How one man — known to history as ‘Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne’ — lost his majesty’s empire and gave victory to the rebellious Americans. An astonishing tale.

By Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne loved the pomp and circumstance of war. That is very apparent from one of the greatest “swagger” portraits ever painted. It is the masterpiece of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who captured if not the man, then the way the man wished others to see him. To Burgoyne we may guess, even if we have no record to confirm, that that pomp and circumstance include just the right martial music. That it stir the blood, quicken the step, and motivate every heart to — victory, for King and Old England.

As the tale of the Gentleman demands, only the renowned music of the celebrated “March of the British Grenadiers” would do. Burgoyne would have known it well. Once you’ve found it in any search engine, play it… more than once. Unless there is water in your tired veins, you will instantly feel its power… and you will understand the loyal soldiers of the monarch stood tall and moved so well as they marched to their fate. And so “Gentleman Johnny” marched to his…

Find the man in the myth.

On his deathbed, August 4, 1792, I suspect the expiring Gentleman would have known (and would surely have rued) the fate and reputation impressed on him. He knew he would be, thanks in large part to the unfortunate sobriquet he once found so stylish, considered a popinjay, vainglorious, interested in the trifles of war, not its often deadly essentials. In short, the classic situation of a man fatefully over his head. It is a situation common in history, often bringing about the most serious consequences and world-changing realities. The question we must ask ourselves is this: does such an evaluation do justice to the man? For history must not be merely (as Voltaire said) a pack of tricks we living play on the dead. It must strive to be just, honest, truth-telling, not truth-manipulating.

Facts about John Burgoyne, born 24 February, 1722.

Right from the start, fate seemed to be playing games with Burgoyne. He was born in Sutton, Bedfordshire, into a county family with the required Baronet at its head. His mother was Anna Maria Burgoyne, daughter of a wealthy merchant. His father… but there’s the rub. The story line might have been taken from “The History of Tom Jones, foundling,” written by Henry Fieldilng in 1749.

Burgoyne’s father was (legally) Captain John Burgoyne; in actual fact, it may have been milord Bingley, who served as his godfather. When his lordship died in 1731, his will specified that Burgoyne was to inherit his estate if his daughters had no male issue. Thus did the young Burgoyne find himself treated like a likely lad with great expectations… but no certainties. Charles Dickens wrote a classic on this predicament which wrecked havoc in many lives.

Burgoyne, like many future officers, was sent to Westminster School. There handsome, athletic, high spirited, gifted with the ability to make friends and to lead boys, he flourished. Perhaps, like many such, he peaked there; it is a common enough tragedy. But at the time things seemed very different… and he made many friends, including Thomas Gage and Lord James Strange. What he needed was money…. a career… and more money, in just that order.

With family help, in August, 1737 he purchased a commission (the usual way of getting one) in the Horse Guards, a very fashionable and very expensive regiment composed of just the kind of people he had spent his life around. His duties were light… the life congenial, not least because it enabled him to find a rich wife, absolutely necessary to maintain the ostentatious life style he loved, pressingly necessary because of his huge gambling debts, so characteristic of the 18th century, so puzzling to us.

Such a man, of course, beautiful, charming, all genteel condescension and winning plausibility was not to be denied by mere woman, no matter how well connected. Her name was Lady Charlotte Stanley, and she was one of the great catches of her day. Her brother was Burgoyne’s school friend, Lord Strange, the heir to one of England’s grandest and most historic families. Unfortunately, the head of that family, Lord Derby, demanded more than white teeth and insinuating manners. He nixed the marriage, whereupon in 1751 Burgoyne and lady eloped, to parental fury, the end to her allowance… and (unthinkable!) a possible lifetime of just making do. But that wasn’t Burgoyne. And so he used his assets to best advantage… and in due course, the Burgoyne’s produced their only child, Charlotte Elizabeth, in 1754. She was the gambler’s lucky chip he needed to reinstate happy (and remunerative) relations with Lord Derby, who in due course, succumbed to Burgoyne’s undeniable charm. It wasn’t enough, of course, and there was absolutely no glory to be delivered from living off his wife’s rich father.

He went back to the military where freedom from wives and debts was to be found and, to the lucky ones, renown and bright shining fame…

Having acquired an empire, England needed the military establishment to sustain and protect it. Wars, small, middling and international, were the order of the day, most every day. Trained officers like Burgoyne were valued… and their peccadilloes winked at. He was (in the parlance of the day), “honorable and gallant”… the more so as he was also in Parliament from 1768. He was leading the charmed life of a man who had (nearly) everything, including a string of military honors and advancements starting with the British raid on St. Malo (1758) and combating the Spanish invasion of Portugal (1762).

His tryst with America.

Like most professional soldiers of the day, Burgoyne despised the colonials and thought they’d be promptly defeated and put back in their place. Right from the start, at Concord, at Lexington, at Bunker Hill this view was challenged. But it was a prejudice that persisted and was to cost him, and his sovereign, dearly. A temper tantrum by Burgoyne in 1775, when he fulminated against the limited opportunities he felt insufficient for his genius might have saved his eternal reputation. He resigned and went home in a huff… but, fatefully, he returned. He thought he had to, since the American theatre was where glory lay… and so it was — but not for him.

And that was because of a place called Saratoga, where Burgoyne’s career of happy mobility ended in 1777 and where the United States of America as a plausible entity began.

Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, had a plan, a clever plan for dividing New England from the rest of the colonies. He would send Burgoyne down the Hudson, General Howe up the Hudson, to rendezvous at Albany and victory. Unfortunately his lordship forgot to tell General Howe, who sat and did nothing while Burgoyne walked into a trap he thought mere colonials could never execute. Too late he discovered American grit, learning to his chagrin that even rebellious Britons are Britons still and that “Britons never, never shall be slaves,” surrendering his entire army of 5000 and the fate of British North America. Lord George Germain, too powerful and well placed for blame, made sure Burgoyne was the culprit and never held another active command,, while his lordship got the chance to muddle again — this time at Yorktown in 1781 — where he got another, final chance to destroy the jewel in the crown.

Burgoyne spent the remainder of his life rethinking what had happened and in writing plays… but none of his dramatic endeavors were as compelling as the plot of his own life.


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