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Wine and Warfare part 15: Marlborough goes to war

Marlborough s’en va t’en guerre

John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), painted by Adriaen van der Werff

One of the legacies of colonialism is that the colonisers leave their mark in the place names of the land they have settled.

Often these names are places the settlers have left behind, think of New York, Boston, Norfolk, Richmond, London and Plymouth found scattered across the old Dominions and US.

Then there are the names of the explorers themselves, George Vancouver, Abel Tasman and James Cook for example.

Kings, queens and politicians all have places in the “New World” named after them and the stories and histories behind those would be enough to fill a small book.

But this is a story about wine and war and there are plenty of generals and famous battles to which vineyards owe their name.

It has already been shown how Australia’s Barossa Valley was named after an obscure (if victorious) battle in the Peninsular War and New Zealand’s most famous vineyard region was also named in honour of a general and the victory he won on the other side of the world.

The northern tip of South Island and the southern tip of North Island are full of military-themed towns.

Wellington on the end of North Island needs little introduction and across Cook Strait (see above) on South Island is the town of Picton, general Thomas Picton being a divisional commander of Wellington’s who was killed at Waterloo.

Meanwhile, there is the town of Nelson to the west (no prizes for guessing who he is). However, the town and region that should excite our interest is that of Blenheim and Marlborough.

The wine may be one of the most popular in the UK today but the man it is named after is largely neglected from most history lessons despite his deserved reputation as one of the greatest military captains this country ever produced.

His name was John Churchill and his revered descendent Winston has largely supplanted his ancestor in the nation’s heart but it was not always so.

Churchill was born into genteel Devonshire poverty in 1650 and advanced in early life through the patronage of the Duke of York, later James II.

The 1st Foot Guards storm the Neber at the battle of Blenheim

Although a page to the duke he quickly set his heart on becoming a soldier and was made an ensign in the 1st Guards (later Grenadier Guards) in 1667.

Good looking and courageous, his youthful military and amorous adventures are worth a book in themselves but briefly here included: fighting with the Guards against the Moors in Tangiers, storming Maastricht with d’Artagnan of King Louis XIV’s Musketeers (who was killed there) while in French service and bedding one of Charles I’s favourite mistresses, Barabra Villiers.

Despite this dashing streak he was extremely politically astute albeit, one might even add, fickle.

He supported his old patron James II in crushing the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685 (he is also said to have saved the Duke of Monmouth’s life at the storming of Maastricht) only to desert the Catholic king in 1688 and throw in his lot with the Protestant William of Orange.

He fought in the Nine Years War and was ennobled by William as Earl of Marlborough, before the pair fell out spectacularly and Churchill was imprisoned in the Tower of London on the charge of high treason for apparently plotting to restore James II.

When the letters concerning the plot were proved to be false Churchill was released, restored to favour and at the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1700, was given the command of a joint Anglo-Dutch-German army in the Low Countries.

The background to the war is wonderfully complicated and some of the ground work was related in the earlier instalment on the Legend of Pedro Ximémez.

In the simplest terms, when the last Habsburg king of Spain, Charles II, died the Bourbon king of France, Louis XIV, wished to place his grandson, Philip, on the vacant Spanish throne thus creating an all powerful Franco-Spanish-Bourbon-Catholic power block in Europe, while the Austrian Habsburgs and everyone else opposed him.

The years 1700-1703 saw various military manoeuvres in western Germany and the usual “fatal avenue” of the Low Countries between the French marshals Tallard, Villeroi and Vendôme and the various commanders of the “Grand Alliance” including Marlborough now a Duke.

Then, in 1704, the French gained the initiative. Marshal Villars forced a crossing of the Rhine and linked up with France’s Bavarian allies on the Danube before being sent to Spain and replaced by Marshal Marsin.

The way to Vienna was open and Austria, menaced by Marsin in the west, Vendôme’s French army in Italy to the south and Hungarian rebels in the east, was in danger of being knocked out of the war.

Marlborough, still in the Netherlands, realised the gravity of the situation. Splitting his forces he left one part to confront Villeroi’s army which was supposed to be containing him in the Low Countries, and took the other half to link up with the Margrave of Baden all the while skilfully fooling the pursuing French forces as to where he might be heading.

The 26th foot (Cameronians) advance on the French lines at Blenheim. Painting by Richard Simkin

The speed of the March to the Danube (it took him five weeks to march over 20,000 men 250 miles) caused consternation and dismay in Versailles and the outnumbered Franco-Bavarian army was forced to halt its march on Vienna.

Marsin retreated over the Danube hoping to effect a link-up with Marshal Tallard who was in the area.

He left some troops on the other side of the Danube to entrench in what would be a formidable hilltop position on the Schellenberg Heights above Donauwörth.

However, before the French could fortify their position, Marlborough’s men stormed the heights and captured them, crossed the Danube and continued their pursuit.

On the way they were joined by an Austrian army under another of history’s great neglected generals, Prince Eugene of Savoy.

Marsin and Tallard turned and stood near the town of Hochstadt on 13 August. Slightly superior in numbers, they had chosen a strong position, with small streams in front of them and three villages to defend, Lutzingen on their left, Oberglau in the centre and Blenheim anchoring the right on the banks of the Danube.

The battle which followed was won by a combination of tactical brilliance, allied co-operation and some crucial French blunders.

Chief among these was the French general Clérambault who (without consulting Tallard) moved all of his men into Blenheim and allowed 10,000 men to be cooped up by half that number of English troops.

With his left flank secure Marlborough then concentrated on the centre and his cavalry routed the elite Gens d’Armes of the royal household. Tallard appealed to Marsin on his left for reinforcements but he was being pushed too hard by Eugene and refused to comply.

What of Clérambault? No dice, his men were trapped in Blenheim.

The French however struck back and for a moment it looked as if they might cut the allies in two but when Marlborough appealed for help from Eugene he got it.

The brigade of Austrian cuirassiers threw back the French attack and allowed a mixed Hessian-Hanoverian-Dutch brigade of infantry to trap more French in Oberglau.

In another well co-ordinated attack the French cavalry were finally driven off the field and the French centre gave way the infantry, in the words of the Flemish officer Mérode-Westerloo, “died where they stood…supported by nobody.”

Marlborough signing the Blenheim dispatch on the back of a tavern bill. He wrote to his wife Sarah: “I have no time to say more but to beg you will give my duty to the Queen, and let her know her army has had a glorious victory.”

Blenheim fell late in the afternoon, the French had suffered 20,000 casualties to the allies’ 4,000 and Marshal Tallard was captured.

Furthermore, Vienna was saved and the myth of invincibility the French had cultivated under Louis XIV was smashed, as was the Bavarian army; the Elector, Maximilian II, suing for peace and depriving France of a precious ally.

Marlborough was fêted at home and was granted an astronomically large sum of money (£240,000) from a grateful country to build himself a “suitable house” in recognition of his achievement at Woodstock in Oxfordshire.

The Austrian emperor made him a prince of the Holy Roman Empire.

He and Eugene won more victories throughout the war at Ramillies (1706), Oudenarde (1708) and Malplaquet (1709) before Marlborough was recalled in 1711 – in disgrace once again thanks to enemies at home who accused him of embezzlement and also Queen Anne’s resentment at the increasingly haughty demeanour of Marlborough’s wife Sarah – who had previously been one of the queen’s closest confidantes.

He was restored to favour soon enough though and died in 1722 aged 72. He is buried at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire which wasn’t finished until 10 years after his death but was where his descendants – including Winston – were born.

The fame of the Duke of Marlborough and his victory at Blenheim are only imperfectly remembered now, eclipsed by the likes of Wellington and Montgomery and the battles of Waterloo, the Somme and Arnhem.


Yet his tale would have been bread and butter to the men who sailed to make a new life in New Zealand in the 18th and 19th centuries and when looking for a name for their new town they would have gone for one that to them spoke of strength, victory and British fortitude.

That said, the origin of the town’s name merits barely more than a scant sentence, on the City of Blenheim’s website.

“Blenheim is named after the Battle of Blenheim (1704), where troops led by John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough defeated a combined French and Bavarian force.”

No story behind who chose the name. One man? A collective vote? Does no one wish to know how and why a town in the antipodes is named after a battlefield in Germany?

Who Marlborough was and what he achieved is unknown to most who gravitate towards the name in supermarkets or wine lists and often forgotten even by those who do know about him.

On the other hand, it may be a shame he is not widely remembered in his own right but perhaps the fact his name has found further fame through wine (which he no doubt would have enjoyed) is recompense enough.

Time marches on, however. Even the poet Robert Southey appeared to muse on the transient nature of history when he imagined an inhabitant of that little German hamlet telling his grandchildren about the battle.

“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.”

Previously: How the Finnish drinks industry perfected the art of the Molotov Cocktail.

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