One of the most brilliant English generals of any period, he was one of the chief commanders in the wars of the late 1600s and early 1700s that established England as one of the great powers of Europe, and following his defeat of France and Spain in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), elevated the newly-created union of Great Britain to be the chief imperial power of the world.

Born in 1650 as John Churchill (it seems to be disputed whether his birthday is 26th May or 24th June), his father was a minor royalist from Devonshire called Sir Winston Churchill. The name Winston has of course echoed through the Churchill family ever since. John was talented and handsome, and his cousin Arabella Churchill was mistress to the Duke of York. With these advantages and connections he advanced rapidly, and fought honourably in the wars against Holland. He was also a page to the Duke and secured the "favour" of the "voluptuous" Duchess of Cleveland... I think this means "fuck until the bedsprings wouldn't spring any more" but I might be reading too much into... never mind. The boy done good.

He was rapidly promoted; he was created Baron Churchill in 1680. He routed the rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth, a former patron, in 1685 after the death of Charles II, father of the illegitimate but ambitious duke. He was created Earl of Marlborough. He threw in his lot with the new king, the Dutchman William III, and fought bravely in his Irish wars.

At the same time his position was cemented by his beautiful, powerful, and ambitious wife Sarah Jennings. She became chief confidante to Queen Anne, while Churchill was commander in chief of British forces. She also had her own political power base in St Albans. In 1701 the War of the Spanish Succession began, and he achieved spectacular victories, notably at Blenheim, joining forces with Prince Eugene of Savoy; then at Ramillies, Oudenarde, and Malplaquet. He was created Duke of Marlborough, and was built a splendid new house called Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.

But for all the greatness of his achievements in Europe, at home there were political conspiracies against the Duke and Duchess. She was replaced in the Queen's affections by Abigail Masham (the "Mistress Masham" of T.H. White's lovely book Mistress Masham's Repose, a kind of sequel to Gulliver's Travels - but I digress), and his opponents accused him of huge misappropriations from army allowances. He was dismissed at the end of 1711, and did not return to England until the accession of King George I in 1714. The Duke died on 16 June 1722.

The dignity of Marlborough

The dignity of Marlborough is most closely associated with the Churchill family and their descendants but there was an earlier line of Earls of Marlborough who held the title from 1626 until the death of William Ley the 4th and last Ley earl in 1679. It appears that the Churchill family was distantly related to the Ley family which explains their choice of Marlborough as the designation for their title.

The Churchill family's road to fame and fortune began when a certain Arabella Churchill attracted the attentions of James, Duke of York (the future James II) and became his mistress. This brought her brother John Churchill to court where he formed an 'association' with Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland then mistress to Charles II. Through the combined patronage of the Duchess of Cleveland and the Duke of York, John Churchill was able to embark on military career and was created a Scottish Lord of Parliament in 1682 and an English baron in 1685. Having fought at the battle of Sedgemoor in June 1685, where he defeated the rebels under James, Duke of Monmouth, he was later one of the first to abandon James II and declare his support for William of Orange on the 24th November 1688. For this he was duly rewarded when he was created the Earl of Marlborough on the 9th April 1689.

In 1692 he was dismissed from most of his posts, on the well grounded suspicion that he was conspiring with the exiled former king, James II, although he was later able to ingratiate himself with Queen Anne who created him Duke of Marlborough on 14th December 1702. It was therefore as the Duke of Marlborough that John Churchill won a famous victory over the French at the battle of Blenheim on the 13th August 1704 and on the 28th January following a grateful nation granted him 22,000 acres in the vicinity of Woodstock in Oxfordshire, where he subsequently built Blenheim Palace.

Having already lost one son in infancy, his remaining son Charles had also died in 1703 and in the aftermath of the adulation of his victory at Blenheim, John Churchill felt able to approach Parliament to request that they alter the letters patent in order to specify a new course of descent for his titles in order to ensure that they did not become extinct on his death. On the 21st December 1706 the Duke obtained an Act of Parliament that amended the letters patent and specified that the title should pass to;

all and every other the issue male and female, lineally descending of or from the said Duke of Marlborough, in such manner and for such estate as the same are before for the title limited to the before-mentioned issue of the said Duke, it being intended that the said honours shall continue, remain, and be invested in all the issue of the said Duke, so long as any such issue male or female shall continue, and be held by them severally and successively in manner and form aforesaid, the elder of the descendants of every elder issue to be preferred before the younger of such issue.

Which in essence meant that the titles of Earl and Duke of Marlborough together with that of the Marquess of Blandford could now descend through the 1st Duke's four daughters and thereafter to their male and female heirs.

The Marlborough succession

Consequently when the 1st Duke died on the 16th June 1722 the title passed to his eldest daughter Henrietta who became the Duchess of Marlborough. She married Francis Godolphin, 2nd Earl of Godolphin, and although they did have a son William Godolphin, who was known as the Marquess of Blandford (since he was the heir to his mother's dukedom) he died without issue on the 24th August 1731 from apoplexy.

Thus on Henrietta's death on the 24th October 1733 the title passed to the heirs of the next daughter Anne Churchill. Although Anne had died earlier in 1716, she did have issue through her marriage to Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland, specifically her son Charles Spencer, 5th Earl of Sunderland who therefore became the 3rd Duke of Marlborough. (Note that the titles passed to Charles Spencer grandson of the 1st Duke rather than Henrietta's daughter - although both male and female heirs may inherit, the male sex is given precedence in each generation.)

The 3rd Duke was a good natured but not particularly capable individual whose life was bedeviled by arguments with his great-grandmother (the 1st Duke's wife, who lived until 1744). His eldest son George Spencer, the 4th Duke was of a nervous and shy disposition and once never uttered a word for a period of three whole years. The 4th Duke's son, also named George was created Baron Spencer of Wormleighton in 1806 and succeeded to the dukedom in 1817. He obtained a Royal Licence dated 5th May 1817 which permitted him to "take and use the name of Churchill, in addition to and after that of Spencer... in order to perpetuate in his Grace's family a surname to which his illustrious ancestor, John, first Duke of Marlborough, added such imperishable lustre", and so became the first Spencer-Churchill.

The 5th inherited his father's nature and spent most of his life in his library, spending a small fortune on books and founding the Roxburghe Club. His son, 6th Duke was however quite different, known for his good looks and tempestuous nature he was one of the ringleaders of the Keate Riots whilst he was at Eton and later went through a pretend marriage with a certain Miss Susan Law by which means he deceived the young lady for the obvious reasons. He later married quite legally and was good enough to pay the injured Miss Law a regular annuity thereafter.

The modern Dukes

The 7th Duke, John Winston Spencer-Churchill was the first Duke since the founder of the line to achieve any kind of public prominence, becoming a leading Conservative politician and also serving as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland between 1876 and 1880. His younger son was Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill who was the father of the famous Winston Churchill. In fact for much of his early life the young Winston Churchill was the heir presumptive to the title, until the family eventually bullied his uncle into getting married. (Winston's grandmother viewed the prospect of his succession with some alarm and once said that "it would be intolerable if that little upstart Winston became duke".)

George Charles, Randolph's older brother eventually married Bertha Hamilton a daughter of daughter of James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Abercorn. Bertha had the unfortunate habit of playing practical jokes on her husband, which is perhaps why George decided to run off with the Countess of Aylesford. That particular affair erupted into a great scandal eventually involving the Prince of Wales and resulted in Bertha obtaining a divorce on the grounds of George's adultery.

Bertha and George were however married long enough to maintain the succession and their son Charles Richard Spencer-Churchill became 9th duke in 1892. The 9th Duke was most notable for his marriage to the American heiress Cornelia Vanderbilt, daughter of William Kissam Vanderbilt who was the recipient of 60 million dollars worth of the Vanderbilt fortune. As it happens neither the Duke or Cornelia had any particular wish to marry each other, but Cornellia's mother wanted the prestige of a connection with British nobility and the Duke wanted the money. So the marriage went ahead in 1895, but was never a happy one and they were separated in 1907 and finally divorced in 1931.

Their son John Albert became the 10th Duke and spent much of his time and a good proportion of Vanderbilt money on the restoration of his home at Blenheim Palace. His son the 11th Duke served as a Lieutenant in the Life Guards during World War I and as Lieutenant-Colonel in World War II when he was Liaison Officer to the US Forces and was subsequently awarded the Bronze Star. He was succeeded on his death in 1972 by his eldest son John George Spencer-Churchill.

John George Spencer-Churchill, 12th Duke of Marlborough is the current holder of the title. The 12th Duke has been married three times; firstly to a Susan Mary Hornby, secondly to Athina Mary Livanos (otherwise known as Tina Onassis) and lastly to Rosita Astri Libertas Douglas, the daughter of a Swedish count. Amongst the collection of titles in the possession of the current Duke are those of the Marquess of Blandford, the Earl of Marlborough and Earl of Sunderland, the Baron Spencer of Wormleighton and Baron Churchill of Sandridge. He is also the Prince of Mellenburg which is a title in the Holy Roman Empire, which continues to be recognised as a noble dignity despite the fact that the Holy Roman Empire has not been in existence for two centuries.

His son and heir apparent Charles James Spencer-Churchill adopts the courtesy title of 'Marquess of Blandford', whilst the grandson (the Marquess's son and heir) George Spencer-Churchill is known as the 'Earl of Sunderland'.


THE DUKES OF MARLBOROUGH
(including the one Churchill Earl)

CHURCHILL

John Churchill became the Duke of Marlborough in 1702

SPENCER/SPENCER-CHURCHILL


SOURCES

  • The 1st Duke of Marlborough http://laura.chinet.com/html/titles11.html
  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for MARLBOROUGH, EARLS AND DUKES OF
  • The Marlborough (Spencer-Churchill) Line of Descent www.blenheimpalace.com/Time_line_the_family.htm
  • Duke of Marlborough www.burkes-peerage.net/sites/Contents/ book/UK/FHP/Peerage/fhp-MARLBOROUGH.asp
  • A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain at www.thepeerage.com
  • Stirnet Genealogy at http://www.stirnet.com/HTML/genie/genfam.htm
  • The Peerages of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom at http://www.angeltowns.com/town/peerage/Peers.htm
  • Brian Masters The Dukes: The Origins, Ennoblement and History of 26 Families (Blond and Briggs, 1975)

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