The Books That Churchill Read - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Books That Churchill Read

Winston Spencer Churchill wrote with warmth and humor about his early education — and its limits. Certain passages had a touch of the tremulous, given the discipline to which he was subjected by one or two nasty schoolmasters. Biographers have shown interest in the relevant pages of My Early Life (1930), that winning autobiography. But not there, nor anywhere else, is there a published accounting of all the books the young man read. It is natural to be intrigued: What printed works helped prepare Churchill for all the ministerial posts he held before age 40, without ever attending college, let alone graduate school? What elements of education played into developing that sparkling personality and precocious worldly view? What was the intellectual evolution of this writer destined for a Nobel Prize in Literature?

The library showing at Churchill’s Kent-based country home, Chartwell, cannot tell us, for there is little of the original remaining on those shelves. His magnificent book collection was divided after his death in 1965: some went to British colleges, many remain in the family, and hundreds are now with the Churchill Archives at Cambridge University. Compared with the profuse detail written on that statesman from 1939 and 1940 onward — when historians can say where Churchill was, what he was doing, and even what he was reading almost every day — we have relatively limited knowledge of the books the young Churchill read. What can be said with certitude about those many early decades of his reading life?

There were those unsurprising books that seem likely for boyhood encounters, such as Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. By age 12, Winston had appreciated several of the popular novels by Henry Rider Haggard and begged his mother to send the further title Jess: “I want something to read very much. Will you send it to me soon.” The youth even wrote to the author, who wrote back, and years later, the two again exchanged letters. Churchill gifted Haggard’s Robbery Under Arms to his son Randolph.

Good literature was assigned at his primary schools and the Harrow School, the boarding school he attended as a teen. Dramatic plays he studied include The Knights by Aristophanes. Young Winston was part of a group of players in the brilliant Moliere comedy The Doctor in Spite of Himself — although it is unclear if the school production was in French or English. Shakespeare plays were a favorite: He memorized scenes from at least three, and Shakespeare quotations would occasionally dot papers in his lifelong correspondence. Late in life, he once disturbed Richard Burton, who — on stage at London’s Old Vic in the role of Hamlet — could hear Churchill in the front row mumbling all the poem’s lines.

“I am not very good at Latin Verse but it is of very little importance. Prose being the chief thing in which I am rapidly improving.”  -WSC to his mother, Feb. 28, 1888

Having high standards, British schools made some assignments in foreign tongues. Churchill did not adapt well to German, nor was he good at ancient Greek, despite a lifelong passion for all that Greece represented as the first home of democracy. Latin appealed little, but it grew on him. He studied Odes by Horace, Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and Virgil’s Aeneid. Latin quotations would populate the first book he published — although less often thereafter. His House of Commons career saw him often deploy Latin phrases, including an exemplar of Churchillian magnanimity: parcere subjectis et debellare superbo, “spare the conquered and war down the proud.”

French language was its own story. Churchill eventually came to read French easily, but his earliest school master pronounced that the boy’s “knowledge of Grammar is very slight” and that little improved despite a lifetime of efforts at conversation and reading. And neither in vocabulary nor in accent did his skill levels ever match his relish for French conversation. He knew this and joked of it, once telling a man trying to help in a conference, “Would you please stop translating my French into French!” At intervals, the adult Churchill invested in books in French. One happy hour at gambling in 1906 was followed by the young minister spending his winnings in two Paris bookshops. They shipped him no fewer than 267 titles by such authors as Voltaire, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Maupassant, Michelet, and Balzac. This was effort well-spent, for reasons beyond maintaining boyhood literary minimums: He traveled to France over a hundred times, and more than a few of the Britishers closest to him were fluent in French, including his beloved wife, Clementine, friends who were diplomats, and the World War II Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke.

“Books, in all their variety, offer the human intellect the means whereby civilization may be carried triumphantly forward.”  -WSC’s statement for National Book Fair, 1937

English literature came very easily to this youth. He won a school prize for memorizing 1,200 lines of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, including the thrilling “Horatius at the Bridge.” Decades on, interlocutors after some important meeting — or simply his driver from an airport into a city — would be treated to declamations. Auditors were also likely to hear some Rudyard Kipling; that poet seemed so quintessentially “Churchill” that one contemporary wrote that his fancy Harrow schooling had “be-Kiplinged” the young politician. Amusingly, we know Churchill was a better book critic than that because when only 22 years old, he read the new title The Seven Seas, found it “very inferior” to Kipling’s other works, and told his brother that the famed author was publishing too much. As an older gentleman, Churchill corresponded with Kipling, always respectfully.

Churchill admired classic British poets. Once a young lady’s conversation surprised him with a reference to early 19th-century romantic John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” a poem unknown to Churchill; at their next meeting, he showed her that he had learned by heart all of Keats’s odes. John Milton’s Paradise Lost made deep impressions. Churchill read Alfred Lord Tennyson, A. E. Housman, William Wordsworth, and a Scot, Robert Burns. He frequently recited poetry or included a dash in a letter. In April 1941, he highlighted developing U.S.-U.K. relations by sending Franklin Roosevelt and the Americans special lines Arthur Hugh Clough wrote in 1855 (including “Westward, look, the land is bright”).

War poets of 1914-1918 became celebrated in Britain, and several of the best-known were acquaintances of Churchill. Siegfried Sassoon’s lines about war in the trenches, “Counter-Attack,” were familiar to many soldiers; one reported, “Winston knows his last volume of poems by heart and rolls them out on every possible occasion.” Poet Rupert Brooke met Churchill at least twice. His death during war was a personal loss and a national tragedy; Churchill composed a eulogy for the London Times.

British novels appealed to Churchill, especially as he became older. He thought Somerset Maugham was the most skilled of all such craftsmen. Churchill read Thomas Hardy — The Dynasts — and at least two by Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield. Any given sea voyage might be with a Horatio Hornblower story or another book by C. S. Forester. A bout of pneumonia, however enervating, could mean progress in Pride and Prejudice; he liked Jane Austen novels just as American ladies do these days.

Being half American by birth on his mother’s side, Churchill took interest in American writers. Mark Twain was his touchstone for fiction and comedy; Samuel Clemens was the formal host for a lecture in New York City in December 1900, and the two became friends. Twain gave him the entire line of his works, two dozen or more volumes, and then, at Churchill’s request, sat and patiently signed each one. These held a proud place on Churchill’s shelves all his life and he often mentioned Twain’s delightful work to visitors.

But he read grimmer American stuff as well: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, on slavery, and varied histories of the Civil War. The Moon Is Down, John Steinbeck’s imaginary account of guerrilla war forming under the Nazi order in Scandinavia, electrified the wartime prime minister when it was published in 1942. He recommended the novel widely and linked that exhortation to his real program for “setting Europe ablaze.”

“Some months ago you sent me a deeply interesting book on Philosophy into which I have peered with awe.”  -WSC, a Feb. 21, 1927 letter to a friend

Philosophical works were not Churchill’s usual first choice. But he did labor through a number of them with a receptive mind. As a cavalry officer serving in India, he had afternoons and evenings that allowed reading at length. Among the books acquired there and read were Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s Republic, according to his autobiography. Many years on, F. E. Smith (Lord Birkenhead) lent Churchill his copy of the Weldon translation of Aristotle’s Ethics, recommending it as the finest of all books. He was anxious for reactions. When they met again, Churchill said that it was indeed good but “it is extraordinary how much of it I’d already worked out for myself.”

“I lay about on sofas and read musty books.”  -WSC, letter to his wife

Modern philosophical texts sometimes found their way to Churchill’s desks. He read something of Immanuel Kant and of Georg Hegel, and he read “On Pessimism” by Arthur Schopenhauer. William E. H. Lecky was an Irishman popular for works of intellectual history; as a young adult, Churchill read both The History of European Morals and The History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism. He could be fascinated when philosophical thought merged into the semi-religious. Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man, a kind of bible for secularists, was pressed on him by a military friend and was absorbed deeply. Churchill worked his way (three times) through a famous published lecture of the day on “Human Immortality” by American psychologist William James.

History — political and military — is the more predictable sort of book one expects to find in the Churchillian lap. My Early Life makes clear his adhesion to great English writers on ancient Rome: a letter proudly announces finishing all 12 volumes of Thomas Babington Macaulay, and 4,000 pages of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He then read Gibbon’s memoirs, too. Appetite for the military side of history appeared early: As a mere boy, he read enough on the campaigns of forefather John Churchill Duke of Marlborough to set down some 30,000 words of his own about them in pen, which surely impressed the sort of schoolmaster who could not interest him in Greek or mathematics.

The boy-become-man-turned-historian never ceased reading about Marlborough. On a lord’s tip, he learned that the venerable Macaulay had knowingly maligned Duke John Churchill, a charge developed in two books by essayist John Paget: Paradoxes and Puzzles and The New Examen. Thus armed, and fired by what he took as libel by Macaulay, and never short of ancestral piety, Winston Churchill read all he could in book form, such as C. T. Atkinson’s Marlborough and the Rise of the British Army, and works by Hilaire Belloc. He toiled for weeks at a time among the papers saved at Blenheim Palace, sent research aides abroad to archives, and by 1938 composed and published a four-volume biography of Marlborough. This won high praise from period specialist Sir H. G. Trevelyan of Cambridge.

“There is a good saying to the effect that when a new book appears one should read an old one.”  -WSC, May 12, 1948

It goes without saying that this son of Lord Randolph Churchill, this young man sitting in the House of Commons nearly continuously from 1900 onward, would read closely on the political history of his country and its institutions. Only in his 20s, he was studying past and present volumes of the Annual Register, which cataloged the country’s political events each year; he did not merely access these but owned copies, into which he pasted notes with his thoughts. He read biographies of two statesmen from one bloodline: Pitt. His pursuits took him into life histories of Gladstone, Disraeli, Charles James Fox, and biographies of the British monarchs.

Churchill also made time for Henry Hallam’s multivolume Constitutional History of England, an 1827 classic. Indeed, that book set entered professional considerations Churchill had with prison commissioners in 1910. The new home secretary (Churchill) was on a drive to encourage lectures, musical performances, and libraries in the prisons on the grounds of humanity and a determination to break the monotony of jail life with uplifting things. He instigated a six-month study of what reading materials ought to be available. When a colleague quipped that convicts would like Strand Magazine more than “Hallam,” Churchill rejoined: “Some people would prefer Hallam to the Strand.” Their committee assured that readings of both types would be in the prison libraries — but not “novels of an unhealthy moral tone.”

“I would rather Gen Grant’s History of the American war—Illustrated.” -Request to his mother for his 13th birthday

Churchill began reading military literature as nearly every boy does: battle stories aimed at the young, especially ones with pictures. Ulysses S. Grant’s war memoirs were not intended for any child, and it is unclear whether Mrs. Churchill met Winston’s wish for them. Everyone seems to know this youth relished toy soldiers and military tales; less remembered is how regularly he read serious military history, and at Harrow how often he visited the bookseller J. F. Moore. Passing into the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, he was given assignments but regrettably not new books, so he ordered his own: E. B. Hamley’s Operations of War: Explained and Illustrated; a series by Prince Kraft of Prussia: Letters on Infantry, Letters on Cavalry, and Letters on Artillery; Lt. Col. C. B. Moyne’s Infantry Fire Tactics; and histories of recent wars such as the Franco-German and the Russo-Turk. Churchill graduated 20th in his class of 130 at Sandhurst.

Serious reading on military operations, wars, and related histories and regional studies would grow exponentially as he wrote his own early books. For example, Churchill listed 22 works including officers’ memoirs and geographic studies as “principal” to his research while composing the year 1899 The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan. A quarter-century later, preparing the six-volume World War I memoir and history The World Crisis, he reported, “I continue to read a great deal about the war, consuming on the average a book a day.” The labor embraced the popular and most serious historians of Canada, England, and Germany, and the French writers Joseph-Cesaire Joffre and Ferdinand Foch. For German sources, he relied upon published translations or research assistants. Russian works included the memoirs of Trotsky (Lev Davidovich Bronstein).

Napoleon’s campaigns were a fascination for the young Englishman, who acquired scores of relevant books (most in French) with the ambition of writing a biography. He never did. Something similar was true of the U.S. Civil War: he collected books and by age 25 he already hoped to write such a history himself, “a short and dramatic” one. Douglas Southall Freeman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes on Robert E. Lee were among those Churchill read, as were texts on Stonewall Jackson’s campaigns. In the U.S., he made a few “staff rides” of battle sites and impressed Americans, including congressmen, with his knowledge.

As to certain military classics, including those by Clausewitz, and Thucydides, we have no proof Churchill read them. Sea power theorists in his days began with Alfred Thayer Mahan, known from 1890 onward as an apostle of awesome fleets and the quotidian work of protecting maritime interests. Churchill refers respectfully to this American admiral’s work in a formal written instruction to the Royal Navy urging better education for its officers. I suspect he read Mahan’s seminal The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890) — in part because of the contents of a letter to his son Randolph — but evidence is spare. In all of Churchill’s speeches and writing, there may be only one relevant quotation from A. T. Mahan; it misquotes a then-popular line out of The Influence and gives no attribution.

Britain’s own Julian Corbett was better known to the young First Lord of Admiralty, a post Churchill held from 1911 into 1915. Corbett was an author of naval histories who transitioned into good service to the Royal Navy bureaucracy, including teaching at its war college. Churchill knew his two volumes on England in the Mediterranean: 1603-1713 and referred to them as bearing on his own studies of Marlborough. Corbett also wrote the three first volumes of the Royal Navy’s official World War I history. Churchill found them useful but sterile and flat in style.

Current histories were always coming to Churchill’s attention. While making history, and writing histories, he was reading others’ histories as they came from the press. A spectacular merging of these patterns is his relationship with Lawrence of Arabia. They labored together in government on World War I war termination problems. When the Oxford-educated T. E. Lawrence finally set down his personal chronicle, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his friend Winston was among the honored recipients of the very limited press run of presentation copies, a process managed closely by the reclusive author. Churchill happened to be in Paris when he began reading Lawrence’s book and was dazzled: “I never left my apartment except for meals.” After his first journey through the new book, Churchill made at least two further full readings. Alert to the special printing’s outsized commercial value, Churchill had a special decorative locked box made for his copy of Seven Pillars.

“‘What shall I do with my books?’ … Read them … Peer into them … Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on your shelves with your own hands. Arrange them to your own plan.”  -WSC, 1921

It is now forgotten that when Churchill admired a fine book, he might well review it for the press. He did so with Seven Pillars — which he ranked in a special class with Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and Gulliver’s Travels. Reviewing was a chance to combine intellectual enthusiasms with his practice of supporting himself through publishing. He was strongly moved by, and published a review of, Upton Sinclair’s picture of the Chicago meat-packing industry, The Jungle. He wrote notices on the four successive volumes by friend and Liberal leader David Lloyd George, who composed War Memoirs after 1918. Churchill declined to review bad books. But with pleasure, he wrote many a foreword, preface, or introduction to a forthcoming book by a friend or colleague.

The largest surprise about what Churchill read may lie in the narrowest section of his library: Science. He owned Thomas Malthus’ “Essay on the Principle of Population” and Charles Darwin’s Origins of the Species as a young man. He found interest in two volumes on the life of the red and white ant, respectively. Later this showed in rough, derisory comparisons between ant societies and the Bolshevik collectivist utopia. And he was swept away in reading Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Life of a Bee. A society lady who rued being seated with Churchill at a dinner complained that he spoke endlessly and only about one thing, the bee of the book. She was right; he was prone to monologue. But would she have been less irritated had she guessed that Maeterlinck would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911, and that Churchill would do the same in 1953?

Longer rows, along Chartwell shelves, were in science fiction. Churchill loved it. He read and owned everything by H. G. Wells, for example. The exchange of letters between these two writers (e.g., in 1901) could sometimes turn frosty due to the distance between a conservative (and usually Tory), on one hand, and the constant soft socialism of Wells. In Men Like Gods, a 1923 novella, Wells actually satirized Churchill. But the parliamentarian admired the popular writer’s imagination; he accepted some of Wells’ predictions as reasonable. Churchill informed a post-World War I military commission that he borrowed his ideas for a tank model from a Wells story — prototypes for which were advanced, funded, and fielded in 1915.

“There was no novelty about the idea of an armoured vehicle to travel across country and pass over trenches … carrying guns and fighting men. Mr. H. G. Wells, in an article written some years ago, practically exhausted the possibilities of imagination in this sphere.”  -WSC testifying in 1919

Churchill’s reading was a serious enterprise. An 1895 letter to his mother described how much he had learned at Harrow and Sandhurst but how far short this fell from a true “liberal education,” education with “a rather higher object than mere practical utility.” The remedy — for a fellow not interested in further formal schooling — was a self-disciplined program. His son Randolph would write that serving in Bangalore in 1897, “He thus became his own university.”

If there must be final words, a few of them should underscore the very volume of literature that Winston Churchill handled. Over six months, my list of books that he is known to have read or owned has lengthened so that these paragraphs only hint. An account of one early friend who visited Churchill’s London apartment tells of books stacked everywhere, and on the bed. After Chartwell was acquired in 1922 — and it had a library — outgoing letters note the installation of additional bookshelves in his own bedroom. This descendant of the Duke of Marlborough was unlike the impoverished duke later in the family line who sold away Blenheim Palace’s library. To stave off such an extreme, Sir Winston would have husbanded revenue by foregoing any number of pleasures — perhaps even cigars.

Christopher C. Harmon teaches at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. He is writing a book on Churchill and serves on the International Churchill Society’s board of academic advisers whose chairman James W. Muller has kindly reviewed this manuscript. Contact him at

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