"Jack of Marlborough,
Who beat the Frenchman thorough and thorough."
—Old English Rhyme.
T HOUGH the seventeenth century ended in peace, yet dark storm-clouds were hovering over Europe. Louis XIV. still reigned in France, William III. in England; but it was towards distant Spain that the eyes of kings and people were now strained.
There on the throne of his forefathers sat a miserable and sickly king, whose death must end the long line of princes who had for two hundred years occupied the Spanish throne. The great question now engaging Europe was: Who should succeed him? Spain had fallen from her high estate, but so vast still was the extent of her empire that under vigorous rule her old power might yet return. In 1700 the poor king died, leaving his kingdom to Philip, the young grandson of Louis XIV. of France, the younger brother of that little Louis loved and taught by Fénelon years before. Nothing could have been more pleasing to the ambition of Louis XIV. Gladly enough he despatched his grandson, a boy of seventeen, to the Court of Madrid, though the boy-king of Spain was in bitter tears at leaving his home in Paris for a long winter journey to his new kingdom.
"Remember there are no longer any Pyrenean mountains," were Louis' parting words to Philip.
Louis had promised faithfully never to unite the thrones of France and Spain, and it was with some uneasiness now that Europe watched him directing young Philip with a high hand.
No one felt more uneasy than William III. of England. His whole life had been a struggle to keep the ever-growing power of France within bounds. He distrusted Louis, and it was with reluctance that he acknowledged Philip as King of Spain. Now Louis went a step farther.
James, the exiled King of England, lay dying in France, when Louis entered his room and promised him to help his son Charles to regain the English throne when William should die. In a moment all England was in a blaze. The English people had never loved their Dutch king, but he had made them free, he had been the champion of the Protestant religion. Should the King of France dictate to them who was to be their king? A thousand times No. Rather would they fight. In the midst of these storms William was thrown one day from his horse and broke his collar-bone. In the wretched state of his health he had no strength to rally.
"There was a time when I should have been glad to have been delivered out of my difficulties," whispered the dying king to his lifelong Dutch friend; "but I see another scene, and could wish to live a little longer."
This was denied him. It was in the year 1702 that William died, leaving his sister-in-law Anne to be Queen of England. Angrily the King of France received the news of her accession, and two months later war was declared by England against France and Spain.
The command of the troops was given by Anne to her old friend the Duke of Marlborough. This was the man who was now to carry on the work of his old master in baffling the ambitions of France—the man who was to decide the fate of Europe.
Already glimpses of him have appeared from time to time. He was one of those who deserted his king to fight under the banner of William of Orange. He had helped Anne to escape before her father, James II., reached London. He had later been caught plotting with the very king whom he had deserted, and thrown into prison by William. Pardoned and restored to favour, he became tutor to Anne's little boy, heir to the throne; for Mary had died of smallpox while still young, leaving no child to succeed her and William.
Marlborough was ambitious and scheming, but he was a marvellous soldier. He did not take up his command till the age of fifty-two, an age when the work of many men is nearly done; but he had unbroken good fortune. Voltaire said that he never besieged a fortress that he did not take, or fight a battle that he did not win.
"Our Duke was as calm at the mouth of a cannon as at the door of a drawing-room," said one who served under him. "He was cold, calm, resolute as fate."
"Yet those of the army who knew him best and had suffered most from him admired him most of all; and as he rode along the lines to battle, or galloped up in the nick of time to a battalion reeling from before the enemy's charge or shot, the fainting men and officers got new courage as they saw the splendid calm of his face, and felt that his will made them irresistible."
Such was the Duke of Marlborough, the "greatest general of his age."