Did John Churchill fight in Tangier before he became Duke of Marlborough?


Churchill with the Army in Tangier

Online articles about John Churchill 1st Duke of Marlborough's early military career are often unsubstantiated and usually unreliable; some claim he served in Tangier for a while.

Born in 1650 he was introduced to court at the age of sixteen and quickly became a favourite of the Duke of York. He is said to have begged the King for a commission in a Foot Guards Regiment.

Some sources suggest Churchill was in Tangier as early as 1666-7 and 'eagerly engaged in the frequent sallies and skirmishes that occurred during the course of the siege'. At this time Ghailan had suffered defeat at the hands of the Spanish and was trying to forge an alliance with the English at Tangier to help him defend his lands against the rising Sultan Al-Rashid. In addition, England was in the middle of the Second Anglo-Dutch war (1665-1667); travelling to or living in Tangier would have been even more risky than usual; the city was also under lock-down - threatened by the Plague which was spreading across Morocco, and strict quarantine procedures were in place. I am sure a notable favourite of the Duke of York would not risk the journey to Tangier in 1666 or 1667, even if he were temporarily out of favour with the King - and even if he had there was no siege and almost certainly no fighting taking place on land.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) states: 'Several biographers have asserted that about 1668 Churchill went to Tangier and possibly served there for two years as a volunteer with the earl of Peterborough's regiment in the defence of that outpost, but no contemporary evidence has been found to support this.' These biographers may have based their account on Thomas Lediard 1733 'Life of John, Duke of Marlborough' who claims, after being given a pair of colours in the Guards John Churchill 'laid hold of the first opportunity to serve his country and embark'd for Tangier, where, during the time he was in that garrison, he was in several skirmishes with the Moors'. Lediard's sycophantic biography gives no dates or evidence for Churchill's time in Tangier and he makes no mention of him serving aboard ships in the Mediterranean.

According to Thomson 1979 'The First Churchill' the Duke of York gave the impecunious young Churchill his commission as ensign in a company of the First Foot Guards in the Autumn (September) of 1667 at the age of 17. Thomson further asserts 'not long afterwards Churchill went on active service to the Mediterranean, probably to Tangier'.

Winston Churchill's 1933 Marlborough: His Life and Times has a lot of bluster and assertion, but admits 'There is no contemporary evidence of his ever having been there.' Nonetheless - despite John Churchill himself never having claimed to have served in the city - Winston tries to manufacture evidence by quoting from a 1707 letter from John Churchill to his wife - 'when I was in Spain in the month of August (no date)' Winston adding 'There is little doubt that Marlborough considered Tangier 'Spain' (!!!). I am quite sure no-one in the English Court at that time would think of Tangier as being Spain - England, Portugal, Barbary Coast, Fez, Turks - but not Spain - it had never been Spanish. Winston goes on to assert 'We may therefore assume that his service in Tangier covered the years 1668 to 1670 - without a shred of evidence to support the statement - a truly epic case of wishful thinking I believe - as with many of his statements about his distant ancestor. The reference to Spain in August is explained more credibly in Admiral Allin's Journal as explained later in this blog.

By January 1668 the garrison of Tangier was organised into a single regiment of 12 Companies, known as The Tangier Regiment or Colonel Middleton's Regiment (not Peterborough's (as ONDB states) he was long gone - Middleton was governor in 1668). Churchill is not shown as an officer in this regiment (BL: MS Sloane 3509 FF 230/1).

In 1668 and early 1669 most of the fighting in northern Morocco was between Ghailan - the local warlord - and Al-Rashid the Moroccan Sultan who was trying to assert his authority over the region. There had only been a few attacks on the outlying forts of Tangier, and even these diminished with the arrival, in August 1669, of Charles II's ambassador Lord Howard, laden with expensive gifts, to negotiate a peace treaty with the Sultan. Howard stayed for more than a year, during which time the Moorish envoys were trying to convince him to travel into the interior to meet the Sultan - it hardly seems likely they would be attacking Tangier.

Holmes 2008 'Marlborough' tries to establish the existence of active conflict by quoting a statement by Cholmley, but the quote is from August 1671, by which time Howard was long gone and Churchill was known to have been in England for some months. Winston Churchill merely asserts 'Tangier was the scene of constant fighting'.

I have not found John Churchill's name in any of the reports by Governors of Tangier or letters from Palmes Fairborne (a prolific letter-writer).

My conclusion is that the idea young Churchill fought in the Tangier Regiment is almost certainly pure fantasy.

Churchill with the Mediterranean Fleet

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies also states: 'However, on 10 March 1670 the duke of York approvingly wrote to Admiral Sir Thomas Allin, who commanded the English squadron in the Mediterranean, that Churchill, one of the ensigns of the King's regiment sent to command the troops ‘for recruit of your squadron', wished to continue with Allin's squadron as a supernumerary, apparently in Allin's flagship Resolution (NA: PRO, ADM 2/1746, fol. 61). During this period Allin was involved in operations against the Algerine corsairs near Tangier. Allin returned with his flagship to England in November 1670.'

Holmes reveals on 21st March 1670 Charles II signed to the effect that he owed John Churchill's father, Winston,  £140 that he'd given his son 'towards the equipage and other expenses in the employment he is now forthwith by our command to undertake on board the fleet in the Mediterranean Sea'. 

My interpretation of these pieces of information would be that far from being a soldier in Tangier, Churchill had, (at the time Winston has him fighting in Tangier) as Ensign of a Foot Guards Company in England, assisted in recruiting men to serve as marines for Allin's voyage to the Mediterranean in 1669, and had asked to actually serve on board the following year - a request that was apparently granted. So Churchill most likely served not as a volunteer but 'in the employment he is now forthwith by our command to undertake' with Guards serving as marines in Allin's fleet sometime after March 1670 and before its return in November of that year.

This interpretation is made more credible by the fact that a the following year, in March 1671, Ensign Churchill embarked with the first company of the guards and participated in Sir Robert Holmes's unsuccessful attack on the Dutch Smyrna-bound ships anchored near the Isle of Wight, and in May 1672 he and his Company were on board Royal Prince, the duke of York's flagship during the battle of Sole Bay. It seems quite likely that soldiers recruited from the royal regiments to serve onboard under the High Admiral the Duke of York would wear the Duke of York's colour, yellow, and early marines apparently wore that colour.

I have scanned Allin's journals, reports and letters (MS Tanner 39 & 291-5 Bodleian) and have only found two references to a 'Churchill', both in MS Tanner 295, the Journals of Sir Thomas Allin. On 2nd June 1670 Allin writes 'Began to victual Mr Churchill and his men and 15 soldiers'. This might indicate John Churchill had just arrived at that time with a group of fellow Guards. On 21st of the same month Allin writes 'I presently despatched away, being near 2 oclock afternoon, my barge with a letter and Mr Brisbane, Lieut Woodward with Mr Churchill to the Castle of Galetta and soe to town to know also about our salute'. We might reasonably assume Mr Churchill refers to John Churchill. l have found no other reference to a Churchill amongst Allin's papers, though the Admiral's writing is very impersonal and he mentions very few names, so that proves little in itself. Allin's flagship was in Spain on three occasions during August - 13th-15th in Gibraltar, 22nd Malaga, 25th Alicante, which would explain how John Churchill had experienced Spanish weather during that month. 

In conclusion, I believe the assumption that Churchill stayed in Tangier and fought land battles is entirely incorrect; perhaps a flattering addition to his c.v., but an improbable one, but it seems likely he served onboard the Mediterranean fleet for a few months in 1670.

I intend to continue my search of papers from this period, seeking references to Churchill, to try to resolve this issue, in the meantime I would be grateful to anyone who could offer more information on the subject of Churchill's involvement in Tangier, with appropriate primary sources. Should I find no evidence of John Churchill serving in Tangier I shall feel obliged to move this article to 'Misinformation', rather than leaving it in 'Stumbling Blocks'.

















Where did Palmes Fairborne live? Did he change houses as his family grew?

National Archives CO 279/34 p14 refers to a 2 up 2 down house of Major Palmes Fairborne:








I can find no hint anywhere as to where Fairborne lived.


Where did the soldiers and their officers live? 


Where did the officers live? Where did rank & file soldiers live? Did their quarters change when there when the army was larger? Were there houses in the upper castle as shown on some maps of Tangier? If so when were they built and who lived in them.