During her first week in London, Ceili took in a service at Westminster Abbey. As one walks through the west entrance of Westminster Abbey, one encounters a memorial stone embedded in the flagstones, a remembrance of one of history’s Great Men:
It was a moment for her, as it was for me when I visited the Abbey in 1996. Winston Churchill looms so large in the historical imagination that he almost seems like a literary character rather than a flesh-and-blood man. That’s fitting, because in a very real sense Churchill created himself out of words. He famously quipped:
“For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history.”
Of course he did. From the beginning of his career, Churchill produced a prodigious amount of historical work on a grand scale, from histories of Imperial campaigns in Africa to The History of the English Speaking Peoples. Winston Churchill wrote more books than the vast run of modern-day pols have read. Winston’s legacy as a politician/statesman and wartime leader is subject to periodic revision, but it would be very difficult to argue with the assertion that he was one of the greatest prose stylists of the 20th Century.
Churchill built the man who would defy the might of the Third Reich out of a potent historical imagination, a deep scholarly and literary engagement with the past — including with his own family heritage. For Winston was not the only Great Man of his line.
John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, was a truly brilliant military commander, who won for Great Britain its place as a European Great Power through a series of astounding victories in wars against Louis IV of France at the turn of the 18th Century. Churchill was that rare breed of soldier who mastered all of the elements of warfare — tactical, strategic, diplomatic, operational, logistical.
When Ceili shared her experience walking past the Winston Churchill memorial, I hied off to re-watch David Starkey’s fascinating documentary The Churchills, which explores Winston’s dialogue with his illustrious ancestor. Starkey’s thesis is that Churchill’s four-volume, million-word biography of Marlborough, written in the 1930s when Winston was out of power, shaped Churchill’s response to the looming menace of the Third Reich. The past of 1704 was very much present those dark Wilderness Year of the 1930s:
“Since the duel between Rome and Carthage, there had been no such world war. It involved all the civilized peoples; it extended to every part of the accessible globe. It was the peril that the supremacy of one race and culture would be imposed by military force on all others. In no world conflict had issues been more real and viatl. In none has the duty to defend a righteous cause been more compulsive upon the British nation.”
Churchill was writing of the stark necessity Great Britain faced of opposing the bid for European hegemony by the radical Catholic absolutist Sun King — but his eye was clearly set upon what loomed a mere handful of years in the future.
The Duke of Marlborough not only fought the battles that eclipsed the Sun King, he was instrumental in forging the coalition that resisted France’s hegemony, setting a template for European power politics that would stay in place for 300 years, through the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars and through the rise, fall and rise of an aggressive German
John Churchill rose to such heights on his own merits, which were quite varied. He got a significant leg up, as it were, in his teens, when he became the secret lover of one of King Charles II, many mistresses, the alluring Barbara Villiers. Barbara was so taken with Churchill’s charms that she paid him an enormous bounty of £5,000 (about $1.5 million in 2020 U.S. dollars). That set him up financially for life.
Churchill was a Stuart loyalist — until he wasn’t. He swapped sides in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, certainly partly out of political calculation, but it seems mostly out of sincere concern for Parliamentary prerogative and Protestantism. When Catholic James II was deposed, his Protestant daughter Mary and the Dutch William of Orange assumed the throne of Great Britain, to be followed by James II’s other Protestant daughter, Anne. Churchill would become Anne’s sword arm.
He married Sarah Jennings, who was the Favourite of Queen Anne, who was utterly besotted with her (there’s a recent movie built around this historical nugget). Whether or not Sarah and the Queen were actually lovers, Sarah certainly was beloved (until eclipsed) which gave her husband tremendous throw-weight in British government circles.
Though he won influence in the manner of a courtier, he earned his spurs on the battlefield, where, in the words of historian Robert Parker:
“…in the ten campaigns he made against [the French]; during all which time it cannot be said that he ever slipped an opportunity of fighting, when there was any probability of coming at his enemy: and upon all occasions he concerted matters with so much judgement and forecast, that he never fought a battle which he did not gain, nor laid siege to a town which he did not take.”
Marlborough built the British Army that would duel with France for a full century. It is no accident that the folk anthem of the troops from the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714) could be so readily retooled for the Napoleonic wars a century later.
O’er the hills and o’er the plain
To Flanders, Portugal and Spain
Queen Anne (King George) commands and we obey
Over the hills and far away
Starkey’s thesis in The Churchills appeals to me on the deepest level — the idea that Winston honed his rhetoric and his understanding in a deep engagement with a living past, whetting his blade in the ancestral battle against an old tyranny so that he could better face down the great terrors of his own day.
Continuity and Persistence are watchwords at RIR. History is a guidepost that can orient us in the fog and fugue of strange and parlous times. And when it’s written as Winston Churchill wrote it, it rings like a clarion in the night.