NO SOONER HAD KING WILLIAM SET OUT UPON THE CONTINENTAL war than the imminent menace of invasion fell upon the Island he had left denuded of troops. Louis XIV now planned a descent upon England. King James was to be given his chance of regaining the throne. The exiled Jacobite Court at Saint-Germain had for two years oppressed the French War Office with their assertion that England was ripe and ready for a restoration. An army of ten thousand desperate Irishmen and ten thousand French regulars was assembled around Cherbourg. The whole French Fleet, with a multitude of transports and store-ships, was concentrated in the Norman and Breton ports.
It was not until the middle of April 1692 that the French designs became known to the English Government. Fevered but vigorous preparations were made for defence by land and sea. As upon the approach of the Spanish Armada, all England was alert. But everything turned upon the Admiral. Russell, like Marlborough, had talked with the Jacobite agents: William and Mary feared, and James fervently believed, that he would play the traitor to his country and his profession. Jacobite sources admit however that Russell plainly told their agent that, much as he loved James and loathed William’s Government, if he met the French Fleet at sea he would do his best to destroy it, “even though King James himself were on board.” He kept his word. “If your officers play you false,” he said to the sailors on the day of battle, “overboard with them, and myself the first.”
On May 19-20 the English and Dutch Fleets met Tourville with the main French naval power in the English Channel off Cape La Hogue. Russell’s armada, which carried forty thousand men and seven thousand guns, was the stronger by ninety-nine ships to forty-four. Both sides fought hard, and Tourville was decisively beaten. Russell and his admirals, all of whom were counted on the Jacobite lists as pledged and faithful adherents of King James, followed the beaten Navy into its harbours. During five successive days the fugitive warships were cut out under the shore batteries by flotillas of English row-boats. The whole apparatus of invasion was destroyed under the very eyes of the former King whom it was to have borne to his native shore.
The Battle of Cape La Hogue, with its consequential actions, effaced the memories of Beachy Head. It broke decisively for the whole of the wars of William and Anne all French pretensions to naval supremacy. It was the Trafalgar of the seventeenth century.
On land the campaign of 1692 unrolled in the Spanish Netherlands, which we now know as Belgium. It opened with a brilliant French success. Namur fell to the French armies. But worse was to follow. In August William marched by night with his whole army to attack Marshal Luxembourg. The French were surprised near Steinkirk in the early morning. Their advanced troops were overwhelmed and routed, and for an hour confusion reigned in their camp. But Luxembourg was equal to the emergency and managed to draw out an ordered line of battle. The British infantry formed the forefront of the Allied attack. Eight splendid regiments, under General Mackay, charged and broke the Swiss in fighting as fierce as had been seen in Europe in living memory. Luxembourg now launched the Household troops of France upon the British division, already strained by its exertions, and after a furious struggle, fought mostly with cold steel, beat it back. Meanwhile from all sides the French advanced and their reinforcements began to reach the field. Count Solms, the Dutch officer and William’s relation, who had replaced Marlborough in command of the British contingent, had already earned the cordial dislike of its officers and men. With the remark, “Now we shall see what the bulldogs can do!” he refused to send Mackay the help for which he begged. The British lost two of their best generals and half their numbers killed and wounded, and would not have escaped but for the action of a subordinate Dutch general, Overkirk, afterwards famous in Marlborough’s campaigns. William, who was unable to control the battle, shed bitter tears as he watched the slaughter, and exclaimed, “Oh, my poor English!” By noon the whole of the Allied army was in retreat, and although the losses of seven or eight thousand men on either side were equal the French proclaimed their victory throughout Europe.
These events infuriated the English Parliament. The most savage debates took place upon the conduct of Count Solms. The House of Lords carried an address that no English general should be subordinated to a Dutchman, whatever his rank. It was with difficulty that the Government spokesmen persuaded the Commons that there were no English officers fit to be generals in a Continental campaign. Against great opposition supplies were voted for another mismanaged and disastrous year of war. In July 1693 was fought the great Battle of Landen, unmatched in Europe for its slaughter except by Malplaquet and Borodino for over two hundred years. The French were in greatly superior strength. Nevertheless the King determined to withstand their attack, and constructed almost overnight a system of strong entrenchments and palisades in the enclosed country along the Landen stream, within the windings of the Geet. After an heroic resistance the Allies were driven from their position by the French with a loss of nearly twenty thousand men, the attackers losing less than half this total. William rallied the remnants of his army, gathered reinforcements, and, since Luxembourg neglected to pursue his victory, was able to maintain himself in the field. In 1694 he planned an expedition upon Brest, and, according to the Jacobites, Marlborough betrayed this design to the enemy. At any rate Tollemache, the British commander on land, was received by heavy fire from prepared positions, was driven back to his ships with great loss, and presently died of his wounds. There is no doubt that the letter on which the charge against Marlborough was based is a forgery. There is no proof that he gave any information to the French, and it is also certain that they were fully informed from other sources.
The primitive finances of the English State could ill bear the burden of a European war. In the days of Charles II, England was forced to play a minor and sometimes ignominious rôle in foreign affairs largely for lack of money. The Continental ventures of William III now forced English statesmen to a reconstruction of the credit and finances of the country.
The first war Government formed from the newly organised Whig Party possessed in the person of Charles Montagu a first-rate financier. It was he who was responsible for facing this major problem. The English troops fighting on the Continent were being paid from day to day. The reserves of bullion were being rapidly depleted and English financial agents were obsessed by the fear of a complete breakdown. The first essential step was the creation of some national organ of credit. The Dutch had for some years possessed a National Bank which worked in close collaboration with their Government, and the intimate union of the two countries naturally brought their example to the attention of the Whigs. In collaboration with the Scottish banker William Paterson, Montagu, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, started the Bank of England in 1694 as a private corporation. This institution, while maintaining the principle of individual enterprise and private joint-stock company methods, was to work in partnership with the Government, and was to provide the necessary means for backing the Government’s credit.
Montagu was not content merely to stop here. With the help of the philosopher John Locke, and William Loundes of the Treasury, he planned a complete overhaul of the coinage. Within two years the recoinage was carried out, and with this solidly reconstructed financial system the country was able in the future not only to bear the burden of King William’s wars, but to face the prolonged ordeal of a conflict over the Spanish Succession. It is perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the Whigs.
At the end of 1694 Queen Mary had been stricken with smallpox, and on December 28 she died, unreconciled to her sister Anne, mourned by her subjects, and lastingly missed by King William. Hitherto the natural expectation had been that Mary would long survive her husband, upon whose frail, fiery life so many assaults of disease, war, and conspiracy had converged. An English Protestant Queen would then reign in her own right. Instead of this, the crown now lay with William alone for life, and thereafter it must come to Anne. This altered the whole position of the Princess, and with it that of the redoubtable Churchills, who were her devoted intimates and champions. From the moment that the Queen had breathed her last Marlborough’s interest no longer diverged from William’s. He shared William’s resolve to break the power of France; he agreed with the whole character and purpose of his foreign policy. A formal reconciliation was effected between William and Anne. Marlborough remained excluded for four more years from all employment, military or civil, at the front or at home; but with his profound gift of patience and foresight upon the drift of events he now gave a steady support to William.
In 1695 the King gained his only success. He recovered Namur in the teeth of the French armies. This event enabled the war to be brought to an inconclusive end in 1696. It had lasted for over seven years. England and Holland—the Maritime Powers as they were called—and Germany had defended themselves successfully, but were weary of the struggle. Spain was bellicose but powerless, and only the Habsburg Emperor Leopold, with his eyes fixed on the ever-impending vacancy of the Spanish throne, was in earnest in keeping the anti-French confederacy in being. The Grand Alliance began to fall to pieces, and Louis, who had long felt the weight of a struggle upon so many fronts, was now disposed to peace. William was unable to resist the peace movement of both his friends and foes. He saw that the quarrel was still unassuaged; his only wish was to prolong it. But he could not fight alone.
The Treaty of Ryswick marked the end of the first period in this world war. In fact it was but a truce. Yet there were possibilities that the truce might ripen into a lasting settlement. William and Louis interchanged expressions of the highest mutual regard. Europe was temporarily united against Turkish aggression. Many comforted themselves with the hope that Ryswick had brought the struggle against the exorbitant power of France to an equipoise. This prospect was ruined by the Tories and their allies. In order to achieve lasting peace it was vital that England should be strong and well armed, and thus enabled to confront Louis on equal terms. But the Tories were now in one of their moods of violent reaction from Continental intervention. Groaning under taxation, impatient of every restraint, the Commons plunged into a campaign of economy and disarmament. The moment the pressure of war was relaxed they had no idea but to cast away their arms. England came out of the war with an army of eighty-seven thousand regular soldiers. The King considered that thirty thousand men and a large additional number of officers was the least that would guarantee the public safety and interest. His Ministers did not dare to ask for more than ten thousand, and the House of Commons would only vote seven thousand. The Navy was cut down only less severely. Officers and men were cast upon the streets or drifted into outlawry in the countryside. England, having made every sacrifice and performed prodigies of strength and valour, now fell to the ground in weakness and improvidence when a very little more perseverance would have made her, if not supreme, at least secure.
The apparent confusion of politics throughout William’s reign was largely due to the King’s great reluctance to put himself at the disposal of either of the two main party groups. He wished for a national coalition to support a national effort against France, and he was constitutionally averse to committing himself. But as the months passed he was forced to realise the differing attitudes of Whigs and Tories to the Continental war, and a familiar pattern of English politics began to emerge. The Whigs were sensitive to the danger of the French aggression in Europe. They understood the deep nature of the struggle. In spite of their tactless and slighting treatment of William, they were prepared to form on many occasions an effective and efficient war Government. The Tories, on the other hand, resented the country being involved in Continental commitments and voiced the traditional isolationism of the people. The political story of the reign is thus a continuous seesaw. The Whigs managed two or three years of war, and then the Tories would return to power upon a rising tide of war weariness. The landed gentry, the class which largely financed the war through the land-tax, inevitably turns against a war Government and the fruits of warfare are incontinently thrown away. The foundation of the Bank of England strongly aroused the suspicions of this class. They foresaw the advent of a serious rival for political influence in the merchant classes, now enhanced by a formidable credit institution. The Bank had been a Whig creation. The Bank supported Government loans and drew profits from the war. Here was an admirable platform. In 1697 the Whig administration was driven from office upon such themes, and with such a programme Robert Harley, now the rising hope of Toryism, created his power and position in the House of Commons.
This singularly modern figure whom everyone nowadays can understand, born and bred in a Puritan family, originally a Whig and a Dissenter, speedily became a master of Parliamentary tactics and procedure. He understood, we are assured, the art of “lengthening out” the debates, of “perplexing” the issues, and of taking up and exploiting popular cries. In the process of opposing the Court he gradually transformed himself from Whig to Tory and from Dissenter to High Churchman, so that eventually he became a chief agent of the Tories both in Church and State. Already in 1698 he was becoming virtually their leader in the House of Commons. He it was who conducted the reckless movement for the reduction of the armed forces. He it was who sought to rival the Whig Bank of England with a Tory Land Bank. All the time however he dreamed of a day when he could step above Parliamentary manœuvrings and play a part upon the great world stage of war and diplomacy. Harley was supported by Sir Edward Seymour, the pre-eminent “sham good-fellow” of the age, who marshalled the powerful Tories of Cornwall and the West. In the Lords he was aided by Nottingham and the Earl of Rochester. Together these four men exploited those unworthy moods which from time to time have seized the Tory Party. They froze out and hunted into poverty the veteran soldiery and faithful Huguenot officers. They forced William to send away his Dutch Guards. They did all they could to belittle and undermine the strength of their country. In the name of peace, economy, and isolation they prepared the ground for a far more terrible renewal of the war. Their action has been largely imitated in our own times. No closer parallel exists in history than that presented by the Tory conduct in the years 1696 to 1699 with their similar conduct in the years 1932 to 1937. In each case short-sighted opinions, agreeable to the party spirit, pernicious to national interests, banished all purpose from the State and prepared a deadly resumption of the main struggle. These recurring fits of squalor in the Tory record are a sad counterpoise to the many great services they have rendered the nation in their nobler and more serviceable moods.1
William was so smitten by the wave of abject isolationism which swept the governing classes of the Island that he contemplated an abdication and return to Holland. He would abandon the odious and intractable people whose religion and institutions he had preserved and whose fame he had lifted to the head of Europe. He would retort their hatred of foreigners with a gesture of inexpressible scorn. It was a hard victory to master these emotions. Yet if we reflect on his many faults in tact, in conduct, and in fairness during the earlier days of his reign, the unwarrantable favours he had lavished on his Dutchmen, the injustices done to English commanders, his uncomprehending distaste for the people of his new realm, we cannot feel that all the blame was on one side. His present anguish paid his debts of former years. As for the English, they were only too soon to redeem their follies in blood and toil.
William’s distresses led him to look again to Marlborough, with whom the future already seemed in a great measure to rest. The King’s life and strength were ebbing, Anne would certainly succeed, and with the accession of Anne the virtual reign of Marlborough must begin. Marlborough patiently awaited this unfolding of events. William slowly divested himself of an animosity so keen that he had once said that had he been a private person Marlborough and he could only have settled their differences by personal combat. Another cause of mitigation can be discerned. The King had become deeply attached to a young Dutch courtier named Keppel. He had advanced him in a few years from being a page to a commanding position in the State. He had newly created him Earl of Albemarle. There was an affinity between them—honourable, but subtle and unusual. The lonely, childless monarch treated Keppel as if he were a well-beloved adopted son. Keppel was very friendly with Marlborough, and certainly played a part in his reconciliation with the King. Anne’s sole surviving son, the Duke of Gloucester, was now nine years old, and it was thought fitting to provide the future heir apparent to the Crown with a governor of high consequence and with an establishment of his own. In the summer of 1698 William invited Marlborough to be governor of the boy prince. “Teach him, my lord,” he said, “but to know what you are, and my nephew cannot want for accomplishments.” At the same time Marlborough was restored to his rank in the Army and to the Privy Council.
The ice of a long frost once broken, the King felt the comfort in his many troubles of Marlborough’s serene, practical, adaptive personality. In July 1698 Marlborough was nominated one of the nine Lords Justices to exercise the sovereign power in William’s absence from the kingdom. From this time forth William seemed to turn increasingly towards the man of whose aid he had deprived himself during the most critical years of his reign. He used in peace the soldier he had neglected in war; and Marlborough, though stamped from his youth with the profession of arms, became in the closing years of the reign a leading and powerful politician. While helping the King in many ways, he was most careful to keep a hold upon the Tory Party, because he knew that in spite of its many vices it was the strongest force in England and representative of some of the deepest traits in the English character. He was sure that no effective foreign policy could be maintained without the support of the Tory Party. He had no desire to become a mere dependant upon the King’s favour. The Princess Anne too was a bigoted Tory and Churchwoman. Thus in the last years of William’s reign Marlborough stood at the same time well with the King and with the Tory Party who vexed the King so sorely. Above all, he supported William in his efforts to prevent an undue reduction of the Army, and in fact led the House of Lords in this direction. The untimely death in 1700 of the little Duke of Gloucester, who succumbed to the fatal, prevalent scourge of smallpox, deprived Marlborough of his office. He still remained in the closest association with Sidney Godolphin and at the very centre of the political system.
There was now no direct Protestant heir to the English and Scottish thrones. By an Act of Settlement the house of Hanover, descended from the gay and attractive daughter of James I who had briefly been Queen of Bohemia, was declared next in succession after William and Anne. The Act laid down that every sovereign in future must be a member of the Church of England. It also declared that no foreign-born monarch might wage Continental wars without the approval of Parliament; he must not go abroad without consent, and no foreigners should sit in Parliament or on the Privy Council. Thus were recorded in statute the English grievances against William III. Parliament had seen to it that the house of Hanover was to be more strictly circumscribed than he had been. But it had also gone far to secure the Protestant Succession.