Marlborough: England’s Fragile Genius by Richard Holmes - review by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson

Battler for Britain

Marlborough: England’s Fragile Genius


HarperPress 512pp £25

John, Duke of Marlborough, was captain-general of the European coalition, which frustrated Louis XIV’s plan to create a French superstate and dominate the Continent, and was decisive in turning Britain from a marginal power into a great one. He has always aroused passion and controversy – among the politicians and the public during his lifetime, and among historians since. He was given a ferocious drubbing by Macaulay, who sometimes relied on biased and dodgy sources. Macaulay in turn was savaged by Winston Churchill, whose huge biography of his forebear put the Duke back on his pedestal. Then along came Trevelyan, with his three-volume England under Queen Anne. He thought ‘Macaulay was wrong in his reading of Marlborough’, but added that Churchill has no right to call Macaulay ‘a liar’. Trevelyan, it seems to me, got the balance about right, and his book, which I have been rereading while preparing this review, is a masterpiece. 

But with such a major figure, and such an exciting period, there is always room for more, especially since new letters and papers, and better transcriptions of old ones, are always appearing. Richard Holmes is one of our best and most experienced military historians. With a particular interest in the

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend