We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Sarah Churchill (1660–1744), by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1705 Sarah Churchill (1660–1744), by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1705
Churchill [née Jenyns], Sarah, duchess of Marlborough (1660–1744), politician and courtier, was born on 5 June 1660, probably at Holywell, St Albans, Hertfordshire, the fourth and youngest daughter of Richard Jenyns (c.1618–1668), whose name is often spelt Jennings by later writers, and his wife, Frances Thornhurst (1615–1693); Jenyns was MP for St Albans. There were two older Jenyns daughters who survived to adulthood, Frances (1648–1731) [see ], and Barbara (d. 1678), who married Edward Griffith, a lawyer.

Sarah at court

In 1663 negotiations for the recovery of the family's old estate at Agney, Kent, brought Sarah's father into contact with James, duke of York, brother of Charles II. James appointed Frances Jenyns maid of honour to his wife in 1664, establishing a relationship between the impoverished gentry family and the court. Frances gave up her post in 1666 when she married the Catholic army officer George Hamilton; she emigrated with him to France in 1667. The family were remembered by James, and in 1673 Sarah was appointed maid of honour to the new duchess of York, Mary of Modena. Sarah lacked the startling beauty of her elder sister Frances, but she was described as having a precocious, charming figure, and a brilliancy all her own, with flaxen hair, blue eyes, and a well-chiselled nose. She was also particularly noted to be self-confident, with a decided temper. Sarah was soon introduced to Anne, the duke of York's youngest daughter, five years her junior. As Anne grew older, she became closely attached to Sarah.

In 1677 Sarah began to be courted by , but she was initially reluctant to encourage his advances: he had been the lover of Charles II's mistress the duchess of Cleveland, and the Churchill family estates were heavily indebted. However, she recognized their compatibility and offered Churchill enough encouragement that he refused the blandishments of his family to seek a more advantageous marriage. The couple were married, in secret but with the knowledge of the duchess of York, during the winter of 1677–8. Neither Sarah nor Churchill had any significant fortune upon which to rely, although Sarah had her maid of honour's pension of £300 p.a. and Churchill his salary as master of the robes and a further pension of £200 p.a. Additionally, the death of her brother Ralph in 1677 had left Sarah and her sisters as coheirs to the Jenyns estates in Hertfordshire and Kent. Despite the disapproval of both families, the marriage was particularly happy.

Sarah's relationship with her mother was difficult, and from an early stage there was friction between the two women. At court in 1677 her mother had objected to her relationship with Churchill; Sarah had her removed from St James's. They subsequently became close: Sarah visited her mother frequently at St Albans during her declining years, and was left her sole heir at her death in 1693. This contributed to the estrangement between Sarah and her sister Frances, by that stage a prominent Jacobite; they were partly reconciled following the end of the Nine Years' War in 1698, when Sarah used her influence to restore Frances to her Irish estates.

Sarah accompanied Churchill to the Spanish Netherlands when the duke of York went into temporary exile in March 1679. There she developed a dislike of Catholic practices—‘cheats and nonsence’ (Harris, 28). Her first child, a daughter named Harriet, was born in October 1679 but died two years later. She subsequently bore four more girls, Henrietta (1681–1733), Anne (1683–1716), Elizabeth (1688–1714), and Mary (1689–1751), and two sons, John (1687–1703) and Charles (1690–1692). Sarah spent some of her early married life at Minterne in Dorset, the Churchill family home. Her relationship with her mother-in-law was not immediately happy, and John Churchill had to beg his wife to have patience. She was probably more comfortable accompanying her husband when he travelled with the duke of York, or minding his interests at court. In autumn 1684 the Churchills were able to purchase the Jenyns family home at Holywell and she oversaw the extensive rebuilding of the house, despite her frequent pregnancies.

Confidante of Anne

Sarah became Lady Churchill when her husband was made a Scottish peer in December 1682, to which James II added an English barony in 1685. Meanwhile her friendship with Anne prospered, and she was made lady of the bedchamber when Anne set up her own establishment on her marriage to Prince George of Denmark in July 1683. Sarah emerged as Anne's closest adviser and was made her groom of the stole in 1685. Anne's dependence on her became well known, and she was cultivated by those who thought her influence the only thing preventing Anne from converting to Catholicism; she was distrusted by James II and his Catholic advisers for that reason. Following the invasion of William of Orange in November 1688, James II ordered Sarah's detention on learning that Churchill had defected to William. Sarah successfully challenged the validity of James's instructions and helped Anne to flee Whitehall at night.

Churchill was rewarded by William III and Mary II with the earldom of Marlborough in April 1689, Sarah thus becoming a countess. However, the Churchills had formerly been close to James II and had opposed the offer of the crown to William and Mary; Mary was hostile to Sarah's influence over her sister, but it was Sarah's political sense that persuaded Anne to accept the Act of Settlement that permitted William to succeed to the throne should Mary predecease him. Sarah ardently advocated the princess's interest, particularly over the question of her income. In 1692, following the discovery of Marlborough's correspondence with the Jacobite court and of the fact that Sarah had been writing to her sister Frances, Mary demanded that Sarah be dismissed from Anne's service. Sarah astutely offered to resign, but Anne refused. Sarah's sense of isolation during Marlborough's imprisonment on suspicion of high treason reinforced the bond between Anne and Sarah. Following Marlborough's release in June 1692 Sarah lived in St Albans, retired from public life; but she continued to advise Anne. She emerged once more at court following the death of Mary II in December 1694, and a public reconciliation with his sister-in-law became necessary for William III.

Anne was emotionally vulnerable and always depended very much upon her near circle of friends; Sarah was the closest of these. Anne was romantically, but platonically, in love with Sarah, who, for her part, understood very well the immense value of her relationship with the princess. So close did Anne feel to Sarah that from about 1691 she insisted that the aliases Mrs Morley and Mrs Freeman be used between them, to overcome any undue feeling of formality when in private. Although Sarah eventually found the princess's attentions irritating in their childlike ardour, she responded with genuine affection, but not with love. She later wrote that she had little in common with Anne; she used her periods of exclusion from the court to widen her reading, including Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, Montaigne, and Seneca, whereas Anne remained stubbornly non-intellectual. None the less, their political interdependence and genuine affection kept their personal relationship alive. In summer 1695 Sarah accompanied Anne to Windsor, where she swallowed her abhorrence of insincerity and was publicly reconciled to William III. The king realized that the Marlboroughs were likely to be dominant powers in Anne's reign, and that the perpetuation of his political legacy depended, in part, on a rapprochement with Sarah. An important opportunity that was not wasted was the formation of a household for Anne's son William, duke of Gloucester, in 1698. For the sake of avoiding costly arguments, William accepted Anne's list of officers, most of which were Sarah's nominations.

Sarah's children were now reaching marriageable age, and the unions negotiated for them emphasized the Marlboroughs' political alliances and how far they had risen, as well as insuring the children against their parents' possible fall. In 1698 the eldest daughter, Henrietta, married Francis, the heir of the Marlboroughs' ally Sidney Godolphin; in 1700 their second daughter, Anne, married Charles Spencer, from 1702 third earl of Sunderland. Marlborough was now reaching the apex of his ambition, but Sarah was disgusted at the political compromise that brought her husband and Godolphin into government with Laurence Hyde, earl of Rochester, in 1700. In a rage she cut off the hair her husband so admired in protest, throwing the locks at his feet, before flouncing out of the room. Marlborough said nothing of the incident, but Sarah found the hair, lovingly tied up with silken ribbons, in his cabinet after his death. The advent of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701 made confronting Louis XIV the government's first priority, to Sarah's satisfaction; the French king's recognition of James II's son as king of England, Scotland, and Ireland on his death directly threatened the inheritance of her closest friend.

Groom of the stole to Queen Anne

In 1702 Anne ascended the British thrones, and the Marlboroughs, together with Godolphin, held positions of prime influence over the new monarch. Sarah became mistress of the robes, groom of the stole, keeper of the privy purse, and ranger of Windsor Park. Her total salary from these appointments was over £6000 p.a., the rangership bringing with it Windsor Lodge for her use during her life. As with all her income and property Sarah managed these independently from her husband through trustees. In addition Sarah's daughters Henrietta, Anne, and Mary were made ladies of the bedchamber. Following Marlborough's successful summer campaign in the Netherlands, Anne made Marlborough a duke, and Sarah now enjoyed the highest rank in the peerage. Sarah was concerned that they could ill afford to maintain the ducal dignity, but Anne offered a pension of £5000 a year for her life, and £2000 a year from the privy purse. Sarah indicated that she would rather have £10,000 as dowry for her daughter Elizabeth, who was about to marry Scroop Egerton, third earl of Bridgewater, but she kept the issue of the privy purse annuity unresolved. Anne may have felt that Sarah was ungrateful. The additional prestige and income acquired by the family was offset by the death of her only surviving son, John, marquess of Blandford, at Cambridge on 23 February 1703, to her great grief.

Sarah's influence over the queen was of vital importance to Marlborough, who was often abroad on campaign but needed to be able to co-ordinate domestic affairs. While Anne acutely feared party faction and hoped to reign with a cabinet drawn from both whigs and tories, Sarah believed that while the strains of major continental war persisted this would not do. She argued vehemently in favour of the whigs, whose support of the land war was the more wholehearted. The marriage of her youngest daughter, Mary, to John Montagu, marquess of Monthermer, cousin of the minister Lord Halifax, bound her closer to the party leadership. She was convinced that most tories were Jacobites determined to remove Anne from her throne, and to the queen's frustration saw all their actions in that light. The queen was also irritated that Sarah was absent from court for long periods, which made it seem that she did not value their personal friendship and saw herself chiefly as the monarch's political adviser, a function that could easily be fulfilled in writing. Sarah pressed a series of unwelcome whig appointments on Anne, the most objectionable being that of her son-in-law Sunderland as secretary of state in 1706, even though she knew that Anne found him arrogant. Sarah bluntly insisted and, unhappily, the queen gave way. This accelerated the gradual alienation between the two women, which Sarah did not at first appreciate. Most of the political world shared her lack of perception, and the Commons hearing over the disputed election at St Albans (where the Marlboroughs were major proprietors) in November 1705 gave tory speakers the opportunity publicly to question her character and influence.

Sarah's main distractions from politics were the Marlborough building projects. Following the battle of Blenheim in August 1704 the royal manor of Woodstock in Oxfordshire was given to Marlborough by act of parliament, and Anne promised that the Treasury would fund the construction of a great house. The detailed arrangements for the building works largely fell to Sarah to oversee. Lengthy disputes ensued over plans, the quality of the construction, and the quantity of public money available. Sarah felt John Vanbrugh's designs to be too grand, and burdensome on the Treasury at time of war. In 1708, when Anne was attempting to show Sarah that her friendship was still valued, the queen granted her land adjacent to St James's Park, on which she built Marlborough House, to her own design, as realized by Sir Christopher Wren. Marlborough questioned the expense, which she met at first by borrowing large sums from the privy purse accounts she managed for the queen.

Undoubtedly Sarah was an excellent business manager, controlling much of the affairs of the court and dealing with correspondence. Those who wanted access to Anne had to deal with Sarah first. She saved the queen money and inconvenience. Her downfall was that she was convinced of her own intellectual superiority over those around her, and expressed her opinions as if this were self-evident. Anne sought kindness and compassion from her close friend but Sarah had not the patience, or the wit, to provide this comfort. Instead Abigail Hill, an impoverished cousin of Sarah's whom she had introduced to court as a bedchamber woman, subtly extended her ingratiating influence with the queen. Anne was pathetically and fervently grateful, and over time she transferred her affections from one favourite to the other. Robert Harley, secretary of state from 1704, was also a cousin of Abigail, and he gained access to the queen with her assistance. When Sarah recognized in May 1707 that Abigail was Anne's new favourite her fury and bafflement were aroused; once she learned of Abigail's secret marriage to Samuel Masham, which had taken place with the knowledge of Anne and Harley, she made no attempt to hide her feelings. She was initially inclined to absent herself from court, despite the warning advice of her daughter Lady Sunderland that this would leave matters free for her rival. She was unable to moderate her outrage towards the queen, whom she viewed as unable to act for herself. On the way to the thanksgiving service for the victory at Oudenarde in July 1708, Sarah conducted a pointless argument with the queen over the jewels worn, and then showed her a letter she had received from Marlborough hoping that the queen would make good use of the victory. Anne took great offence at the implied rebuke. The queen tried to encourage Marlborough to dissuade Sarah from making their rift public knowledge, but she was not to be restrained. Furthermore her adviser Arthur Maynwaring encouraged her to think that she could continue to play the role of whig party leader and political manager while renewing her friendship with the queen, to whom she continued to dole out unsolicited advice. Her interpretation of events at court, coloured by personal bitterness, but supported by Godolphin and the beleaguered whig ministers, in turn shaped Marlborough's advice to the queen, who now felt continually harangued and sought escape.

Fall from office

The relationship between Sarah and Anne deteriorated into a series of confrontations over matters of state and the role of Abigail Masham. Sarah was often absent from court and became a liability to the Godolphin–Marlborough ministry. She and Anne last met on 6 April 1710; the exasperated and saddened queen refused to discuss Sarah's grievances with her, and requested that she put future communications in writing. Following the formation of Harley's government and the tory victory in the 1710 election, on 17 January 1711 Sarah was stripped of all her offices at court, despite the duke pleading his wife's case to the queen on bended knee. Anne stoutly refused to reconsider the dismissal, demanding the return within two days of the keys that were Sarah's badge of office. When Sarah learned of this outcome to the interview she furiously flung the keys onto the floor, declaring that her husband might bend the knee again to retrieve them, which he did. Sarah then wrote and reminded the queen that, nine years earlier, an annuity of £2000 from the privy purse had been offered to her, and now she would accept. With sombre disdain Anne allowed her the sums, together with all arrears and interest, and her earnest desire to discharge her debts faithfully stands in contrast with the clumsy behaviour of Sarah, to whom the annuity was a fairly paltry amount. Anne also asked Sarah to return the letters she had written to her, but Sarah did not comply. Anne may have allowed her to keep the £20,800 she had borrowed to build Marlborough House on the understanding that the letters would not be published. When Sarah vacated her apartments at St James's Palace, to express her resentment she stripped away all the furnishings, even down to taking the door locks, and contemplated the removal of the chimney-breast. Sarah used the whig press to refute the attacks made on her and her husband by the tories, but this only served to increase the scale of invective used against them, and Marlborough asked her to desist. The Marlboroughs retired to Holywell, where Sarah indefatigably nursed Godolphin through his final fatal illness during the summer of 1712.

In January 1713 Sarah joined Marlborough in exile, initially in the United Provinces and then in Germany. She had not often been abroad, and enjoyed their grand receptions in the capitals of protestant Europe, which she contrasted with her husband's treatment in London. However, she soon became homesick for England, particularly after her third daughter, Elizabeth, died of smallpox in March 1714. Sarah had begun work on a memoir, intended to give a written account of her dealings with Anne as she saw them, and hoped to continue her work on this while abroad. Her inability to consult her private papers caused her to postpone matters. The Marlboroughs decided to return home in July 1714; landing at Dover on 1 August they learned that Anne was dead, and enjoyed a triumphal progress back to London.

Sarah and the Hanoverians

Sarah was an admirer of the new king, George I, and approved of his choice of whig ministers. However, both George I and his son and daughter-in-law were emphatic that the Marlboroughs should not enjoy the influence they had held in the earlier part of Anne's reign. Sarah concentrated on forwarding the interests of her family; her eldest granddaughter, Lady Henrietta Godolphin, was married to the rising whig grandee Thomas Pelham-Holles, from 1715 duke of Newcastle, and she was able to use her own resources to make her eldest grandsons, William Godolphin, Viscount Rialton, and Robert, Lord Spencer, financially independent of their parents. Her involvement with the Spencer children increased following the death of Lady Sunderland in 1716. Following her husband's first stroke in the spring of that year, she devoted herself to his care. She became Marlborough's political administrator, writing correspondence in his name when she felt the contents would cause a further stroke. Accusations followed that she was exaggerating Marlborough's illness for her own benefit, and that she was the power behind the ministry of her son-in-law Sunderland. This was far from the truth; she and Sunderland mistrusted each other, and she viewed his remarriage as a threat to her grandchildren's financial security. Other followers of Marlborough chose to go their own way or were found in Sarah's eyes to have betrayed his trust, such as William, Earl Cadogan, who had badly invested Marlborough's money, possibly, but to Sarah certainly, for his own advantage. The final break with Sunderland came in 1720, when Sunderland accused her of financially supporting the Jacobite rising in 1715, and of a history of financial corruption. Unlike Sunderland she did well out of the South Sea Bubble, inducing Marlborough to sell out before the crash at a profit of £100,000; although she expressed her disapproval of the scheme as illogical, she had arranged subscriptions for friends and relatives.

Sarah found herself with few allies when she unsuccessfully appealed against a ruling in the court of exchequer in February 1721 that Marlborough, not the crown, had to pay the outstanding debts on the construction of Blenheim. Her action made an enemy of Vanbrugh, who used his powers of expression to the full in attacking his opponent. Sarah enthusiastically pursued further cases against her creditors in chancery, which would continue for the remainder of her life. Sarah's isolation made it more difficult for her to oppose the well-organized Oxford tories whose ascendancy the Marlboroughs had challenged in successive Woodstock elections, but her co-operation with the tories in St Albans at the 1721 election was a foretaste of future political bargains.

Managing the Marlborough legacy

In August 1719 the Marlboroughs had at last been able to move to Blenheim. Marlborough enjoyed his new residence for less than three years; he died at Windsor Lodge on 15 June 1722. Stricken with grief, Sarah oversaw the magnificent arrangements for his funeral. The etiquette of the day did not permit her to attend the funeral itself, so Sarah sent the duke of Montagu, her son-in-law, as chief mourner. Marlborough's will left her in possession of Blenheim and Marlborough House, in receipt of a huge jointure of £20,000 a year, and as the senior of the trustees to manage the duke's legacies, including the income due to her eldest daughter, Henrietta, now duchess of Marlborough in her own right. Sarah used her income to extend her own estate. In 1723 she purchased the manor of Wimbledon and rebuilt the house there. She thereafter acquired a number of properties, believing that by investing in land she would be protected against currency devaluation. She retained her good looks and fair hair, and in her widowhood received several offers of marriage, the most determined suitor being Charles Seymour, sixth duke of Somerset, an old enemy from Anne's day, but also widowed in 1722. He pursued her from 1723 until 1725, but Sarah wished to preserve her independence.

Sarah continued to feud with her surviving daughters, both of whom were strong-willed and eccentric and cared little for their dominating mother. Henrietta, in particular, incurred Sarah's displeasure for her liaison with William Congreve, the playwright; Congreve was probably the father of Henrietta's daughter Mary, born in 1724. Sunderland's death shortly before Marlborough's, however, left the Spencer grandchildren in her care. Gossip surrounding his mother's affair brought Henrietta's son William, now marquess of Blandford, into Sarah's orbit, but he showed no interest in the political destiny she had prepared for him and she brought him in as MP for Woodstock in 1727 only through an absence of other candidates. She fixed on the youngest of the Spencer grandsons, John, as her principal heir, though largely because the older candidates had all disappointed her. Her wealth, however, brought her a succession of young men anxious to secure her support; most, like John, Lord Hervey, soon compromised with the court, but others, such as Hugh Hume Campbell, Lord Polwarth, remained faithful.

Sarah was no friend of Robert Walpole's administration. Her resentment was in part ideological: she felt Walpole could not be a true whig as he established a peace with France and ruled through a monopoly of Treasury patronage. It was also personal, as Walpole had been her husband's clerk, and financial, as the Marlborough trust was heavily dependent for its income on the interest derived from government loans, and Walpole's peace policy had led to low interest rates. For most of Walpole's administration she looked to William Pulteney as a worthier potential leader of a whig ministry. Sarah was an occasional guest of Caroline, princess of Wales (queen following the accession of George II in 1727), but although Caroline tried to cultivate her friendship Sarah found her condescending. However, by 1730 her relations with the royal family were warm enough for it to be rumoured that she was scheming to marry her granddaughter, Lady Diana Spencer, to Frederick, prince of Wales. According to Horace Walpole, who recorded the story decades later, she supposedly offered the prince an inducement of £100,000 to agree to the match but Robert Walpole heard of the plan and put a stop to it, thereby incurring Sarah's extra wrath. Diana was eventually married to John Russell, fourth duke of Bedford.

The defection of several of Walpole's supporters to the opposition, following the excise crisis, renewed Sarah's interest in opposition politics. Her grandchildren's marriages had allied her to the Bedford and Carteret factions. She was a second cousin of Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham, whose clique of young ‘patriot’ politicians won her admiration, which became mutual. Her campaigns in the 1734 election were fought on an anti-excise platform and she sought to use her wealth to unite all the anti-Walpole forces, including the Jacobites. The Pretender wrote to her welcoming her support but to Sarah financing Jacobites was merely a tactic, and she continued to emphasize the defence of the protestant succession as a priority.

Final years

The opposition's failure to make great strides during and following the 1734 election was just one of the many burdens Sarah carried in the last decade of her life. ‘Gout’ (probably arthritis) had restricted Sarah's movement, and her house at Wimbledon was built so that one could enter it without going up steps. Her grandson Charles Spencer, third duke of Marlborough following Henrietta's death in 1733, was running up substantial debts that the Marlborough trust and Sarah's private estate, enfeebled by low interest rates and the agricultural depression, would have great difficulty in repaying. An argument with Caroline over the queen's wish to drive a road through Sarah's land at Wimbledon led to the cancellation of her £500 p.a. salary as ranger of Windsor Park, and from 1737 the government declined to borrow from the Marlborough trust, losing the trust's most secure income and emphasizing how dependent Sarah had really been on her opponent. The renewal of the loans on the duke's defection to Walpole in 1738 was another humiliation. The death of her granddaughter Diana had removed her link with the duke of Bedford, and by 1737 Sarah found that she had little influence beyond hosting the desultory opposition meetings at Marlborough House. The defeat of the opposition's attempt to reject the convention of Prado in March 1739 led Sarah to compile a Lords division list with vituperative annotations; she deplored a seemingly invulnerable ministry reliant on ‘Bishops, Pensioners, Place-men, Idiots’ (Jones and Harris, 262).

The protracted series of hearings in chancery were now overwhelmingly characterized by rulings against Sarah. The most destructive was that of 1740 which ruled that Marlborough should come into the income from his grandfather's estate, about £4000 p.a., and to his pension of £5000 p.a., thereby reducing the amount that could be paid to Sarah and the other beneficiaries of the Marlborough trust. Further rulings in 1741 and 1742 left her liable to pay outstanding debts to the heirs of dismissed contractors at Blenheim. Politically, she despaired of most of the opposition whigs, and established friendships with prominent tories, including Sir John Hynde Cotton, Alexander Pope, and Nathaniel Hooke. It was Hooke who helped her complete her account of her service to Queen Anne. However, An Account of the Conduct of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough from her First Arriving at Court to the Year 1710, published in 1742, must be seen as an apologia for herself and her husband. It was intended primarily to rehabilitate their own reputations, and to restate the grievances of ill treatment and ingratitude to which Sarah believed they had been subject. Although the events described were long past, the publication of the Conduct caused a minor sensation in polite society and attracted criticism, although Henry Fielding wrote persuasively in support of Sarah's conclusions.

Sarah lived to see Walpole finally fall in 1742, but the readiness of many opposition whigs to compromise with Walpole's allies in subsequent administrations led her to be pessimistic about the future. At last unable to adapt to new circumstances, she was looked to by few major political figures in her last years, although she was reconciled with her surviving daughter, Mary, dowager duchess of Montagu, and established a friendly relationship with Henry Pelham, who had the sense to be deferential towards the ailing duchess. She died at Marlborough House in London on 18 October 1744. Tobias Smollett thought her ‘immensely rich and very little regretted other than by her own family’ (Green, 307) but most of her blood relations were estranged from her when she died. She was buried in the chapel at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, on 3 November, alongside her husband, whose body was brought from Westminster Abbey as ordered in her will. This lengthy document contained many generous bequests, to family, servants, and acquaintances. Beneficiaries included Philip Stanhope, fourth earl of Chesterfield, who received £20,000, and William Pitt, who received £10,000: she had admired their oratory and principled opposition to Walpole. She left twenty-seven landed estates in twelve counties with a capital value of £4 million, an annual rent roll of £17,000, £250,000 in capital, and £12,500 in annuities, most of which was inherited by John Spencer, but with the proviso that he could not accept an office from the crown and keep his inheritance; Sarah, at the last, thought the political system incompatible with the maintenance of virtue.

Sarah Churchill was a woman of extraordinary energy and vibrancy and a brilliant and forthright intellect. Her long and devoted marriage to John Churchill, and her close association with Queen Anne, set her amid many of the most tumultuous events in British history at a time when the doting queen would have refused her dearest friend almost nothing. For all the turbulence and exasperation that her conduct frequently caused him, Sarah was the first duke of Marlborough's inspiration and he looked to her for approval. It is arguable that without the goad of her spirited influence he would not have risen so far or so fast. Sarah prided herself on her sense of logic, but her extraordinarily stubborn nature was not receptive to reasoned argument by others, with the occasional exception of her husband. This robust quality was of immense value when she was right, but quite disastrous when wrong, and her brusque temper contributed enormously to the eventual breach with Anne and her failure to exert enduring political influence in the reigns of George I and George II. She was too self-righteous to maintain a position at court through flattery and dissimulation, but her ambition and ability kept her near the centre of British political life for seventy years.

James Falkner


F. Harris, A passion for government: the life of Sarah, duchess of Marlborough (1991) · DNB · D. Green, Sarah, duchess of Marlborough (1967) · K. Campbell, Sarah, duchess of Marlborough (1932) · W. S. Churchill, Marlborough: his life and times, 2 vols. (1947) · A. L. Rowse, The early Churchills (1956) · D. Green, Queen Anne (1967) · J. Swift, Journal to Stella, ed. H. Williams, 2 vols. (1948) · G. M. Trevelyan, England under Queen Anne, 3 vols. (1930–34) · The letters and diplomatic instructions of Queen Anne, ed. B. C. Brown (1935) · E. Gregg, Queen Anne (1980) · C. Jones and F. Harris, ‘“A question … carried by bishops, pensioners, place-men, idiots”: Sarah, duchess of Marlborough and the Lords' division over the Spanish convention, 1 March 1739’, Parliamentary History, 11 (1992), 254–77 · will, PRO, PROB 11/736, sig. 259


Beds. & Luton ARS, corresp. · BL, corresp. and MSS, Add. MSS 61414–61480; Egerton MS 2678 · Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, Marlborough papers · Hove Central Library, Sussex, accounts as keeper of privy purse · Yale U., Beinecke L., letters |  Althorp House, Northamptonshire, Spencer papers · Berks. RO, letters to W. Townsend · BL, letters to J. Craggs, Stowe MS 751 · BL, corresp. with Lord Hardwicke, Add. MS 35853 · BL, corresp. with Lord Holland, Add. MS 51386 · BL, corresp. with A. Jennens and R. Jennens, Add. MSS 62569–62570 · BL, corresp. with Lady Longueville, Add. MSS 61456, 63650S; Egerton MS 1695 · BL, corresp. with duke of Newcastle, etc., Add. MS 32679; Egerton MS 2678 · BL, letters to T. Pengelly, Add. MS 38056 · BL, corresp. with W. Trumbull, D/ED/C38 · Devon RO, corresp. with duke of Somerset · Herts. ALS, letters to Lord Cowper and Lady Cowper


attrib. S. Verelst, oils, c.1680, Althorp, Northamptonshire · G. Kneller, oils, 1691 (with Lady Fitzhardinge), Blenheim, Oxfordshire · G. Kneller, oils, c.1700, Althorp, Northamptonshire; version, NPG · G. Kneller, oils, 1705, Petworth House, West Sussex [see illus.] · B. Lens, miniature, 1720, V&A · attrib. G. Kneller, oils, c.1722, Blenheim, Oxfordshire · J. M. Rysbrack, monumental statue, 1732, Blenheim, Oxfordshire · C. Boit, enamel miniature, Althorp, Northamptonshire · G. Kneller, oil sketch, Althorp, Northamptonshire · C. F. Zincke, miniature, Althorp, Northamptonshire · oils (after G. Kneller, c.1700), NPG

Wealth at death  

£4,000,000 in land; £17,000 rental income; £250,000 in capital; £12,500 in annuities: will, PRO, PROB 11/736, sig. 259; Harris, A passion for government