There never was a Churchill from John of Marlborough down who had either morals or principles,” intoned William Gladstone, and, after reading Mary Lovell’s account of the family, it’s hard to disagree with him, albeit with the one caveat that he didn’t know Winston Churchill well enough to include him in his blanket denunciation.[1] In that sense, as in so many others, the British wartime premier broke the mold.

Although it is true that most of the rest of the early Churchills were a fairly sorry bunch in terms both of morals and principles, it hardly matters, because John, 1st Duke of Marlborough, was the greatest general in British history. The next five dukes of Marlborough were not in a position to sully that glorious reputation, and, however much whoring and over-spending and scandalizing they...


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