Known at various points in her life as the power behind the throne, a social pariah, and one of the best business people in Britain, Sarah Churchill was always a brilliant and difficult woman. A woman admired and feared for her influence, she lived through six monarchs and made an impression on them whether that was that they loved or loathed her.
But the English royal court was the not the only place that she held sway. She was also a powerful campaigner for the Whig party, and her husband’s military career eventually won them the land and money to build the Palace of Woodstock, which is now known as Blenheim Palace.
Early Life and Beginnings at Court
Sarah was born on 5 June 1660 to Richard Jennings, a Member of Parliament and minor noble. Her sister Frances entered court in 1664 as maid of honour to the Duchess of York after their father made a favourable impression on the Duke of York, who would later become James II. Sarah followed her sister to court in 1673 and became the maid of honour to James’ second wife, Mary of Modena.
It was at court that Sarah both befriended Princess Anne and met her husband, John Churchill, when she was just 15. Both Sarah and John came from minor gentry and had families who were encumbered with debt, hence why John’s father pushed his son to choose Catherine Sedley, the wealthy mistress of James II; however in the winter of 1677-1678 John and Sarah married in secret, only telling a select few. Whilst the fact that was co-heir to the Jennings estates with her sister probably had something to do with it, it does genuinely seem to have been a love match. The two were devoted to each other through their marriage of over forty years, ending only when John died. The marriage was announced publically in 1678 when Sarah became pregnant, and she retired from court to have their first child, Harriet, who unfortunately died in infancy.
When the fictitious Catholic plot to assassinate Charles II gripped the country, the Churchills accompanied the future James II in his self-imposed exile and were rewarded with a Baronetcy. They returned to England once the religious fervour had calmed down, and Sarah was also rewarded by being made Anne’s Lady of the Bed Chamber. Sarah relentlessly campaigned on Anne’s behalf for better treatment for the unpopular Princess, solidifying the two’s friendship which would in many ways define both women in the eyes of history.
James II ascended to the throne in 1685. Whilst his early reign was relatively peaceful, as a Catholic ruler in a country with significant amounts of anti-Catholic sentiment things inevitably became difficult. When a plot emerged to invite William of Orange (the husband of James II’s Protestant daughter Mary) to remove James from power, both Princess Anne’s and Sarah (now Lady Churchill)’s husbands switched their loyalties from James to William.
This led to both women being put under house arrest in Anne’s residence at the Palace of Whitehall. They arranged to escape, fleeing in the night to the Bishop of London’s residence and then on to Nottingham the next day in order to escape potentially being executed for treason. James II fled to France in December 1688 rather than face the invading army, paving the way for William of Orange to take the throne.
At the Court of William and Mary
Whilst Sarah and John were rewarded with an Earldom for their support of the new monarchs, it was never forgotten how loyal John had been to James II, and this, coupled with the public knowledge of Sarah’s support for Princess Anne, made the two somewhat unwanted at court. Sarah openly campaigned in Anne’s interest and it was well known that she held much sway over the Princess; when Mary told Anne to dismiss Sarah and Anne refused, this caused a rift between the sisters.
In 1689 Sarah was seen as the driving force behind a Parliamentary bill to grant Princess Anne an annuity of £50,000, which would make her independent from the Privy Purse and therefore William and Mary. Mary evicted Sarah from her court lodgings, and Anne followed her by leaving court. The two bonded further when Sarah’s husband, now the Earl of Marlborough, was imprisoned in the Tower of London due to his signature appearing on a likely forged but incriminating document supporting James II.
Mary died of smallpox in 1694. William restored Anne’s honours as she became the next in line for the throne, and exonerated the Earl of Marlborough, fully restoring his previous honours and offices. However Sarah’s presence still loomed large, and is generally believed to be the reason William continued to exclude Anne from government affairs, including not making her regent in his absences.
Queen Anne’s Reign
When Anne became Queen in 1702, Sarah was promptly made Mistress of the Robes (the highest position a woman could hold), Groom of the Stole, Keeper of the Privy Purse, and Ranger of Windsor Great Park. These titles meant Sarah had control of the Queen’s finances and controlled who was allowed to see the Queen, which, along with the fact that the Queen consulted her for advice on most matters, made Sarah the second most powerful woman in England. She was charming, intelligent, and vivacious, which helped her win influence, but she was also very forceful and opinionated, and did not hesitate to try and push her powerful friends and allies to do what she felt was best.
Sarah’s husband, now the Duke of Marlborough thanks to Anne, was away for much of the Queen’s reign, helping to lead the British forces in the War of the Spanish Succession. After his victory at the Battle of Blenheim, they were given a new estate and parliamentary funds to build Woodstock Manner (later Blenheim Palace), and Sarah began to spend most of her time away from court to oversee the building.
Issues between Anne and Sarah began to arise, however, when Sarah frequently tried to use her position and friendship with the Queen to control her political opinions. Sarah was a very vocal supporter of the Whig party due to their support of the war her husband was fighting, and Anne often aligned with the Tory party due to her deep religious convictions (the Tory Party being known at the time as the ‘Church’ party). This, coupled with her long absences from court and her lack of kindness to the Queen, led to a deterioration in the friendship between the women. Sarah further pushed Anne away after Sarah’s only surviving son died in 1703, but insisted on being there for Anne when her husband, Prince George of Denmark, died in 1708, though she scolded the Queen for her grieving and refused to wear mourning clothes.
Sarah had also appointed an impoverished cousin of hers, Abigail Masham, to be Anne’s Lady of the Bedchamber, and a friendship grew between Anne and Abigail as the latter showed Anne the compassion Sarah lacked. When Sarah discovered Abigail had married in secret, she rushed to inform the Queen, only to find out Anne had been present and had granted a dowry from the Privy Purse, which – as Keeper of the Privy Purse – Sarah should have been aware of. The strained relationship between the two became public knowledge when Sarah publically argued with Anne in July 1708 at a thanksgiving service at St Paul’s Cathedral about the jewels Anne had worn, alongside pushing the Queen to publically support the Whigs.
Despite the rift Sarah retained her offices in order to not undermine her husband’s position as Captain-General. Sarah however continued to publicly lobby the Queen in favour of the Whigs, and even together with her husband and most of the Whig party lobbied Anne to dismiss Abigail who had Tory leanings. Anne refused, begged high ranking politicians to oppose the motion, and succeeded, making Sarah and her husband look ridiculous. Sarah, enraged, implied that Anne and Abigail of having a lesbian affair.
The final meeting between the two women was in 1710 where, according to Sarah’s account, she begged to know why their friendship was over and was rebuffed coldly by Anne. The Duke, realising that Sarah would be dismissed, begged the Queen to retain her for nine months until the military campaign finished so that they could retire honourably. Anne informed him that Sarah was to resign immediately and had two days to hand back the golden key that was symbol of her office. Sarah, upon hearing this, told John to return the key immediately. Abigail was made Keeper of the Privy Purse in her place.
Mass public opinion on the Spanish War of Succession turned to peace, and Anne took the opportunity to dismiss the Duke of Marlborough on possibly false charges of embezzlement of funds to build Blenheim Palace. Funding for the project was stopped and the Marlboroughs left England in disgrace. Although the Duke’s military campaigning had made him popular among the courts of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, Sarah didn’t seem to enjoy being abroad, and complained about them being lauded abroad whilst in disgrace at home.
Queen Anne died in 1714, and the Marlboroughs arrived back in England the same afternoon. There were rumours Anne had called them back herself, as one eye-witness claimed the Queen had asked if they had reached the shores yet.
Rise of the House of Hanover
The Duke of Marlborough had been a personal friend of the new King George when fighting the Spanish War of Succession; his first words to the Duke when they met again were “My lord Duke, I hope your troubles are now over.”
Whilst John once again became a personal advisor to the monarch, Sarah focused on marrying off her grandchildren as successfully as possible, despite having a strained relationship with most of her children. Unfortunately however her husband suffered two strokes, and she devoted herself to caring for him, even reading all his correspondence to ensure none of it was too shocking. When he died in 1722 she arranged a very large and lavish funeral for him. After his death Sarah concentrated on managing the family fortune and estates, which she was praised as being excellent at. She continued to invest land, and spent considerable time overseeing the completion of Blenheim Palace’s construction. Sarah received multiple proposals after her husband’s death, but decided to remain single as she liked the independence of it.
Following the coronation of George II in 1727, Queen Caroline tried to cultivate Sarah’s friendship and invited her to court on several occasions, though this friendship ended when Sarah refused Caroline entry to her Wimbledon estate.
In 1742 Sarah attempted to ensure that history was written not just by the political victor but the one who stayed alive the longest by writing an autobiography. She died in 1744 and was buried at Blenheim palace, and her husband was later exhumed from Westminster Abbey and buried beside her.
Sarah Churchill’s Legacy
From rise to fall to rise to fall, Sarah remained a fascinating and divisive character. There is much to admire; someone who built herself and her husband up and tirelessly campaigned for her political beliefs and became incredibly powerful in a time when that was almost impossible for a woman. On the other hand she was also incredibly proud, and often demanding and unkind to those around her, leading her from being the Queen’s right-hand-woman to being sent into exile in disgrace.
There were not many who mourned her passing when she did die, but her sense of business management meant that by the time that happened her family had gone from encumbered with debt to incredibly wealthy and she had also built herself a personal fortune.
Attractive, intelligent but vicious to the end, Sarah Churchill led as fascinating a life as her more famous descendants Winston Churchill and Princess Diana, and deserves to be remembered as the problematic and complex figure she was.
Emily Zinkin is an editor, researcher, and writer.
Sources and Further Reading
James Falkner, ‘Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (1660–1744)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)
Ophelia Field, Sarah Churchill Duchess of Marlborough: The Queen’s Favourite (2016)
Christoper Hibbert, The Marlboroughs: John and Sarah Churchill (2002)