​Marlborough in Ireland: the making of England's great military leader

The ruins of Charles Fort in Kinsale
Before embarking on his campaign against the French in Belgium, the Duke of Marlborough fought for William III in Ireland, providing a direct link between our two expert-led history tours, the War of the Three Kings in Ireland and Marlborough’s Victories in Belgium

Here we tell the story of how Marlborough, at this time an Earl rather than a Duke, switched alliances, struggled to win the trust of his new king, and demonstrated the skills that would go on to make him one of England’s finest military leaders. 

Pictured above: The ruins of Charles Fort in Kinsale, credit: Promenades Travel

The Court of William and Mary

John Churchill, Earl of Marlborough in 1690 was neither liked nor trusted by the new Dutch King William of Orange. Marlborough’s wife Sarah was even less well-regarded in Kensington Palace or Hampton Court. Sarah was seen as disloyal, strident and an enemy of the ‘Dutch’ court.

Marlborough had been a protégé of the former King James. Marlborough had good looks and natural charm. He was a conscientious administrator and a courageous soldier. His military experience had been gained with the French – the best army in Europe- in the Spanish Netherlands and Flanders.

But after the battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, when Marlborough had been 2nd in command of James’  Royal Army, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688 and with it the arrival of William and Mary at Harwich, Marlborough switched sides – deserting King James for King William. Neither man ever forgave him. Could John Churchill ever be trusted again? Was he still in contact with his Stuart, Jacobite, former friends and paymasters now in France at Saint Germain-en-Laye? 

On a summer evening in 1690, we find the Earl of Marlborough wandering around his garden at the foot of Holywell Hill in St Albans. The house and garden is in a state of great change. Rooms have been added and the garden is newly-made in the Dutch style – with canal and geometric patterned lawns, planting and trees. A country residence fit for an Earl. It was Marlborough’s favourite place , away from the incessant politicking of London and the court of St James. 

But Marlborough sought employment. He had energy and ambition and desire enough to fight for the new Dutch monarch and his country.  

Marlborough was 40. He was ready for command. He had learnt his trade in Tangier, in France, in the Spanish Netherlands and in the United Provinces. He was competent and hungry. William was aware of Marlborough’s qualities and experience.  But he couldn’t warm to the man. However Marlborough came up with an imaginative plan to take a small force to Ireland where William was engaged in fighting the ex-King James for control of the English throne – indeed for the three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Marlborough’s Plan was simple – but required excellent execution. It was a combined operations mission. 

Marlborough would take 70 vessels from the Port of Portsmouth, carrying 5 thousand men and materiel. They would attack the City of Cork and the Port of Kinsale. If successful, this mission would deprive the Irish of the vital supply route from France through Kinsale. It would deliver a significant morale blow to the enemies of William, who still believed that James could win the English throne back through victory in Ireland. 

The Plan required speed, courage, resolution and tenacity. Marlborough had these characteristics in bucketfuls. 

William liked the Plan. He hated Ireland and the Irish. William’s real preoccupation was with Louis XIV in Versailles. French Catholic ambition to dominate Europe and seek ‘La Gloire’ in Flanders and in his own United Provinces was William’s constant nightmare.

Success in Ireland would hurt Louis 

But Mary, William’s wife, was against the Plan. She hated the Marlboroughs. They represented all she loathed in 1690’s English society. To Mary they were a social-climbing, ambitious, avaricious, detestable family – Sarah in particular was a limpet on Mary’s sister Anne – the future Queen. 

Mary had sought Sarah’s dismissal from Anne’s household on several occasions – but Anne had always refused.  

The Sarah- Anne relationship antagonised and humiliated Mary. Anything she could do to hurt the Marlborough’s she would.  

But on this occasion, William put his foot down. Marlborough would go to Ireland.  

Marlborough sails to Ireland

Marlborough assembled his expeditionary force at Portsmouth in the autumn of 1690. Eight battalions and 70 ships including fireships and Dutch transports.  

He was a good organiser and a prodigious writer of letters. He had the King’s writ to pull the ships and foot regiments together. But he received little or no assistance from the (mostly Dutch) hierarchy of the English Army. The royal suspicion of the smooth-tongued Earl was shared amongst the senior members of the Court and Army. 

Marlborough spent weeks in Portsmouth getting affairs organised. Unfortunate winds along the Channel created delays that infuriated him. The transport ships were not of the first quality. Repairs and constant attention were needed to ensure these vessels would complete the voyage.

At last the day arrived – the winds were favourable and orders were given to set sail. The flotilla departed. As a young Man, Marlborough had served James Duke of York who was Admiral of his brother King Charles’ Royal fleet. James was an accomplished sailor. Marlborough himself was never good at sea. In the course of his subsequent career, he frequently made the trip from Harwich to Helvoetsluis to lead his armies in Flanders or meet with his Dutch employers in The Hague. Marlborough’s famous calm and patience were always tested whilst at sea. 

After several day’s sailing, the fleet arrived off the coast of Ireland. It was damp and grey as the ships made their way gingerly up the estuary to Passage, where the troops disembarked.

Once on dry land, Marlborough and his forces began the march westwards towards Cork.  A couple of ships, their cannons readied to perform service, made their way down the river Lee. It was a slow and dangerous move – Irish rebels were a constant threat and the sandbanks and shoals of the river were unknown to the English soldiers. 

The siege and capture of Cork

Marlborough had a good eye for the lay of the land. He had developed this appreciation whilst serving in Flanders for the French Army of Louis XIV against the Dutch – and fighting alongside Charles’ illegitimate son James, Duke of Monmouth - whom Marlborough would subsequently defeat at Sedgemoor in 1685. 

Ironically, it would become Marlborough’s life’s mission to fight and defeat the French - a shared ambition with William, the Dutch stadtholder and now English King. 

Marlborough had learnt from Turenne, the Great Conde and the energetic Louis himself, how to assess a city or fortress and from where best to launch an attack. 

Positioning the siege guns was crucial to this. Marlborough gained a reputation for the judicious siting of guns in the course of a siege or battle. Once placed these massive guns could not be moved. A commander had to get it right from the start.

Marlborough’s army was arrayed along the east and Southern approaches to Cork. From the East there was a swamp and river to be crossed before reaching the City Walls. 

With a jumping-off point at the Augustinian Red Abbey, Marlborough’s foot soldiers under Charles Churchill could attack the Sothern Gate and wall. To the West was a small Vauban-style citadel named the Elizabeth fort. This had to be taken before a successful siege of the City could go ahead. 

From the North, Marlborough was promised the assistance of his Danish companion-in-arms – the Duke of Wurttemberg. 

A mixed force of Dutch and Danish troops had made their way south from around Dublin. It was a desire amongst these troops and their commanders that no credit should be given for battle success to the English. They were ill-regarded and thought not fit for service. By contrast, Marlborough and his officers knew the courage and fighting qualities of his men. He was ready to attack with speed and determination. 

However, on the 26th of September in the late evening, flags were seen and drums heard on the heights to the north as a detachment of the Prince of Wurttemberg arrived on the ring of hills above Cork. They made great fanfare of their presence. 

Messengers were sent to the command HQ of Marlborough and his staff in his large campaign tent. Marlborough could now see the Danish. Their huge and colourful flags and standards stood out against the grey-green landscape of Fair Hill.

Marlborough was a good administrator and he had a good officer team to whom he delegated responsibility and power. Lengthy preparation, intelligence, research and reconnaissance were all key to this General’s success. ‘No time is wasted in reconnaissance’.  

The bombardment began. In the City the defenders had little confidence in their ability to survive long against a determined and well-supplied enemy. With crumbling walls and little ammunition, it was faith and hope and a trust in the soggy landscape that furnished these Irish with courage.

After a prolonged barrage from the heavy guns and mortars, the assault began. 

The Elizabeth Fort was taken quickly. A white flag of surrender was raised above the walls as the English troops prepared to assault their breach. 

Charles Churchill and his regiments began their march down the winding lanes and across the swamp. Soon they reached the river Lee. 

With muskets held above their heads they waded in – first knee-, then waist-deep. The further they went the faster the current flowed and the deeper the water became. 

At last it was shoulder high – the courage and determination to press on in these circumstances whilst being shot at from the walls makes this one of the great episodes of ‘derring-do’ in the Wars of the three Kings. Yet it is little remembered today.

At the same time, a Danish grenadier regiment plunged in to the river from the North and waded across to support their English colleagues. Muskets held above their heads. Murky waters up to their necks. Courage and conviction were not lacking amongst these men either. The English fleet anchored downstream and within sight of Cork, supported these infantry attacks with gunfire. 

The city, mostly medieval, crumbled swiftly under the bombardment. And the morale of the defenders collapsed quickly too. Within a couple of hours, Cork belonged to the Allies. The troops behaved reasonably – seeking food and drink rather than murder and retribution amongst the Irish citizens.  

The attack on Kinsale

As is so often the case, after victory instead of sweet satisfaction and acclaim, there was only frustration and disappointment as Marlborough now had to galvanize his forces to head south to the coast- across hilly and difficult terrain – to the port of Kinsale. 

Marlborough was always swift in action. With Cork secure, the taking of Kinsale would be a blow to the French court and the ambitions of the Jacobites – and would further Marlborough’s reputation and approval with William and his court – on whom Marlborough’s career, income and prospects now depended.

Marlborough shared the burdens of a difficult march down to the coast with his troops – this empathy with his soldiers would later earn him the soubriquet of ‘Corporal John’ even when he was the mightiest soldier in the land.  

In Kinsale - there were two forts – almost opposite each other. The older of the two, James Fort, had been built in the early 1600’s to defend the port. Across the estuary to the north was Charles fort – a new fortress, built with all the modern techniques of late 17th century warfare. In an act of sycophancy, it was named by the Duke of Orrery, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Charles Fort after the reigning monarch in 1680. 

Charles fort was a perfect Vauban-style fortress with 5 bastions and extensive fields of fire – and a magnificent commanding position over the sea and the inlet leading to the open ocean and to France. It only had one weakness: on its Eastern flank, it was overlooked by rising ground – and an army encamped there could fire into the citadel with ease.

The small town of Kinsale, fired by the retreating Irish, welcomed the English troops and the army was quickly billeted amongst the inns of the town.

Marlborough first took the decision to attack the old James fort. This was on an isthmus, sticking out into the harbour a mile or so away from the Port. It was garrisoned by a small force of Irish and French veterans, invalids and the wounded – and did not present much of a challenge. 

On the morning of the assault, Marlborough asked Von Tettau, his trusted Danish commander to lead a force of Danish Grenadiers against the fort. This they did in a storm of fire but unfortunately during their attack a clutch of powder-barrels received a direct hit from a mortar outside – the resulting explosion taking defenders and attackers to their deaths in a huge ball of flame. 

A miserable outcome for the Allies. But the assault had to be made.

Marlborough now turned his attention to the Charles Fort. A much tougher nut to crack on the North shore of the inlet. His men marched out from Kinsale and took up position on the west and Northern faces of the huge fortress. They were ranged out in well-planned and documented regiments. They camped, put up their tents and dug their siege lines in the established manner. 

The Eastern side with the higher ground and better visibility was reserved for Marlborough’s Dutch allies. Marlborough consulted and agreed a Plan of attack. The parallels and saps would be dug from the east side with the purpose of establishing a breach in the long Eastern wall and attacking the Charles bastion. 

As was his way, Marlborough had conceded the best position and simplest action to his Dutch colleagues – his charm and ‘easiness’ facilitating what could have been a difficult alliance. Marlborough always focused on the outcome – not how it was achieved and who got the credit. 

With the enemy surrounded, the active Marlborough was frustrated by news of the great struggles his siege guns were having in making their way cross-country down from Cork. The roads were quagmires – bullocks, oxen, horses – all were in short supply - or had been driven off by the Irish Rapparees who buzzed around these great ‘foreign armies’.  

At last the cannons arrived. An unceasing barrage now rained down on the walls and interior of Charles fort. The defenders, the Governor, Sir Edward Scott and his wife put up a brave fight. They rejected offers to withdraw and save themselves – ‘that may be considered in thirty days’ time’ replied the Governor to one of Marlborough’s messages. So the battering went on. And the digging continued. The saps edged forward - and after a 13 day siege a breach was made.

Sir Edward was summoned once again. Marlborough was a man in a hurry and he offered very favourable terms – allowing the Governor and his party and defenders to march away with all the honours of war – flags flying, drums beating and parole given.

The Governor and his feisty wife departed in their coach – galloping through the gate beside the bastion where the breach had been effected. 

The capitulation of Kinsale and consequences

The fort was taken. Marlborough made his brother Charles, Governor.  The route through Kinsale into Ireland was now blocked to the French and the Jacobites. It had been a well-planned, sure-footed and energetically-enacted campaign.

These successes would have a profound effect on the outcome of the war in Ireland. Undermining the morale of James and his troops still further – trying the patience of King Louis. The French King wanted to wage war and use his military resources in the Spanish Netherlands and on dry land. He did not like the reports of the sodden, uninspiring bogs of Ireland.

Marlborough returned to London. He had achieved more in a few weeks than William’s Dutch Generals had achieved in several months of campaigning. William said that ‘he knew of no man so fit for a General, that had seen so few campaigns.’ 

Prince Vaudemont said of Marlborough ‘there is something inexpressible about him; the fire of Kirke, the thought of Lanier, the skill of Mackay and the bravery of Colchester seem to be united in this person…’ William smiling said he believed that Marlborough would do his part to make his words good. 

But William distrusted him. He didn’t like him. They were so different in character – one charming, tall, handsome, quick-witted and eloquent – the other short, ugly, sickly and unable to communicate except with his closest companions – and in Dutch. 

So Marlborough was cast off. Mary continued to pore metaphorical poison into her husband William’s ear – about the loyalty of Marlborough, about how Sarah had ‘bewitched’ her sister Anne, and that the family were not to be trusted. Envy and ambition triumphed over patience, organisation and responsibility. For now, Marlborough retired to his beloved gardens and orchards at Holywell House in St Albans - and awaited developments.
Want to know more? Join one of our expert-led tours. The War of the Three Kings in Ireland examines how the conflict between James II and William III led to more than 200 years of British and Protestant dominaiton in the country. Marlborough's Victories in Belgium follows the Duke's era-defining battles with the French. 

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