Churchill, Sarah Jennings (1660–1744)

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Churchill, Sarah Jennings (1660–1744)

Duchess of Marlborough, Keeper of the Privy Purse for Queen Anne of England, and wife of John Churchill, first duke of Marlborough, who used her wealth and connections to further the cause of the Whig Party. Name variations: Sarah Jennings. Born on May 29, 1660, in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England; died on October 18, 1744, at Marlborough House in London; daughter of Richard Jennings (Jenyns) and Frances Thornhurst; sister of Frances Jennings (d. 1730); received no formal education; married John Churchill (1650–1722), 1st duke of Marlborough (r. 1702–1722), on October 1, 1677 or 1678; children: Harriet (b. October 1679, died in infancy); Henrietta Churchill (1681–1733), 2nd duchess of Marlborough; Anne Churchill (1684–1716), countess of Sunderland; John (b. January 12, 1686–1703) 1st marquis of Blandford; Elizabeth Churchill (b. March 15, 1687–1714), countess of Bridgwater; Mary Churchill (1689–1751), duchess of Montagu; Charles (b. August 19, 1690, died in infancy).

From age 12 to 17, was attendant at court of Mary of Modena (1662–67); appointed lady of the bedchamber to Anne, princess of Denmark, later Queen Anne (1683); named first lady of the bedchamber for Anne (1685); Glorious Revolution and flight of James II brought William III and Mary II to the throne (1688); replaced as lady of the bedchamber by Abigail Hill, later Lady Abigail Masham (1700); William III succeeded by Queen Anne (1702); appointed Groom of the Stole, Keeper of the Privy Purse, mistress of the robes, and together with her husband created duke and duchess of Marlborough (1702); Battle of Blenheim; Marlboroughs created prince and princess of Mindelheim by Emperor Leopold (1704); Anne began castle of Blenheim (1705); dismissed from offices in favor of Abigail Masham (1711); Queen Anne succeeded by George I (1714); Duke of Marlborough died (1721); published vindication of herself in Account of the Conduct of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough from her First Comming to Court to the Year 1710 (1742).

Sarah Jennings Churchill, duchess of Marlborough, made a decisive impact on English politics during the reign of Queen Anne . From Anne's accession in 1702 until an irreparable quarrel separated them in 1711, Sarah was the power behind the English throne. Her fall from favor shook the nation and resulted in the eclipse of the Whigs and a resurgence of the Tories. Remembered by contemporaries as "a torpedo in petticoats," Sarah moved beyond the traditional bounds of 18th-century womanhood to exercise incredible political and economic power.

She knew favour and disfavour, eminence and exile, happiness and bitterness; she was wife, mother, grandmother, [and] was forever wishing she had been a man.

—David Green

Sarah Jennings was born on May 29, 1660, in a small house in St. Albans. Her father Richard Jennings had lost most of his possessions during the English Civil War because of his Royalist sympathies, but when Charles II was restored to the English throne in 1660 the Jennings family was rehabilitated. Until his death in 1668, Richard sat in the House of Commons during the reign of Charles II. Sarah's mother Frances Thornhurst was the daughter of Sir Gifford Thornhurst. A shadowy figure, she developed in later years a reputation for witchcraft and seems to have been chronically in debt.

Taken to visit the royal court at a very young age, Sarah captivated James' youngest daughter Anne, who was four years her junior. The quiet and painfully shy Anne, whose mother had died while she was still an infant, idolized her bold and independent friend. When Sarah was 12 and returned to court to attend Mary of Modena , James' young new wife, Sarah and Anne became inseparable. Rapidly becoming a great beauty in her own right, Sarah captivated the court with her charm and wit.

When only 15, she caught the eye of John Churchill. Ten years her senior, John was a page who had done little to distinguish himself beyond having a three-year affair with Barbara Villiers , duchess of Cleveland, one of Charles II's many mistresses. John wooed the cynical Sarah with all his might, pouring out his anguish in a series of ardent letters, proclaiming his undying love: "Give me leave to do what I cannot help which is to adore you as long as I live. Could you ever love me I think … it would make me immortal." Although he could offer neither title nor substantial wealth, he was as handsome as she was beautiful. Sarah even admitted in later years that John "was naturally genteel without the least affectation, and handsome as an angel tho' ever so carelessly dress'd." After months of wavering, Sarah finally consented to John's proposal. She became Sarah Jennings Churchill when they were married secretly, sometime in the winter of 1677–78.

The penniless couple moved in with John's mother, Elizabeth Drake . Sarah was wretched in these circumstances, and as soon as he was able, in 1683, John built her a modest home called Holywell House. Sarah's first child Harriet was born in October 1679 but died soon afterward. There followed a succession of six other children: Henrietta in 1681, Anne in 1684, John ("Jack") in 1686, Elizabeth in 1687, Mary in 1689, and finally Charles, who also died in infancy, in 1690. John was an adoring husband and an affectionate and indulgent father, though Sarah observed that "by reason of his indulgent gentleness that is natural to him he could not manage matters so as was convenient to our circumstances," obliging her to take primary responsibility for the management, education, and discipline of their children.

Sarah attended court as often as she could, but family responsibilities sometimes forced her to stay away for months at a time. Anne insisted that Sarah write every day, and she sent letters to Sarah daily, occasionally twice a day. Impatient with the formality with which Sarah had to address her in correspondence, Anne hit upon an idea that would allow them to converse as equals: pen names. Sarah chose Mrs. Freeman and Anne took Mrs. Morley. In her letters, Anne pined for Sarah's companionship, insisting: "I would live on bread and water between four walls, with her, without repining," and assuring her that she "would go round the world on my bare knees to do her the least service and she may be assured the last command from her shall be obeyed … by your faithful Morley."

When Charles II died in 1685 and was succeeded by his brother James II, John Churchill distinguished himself by leading a successful defense against an attempted invasion by one of Charles II's illegitimate sons, James Scott, duke of Monmouth. James rewarded John by making the Churchills baron and baroness of Sandridge. Then Anne, who had married Prince George of Denmark in 1683, was given her own household, and she insisted that Sarah be made lady of the bedchamber, though Sarah still seldom attended court. Anne clung to Sarah for friendship and support, insisting that Sarah keep up close correspondence with her when she could not be present, and describing Sarah's frequent absences as "a sort of death."

Drake, Elizabeth (fl. 1625–1650)

Name variations: Elizabeth Churchill. Born Elizabeth Drake, a descendant of the seafarer Sir Francis Drake; daughter of Lady Eleanor Drake; married Winston Churchill (a West Country Lawyer); children: Arabella Churchill (1648–1714, mistress of King James II of England); John Churchill, 1st duke of Marlborough (1650–1722).

During the English Civil War (1642–51), when a West Country lawyer by the name of Winston Churchill became a Royalist cavalry captain and took up arms in defense of crown and his Anglican church, his fortunes fell along with those he championed. Facing destitution, Winston and his wife Elizabeth Drake took refuge with her mother, the staunch Parliamentarian Lady Eleanor Drake . On May 26, 1650, while living under Lady Drake's roof, Asche House in Devonshire, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, John Churchill, the future first duke of Marlborough.

As Royalists, the Churchills entertained few prospects. Elizabeth's family enjoyed a measure of social prestige. The century before, it had produced the great Elizabethan admiral, Sir Francis Drake. Through marriage, Elizabeth was related to the Villiers family, including Barbara Villiers . George Villiers, the duke of Buckingham, had been the intimate friend of both James I and Charles I. But during the Puritan Commonwealth, such affiliations offered no advantage.

The Stuart Restoration in 1660 produced an immediate improvement in the Churchill family fortunes. Elected a member of Parliament for Weymouth, Winston Churchill took his seat in the Convention Parliament in 1661. Making a mark for himself, he quickly earned an entrée to Charles II's court and substantial royal preferments. In 1662, Winston Churchill became commissioner for Irish Land Claims and the following year obtained a knighthood and a posting in London.

Churchill, Henrietta (1681–1733)

Second duchess of Marlborough. Born on July 19, 1681; died on October 23, 1733; acceded as duchess of Marlborough, 1722; daughter of Sarah Jennings Churchill (1660–1744) and John Churchill (1650–1722), 1st duke of Marlborough (r. 1702–1722); married Francis Godolphin, 2nd earl of Godolphin, on April 23, 1698; children: William, marquess of Blandford; Henrietta Godolphin (d. 1776, who married Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st duke of Newcastle); Mary Godolphin (d. 1764, who married Thomas Osborne, 4th duke of Leeds).

Churchill, Mary (1689–1751)

Duchess of Montagu. Born on July 15, 1689; died in 1751; daughter of Sarah Jennings Churchill (1660–1744) and John Churchill (1650–1722), 1st duke of Marlborough (r. 1702–1722); married John Montagu, 2nd duke of Montagu.

James II proved a troublesome monarch. An avowed Roman Catholic, he aroused deep-seated suspicion within the hearts of the English nobility when he began placing Catholic friends in prominent government positions. Rumors of his intention to impose "popery" on his subjects created ripples of unrest throughout the country. Belief that James would not long outlive his brother and would soon be succeeded by his Anglican daughters, Mary (Mary II , 1662–1694) and Anne, encouraged the majority of the English nobility grudgingly to accept his unpopular friends. Suspicion turned into alarm when James' wife, Mary of Modena, announced in late 1689 that she was pregnant. Although Mary was only in her mid-30s, the possibility that she would conceive after two decades of barrenness astounded the nation. Many preferred to think of the pregnancy as a sham, a "popish plot" foisted on the English by James and his Catholic cronies. James' own daughters, Mary and Anne, refused to believe that the pregnancy was real. When Mary of Modena gave birth to a son in June of 1688, a panicked contingent of nobles hastily composed a note to William, stadtholder of Holland, and husband to James' daughter Mary, asking him to come to the aid of England and the Protestant Church against the tyrannical James. They offered as reward a joint monarchy under William (III) and Mary.

When William invaded England, Sarah and John Churchill faced a difficult decision. They supported William, believing that James was determined to restore the Roman Catholic Church in England. Sarah helped smuggle Anne out of London until the danger of an armed uprising passed. The expected rebellion, however, never materialized—James escaped with his wife and child to France, informally abdicating his authority by throwing the seals of office into the Thames. William and Mary were warmly welcomed in London, where they were crowned William III and Mary II. Anne was elevated to the position of heir apparent.

Jealous over Sarah's domination of Anne, Mary insisted that Anne dismiss her and terminate her allowance of £1,000 per year. Anne steadfastly refused. John was relieved of all his appointments, and, in the spring of 1692, he was imprisoned in the Tower. Though released after two months, he remained out of favor with the royal court for six years. Anne still resisted any attempts to displace Sarah. To punish her for her obstinance, William and Mary forced Anne out of her lodgings at court, and Anne and her husband George moved into a house owned by the Duke and Duchess of Somerset. When Anne still would not waver, William and Mary decreed that she and George were not to be saluted and took their guard away. Sarah prevailed on Anne to relent, but Anne remained adamant. The incident created a permanent schism between Anne and Mary, until Mary's death from smallpox in 1694.

John, who was reinstated to his offices in 1698, was made a member of William's Privy Council and governor to William, duke of Gloucester, Anne's only surviving son after 17 pregnancies. William died in 1700, at age 11. Meanwhile, Sarah was busy with her own brood of children, who were nearing adulthood, investing an incredible amount of energy in securing proper matches for them.

When William III died childless in 1702, Anne became queen of England. At 37, she was prematurely aged; multiple pregnancies, gout and arthritis had made her a virtual cripple. Leaning on Sarah more than ever to assist her in fulfilling the rigorous political and ceremonial duties of a monarch, Anne made her friend Groom of the Stole, Keeper of the Privy Purse (a sum from the public revenues allotted to the sovereign for personal expenses), and mistress of the robes. Anne also made John a duke. When Sarah protested that their income was insufficient to support such a high office, Anne granted John £5,000 per year for life.

Sarah attacked her new responsibilities with zeal, eliminating the use of bribes in the royal household and applying strict economy to the Privy Purse and the queen's wardrobe. She attended Anne closely until 1703, but, when her only son Jack died of smallpox at 17, Sarah was inconsolable. For months, while John was in Europe, fighting against the French, Sarah haunted Westminster Abbey dressed in black. In the summer of 1704, John led the English in a glorious victory against the French at Blenheim, becoming a national hero overnight. The Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I gave him the tiny principality of Mindelheim.

Anne enthusiastically proposed to finance the building of a splendid residence for the Churchills to be called Blenheim, and the first stone was laid in June 1705. Thrilled at the prospect, John hired all the best architects in England, including Christopher Wren and Sir John Vanbrugh, to design the magnificent structure. Sarah was less than enthusiastic about the enterprise, confessing, "I mortally hate all Grandeur and Architecture." The construction of Blenheim progressed slowly; it was not put into livable condition until 1719 and was under construction for 20 more years.

Sarah's position near the queen encouraged her to take a more active role in politics. An ardent Whig, she began badgering Anne to make her son-in-law Charles Spencer, Lord Sunderland, secretary of state. Anne refused, believing Sunderland "a brazen Freethinker and at heart a Republican." A moderate Tory, Anne despised political factionalism and wanted a cooperative ministry of the best talents available; she found Sarah's diatribes distressing. Sarah sent Whiggish political treatises to Anne to "instruct" her on the principles of liberty and wrote to her in an increasingly spiteful tone. Beleaguered by ambitious office-seekers and scorned by her girl-hood friend, Anne eventually turned elsewhere for support.

Anne found friendship and comfort in one of her ladies of the bedchamber, Abigail Masham . A poor relation of Sarah's, Abigail had been placed in Anne's court at Sarah's request. Sarah never considered Abigail a potential threat, convinced that her unaristocratic background would prevent Anne from viewing Abigail as anything more than a glorified household servant. Sarah, however, was so often absent from court that she had little opportunity to observe Anne's growing intimacy with Abigail, and she continued to badger Anne with strident letters.

Sensing Abigail's potential as a political pawn, Robert Harley, the leader of the Tory faction, cultivated her friendship. The gambit paid off—Anne's relationship with Sarah grew increasingly cold and formal. Though John tirelessly worked to heal the growing breach between them, the queen abruptly broke off relations with Sarah early in 1710. In January 1711, Anne dismissed Sarah from all her offices, despite John's pleas on Sarah's behalf. The queen demanded the gold key, which was the symbol of the Keeper of the Privy Purse. When John returned home with the news, Sarah took the key and "threw it into the middle of the room and bid him to take it up and carry it to whom he pleased."

Abigail was made Keeper of the Privy Purse; Harley was made earl of Oxford and Mortimer; and Sarah's other offices were given to the wives of leading Tory politicians. In 1712, Sarah wrote a vindication of herself but held off publishing it, believing it to be too politically controversial. In the heated atmosphere, the Churchills were keenly aware of the danger of being out of favor. John hastily made plans for them to tour Europe, a retreat Sarah wryly referred to as "a sort of pilgrimage." They toured their principality of Mindelheim and were welcomed enthusiastically throughout Europe, but Sarah expressed impatience with the unfamiliar surroundings and longed to return to England. On March 31, 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht was signed, ending the long war with France. The treaty proved highly unpopular, but the blame for its provisions was placed squarely on Harley and his lieutenant, Henry St. John, whom Anne had made Viscount Bolingbroke.

By 1714, John judged it safe to return. Anne fell desperately ill in July, and soon afterward Harley fell out of favor with Abigail and Boling-broke. Anne's successor, according to the 1701 Act of Succession, was to be George (I), prince of Hanover, a distant relative preferred by Parliament over 86 claimants with closer blood ties by virtue of being the only Protestant. As Anne's condition worsened through July, Bolingbroke began secret negotiations with James II's son, James Stuart, known as "the Old Pretender," who had grown up at the French court and was conspiring to return to England and claim his birthright by force. Anne's intentions in the matter were unknown. She did not recognize James, but she also expressed many unflattering comments about George of Hanover. Anne breathed her last on August 1, 1714. The Churchills landed in Dover on the following day.

Within days of Anne's death, John sided with the supporters of George of Hanover, Harley was clapped in the Tower (where he languished for two years before being acquitted and released), and Bolingbroke fled to France to join the Old Pretender's court. George of Hanover landed in England on September 18. He immediately restored John as captain-general of the armed forces.

Churchill, Anne (1684–1716)

Countess of Sunderland. Born on February 27, 1684; died on April 15, 1716; interred at Brington, Northamptonshire, England; daughter of Sarah Jennings Churchill (1660–1744) and John Churchill (1650–1722), 1st duke of Marlborough (r. 1702–1722); married Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland, on January 2, 1699; children: Robert (b. 1700); Robert (b. 1701), 4th earl of Sunderland; Charles (b. 1706), 3rd duke of Marlborough; John, known as Jack of Althorp (b. 1708), a member of Parliament; Anne Spencer (d. 1769), viscountess Bateman; Diana Spencer (1708–1735), duchess of Bedford (who married John Russell, 4th duke of Bedford).

After her fall from favor, Sarah gave up politics and devoted her energies to her family. Shortly before their return to England, she and John had received word that their daughter Elizabeth, countess of Bridgwater, had died of smallpox in March. In April of 1716, another daughter, Anne Churchill , countess of Sunderland, died of pleuritic fever. Sarah was devastated. Elizabeth and Anne had been her favorites; Sarah's relationship with her remaining two daughters, Henrietta and Mary, was strained. Sarah took in the youngest of Anne's and Elizabeth's children to see to their upbringing.

In May 1716, John suffered a stroke, which impaired his speech and sapped his energy. He had a second stroke in November. Sarah dedicated her time and attention to nursing him and caring for her grandchildren. John continued to weaken and finally died in June of 1721. Sarah's grief at losing him was made more bitter by the outbreak of open hostility with Henrietta and Mary at their father's deathbed and funeral. Sarah later wrote that her husband's death made her feel as though her "soul was tearing from [her] body."

After John's death, Sarah became obsessed with finishing Blenheim as a monument to the courage and greatness of her beloved husband. She exasperated the architects and builders engaged in the project with demands for speed and frugality. Before it was finished, she had fired all the well-known architects involved. Her arguments with the Blenheim contractors drew her into a mass of litigation as she approached her 60s.

Legal entanglements, the raising and placement of her grandchildren, and continued arguments with her daughters filled her attention during the last decades of her life. She became increasingly absorbed with vindicating herself for posterity. In the 1720s, she began keeping what she called her "Green Book," entitled "An Account of the Cruell Usage of My Children." It contained excerpts from her struggles with her daughters as well as her grandchildren. Sarah's Green Book circulated only among her closest friends, whom she hoped to convince of her unfailing love and attention to her children and their horrible disrespect for her.

But the intervening years had robbed her of much of her earlier vitriol. While polishing her political self-justification, An Account of the Conduct of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough from her First Comming to Court to the Year 1710, for its 1742 publication, she was visited by Voltaire who asked to see it. Sarah replied, "Wait a little, I am altering my account of Queen Anne's character. I have begun to love her again since the present lot have become our governors."

Sarah's health began failing in the 1730s, and she complained often of arthritis and gout. Yet she still outlived all of her children, except Mary, and many of her grandchildren. Sarah died on October 18, 1744, after living through six reigns. John's body was moved and interred next to hers at Blenheim chapel. On a scrap of paper among her writings she had once written:

I forsee the world will interpret whatever I do that may look discontented and particular to my having lost the queen's favor and my great Employments. That may vex me a little … but I hope you will never think my mis-fortunes can be one grain heavier upon that account, for as long as I can live in quiet and safety with the Dear Duke of Marlborough I shall have very little more to wish for.

Sarah Jennings Churchill died a phenomenally wealthy woman. Her possessions included no fewer than 30 estates. Her outspoken nature and scathing pen earned her more than a few enemies, but her power and influence were unequalled by any other 18th-century English-woman. As the progenitor of a dynasty that eventually produced Winston Churchill, Sarah left behind a reputation larger than life and proved herself the equal of anyone who served as an English politician.


Green, David. Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. NY: Scribner, 1967.

Harris, Frances. A Passion for Government: Life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. Oxford University Press, 1991.

Marlborough, Sarah J. Letters of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. AMS Press (reprint of the 1875 edition).

suggested reading:

Churchill, Winston S. Marlborough: His Life and Times. 2 vols. London: George G. Harrap, 1933.

Jones, J.R. Marlborough. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Trevelyan, George Macaulay. England Under Queen Anne. 3 vols. London: Longmans, 1931.


Correspondence, papers and memorabilia located at Blenheim Estate, London, England.

Kimberly Estep Spangler , Assistant Professor of History, Chair, Division of Religion and Humanities, Friends University, Wichita, Kansas

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Churchill, Sarah Jennings (1660–1744)

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