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date: 27 September 2020

Churchill, Clementine Ogilvy Spencer- [née Clementine Ogilvy Hozier], Baroness Spencer-Churchillfree

(1885–1977)
  • Brian Harrison

Clementine Ogilvy Spencer- Churchill, Baroness Spencer-Churchill (1885–1977)

by Dorothy Wilding, 1943

William Hustler and Georgina Hustler / © National Portrait Gallery, London

Churchill, Clementine Ogilvy Spencer- [née Clementine Ogilvy Hozier], Baroness Spencer-Churchill (1885–1977), political wife, was born at 75 Grosvenor Street, London, on 1 April 1885, and was assumed to be the second among the four children (three daughters, one son) of Colonel Henry Montague Hozier (1838–1907) and his wife, Lady Henrietta Blanche Ogilvy (1852–1925), eldest daughter of David Graham Drummond Ogilvy, fifth earl of Airlie. Her presumed father, following a distinguished military career, was secretary to Lloyd's of London from 1874 to 1906. However, her mother was promiscuous, and in later life Clementine Churchill thought that Hozier had not been her father. Documentary evidence led Clementine's youngest daughter, Mary, to suspect that Clementine's father was Captain William (‘Bay’) Middleton (1846–1892), a cavalry officer with whom Lady Ogilvy had an affair (The Times, 16 Aug 2002, 1).

Clementine Hozier's early years were not easy: her parents separated in 1891 when she was nearly six, and thereafter her mother was very short of money, and migrated between rented houses and furnished rooms, mainly in England, but for short periods also in Dieppe and Paris. Educated mainly at home, Clementine attended Berkhamsted High School for Girls from 1901 to 1904. With a higher school certificate in French, German, and biology, she was intellectually flying high for a young woman at her social level, but although her headmistress encouraged the idea of university, her mother did not. Given her mother's financial and social circumstances Clementine was launched on the London social scene by her great-aunt, Lady St Helier. 'She soon became known for beauty, charm, and intelligence, and was much in demand' (DNB). She first met Winston Churchill (1874–1965) in 1904 at a ball in London, but his social awkwardness left a poor impression. Thereafter she was twice secretly engaged to Sidney Cornwallis Peel, the banker and barrister son of the first Viscount Peel; 'he was good to me and made my difficult rather arid life interesting', she recalled, 'but I couldn't care for him & I was not kind or even very grateful' (Soames, 312). In 1906 she became publicly engaged to a distinguished civil servant nearly twice her age, Lionel Earle (1866–1948), but then broke it off.

A pattern of life established, 1908–1918

In March 1908, at a dinner party given by Lady St Helier, Clementine Hozier was placed next to Winston Churchill. Entirely neglecting his other neighbour, Lady Lugard, he focused so closely on Clementine that a friendship resulted. It was not his first female friendship, but it developed fast: a short courtship, an engagement at Blenheim on 11 August publicly announced four days later, and marriage at St Margaret's, Westminster, on 12 September 1908. There were 1300 guests; Clementine was twenty-three, he nearly thirty-four and already a cabinet minister. Unable to bring money to the marriage, Clementine brought something much more valuable for a husband obsessed with political life: a shrewd political intelligence. She supplied balance at two levels: her more equable nature ensured that she moderated the depth of his depressions, and her good judgement helped to ward off political mistakes.

A non-militant advocate of votes for women, Clementine Churchill held feminist views that were ‘advanced’ for her day, but then and for long afterwards women frequently combined belief in political rights with accepting traditional social roles which only later came to be seen as anti-feminist or pre-feminist. A separation of spheres between the sexes was taken for granted in well-to-do circles: the husband's career outside the home enabled him to ‘support’ a wife and family, while the wife pursued a supportive, unpaid, and largely private domestic role. Her role subdivided into four: backing up the husband, producing children, taking a major part in bringing them up, and engaging in the sort of voluntary work that grew naturally out of the domestic role. None of these roles was easy, conflicting obligations had to be balanced, and all entailed a complex interaction between male and female lives that required from women considerable tact and patience. Bringing off this fourfold combination was the goal to which most such women aspired. So while at one level the wife's career-pattern was a palimpsest of her husband's, at another level it diverged completely—with contrasting preoccupations, priorities, and climacterics.

In backing up her husband, Clementine Churchill could hardly be faulted, and when on social occasions she heard him or his policies unfairly criticized, she could be forthright in his defence, even to the extent of embarrassing her guests. 'Marriage was her vocation', said a newspaper leading article at her death (The Times, 13 Dec 1977, 17). For this, a lifetime's careful stage-management was required, of both her own image and Winston's. For her youngest daughter, Mary Soames, Clementine's 'beautiful and soignée appearance at all times, and the effect she usually gave of serenity, were artefacts of a long lifetime of self-control' (Speaking for Themselves, xx), for her husband could all too often be egotistical, self-absorbed, and unintentionally selfish. In the last sentence of his My Early Life (1930) he wrote that 'I married and lived happily ever afterwards'. A happy marriage it may have been in many respects for him, but Clementine assiduously concealed the fact that it was less so for her. She was by temperament a worrier, often about small things. With his volatile temperament, expensive tastes, and unpredictable career, he was for her anything but a secure anchor. Throughout her marriage she tried to curb his spending, and still more his taste for gambling. Rarely could she act upon his frequent injunction to 'cast care aside', and amid his many daring adventures she feared for his career and personal safety.

Occasional rumours of 'affairs' on either side have no firm foundation. Indeed the marriage was perhaps unusual at this social level in combining sexuality with companionship. Throughout their married life, even if separated for only a few days, Clementine and Winston wrote spontaneous and informal letters to one another, intimately affectionate in tone, using their pet names Pug and Kat and reinforced with appropriate animal drawings. Her loyalty converted their marriage into a shared political adventure. An enthusiastic Liberal at a time of major Liberal reforming achievement, she at once threw herself enthusiastically into her husband's political life, criticizing drafts of his speeches and campaigning in his constituencies, where she won friends by her charm and her memory for faces. She would otherwise have been shut out of his lifetime's central preoccupation, but this was by no means her sole motive: she looked back upon this time as her happiest period. As she acknowledged in an affectionate wedding anniversary letter of 1919: 'you took me from the straitened little by-path I was treading and took me with you into the life and colour and jostle of the high-way' (Soames, 220). When Winston rejoined the Conservatives in 1924 after gradually drifting away from the Liberals, Clementine moved with him, but though she continued to work loyally for him in his constituency, she remained at heart a Liberal, her views sometimes robustly independent from his. 'You often tease me and call me “pink”', she told him in March 1949, once more urging him to avoid Beaverbrook's company (Speaking for Themselves, 551).

So politically, as in other ways, Clementine had a mind of her own. Winston often sought her advice, though he by no means always followed it. Discreet, well-informed, and politically astute, she was adept at the pre-feminist woman's métier: confidante. When privy to many wartime secrets during the First World War she reciprocated with good advice. Sharing to the full Winston's anguish and near despair after the Dardanelles expedition, her letters to him at the front (November 1915 to March 1916) are touching in the mutual affection they reveal. On the one hand she wanted him safe at home to resume his longed-for political career, yet on the other hand she felt bound to advise him to stay away: with a longer absence, she thought significant political opinion would grow fonder. It was for her a torment, and yet with his career at its lowest point she kept his spirits up, and responded to his guidance in promoting his interests through social contacts within London's political élite. On the formation of the coalition government in 1915, for instance, she wrote in vain a strong (and unanswered) plea to Asquith for his retention at the Admiralty, and she assiduously reported political gossip back to Winston. Sometimes she regretted how his political priorities disturbed their life together. 'My Darling these grave public anxieties are very wearing—', she wrote in March 1916.

When next I see you I hope there will be a little time for us both alone—We are still young, but Time flies stealing love away & leaving only friendship which is very peaceful but not stimulating or warming.

Soames, 205

Among the sadnesses of her marriage was his frequent sacrifice of chances to spend unhurried and undistracted leisure time with her.

In her childbearing role Clementine Churchill seemed at first successful enough. There were five children: four girls—Diana, ‘the puppy-kitten’ or ‘PK’ (b. 1909); Sarah, ‘the mule’ (b. 1914); Marigold, ‘the duckadilly’ (b. 1918); and Mary (b. 1922)—and one boy, Randolph, ‘the chumbolly’ (b. 1911) [see Churchill, Randolph Frederick Edward Spencer]. Yet there were difficulties here too, quite apart from the deliveries, which were painful and required convalescence. Clementine suffered a miscarriage in 1912, and on 18 June 1918, apparently without consulting Winston, she offered Marigold to her childless close friend Jean, Lady Hamilton. Her motive may have been sheer kindness to a friend distressed at her childlessness, but there may also have been a financial component: Churchill's finances were at an unusually low ebb at the time, and Clementine worried greatly about them. The offer was not taken up, and after a throat infection Marigold died in 1921 of septicaemia, her agonized mother giving at her deathbed 'a succession of wild shrieks, like an animal in mortal pain' (Soames, 230).

Clementine Churchill's child-rearing role was complicated by her need to create a home not once but many times, for frequent changes of house and moves between family houses were built into the politician's career, not to mention the disruptions of two world wars, and unexpected fluctuations in income. Add to this the many distractions provided by women's special responsibility for personal relationships more generally: comforting aged relatives, organizing family holidays, and managing servants at a time of increasing scarcity. None the less 'warmth, vitality, and the free (and often noisy) expression of their mutual affection', wrote Soames, 'always constituted the prevailing atmosphere of Winston's and Clementine's family life' (Soames, 223); all the children had pet names, and Winston was keen to be closer to them than his parents had been to him. Clementine may have given too much attention to her husband by comparison with her children, who were often left in the care of others, so that her relations with them became rather formal. She had 'no real understanding of the childish mind or outlook', her daughter Mary recalled (Soames, 267), and in later life Clementine regretted this missed opportunity. Once after seeing Mary enjoying an afternoon with her children, she said 'I see you having such fun with your children and I missed out on that with all of mine' (Turner, 18). With her son, Randolph, she never established a close relationship. Winston, determined to be less distant from his son than his father had been from him, gave Randolph inflated ideas of himself. Clementine, initially affectionate, felt that she must provide a necessary corrective. Her response to the angry arguments Randolph tended to provoke with her was to go silent or retire altogether from the scene. When she inevitably became involved in Randolph's divorce from his wife, Pamela, in 1945, Clementine did not escape recriminations.

Husband and children left Clementine Churchill little time for the good works that were conventional among women at her social level. During the First World War, however, she discovered in herself considerable organizational skills, and worked energetically to set up canteens for munition workers—for which, in 1918, she was appointed CBE. She retreated from this role between the wars but resumed it with some effect after 1939. Winston had in effect the best of both worlds: he relished the companionship of his wife and the traditionalist male late-night and alcoholic sociability with cronies, whose influence his wife frequently condemned—especially in the case of Beaverbrook, Birkenhead, and Brendan Bracken. Clementine, by contrast, lacked the comparable close and supportive female companionship which the world of separated spheres often encouraged. Outwardly friendly and confident, she could deploy great assets in her tact and charm, yet she gave her trust and friendship only slowly, and had little taste for pursuing social life for its own sake. 'All through her life Clementine missed chances with people', wrote Soames, 'because she was too shy, and could not bring herself to be a little more natural and carefree in her approach. Thus, in a life full of people, she knew much loneliness' (Soames, 285).

Family life between the wars, 1918–1939

For the rest of her life Clementine Churchill's four roles were balanced with outward success, but privately with some difficulty—though the press reticence customary during her day ensured that her difficulties became apparent only later. Success in her roles was of more than merely domestic importance, for by the 1940s she had become a national role-model for women. Between the wars her energies went mainly into domestic and political life, and in this her priorities had emerged early: her husband came first, and their children, friends, and her own enjoyments competed for what was left. In backing up her husband she was unfailing, but Winston's extravagant tastes set up a tension with her role in managing the family. Without consulting her, but knowing she opposed the idea, he stirred her lasting resentment by purchasing Chartwell, near Westerham in Kent. It became their home for forty years, and the place where he preferred to be, but she was less fond of it, if only because she thought it cost more than they could afford.

Furthermore, on top of running a London house and managing numerous servants, she had to organize on a small income food and generous entertainment for the stream of guests invited there. 'Again and again she suffered from feeling over-burdened by the demands life—and Winston—made upon her' (Soames, 284), with two houses to run, four high-spirited children, and a political and social role to play. Her disagreements with Winston were sometimes fierce enough to require the mutual exchange of conciliatory notes, even when they were together in the same house, and in the early 1930s she was privately talking of divorce. There was some political divergence, too. Her Liberalism rather surprisingly did not incline her towards devolution in India or towards the Munich settlement in the 1930s, so they remained together on those two big issues, but on the abdication they diverged strongly; she thought Baldwin had judged public opinion correctly, and saw how seriously Winston would damage his career by supporting Edward VIII.

Clementine Churchill's childbearing role ceased with Mary's birth in 1922, and her child-rearing role steadily shrank thereafter, but she was more distant from her children than she need have been, especially from the elder ones, delegating not only their care but also the sharing of their company and pleasures to others. From 1932 her relations deteriorated seriously with Diana, whose first marriage in that year led to divorce after only three years. Randolph was for decades a recurrent embarrassment to both his parents. Sarah made an unsuitable marriage to Vic Oliver in 1936 against parental advice and was divorced in 1945. Yet too gloomy an impression should not be conveyed. Clementine Churchill had great vitality at this time and loved sports and games. Riding and hunting featured briefly in her early married life; she played tennis to tournament standard, and when over fifty she learned to ski. She also loved travelling, whereas Churchill preferred to paint, usually in the south of France. So during the 1930s she sometimes took long and interesting voyages without him—to the East and West Indies, for example. It was the calm before the storm.

The Second World War

Clementine Churchill's responsibility for her husband's well-being became specially important from 1940, when Winston became prime minister and leader of the coalition government in a national struggle for survival. It was an achievement of national and even international importance that with much personal strain but without subservience she made the marriage work. She was prepared to criticize her husband when others feared to do so. 'My darling Winston', she wrote in June 1940, reporting criticism widespread within his entourage, 'I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not as kind as you used to be'; she went on to point out that 'you won't get the best results by irascibility & rudeness' (Soames, 325). She may have had more success here than when strongly opposing his assuming the Conservative Party leadership; she favoured his retaining as wartime prime minister a non-party status, and privately felt even less comfortable as a Conservative in later life than he did.

Clementine's correspondence and social commitments now greatly increased, and she also accompanied Winston on tours of inspection and visits to bombed cities. Her turban-style headscarf became a sort of personal trademark, and she never lost in later life the outstanding beauty of her youth; her high personal standards and discipline ensured that in public and in private she presented an elegant, sometimes even regal, appearance. At the start of the war, however, tensions between care for her husband and for her family were acute, for the family was then causing serious difficulties. Randolph's drinking and gambling prompted much concern, Sarah's marriage to Vic Oliver was breaking up, and there were fears, unsubstantiated as it turned out, that Mary too would marry unsuitably. It was a worrying time for everyone, but for a woman in public life who had to provide (and be seen to provide) loyal, practical, and serene backing for a husband overloaded with cares the anxieties must have been formidable.

And yet, in the Second World War as in the First, Clementine Churchill somehow found time to take on a philanthropic role. From 1939 she was conscientious in attending the house committee of the Fulmer Chase maternity hospital for wives of officers. In 1940 and at other times during the war she visited air-raid shelters in the London area, reporting directly and with some effect to the prime minister on what many Londoners were enduring. From 1941 to 1947 she was president of the YWCA Wartime Fund, taking a special interest in their hostels for service women; she continued her work after the war and chaired its national hostels committee from 1949 to 1952. Her involvement was by no means merely nominal, and her reports on visits were detailed, practical, and (when critical) constructive. Also in 1941 she embarked upon what became the most substantial public work she ever undertook when she became chairman of the Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund. Of the £9,000,000 collected in Britain to help the USSR, ‘Mrs Churchill's Fund’, as it was popularly known, raised £6,700,000. In March–May 1945, at the invitation of the Russian Red Cross, she visited Russia to inspect many of the institutions equipped or otherwise helped by her fund. She travelled widely in the Soviet Union, was received by Stalin, and was awarded the order of the Red Banner of Labour. As Winston told her in a telegram on 2 April, 'at the moment you are the one bright spot in Anglo-Russian relations' (Speaking for Themselves, 521). At home, in recognition of her work for the Russian Fund and her other services, she was appointed GBE in the victory honours list.

Later life and assessment, 1945–1977

Clementine Churchill was now a public figure in her own right, much admired: in 1945 she received the freedom of Wanstead and Woodford, her husband's constituency, and she later received three honorary degrees. But the war years had been wearing, and her wish that Winston should retire from politics in 1945 was not granted. Thereafter her role in backing up her husband both in and out of office was peculiarly demanding. The relationship was in some ways easier when his abundant energies could be channelled into politics, and it became strained after his electoral defeat in 1945. As Clementine told Mary at the time 'in our misery we seem, instead of clinging to each other to be always having scenes … I'm finding life more than I can bear. He is so unhappy & that makes him very difficult' (Soames, 429).

Clementine Churchill opposed her husband's resuming office in 1951, which once more imposed many demands upon her, especially during the coronation year of 1953. The unceasing need for reticence, tensions within the family, and Winston's frequent absences abroad all accentuated the loneliness which stemmed from her shyness. Throughout the Churchill government of 1951–5 her own health was poor; according to Soames she was at this time 'immensely touchy and difficult' (Speaking for Themselves, 588). Life became less arduous for her after her husband left office in 1955, but her radical streak made her less enthusiastic than he for accepting hospitality from rich friends overseas. She had a particular reason for not sharing Winston's taste for staying in the south of France with Emery Reeves, whose household was managed by Wendy Russell, a former New York model. Noel Coward (who greatly admired Winston Churchill) recorded what he saw at a lunch there:

there was this great man, historically one of the greatest our country has produced, domestically one of the silliest, absolutely obsessed with a senile passion for Wendy Russell. He followed her about the room with his brimming eyes and wobbled after her across the terrace, staggering like a vast baby of two who is just learning to walk.

Coward Diaries, 323

Winston and Clementine now often holidayed apart.

Clementine Churchill's family role continued to present difficulties after 1945. There was trouble in 1949 with Sarah's second marriage—to Antony Beauchamp—which got into the press before her parents were informed; it took several weeks before Clementine could bring herself to resume friendly relations. This marriage also proved short-lived, with permanent separation in 1955, and Beauchamp's suicide in 1958; Sarah was by then suffering from chronic alcoholism, which in 1960 led her to a prison sentence. Diana's second marriage, to the Conservative politician Duncan Sandys, in 1935 ended with her breakdown, during which her resentment against her mother was made painfully manifest. Divorce followed in 1960, and Diana died in 1963 from a massive overdose of sleeping pills. In 1968 Randolph died from cirrhosis of the liver.

Winston Churchill's health was now a constant source of worry; he had a mild heart attack in 1943 and a slight stroke in 1949. After his minor stroke in 1953, his health became a major concern, and in her eagerness to preserve his great reputation, Clementine dreaded his breaking down in public and having to bow out amid personal humiliation. By the early 1960s he was in marked decline, and because Clementine disliked being parted from him for long, her life too was closing in, and her good works had to be confined largely to causes more closely associated with her husband and his reputation. She was now the guardian of a national icon, and her fierce protectiveness of his image led her to take the initiative, some time in 1955 or 1956, in destroying the portrait by Graham Sutherland that he so hated. As her youngest daughter wrote, 'Winston was to be Clementine's life-work' (Soames, 266). There were also all the embarrassments involved in trying to get her husband to face realities. She 'had never before shirked an issue', writes Soames (ibid., 525), but 1962 saw the first occasion in their long life together when Clementine lacked the nerve to argue out with Winston a matter which she thought of vital importance: his need to retire from his Woodford seat before the general election of 1964. Fortunately tactful intermediaries prevailed.

Clementine Churchill then had to face all the stress of Winston Churchill's death on 24 January 1965, followed by a highly public funeral. It was, however, a pleasure for her that she was in May 1965 created a life peer as the Baroness Spencer-Churchill of Chartwell. She surprised some by choosing to sit on the cross-benches, though her growing deafness precluded her taking a regular part in parliamentary life. She none the less retained a lively interest in public as well as family affairs, and despite bouts of illness led a pleasant life in what Soames described as her 'long and benign sunset' (Soames, 559). Three of her five children had predeceased her, but she established a good rapport with her grandchildren and was surrounded by affection and respect. She died of a heart attack on 12 December 1977 at her London home, 7 Princes Gate, Westminster. A service of thanksgiving for her life was held in Westminster Abbey on 24 January 1978.

Clementine Churchill's advice to her husband was not invariably wise: she did not oppose his line on devolution in India in the early 1930s; in opposing his succession in 1940 to Neville Chamberlain as Conservative leader she did not allow sufficiently for the practical difficulties involved in his remaining a non-party ‘national’ leader; and she resisted him in 1953 when he thought ‘the course of true love’ should prevail in relations between Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend. None the less Winston Churchill would have been saved from many mistakes if he had listened to her more often: he would have been less resentful at losing cabinet office in 1915, backed off more quickly from a hard line on Ireland in 1921, trusted Baldwin's judgement during the abdication crisis in 1936, paid more heed to Attlee's complaints about his disorganized ways of handling the cabinet in the Second World War, and refrained from his ill-judged ‘Gestapo’ reference in the general election of 1945 to what a Labour government might do. He might also have preserved his reputation more securely if he had retired from public life in that year.

It was regrettable that the first scholarly one-volume biography of her husband, Henry Pelling's Winston Churchill (1974), assigned a wife of this calibre only walk-on parts, and that the huge official biography of Winston Churchill, a monument to the husband's achievements, buried the wife together with much else. The fine, unusually informative, affectionate but not uncritical biography by Mary Soames, which appeared in 1979, retrieved the situation. At last Clementine Churchill moved centre-stage—never her role in life, but a role she fully deserved in afterlife. The biography is the more convincing for its willingness, when necessary, to criticize its subject, and was based on the correspondence between her parents. In 1988 Soames filled out the picture by publishing a substantial selection from it and in 2002 she brought out a revised and expanded edition of her biography. Interpretation from an informed outsider was, however, much needed; it was unfortunate that Joan Hardwick in her Clementine Churchill: the Private Life of a Public Figure (1997) was refused permission to quote even published Churchill material, and was denied access to the Churchill papers at Churchill College, Cambridge. So Hardwick's biography adds little that is new, though it rightly emphasizes Clementine's efforts in later life to preserve a dignified public image of herself and her husband. This was indeed a challenge, given the problems with her children, with money, with health, and above all with a brilliant and genuinely fond but in many ways impossible husband. Yet precariously, and with much wear and tear, Clementine Churchill somehow prevailed. At the end of the day when Winston Churchill was buried, after watching the replay of his funeral on television, Clementine got up to go to bed. As she reached the door she paused, turned round, and said 'You know, Mary, it wasn't a funeral—it was a Triumph' (Soames, 545). The triumph was hers too.

Sources

  • M. Soames, Clementine Churchill, 2nd edn (2002)
  • Speaking for themselves: the personal letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill, ed. M. Soames (1998)
  • J. Hardwick, Clementine Churchill: the private life of a public figure (1997)
  • ‘A great partnership’, The Times (13 Dec 1977), 17
  • The Times (16 Aug 2002), 1
  • G. Turner, ‘Father always came first, second and third’, Daily Telegraph (16 Aug 2002), 18–19 [interview with Mary Soames]
  • The Noël Coward diaries, ed. G. Payn and S. Morley (1982)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Likenesses

Wealth at Death

£150,410: probate, 4 Sept 1979, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
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Churchill College, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge
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J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)
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