The Duke of Marlborough Is Dead

Almost two weeks ago the Eleventh Duke of Marlborough, John G.V.H. Spencer-Churchill, died. The Daily Mail includes numerous photos from the funeral procession last week.

Possibly best known for his award-winning gardens, he resurrected Blenheim Palace and transformed it into a (profitable, we’re told) modern tourist attraction. Unfortunately I missed the opportunity to meet the 11th Duke at the Marlborough: Soldier and Diplomat book launch at Blenheim Palace a few years back. My wife and I were, however, able to visit the Palace on our own. We saw the Blenheim Tapestries pre-restoration, and there was some sort of exhibit about some obscure descendent of the First Duke who managed to make a name for himself in government or something. But that’s post-early-modern, so let’s not dwell on it.

If you’re interested in seeing the famous Victory Column, it’s away from the main Palace building over a bridge, and you have to thread your way into a minefield of sheep droppings. But if you do persevere, the First Duke himself will greet you from atop the column:

Welcome to my Column!

Welcome to my Column!

Hopefully the 12th Duke of Marlborough will manage the UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as his father did.


All of which provides an odd (and hopefully not too-inappropriate) segue to how the rumored death of the First Duke of Marlborough was received by his French foes. Marlborough s’en va-t-en guerre, the melody which the English later appropriated for their For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, was penned after false rumors spread that Marlborough had been killed in the battle of Malplaquet in 1709. The words focus on how his wife Sarah received the news.

A relatively close English translation of the lyrics from Wikipedia follows. (The Wordsworth translation adds new lines to the spartan original French version in every verse).

  1. Marlborough has left for the war
    Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
    Nobody knows when he will come back.
  2. He will come back at Easter
    Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
    Or on Trinity Sunday
  3. Trinity Sunday goes by.
    Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
    Marlborough does not return.
  4. My lady climbs up her tower
    Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
    As high as she can climb.
  5. She sees her page coming
    Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
    All clothed in black.
  6. “Good page, my good page”
    Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
    “What news do you bring?”
  7. “At the news that I bring”
    Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
    “Your pretty eyes will start crying!”
  8. “Take off your pink clothing,”
    Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
    “and your embroidered satins!”
  9. “My lord Marlborough is dead”;
    Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
    “he is dead and buried.”
  10. “I have seen him borne to the grave”
    Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
    “by four officers.”
  11. “One of them carried his breastplate”
    Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
    “another his shield.”
  12. “Another carried his great saber”
    Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
    “and the last carried nothing.”
  13. “On his tomb was planted”
    Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
    “a beautiful flowering rosebush.”
  14. “When the ceremony was over”
    Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
    “Everyone went to bed.”

[The web suggests this mironton… was nonsensical, used for the sounds, and not referring to the beef-and-onions dish.]

You can find various audio recordings on YouTube and CDs, including this version. In the late 18C it was resurrected as a French nursery rhyme, made popular by the peasant wet-nurse who looked after Louis XVI’s infant son. This Louis XVII conveniently died in 1795 before the French Revolutionaries could agree on what to do with him.

See what happens with History? You start out talking about the 21C death of a British aristocrat and end up with the death of an 18C French would-be-king. The First Duke of Marlborough would probably have found that amusing.



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