John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, K.G. (1650-1727)


The 1st Duke of Marlborough


The story of the first Duke of Marlborough and his wife is of interest to anyone who studies British military history, royal political history, or the peerage.

The first Duke of Marlborough was a self-made man. He was an absolutely brilliant general who never lost a battle, and has been much compared to Wellington. Marlborough's origins were more humble than Wellington's, though; his father was a knight (Sir Winston Churchill) and he did not have the benefits of belonging to the nobility or receiving an education like the young Wellington did.

Marlborough was in charge of the army under William III, Anne, and later George I, and made his mark during the war of the Spanish Succession. His early victories prompted Queen Anne to reward him with a dukedom in December 1702.  His glorious victory near the town of Blenheim in Bavaria induced Queen Anne to reward him with a palace (at government expense), which was to be called Blenheim.

Marlborough's wife, Sarah, was a formidable woman who also happened to be best friends with the Queen. Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1744) She was no meek stereotype of a wife, and theirs was definitely a life-long, passionate love match. After Marlborough's death, Sarahcompleted Blenheim herself -- and she hated Blenheim, so she built herself a townhouse, Marlborough House, which later reverted to the crown and was the residence of the Prince of Wales during Victoria's reign.

Anyway, about the title. The Marlboroughs had two sons. The younger died while very young, and the elder was known by the courtesy title Baron Churchill from the age of two, when his father was created Earl of Marlborough. In December 1702, when his father was created Duke of Marlborough and Marquess of Blandford, he became known as the Marquess of Blandford. He was attending Cambridge that year, and while there, in February of 1703, he caught smallpox and died. He was 16. The Marlboroughs, of course, were devastated. They had four daughters, but no surviving son. All they had worked for seemed destined to slip into obscurity.(115)

A few years later, on 21 December 1706, Parliament passed an Act which noted that the Duke's titles and honours had been awarded by earlier letters patent "to him and the heirs male of his body" (boilerplate letters patent language).  The Act amended the letters patent so that, "failing the heirs male of his body, [the titles and honours would pass] to Lady Harriet, his eldest daughter, wife of Francis Godolphin [later 2nd Earl of Godolphin], and the heirs male of her body." Failing the heirs male of her body, then to her sister, Anne (2nd daughter), Countess of Sunderland, and the heirs male of her body. Failing the heirs male of her body, then to her sister, Elizabeth (3rd daughter), Countess of Bridgewater, and the heirs male of her body. Failing the heirs male of her body, then to her sister, Mary (4th daughter), later Duchess of Montagu, and the heirs male of her body. After an allowance for future daughters of the Duke and their heirs male, the titles will go to the first daughter of Lady Harriet, and her heirs male; failing them, to the second daughter of Lady Harriet and her heirs male, etc.; and so on through each of the lineal descendants of each of the Duke's daughters; and lastly:

All persons to whom the said honours shall descend shall have the same precedence as was then enjoyed by the said Duke in virtue of the said letters patent bearing date 14 December (1702) I Anne.(116)

Confused yet?

The curious thing about this, in my opinion, is that the daughters of the Duke stand in the place of sons, and are treated exactly like sons. In fact, Henrietta's only son predeceased her. But by the terms of the Act, the title did not pass to her eldest surviving daughter. Instead, it passed to the eldest son of her sister, Anne, Lady Sunderland (Anne having also predeceased Henrietta). It has been in the direct male line ever since, passing from father to son.

This is contrary to the way that both the English monarchy and the ancient baronies work. In those, the female children of an elder son inherit before the sons of a younger son. Thus Victoria inherited, even though she still had several paternal uncles who were younger than her father. The Electorate of Hanover, however, passed to her eldest uncle -- not, I think, because the Electorate absolutely could not be held by a woman -- but because their monarchy went through every son and grandson of a monarch before it considered granddaughters.

At any rate, the Marlborough letters patent are amended so that they are unique. If there is anything else even remotely similar in the history of the peerage, I'd love to hear about it.


Explanation of Dates

I got my dates from four sources: Marlborough's Duchess by Louis Kroenenberger (Knopf, 1958); Blenheim Revisited by Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd (Beaufort Books 1985); Debrett's Peerage, and a peerage database I downloaded from the net which I am correcting and enlarging as time permits (yes, I am insane). When writing my post I actually only referenced the first book above, and did not fire up my database to double-check what all the other sources say, which of course I should have done and I shall give myself 20 lashes with a wet noodle as penance for this lapse. The original peerage database actually said 1702. All my other sources say 1703. But given the following mess, it is not surprising that a biographer would get confused and report it as 1704.

There are a couple of things going on here, I suspect. Between 1583 and 1752, there is this little annoying problem called "Old Style Dates." England and her colonies finally adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. Before then, the official start date of the year was March 25. So March 24, 1702 was followed the next day by March 25, 1703. This is very weird to us in the 20th century. It results in confusion when talking about dates between January 1st and March 24th within this range of years. It is further exacerbated by the fact that well before the official change in 1752 of the new year from March 25th to January 1st, the "New Style" new year was becoming increasing popular. Furthermore, because of the error of the Julian calendar there was a discrepancy between the actual dates in each calendar.

So I think that what we have here for the death date of Blandford is probably 20 February 1702/3. 20 February 1702/3 is given in the peerage database. February 1703 is given in Blenheim Revisited. I do not have the reference from Debrett's in front of me and will have to double-check it (and it is very good about reporting Old Style dates correctly). In Marlborough's Duchess, which I referenced primarily while writing my previous post, the story is given that Blandford went from Eton to Cambridge in the fall of 1702. Let me quote it at length (it is quite similar to the story told in your biography of Lady Masham):

(pp. 110-111.)  It goes on to describe the great grief of both parents, and their hope that even as they buried Blandford and John sailed for Holland that Sarah was pregnant with an heir (she was 42).

To give further context to this event, Anne became Queen on 8 March 1701/2 and was crowned 23 April 1702. At that time, John was the Earl of Marlborough. Anne made him Captain General of the British armies abroad, and on the fifth day of her reign she gave him the Order of the Garter. Sarah became Groom of the Stole, Mistress of the Robes, Comptroller of the Privy Purse, and Ranger of Windsor Park (the last for life). Her two married daughters became Ladies of the Bedchamber. On May 4th England declared war on France, and John went to Holland to take command of the forces and begin a campaign against France and the German principalities who were its allies (mostly the Catholic ones). His campaign of that summer of 1702 successfully expelled the French from the Maas and the Lower Rhine (although he considered it painfully inadequate) and the Queen began hinting that she wanted to give him a dukedom. He returned to England for the winter and was created Marquess of Blandford and Duke of Marlborough on 14 December 1702 (Sarah said she didn't want it). Their son, now Marquess of Blandford by courtesy, died the following 20 February 1702/3. (The famous Battle of Blenheim did not occur until 13 August 1704.) So you might say it was an eventful year for the Marlboroughs.

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Titles of Nobility In Britan
Peerage Basics
Hereditary Peerages, including Royal Titles
Life Peerages
Courtesy Titles
Rights and Privileges of Peers
A Peeress "in her own right"
Dowager Peeresses
Entails, Marriage Settlements, and Dower
Correct Forms of Address
The 1st Duke of Marlborough
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