This is a dual biography, exploring the lives of John and Sarah Churchill, first Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. Perhaps the greatest British general of all time and the most successful in the modern world until the advent of Napoleon, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, was also a successful if devious politician. He was a commanding figure, both on the continent of Europe and at the English court, from the time of King James II - whose mistress was Churchill's sister - until that of Queen Anne - whose intimate friend, the beautiful, gifted, quarrelsome Sarah, was his wife. The book concentrates on the Churchills' personal lives, telling the story of one of the 18th century's most powerful couples.
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The Marlboroughs is a biography by Christopher Hibbert, one of Britain's most popular historians, of subjects who were in their time Britain's most popular couple. John Churchill was a charming, ambitious but impoverished son of an obscure country squire from Devon, who achieved his rise to the top by never quite saying what he thought and appearing to agree with everybody. The riskiest thing he did in his youth was jump into bed with Barbara Villiers, an ex-mistress of Charles II, and reputedly "a woman of great beauty, but most enormously vicious and ravenous", "the lewdest as well as the fairest of King Charles's concubines". The King actually caught them red-handed on one occasion, but being the kind of Merry Monarch that he was, smiled politely, withdrew from their chamber, and said no more.
With the accession of the Protestant William of Orange to the throne of England, it was typical of John Churchill that he should both endear himself to the new King, and secretly stay firmly in touch with the exiled, Catholic King in France, James II: an historical each-way bet that paid handsome dividends. But John Churchill was more than merely a smooth-faced time-server: he was also one of the great military commanders of all time, up there with Wellington and Napoleon. His four great victories over the French in Europe--Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706), Oudenarde (1708) and Malplaquet (1709) assured his ascendancy and gained him the title of Duke of Marlborough.
His wife Sarah, on the other hand, was his polar opposite in temperament: quick-tempered, indiscreet, gossipy, and surely rather more amusing to talk to. Her intimate and distinctly passionate friendship with Queen Anne is fascinatingly brought to life, as is her strength of character which that opulent monstrosity, Blenheim Palace, brought to completion after her husband's death. Their permanent memorial, the palace was disliked even in its own day--as Alexander Pope observed, "'Tis a house, but not a dwelling", and it remains one of the most ostentatious and unappealing buildings in the country, though set in the most beautiful man-made landscape.
Hibbert's history gallops along with all his usual narrative verve and readability; and if in the end it does not quite convince as a portrait of a couple--we generally see John and Sarah operating independently, and in quite separate spheres--perhaps this is simply because that was how 18th-century marriages were, and why they lasted so much longer than today's. --Christopher HartReview:
'Hibbert is magnificent at domestic detail, gripping on scandal and intrigue, clever in negotiating the problem of making a life consistently interesting without cheating the reader of information... all the elements of a wonderful book and a story of near-incredible ascent.' SUNDAY TIMES
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