James FitzJames

Recently I have been reading a lot about James FitzJames the Duke of Berwick and am curious what people think of his abilities as a commander and how he compares with other commanders of that war and later periods.

A very interesting question - but one, I think, to which it not possible to give a very coherent answer. He followed the sword in a period of great military and political confusion, during which he scored a number of notable victories in the service of his father, King James II of England, and of King Louis XIV of France and of the latter’s clients. However, he often found himself restrained by being in secondary positions of command, and being messed around by politically-inspired decisions on the part of his father, and of his later patron Louis XIV. In general, the chaotic political and military situation of the wars in which he participated (principally the War of the Spanish Succession) make it difficult to assess his abilities, in particular, against later commanders who functioned in more straightforward political situations. Nor does it help that among both his colleagues and his adversaries numbered some undoubtedly first-rate generals, not least his relative, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (Berwick was the illegitimate son of Marlborough’s sister by James II) - with whom, strangely, he maintained a clandestine relationship even while the two were on opposite sides in a very active war.

Probably better to consider his achievements in their own times, on their own terms. That is History, I suppose. His talents and achievements were, indeed, considerable on those terms; he certainly had an important role in deciding the Spanish Succession against the House of Austria, and might have had a more decisive role in the outcome of the Irish element of the struggle had he been allowed the discretion control the situation. Who knows ? To go further would to venture into the realms of “what if ?”. Best regards, JR.