Tag Archive | marlborough

Now why didn’t I think of that?


(Sometimes I’ll let the URL do the talking. First day of school and all that.)

Once again, I’m late to the party. I probably could’ve saved some money in England if I’d pretended to be the Duke of Marlborough. Would it have worked? Depends on whether much changed between the First and Twelfth Dukes.

Bonus points for the Fawlty Towers reference!

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.


Bouchain back from the past

Has the 1711 siege of Bouchain faded from view? The town itself certainly hasn’t stood the test of time well, if Google Ngram Viewer is to be believed.

Screen Shot 2014-05-25 at 8.57.03 PM

This should be surprising, since the August attack on Bouchain was one of the more distinctive sieges in the Low Countries. Though a weak town, its investment required Allied troops to ferret out the French from their boggy trenches sheltering the town before they could carry on their trench attacks.

Attacks on lower and upper town of Bouchain, 1711

Attacks on lower and upper town of Bouchain, 1711

This impressive maneuver would later be commemorated in a well-known portrait of Marlborough and his engineer/quartermaster John Armstrong:


Bouchain 1711 was also distinctive among the Flanders sieges because the Allied and French commanders disputed whether the garrison had surrendered honorably or as prisoners of war after its capture – spoiler alert: the garrison ended up as prisoners. Then, after the town was in Allied hands, Marlborough’s army was forced to idle nearby for almost a month while its fortifications were repaired. To top it off, the siege was also the last major military operation conducted by the Duke of Marlborough. Attempts by his chaplain (Francis Hare) to describe Bouchain as a masterful siege failed to prevent Churchill’s ouster at the end of the year.

Observation and Relief armies, Bouchain 1711

Observation and Relief armies, Bouchain 1711

The town would be recaptured by resurgent French forces under Marshal Villars a year later, in half the time.

If the 1711 attack has faded from view, perhaps that is due to the faded view of the most famous representations of the siege, the three tapestries at Blenheim Palace commemorating the victory at Bouchain. Yet perhaps there’s hope. For as the linked Daily Mail news story (with lots of photos) indicates, this faded view of the siege has been cleaned and restored, with its brethren to follow.

While good news, even a newly-restored Bouchain Tapestry gives us minimal insight into the siege. The tapestry, like all of the Victory tapestries, provides little more than a stock representation of Marlborough and his entourage on horseback in the standard wooded foreground, with an ornamental border composed of vines and captured arms and the countryside receding into the distance. Hopefully the restoration will make the background, the actual siege itself, a bit more visible. Now if we could only get close-up photographs of those newly-laundered threads.

An MA in Marlburian logistics?!?

A new reader inquired as to whether it would be a good idea for a new graduate student to write their thesis analyzing the D. of M.’s role in logistics (presumably during the WSS).

That’s a tough one.

I have difficulty answering the question for several reasons. Most flippantly, I don’t teach grad students, so what the hell do I know? And I won’t base my recommendation on peering into my non-existent crystal ball to predict who would hire such a degree-holder. (The reason for the degree obviously looms large in the discussion.)

But thinking a bit longer on the question, I do have more substantive concerns. Perhaps commenters can resolve these, extend them, or add their own.

I’d start with the premise that there actually does need to be serious work done on the role of logistics in the Spanish Succession. But yet I hesitate recommending it for an MA student. Why?

  1. As we’ve discussed before, logistics is a difficult subject. It requires rifling through thousands of fragmentary administrative records, often poorly organized and catalogued, and trying to recreate their meaning. It doesn’t help that early modern bookkeeping practices could be quite shoddy, and somewhat arcane. All this helps explain why there is relatively little historiography on early modern logistics before the better organization of the mid-18C, and what there is, is largely impressionistic and anecdotal, financial rather than operational, and often based off prescriptive manuals, edicts and the stray contract. It’s a lot easier to analyze operations and grand strategy from campaign accounts and correspondence, or harvest quotes for a tactically-themed thesis.
  2. I think this particular logistical subject would be much more challenging to research than, say, J.S. Wheeler’s works on English logistics during the English Civil Wars or D.W. Jones’ War and Economy in the Age of William and Marlborough, because of its coalition aspects. I’d think it difficult for the average MA student to acquire the languages necessary to tackle the task. Assuming only two years or so to complete the degree, someone wishing to study Marlborough’s logistics would absolutely have to have a reading knowledge of English, Dutch and French. Highly recommended would also be Spanish if you wanted to look at the civilians or local authorities in the Spanish Netherlands, and German if you’re looking at the German contingents and the Imperials in the later campaigns. The language requirements would also be compounded by a wider variety of archives you’d need to consult in various countries.
  3. Reading Dutch in particular is an absolute necessity for the topic, as we’ve also discussed in the past. First, the Dutch and their field deputies and subcontractors were largely in charge of the minutiae of the Allied army logistics. If you want to read the sources on “Marlborough’s” logistics, you need to look in the Dutch archives. Second, the best historical research on the question has been written by Dutch scholars such as Olaf van Nimwegen, in Dutch.
  4. This last point raises a question that I don’t know the answer to. How exactly does an English-speaking grad student write an MA thesis on a topic whose pre-existing literature is unfamiliar to most English-speakers (because it’s in Dutch) – knowledge of the decade-old Dutch historiography that in and of itself would significantly alter the English understanding if it was translated into English – yet after the student has ‘changed the field’ by ‘translating’ the literature’s ideas to an English audience, he/she still has to contribute something new? How do you balance repeating Olaf’s argumentation in detail (necessary because you can’t assume your audience is already familiar with his claims and evidence) with adding your own, especially if your argument assumes a detailed knowledge of his argument (which you can’t really assume)? In short, how do you avoid making your original contribution simply a minor aftershock to the much larger earthquake resulting from translating the existing Dutch scholarship into English? (Scholarship that will, since it’s a book, undoubtedly be much more in-depth than your MA thesis.)I’m sure students do it all the time, probably when studying other oft-ignored countries. But this case seems more challenging because even though nobody reads Dutch, your work is directly affecting a much larger English historiography that everybody does know (or thinks they know). This means you will have to outline a variety of assumptions about Marlburian logistics held by many English scholars, then detail what Olaf and a few other scholars say about the subject and how it confronts the English school, and then, finally, what you say about both the English and Dutch historiography. That seems a rather large project, at least for a MA thesis. Hopefully your contribution doesn’t get lost in all that. For my diss, I didn’t have to worry about another scholar stealing my thunder (though I had a scare in the French Archives de Guerre), nor that I would have to introduce Vauban and his historiography to the English-speaking world. Just about every military historian had heard of Vauban whether they read French or not, and there was enough written in English (all saying the same things) so I didn’t have to translate recent historiography. It also helped that the French literature hadn’t departed that much from the English-language lit. (I should add that there was a certain amount of convergent evolution with some of my claims and some of the work published by Michèle Virol. Whose early book I fortunately discovered while touring the Maison Vauban.)

    The logistical case is further complicated because I know that an editor from Brill has been working on a translation of Olaf’s book for several years. Which makes me wonder the extent to which we should avoid a topic if it’s already been written about, but in a language we can’t read, or in a language our intended audience can’t? Even if the MA student does know Dutch, what happens if such a translation were to come out before or right after they finish their degree, or, even worse, as the MA student works on his/her PhD dissertation? I should also add that John Stapleton’s work on the Anglo-Dutch war effort in the Nine Years War will also have much to say about the theater’s logistics, so that too must be taken into account. And Aaron Graham’s on the financial side of the English equation…

    You don’t want to find yourself in the awkward position of waiting for works to be published before you know the extent to which you need to incorporate them into your own framework. Nor do you want to see your smaller contribution swallowed up or made irrelevant or obsolete by just–published scholarship. Which is why you want to network as early as possible. But it’s hard when there’s almost no published English-language historiography on your subject.

    On the other hand I don’t know if it’s a good idea to choose a topic defensively, fearing “the scoop.” And it may not be particularly relevant for an MA degree in any case.

So, as usual, my pessimism and “can’t-do” attitude paralyzes me. It seems you need to take into consideration numerous variables, both macro and micro:

  • marketability of the degree (depending on why you’re pursuing the degree)
  • program and advisor availability
  • historiographic interest among other academics
  • historiographic sophistication of the topic (i.e. it needs to be something that more than a few other historians care about)
  • source availability
  • language skills
  • time/resources to acquire the languages and pillage the (archival) resources…

Personally, I could see a more-focused MA on a particular campaign, maybe even a particular theater of operations or a specific subset of logistics (Olaf’s book focused on bread), although this doesn’t resolve several of the above concerns, and it necessarily limits the impact of the final product. A serious, balanced look at the 1704 march to the Danube would be an obvious start and have the largest impact, but frankly I don’t know whether there are more sources on the topic beyond what Olaf has already uncovered, and you’d really need to delve into the German/Austrian side of the equation as well if you’re doing 1704. That’s a pretty full plate (and consequent risk) for an MA student, especially if it requires learning Dutch as a prerequisite.

But that might be better than what too often happens – just look at English sources and write as if Marlborough controlled every aspect of his army’s supply.

Solutions to these problems? Suggestions for an aspiring grad student?

Initial thoughts on historiographical revisionism

Unlike the Florida State Legislature, I understand that historical interpretations change over time. Historical interpretations of Marlborough and the War of the Spanish Succession have changed as well, but much much much much more slowly. How can we tell, you ask? Good question.

Historiography is largely invisible. It is dispersed across dozens if not hundreds of books, journal articles, book reviews, blogs… Reading up on a historiographical debate is something grad students do in seminars, and what practicing scholars do in the early phases of their research and as they try to keep up with their field. But the details of this preliminary research rarely make it onto the printed page. Every academic history book or journal article will start with a few sentences or pages explaining where their particular argument fits, answering the “So what?” question. If you submit (or review) a book proposal, you need to explicitly address which historiographies are at issue. Published book reviews should, ideally, place the work under review within a broader historiographical debate. Occasionally academic journals will even publish a ‘historiographical essay’ summarizing recent works on a particular subject – a scholar might even publish an entire book on some historiographical question. But these are rare – in fact, rumor has it that editors want you to delete most of that historiography when it comes time to publish your book. Whatever the reason, historians tend to save their ink for the details of their specific argument.

Historiography is challenging to keep up with not only because it is rarely discussed (and theoretically changes with each publication), but, as professional historians know, much if not most historical knowledge remains out of print. If there are a handful of books published on a topic, there will often be two or three-times as many journal articles/book chapters, and twice again as many conference presentations on the subject, spread out over years and presented at venues around the globe. Most of these conference presentations will never become a journal article, much less a book. Add to that all the information and argumentation that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, and all that information that scholars retain in their noggins’ but fail to publish. You never know what other historians already know.

One result, at least in my experience, is that there is often wide disagreement over the shape of a particular historiographical debate. Take the “Military Revolution” (please, some say). Where does it stand now? Some say it’s dead, others say it should be dead, other say it hasn’t gone far enough, all while the most prominent proponent (Geoffrey Parker) is working on a new edition of his seminal book. The concept gets applied beyond its geographical heartland, converted into punctuated equilibrium, and even punctually equilibriated into a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). That’s a lot to keep track of, and it’s up to each historian to figure out where to draw the line when defining what works are relevant to the debate.

All this makes one wonder: how exactly do we measure a historiography? Is there a more ‘objective’ way to measure the state of the field? How do we determine what the majority of experts in the field agree upon? What questions they consider in need of more study?

Methodological questions abound when we try to summarize and reify the ideas of dozens of scholars. Do you emphasize the –graphy, i.e. the publication? If so, how does a dissertation that’s available online change a historiography – do you have to wait until it’s a book? It certainly seems to explain why many consider dissertations to have an expiration date – best to get it published before everyone adopts it via osmosis without bothering to cite you, or before the historiography bypasses your ideas altogether. Can an oral presentation alter the historiography by itself – Michael Roberts’ initial foray into military revolution in the form of a lecture in Belfast may have interested the audience members, but likely more important was its publication. Given how long it can take between a presentation and its final publication, historiography seems rather asynchronous. Historians always fret about how few accounts of the past ever get recorded for posterity – maybe historiography is the same way? Or, maybe historiography is only altered when a work (published or not) gets cited? [Ask universities and P&T committees about impact factors]. Does historiographical change require a certain critical mass? How does a lone voice – rejected or, worse yet, ignored – relate to the historiography? Are there dominant and subordinate historiographies on any given topic, and how do we determine which is which? By number of publications, by citation and sales figures, by status of the author? How many debates do we expect within a historiography, and is there a healthy ratio between the points under contention and the number of scholars working in the field? As with siege dates, do we measure the idea from its first public outing, its first publication, when it was first cited…? How does popular history relate to academic historiography? What do we make of a literature that is impervious to change? So many things to consider.

One new option is to take a digital humanities approach. Specifically, take advantage of the ability to have the full text of all those secondary sources available for searching and analysis. [Not that I would ever encourage anyone to copy a copyrighted work.] What scanning and textual analysis now allows is an ability to actually see the published historiography in its entirety – every word (taking OCR errors into account), every citation. We can discern patterns within authors’ sources, in their argumentation, in their organization (both chapter structure and the index), in the ideas and events they discuss and ignore, and in the specific language they use and refuse to use. We can of course perform such historiographical analysis without computers, we’ve done it for decades after all. But the results will necessarily be impressionistic rather than systematic, are likely to miss cases, and are impractical with a large number of works. This isn’t exactly the “distant reading” of literary DHers (à la Franco Moretti), but it does offer some interesting possibilities. Possibilities which I’ll explore (in my inimitably amateurish way) in a future post.

Ideas on how we can measure the change within a historiography?

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.

Random graphics from SMH presentation

Still busy, but here are a few graphics which I used (and didn’t use) in my paper presentation at the SMH last week in New Orleans. Despite being the last panel on the last day (and me the last speaker), we managed to rustle up about 16 in the audience. Our session was given a Nawlins vibe with a jazz band celebrating St. Patty’s Day outside our window.

Marlborough's Career

Marlborough’s Career

I created the above image largely for note-taking purposes (i.e. for future quick reference) while writing the paper. If I’d had more time, I would have simplified it a bit, made it larger somehow, and added a symbol key. Oh well.

The following image didn’t make the cut, but I was curious about the popularity of several famous English battles. I’m somewhat surprised by the staying power of Blenheim, particularly compared to Agincourt. (Normal Google Books caveats apply.)

English Battles Compared

English Battles Compared

More thoughts on the SMH conference in the future. But now I have to write a paper for the Performances of Peace conference (Utrecht) next month – there I’ll be focusing on the debate over Marlborough’s generalship during the Spanish Succession:

In modern Britain, the War of the Spanish Succession is the best known of Louis XIV’s wars because it provided a stage for one of the greatest commanders in its history. The Peace of Utrecht signaled Britain’s arrival as a great power, making it easy to attribute national success to the personal efforts of John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. Then, as now, Marlborough’s military successes were endlessly celebrated. Battlefield victories such as Blenheim and Ramillies were reenacted in the English press, with the laudatory literature praising his military performance in newsletter, sermon, ode and ballad. Such adulation was not, however, unanimous. Not only were there competing criteria with which one could define war heroes, but elevation to the pantheon of the Great Captains of History could quickly change with the ebb and flow of military events. The politicized environment of late Stuart England further complicated Marlborough’s status as undisputed war hero.

My paper will examine the late Stuart understanding of what a Great Captain was, how he was defined, what he wasn’t, and how the Duke of Marlborough in particular was viewed across the span of the Spanish Succession war. It will begin with a brief summary of how English publications of the late 17th century defined vigorous Great Captains from past history (Ancient, medieval and early modern). A second section will succinctly discuss the transition within the English press from an appreciative view of prudential French generalship in the 1670s to a negative one by the Spanish Succession, as well as a brief overview of how William III’s generalship was presented. With this necessary context of two competing criteria for Great Captain status, the majority of the paper will focus on the competing depictions of Marlborough as war hero versus his portrayal as mercenary captain.

And there’s that little West Point textbook chapter too. Idle hands…

A Conferencing We Will Go

Just got word that our panel for the SMH conference next March 14-16 has been accepted. I’ll take the liberty of posting my proposal for the panel (Mark and Margaret: let me know if you want your proposals posted here as well). A fuller schedule of the conference should appear by mid-January. Let’s hope there are several early modern panels.

Panel Abstract: Remembering the War of the Spanish Succession

2013 marks the 300th anniversary of the Peace of Utrecht, a treaty that determined the end state of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). England – “Britain” from its 1707 union with Scotland – was central to the war’s initiation, and remained integral to the Grand Alliance’s struggle against Bourbon France and Spain. Allied arms enjoyed a string of military victories, yet Britain alone essentially ended the war when it abandoned its erstwhile allies in order to negotiate a separate peace with Louis XIV. The Dutch, and later the Empire, were forced to acquiesce to the resulting terms, which re-established a balance of power on the Continent and established the framework for future British growth overseas. In retrospect, it is clear that Britain’s successes in the Spanish Succession facilitated its ascent to great power status. But how did Britons remember the Spanish Succession before their later victories against the French, in 1763 and then again in 1815, cemented their status as a world power? What lessons did they draw from their first major victory on the Continent in over 300 years? This panel will discuss both short term and longer term memories of the war during the 18th century, contributing both to a larger discussion of the rise of Britain as well as the construction of martial memory.

To this end, Margaret Sankey’s paper (‘“It is Plain no comparisons are to be made for my justification”:  The Jacobite ’15 as Epilogue to the War of the Spanish Succession’) analyzes the final direct echo of the Spanish Succession, the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. Despite a change from Stuart to Hanover, the British would fight the ’15 in a strategic context reminiscent of the previous war. Many of the same British military personalities drew upon still-fresh memories of counterinsurgency and island defense, while both Hanoverians and Jacobites sought to enlist recently demobilized British troops in yet another struggle over the succession to the English crown.

Jamel Ostwald’s paper (“Remembering Marlborough after the War of the Spanish Succession”) examines the British memory of their most successful commander of the war, the Duke of Marlborough. Already a controversial figure by the time of his dismissal in 1712, Marlborough’s military career would be the subject of numerous biographies from 1712 into the 1740s. The Georgian Whig ascendancy, and the efforts of his wife Sarah, would guarantee that Marlborough would emerge as one of England’s greatest Captains. Ever since, British memory of the War of the Spanish Succession has revolved around England’s leading role as the arbiter of Europe.

Mark Danley’s paper (“British Strategy During the Seven Years’ War and the Historical Memory of Amphibious Operations during the War of the Spanish Succession”) provides a longer-term view of the war’s legacy, as he analyzes the way in which ‘lessons’ from the Spanish Succession reinforced British strategic thinking. Focusing on the mid-18th century debate over how best to defeat a resurgent France, Danley explores how the British sought to assimilate the mixed lessons of Allied amphibious operations from the Spanish Succession into workable strategy.

Remembering Marlborough after the War of the Spanish Succession (my paper)

Most details of past wars quickly fade from memory, yet battlefield victories of Great Captains live on. The story of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), alone among Louis XIV’s wars, continues to be repeated over the centuries, with almost two dozen histories penned within the past hundred years. The popularity of this war in Anglo-American memory can be attributed to the vigorous campaigns of Britain’s commander, John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough. But the triumphalist account of Marlborough’s’ battlefield victories over a French tyrant was not inevitable. Though widely hailed today, his status as a Great Captain was in doubt even before the Spanish Succession ended. To be sure, hundreds of sermons, poems and pamphlets had praised the Duke for his battlefield victories between 1704 and 1708 – Donauwert, Blenheim, Ramillies and Oudenaarde particularly. Celebrating these defeats of the traditional French foe also served a political purpose, enabling Whig partisans to make political hay from martial glory. Yet political advantage ebbed along with military advantage: the diminishing returns of British battlefield successes from 1708 onward allowed a new Tory administration to come to power in 1710. This ministry launched its own assault against the Duke’s military credentials, and by extension the war. The result was two polarized views of Marlborough as military commander – one portraying him as an English revival of past Great Captains, the other describing him as a money-grubbing mercenary captain seeking to control the Crown from behind the scenes. In the short term the Tory attack on his character took its toll: formerly one of the most powerful men in the country, he was dismissed from his offices at the end of 1711. The Duke was brought up on corruption charges the next year, and forced into exile. His return home coincided with the accession of George I, and was smoothed by a new Whig political ascendancy. Since his health and advanced age prevented him from authoring his own justification of his actions, his military legacy would be determined by others. It would be the tone of his first biographers, encouraged by his widow Sarah, which established his place in the pantheon of Britain’s greatest generals. The military memory of Marlborough had been set.

This paper will analyze Britain’s public discourse on the War of the Spanish Succession, and of the Duke of Marlborough in particular. Specifically, it will trace the evolution of British publications discussing the Duke: starting with a brief summary of the war-time discussion, then focusing on his dismissal in 1712, his return from exile in 1714, to the eulogies and retrospectives precipitated by his death in 1722, and finally to the biographical treatments that helped cement his reputation for future generations of Britons in the 1730s and 1740s. Throughout, the paper will trace the ebb and flow of particular themes in the portrayal of Marlborough as Great Captain: his role as vigorous battle-seeker versus his portrayal as a prudent general; Marlborough as peer of the Great Captains of the Ancient world; Marlborough as the midwife of a revived English courage; as well as the political ascendancy of the Whigs which allowed a pro-Marlborough, pro-Continental interpretation of the Spanish Succession to rule the field for several critical decades after 1712.


To come: a peek behind the curtain that is academic history conferences.

Hot off the presses!

For those who have been waiting with eager anticipation, it’s officially here – or at least I just got my copies. Karwansaray Press‘ lavish, densely-illustrated edited collection on John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough. You’ve probably heard of the guy, and now you get to hear a lot more about him, but in a European context. Get ’em while they’re hot.

Website here.

Marlborough: Soldier and Diplomat

I haven’t had a chance to read through it yet, but I can personally vouch for at least two of the chapters. And did I mention the lavish full-color illustrations – 400 pages, 140 color photographs, most full-page?

Table of Contents:

  1. Britain in Europe during the Age of Marlborough (Dr. David Onnekink, The Netherlands)
  2. Courtier, Army Officer, Politician and Diplomat. A Biographical sketch of John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough (Prof. John B. Hattendorf, The United States)
  3. John Churchill, Professional Soldiering, and the British Army, c1660-c1760 (Dr. Alan J. Guy, The United Kingdom)
  4. Marlborough and Siege Warfare (Prof. Jamel Ostwald, The United States)
  5. ‘By thes difficultys you may see the great disadvantage a confederat army has’. Marlborough, the Allies, and the Campaigns in the Low Countries, 1702-1706 (Prof. John Stapleton, The United States)
  6. Marlborough and Anthonie Heinsius. Friends, Colleagues, or just working together for the Common Cause? (Dr. Augustus J. Veenendaal, Jr, The Netherlands)
  7. Marlborough as an Enemy (Dr. Clément Oury, France)
  8. ‘The only thing that could save the Empire’. Marlborough, the States General, and the Imperial States: Diplomacy and Military Strategy in the War of the Spanish Succession and the Great Northern War, 1700-1711 (Prof. Bernhard R. Kroener, Germany)
  9. Friendship and Realpolitik. Marlborough and the Habsburg Monarchy (Dr. Michael Hochedlinger, Austria)
  10. The Anglo-Dutch Navies in Marlborough’s Wars (Prof. Jaap R. Bruijn, The Netherlands)
  11. A European general in the English press. The print image of Marlborough in the Stuart realms (Prof. Tony Claydon, The United Kingdom)
  12. ‘The British Caesar’. John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, and the visual arts (Dr. Richard Johns, The United Kingdom)

Britain’s Jubilee

For those unaware, Britain just finished celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee – sixty years of rule. In the US, CNN dedicated a couple of hours to covering the thrilling fleet maneuvers on the Thames – Jon Stewart had a humorous take on CNN’s coverage last night.

As an American, a republican (small ‘r’), an early modernist, and non-royal watcher (or maybe it’s royal non-watcher?), I have little to say about the Diamond Jubilee and its historical importance, although I am curious whether she pardoned many criminals and forgave debts.

But I might as well use the event to segue (note to students: not segway) into a ballad I just happened to read and transcribe this very minute – a different kind of jubilee.

Britain’s Jubilee
A new congratulatory ballad on the Glorious Victories
obtain’d by the Duke of Marlborough, over the French:
Writ by the Famous Comedian, Mr. Escourt,
and Sung by him to most of our Nobility, with great Applause