A brilliant new biographer presents an unforgettable portrait of Sarah Churchill, first Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1744), the glamorous and controversial founder of the Spencer-Churchill dynasty that produced both Winston Churchill and Lady Diana Spencer.
Tied to Queen Anne by an intimate friendship, Sarah hoped to wield power equal to that of a government minister. When their relationship soured, she blackmailed Anne with letters revealing their intimacy, and accused her of perverting the course of national affairs by keeping lesbian favourites. Her spectacular arguments with the Queen, with the architects and workmen at Blenheim Palace, and with her own family made Sarah famous for her temper. Attacked for traits that might have been applauded in a man, Sarah was also capable of inspiring intense love and loyalty, deeply committed to her principles and to living what she believed to be a virtuous life.
Sarah was a compulsive and compelling writer, narrating the major events of her day, with herself often at center stage. This biography brings her own voice, passionate and intelligent, back to life, and casts a critical eye over images of the Duchess handed down through art, history, and literature. Here is an unforgettable portrait of a woman who cared intensely about how we would remember her.
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Ophelia Field was born in Australia and educated at Christ Church, Oxford, and the London School of Economics. She has worked as a policy analyst for a number of refugee and human rights organizations and currently lives in London and New York.
Sarah Jennings (or Jenyns) was born on 5 June 1660, the week after Charles II returned from exile and was installed on the restored throne. Her mother was Mrs Frances Thornhurst Jennings, married to Mr Richard Jennings of Sandridge, near St Albans. They were minor gentry with property in Somerset, Kent and Hertfordshire. There were many men like Sarah's father, who had been a supporter of John Pym, an architect of the revolt against Charles I, but then subsequently a member of the Convention Parliament that had recalled Charles II. Most of the gentry had greeted the monarchy back with relief and even jubilation, but also with a new sense that its authority was dependent upon their support. Some men, like Sarah's father, expressed no clear enthusiasm.
Sarah recognised the snobbishness of genealogies and disapproved of them in biographies. In 1736 when she read Thomas Lediard's biography of her husband, she noted: 'This History takes a great deal of pains to make the Duke of Marlborough's extraction very ancient. That may be true for aught I know; but it is no matter whether it be true or not in my opinion, for I value nobody for another's merit.' This might have been a convenient view to take when her own extraction was not particularly grand, but Sarah never tried to disguise this. When asked, she said simply that her father's family background 'was reckoned a good one'.
Nor need much be said about her early childhood. In this post-Freudian era we tend to think we cannot know someone properly unless we are aware of where he or she came from. In Sarah's era, where character was considered a fixed thing carried around like a suitcase, childhood was viewed as an irrelevant period before one did one's packing. People kept little record of their own or others' childhoods, and in the absence of facts, biographers used to invest their subjects with precocious qualities that foreshadowed their adult characters or actions. In the History of Prince Mirabel (1712), a fictionalised biography of Marlborough, he is shown reviving a schoolfriend struck by lightning as a precursor to his later military heroism. The biographer Frank Chancellor was doing the same thing in 1932 when he imagined Sarah to have been something of a 'spitfire' as a child.
Sarah was the youngest of five children, with two brothers and two sisters. Her eldest sister, Barbara, died at twenty-seven, leaving a widower who would later pester Sarah for financial and political favours until, as she put it, he 'turned her head'. Both brothers, John and Ralph, were also to die relatively young, leaving little on the historical record but property disputes with their mother. The other sister, Frances, lived to a ripe old age like Sarah, but made very different choices.
When Sarah was five, London was overwhelmed by the plague. Another child living in Cripplegate, Daniel Defoe, later wrote a vivid account of this catastrophe as though he had experienced it as an adult. Sarah was less exposed to the horrors - the recorded death toll in St Albans was only 121 - but her parents would have known many people who died in London, and she might have witnessed the crowds of displaced people living in 'great extremities in the woods and fields' of Hertfordshire. The following year, 1666, the Great Fire of London lit up the sky 'like the top of a burning oven'. The conflagration was visible as far north as St Albans and the smoke cast a pall over the countryside for fifty miles.
If we look for major events that might have affected Sarah as a child, we must include the separation of her parents when she was eight. Divorce was rare, but private deeds of separation could be arranged and informal separations were not uncommon. In 1668 Sarah moved to London with her mother and sisters just as the city was being frenetically rebuilt. Why her parents separated is unknown, but it probably had to do with her father's financial problems and the fact that her mother had started legal proceedings against him to reclaim her dowry. By the time Sarah was born her father was insolvent, thanks to inherited debts and having to support his many younger siblings. So while Sarah did not grow up poor, she must have felt that the family was close to the edge, living always on the credit of an affluent appearance. Her financial prudence in adulthood has usually been traced to this early insecurity.
In late 1673, Sarah followed her sister Frances to Court and became one of four Maids of Honour to the Duchess of York, Mary of Modena, second wife of James, the King's Catholic brother. Frances had served James's first wife Anne Hyde, who had nine children, among whom only Princesses Mary and Anne survived. Anne Hyde had died of breast cancer in March 1671, and Margaret Blagge described the event in her own notebook rather matter-of-factly: 'None remembered her after one week, none sorry for her. She smelt extremely, was tossed and flung about, and everyone did what they could with that stately carcase.'
The fifteen-year-old Mary of Modena was a Catholic, which alarmed an Anglican nation. She probably had little idea of the religious tensions and the unfaithful husband with whom she had climbed into bed. She did not get on well with her stepdaughters, who were her own age and had been raised, according to Charles II's orders, as fervent Protestants by their mother.
Sarah was fortunate to find this job serving the new Duchess, though it paid little. Parents sometimes paid patrons to find such places for their daughters because of the contacts and opportunities for advancement they afforded, including a decent-sized dowry paid by the Crown. Royalists who sought compensation or gifts of gratitude from the restored King, which he could not afford to pay, received instead Court employment for their family. Sarah's parents had been such petitioners.
When Sarah's father had died in 1668, he had left Mrs Jennings as a single mother with debts. Mrs Jennings moved with her daughters to St James's Palace where her creditors could not come knocking. When Sarah's brother John inherited much of the family property in 1674, their mother started a new series of legal proceedings to regain control of her share.
The fact that the alternative to St James's might have been Newgate debtors' prison makes it genuinely shocking that, at sixteen, Sarah attempted to have her mother evicted from Court, or at least did not seek to prevent this happening. In a letter from Lady Chaworth to Lord Roos in November 1676 there is gossip about the fight between mother and daughter: 'Sarah Jennings has got the better of her mother who is commanded to leave the Court and her daughter in it, notwithstanding the mother's petition that she might have her girl with her, the girl saying she is a mad woman.' Sarah, as we shall see, was in the middle of courting John Churchill at this time and perhaps the argument with her mother had related to the chance of the relationship ending in marriage or, alternatively, an illegitimate pregnancy. If Mrs Jennings had talked publicly about the danger of the latter, Sarah would have been seriously embarrassed. She was probably referring to her mother when she wrote to her sister Frances in around 1675 that '[t]oday I will constrain myself as much as is possible but sometimes she would provoke a saint'. The command for her mother to leave Court does not seem to have been carried out.
There is something mysterious about the figure of Mrs Jennings. She did not leave many historical traces, except as a disappointed, litigious woman in need of money. What remain are mainly fictional incarnations of her, which feature in the anti-Marlborough satires of the 1700s and mostly represent her as a witch or procuress. In March 1712., for example, a pamphlet called The Perquisite-Monger; or the Rise and Fall of Ingratitude depicted 'Zaraida' as 'a Person of a mean Extraction, but who had by the Subtlety of her Mother, that was a noted humble Servant to the Pleasures of certain Great Men and her own Inclinations, so wormed herself into the Confidence of her Mistress as to be in the highest Esteem with her ...'
In another poem, which survives in manuscript and is undated but likely to be from Mrs Jennings' lifetime, she is referred to as King Charles's 'bawd' when 'whoring was no crime'. And in 1682, the year in which Sarah's husband received his first title, the anonymous 'Satire to Julian' mocked Sarah by a reference to her mother as an infamous whore-mistress. There may be a link between this slander and the letter Nell Gwynne wrote in 1684 from Windsor to one Mrs Frances Jennings living 'over against the Tub Tavern in Jermyn Street'. In it, although Nell addresses the lady in question as 'Madam' and signs with respectful affection ('I love you with all my heart & so goodbye'), she also gives orders for her correspondent to arrange for her shopping. They obviously had a close relationship, as if Mrs Jennings were both Nell's servant and guardian. We cannot be sure that this is the same Mrs Jennings, but it would seem a great coincidence for two women of this name to have been linked to the Court at this time.
There is a famous portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller, painted some time between 1685 and 1690, that is believed to be of Mrs Jennings. It is remarkable for showing an old woman with warts and all, contrary to conventions of the time by which respectable women were invariably painted as youthful. Either Kneller was influenced by Dutch realism, a turning point in English convention, or the sitter's morals were dubious. It is hard to see why Mrs Jennings would have chosen to sit for such a portrait. Even today it is a slightly disturbing image: her face is dark and threatening under her widow's hood.
Combined with the scraps of evidence that Sarah left behind - her perhaps flippant comment that her mother was mad, and her later letters, which imply that she was both annoyed and aggrieved by her mother's behaviour - it is difficult not to feel that there was something behind the slanderous attention that Mrs Jennings received. This sense of no-smoke-without-fire, however, is also derived from Sarah's own Atossa-image - the assumption that a woman like her must have had a mother of strong or unusual character.
On 16 February 1675, Shrove Tuesday, Sarah was on stage at the Great Hall of Whitehall Palace, performing in a masque called Calisto as the male figure of Mercury. The rest of the cast consisted of her young aristocratic friends. They were caught by, among others, the diarist John Evelyn at a moment when they were unaware of the extraordinary lives in store for each of them. The title role of Calisto ('a chaste and favourite Nymph of Diana') was played by Princess Mary, aged thirteen, to whom the play was also dedicated. Thirteen years later she was on the throne of England. Her ten-year-old sister Anne, another future Queen, also played a nymphet. This 'lymphatic, pasty-faced child-Princess' had not yet become, as Sarah would bluntly put it, 'exceedingly gross and corpulent' and she was still two years away from the smallpox that would permanently disfigure her face, but the 'perpetual squinting', which caused a 'sullen and constant frown', was already in evidence.
The Chief of the Dancers was the young Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate Protestant son of Charles II, whose uncle, James II, would execute him for treason after Sarah's future husband had helped put down his rebellion in 1685. Beside Monmouth, playing Jove, was Lady Henrietta Wentworth, who would become his mistress and die shortly after his execution. The goddess Juno was played by the Countess of Sussex, Charles II's daughter by his mistress Barbara Castlemaine. She had recently been ordered home to England and married off after escaping from a convent in France and starting an affair in Paris with the English ambassador, her mother's other lover, Ralph Montagu. Another nymph, Psecas, was played by Lady Mary Mordaunt, later Duchess of Norfolk: she was fated to become a byword for scandal when her equally faithless husband divorced her by Act of Parliament in 1700 for adultery with a Dutch gambler.
The chaste goddess Diana was played by Margaret Blagge. Disliking the flirtatiousness of the rehearsals, according to Evelyn, she preferred to sit backstage in 'the Tiring-room' and read a devotional book. She was the only leading cast member apart from Sarah who was not a 'lady', and in May of that same year she secretly married a page to the King, who later became First Lord of the Treasury and Sarah's lifelong friend, Sidney Godolphin. He was a short Cornishman with, according to Matthew Prior and several portraits, a long horse-like face. Sadly, Margaret died young, of an infection caught during the birth of her first child and was not helped by being treated with 'the pigeons' (live birds tied to her feet, believed to reduce fever).
Watching the performance of the masque, at the front of a huge audience on two tiers, were the King, with spaniels on his knee, his brother and their wives, all snacking on wine and fresh olives. Red, white and blue curtains draped the stage dangerously lit by wax and torch staves, oil lamps and candles. The curtains drew back and a musical prologue opened with the characters of Peace and Plenty attending the River Thames, a part sung, to the Queen's embarrassment, by Moll Davis, a mistress the King kept in a house in Suffolk Street. The set was a wood-and-silk replica of Somerset House with a Temple of Fame perched on top, amid painted clouds. Personifications of Europe, Africa and America joined the Thames, turning to the King and Queen in the audience and throwing tributes at their feet. Then the play proper began, set in Arcadia and 'the Duration of it, An Artificial Day'. The ladies in the cast were supposed to be playing scantily clad classical characters but were loaded down in costumes of gold and silver brocade, coloured feathers and real jewels worth hundreds of pounds.
Sarah's character, Mercury, is the confidant of Jove (Lady Wentworth). Mercury is in love with the nymph played by Princess Anne. The plot centres, however, around Calisto (Princess Mary) who is the royal favourite of the goddess Diana (Margaret Blagge). Both were witty reverse castings of mistresses and their serving ladies. Jove decides to transform himself into the shape of Diana to trick and rape Calisto. Taking advantage of the chastity assumed to exist in same-sex relationships, Jove declares:
'A sure and pleasant Ambush I will lay; I'll in Diana's shape the Nymph betray: My wanton Kisses then she'll ne'er suspect ... Disguis'd like her, I'll Kiss, Embrace, be free.'
Copyright © 2002 by Ophelia Field
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