The Decorated Duchess

A very happy birthday to Sarah Churchill, first Duchess of Marlborough, and one of the most influential women in English history. She was born Sarah Jennings on June 5, 1660.

Sarah’s father, Richard, was a Member of Parliament who was friendly with the Duke of York (the future James II). As a result of the friendship, Sarah was appointed a maid of honor to James’s second wife, Mary of Modena, when she was only 13 years old. During her early days at court, Sarah became good friends with James’s daughter, Anne, and met John Churchill, who began courting her in 1675. At the time, Churchill wasn’t exactly the most enticing prospect: he was broke and hadn’t yet made a name for himself. Still, he and Sarah fell in love and secretly married in 1677. In 1678, Sarah became pregnant, forcing the young couple to publicly announce their marriage. She left her court position and later gave birth to a daughter, Harriet, who died in infancy. In 1683, Sarah returned to court as a Lady of the Bedchamber to Princess Anne after her marriage.

During the brief reign of James II, both Sarah’s and Anne’s husbands switched their allegiances from the king to Anne’s brother-in-law, William of Orange. James placed the two ladies under house arrest, but Anne and Sarah were able to escape to Nottingham. Soon after, James was forced to flee and the crown was presented to William and Anne’s sister, Mary.

Sarah and John were not particularly popular with William and Mary, although John was rewarded for his loyalty with the title of Earl of Marlborough. Mary resented the influence Sarah had over Anne and demanded Anne dismiss her. Anne refused, causing a rift between the two sisters. Mary continued to try and drive a wedge between Sarah and Anne, but only succeeded in driving the two closer.

When Anne became queen in 1702, she immediately offered John Churchill a dukedom, as well as a generous pension from both Parliament and the Privy Purse. Sarah was also named Mistress of the Robes, the highest court office that could be held by a woman, as well as Groom of the Stole, Keeper of the Privy Purse, and Ranger of Windsor Great Park. John Churchill was given the Order of the Garter and was named Captain-General of the army. He spent most of Anne’s reign abroad, making a name for himself in the War of the Spanish Succession. Back in England, Sarah oversaw the construction of Blenheim Palace, one of the most famous estates in England.

Eventually, the royal honeymoon between Anne and Sarah ended. Anne started to resent Sarah’s domineering personality, and even she noticed that Sarah seemed to be enjoying wielding her power at court just a little too much. When Sarah’s only son died in 1703, she withdrew from her friends, including Anne, ignoring the queen’s letters and wallowing in her grief—something she had never permitted Anne to do. Just a few years later, when Anne’s husband died, Sarah scolded her friend for being so grief stricken, straining their relationship further.

After the War of the Spanish Succession ended, Anne took the opportunity to rid herself of both the Marlboroughs by having John dismissed from his position in the army on trumped-up embezzlement charges. Sarah was stripped of her court positions in early 1711 and replaced by the Duchess of Somerset. State funding for Blenheim—which was supposed to be a gift from a grateful nation for the duke’s success at the Battle of Blenheim—also stopped, and with it the building works. The Churchills attempted to escape their disgrace by traveling through Europe, where the duke was a favorite at the German courts and the Holy Roman Empire.

The Churchills returned the afternoon of Anne’s death, August 1, 1714. George, the Elector of Hanover, became King George I, establishing the Hanovarian dynasty. As it turned out, George was a good friend of the Churchills, and John was restored to his position of Captain-General of the Army. His success was short-lived, however. He suffered two strokes in 1716 that left him unable to speak, and he and Sarah spent much of their time chasing a cure at Tunbridge Wells and Bath. He eventually recovered his speech, but Sarah began reading and censoring his mail, fearing that any unpleasant news might precipitate another stroke.

John died at Windsor in 1722, and his wife arranged a grand funeral for him. During her widowhood, Sarah used her business sense to wisely invest her considerable fortune in land. She also started up work at Blenheim again, and returned to court from time to time to visit with Queen Caroline. She fobbed off marriage proposals from several suitors, having retained her good looks throughout her life, but being unwilling to surrender her independence. After a full and active life, Sarah Churchill died at the age of 85 on October 18, 1744. She was buried at Blenheim, and her husband’s body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and buried beside her. At her death, she had 27 estates worth more than £4 million in land alone. Her most famous descendents include Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales.


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