Posts Tagged ‘John Churchill’

When Winston Churchill was in the political wilderness he wrote. One of his first major works was a multi-volume biography of his ancestor John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. In ruling circles John Churchill was a national hero. He, allied with the Austrians, had led the English army to a great victory over the French of King Louis XIV at the Battle of Blenheim in Germany in 1704. I won’t go into the details of the pointless War of the Austrian Succession, suffice it to say that John Churchill was amply rewarded with enough wealth not only to build Blenheim Palace but also to keep his family in luxury for the next three centuries. Winston Churchill grew up in Blenheim Palace and his inherited wealth enabled him to spend years researching and writing his histories as well as plotting his political comeback.


Man and Children from the Battle of Blenheim poem

Fascinating though both Churchills were, here I’d simply like to discuss one of my favourite poems written by the Lakeland poet Robert Southey in 1796. It is called After Blenheim or sometimes The Battle of Blenheim. (You can hear it read here by Derek Jacobi.)

It was a summer evening,
Old Kaspar’s work was done,
And he before his cottage door
Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.

She saw her brother Peterkin
Roll something large and round,
Which he beside the rivulet
In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
That was so large, and smooth, and round.

Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
And, with a natural sigh,
“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he,
“Who fell in the great victory.

“I find them in the garden,
For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough,
The ploughshare turns them out!
For many thousand men,” said he,
“Were slain in that great victory.”

“Now tell us what ’twas all about,”
Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
“Now tell us all about the war,
And what they fought each other for.”

“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
“Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for,
I could not well make out;
But everybody said,” quoth he,
“That ’twas a famous victory.

“My father lived at Blenheim then,
Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.

“With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.

“They say it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.

“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
And our good Prince Eugene.”
“Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!”
Said little Wilhelmine.
“Nay… nay… my little girl,” quoth he,
“It was a famous victory.

“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ’twas a famous victory.”

The Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Blenheim

The Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Blenheim

It has sometimes been said that this is the first English anti-war poem, it isn’t but it is a wonderfully poignant piece. Its meaning is I think clear, it can’t be better expressed than it was by Rupert S. Holland in his Historic Poems and Ballard, published in 1912 in Philadelphia:

This battle was fought near the village of Blenheim, in Bavaria, on the left bank of the river Danube, on August 13, 1704. The French and Bavarians, under Marshall Tallard and Marsin, were defeated by the English and Austrians, under the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene.

The French and Bavarians were taken by surprise in the village, and their armies were badly handled. On the opposite side Marlborough and Prince Eugene showed themselves splendid cavalry leaders and led an attack that proved successful through its very recklessness. The French and Bavarians lost 30,000 in killed, wounded, and prisoners, while Marlborough’s loss was only 11,000. The battle broke the prestige of the French king, Louis XIV; and when Marlborough returned to England his nation built a magnificent mansion for him and named it Blenheim Palace after this battle.

Southey’s poem tells how a little girl found a skull near the battle-field many years afterward, and asked her grandfather how it came there. He told her that a great battle had been fought there, and many of the leaders had won great renown. But he could not tell her why it was fought or what good came of it. He only knew that it was a “great victory.” That was the moral of so many of the wars that devastated Europe for centuries. The kings fought for more power and glory; and the peasants fled from burning homes, and the soldiers fell on the fields. The poem gives an idea of the real value to men of such famous victories as that of Blenheim.

In this early period of his life Southey was a radical republican influenced by the great Thomas Paine and by the early optimistic years of the French Revolution. In 1794, even before he had written After Blenheim, Southey had written a ‘dramatic poem’ in three acts called Wat Tyler. As its name gives away, this was a play about the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. At the start of the play Wat Tyler and his friend Hob Carter are found in Tyler’s blacksmith’s shop in Deptford indignantly discussing the new ‘poll’ tax being  imposed by the Crown to pay for its wars in France:


Curse on these taxes – one succeeds another –

Our ministers – panders of a king’s will –

Drain all our wealth away – waste it in revels –

And lure,or force away our boys, who should be

The props of our old age! – to fill their armies

And feed the crows of France! Year follows year,

And still we madly prosecute the war; –

Draining our wealth – distressing our poor peasants –

Slaughtering our youths – and all to crown our chiefs

With Glory! – I detest the hell-sprung name.


What matters who wears the crown of France?

Whether a Richard or a Charles possess it?

They reap the glory – they enjoy the spoil –

We pay – we bleed! – The sun would shine as cheerly,

The rains of heaven as seasonally fall,

Tho’ neither of these royal pests existed.


Nay – as for that, we poor men should fare better!

No legal robbers then should force away

The hard-earn’d wages of our honest toil.

The Parliament for ever cries more money,

The service of the state demands more money.

Just heaven! Of what service is the state?


Oh! ‘tis of vast importance! Who should p[ay for

The luxuries and riots of the court?

Who should support the flaunting courtier’s pride,

Pay for their midnight revels, their rich garments,

Did not the state enforce? – Think ye, my friend,

That I – a humble blacksmith, here in Deptford,

Would part with these six groats – earn’d by hard toil,

And that I have! To massacre the Frenchmen,

Murder as enemies men I never saw!

Didn’t the state compel me?

Watt Tyler leader of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381

Watt Tyler leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

When Southey wrote this in 1794 not much had changed in four hundred years: taxes were yet again being hiked to pay for another meaningless military escapade on the continent and ordinary young men in their thousands were literally being ‘pressed’ to serve in the army and in the Royal Navy. Wat Tyler wasn’t published until 1817 and then against Southey’s will. Unfortunately Southey had become a conservative reactionary and was appointed Poet Laureate in the same year as Wat Tyler appeared. He called the publisher ‘a skulking scoundrel’. As one contemporary critic put it, Southey was a poet until he became Poet Laureate! He wrote eulogies to the king and in 1820 referred to the Battle of Blenheim as ‘the greatest victory which had ever done honour to British arms’. Referring to Wat Tyler, Southey wrote:

The piece was written under the influence of opinions which I have long since outgrown, and repeatedly disclaimed, but for which I have never felt either shame or contrition. They were taken up conscientiously in early youth, they were acted upon in disregard of all worldly considerations, and they were left behind in the same strait-forward course, as I advanced in years.

Southey had it fact sold out his youthful compassion and outrage. In his portrait of Southey in The Spirit of the Age William Hazlitt wrote: “He wooed Liberty as a youthful lover, but it was perhaps more as a mistress than a bride; and he has since wedded with an elderly and not very reputable lady, called Legitimacy.”

A young Robert Southey

A young Robert Southey

Much has been written about Southey’s apostasy, my favourite is that of William Howitt in his Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent English Poets, which he wrote in 1847, the year of Southey’s death:

With all our admiration of the genius and varied powers of Southey, and with all our esteem for his many virtues, and the peculiar amiability of his domestic life, we cannot, however, read him without a feeling of deep melancholy. The contrast between the beginning and the end of his career, the glorious and high path entered upon, and so soon and suddenly quitted for the pay of the placeman and the bitterness of the bigot, cling to his memory with a lamentable effect. Without doing as many hastily do, regarding him as a dishonest renegade; allowing him, on the contrary, all the credence possible for an earnest and entire change in his views; we cannot the less mourn over that change, or the less elude the consciousness that there was a moment when this change must have been a matter of calculation. They who have held the same high and noble views of human life and social interests, and still hold them, find it impossible to realize to themselves the process by which such a change in a clear-headed and conscientious man can be carried through. For a man whose heart and intellect were full of the inspiration of great sentiments, on the freedom of man in all his relations, as a subject and a citizen as well as a man, on peace, on religion, and on the oppressions of the poor, to go round at once to the system and the doctrines of the opposite character, and to resolve to support that machinery of violence and oppression which originates all these evils, is so unaccountable as to tempt the most charitable to hard thoughts. Nothing is so easy of vindication as a man’s honesty, when he changes to his own worldly disadvantage, and to a more free mode of thinking; but when the contrary happens, suspicion will lie in spite of all argument. We can well conceive, for instance, the uncle of the young poet, with whom he went out to Portugal, a clergyman of the Church of England, saying to him, “Robert, my dear fellow, these notions and these terrible democratic poems, — this Wat Tyler, these Botany Bay Eclogues, and the like, are not the way to flourish in the world. No doubt you want to live comfortably; then just look about you, and see how you are to live. Here are church and state, and there are Wat Tyler and the Botany Bay Eclogues. Here are promotion and comfort, there are poverty and contempt. Take which you will.” We can well conceive the effect of such representations on a young man who, with all his poetic and patriotic devotion, did not like poverty and contempt, and did hope to live comfortably. This idea once taking the smallest root in a young man having a spice of worldly prudence as well as a great deal of ambition, we can imagine the youth nodding to himself and saying, — “True, there is great wisdom in what my uncle says. I must live, and so no more Wat Tylers, nor Botany Bay Eclogues. I will adhere to the powers that be, but I will still endeavour to infuse liberal and generous views into these powers.” Very good; but then comes the transplanting to a new soil, and into new influences. Then come the hearing of nothing but a new set of opinions, and the feeling of a very different tone in all around him. Then comes the “facilis descensus Averni,” and the “sed revocare gradum hoc opus, hic labor est.” The metamorphosis goes on insensibly — “Nemo repent fuit turpissimus;” but the end is not the less such as, if it could have been seen from the beginning, would have made the startled subject of it exclaim, “Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?”

Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace

I guess I shouldn’t be but I’m consistently amazed, and not a little disheartened, by the seeming total lack of historical consciousness of most British people, and that includes most of my family. What this has to do with Melvyn Bragg may or may not become clear later. It’s not only the British of course (and I do mean British and not just English). Here in France I quite often start to pontificate on something to do with French history and then slowly it becomes clear that my worthy friends haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about. But then most Americans still think that Paris is in Texas.

Dear me!

Now if you are a regular reader of this blog (yes there are some), then this lack of historical knowledge clearly doesn’t extend to you. So let’s just think about the ‘others’ – them.

Michel Gove

Michel Gove

Whether you agree with me or not, does this all really matter? Well day to day as we go about our lives I guess it doesn’t. But if we ever want to change anything for the better politically, socially, economically and ecologically, and I mean for the better of the many not the few, then I think history does matter. Yet what type of history? If history is presented in the wrong way it can just be one damn thing after another: this king followed that king, that battle was won, the next lost. Perhaps if you cast your mind back you can remember one or two things in this vein from your school days? All no doubt being heavily sprinkled with a good dose of xenophobia and nationalistic jingoism. Just the type of history the British Education Secretary Michael Gove seems to want to bring back. Now Gove does seem to me to be a funny little man who looks and sounds like a visitor from another planet, but something he recently reputedly said did make me laugh. A head teacher friend told me he had said that British school children could empathise with the victims of Nazism but didn’t know who Winston Churchill was! I have to say I burst out laughing. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s hard but true.’

True it might be but doesn’t it throw up the whole question of victims and perpetrators? All history is about some individuals or groups doing things to other individuals or groups. If you think about it a minute this also applies to much of intellectual and even art history.

The Black Prince

The Black Prince

Let me take just one example of victims and perpetrators from ‘English’ history. There have been some television programmes recently about the Hundred Years War between, it is usually said, the English and the French. At the start of these ‘wars’ in the mid fourteenth century, the English King Edward III and his son Edward ‘The Black Prince’ won two battles against the French at Crecy and Poitiers respectively – both much against the odds. If you read about these battles or watch the excellent TV programmes, who do you side with? If you are English do you get a warm glow because not for the last time the gallant English yeoman archers under their brave leaders had trounced the French? Maybe you do; there’s not much the matter with that. But these battles, like so many others, weren’t really an English against the French thing. Who were the perpetrators and who were the victims?  King Edward and his son Edward Prince of Wales were certainly the holder of the English crown and his heir apparent, who would have become Edward IV if he hadn’t died from malaria caught while rampaging in Spain, but what they really were were French-speaking Angevin armed thugs wanting to get one over on the French Valois armed thugs. It was all about land and power. This was a French thug against French thug thing, nothing really to do with the people of England and France, they were the victims.

It’s easy to see that the population of South West France were victims. In 1355 and 1356 the Black Prince systematically and deliberately cut a trail of rape, robbery, burning and death from town to town. These so-called chevauchées (notice the French word) were, it is said, provocations to try to bring the French king Jean out to fight. These atrocities were so bad that they seared themselves into the French psyche. Even in the nineteenth century French mothers would scare their children with the threat that Le Prince Noir and ‘the English’ would return. Quite a lot of the French nobilty too lost their lives under the hail of English arrows, which was quite a shock for them as the despicable code of medieval chivalry was supposed to mean that nobles could surrender when facing defeat and then be held for ransom, which after it had been paid by their long-suffering peasantry would mean they could return home. They were not meant to be killed by common, uncouth English archers! On the other hand the ordinary soldiers, French or English, could be and were slaughtered without mercy and without a second thought.

Battle of Poitiers

Battle of Poitiers

There were victims too on the English side: the ordinary English soldiers who had been forced to follow their French-speaking lords on yet another continental trip – there to die without memory. Lords who pretty much despised them and were only just learning to abide the English language, though they much preferred to talk French. And then there were the English victims at home, not just the wives and mothers who lost husbands and sons, but also the vast majority of ordinary people who were wrung dry by the taxes the kings imposed to pay for their rampages.

History is about victims and perpetrators, and about asking who was doing what to whom? And why?

Now you may find this fourteenth century story a bit remote, obscure even, but I guarantee that wherever you look, in whatever country, at whatever time, it was pretty much the same story. I think I should make it clear that what I have told so far of these medieval battles is in no way anti-French. Nobles/thugs were and are everywhere: in Germany, in Spain, in Italy and yes, in Africa, in Japan, in India and, God forbid, in America too. History doesn’t really have much to do with nations or nationality, at least not the history that has relevance.

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

Back to Michael Gove. It’s a good thing that British school children can empathise with Jewish and other victims of the Holocaust, but please not in a historical vacuum. What was the long history of anti-semitism in Europe? Why did it arise? What did the Catholic Church have to do with it? And what were the reasons that the Germans turned to National Socialism? Might it have something to do with their treatment at Versailles? And what about Churchill? Of course British school children should know who he was and what he did; although there are so many television programmes about him and the Second World War I’d be surprised if they didn’t have some clue. I for one have the utmost respect for Churchill as a war leader, but what about Churchill as an aristocrat? What about his wealthy and privileged background? Where did the wealth to build Blenheim Palace come from? What had his ancestor John Churchill, The Duke of Marlborough, done to deserve it? Who were his victims?

The thing is that there is no such thing as value-free history. When we tell history we have to make choices and we have to interpret. I wrote about this in an earlier article.  There are facts in history and without facts history is just a story. But while the great German historian Leopold von Ranke preached, but didn’t practice, the view that history would somehow simply emerge from original documents, in fact that is not the case, history needs choices and it needs interpretation. The only thing is that we need to be quite explicit about what choices we are making regarding how to tell our story, our history. What are our values? Who do we care about? And, yet again, why?

Now I think you might see that the type of history I would teach in schools doesn’t have a chance in hell of ever making it onto the national curriculum. Why is that? The answer should be pretty clear: If people really understood the oppression their ancestors had suffered and at whose hands, then just maybe they would see it’s all still going on today.

Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg

But what about Melvyn Bragg? Last year I was in Andalusia in southern Spain. I was staying with someone who one day was trying to persuade me of something spiritual. I think he saw himself as a bit of a guru. God knows we don’t need more of those. We were sitting face to face. I as usual was lounged in my habitual louche manner across an armchair, legs out-stretched but crossed, arms spread on each of the chair’s arms, slouched a bit, my preferred position for giving a good lecture. He however was bolt upright, straight back, looking me in the eye, all attention. And then he told me I was sitting in the chair like Melvyn Bragg. It wasn’t perhaps an insult but it certainly was a bit of a reprimand. Clearly he wasn’t a fan of Lord Bragg. But I am. Now I don’t know if Melvyn sits like me, but it was clearly an attitude that disturbed my host. A certain arrogance he told me. Now I’ve never found Lord Bragg particularly arrogant and if he is it’s a good thing. I’ve read most of Melvyn’s books, novels and non-fiction, and intelligent works they are too. Then there’s his long-running The South Bank Show, a rare in-depth Arts programme which takes the subject seriously even if it’s not always to my taste if it’s about an East End rapper or a Peruvian contemporary dancer. And then there’s the BBC radio series In Our Time, where all sorts of historical matters and events are explored and discussed by Melvyn and his guest historians. This is sublime. Usually the historians are extremely knowledgeable and erudite but Melvyn always tries to bring them back from their academic whaffle and asks questions that matter, questions about what was really going on. Sometimes he even gets a bit testy with them and proclaims, ‘Only from the mouth of an academic!’ And, let’s not forget, Melvyn came from a simple Cumbrian background and carved out his interesting career by his own work and wit, unlike our present group of Eton ministers.

I like Melvyn Bragg. I like the way he explores history and I like the way he cuts to the historical chase. So if people think I sit like Melvyn Bragg then I’ll take it as a compliment.