Many people, particularly in Great Britain, regard Winston Churchill as one of the greatest statesmen of modern history. Despite being born into a family of great wealth and privilege, Churchill dedicated his life to public service as a writer, army officer, and politician. His legacy is complex and marred by controversy. Though many view him as a great wartime leader and social reformer, others condemn his imperialist views and comments on race. Regardless, there is no doubting that Winston Churchill is one of the most significant figures of the 20th century.
Winston Churchill was born at his family’s estate, Blenheim Palace, near Oxford on November 30, 1874. His mother, originally Jennie Jerome, was an American heiress. Her father was a stock speculator and partial owner of the New York Times. Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, belonged to a long familial line of aristocrats and politicians. Lord Randolph Churchill was a well-known Tory radical and originator of the term “Tory democracy.” The family moved to Ireland in 1876 and Churchill’s brother, Jack, was born a few years later in 1880.
When Churchill was seven years old, he attended St. George’s School in Ascot, Berkshire. He disliked the school immensely and frequently misbehaved. His academic performance was notably poor. In 1884, he moved to Brunswick School in Hove due to poor health. Though his academic performance improved slightly, his behavior did not. After narrowly passing the entrance exam, Churchill began attending the elite Harrow School in 1888. Here, he excelled in many classes, particularly history. However, his teachers would frequently complain that he was careless and unpunctual. Years later, he attempted to enter the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst. After failing twice, he passed the entrance exam and became a cadet in the cavalry in 1893.
Shortly after finishing school, Churchill’s father died in 1895. Shortly after, Churchill began serving as a second lieutenant in the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars regiment. He desired military action and attempted to use his mother’s influence to gain a post near a war zone. Later that year, he traveled to Cuba to observe its war of independence. In 1896, the Hussars arrived in India. Churchill began working as a journalist and would go on to detail his experiences in India 18 months later in his first book. He also began a project of self-education after believing himself poorly educated. He returned to England in 1899 after many military and journalistic endeavors with five published works.
Beginning in 1899, Churchill decided to pursue a parliamentary career. He gave several addresses at Conservative Party meetings and made many political contacts. He was one of the two Conservative parliamentary candidates in the summer of 1899, though he lost the election. He continued working as a journalist until settling down in Southampton in 1900. He secured a narrow victory in the 1900 general election and became a Member of Parliament at age 25. He began a speaking tour, during which he meant influential individuals such as William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Despite being a member of the Conservative Party, Churchill supported and recommended many Liberal policies, including lowering military expenditure and restoring legal rights to trade unions.
After years of criticism from other Conservative Party members, Churchill crossed the floor and sat as a member of the Liberal party in the House of Commons in 1904. Two years later, Churchill became Under-Secretary of State for the Colonial Office and worked for social reform in South Africa. In 1908, Churchill earned a promotion to the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade. With his promotion, he continued to pursue social policies, such as limiting miners to eight-hour days and establishing the principle of a minimum wage. He later became Home Secretary in 1910.
After serving as Home Secretary for just over a year, Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 led Churchill to believe war was inevitable. After the German invasion of Belgium, Churchill commanded the naval effort and later took control of the aerial defense of Britain. Despite his efforts, the war remained a stalemate. This would lead to one of Churchill’s greatest career failures: the 1915 invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula. He proposed a naval attack on the Dardanelles using obsolete battleships to force Turkey out of the war while encouraging the Balkan states to join the Allies. After nine months and many casualties, the Allies withdrew, and Churchill resigned from the government.
After resigning, Churchill took command of a battalion in an attempt to restore his reputation, eventually earning the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He returned to the United Kingdom in 1916 and served in a number of political positions. In 1924, Churchill accepted the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer and officially rejoined the Conservative Party. During this period, he opposed the Indian Independence movement and openly spoke negatively about Gandhi. After the Nazi party came into power in 1933, Churchill spent much of his time warning about the perils of German nationalism.
Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, thus beginning what would later be known as World War II. Germany would then invade Denmark and Norway, leading to the Allies’ failed attempt of liberating Norway from the Nazis. This would lead to a momentous debate in the British House of Commons in May of 1940. Many politicians and citizens lost confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Following the German invasion of Belgium, Chamberlain relinquished his position, and Winston Churchill officially became Prime Minister.
Members of the British populace and several politicians still wished to seek a peaceful resolution to the war. Churchill’s pragmatism and rhetoric rapidly changed public opinion and prepared the country for a long war. His speeches as Prime Minister were some of the most influential in modern memory, leading to widespread support of Churchill’s war effort. His harsh words and strategies lead to Russians giving him the nickname “British Bulldog.” Churchill allied with the United States and convinced President Roosevelt to provide additional war supplies. In June 1944, Allied forces invaded Normandy, precipitating German surrender the following year.
Following the war, Churchill resigned as Prime Minister in 1945. He continued to tour the world, giving a number of speeches warning of the dangers of Soviet expansionism. He described the growth of the anti-Democratic Iron Curtain. In 1951, Churchill became Prime Minister for a second term. He would later suffer upwards of 10 strokes between 1949 and 1963. Queen Elizabeth made Churchill a Garter Knight in 1953. He retired from his post as Prime Minister in 1955 but continued to serve in Parliament until 1964. Churchill suffered a severe stroke and passed away in January of 1965.
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