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Marlborough country: Charles Spencer tells how the victories of his great ancestor John Churchill have always fascinated him.

THE BATTLE OF Blenheim has always intrigued me. At school, it was a mere footnote at the conclusion of our 'Tudors and Smarts' period, considered unworthy of the attention "afforded Naseby or the Spanish Armanda.

However, it surely shams their identity as pivotal moments in English history: the battle was the first time since the Middle Ages that this island committed its men to a central role in European warfare.

As a boy, I read up on Blenheim by myself. This private study yielded a public dividend when, aged ten or eleven, we were set a test in class by a particularly unpopular master.

We had been learning about the reigns of William and Mary, and of Anne, and one of our questions was: 'Name every general who fought at the battle of Blenheim, other than the Duke of Marlborough'. There were groans as my classmates struggled to recall the names we had recently been given, of the two French marshals, and of the Imperial commander who shared the glory of the day. I, however, felt rare clarion. The enemy, our tormenting pedagogue, had strayed unwittingly into the one area of history where my knowledge exceeded the pedestrian. I scribbled away merrily.

We then were told to swap our papers with our neighbour, for marking. On being given the supposed answers to the Blenheim question, my marker shot his hand up excitedly: 'Sir! Spencer's put ten names down!' The rest of the class stirred uneasily at this evidence of unspeakable swotting in their midst. The master, sensing the potential for my humiliation, said: 'Well, then; read them out ...'. And out they came, concluding with, '... Marsin, Cutts, and Churchill'.

A cruel smile played on the master's lips. 'NO POINTS, Spencer!' he boomed: 'I specifically said not John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough!' 'That's right, sir,' I replied, trying to control my voice. 'I meant General Charles Churchill, his brother'.

Never since have I seen such a rich crimson wash over a man's face: suppressed rage blended with searing embarrassment as the class erupted in laughter I remember my own flush, of surprised delight at a rare victory over an unkind enemy.

I like to think that this was the point when I realised that history was an endless field of exploration and interpretation. However, I think I had already' fallen for the subject. My prep school library was well smoked with suitable fodder for the musing of pre-adolescent minds. Among the offerings were Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth, and Ronald Welch's Bowman of Crecy. These child-friendly books brought to life the dates and names we chronicled in our exercise books. In the hour after lunch, we consumed history with our weekly ration of sweets, chomping on bonbons and blackjacks as we went back in time.

I had an adequate ability to remember historical facts, but I was atrocius at stringing them together coherently under exam conditions. I wrote truly terrible essays--probably undone by panic; but also by immaturity--which would zero in on a single line of attack, before spinning round in a vortex of confused irrelevance. In a Common Entrance trial paper, my answer to a question along the lines of 'Why did Charles I lose the Civil War?' started off narrowly with the defeat at Marston Moor, before descending into a lengthy discourse on Prince Rupert's dog, 'Boy'. ('NO POINTS, Spencer ..!' And this time, I had no comeback.) It was not until I grew in confidence in English that I managed to overcome this debilitating tendency.

I was lucky to be taught by a genuinely inspirational English master at Eton. Christopher Dixon thought the rigid confines of the O-level syllabus were lilac for expansion. He fed us a demanding diet of concentration camp poets, and Middle European authors whose names were new to us. We were encouraged to find our own voice, and to strive for originality. This, eventually, transmitted itself into our other subjects. In this way, Dixon gave me the tools to improve my first love, history. When I wrote my O-Level special project--inevitably, on the battle of Blenheim--it set the seal on my academic future: I would concentrate on history, a choice that pleased my family greatly.

My grandfather, Jack, was a historian manque He inherited Althorp while still in his twenties, and devoted over half a century to its prescription, bringing to the task a curatorial intelligence rare in the aristocracy. Grandfather could be a forbidding figure: of few could it be more truly said that he did not stiffer fools kindly. However, he welcomed academics and authors to come to share the Muniment Room in the house, where four centuries of Family letters, accounts, and records were accumulated.

The Muniment Room was Grandtather's Holy of Holies. Once, in the 1930s, when Winston S. Churchill was researching there for his life of Marlborough, Grandfather was surprised to find the great man chomping on a lit cigar. In an unconscious reflex, Grandfather lunged forward, grabbed a glass of water from Churchill's work desk, and threw its contents so as to douse the offending cigar. He also wet the future prime minister, but the Muniment Room's contents came before common protocol.

The last time Grandfather came to see me, at my prep school, it was late May 1975. He arrived brandishing four generously illustrated history books, keen--I suspect--to encourage me to learn more about the past as part of my apprenticeship for future family responsibilities. He died in a nursing home two weeks later. We then moved as a family from Norfolk to Northamptonshire, a distance of only a hundred miles. However, less easy in measure was the gulf between the rambling manor house of our childhood, and the forbidding grandeur of Althorp. Although not in the league of gigantic country houses such as Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth, or Holkham, to us children it was colossal, its collection of art at once impressive and daunting.

To earn pocket money in the holidays, I decided to study to become a tour guide. I found the provenance of the furniture and china complicated. However, the portraits were more easily digestible, since learning about each sitter was a self-contained history lesson. Here were the mistresses of Charles II, the faces of all the Stuart monarchs, the portrait of Cromwell, and endless representations of John and Sarah Marlborough.

I discovered that 'Duchess Sarah' had fallen out with Charles Spencer, her senior grandson, who moved from Althorp to Blenheim on becoming the 3rd Duke of Marlborough. Consequently she left much of her collection in my indolent charmer of all ancestor, the Hon. John Spencer. He was too busy womanising and drinking to bother to fight with his cantankerous grandmother, and accepted her matriarchal demands with few questions: when Sarah insisted that it was time for him to marry he asked her to prepare a list of suitable candidates for him to consider. He plumped for Georgina Carteret, because her surname was alphabetically top of Sarah's list. It was, surprisingly, a happy union.

It has always been such human elements of history that have interested me: the obvious but forgettable point that for thousands of years man has had similar capacity for triumph, tears, love, and disappointment. When I wrote books on Althorp, and on the Spencer family, I used the house as a fixed point for five hundred years, through which twenty generations have passed, living their lives and dying their deaths. I was not interested in ancestor worship so much as in people-watching.

Now I have written my first 'proper' history book, on the battle of Blenheim. I see it as a watershed between my early historical rumblings, and any future output (I am currently researching a biography of Prince Rupert of the Rhine). Blenheim has all the elements of history that I love: hubris, human greatness and human error. The characters are suitably huge: we have Louis XIV expecting to hear any day of yet another French military triumph; Marlborough struggling to overcome unreliable and cautious allies in Europe, and political skulduggery at home; while the thrilling Eugene lends glamorous and gritty support. Set these giants against a backdrop of ominous events --the greatest of which is the imminent destruction of the Habsburg Empire--and you have all the components that have drawn me to history, and to this extraordinary but undervalued victory, for nigh on three decades.

Charles Spencer's programmes Blenheim: The Battle for Europe will be broadcast on the History Channel at 8pm on August 12th and 13th. His book, Blenheim: Battle for Europe, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on August 5th.

Readers of History Today may order copies of Charles Spencers's book Blenheim: Bottle for Europe for the special price of 16.00 [pounds sterling] (rrp 20 [pounds sterling] Including free postage & packing (UK only) by calling 01903 828503 and quoting ref. no: JAHT


FRONTLINE: 3 courtesy of the Alandsbanken Collection; 4 courtesy of Lehtikuva/John Palmen; 6 British Museum; 7 John Martin Gallery; 8 top courtesy of the exhibitor; 8 bottom Imperial War Museum; 9 Bridgeman Art Library/Private Collection. 1704:10 Reproduced by kind permission of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough (photograph by Jeremy Whitaker); 11 top BAL/Blenheim; 11 bottom Getty Images/Hulton Archive; 12 HT/Tim Aspden; 13 BAL; 13 inset Reproduced by kind permission of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough (photograph by Jeremy Whitaker); 14 top Getty/Hulton; 14-15 National Maritime Museum; 15 top BAL/Rafael Valls Gallery; 16 BAL/Private Collection. CRISIS IN CLASSROOM: 18 PA Photos. A MATHEMATICAL MONK: 22 British Library Cott.Claud.E.IV; 23 top Science & Society; 23 centre AKG Images/Austrican National Library, Vienna; 24 top Jarrold Publishing/Neil Junkerson; 24 bottom Collections/Robert Estall; 25 BAL/British Library Cott. Nero D.I f.23v; 26 British Library Cott.Claud.E.IV; 27 top British Library Add. Ms 47682; 27 bottom Jarrold Publishing/Neil Junkerson. COMING TO TERMS WITH THE PAST: INDIA: 28 Corbis/Reuters. AN OFFICER ON THE WESTERN FRONT: 31-37 all photographs were supplied by the author except for 31 top Stephen Pollock; 33 top, 35 centre & 36 bottom Imperial War Museum, London. AGE OF REAGAN: 38 Corbis/Bettmann. WHAT IF PHILIP II HAD GONE TO THE NETHERLANDS: 40 BAL/Private Collections; 41 top BAL/British Library; 41 centre BAL/Stirling Maxwell Collection, Pollock House, Glasgow; 41 bottom Corbis/Ruggero Vanni; 42 top BAL/Kunsthistorishes Museum, Vienna; 42 centre Archive Alba; 42 bottom Art Archive/Dagli Orti/Miramare Museum, Trieste; 43 Art Archive/Dagli Orti/University Library, Geneva; 44 top Art Archive/Dagli Orti/Musee du Chateau de Versatiles; 44 bottom BAL/Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; 45 top Art Archive/Dagli Orti/University Library, Geneva; 45 bottom BAL/Muzeum Narodowe Poznan; 46 BAL/Oudheidkundig Museum van de Bijloke, Ghent. FERDINAND COLUMBUS: 47 British Museum. THE EYE-OPENER OF 1939:48 Getty/Hulton; 48 John Frost Historical Newspapers; 49 top AKG-Images; 49 bottom BAL/Private Collection; 50 top & centre Getty/Hulton; 50 bottom AKG Images; 51 top Popperfoto; 51 bottom AKG-Images; 52 bottom Popperfoto; 53 top John Frost; 53 bottom David King Collection. MONTHS PAST: 54 National Gallery, London; 55 BAL/Museo de Arte Sao Paulo, Brazil. COMMONS SENSE: 60 John Freeman. POINT OF DEPARTURE: 62 Tim Graham.
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Title Annotation:Point Of Departure
Author:Sunderland, Charles Spencer, Earl of
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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