Monday, June 5, 2023

Guest Post: The Unlamented Death of the Jacobite Rascal John Churchill

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

16 June, 1722 -

The discredited, untrustworthy English general John Churchill died in exile in Bourbon France. He was seventy-two but had been inactive from a stroke he suffered six years earlier. This medical condition had brought an abrupt end to his failed career of court intrigue and military conspiracy.

His father, Sir Winston Churchill, was a member of Parliament that possessed moderate property but was sufficiently influential at court to be able to provide for his sons there and in the armed forces. Despite this head start, John's life and times would be one of great turbulence, during which he fought two duels and constantly struggled in a changing political landscape. He had to try to navigate his way through the Commonwealth, then the Stuart Restoration, and then the Glorious Revolution seeing English, French-backed Scottish, and finally Dutch heads of state. At various times he fought in or alongside all of these armies, and, by necessity, he earned military and political advancement through his courage and diplomatic skill. However, his downfall was precipitated by his Protestant religion, the historical banana skin of the era.

Under slightly different circumstances, Churchill might have arisen to Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. Like General George Monck before him, he was not so much an enthusiastic pro-royalist as a pragmatist who had supported the restoration in order to avoid the country from collapsing into anarchy after Cromwell's death. In contrast, just across the English Channel, the French nation benefited from the political stability of seven decades of rule by the Sun King, Louis XIV. It was the Churchill family's tragedy to be crushed under this emblematic of the Age of Absolutism in Europe, a procession of English heads of state, and the inevitability of getting caught trying to play both sides of the room.

Having served under the Duke of Monmouth in the French siege of Maastricht, the French War Minister recommended a lieutenant colonelcy in a French regiment. Louis XIV responded with the withering assessment that he would rather give "more satisfaction to a rich and faded mistress, than to a monarch who did not want to have dishonourable and dishonoured carpet knights in his armies." Ironically, Churchill was to play a leading role in defeating the Monmouth Rebellion that temporarily secured the House of Stuart. Following Monmouth's clumsy execution and the persecution of his followers, he alerted French Protestant Henri de Massue to Charles' obstinacy, warning him that "If the King should attempt to change our religion, I will instantly quit his service."

This would actually happen four years later when Churchill was a key player in the military conspiracy that led to the Glorious Revolution. In his farewell letter to James, he explained that "This, Sir, could proceed from nothing but the inviolable dictates of my conscience, and a necessary concern for my religion." Despite his elevation to Earl of Marlborough, he faced persistent charges of Jacobitism. He was appointed a member of the Council of Nine to advise Queen Mary on military matters in the King's absence, but she made scant effort to disguise her distaste at his appointment. "I can neither trust or esteem him," she wrote to her husband. Unfortunately, the farewell letter was not the last he wrote to James, and this unwise correspondence was to prove his undoing. This led to his fall from office and imprisonment in the Tower of London.

When Churchill was released, he fled to France where the Bourbons considered his usefulness as the figurehead leader of a Jacobite invasion army. The crowning victory of Louis XIV over a disorganized alliance led by the Holy Roman Empire saw his feint hopes of fighting in the War of the Spanish Succession come to naught. In one sense, their ambitions were closely connected because Britain would remain a third-rate military power, and the Churchill family would emigrate to the Americas to rebuild their fortunes in the new world.

Author's Note:

In reality, he went through several changes of fortune in a long career under five monarchs but is considered by many to be the greatest British military leader. He led British and allied armies to important victories over Louis XIV of France. On his legacy, historian John H. Lavalle writes, "Marlborough's place as one of the finest soldiers Britain ever produced is well deserved."

Provine's Addendum:

Through the centuries, the Churchills would remain a noted family in American history, such as the revolutionary and amateur astronomer George Churchill, friends with Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, as well as William Churchill, the fiery Congressman who argued for American naval superiority through his long career in the first half of the twentieth century.

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