How effective was Marlborough’s control over logistics and to what extent did this contribute to his success.”
      I rather have the view that he has been over credited.
      I am now trying to dig out all relevant masters and doctoral thesis and papers. Might you be able to email the two you refer to, and, more to the point what is your view?
      Martin Jourdan

      • jostwald says :

        Thanks for the comment and question. I’ll write a post on the subject sometime this week (after grading is done and recommendations are written). The blog has discussed the topic a bit before – search for logistics.

  9. Martin Jourdan says :

    I have revisited the original post as I am now writing my Thesis; Marlborough- Master of Logistics? I have concluded that he was not and the credit should really belong to the Dutch. I have Olaf’s book and have translated parts of it and will be accessing the archives in The Hague at the end of this month- July 2014.
    What views do you have?
    Does anyone know the location of the Account Book that Marlborough must have kept on his march to the Danube?
    I expect my thesis to throw doubt on the credit Marlborough’s has received from his biographers which might just prompt a wider review.
    Martin Jourdan

    • jostwald says :

      Glad to see I didn’t scare you off! 😉
      I don’t know of any account book by Marlborough, and I have a pretty good handle on the Blenheim Papers and the PRO. As for advice, you may already know all of the following.
      First, figure out whether you can just focus on 1704 documents in the archives, or whether you need to look at any planning documents from late 1703 as well.
      Second, some specific volumes you should check out:
      You should check for any discussions about diplomatic issues surrounding German supplies and marching through territories in Kew PRO SP 80/22 through SP 80/24.
      If an account book exists, I’d think Churchill would mention it, and it would probably come up in the accusations over the 2.5%. I would think it would’ve been printed in defense of Marlborough, so maybe check out his defender’s writing, Francis Hare, in 1711-1712. Marlborough’s secretary Cardonnel handled most of the administrative details, as can be seen in Add 61396 for 1704. I assume you’ve also looked at Hare’s published journal of the campaign as well as the Sandby (previously attributed to Hare) journal of the 1704 campaign (Add 61408). I don’t recall who was paymaster then (Sweet?) – Aaron Graham would be a great source on the various financiers involved.
      For the Dutch, I assume you have the main 1704 ARA (NA) volumes on your list: Raad van State resoluties (index 396, then 148-151); the verbalen (1596), as well as the ordinary brieven and secret incoming brieven. For each campaign the deputies provide a useful narrative summary (States-Generaal 9186 for 1704), then supplementary documents. You should also check out who were the field deputies that went with Marlborough, to see if they might have separate family papers (either in a collection separate from the RvS/SG or in a provincial archive somewhere). I’d think Olaf did a lot of that already.
      You should also check out the newspaper accounts for 1704 – they have a surprising number of detailed letters sent from the various armies, and from towns in the theaters of operations. For 1704 this includes: Daily Courant, Flying Post, Gazette d’Amsterdam, London Gazette, Mercure historique et politique, Monthly Journal of the Affairs of Europe, Present State of Europe (Europische Mercurius the Dutch version), Post Boy, and Post Man. Google Books and Burney 17C-18C newspaper collection online have most of these. (There are other papers that might cover 1704, but I don’t have those issues.)
      It’d be interesting if you could confirm/rebut/add some detail to the idea that the Allies had to pillage Bavaria because they had moved beyond the efficient Dutch support base and were quickly running out of supplies when reliant upon the Germans. Did the English suddenly run out of money once they marched into Bavaria, or what?

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