Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The General in Winter – by Frances Harris


There’s a fascinating painting hanging in the Drawing Room at Drumlanrig Castle in south-west Scotland, which most of the summer visitors – distracted by the bigger, shinier and more valuable items in the room – never even notice. It’s a portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough.

He stands in the usual ‘Nobleman of Power and Influence’ pose, resplendent in his crimson peer’s robes and looking every inch the hero of Blenheim and Ramillies. A closer look,  however, reveals something curious about the portrait; something that hints at the dramatic and very human story behind the proud public face: peeping out from underneath the ermine-trimmed robes is the hilt of a sword.

The guidebook tells us briefly that Marlborough was originally painted in his full military glory as Queen Anne’s captain-general, but that following a disagreement at court Marlborough’s wife – the redoubtable Sarah Jennings – ordered his uniform painted over.

In The General in Winter, Frances Harris fleshes out that story and leads us deeply into a period of British history that was, in many ways, dominated by two powerful men and two equally powerful women.

The two men were the flamboyant military genius John Churchill and his close friend and ally Sidney Godolphin who, as Lord Godolphin and First Lord of the Treasury, became one of the most influential men in the country – the de facto Prime Minister before such a position existed. Jointly and severally they were responsible for what are generally referred to as ‘the glories of the Age of Anne’: the union of the parliaments of England and Scotland in 1707 and the early and spectacular successes of the allies in the War of the Spanish Succession – establishing Britain as a European and world power.

The women were Queen Anne, the last monarch of the troubled Stuart dynasty, and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough – John Churchill’s adored but pushy and self-willed wife.

Marlborough and Godolphin were chalk and cheese. The former was the handsome and charismatic pin-up boy of the early 18th Century: high-profile, glamorous and – at the peak of his career – apparently unstoppable. The latter was the slightly lumpen but shrewd and loyal public servant who served the Catholic Charles II and his brother James II as faithfully as he later served the Protestant William and Mary and, subsequently, Mary’s sister Anne. In stark contrast to most denizens of the Royal Court, he seems to have been motivated solely by loyalty to his country and his monarch (in that order), showing little if any interest in personal advancement or outward show.

Anne and Sarah had been close friends since they were girls. Referring to each other playfully as Mrs Morley (Anne) and Mrs Freeman (Sarah) they had once been inseparable, in spite of their differing political sympathies. Indeed, so great was the influence of ‘Mrs Freeman’ at court that those seeking favours and preferment from Anne would first approach Sarah, hoping she would speak on their behalf.  But gradually those differences became too great, Sarah became both too distant and too pushy and her influence eventually diminished and finally vanished. Others – notably Sarah’s cousin Abigail Masham – gained the Queen’s ear, and by degrees both the Marlboroughs and Godolphin were sidelined. The latter went quietly. The former did not.

The General in Winter explores this tangled and fraught four-way relationship almost exclusively through letters. Although Marlborough spent many long months away from home during his campaigns, he kept in constant contact with both his wife and Godolphin, who also wrote continuously to each other. The Marlborough-Godolphin correspondence took the form of open letters sent through the usual court channels (and therefore vulnerable to interception) and coded letters sent only via trusted intermediaries.

The voices which emerge from those letters are distinctive and touchingly human. The Marlboroughs’ marriage was a deeply passionate one, with Sarah – unsurprisingly –  the dominant partner. Godolphin’s much-loved (but slightly odd) wife Margaret had died from puerperal sepsis very early in their marriage after giving birth to their son Francis, but he had never shown any inclination to remarry. He was one of those men with the happy knack of being good friends with women – and indeed maintained a warm relationship with the deposed King James the Second’s wife Mary of Modena long after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ had placed the House of Orange on the throne. Likewise, he plainly loved Sarah deeply, but there was never any suggestion that the affection was  anything other than platonic.

The letters also reveal the tortuous course of the War of the Spanish Succession and the back-stabbing and political manoeuvring that Marlborough and Godolphin had to circumnavigate to keep the ship of state on an even keel. During the summers, Marlborough was almost exclusively in Europe, acting as both a plenipotentiary and a military leader (the classic iron fist in a velvet glove) – a role he plainly relished; but in the winters, he unwillingly returned to Britain to fight very different battles at Godolphin’s side in Westminster – while both tried their best to prevent the vengeful Sarah from scuppering everything.

History has not always been either fair or kind to the unhappy Queen Anne, but in The General in Winter  Frances Harris goes some way to redressing the balance. The woman who emerges from the morass of plotting and counter-plotting which characterized her reign is neither foolish nor easily-led, which is scarcely surprising given the circumstances of her upbringing. Seventeen pregnancies and twelve miscarriages had destroyed her health and rendered her a semi-invalid, but until very close to the end of her life she demonstrated sound judgement and a dogged determination to fulfil her obligations as queen. For the vast majority of her reign, she trusted Godolphin and Marlborough implicitly … and that trust was neither misplaced nor abused. In their different ways, they served her well and faithfully.

The General in Winter presupposes some familiarity on the part of the reader with the Stuart Restoration, the Jacobite cause and the ‘Glorious Revolution’, and for that reason, I couldn’t recommend it to a casual reader coming to the period for the first time. Nor is it what I would call an easy read in that it requires – and rewards – careful reading and concentration … but it is an informative one, fleshing out the bewigged men and corseted women who stare out at us from the pages of history books and giving a human dimension to the crimson-robed Duke of Marlborough in that portrait hanging on the wall at Drumlanrig – the battle-weary soldier who once wrote so poignantly to his wife:

‘You will see I [am] cutting out a great deall of trouble and worke for myself, which I am very well contented to go through, provided I may att last be rewarded with the happyness of ending my days with you, my dearest soull.’


Oxford University Press. 2017. ISBN: 978-0-19-880244-0. 387pp.

One comment on “The General in Winter – by Frances Harris

  1. Hilary
    October 18, 2017

    Super review, Moira – thank you! I must read this – coincidentally, another review of it sent me off to buy Frances Harris’s earlier book about John Evelyn and his intense relationship with the ‘slightly odd’ Margaret Godolphin (both of them slightly odd, if you ask me…). Can’t wait to read that one either. I spend a lot of my time in the era of Queen Anne, through my interest in a library that was founded and flourished in her reign, and have always thought her a greatly underrated Queen!

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This entry was posted on October 11, 2017 by in Entries by Moira, Non-fiction: history and tagged , , , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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