Earlier this month, the National Churchill Library and Center (NCLC) welcomed historian and bestselling author Andrew Roberts for a talk on his latest book about U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Churchill: Walking with Destiny. He was interviewed by Michael Bishop, the Director of the NCLC, in Washington, D.C.
As Roberts admitted, his book brings the total of Churchill biographies up to a jaw-dropping figure of 1,010 (and counting). However, his book is a welcome and essential addition because he delved into several resources that only recently became available to historians. These newer sources include daughter Mary Soames’ diaries, Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maisky’s diaries, verbatim accounts of War Cabinet meetings, and Pamela Harriman’s love letters.
But perhaps the diaries of Queen Elizabeth II’s father, King George VI, rank as the most exciting source since Roberts was the first Churchill biographer to receive access to them. George VI took very detailed notes about his Tuesday lunches with Churchill, held every week during WWII. Roberts said, “Very quickly, the king is referring to Churchill by his Christian name. [Churchill] was the only one of his four prime ministers that he called by his Christian name and they became firm friends.”
Churchill felt destined from an early age that he was preparing to have a major role in history. Roberts pointed out that the future politician confessed this sort of premonition to his friends at age 16. He said, “There were going to be great struggles, huge upheavals in the world. But he was going to be called upon to save London, save the country, and the empire.”
Also of note during Churchill’s early years was his relationship with his parents, who preferred to handle him with a bit of distance. It was something that weighed heavily upon him as he grew up. For example, Roberts elaborated that Lady Churchill “wrote everything she did in her diary. In 1884, [she] only saw her son six and a half hours of out six months.”
Churchill turned out to be a “profoundly passionate man” despite his upbringing. As Roberts characterized him, “He was not a buttoned up, stiff upper lip aristocrat of the late Victorian age into which he was born. Much more, he was a throwback to an era he loved, the Regency.”
In the years leading up to WWII, Churchill recognized the danger that Adolph Hitler posed to the world and opposed the appeasement strategy adopted by Neville Chamberlain and others. According to Roberts, a couple of factors enabled him to have this particular insight on the problem. First was Churchill’s own experiences fighting in the British empire’s campaigns in the 1890s and in the trenches during WWI.
The other was his careful study of history and publishing a history book, which illuminated to him the trends in historical periods dominated by dangerous leaders. Roberts said, “He was able to place Hitler in the long continuum of people that needed to be stopped from the Continent … He came up close to fanaticism in a way that very few prime ministers in the 1930s ever had.”
Though already in his late 60s when he attained the office of prime minister, Churchill maintained an astonishingly active schedule, chairing well over 1,000 War Cabinet meetings. He braved dangers like potential attacks by U-boats and planes to travel extensively as part of his efforts to be “the glue” to hold the Big Three alliance together with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roberts marveled that Churchill’s treks amounted to some 110,000 miles outside the U.K.
The conversation briefly touched on the subject of Clementine, Churchill’s wife of nearly 60 years. Churchill relied on her greatly in their marriage, especially for her advice on his career. She proved to be quite a “rock” for him and the family. Andrews added, “The wonderful thing about her is she was a battle axe and could be so rude to his enemies. You did not want to get on the wrong side of her when she was in full swing.”
For more about the Andrew Roberts’ book, you can view the interview in its entirety on C-SPAN.