A decent spring day today, and I took B out for an excursion to the battlefield of Ramillies which is about half an hour's drive from where she lives.

Ramillies? I first came across it in a tune called "Darby Kelly about a drummer in the Peninsular War whose grandfather had fought for Marlborough a century earlier. That told me very little except that it was linked with Blenheim, which I had heard of because there's a palace named after it. But in fact it was a hugely important battle, both for its time and for its winner.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) has a tremendously dull name, and it certainly didn't figure much in my (Belfast Catholic) history books. But it has some claim to being the real First World War, fought in the Americas as well as in Europe. At stake was the question of whether or not the heir to the throne of France, the most powerful country in Europe, would also be allowed to inherit Spain, and the Spanish possessions of most of South America, making France the most powerful country in the world. (Spoiler: after over a decade of war, the French prince was allowed to rule Spain but had to disclaim his potential French inheritance.)

Part of the price of peace for the Spanish was to hand the Spanish Netherlands, ie what we now call Belgium, to Austrian rule where it remained until the Revolution later that century. That was basically a recognition of fact; the anti-French Grand Alliance had controlled most of Belgium since about halfway through the war – specifically, since the Allied victory at Ramillies on 23 May 1706, where Marlborough crushed a French force of almost the same size and then spent the following weeks conquering almost all of Belgium, which the Allies then held for the rest of the war. (It was then given to the Austrians as a consolation prize.) Had Marlborough not won at Ramillies, Spanish rule here would surely have continued, and Belgium would have missed out on the relatively benign Austrian governorate of the eighteenth century.

The immediate consequence for the Duke of Marlborough was that his reputation, which had been in the mud ten years before but considerably restored by victory at Blenheim in 1704, was firmly established. As a direct response to his victory at Ramillies, Parliament legislated that his titles and estates should be made perpetual upon his heirs, male or female. As his only son had died, aged 17, in 1703, this meant that the title of Marlborough and Blenheim Palace would continue in the family through his daughters. Later descendants include Winston Churchill, grandson of the Seventh Duke.

So I went to Ramillies to try and see what if anything I could find of this historic event. There's a vast amount at Waterloo, including a very impressive visitor's centre which I strongly recommend; but I have to say I came away from Ramillies with very little. I could not even find the modest memorial plaque apparently placed in 2007 for the tercentenary. I had hoped at least to get a then-and-now contrast of contemporary pictures with present-day photographs. Here's one which I found on Wikipedia though without attribution:

Alas, the picture is complete fiction. The church spire at Ramillies is at the south end of the nave; the Duke could not have been in a position with the church at the angle depicted until after the battle was over, because the French controlled the west side of the village until the end of the battle (which is how it got its name). I took a picture from the corner of Rue du Village to prove the point:

One can reasonably decry the commercialisation of historical sites, but the fact is that the only information I found at Ramillies was about a local scrap in the First World War, not the world-shaping conflict of two centuries earlier:

Anyway, the day was not a loss. B and I had a nice drive in the countryside, and I was particularly delighted with the Gallo-Roman tumulus of Hottomont, which was also the base of the French commander Villeroy for most of the battle. The trees that have grown up since then obscure the view from the top, but the 11.5 metre high tumulus itself is very pleasing. I climbed it, which is probably the best exercise I got all weekend.

Still, it's odd that I could find literally no written record on the ground of the battle. Perhaps, with B in the car, I was not looking hard enough?

One thought on “Ramillies

  1. Honestly, I loved all the TV serials except for The Hand of Fear (“You kicked Sarah out of the TARDIS! Why?! WHHHYYYYYYYY!”) Eight Year Old Me was completely squicked by the Master in The Deadly Assassin though.

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