It is in the nature of the aristocracy to trade on ancestral connections. Having previously written a history of his family and of Althorp, their stately home, Charles Spencer has now come up with a book exalting another ancestor, John Churchill , first Duke of Marlborough. This in itself, to say nothing of the author’s own brushes with incident and trappings of celebrity, will be enough for many soi-disant serious historians to dismiss it as a piece of pulp non- fiction. In fact, Blenheim: Battle for Europe is a lucid work of popular history that aims to re-engage the general public with what Spencer argues is a battle whose importance has been largely forgotten.
How well recognised the battle – as opposed to the palace – of Blenheim is today may be debated. It probably rates somewhere in the public consciousness above Fontenoy and below Naseby. There is much that might be said on the preoccupations of the National Curriculum or Channel Five, but it is not clear that their neglectfulness has done for the great battle, the three hundredth anniversary of which is marked by the publication of this book. Fought on the Danube and involving troops from several great European nations, it is not now especially commemorated on the Continent either. In any case, Blenheim only exists in Oxfordshire. The site of the battle, in Bavaria, is actually called Blindheim (‘village of the blind’) , and those mainland Europeans who do know about it refer to it as the battle of Hochstadt. Many would doubtless agree with the assessment of Robert Southey, whose poem of two hundred years ago, ‘The Battle of Blenheim’, mocked the ‘famous victory’, the point of which an aged grandfather could not recall.