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By Bill Price
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2009 Bill Price
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His Early Life
An Early Arrival
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born early in the morning of 30 November 1874 in Blenheim Palace, the huge country house near Woodstock in Oxfordshire belonging to the Dukes of Marlborough. As he would throughout his life, he gave the impression of being in a hurry even as a newborn baby, arriving more than a month prematurely and only eight months after his parents, Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill, were married. Needless to say, the short interval between the marriage and the birth has led to much speculation that he was conceived before the wedding, but, while this is entirely possible, it is equally likely that he was simply born prematurely.
At the time of his birth, the Churchills were staying at Blenheim as a temporary measure while a house in London his parents had rented was being made ready. They had made few preparations for the arrival of a baby at that particular moment, as they surely would have done had they not been taken by surprise by the early arrival. A local Woodstock doctor attended the birth rather than their London obstetrician, who could not get to the house in time, and Lord Randolph would later write to his mother-in-law that the birth had taken place a few days after Lady Randolph had fallen while out walking.
Whatever the truth of the matter, neither the young Churchill nor his mother appears to have suffered any seriously adverse effects from his abrupt entry into the world. He was named Winston after one of his more illustrious ancestors, Sir Winston Churchill (1620-1688), the man who began the family's rise to prominence, and Leonard after Lady Randolph's father Leonard Jerome, a wealthy New York businessman and financial speculator with a rather colourful past. His surname of Spencer Churchill is usually not hyphenated and, following on from his father, he would almost always drop Spencer from his name and refer to himself simply as Churchill.
They may have been born more than two centuries apart, but the two Winston Churchills had more in common than their names. At different stages in their lives, both were soldiers, writers and politicians. The first Sir Winston came from a prominent but by no means aristocratic West Country family who were farmers and landowners in Devon and Dorset. Winston was the maiden name of the first Sir Winston's mother Sarah, the daughter of Sir Henry Winston of Gloucestershire, and the continuance of her family name in the Christian name of her son could well have been a way of acknowledging that her family had a higher social standing than did her husband's.
Sir Winston served as a Cavalier captain in the English Civil War (1642 to 1651) and his allegiance to the Royalist side cost him dearly after victory for the Parliamentarians, who levied a huge fine on him which would leave him in relative poverty for many years. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 led to an improvement in his fortunes and he became a Member of Parliament in the following year. He held a number of positions in the Government, including Commissioner for Irish Land Claims, and was given some recompense for the money he had lost to the Parliamentarians. But the newly restored King Charles II was himself financially stretched and, rather than make full restitution, appointed two of Churchill's children to positions in the royal household. Sir Winston's eldest daughter Arabella Churchill (1648-1730) became Maid of Honour to the Duchess of York, the wife of James, Duke of York, who would succeed Charles II on the throne in 1685 as King James II.
John Churchill (1650-1722) followed his sister Arabella into service in the same household, becoming page to the Duke of York and, from there, developing a career in the military. He advanced quickly, in part because of his own talent and courage, but also because of the patronage of the future king. During the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Churchill abandoned his patron to support William and Mary, who became joint monarchs. One of their first actions on their coronation was to honour Churchill with the title of the Earl of Marlborough, apparently confirming the widely held opinion that he had deserted James principally for his own advancement.
Churchill is now remembered chiefly as a British commander in the forces of the Grand Alliance during the War of the Spanish Succession and, in particular, for the victory he won at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Queen Anne, who succeeded to the throne in 1702 and was a close confidant of Churchill's wife Sarah, elevated him to a dukedom as a reward for the victory, which was a major turning point in the war. She also gave him the estate in Woodstock along with the money to build the spectacular house, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, which stands there today.
The Duke of Marlborough died in 1722 with no heir, so his titles passed to his grandson Charles Spencer, the son of his second daughter Anne and the Earl of Sunderland. The subsequent Dukes of Marlborough, it is fair to say, didn't live up to the example set by the first Duke, often being better known for their dissolute lifestyles and attempts to squander the family fortune than for any form of public service. In 1817, the fifth Duke legally changed the family name to Spencer-Churchill, perhaps in the hope that some of the former prestige of the Churchill name would rub off on him but, in truth, the family remained in the background of public life until Lord Randolph Churchill, the third son of the seventh Duke, entered politics in the late 1870s. He rose rapidly through the ranks of the Conservative Party before briefly serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons.
In pursing his own political career, there can be little doubt that Winston Churchill saw himself as following in the footsteps of his father. In his early years in the House of Commons, the subjects of his own campaigns and speeches followed those of Lord Randolph and, in this way, he gives the impression of attempting to vindicate his father's ultimately unsuccessful career. The extent to which he was influenced by what he knew of Marlborough is harder to gauge but it is not difficult to trace his fascination with military affairs to his ancestor, not least because of the example the Duke provided of the opportunities for personal advancement that war offered. The lives of the two Churchills were separated by more than a hundred and fifty years but, in many ways, Winston Churchill's own life had more in common with that of an eighteenth-century gentleman than it did with those of his political peers.
Towards the end of 1876, Lord Randolph moved to Ireland with his wife and two-year-old son to become secretary to his father, the Duke of Marlborough, who had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland by Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister of the Conservative Government. Although it appeared to be a prominent position, equivalent to that of viceroy, the role of Lord Lieutenant was more that of a figurehead than one carrying any real power and there was a hint of banishment from Westminster about Marlborough's appointment. His eldest son, the Marquis of Blandford, who would succeed him as Duke, had been named in a number of divorce proceedings, one of which had almost led to the involvement of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. This would have been deeply embarrassing to the royal family and, by extension, to the British Government. By sending Marlborough to Ireland, the Government could have been punishing the Churchill family, removing the source of the embarrassment from the centre of public life.
Lord and Lady Randolph moved into a house known as the Little Lodge in Phoenix Park, a large area of open parkland in the north of Dublin. It was a short walk from the Viceregal Lodge and features in many of Winston Churchill's earliest memories, as he related in My Early Life, the memoirs he wrote in 1930. He also recalled the distant relationship he had with his parents, who were frequently away on official business or private engagements. The upbringing of their son was mostly left in the hands of a nanny, Mrs Elizabeth Everest, a frequent enough arrangement among the aristocracy at the time, and the young Winston who called her 'Woom' or sometimes 'Woomany', formed a close attachment to her which would endure until her death in 1895.
In My Early Life Churchill wrote that he could only remember having two or three significant conversations with his father and, although he certainly saw more of his mother, he very obviously felt her frequent absences deeply. He went on to write that his mother always attracted attention in public because of her radiant beauty, going on to say:
My mother made the same brilliant impression upon my child's eye. She shone for me like an Evening Star. I loved her dearly - but at a distance.
Churchill was a boisterous and unruly child, often getting into trouble and exhibiting what we might now describe as attention-seeking behaviour. Lord and Lady Churchill employed a governess towards the end of their time in Ireland, perhaps in an attempt to bring some discipline into his life, and she introduced him to lessons which, he would recall, felt like an interruption from the much more important business of playing with his toys.
On 4 February 1880, Lady Randolph gave birth to her second son, who was named John Strange Spencer Churchill and became known as Jack. Persistent rumours have suggested that Lord Randolph was not Jack's father and, while there is no direct evidence to support this, Lady Randolph is known to have had a number of affairs at this time. Colonel John Strange Jocelyn, the fifth Earl of Roden, was thirty years older than Lady Randolph, but is nevertheless thought to have been one of her lovers and, if he was Jack's natural father, it might perhaps account for his unusual middle name.
The Duke of Marlborough's tenure as Lord Lieutenant came to an end in 1880. The Churchills returned to England to live in London, where Lord Randolph embarked on a political career. He had been the Conservative MP for Woodstock since 1874 but, until his return from Ireland, had given few indications of any intention to take politics seriously. Suddenly he began to make speeches in the House of Commons, often attacking the leaders of his own party more vindictively than the opposition. Despite making numerous enemies, Lord Randolph rapidly rose through the ranks of the Conservative Party, becoming part of a group of young MPs sometimes known as the Fourth Party and considered more progressive than the old guard who sat of the Front Benches.
By this time Lord and Lady Churchill were leading almost entirely separate lives, with each of them conducting a string of affairs, mostly with the full knowledge of the other. Such behaviour was generally tolerated amongst the aristocracy at that time, as long as the affairs were conducted discreetly, but the Churchills' complicated personal lives, together with Lord Randolph's burgeoning political career, meant that they continued to see very little of their two sons. In 1881, at the age of seven, Winston was sent away to school, going to a preparatory school in Ascot. Even by the standards of the day, the headmaster was a strict disciplinarian, frequently flogging the boys under his care with the birch for the least indiscretion. Churchill described himself at this time as being 'troublesome', so it is not hard to imagine that he endured a number of these beatings himself. After attending this school for two years he became ill. His parents removed him and sent him to another school in Brighton which was much more relaxed, although not as academically rigorous, where the now nine-year old Winston was much happier.
After three years in Brighton, Churchill moved on to Harrow School, one of the foremost public schools in Britain. He is often portrayed as doing very poorly at Harrow and, in his memoirs, he emphasises his failings, mostly for comic effect. While there is an element of truth in this version, in reality the story is a little more complicated. In some subjects he certainly didn't excel, particularly Classics and Maths, but in the subjects that he found interesting, such as English and History, he appears to have been an able student, attracting the attention of the headmaster and some of his teachers and exhibiting an impressive capacity to memorise and recite texts.
After a little over a year at Harrow, Churchill transferred to the Army Class, a separate stream in the school where boys of different ages were taught a specific curriculum aimed at preparing them for entry into the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. The future direction of Churchill's life was set out for him at the age of thirteen, the result of his father seeing his son's extensive collection of toy soldiers. At the time Churchill took this as a sign that his mostly absent father was taking an interest in him, although he would later discover that Lord Randolph thought the army would be a suitable career for his son because he was not bright enough to qualify for the Bar.CHAPTER 2
A Young Man in a Hurry
Soldier and Writer
It took Churchill three attempts and a period of intensive cramming in Maths to pass the entrance exam for Sandhurst and then, much to the annoyance of his father, he only did well enough to be offered a cavalry cadetship. The marks required to be accepted into the cavalry were lower than those for the infantry for the simple reason that more boys applied for the infantry because, since cavalry cadets had to buy and keep their own horses, it was less expensive. Lord Randolph, who would be footing the bill, might not have been happy but Winston was delighted with the cavalry, not least because he loved horse riding. While at Sandhurst, he would develop into an accomplished polo player, incurring an even greater expense for his father by hiring a string of polo ponies.
Sandhurst was much more to Churchill's liking than Harrow. The practical nature of the course suited him down to the ground and, as he could see the purpose of what he was being taught, he began to do well. His energy and enthusiasm had been previously been undirected, perhaps accounting for his unruly behaviour, but at Sandhurst he found a vocation and, for the most part, the discipline required to go with it. At the same time his father began to pay more attention to him, perhaps recognising this new-found sense of maturity in his son. However, as Winston progressed through the course at Sandhurst, it was becoming increasingly apparent to him that his father was unwell.
In December 1894, Churchill passed out of Sandhurst, finishing a very creditable eighth out of a class of 150, demonstrating how capable he could be when he put his mind to the task at hand. On leaving Sandhurst he was commissioned as a subaltern, the lowest officer rank, in the 4th Queen's Own Hussars, a cavalry regiment which had recently returned to England from Ireland and was commanded by Colonel Brabazon, on old friend of the Churchill family from their Dublin days. At almost the same time, on 24 January 1895, Lord Randolph died, having being diagnosed as suffering from tertiary syphilis. Churchill was not aware of the nature of his father's illness (some doubt has been cast on the diagnosis since) and he must surely have felt deeply the loss of his father at just the moment when the two of them were finally beginning to develop a relationship. But he also felt a certain sense of liberation, as if he now no longer had to seek approval for his actions. For the first time in his life Churchill was responsible for himself, allowing him to make his own decisions and to follow his own path.
A further consequence of his father's death was that the twenty-year-old Churchill developed a conviction that the Churchills died young. His father was only 45 when he died and his uncle, the eighth Duke of Marlborough, had died a few years previously at the age of 48. Churchill became convinced that, if he was going to make his mark on the world, he only had a limited span of time available. In the event he lived until he was ninety, despite the alcohol and cigars, and his conviction may simply have been his own method of instilling a sense of purpose in himself so that he directed his energy towards achieving his own place in history.
Churchill's relationship with his mother began to change at this time. At Harrow he had written to her often, asking her to visit him. Her replies were infrequent and her visits even more so but, after Lord Randolph's death, they became much closer, developing a relationship which Churchill would describe as being more like that of a brother and sister than mother and son. Lady Randolph, as she continued to be called even after remarrying, was 40 when her husband died and continued to be a prominent presence in society. She would make use of her extensive network of contacts and acquaintances within the British establishment to further Winston's interests, becoming a collaborator in his attempts to realise his various ambitions and she also supplemented his salary. A cavalry officer received £300 a year, which was not enough to support even those who lived relatively modestly, and Lady Randolph contributed an additional £400 to her son, giving him a total annual budget equivalent to about £40,000 today. Even so, Churchill frequently wrote to her complaining that he was short of money. She wrote back to tell him she could not provide any more money, on one occasion writing from the best hotel in Monte Carlo to inform him of her own dire financial situation.
Excerpted from Winston Churchill by Bill Price. Copyright © 2009 Bill Price. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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