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On this day 1704…Marlborough fights at Blenheim

The town of Blenheim in the famous winemaking province of Marlborough were named after a general and the battle he fought in Germany on this day in 1704.

Just as Australia’s Barossa Valley was named after a victory in the Napoleonic Wars, so New Zealand’s most famous region was named in honour of a general and the victory he won on the banks of the Danube on the other side of the world.

The campaign and subsequent battle that took place in Germany were part of a pan-European conflict known as the War of Spanish Succession as it began over which European royalty, the French Bourbons or the Austrian Habsburgs, would claim the throne of Spain vacated by the painfully inbred Charles II – the last of the Spanish Habsburgs – who died without issue (unsurprisingly given his lineage).

Louis XIV wanted to place his grandson Philip on the throne to create an all powerful Franco-Spanish-Bourbon-Catholic power block, while the Austrians claimed the throne through their shared ancestry with the Spanish half of their family back to the 15th century duchess, Mary of Burgundy.

Beginning in 1700, by 1704 the war had turned alarmingly against Austria and her allies and Vienna was menaced by a Franco-Bavarian army. If Vienna fell, Austria would be knocked out of the war and Louis would win, claiming Spain as part of the peace terms.

Although based in the Low Countries, the dashing Sir John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, was quick to realise the danger and determined to rescue the situation.

Evading the French army under Marshal Villeroi that was shadowing him through Belgium, he “sped” south as fast as possible, marching 20,000 men and their equipment 250 miles in a mere five weeks – an extraordinary pace for the time.

His route took him past some of Germany’s best vineyard regions, particularly those of the Rhine and good relations with the various Dukes and Electors that controlled them allowed Marlborough to arrange for supplies of food and the local wine to provide for his men, to keep them properly nourished even as he set a blistering pace.

So fast in fact that news of his approach made the previously confident French army pause and allowed another Austrian army under Prince Eugene of Savoy to link up with Marlborough’s mongrel British-German-Dutch force. The two commanders met at the local tavern in the village of Mundelsheim on 10 June. It was the beginning of a formidable military partnership.

The French, now faced with a combined Allied army began to fall back, Marlborough and Eugene hot on their heels. They caught the Franco-Bavarian force at Blenheim on 13 August and the result was a furious battle that ended in a complete victory for Churchill and Eugene.

The formerly invincible French army – or more to the point their reputation for invincibility – was smashed and the Bavarian army effectively ceased to exist.

Thirty thousand French and Bavarian troops became casualties and 28 regiments and 18 generals were captured. Marlborough scribbled news of the great victory on the back of a tavern bill and sent it to his wife, Sarah, with instructions to tell Queen Anne the good news.

Among the many honours he earned with the victory was a grant to build a “suitable home” which resulted in Blenheim Palace, home of the Churchill family to this day and birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.

Now to New Zealand. The place where Blenheim now stands was first settled by Europeans in 1852 and properly laid out in 1856 by which time it was expanding quickly. It was originally known as “Beaver” because it flooded on a regular basis and during one particularly severe inundation the settlers were forced to squat on the highest bunks in their huts or on their roofs “like a lot of beavers in a dam.”

Originally linked to what is now the neighbouring province of Nelson, the settlers asked for a split that was granted and put into effect on 1 November 1859.

As the 1966 edition of the Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand relates: “Governor Sir Thomas Gore Browne chose the name Marlborough when the new province was created in 1859 and, evidently, selected the name Blenheim to commemorate the victory of the Duke of Marlborough over the French in 1704.”

In doing so he helped create a corner of the world, not least New Zealand, which reads like a roll call of British military commanders with Marlborough, Nelson, Wellington, Havelock and Picton all clustered loosely around Cook Strait.

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