Harper Press £25

Marlborough: England's Fragile Genius, By Richard Holmes

The helter-skelter life of a military hero who deployed his good looks as assiduously as his infantry

Until a generation or so ago John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, vied with Wellington for the accolade of being England's greatest general. Now, thanks to History's optional place in the school curriculum, and teachers' concentration on Hitler and Stalin, he is an almost forgotten figure from an almost untaught period.

We should therefore welcome a new bio-graphy of the man who was so admired by Napoleon and (with unashamed ancestor worship) Winston Churchill – especially if the biographer is Richard Holmes, whose background is a happy blend of military academia and media friendliness. Professor Holmes tackles his subject at a Light Infantry pace, cracking through a wide-ranging biography with confidence and humour.

The first tenth of the book sets the context of Marlborough's life, thereby helping to explain the rise and fall of the handsome hero. Fashion, politics, and the brutality (and often brevity) of 17th-century life are all presented in a colourful slideshow.

Marlborough was born in 1650, at a time when traitors were hanged, drawn and quartered. Medieval methods still flourished after the English Civil War. This is not simply ghoulish embellishment to the duke's life story. It is relevant since, Holmes contends: "Marlborough lived on the margins of treason." Indeed, it is to the duke's moral code, rather than to any innate softness, that the book's subtitle, "England's Fragile Genius", is primarily addressed; that, and his vulnerability as a self-made man, reliant on that most fickle of commodities, royal favour.

John Churchill came to maturity in the reign of Charles II, the son of an impoverished Royalist cavalry captain who sent his children to Court to make good. Churchill's sister Arabella became one of the chief loves of the future James II. Churchill joined the Court as James's page boy, where he was extremely popular with his master: recognising the youth's fascination with the military, James gave John a commission.

Churchill's exceptional charm eased his upward path. His good looks were also deployed wisely. They resulted in an affair with Barbara Castlemaine, Charles II's most promiscuous mate (but not necessarily, as Holmes contends, "the most powerful of [the King's] mistresses" – that distinction surely goes to the French-born Duchess of Portsmouth?). For services rendered, Castlemaine gave Churchill £5,000. With typical thrift, he invested his bonanza; it formed the launching pad for his ambition.

It is to the roots of his power that Marlborough's fiercest critics have pointed. Thomas Babington Macaulay frothed with indignation at a career that he saw as being founded on the easy virtue of Marlborough's sister, and the generosity of his paramour. Holmes lets Macaulay have his say, before explaining that, in the moral climate of the Restoration Court, it is unfair to blame a young, penniless and ambitious young man for failing to eschew personal advancement and carnal pleasure.

Sarah Jenyns remains one of the grandes dames of British history. She shared John's impoverished, Royalist, background: Sarah and her beautiful sister were sent to find rich and titled husbands at court. However, she fell deeply in love with John Churchill, and they married. Their rise from the ranks of "distressed gentlefolk" to the pinnacles of political and military power was the supreme example of what Holmes refers to as a generation of people "rising without a trace". At one point John was just another fornicator in the Merry Monarch's Court. Thanks to his favour with the Duke of York, and his wife's passionate friendship with Princess Anne, they were the most powerful commoners in England.

Churchill's helter-skelter career saw him help save James II from the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion. However, three years later, alienated by his patron's increasingly strident Catholicism, Churchill deserted, and became a disaffected figure during the reign of William III, who gave him the earldom of Marlborough but effectively sidelined him. Yes, Holmes concedes, Marlborough was secretly communicating with the Jacobites; but this was merely insurance against a second Stuart Restoration.

Marlborough's chance for greatness came when Anne became queen, and straightaway joined the Grand Alliance against Louis XIV's France. For ten years Marlborough was victorious against a military machine that had not been defeated for over 60 years. Holmes is at his surest when writing about the great battles of the War of the Spanish Succession – he has a remarkable knowledge of the roots of the British Army, and an appreciation for Marlborough's legacy, which raised the English soldiers' stock from being vilified to becoming the troops most feared by the Sun King.

Holmes is less certain on general psychology. About Sarah and Anne's friendship, he writes: "It is never easy for men to grasp the depth and intensity of the love that can exist between women... partly because of men's fear that women's affection is in some way finite, and that the emotion which binds them to other women must necessarily limit that available for commitment to men." I found this an entirely unconvincing generalisation. There is no place for Marje Proops in this very good read, about a very great man.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015