Marlborough: England’s Fragile Genius

This is a comprehensive account of the often opportunistic life of one of England's greatest generals, says Julian Humphrys  

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Reviewed by: Julian Humphrys
Author: Richard Holmes
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Price (RRP): £9.99 (paperback)

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The first duke of Marlborough (1650–1722) rose from relatively humble origins to become arguably Britain’s greatest ever general. A master of coalition warfare, a superb strategist and a brilliant tactician, he inflicted a series of crushing defeats upon France, the military superpower of the early 18th century. In doing so he made the British infantry the most respected in Europe.

Yet he remains a controversial character who has divided historians. Admired by Churchill, vilified by Macaulay, Marlborough seldom missed an opportunity to feather his own nest and spent large parts of his life on what Holmes calls “the margins of treason”. He owed his initial rise to the patronage of James II, deserted him in 1688, but kept his political options open by maintaining a covert correspondence with the exiled Jacobite court.

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Holmes has produced a balanced account of a fascinating and many-faceted life. As you might expect from Britain’s foremost military historian, Holmes is most assured when describing Marlborough’s campaigns although I would have welcomed a little more than the brief discussion Holmes gives us of Marlborough’s military swan song: the supervision, albeit from behind a desk, of the suppression of the abortive Jacobite Rising of 1715.