The Power Behind Two Thrones: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1744)
Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough is British history’s ultimate power behind the throne, and a key figure in explaining the rise of modern parliamentary democracy in Britain. In spite of never having any official position of political power, she was the dominant influence behind two of her period’s greatest political players: John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722) and Queen Anne of Great Britain (1665-1714).
Sarah Jennings was born in 1660, the daughter of a family of the minor gentry. Her father was the impoverished MP Richard Jennings, who had been a Parliamentarian in the Civil War, but lost his fortune and his position in the face of Puritan radicalism under Cromwell, and her mother was his wife Frances Thornhurst.
Sarah had a sister, Frances, and a brother Ralph, who died young leaving his two sisters the heirs of their father’s estate. Sarah’s first taste of Court was through her sister, Frances, known as ‘La Belle Jennings’ due to her beauty. Frances was appointed a maid of honour to the Duchess of York, Anne Hyde in 1664 but eventually had to give up the role due to her marriage to a Catholic. Sarah, on the other hand, was a profound Protestant, a fact that shaped her political decisions for the rest of her life.
|James, Duke of York|
At the age of thirteen, the influence of the James Stuart, Duke of York and younger brother of the King Charles II saw Sarah became a maid of honour just as her sister had been, but this time to James’ second wife the Italian Mary of Modena. It was clear at this point that Sarah was moving in Catholic circles; James, although the heir to the throne after his brother, was a fervent Catholic, and although he had two Protestant daughters by his first wife, it was clear that his marriage to Mary paved the way for a Catholic succession. While Sarah was popular with her Catholic masters, at heart she remained a member of the Anglican Communion that she was brought up with.
It was in the early 1670s that Sarah met the two people with whom history has chiefly associated her. The first was the Princess Anne; daughter of James, Duke of York and his first wife. She was not expected ever to become Queen. Although her uncle, King Charles’ wife, Catherine of Braganza was sterile and was not expected to produce any heirs, there was still her father and elder sister, Princess Mary, ahead of her in the succession. There was also the possibility that her father’s second wife Duchess Mary would produce a boy.
|Princess Anne c.1684|
Anne was a lonely and unattractive girl; she was not an outgoing character, but was generally mild and sweet tempered. Sarah was her opposite; outspoken, vivacious and beautiful, she easily dominated the submissive Anne. It is speculated that for Anne, what she felt for Sarah went deeper than friendship. Observers would refer the ‘immoderate passion’ between Anne and Sarah, while later, once their relationship soured, Sarah implicitly accused Anne of lesbian trysts with her ladies in waiting. Whatever the truth was, in the early years, Anne and Sarah referred to each other by the pet names of Mrs Morley and Mrs Freeman respectively, and Anne followed Sarah slavishly.
The other person Sarah met on her entrance to court was John Churchill. Churchill was a swashbuckling, athletic, ladies man whom his contemporary Lord Chesterfield described as ‘irresistable to either man or woman.’ He had previously been a page for the Duke of York and had gradually been promoted. In 1668, King Charles II had received the North African town of Tangiers as part of the dowry from his marriage to Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese Princess and Churchill was sent there as a ensign, and his later formidable military skill was formed through with skirmishes with the Moors there. Although not an obvious political player, Churchill’s charm, good looks and talent saw him promoted quickly.
|John Churchill c.1685|
When Churchill returned from Tangiers in 1672, it was not Sarah Jennings that the handsome John Churchill instantly fell for. In spite of social convention, he became involved with Charles II’s most infamous and controversial mistress, Barbara Villiers. Barbara was ten years older than John, and had been Charles II’s chief mistress since 1662. Her influence of the King had been a constant presence; and behind closed doors she warred with the barren Queen Queen Catherine for Charles’ love. By the time John met Barbara, she had already given the King five illegitimate children: Anne, Charles, Henry, Charlotte and George.
John and Barbara’s affair was passionate and dangerous. Some historians such as Holmes have questioned whether Churchill entered into this arrangement for love or for financial interests, while his descendant Winston Churchill, surmised that the athletic, young and attractive Churchill could have easily have fallen for the older, seductive and sophisticated Villiers. Legend tells that Charles II walked in on a tryst between John and Barbara, and John was forced to hide in the cupboard. However, when the King found him he stated; ‘you are a rascal, but I forgive you for you do it to get your bread.’
Barbara and John’s liaison produced an illegitimate child, Barbara Fitzroy, who was claimed by the King, but by this point, Churchill was back in the military again. He gained his spurs fighting the Dutch, receiving a personal recommendation by Louis XIV of France, saving the Duke of Monmouth’s life and gaining a reputation for physical bravery. By the time he caught Sarah’s eye in 1675, he was a rising star at court.
It was in 1675 that she first met John, and he seems to have been captivated almost instantly by her fair good looks. He often wrote letters to her begging to see her, but Sarah was savvier than he gave her credit. She suspected that John was attempting to make her his mistress for two reasons. John’s family background was the same as Sarah’s; minor gentry destroyed by debt-induced poverty, and he could not afford to marry someone as poor as Sarah. Secondly, his first mistress Barbara was moving to Paris, and it seemed that he just wanted another lover to warm his bed. However, John’s persistence eventually won her over.
John’s father, Sir Winston Churchill, had other plans for his heir. He planned for John to marry Catherine Sedley, although a wealthy heiress she was ‘notoriously plain’, she was also a mistress of the Duke of York. In John’s eyes, marriage to the seemingly virtuous Sarah, with whom he was now in love, seemed the more attractive option. They were married in secret in 1677, possibly with the help of Mary, Duchess of York.
It was Sarah’s marriage and strong, loving, equal partnership with her husband that catapulted them both to domestic and international influence and success. When she fell pregnant in 1678, her marriage was announced publically, and she retired from court to give birth to her first child, Harriet, who died in infancy. Both Sarah and John were heartbroken by the loss. However, the hardest political decision the Churchill’s ever had to make was on the horizon; and their course was decided by their mutual Protestant faith.
|Consequences of Titus|
In 1678 the country was shaken by political turmoil. Titus Oates, a noted perjurer, began to make accusations that Catholic members of the Court were trying to assassinate Charles II to put his Catholic brother, James, Duke of York, on the throne. Oates’ first accusations were of Sir George Wakeman, the Queen’s physician, and Edward Colman, the secretary to Mary of Modena. When Colman was found to be in contact with a French Jesuit, he was hung, drawn and quartered as a traitor, and the accusations gained credulity and continued. This seriously threatened the position of the Catholic Duke of York, and Charles II was forced to deal with attempts to oust James from the succession, an event that became known as the Exclusion Crisis.
The Tories in the Houses of Parliament sought to exclude James and his heirs, fearing a Catholic Monarchy and another Civil War divided on religion. Some Tories argued that Charles II’s illegitimate son, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth should be made the heir, and the Duke of York fled to Scotland, agreeing to give up all decision making roles he had in government. Due to York’s earlier patronage of the Churchill’s, Sarah and John followed their master to Scotland. For the loyalty shown to James, after the tension receded Charles II made John Baron of Eyemouth, and Sarah became a Lady.
During this time, Sarah’s influence over Princess Anne was also growing, so in 1683 on Anne’s marriage to Prince George of Denmark, Sarah became a Lady of the Bedchamber. Although George and Anne had a respectful and friendly relationship, it was Sarah to whom Anne turned for political and personal guidance. At Anne’s marriage Charles II also gifted her an area of the Palace of Whitehall called ‘The Cockpit’, and it was here that Sarah cultivated a political salon for notable Whig politicians, which she used to influence Anne’s pro-Tory political stances and gain valuable allies such as her lifelong friend Sidney Godolphin.
It was clear at this point the huge influence that Sarah had over Anne, particularly as Anne had a series of miscarriages and stillbirths, and it was to Sarah that Anne went for emotional support. Sarah and John had also built enough of a fortune to buy Sarah’s childhood home, Holywell House, which Sarah took to expanding greatly to shake off the taint of poverty. But soon, Sarah was to grow more politically important as Anne morphed from being a dowdy, shy Princess who was third in line to the throne, to a potent symbol of Anglican limited monarchy as England was once again gripped by political unrest.
|Mary of Modena|
In 1685, Charles II died, leaving no legitimate heirs and the throne to his younger brother. James, although the lifelong patron of the Churchill’s and the father of the supremely popular Anne, was universally loathed. He was a fanatic Catholic, and very close to his Catholic wife with whom it was feared he would create a Catholic Stuart Dynasty. James increased his unpopularity by advocating Catholic Absolutism, similar to the doctrine advocated by the powerful autocrat, Louis XIV of France. As Anne’s elder sister Mary, the only other senior Protestant royal, had moved to the Netherlands on her marriage to William of Orange, Anne was the only member of the royal family attending Anglican services and her popularity soared. Sarah’s position as the centre of ‘The Cockpit’ made her the access point to Anne, and her influence rose along with Anne’s star.
In contrast to Anne, who became a symbol for Anglicanism and the freedoms gained by Parliament after the Civil War, James became determined to become an absolute monarch. He implemented a standing army, which was against the English tradition of not keeping an army during the peacetime. He also vigorously promoted Catholics in the army and in parliament, tried to legislate persecution against Scottish Presbyterians, and tried to withdraw penal laws for Catholics. In 1687 he also issued the Declaration of Indulgence that supported the suspension of persecution against all religions, but he only did this to support Catholicism within his Kingdoms, while holding a double standard towards dissenting Protestants.
However, it was not just James’ religious policy that painted him as a tyrant. In 1685, the Duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s eldest bastard son by the courtesan Lucy Walter, led a Protestant rebellion to claim the throne for himself. Churchill was made a subordinate to the highly loyal but untalented Earl of Faversham, but it was Churchill’s military skills that quashed the peasant rebellion that supported Monmouth at the Battle of Sedgemoor in Somerset. It was due to Churchill’s actions that the young Monmouth was defeated, attainted and executed in London, finally crystallizing James’ reputation as a tyrant who had killed his own nephew.
|James Scott, Duke of|
It was during this period that John and Sarah became alienated from their former patron, and began to question his excesses and his motives. It has been argued that James’ appointment of Judge Jeffreys, immortalized as the ‘Hanging Judge’, who presided over the ‘Bloody Assizes’, which saw the execution of nearly 300 supporters of Monmouth, and a further 800 deported to the colonies that turned the Churchill’s away from James. His brutality saw Sarah and John become further allied with the Protestant Anne, and set the stage for the final showdown.
In 1688, the birth of James II and Mary of Modena’s son James Stuart finally saw the realization of a Catholic succession. James pressurized high-ranking poltical players such as the Churchill’s to change their faith in attempt to return Catholicism to England from the top down. In defiance, when questioned on his religious beliefs, John stated "I have been bred a Protestant, and intend to live and die in that communion." However, both Sarah and John, who knew the life that being on the wrong side could bring due to their parents careers, knew that they could not afford to be on the losing side, and became very cautious about how to act.
It was at this point, seven high ranking political players, remembered in history as ‘The Immortal Seven’ wrote to William of Orange, the husband of Anne’s sister Mary, to invade England and take the throne for Protestantism. The Immortal Seven included both Tories and Whigs, and even the Bishop of London. William landed in Torbay in November and began to move inland unopposed. Knowing what a potent symbol Princess Anne had become, James ordered her imprisonment, along with Sarah, in ‘The Cockpit’. This may have precipitated John’s actions to take 400 troops from Faversham’s command, and join William’s army, abandoning his long-term patron and friend.
Knowing that she and her husband were in danger of being tried and executed for treason, Sarah encouraged Anne to escape, to which Anne obliged. With the help of a servant and traveling with Lady Fitzherbert, they made an escape to Nottingham under the protection of the Earl of Northampton. By this time, James had been deposed, and William of Orange and his wife Princess Mary had ascended as William III & Mary II.
|William III and Mary II|
However, Sarah and John were not rewarded in the way they believed they were entitled to. William noted how John had changed sides at the last moment, and viewed him as a cunning opportunist who had no morals or beliefs. Although John was made the Earl of Marlborough, the distrustful William did not give him major military or political power. It was Sarah’s cunning and political skills that helped them keep their political influence, and it was through the manipulation of the vulnerable Princess Anne.
Queen Mary, who had long been distant from her younger sister, noted the undue affection that Anne had for Sarah, and also saw how much influence the latter influenced her sister through her position in ‘The Cockpit’, and how Sarah networked for Anne amongst important political figures. Mary tried to force her sister to dismiss Sarah, but Sarah retaliated by demanding Anne become financially independent from William and Mary by a parliamentary annuity of £50,000. The monarchs offered the money from the Privy Purse, but Anne, under Sarah’s orders, demanded the money came from Parliament to assure her independence. When this was eventually agreed upon, Anne became even more devoted to Sarah, who she thought had given her the independence she had long craved, and she became permanently estranged from her sister. It was Anne’s devotion that secured Sarah and her husband’s position within policy making decisions.
It was at this point, in 1692, when Sarah had total control over Anne, but Marlborough was suspected of being a French spy, that a letter was discovered that saw Marlborough professing support for the reinstitution of the exiled James II to power. Although this may have been a forgery, Marlborough was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and Sarah and Anne were driven even closer by fear of what would happen to Sarah’s husband and their access to military, male power.
However, luck was on the Churchill’s side as Mary II suddenly died from smallpox, childless. As William received his right to the throne from her, her heiress apparent became her sister Anne. William, knowing he could not upset the future Queen or the succession, had Marlborough released and gave the Churchill’s apartments in St James’ Palace. Unable to abide Sarah’s influence, however, William refused to make Anne regent when abroad and kept her firmly out of politics.
|Sarah and her friend Lady Fitzharding|
It was at William’s death in 1702 when Sarah truly became the power behind the throne. John was made a Duke and given the Order of the Garter, while Sarah obtained the high-ranking positions of Mistress of the Robes and Keeper of the Privy Purse. John was made commander of English, Dutch and German forces in the War of the Spanish Succession, and the Churchill’s received an annual income of £60,000 per annum and unrivalled influence at Court. In 1704, after Marlborough’s stunning victory at the Battle of Blenheim, Anne funded the lavish Palace of Blenheim to be built for the Churchill’s, and they achieved the height of their influence.
But while Marlborough was building an international reputation for himself, Sarah undermined his efforts at home as her long lasting friendship with Anne began to fall apart. Sarah used to dominate Anne ruthlessly, and often spoke over her, made fun of her appearance, and once famously told her to ‘shut up’. Tensions came to a head when Sarah demanded her son-in-law, Charles Spencer, the husband of her daughter Anne, be made a Privy Councillor. Spencer was a famous Whig, a cause which Sarah supported, but Anne suspected the Whigs of attempting to usurp royal authority. When Anne refused, Sarah used her connections to force Anne to appoint Spencer, while continuing to lobby her and forcing her to read Whig literature. It was at this point that Anne tearfully told Lord Godolphin that she thought that she and Sarah could never be friends again.
It was in 1708 that the breach became wider between the two old friends. The Churchill’s only son John, caught smallpox and died, leaving their familial and dynastic dream over. Sarah was heartbroken, and became a recluse, alienating Anne from her affection. Anne, tired of Sarah’s anger and lack of affection searched for a new female favourite, and it was at this point that Anne found a new best friend; Abigail Masham (nee Hill).
|Abigail Masham, Sarah's|
cousin and enemy
Abigail Masham was very much a woman in Sarah’s image. Abigail was the daughter of Sarah’s aunt, Elizabeth Jennings, who had married a London mercer named Francis Hill. Francis had squandered his money and Abigail had been forced to become a servant for Sir John Rivers. Sarah, embarrassed by this poor relation, had invited her to court to promote her, but this quickly backfired for Sarah. Abigail, who looked very much like the hot-tempered Sarah, was a contrast in personality, and her sweet and amiable nature complimented Anne’s. She was always kind to Anne, and never pressured her politically the same way Sarah did. This began to turn Queen Anne against her long lasting favourite.
Initially, Sarah knew little of Anne’s friendship with Abigail. Anne was present at Abigail’s secret marriage to Samuel Masham, and Sarah only found out several months later. Sarah went to inform Anne of the marriage, but Anne let slip that she already knew, and had begged Abigail to inform her cousin. Becoming suspicious, Sarah investigated and discovered that Anne had given Abigail and dowry of £2000, something that should not have been allowed without the knowledge of Sarah, as she was the Keeper of the Privy Purse.
Sarah, angry and desperate, tried to reassert her authority over the once docile Anne. At the death of Anne’s husband, Prince George, in 1708, Sarah arrived uninvited at Kensington Palace to find Anne with her husband’s body. Sarah pushed Anne to move to St James’ Palace, finding Anne’s display pathetic and contemptable. Anne bluntly refused, one of the first refusals she had given Sarah in their thirty year friendship, and ordered Sarah to summon Abigail. Sarah angrily refused, and instead scolded Anne over her grief for George. This insensitivity on Sarah’s part did irrevocable damage to their friendship.
Meanwhile, Marlborough continued to win stunning victories in the War of the Spanish Succession, most notably the Battle of Oudenarde. On the way to the thanksgiving service for the victory, Sarah chastised Anne for her choice of jewels and ordered her to make a political stand for the Whigs. Anne, by now a passionate Tory, found solace with Abigail who shared her political views. Sarah, now incandescent and jealous, continued to attempt to force Anne to promote Whigs, while alleging that Anne and Abigail were having an affair. Instead, Anne supported Abigail’s choice, her cousin, the Earl of Oxford. Desperate to keep Marlborough in his position as Captain-General, Anne did not dismiss Sarah for fear of undermining her husband’s authority. However, Sarah had lost her control over Anne forever, and with it, power to shape governmental policy.
|Blenheim Palace, John and Sarah's home|
When the opportunity came, Anne got rid of Sarah. When there was popular support for peace, Anne decided she no longer needed Marlborough, and therefore, could get rid of his wife. Anne officially dismissed Sarah in 1711, in spite of one, final ditch attempt by Marlborough to save his wife, Anne instead ordered that Sarah returned her gold key, the symbol of her office, and with it, Sarah was dismissed from Anne’s affections forever. Sarah lost her positions as Mistress of the Robes and Keeper of the Privy Purse, while also losing state funding for Blenheim Palace, and building ceased. In disgrace, the Churchill’s left England and went on tour in Europe, visiting many of Marlborough’s comrades from the war, including Prince Eugene of Savoy.
Sarah longed to return to England, but was only able to on Anne’s death in 1714. The Churchill’s arrived home on the afternoon of Anne’s death, and it has been argued that it was Anne who recalled them, wanting to see her favourite one last time. However, there was little time for sentimentality, as there was yet another crisis. According the Act of Settlement 1701, the crown was settled on Anne’s Protestant second cousin, George, Elector of Hanover; but there was a more immediate Catholic heir; Anne’s younger half-brother James Stuart. The Tories were suspected of supporting the pretender, and the return of the Churchill’s bolstered Whig support, allowing the Elector to come to the throne as George I. The Churchill’s still had the power to be politically decisive.
The ascension of George I was good news for Sarah. George was an old comrade of Marlborough’s in the war, and his first words to Marlborough after becoming King conveyed his hopes that his friend’s political exile would now be over. Sarah approved of Whig Cabinet that was put in place, and spent her time and effort arranging marriages for her grandchildren into the peerage. This enabled Sarah and John to be the founding member of a dynasty that would produce notable members such as Princess Diana of Wales and Winston Churchill.
Her long companionate and romantic marriage to John Churchill came to an end in 1722, when John died. He had been in ill health for many years, but would go down in history as the most successful British commander who ever lived. Sarah threw herself into consolidating his legacy; she invested in land, and even unsuccessfully campaigned for the marriage of her granddaughter, Lady Diana Spencer, to Frederick, Prince of Wales. However, Sarah never fully regained the powers she had under Anne, as the ascendancy of Robert Walpole, who had vetoed her plans for Lady Diana’s marriage and quarreled with her over foreign and economic policy, saw his unpopular Whig policies lambasted by the landowning classes, and a strong Tory party emerge after his fall.
Sarah died in 1744, having seen tumultuous changes in her life including the last Catholic Monarch of England, the Glorious Revolution and the creation of a Constitutional Monarchy. Sarah had been a key figure in this transformation; having organized the progressive Whigs in ‘The Cockpit’ from the 1680s while keeping a lid on Anne’s powers as Queen. Sarah, although often self-serving, hot-headed and insensitive, never betrayed her profound Protestant beliefs or her support for limited monarchy. It was her tenacity and drive that shaped Queen Anne’s political direction as she indirectly appointed policy makers through her manipulation of Anne, and was therefore an influential figure in establishing modern parliamentary democracy in Britain.
Holmes, Richard, "Marlborough: England's Fragile Genius", (2008)
Holmes, Richard, "Marlborough: England's Fragile Genius", (2008)
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