Churchill on Statesmanship: Pope Innocent XI
The Age of Marlborough and Innocent XI
Among Winston Churchill’s greatest works is his biography of his ancestor—John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, the invincible general in the wars against the Sun King, Louis XIV. Marlborough: His Life and Times is more than a biography; it is a masterful illustration of statesmanship. For Churchill, it was a veritable primer in his own era of continental tyrants like Hitler and Stalin—and his consistent subordination of religious differences to the good of all peoples.
For Churchill, statesmanship must be illustrated. He never wrote a treatise upon the subject or composed a list of its essential attributes. He preferred to demonstrate than to strictly define. One gathers from the works of ancient political philosophers that statesmanship involves pursuing the good while confronting practical difficulties. But therein lies an impediment to a fixed definition: the difficulties and the challenges change. The circumstances to be navigated, and to be overcome, are never exactly the same twice.
Churchill’s understanding of statesmanship lies first in his own record. His historical and biographical writings offer us an additional treasure: descriptions of the thoughts and actions of other admirable figures in history. Among these, Marlborough is the brightest jewel. The great Duke navigated tremendous difficulties— personal and public, international and domestic, political and military—with consummate skill. Marlborough did not act in isolation, but within a network of circumstance, and with others who influenced the flow of events.
So brilliant is Churchill’s historical canvas that it illumines not only Marlborough but these other figures in the background. This effect is intentional and characterizes Churchill’s work: “In a portrait or impression the human figure is best shown by its true relation to the objects and scenes against which it is thrown, and by which it is defined.”1 The attention given these secondary portraits is repaid with a sharper vision for the primary subject.
Marlborough emerges as the pinnacle of sagacity and military skill, but Churchill does not oversell him, or concentrate on him alone. Foremost among those receiving honorable mention is William of Orange, King William III of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1689 to 1702. Churchill ranks him with Marlborough: “For the quarter of a century from 1688 to 1712 England was to be led by two of the greatest warriors and statesmen in all history…”2
Another figure who may be lost in the magnitude of the composition is Pope Innocent XI (1676-89). His war against political and religious tyranny was carried out with other weapons and upon different fields, but nonetheless earned him Churchill’s praise: “He used his spiritual weapons with the address of an accomplished duelist, and he understood the political balances of Europe as well as any statesman then alive. Such was the Pope who withstood Louis XIV with the skill and patience of William of Orange, and defeated him as decisively as did Marlborough.”3
The Challenge of Louis XIV
The backdrop to Marlborough’s and Innocent’s labors was the struggle against Louis XIV’s France. “Since the duel between Rome and Carthage there had been no such world war,” Churchill writes. This quarter-century war had far-reaching effects: “It involved all the civilized peoples; it extended to every part of the accessible globe; it settled for some time or permanently the relative wealth and power, and the frontiers of almost every European state.” Yet Churchill emphasizes there was more at stake than territory: “The wars of William and Anne were no mere effort of national ambition or territorial gain. They were in essentials a struggle for the life and liberty not only of England, but of Protestant Europe.”4
The Sun King represented a political system counter to English constitutional development, with a proselytizing aspect. Louis actively sought to remake the world in his own image and under his control: “The conquest, planned and largely effected, was not only military and economic, but religious, moral, and intellectual. It was the most magnificent claim to world dominion ever made since the age of the Antonines.”5
Beyond the simple domination, the religious aspect of Louis’ planned conquests was problematic for protestant England, and indeed Europe. After much bloodshed, following the Reformation, Europeans had forged a workable religious co-existence. But Louis aimed at re-establishing Catholicism as the universal faith. With his revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685—“the crowning act of intolerance,” Churchill called it—Louis repealed the religious freedom that had secured peace in post-Reformation France. “Thus our ancestors saw the all-powerful, all-grasping military monarch become also the avowed, implacable foe of Protestantism, and, indeed, of political freedom of every kind throughout Europe,” Churchill writes, “and the aggressions of Louis were simultaneously launched upon the hearts and upon the souls of all mankind within his reach.”6
King Louis was adept at pulling the strings of the other nations’ internal politics. With the secret Treaty of Dover in 1670, he secured the aid of England’s King Charles II. In exchange for England’s aid in the conquest of Holland, Louis promised Charles subsidies that would make the King financially independent in peacetime from his quarrelsome Parliament. Charles in turn promised to convert to Catholicism at some future date—and to try, “by every means at his disposal, to bring his subjects back to the Catholic faith. Full allowance would be made for the obvious difficulties of such a task; but the effort was to be continuous and loyal. In any case, not only French money, but French troops were to be available to secure the English monarchy against the anger of Parliament or the revolt of the nation.”7
King Charles accordingly issued the Declaration of Indulgence which, Churchill notes, “in the name of toleration gave to Catholics the freedom they were denying to Protestants in every country where they were in the ascendant.”8 But the agreement with Louis proved difficult to maintain in the face of an expensive war, financial shortfalls, and the ire of Parliament at Charles’s pro-Catholic policies. Charles was forced to repeal the Declaration of Indulgence to secure needed finances from Parliament. In fact, he was encouraged to do so—and to accept a Test Act excluding Catholics from offices of State—by the French ambassador. Obviously, the Sun King preferred power to religion. In seeking England’s aid against Holland, he was willing to sacrifice his co-religionists.
Innocent XI and the Duel between Church and State
The French King’s actions evoked concern in the head of the Catholic faith. Pope Innocent’s response would be vital to the fortunes and the future of Europe. In Churchill’s presentation, Innocent’s ability to see beyond facile religious factors—to shape his actions with prudence and principle—elevates him to the company of statesmen.
As with his machinations in England, Louis XIV proved that power weighed more with him than faith. This brought him into conflict with the Papacy. “During the same years when his flail fell so cruelly on the Huguenots and when he saw himself the heaven-appointed champion of the Old Faith, he engaged in his most grievous quarrel with the Papacy,” Churchill writes. “Like Henry VIII of England, the Grand Monarch was ‘a good Catholic who wanted to be his own Pope.’ All in France must bow to his will.” Louis insisted on temporal, and even spiritual, control of the clergy. For the most part, the Gallican (French Catholic) Church followed his lead, and Innocent readily perceived the challenge to his spiritual authority.
Though Churchill fully appreciates and explicates the interweaving of religion and politics in Marlborough, the political cause is nearer his heart. He emphasizes that this quarrel would benefit the cause of political freedom: “It was fortunate indeed that Louis’s aggression were universal.”9 The Papacy was roused against France—not only by the challenge to its spiritual authority, but by Innocent XI’s political far-sightedness and fair-mindedness.
The Pope, Churchill writes, “disapproved of French persecution of the Protestants. He condemned conversions effected by such means. Christ had not used armed apostles. ‘Men must be led to the temple, not dragged into it.’” Innocent deployed all his spiritual weapons, but also entered into secular alliances: “He withdrew all spiritual authority from the French episcopacy. He pronounced decrees of interdict and excommunication; and what was perhaps of no less immediate importance, he wove himself into the whole European combination against the predominance of France.”10
In assessing Innocent as a statesman, Churchill emphasizes the Pope’s willingness to join with Protestant allies: “Across the gulf of the Reformation and the Inquisition he weighted the swords of the Protestant armies. He comforted the Catholic [Holy Roman] Emperor. He consorted with the Calvinist Prince of Orange.” Innocent’s broadminded and forbearing wisdom ensured that the fight against Louis XIV was a struggle of freedom against despotism—not another internecine religious conflict: “To him more than to any other individual we owe the fact that the wars of William and, after Innocent’s death, of Marlborough were, for Europe at large, secular struggles for worldly dominion, and that the lines of battle were no longer, as in preceding generations, the lines of faith.”11
The comradeship across sectarian divides made possible by Innocent XI played no small part in the formation of the League of Augsburg in 1686, later known as the “Grand Alliance”—a European coalition of Catholic and Protestant powers aimed at thwarting Louis XIV’s expansionist policies. In that historic development lay the driving force of Churchill’s own quest for a “Grand Alliance” against European oppressors of his own time.
The Glorious Revolution
Charles, making good his promise to Louis, converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. He was succeeded in 1685 by his brother James II, England’s last Catholic monarch. Mounting a more direct challenge to the faith of England than his brother, James took an expansive view of monarchical authority redolent of the Sun King. Churchill writes: “He would make England a Catholic country and himself an absolute monarch.”12
James’s plans had profound implications for the future of England and the international scene. Under James, England’s strength was withheld from the League of Augsburg and, if he succeeded, might well have been joined with that of France. But James faced fierce resistance by Parliament, an invasion by a rival, and the defection of key military commanders including Marlborough. Repudiated, James cast the royal seal into the Thames and escaped to the court of his protector, Louis XIV.
The rival and the invader was William of Orange—husband of James’s daughter Mary, Stadtholder of Holland, foremost defender of the Protestant faith, and inveterate enemy of Louis’ France. William was invited to take the throne by the leading Englishmen, who abhorred James’s absolutist policies and could not accept the Catholic ascendancy they entailed.
William did not take this perilous step without careful consideration and gathering allies. Beyond the pledges given to him by leading Englishmen, he engaged the support of the League of Augsburg. He had the backing of Prussia and the other German principalities. Even Spain “set political above religious considerations, and made no bones about an expedition to dethrone a Catholic King.” Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor, was hesitant but finally came along out of political and military necessity. “Only a dominating sense of common danger,” Churchill writes,“could have united these diverse interests and creeds upon a strategy so far-seeing and broadminded.”
Pope Innocent’s Key Role
Something beyond the practical influenced these decisions. The Emperor’s support, Churchill writes, was encouraged “by communications from the Vatican.”13 That little phrase opens up an interesting tension between Churchill and his principal source on Innocent: Leopold von Ranke’s History of the Popes. Concerning the Glorious Revolution, Churchill seems to present a more aware, intentional, and active Pope than Ranke does.
Churchill’s presentation of Innocent’s accomplishments in eliminating corruption, reforming Papal administration, and restoring the Vatican’s financial solvency closely parallel Ranke’s, though Churchill offers more sweeping assessments of character: “In manner gentle, in temper tolerant, in mood humane, in outlook broad and comprehending, he nevertheless possessed and exercised and inflexible will and an imperturbable daring.”14
Both accounts portray the Pope as intelligent, determined, and decisive. But over Innocent’s role in William’s invasion, Ranke hedges, saying it would “be difficult to prove that Innocent was in direct alliance [with William]….but it may be affirmed, with the utmost confidence, that his Minister [the Vatican’s Secretary of State Count Cassoni] was aware of them….It was a strange complication! At the Court of Rome were combined the threads of that alliance which had for its aim and result the liberation of Protestantism from the last great danger by which it was threatened in Western Europe….”15
It would seem strange that a Pope so informed and involved as Innocent was could be ignorant of developments so vital for the destiny of Europe and so central to religious concerns, carried on by his own Secretary of State. And Ranke admits that even if the Pope was not “acquainted with the entire purpose…it is yet undeniable that he allied himself with an opposition arising from Protestant impulses, and sustained for the most part by Protestant resources.”16
Ranke did not wish lightly to assert that the Pope conspired to replace a Catholic king with a heretic prince. But Churchill feels no such hesitation, portraying Innocent as deprecating James’s excessive and intolerant zeal17 and finally repudiating his reign: “The Pope, for the sake of whose faith he [James] had hazarded all, in aversion to whom his subjects were in revolt, was working with his enemies.”18 In Churchill’s view, the Glorious Revolution was a very good thing for England, for Europe, and for the cause of freedom. The religious question need cause no embarrassment. Innocent’s statesmanship is grounded upon his ability to navigate such difficulties conscientiously and prudently.
Churchill on Religion vs. Politics
In Churchill’s praise of Innocent XI we can see much of his own attitude toward the interaction of politics and religion, both within and beyond the horizon of Marlborough. The Pope declined to support Catholics who were behaving tyrannically, but would have if Louis and James had not been despots. Marlborough declined to adhere to a Catholic king who was behaving tyrannically, but would have if James had upheld English liberties. Thus Marlborough and Innocent are mirror images: both of them put freedom above doctrine.
For Churchill, Marlborough’s approach to King James simply reflected the general attitude of the country. The King “had only to practise his religion for his conscience’s sake as a man, to observe the laws of the realm, and to keep the promises he had made respecting them, in order to receive and enjoy the faithful service of his subjects for all his days.”19 Only when James pushed his absolutist ambitions beyond their endurance did his countrymen cast him off. The Protestant cause that Churchill describes is more political than doctrinal.
Churchill’s attitude toward religious differences in his own career was similar. He did not despise or discount the realm of conscience. But whether dealing with the divides between Hindus and Muslims in India or Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, he refused to dwell on dogma. Specific religious beliefs came under his notice only insofar as they aided or marred political health—to which they must, in the realm of public deliberation, remain subordinate.
Featured Image: Pope Innocent XI, born Benedetto Odescalchi (1611-1689) was Pope from 1676 until his death. In his actions toward Louis XIV and England’s Glorious Revoution, Churchill portrays him as a statesman who set liberty over religious dogma.
About the Author
Dr. Lyons is Associate Professor of Political Science and History at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio. In 2015 he published Alexander the Great and Hernán Cortés: Ambiguous Legacies of Leadership.
1 Winston S. Churchill, Marlborough: His Life and Times, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), I 19.
2 Marlborough, I 78.
3 Marlborough, I 230.
4 Marlborough, I 16.
5 Marlborough, I 66-67.
6 Marlborough, I 228.
7 Marlborough, I 76.
8 Marlborough, I 94.
9 Marlborough, I 229.
10 Marlborough, I 230. Quotation from Leopold von Ranke, History of the Popes, 3 vols. (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.,  1966), 122.
11 Marlborough, I 230.
12 Marlborough, I 201.
13 Marlborough, I 244.
14 Marlborough, I 230.
15 Ranke, 123.
16 Ranke, 123-124.
17 Marlborough, I 219.
18 Marlborough, I 247.
19 Marlborough, I 182.