CHURCHILL, George (1654-1710), of Windsor Little Park

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1685 - 1708
1708 - 8 May 1710

Family and Education

b. 20 Feb. 1654, 3rd but 2nd surv. s. of Sir Winston Churchill of Minterne Magna; bro. of Charles* and John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough.  unm. 1s. illegit. (?by Mary Cooke).

Offices Held

Lt. RN 1666–8, 1672–4, capt. 1678–93, adm. 1702–8; ensign of drags. Duke of York’s regt. 1676, lt. 1678–9; capt. King’s Drags. 1685–8; cornet and maj. 3 Life Gds. 1691–2; lt.-col. by 1692; groom of bedchamber to Prince George of Denmark 1689–1708; commr. management of Prince’s revenue 1704; ld. of Admiralty Oct. 1699– Jan. 1702, member of council May 1702–28 Oct. 1708.

Freeman, Hertford 1698, Portsmouth 1702.[footnote]

Dep. ranger, Windsor Little Park 1702–d.; ranger, Greenwich Park 1707–d.; elder bro. Trinity House 1704–d., master 1705–7.


Overshadowed by his brother’s achievements, Churchill has traditionally been regarded by admirers of Marlborough as a thorn in the Duke’s side, and as a liability at the Admiralty or in the House; only naval historians have admired his administrative talents and successes. Concentration on major character flaws, such as his haughtiness and undoubtedly sharp tongue, as well as his increasingly strident Toryism, have obscured both the admiral’s contribution to the war effort and the true nature of his relationship with Marlborough, which seems to have been a good deal closer than is sometimes assumed. Unfortunately Churchill still remains something of an enigma, because his actions were often deeply ambiguous and because the Blenheim archive contains none of his private papers: he can often be assessed only through the unflattering and perhaps distorting evidence of his numerous enemies.1

Despite an assertion that he never held any command in the army, Churchill’s early military career straddled both naval and land forces, and he was usually referred to by the rank of colonel, which may be recognition of either his rank in the militia or his lieutenant-colonelcy in the regular army. Indeed, his dual career may explain his later advocacy of the utility of marine troops. He fought in the second and third Dutch wars, and was subsequently given a commission in his brother’s regiment, though this may have been primarily an honorary appointment. If he did serve on land he must have led an amphibious existence, for during the 1670s he returned periodically to the sea and was therefore excused from annual army musters. Although recommended as a Court candidate for James II’s proposed Parliament in 1688, he was one of the first to join William at the Revolution, going so far as to read the Prince’s declaration to his crew, and was described as ‘much devoted’ to William’s service. He was nevertheless sent to the Tower in 1689 for having charged a price for convoying merchantmen.2

Returned again for St. Albans in 1690 on his brother’s interest, Churchill was marked by Lord Carmarthen in March (Sir Thomas Osborne†) as a Tory and a Court supporter, and later that year probably as a supporter of Carmarthen in the event of a Commons’ attack upon his ministerial position. Churchill commanded ships at the battles of Bantry Bay and Beachy Head, and came up for promotion as a flag officer: both he and Matthew Aylmer* were recommended by Edward Russell* because, Queen Mary reported to William, ‘he says nothing has been done for them, tho’ they both were trusted when you came over and have been ever very true to your interest’. Churchill’s was the first name on the list of candidates, but his advancement was blocked by Carmarthen who, hostile to Russell and resentful of Marlborough, protested that George ‘would be called the flag by favour as his brother [Charles] is called the general of favour’. Marlborough in turn complained that everything was decided ‘by partiality and faction’. Churchill accordingly received no preferment, prompting accusations in 1691 that the King had failed to protect ‘the first sea officer that gave up his ship to him . . . against the partialities of party in the House’. According to one report, however, Churchill did not go entirely unrewarded: in February 1692 it was said that he had the promise of a lieutenancy in his brother’s regiment, but that the King subsequently decided to ‘give him a pension of £300 a year and he is in consideration thereof to quit the land service and betake himself wholly to his command at sea’. If this is so, and his future dedication to the navy as well as his army pension suggests that it was, his categorization by Robert Harley* in April 1691 as a Country supporter may have owed less to personal resentment of his own treatment than to his brother’s alienation from Carmarthen’s administration, which itself derived in part from a feeling of being undervalued. The analysis may in any case have been rather academic, for Churchill was on active service (in May recapturing 16 merchant ships previously lost to French privateers).3

By early 1692 Marlborough’s discontent and frustrations had pushed him into secret dealings with the Jacobites, and the government’s discovery of the intrigues threatened to unhinge his brother’s career. It was reported in January that George had surrendered his commission, though Churchill was in fact promoted at this time to first lieutenant, and in May Secretary Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) wrote to Russell to ‘encourage [Churchill] in his duty notwithstanding the misfortune of his brother’ and to tell him that his good behaviour would increase the Queen’s ‘good opinion of him’. Russell duly passed on the message and Churchill in turn assured Mary that he would never ‘give the least cause to bring himself under any suspicion of want of duty and loyalty, but will prosecute her Majesty’s interest while he lives’. Yet despite this profession of allegiance, a few days later Mary ordered Russell to discharge him because the government had received ‘such evidence against my Lord Marlborough . . . that the Queen could not think fit to continue Churchill in so great a post’. Russell replied with a glowing testimonial on Churchill’s behalf:

I confess I have a great tenderness for the gentleman as my friend, but that does not in the least way [influence] me in this matter; whatever his brother’s faults are . . . I will answer for Capt. Churchill he knows nothing of them, and will as much disapprove of them. Thus far I will venture to say and engage for him, if her Majesty will please to employ him, that his integrity and duty to her Majesty’s government will be equal to the faithfullest subject in England, which upon the knowledge and long experience I have had of him makes me very ready to pawn the little credit I have for his performance of what I write.

Fortunately Russell had ‘not said anything to him of his misfortune’, for Nottingham consequently revoked Churchill’s notice of dismissal. Given his own conversations with Jacobite agents at this time, Russell’s support can hardly be considered in retrospect to have been a ringing vindication, but it was evidently enough to excuse Churchill on this occasion and he continued on active service. His part in the victory at La Hogue in May, under Russell’s command, can therefore only have strengthened his position, and he was accordingly rewarded with the grant of a wreck in the Shannon. Even so, Churchill was still sensitive about his lack of promotion, and Nottingham was warned in July that he and other commanders would be ‘highly disgusted’ at the promotion of the junior David Mitchell over their heads.4

Russell and Churchill’s friendship at this time is remarkable in the light of their later antipathy and divergent political views. Yet they had similar forthright characters and were tied by bonds of naval camaraderie and experience; moreover, Russell shared Marlborough’s antipathy to Carmarthen, making George a natural ally against the administration. These factors, rather than allegiances of party or place, explain Churchill’s conduct in the 1692–3 session. His co-operation with Russell is clearly evident from their both having drafted schemes for ensuring adequate convoying for merchant shipping, and naval historians have pointed to the similarity between Churchill’s ideas and those which were finally adopted. The fact that Paul Foley I was the third Member to write a proposal suggests that Churchill may have been close to leading Country critics of the conduct of the war, and in a position to supply them with information concerning the misconduct of naval affairs after La Hogue. Churchill certainly helped to spearhead the attack. On 21 Nov. he referred to the ‘strange’ management of the fleet, alleging that men had been ‘preferred to commands in it no ways fit for it’. This scarcely veiled outburst of resentment against the system of preferment met with a snide remark from Sir Robert Rich, 2nd Bt., about Churchill’s earlier extortion for convoying merchants, though George replied that the House should now be equal in its punishments, and he clearly favoured an address requesting the King to put the Admiralty into able and loyal hands. Such self-advertisement irritated the Admiralty lords, who summoned him on 25 Nov. to explain his charges against unsuitable commanders and his expression that ‘some persons in the fleet were cowards’. The following day Churchill therefore complained to the House about what he regarded as an infringement of the privilege of free speech. ‘I know not that I am to answer anywhere for what I say here but to the House’, he remarked, declaring that he had denied the Admiralty’s right of questioning him on oath until he had the direction of his fellow Members. Churchill was an unlikely victim of oppression and when it emerged that the Board had not insisted on an oath, and that he may well have repeated his remarks outside the chamber, MPs of all shades began to wonder what the fuss was about. The Tory Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.*, could ‘hardly understand the accusation’, while the Whig Richard Hampden I failed to ‘see how privilege is concerned at all’, and although Foley stood up to suggest there was a principle at stake, the mood of the House was clearly bemused, restless and unsympathetic. Churchill wisely let the matter drop, though not before Sir Robert Rich had shot another barbed remark in his direction.5

On 20 Dec. the simmering rivalry between Russell and Nottingham boiled over at a joint conference, to which Churchill was named. Churchill supported Russell’s explanation of his actions with a convincing first-hand account, assuring the House that he knew the admiral’s protestations to be true, ‘he being near Mr Russell in the time of action’. On 2 Jan. 1693 Churchill was appointed to the conference committee relating to the failure the previous summer to follow up the victory at sea, presumably with the intention of further clearing Russell’s name and renewing his own attack on the Admiralty. Nine days later he again supported the idea of an address advising the King to constitute a commission comprised of men of ‘known experience in maritime affairs’. Luttrell noted Churchill to have been

very zealous for it and reflected much on the understanding of the commissioners of the Admiralty and their want of experience, and plainly said they did not understand their business and instanced several particulars, and therefore they ought to be turned out.

He also charged the Admiralty with having ‘broken the public faith of the nation’ for ‘not observing the King’s proclamation which promised that seamen should not be turned over’. Although Lord Falkland (Anthony Carey*) answered some of the charges, and Rich suggested that Churchill himself was ‘faulty’, he pushed his point to division, telling in favour of such an address. Despite his failure to win over the House on that occasion, he maintained the attack, securing (along with Russell, who had now joined Marlborough’s faction at the ‘Cockpit’) nomination to the committee to inquire into the lack of orders to intercept the French fleet. On 11 Feb., listed as Capt. Churchill, he was also the first-named to the second-reading committee for the bill to prohibit trade with France.6

Although preferment was one of Churchill’s principal aims, neither his opposition to the Admiralty commissioners nor his defence of Russell advanced his career. Indeed, Churchill may have feared that Russell had simply used him for his own ends, for he now blamed Russell for hindering his advancement. According to George Byng*, himself a one-time friend of Churchill who became a rival because of friendship with Russell, William requested the admiral to recommend a new flag officer: Marlborough was out of favour and the King had ‘resolved not to make his brother the admiral’ even though Churchill was the most senior officer. But Churchill resented the snub and

was extremely disappointed not to be the flag and thought it entirely owing to Admiral Russell as having recommended Mr Aylmer to his prejudice, and tho’ he was made sensible how much he was out of the question, yet from that time they had a dislike to each other.

The incident was important in shaping Churchill’s future conduct. In the short term, it prompted his resignation in February 1693 from the fleet, beginning a five-year period of political exile. In the longer term, his own discontent ironically forced him into closer alliance with Marlborough, even though it had been his association with Marlborough that had spoiled his career. Churchill’s resentment against Russell and Aylmer was thereafter to fester into a desire for revenge that would erupt on several occasions. The affair also shows how easily political groupings in the early 1690s could be affected by personal antipathies and frustrated ambitions, for the announcement of Aylmer’s appointment was made after Russell’s dismissal as admiral, so that Churchill’s misfortune was as much a reflection of the admiral’s impotence and declining influence as a sign of hesitant support.7

Churchill’s sense of outrage at his treatment by King, ministers and friend alike, as well as his loyalties to his brother and the ‘Cockpit interest’ around Prince George and Anne, encouraged him to adopt the politics of protest. He was marked on a list compiled by Samuel Grascome in the spring of 1693 as a placeman but not a Court supporter, though he preferred to adopt a position of sullen inactivity rather than outright opposition. During the 1694–5 session Churchill was included upon Henry Guy’s* list of ‘friends’, probably in connexion with the Commons’ attack upon Guy. Still listed in 1696 as likely to oppose the Court on 31 Jan. over the proposed council of trade, and as having voted in March against fixing the price of guineas at 22s., he nevertheless rallied to the King’s cause after the assassination attempt, and signed the Association. Indeed he followed Marlborough’s lead in pushing for the attainder of Sir John Fenwick† (who had made accusations against the Duke), and, with an unseemly haste to prevent the prisoner from revealing any embarrassing secrets, cried ‘Damn him! Thrust a billet down his throat. Dead men tell not tales.’8

By 1698 Marlborough had patched up relations with William, and in September Churchill, who was expected to follow his brother’s lead, was included in a list of placemen and marked as a Court placeman in a comparison of the old and new Commons. Yet George also had his own agenda to pursue against Russell, now Lord Orford. On 2 Feb. 1699 he attacked Orford’s friend Henry Priestman* by exposing the differences between the latter’s corrupt attempts to obtain a salary and the legitimate rewards for those who had commanded large squadrons; and L’Hermitage noted him to be Orford’s most zealous critic. On one occasion Churchill sneered that ‘he had known other ad[mirals] take diet [and] drink but not set in on the public account’, and though magnanimous to admit that Orford had ‘done a great deal of good’ he also pointed out that he had ‘got himself great riches’. Although Churchill was persuaded by his brother to absent himself from the close vote on 15 Mar. against Orford, L’Hermitage observed the effect of his return to the House on 22 Mar. ‘en faisant changer ce qui avait été décidé’, for the committee of the whole passed resolutions critical of Orford’s joint tenure of the navy treasurership and a place on the Admiralty commission. The incident shows both Marlborough’s influence over his brother when the occasion demanded, and the advantage for the Duke to have Churchill firing at one of the Junto leaders without himself having to descend to the level of open party warfare. Given this alliance of interest between George and his brother, the appearance of Churchill’s name on what was probably a list of those opposed to a standing army seems problematic, and though he did not oppose the disbanding bill in the crucial division of 18 Jan. it may be that he had once more merely abstained on the issue rather than positively cast his vote against the Court. Moreover, it may have suited Marlborough’s purposes for his brother to be seen in alliance with Harley and Godolphin, especially at a time when the Junto administration was beginning to disintegrate. Unfortunately, Churchill’s other activity in the House sheds little light on his political views at this time. On 21 Feb. he was named to a drafting committee for a private naturalization bill, which he guided through the Commons on behalf of the Boscawen family; and on 14 Mar. he was named to a drafting committee for a bill to repeal a clause in the Act prohibiting trade with France, concerning penalties for the embezzlement of prizes. He presented the bill on 21 Mar. but took no further recorded part in the session after being granted leave of absence on 4 Apr. for the recovery of his health.9

Having earlier suffered because of his brother’s disgrace, Churchill benefited in 1699 from Marlborough’s return to favour. By mid-July the lords justices received orders ‘to report their opinions how G. Churchill may retrieve his post in the fleet without injury to those in command’. As Vernon explained to the King, the problem was one of precedence and longstanding ill-will, for Churchill would

pretend to be admiral of the blue, which gives a rank above Aylmer and Mitchell, who are only vice-admirals of the red. His pretensions are well grounded, so far as he was a senior captain to the other two, and perhaps had a hardship put upon him that kept him from rising gradually and younger officers were preferred before him.

Mitchell therefore offered to allow Churchill to take precedence, but Aylmer was not so compliant and threatened to resign. Vernon discussed the matter with Marlborough, and assured him that his brother would ‘have right done him’, though the secretary of state feared the likely ‘clamour’ should Churchill be preferred, for he did not know how ‘the Admiralty would be able to answer it if they did so unprecedented a thing as to make one admiral of a squadron who had never had any inferior flag before’. Vernon suggested the compromise that Churchill might have a place on the Admiralty commission instead, and Marlborough agreed, though he ‘wished that his brother might not be disgusted when he expected to be preferred’. Vernon thought it prudent that while the King made up his mind he should tell Churchill ‘that the delay was not out of unkindness to him, but he may hope for your Majesty’s favour, which will likewise engage him to deserve it’. The King agreed to Vernon’s expedient, perhaps because the Secretary warned that Marlborough thought it would be ‘the utmost mortification to his brother if it be given away from him’, and Churchill was appointed as a commissioner of the Admiralty in October 1699, much to the chagrin of Orford.10

Churchill was uncharacteristically quiet for the next two years. Though marked as a placeman on a list of interests drawn up in early 1700, his Toryism still prevented him, on occasion, from following his brother’s public policy. On 14 Dec. 1699, for example, he slipped out of the House to avoid voting in favour of Burnet, even though Marlborough appeared to be actively concerned for the bishop, but it is difficult to know how far Marlborough resented or even encouraged such independence. Certainly the Duke cannot have been unduly concerned to see Churchill continuing to cause problems for Orford and Somers over the Kidd affair. In early April 1700, when William perhaps had already decided to dismiss the lord chancellor, Churchill wrecked the scheme hammered out by the parliamentary managers to avoid discussion of the manner of Kidd’s examination. No sooner had Vernon announced the ministry’s plans to ensure that Kidd was examined privately than Churchill stood up to request specific directions for how the Admiralty should act when Kidd was in their custody. ‘The House thought there was some trick at first in laying this before them’, and Vernon ‘thought they would have taken no notice of it at all, and certainly they would not if Churchill had not been talking with some of them beforehand.’ It was the first indication of Churchill’s real skill as a parliamentary tactician in his own right, and ominous for the Junto because he was part of the Admiralty’s inquiry into the Kidd affair.11

In February 1701 Churchill was listed among those thought likely to support the Court in agreeing with the committee of supply’s resolution to continue the ‘Great Mortgage’. During the 1701 Parliament Churchill continued his attack against Whig interests in the navy, being appointed on 28 Mar. to the inquiry into the conduct of Edward Whitaker, a former political radical who had obtained the post of Admiralty solicitor. Churchill also used his credit to shift responsibility for securing the navy from the Admiralty to the Ordnance office ‘because it could not be defended without a great land force’, and was listed by Harley with the Tories on an analysis of the 1701–2 Parliament. In January 1702 he voted for Harley in the Speakership election, and although Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony, Lord Ashley*) considered this to be an act against the King’s interest, Churchill may simply have been following Marlborough’s instructions since the Duke appears to have supported Harley’s candidature, and the admiral probably needed little encouragement to desert the Court candidate Sir Thomas Littleton, 3rd Bt., the Whig treasurer of the navy. It was reported that when Churchill was struck by illness shortly before the election of Speaker he declared that he would go to the House to vote for Mr Harley [even] if ‘he should die in the way’. Yet his opposition had serious repercussions. Later that month Lord Pembroke (Thomas Herbert†) was appointed lord admiral, thereby depriving Churchill of his post; indeed some suspected that Pembroke’s promotion had been urged by the Whigs with this result particularly in mind. Returned to the back benches, it is not surprising that Churchill favoured the motion of 26 Feb. 1702 vindicating the Commons’ proceedings in the impeachments of William’s ministers.12

Churchill’s political eclipse did not last long. King William died on 8 Mar. and Anne’s accession ushered in Churchill’s own reign of power, for he had long served as a groom of the bedchamber to Prince George, and had considerable personal influence over him. The combination of this unassailable interest at court, together with the favour shown to Marlborough, ensured Churchill’s promotion on 13 May as admiral of the red, replacing Aylmer who duly resigned. Contemporaries saw a certain rough justice in this, but sympathy was less forthcoming when Churchill became involved in a dispute over precedence with Mitchell, who was also destined for a place on the council, advising the new lord high admiral, Prince George, on naval affairs. Godolphin had

no sort of patience to think that a brother of Lord Marlborough’s should put the least difficulty or stop anything that is for the Queen’s service and the good of the country for any senseless pretension or interest of his own, which without knowing the particulars of I am inclined to believe he has no just right to.

Even the Queen seems to have thought Churchill unreasonable, but, ‘taking the opportunity of the influence he had over the Prince he was in an extraordinary manner preferred to be admiral of the blue’ on 6 May, and was thereby raised above Mitchell. Having achieved predominance, Churchill quickly assumed control of the newly constituted (and some thought unconstitutional) Admiralty council, for although a quorum of two was required, day-to-day business devolved into his hands. Respect for the Prince, who nominally headed affairs, and the unparliamentary nature of the council meant that Churchill was also in the enviable position of exercising power without apparent accountability.13

This did not mean, however, that before his official appointment on 22 May 1702 Churchill was above being questioned in the House as sharply as he had once probed the Junto. On 8 May he had delivered his department’s vindication in response to an inquiry into the discharge of seamen without pay, which he justified as a cost-cutting exercise designed to save the Treasury £300 a day. Sir Richard Cocks, 2nd Bt.*, nevertheless believed ‘this barbarous inhumanity was committed in order to disparage my Lord Halifax (Charles Montagu*) by reflecting on the Exchequer bills’ which the chancellor had set up. When he heard the full report on 24 May Cocks was sure that

Churchill and the Admiralty had discharged them in that base disgraceful manner on purpose if possible to bring more disgrace upon the author of the Exchequer bills by pretending that was the occasion they could not pay them off because there was no money, only Exchequer bills.

But the plan backfired when the committee concluded that money had been available and that Churchill had added dishonesty to his cruelty by lying about the instructions the Admiralty had received from the King. Finding he had been ‘betrayed’ by some members of his own board, Churchill made a clean breast of the affair, and though he insisted that no rules had been broken he agreed that in future seamen ‘should be discharged and paid at the same time and place’.14

Although increasingly enjoying the freedom for independent action, Churchill aided Marlborough’s land campaigns by his strong direction of the Admiralty, and still held his brother’s trust. Thus when, in late 1702, the proposal to grant a pension to Marlborough and his heirs ran into difficulties, Churchill was employed to help extricate the government from further embarrassment, a detailed piece of management with Harley and Godolphin that was successful in limiting the damage to the administration when Churchill conveyed the Duke’s willingness to accept a favourable address instead. Marlborough did, however, worry about Churchill’s ability to upset his colleagues, demonstrated by his quarrels with Sir Stafford Fairborne* and Byng, whose advancement he opposed because of the latter’s friendship with Orford. Thus when Rooke fell ill in May 1703, it was with some trepidation that the Duke contemplated his brother assuming command of the fleet. He was not ‘pleased at [George’s] going abroad. Not that I think he will do anything but what he should but that I am afraid there will be no opportunity for him to do anything that is good and then his enemies will attribute it to his want of will.’ Churchill went down to Portsmouth and raised his flag there, and although Rooke’s recovery meant that he ‘had an uneasy journey to no purpose’, Churchill continued to harbour ambitions to take control. Marlborough, however, confided that he would be ‘very much troubled’ to see his brother in charge, ‘for I know him to be of so violent a temper that he would disoblige everybody, which in my opinion would be very prejudicial to her Majesty’s service, which shall always be an argument with me against it’.15

Churchill’s offensive manner was beginning to cause embarrassment. In October 1703 Marlborough felt it necessary to apologize to his wife for the disrespect his brother had shown her, though he added somewhat disingenuously, ‘I do not flatter myself with having much power over him’. In February 1704 the Duke thought him ‘full of dissimulation’ and believed that ‘the advancement he desires would be to his own prejudice’; in the summer Marlborough was still warning the Duchess that she could not ‘be too much on your guard’ against his brother, ‘for he loves to do everything rather by a trick than by a plain, honest way’. Yet, despite his negative tone, the Duke may have been deliberately pointing to his brother’s faults in order to placate his wife, with whom George must have had very little in common apart from their ability to harbour grudges, and it may have continued to suit both Marlborough and Godolphin to exploit Churchill’s links with the High Tories. Certainly the admiral was still useful to them, and appears to have played a significant part that autumn in the management of the opposition to the Tack. Godolphin tried to ensure that Prince George’s servants attended for the vote, and had

likewise spoken to Mr Churchill to speak to him; he answers for Mr [Edward] Nicholas*, but not G[eorge] Clarke* [even though the latter described himself as the admiral’s good friend] nor Tom Conyers* . . . He has promised me also to speak to [Thomas] Hopson*, George St. Loe* and to William Gifford*.

He was also detailed to lobby his fellow MP for St. Albans, John Gape*, and the seaman Hon. Algernon Greville*. Godolphin was particularly anxious that Churchill should be present at a meeting of the managers to be held by Sir Charles Hedges*, ‘where they may concert who should be more spoken to and by whom’. Forecast as a probable opponent of the Tack, he duly voted against it or was absent from the House on 28 Nov. 1704.16

Perhaps in expectation of reward for his loyalty, Churchill was reported in January 1705 as likely to succeed Rooke, and, when he did not, to be about to resign. He nevertheless remained in his posts, and in June received orders ‘to sail with a strong squadron and cruise off Brest’, though he appears to have sent his ships to join those under Byng’s command. On an analysis of the 1705 Parliament he was categorized as a High Church courtier, and curbed his Tory principles sufficiently to vote on 25 Oct. for the Court candidate as Speaker; indeed, he appears to have canvassed at least one Member, Colonel (Henry) Lee*, on behalf of the government, even though Lee did not relent in support for William Bromley II. On 9 Jan. 1706 he was given leave to attend the Lords’ committee investigating the fleet’s manpower. On 26 Jan. he was duly named to the drafting committee of the bill to encourage and increase the number of seamen. The following month he again supported the Court over the proceedings on the ‘place clause’ of the regency bill, but the same month absented himself from the vote on the Bewdley election, perhaps because Marlborough was still reluctant to join Godolphin in favouring the Whigs over purely party matters. As more Whigs began to be taken into office, the lord treasurer was evidently unsure about Churchill’s reliability, for while he admitted that the admiral had often asked him ‘what commands he had for him . . . and that he had contributed to make some things easy . . . at the same time [Prince George] has shown uneasiness in some other things which nobody can tell how to impute to any other influence’. On 20 June 1706 Marlborough therefore informed the treasurer that he had received a letter from his brother

in which he assures me that he would behave himself in everything as you should like. I do not say that I am persuaded that his heart is just as I could wish, but I verily believe he would take pains not to offend, and that there must be somebody else that does mischief besides himself.

In July Marlborough tried to play down the bad influence exerted by his brother, claiming rather implausibly that the Duchess laid a ‘great deal more to [George’s] charge than he deserves, for [the Queen] has no good opinion nor never speaks to him’. Indeed, a false report in November 1706 that George had resigned his flag suggests that Churchill was not expected to retain his position for long because of the increasingly Whig complexion of the administration.17

The attack did not materialize until October 1707, though it had been brewing throughout the summer. In late June Godolphin informed Marlborough that the Whigs intended to ‘disturb [Churchill] as soon as ever they have an opportunity’, a decision which the Duke regarded as a mortification to himself and the Court: ‘I have done [the Whigs] the best office I can, but I shall think it a very ill return if they fall upon [George]. I do with all my heart wish he would be so wise as to quit his place, but I hope nobody that I have a concern for will appear against him.’ Marlborough lamented his brother’s indiscretions, but was ‘very sure he would not say or do anything that he thought might prejudice the Queen or the government’. Yet it was no longer possible to contain the mounting hostility. Halifax, whom Churchill had earlier tried to discredit and whom Marlborough had refused to nominate as a plenipotentiary for the peace negotiations, sought revenge and ignored a letter from the Duke requesting restraint. The Junto as a whole threatened the offensive in order to force the Queen to give way over the appointment of the bishop of Norwich, an issue which had become a test of faith, and may also have sought to pursue Marlborough’s brother in order to menace the Duke into greater alliance with the Junto, whose dominance he appeared to fear. At a personal level Churchill had also irritated the Whigs by criticizing the conduct of the war in Spain under Lord Galway, to whom he offered a ‘sarcastic toast’ at a public dinner, and by declining to take the usual oaths when Robert Walpole II* was added to the Prince’s council, a hesitation which was ‘construed as proof of his attachment to the exiled family’, though it seems clear from a letter written by Godolphin that Churchill’s reservations stemmed from doubts about whether to resign from the council in order to defuse the crisis rather than from scruples about the oath itself. Churchill may also have been suspected of acting as a drag on the employment of the Whigs, through his influence at Court and on Marlborough himself. For all these reasons the Whigs were said in October to ‘continue their averseness to George Churchill and have within these four or five days sent a message to him, that if he doth not quit the Prince’s council of his own accord they will find means to make him do it in spite of all he can do to keep himself in’. Since it was the place on the Prince’s council that provided Churchill’s best protection, he did not resign, forcing the conflict into Parliament. The inquiry into the conduct of the Admiralty was launched in the Commons by a petition from Russian merchants, including the son of (Sir) Gilbert Heathcote*, who complained about the lack of convoys for merchantmen, the very issue over which Churchill had earlier made some of his reputation as a capable naval administrator. The merchants ‘spoke very boldly and stuck not to charge the managers of the navy with fraud, malice and ignorance, which all bore hard on Admiral Churchill’. A motion, proposed by Sir Gilbert Heathcote and John Ward II, that the petitioners had proved their point, was almost carried,

but Mr Churchill saying they had indeed made proof of their losses, but it did not yet appear whether those happened through neglect in those that were entrusted in the Admiralty or by misfortune only; that they hoped to satisfy the House there had been no care omitted, which they were preparing and would have been ready before now to do, but that the House were every day sending for new papers and they did not expect it would come to a question till they had the whole before them.

Churchill successfully called for a slight delay, though he ‘desired they would take the shorter day for it, since he could not but acquaint them that such an inquiry depending must needs be a great hindrance to their sea preparations’. For all its heralded bitterness, the showdown on 6 Dec. proved an anti-climax. The Whigs were divided over the attack, the Tories increasingly shied away from it, and the ‘complaints were feebly managed at the bar of the Commons, for it was soon understood that not only the Prince but the Queen likewise concerned herself much in this matter and both looked upon it as a design levelled at their authority’. Anne personally told Archbishop Sharp that ‘the design was against Admiral Churchill who was one of the ablest men for that service that could be found’. After such intervention, the Admiralty had only ‘to justify their board and to show they had employed all the ships they had in reach’, though this was not quite the end of the matter, for a parallel and more stringent inquiry had been set up by the Lords. On 19 Nov. 1707 the peers held a debate about the losses suffered by the merchants, and although Marlborough did not speak in defence of his brother, he was seen expostulating with Lord Wharton (Hon. Thomas*) directly afterwards. On 8 Jan. 1708 the Admiralty repeated its justification, though its vindication concluded with a reflection on the state of the navy in William’s reign, a phrase attributed to Harley and which prompted not only a refutation but also careful and demanding scrutiny of the case. On 25 Feb. 1708 an address from the Upper House contained thinly veiled criticisms of the admiral, who was said to have made ‘the worst use imaginable’ of the Prince’s trust, to have screened himself from criticism, and to have insulted the legislature by a vindication which failed to promise future amendment. The address concluded that the Lords hoped to see ‘a new spirit and vigour put into the whole administration of the navy’. To make matters worse, part of the aim of the attack had been to replace Prince George with Churchill’s old enemy Orford, and rumours again circulated that the admiral was about to lay down his flag, especially in the light of the promotion of his junior, Sir John Leake*, to command the fleet. The one redeeming feature of the session was the address, which Churchill helped draft, thanking the Prince for his great care in sending out the fleet under Byng to prevent the intended Jacobite invasion, though even then Churchill had not been able to refrain from talking ‘loud against Sir George Byng for letting the enemy slip him’.18

The Whigs’ other principal target in the winter of 1707–8 was Harley, and Churchill played a minor part in the crisis leading to the secretary’s dismissal. From an inference in a letter written by Sir Godfrey Copley, 2nd Bt.*, it seems likely that the conversation between Harley and the Queen, news of which affronted Godolphin, became known to Marlborough via Churchill, who had presumably heard a report from the Prince. If this is correct, it suggests that Churchill was acting against Harley, despite their earlier co-operation, and that ironically he was giving the administration a push in the direction of the Whigs. It is likely that he did so on his brother’s behalf, since both Swift and Edward Harley* believed that Churchill was employed by Marlborough to persuade the Prince, and hence the Queen, ‘that she must use either part with the Duke of Marlborough or Mr Harley’. It is also possible that this act against Harley was the price Churchill had to pay to buy off the opposition to his administration of the navy, and may consequently explain why the attack on him fizzled out. Certainly in early February 1708 the Queen was still trying to save Harley by ‘canvassing whatever support she could against the Churchills, who had left town’. An alternative, contradictory and less plausible explanation has also been offered that Churchill was acting in Harley’s interest, because by spreading news that the secretary would be sacrificed he might embarrass Marlborough and detach him from Godolphin. This view assumes that Churchill was by now closer to Harley than to his brother, and is only supported by the rumour that after the duumvirs had tendered their resignations, Prince George ‘was said to press [Harley] in and sent to Lord Marlborough and Lord Godolphin again. If that was so, it must be Mr George Churchill that did it.’ Given the ambiguous evidence it seems impossible to be certain about the admiral’s position, but it seems likely that loyalty to his brother proved stronger than that to party.19

Churchill’s Toryism, recognized in an analysis of the Commons dating from early 1708, nevertheless posed a problem for Marlborough and Godolphin. In mid-April the lord treasurer told the Duke that he found the Queen very difficult to manage, and blamed Prince George’s awkwardness, which in turn he considered was

much kept up by your brother George, who seemed to me as wrong as is possible when I spoke to him the other day. And finding him, I spoke so freely and so fully to him, of what we must all expect next winter, and himself in particular, if things go on at this rate, he appeared to be much less resolute after I had talked a while to him, and thanked me for speaking so freely.

Godolphin suspected that Churchill may have appeared humble ‘out of cunning’, and suggested that the Duke act to deter his brother from putting the Prince ‘upon the wrong measures’. Marlborough agreed that Churchill’s conduct was ‘unaccountable’, and promised to write to him ‘very freely’, but he still ordered his wife to smooth the way for George’s re-election, though George decided to switch from St. Albans to Portsmouth.20

It was soon apparent that Churchill was playing a double game of private remorse and submission to Godolphin on the one hand and open hostility to the Whigs on the other. In May the admiral reported to the Queen that Walpole had declared that an army commission had been granted on Harley’s recommendation. Anne understandably ‘resented this very highly’ and Walpole was forced to explain the affair to Marlborough. The matter revealed just how slippery Churchill could be, for he had deliberately misreported conversations of his Whiggish kinsman, William Churchill*, who seems to have acted as a go-between with Thomas Hopkins*, the under-secretary of state responsible for issuing the commissions. Walpole refrained from drawing conclusions about the admiral’s behaviour, perhaps because Churchill’s motives are once again very hard to fathom. Besides showing ingratitude to Walpole, who had come to his aid the previous winter in the House, Churchill was presumably attempting to embarrass the Whigs, though how far he was genuinely attempting to boost Harley’s reputation or use it for his own ends remains a matter of speculation. The incident once again confirms Churchill’s talent for lying for political gain, and backs up the Earl of Westmorland’s claim to have been deliberately misrepresented to the Prince by the admiral, who disliked Westmorland’s Whig principles. Certainly Godolphin, who thought Churchill ‘very much to blame’ in the Walpole affair, still suspected his influence, and told Marlborough on 13 June that while his brother was ‘not, or at least seems not to be, without his own uneasiness too . . . he had great animosities and partialities and he either cannot or will not prevail with [the Prince] to do any good’. Matters had not improved by the following month when Godolphin complained that the admiral

does certainly contribute very much to keep up both in [Prince George and the Queen] the natural but very inconvenient averseness they have to [the Whigs] in general, and to Sir George Byng in particular . . . and nothing is more certain than that the general dislike of [Churchill] in that station is stronger than ever and much harder to be supported.

Ostensibly Marlborough shared these misgivings. He told his wife that he wished his brother would retire ‘for I have been convinced it would be for his service and everybody else’, and in early August he again expressed regret that Churchill was ‘so violent’ for the Tories. But although the Duke may have been genuinely angered by his brother’s tactics, and ‘condemned’ his actions, his reluctance to take firm action against him betokened regard for and loyalty to George, perhaps strengthened by a belief that his brother was being made a scapegoat for the difficulties caused by the rising favour of Abigail Masham; more deviously, the Duke’s softness stemmed from a reluctance to sever links entirely with the High Tories. It may be significant that in July Churchill journeyed to Oxford to meet Harley, and although the Duke told his wife that he feared his brother would do ‘what I shall not like’, he may again have been placating the Duchess, who was becoming an increasingly shrill critic of George. In any case, Marlborough delayed any reprimand. On 30 Aug. he excused himself from doing ‘anything ill-natured to convince [George] that I do not approve of his actions . . . for I shall content myself in letting him know and see that he shall have no assistance from me’. A stiff letter was nevertheless drafted by Arthur Maynwaring* for Marlborough to copy to his brother. It warned George that

it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for you to support yourself next winter in your present station. You know that even in the last session when the Tories were all for you, and the Whigs divided and the power of the Court exerted to the utmost, you and the rest of the Prince’s council were not so well cleared as I could have wished, though you avoided a direct censure. And the struggle was then so great and the public business so much obstructed by it, that I can by no means think of enduring the same uneasiness and trouble again that I underwent last winter upon that single point. And you yourself must own that a good deal of the assistance you then had from the Whigs was owing to the personal friends of Mr Walpole, and to the defence he made in the House, from whom I fear you must expect no such service now, but rather the contrary, after what passed between you this summer . . . There is not one man that I can hear of who does not positively declare for a change in the Admiralty as a thing absolutely necessary to carry on the service. And your own foolish journey to Oxford, there to meet Mr Harley, and your declaring so frequently and publicly that you could and would support yourself, has made this load still more heavy upon you. Therefore . . . I must be so plain to tell you that as I think ’tis certain you cannot find friends enough of your own to prevent the storm that is coming upon you, so it will be impossible for the lord treasurer and me to give you the assistance you might hope for, without ruining ourselves, and therefore you must not expect it.

The letter promised Marlborough’s help to secure an easy retirement,

but if you lose the opportunity, ’tis probable you will never have such another, and therefore I hope you will now seriously weigh this matter, and compare the advantage, ease and security which you may certainly enjoy one way, with the trouble, danger and even ruin which will probably fall upon you the other; and not only upon you only, but upon your nearest relations and friends, the government itself and the public.21

This letter has been provisionally dated to 23 Aug. but is more likely to relate to mid-October when Godolphin was trying to arrange a deal with Lord Wharton about Churchill’s retirement. On 19 Oct. Marlborough told his wife that he would write ‘whatever you and [Godolphin] shall think proper to send me’, and the letter certainly reads as though it was dictated by Sarah. A variant and more measured version, endorsed as ‘a letter from Mr Freeman [Marlborough] to his brother’, confirms the later dating, since it is marked as 19 Oct. 1708. Yet neither copy was ever sent. The draft appears to have been delayed in the post – or at least so the Duke claimed – and arrived at the same time as another from the Duchess requesting that it should not be sent after all. Circumstances had rendered the whole problem obsolete, for when the Prince died on 28 Oct. his council was automatically dissolved and Churchill’s appointment terminated.22

Churchill continued in town until the Prince’s funeral was over, and then retired to Windsor, ‘with an intention not to appear this winter in Parliament’, though an analysis of the 1708 Parliament listed him, incorrectly, as a Tacker. These categorizations meant little, for though he did not resign his seat he ‘retired from business’ and made no further recorded contribution in the House. His health declined and he suffered frequent and violent fits of gout until he died ‘with great resolution and resignation’ on 8 May 1710. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. Churchill was said in a contemporary obituary to have performed his offices ‘with so great honour and integrity that he left a very inconsiderable estate behind him’. In fact, he had been receiving a salary of £1,000 p.a. as a member of the council, a further 1,000 guineas from the Admiralty, on top of £400 a year as groom of the bedchamber, and a further £400 in army pension: a report in 1705 put his total income at £3,142. Moreover, he is known to have invested £500 in Bank stock by 1694, and £2,600 in the Old East India Company, though he had sold the latter investment by May 1698. Indeed, his total bequest was ‘about £20,000’, divided equally between his nephew Francis Godfrey* and George Churchill, his natural son (presumably by Mary Cooke, who was left a £27 annuity). As further proof that loyalty to family overrode political prejudice, Churchill appointed as his executors his Whig kinsmen William and Awnsham Churchill*. The latter informed Marlborough of George’s death, claiming that ‘no man left a better name or is more lamented by his friends’, and Awnsham’s publication of A Collection of Voyages may have owed something to the admiral. Churchill’s will was witnessed by fellow seamen William Gifford and Sir Thomas Hardy*, the latter being one of his protégés. No contemporary left a detailed assessment of his career, but the most fitting epitaph is the praise of Lord Pembroke, who found the admiral had ‘a very just and quick apprehension of naval affairs’, and could find ‘no body so able to assist the Prince and the Queen as Mr Churchill in cases of dispatch and difficulty’.23

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Mark Knights


  • 1. DNB; Parlty. Lists Early 18th Cent. ed. Newman, 66; A. L. Rowse, Early Churchills, 352–3; J. H. Owen, War at Sea, 3–4.
  • 2. DNB; CSP Dom. 1687–9, p. 364; 1698, p. 128.
  • 3. Dalrymple, Mems. iii(2), 120–1, 124–5; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/059/1, Robert Yard* to Alexander Stanhope*, 2 Feb 1691[–2]; CSP Dom. 1690–1, p. 383.
  • 4. Portledge Pprs. 129; Luttrell, Brief Relation, ii. 343; Hatton Corresp. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xxiii), 170; Add. 37991, ff. 69b-70; HMC Finch, iv. 120–1, 131, 136–7, 142, 151, 305; PRO NI, De Ros mss D/638/13/171, John Pulteney* to Thomas Coningsby*, 7 July 1692.
  • 5. Mariner’s Mirror, xxxv. 339; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. v. 734–7; Luttrell Diary, 248, 261.
  • 6. Luttrell Diary, 330, 363–4; Cobbett, v. 753.
  • 7. Add. 31958, f. 45.
  • 8. Ailesbury Mems. 413.
  • 9. Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 260; Add. 17677 TT, ff. 81, 130; Cocks Diary, 3–4; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 254.
  • 10. BL, Althorp mss box 3, R. Crawford to Mq. of Halifax (William Savile*), 18 July 1699; Add. 40774, ff. 53–54, 205–6; Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 47/248, Vernon to Shrewsbury, n.d.
  • 11. Montagu (Boughton) mss 47/148, Vernon to Shrewsbury, 22 Feb. 1700; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 3; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 389; iii. 11, 117.
  • 12. HLRO, HC Lib. mss 12, f. 58v; PRO30/24/129–30; Add. 70272, ‘Large Account’, p. 18; Annandale mss at Raehills, bdle. 828, George Wisheard to [Ld. Annandale], 1 Jan. 1702; DZA, Bonet despatch 16/27 Jan. 1702.
  • 13. Verney Letters, i. 107; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 62, 66; Add. 31598, f. 46; Bull. IHR, xvii. 15.
  • 14. Cocks Diary, 113–14, 147–8.
  • 15. HMC Portland, iv. 54; Huntington Lib. Q. xxx. 252; Add. 17677 WWW, f. 9; 31958, ff. 47–50; Luttrell, v. 256, 272, 313; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 181, 187, 240.
  • 16. Marlborough– Godolphin Corresp. 256, 267, 338; HMC Popham, 284; Bull. IHR, xxxiv. 92; Bath mss at Longleat House, Portland misc. pprs. f. 196, Godolphin to Harley, 25 Nov. [1704].
  • 17. Luttrell, v. 505, 523, 559, 562, 563; vi. 4, 234, 237; Bull. IHR, xxxvii. 28; lxv. 48–49; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 583, 594–6, 628.
  • 18. Marlborough– Godolphin Corresp. 834, 845; EHR, lxxxii. 739; Coxe, Marlborough, ii. 93, 187; Huntington Lib. Q. xv. 36; Cobbett, vi. 603; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 283–7; Tindal, Hist. Eng. ii. 41–42; T. Sharp, John Sharp, i. 302; Stanhope, Reign of Anne, 321; Luttrell, vi. 251; 7th Duke of Manchester, Court and Soc. Eliz. to Anne, ii. 319.
  • 19. EHR, lxxx. 678; HMC Portland, v. 647; Swift Works ed. Davis, viii. 113; Huntington Lib. Q. xxx. 270.
  • 20. Marlborough– Godolphin Corresp. 957, 966, 972.