Marlborough Drift: The Dallying Duke

Marlborough Drift: The Dallying Duke

Churchill punctures a myth

(Updat­ed from 2015.) This his­tor­i­cal niche site is exer­cised over mis­quotes and tall tales about Win­ston Churchill that bedi­zen the Internet—by every­body from sports fig­ures to authors and politi­cians (see “Churchillian Drift”). They cov­er every­thing and every­body from his ances­tor Marl­bor­ough on up. (See also “Fake Quotes” herein.)

They range from ““Suc­cess is not final, fail­ure is not fatal: it is the courage to con­tin­ue that counts” (Fred Tilton said that, but Churchill didn’t) to the fic­tion that Alexan­der Flem­ing twice saved Churchill’s life.

But here’s an amus­ing exam­ple of Churchill him­self destroy­ing a Churchill myth—about that ear­ly fore­bear, John Churchill, First Duke of Marl­bor­ough. Ref­er­ence is to the ear­ly pages of Marl­bor­ough: His Life and Times, vol. 1.

Barbara Palmer

Bar­bara Palmer, Duchess of Cleve­land, 1640-1709. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

At the begin­ning of 1671 John Churchill was enjoy­ing the com­pa­ny of Bar­bara Palmer, First Duchess of Cleve­land. She was twen­ty-nine, he twen­ty. Win­ston Churchill writes:

Affec­tions, affini­ties, and attrac­tions were com­bined. Desire walked with oppor­tu­ni­ty, and nei­ther was denied. John almost imme­di­ate­ly became her lover, and for more than three years this wan­ton and joy­ous cou­ple shared plea­sures and hazards…not sev­ered until the dawn of his love for Sarah Jen­nings [lat­er his Duchess] in 1675.

“You are a rascal, but I forgive you”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly or for­tu­nate­ly (we report, you decide), the love­ly Bar­bara had also excit­ed the pas­sions of King Charles II, the prod­uct of which were sev­er­al of Barbara’s chil­dren. Churchill continues:

Two of the adven­tures of the lovers are well known. The first [is] that, being sur­prised by Charles in the Duchess’s bed­room, John saved her honour—or what remained of it—by jump­ing from the win­dow, a con­sid­er­able height, into the court­yard below. For this feat, delight­ed at his dar­ing and address, she pre­sent­ed him with £5000.

The sec­ond anec­dote is attrib­uted to the French Ambas­sador, Bar­il­lon. The Duke of Buck­ing­ham, he says, gave a hun­dred guineas to one of his wait­ing-women to be well informed of the intrigue. He knew that Churchill would be one evening at a cer­tain hour in Barbara’s apart­ments. He brought the King to the spot.

The lover was hid­den in the Duchess’s cup­board (she was not Duchess till 1670). After hav­ing prowled about the cham­ber the King, much upset, asked for sweets and liqueurs. His mis­tress declared that the key of the cup­board was lost. The King replied that he would break down the door.

On this she opened the door, and fell on her knees on one side while Churchill, dis­cov­ered, knelt on the oth­er. The King said to Churchill, “Go; you are a ras­cal, but I for­give you because you do it to get your bread.”

Churchill’s take

Now Win­ston Churchill loved a good fable as well as the next fel­low. When his lit­er­ary col­lab­o­ra­tor Bill Deakin chal­lenged a well-known myth in his His­to­ry of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples, Churchill declared: “At times of cri­sis, myths have their his­tor­i­cal impor­tance.” But he was hav­ing no non­sense about his ances­tor John Churchill:

It is a good sto­ry, and the dou­ble-bar­relled insult is very char­ac­ter­is­tic of Charles. But is it true? Bar­il­lon, who did not him­self arrive in Eng­land till Sep­tem­ber 1677, prob­a­bly got it from his pre­de­ces­sor, Courtin. He fix­es the date as 1667….

Here is a fine expo­sure of these gos­sips. There can be lit­tle doubt, as we have shown, that noth­ing of this kind can have occurred before 1671. It is there­fore one of those good sto­ries invent­ed long after­wards and fas­tened, as so many are, on well-known figures.

Churchill was cor­rect­ly pre­dict­ing exact­ly what has hap­pened to him on the Internet—a medi­um he nev­er dreamed of.

Marlborough Drift

We have dwelt here­in on false­hoods known as Churchillian Drift. File this one under Marl­bor­ough Drift.

Churchill was nev­er­the­less under no illu­sions about the faults of his ances­tor. “What a downy bird he was,” he wrote his wife in 1935…

He will always stoop to con­quer. His long appren­tice­ship as a courtier had taught him to bow and scrape and to put up with the sec­ond or third best if he could get no bet­ter. He had far less pride than the aver­age man.

More Marlboroughh

Marl­bor­ough: His Life and Times for Gift Giv­ing,” 2023.

“The Eleventh Duke of Marl­bor­ough 1926-2014,” 2015.

Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project:

Anna Swartz: “Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples: Queen Anne and Marl­bor­ough,” 2022.

Andrew Roberts: Marl­bor­ough: In It, Churchill ‘Laid the Basis for His Own Great­ness,'” 2019.

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