• Categories: 17th Century, 18th Century
Sarah Churchill Duchess of Marlborough - painting by Charles Jervas circa 1700

Sarah Churchill Duchess of Marlborough – painting by Charles Jervas circa 1700


Sarah Churchill, by Herts Memories researcher Ruth Herman

It would be disingenuous to call Sarah Churchill a hidden heroine. There are biographies and articles galore, alongside plays and, at the time of writing, a Hollywood film is in the offing. Some people might even query the term ‘heroine’, with her reputation for tempestuous rages, her hunger for power and her manipulation of ‘poor’ Queen Anne. Despite this I would argue that she did indeed face a heroic struggle to pull herself out of relative poverty and into the highest echelons of early 18th century society. And there are far too few references to her loyalty to her friends, and her concern for their welfare.

Sarah was born in St Albans to a cash-poor but well connected family, the Jennings. Like many genteelly born girls she went to Court to take her place and in 1673 she was appointed maid of honour to the new duchess of York, Mary of Modena. While at court she met the two most important people in her long life, the future Queen Anne and a handsome young soldier, John Churchill, who was rumoured to be the lover of the king’s mistress, Barbara Villiers, later the Duchess of Cleveland, and her future husband.

As the Churchills’ fortunes rose and John was ennobled, Sarah gathered enemies and devotees in equal measure. The Tory press loathed her. Another heroine of the period, Delarivier Manley casting her as the evil and manipulating Empress Irene in a classic piece of scandal fiction:

Irene began to let her ill Nature work out in Invectives against others, and Spleen within herself; she who never knew what was Humanity, true Affection, or Love for any thing but Money and Ambition; as her Age advanc’d, so did her Pride, Avarice, Reserve and forwardness..

As the new century progressed Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough led the Allies in the war being raged against France into victory after victory and Sarah’s position at court became more central. She eventually rose to the height of Groom of the Stole, the most senior post in the royal household. But her desire to mould the Queen into her own set of Whig ideologies eventually over-reached itself culminating in a spectacular row after which the Queen never saw her again.

The equivocal relationship that Sarah had “enjoyed” with her royal friend has been analysed and dissected over the past three hundred years. If we read Sarah’s own version it shows just how much insight she had into Anne’s desire for affection, which had been sadly lacking in her upbringing:

“A friend was what she most coveted; and for the sake of friendship … she was fond of that equality which she thought belonged to it … It was this turn of mind which made her one day propose to me that … we might in our letters write … by feigned names … MORLEY and FREEMAN were the names her fancy hit upon, and she left me to choose by which of them I would be called. My frank open temper led me to pitch upon FREEMAN … and from this time Mrs Morley and Mrs Freeman began to converse together as equals, made so by affection and friendship”

Her opinion of Anne is sometimes gentle:

She was extremely well bred, and treated her chief ladies and servants as if they had been her equals; and she never refused to give charity, when there was the least reason for any body to ask it.

And sometimes less generous:

the Queen “has no Original Thoughts on any Subject … : that she has much Love … & can write pretty affectionate [letters] but do nothing else well.”

Outside of the sometimes petulant, sometimes domineering, always exciting and ultimately disastrous relationship with Anne, Sarah was a good friend to her friends, a committed politician and a canny business woman, facets of her character that sometimes get left behind in the more sensational literature. I propose we look at these different facets through the letters which sit in the Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies collection. They are rarely if ever quoted and give a somewhat more measured picture of Sarah. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the letters is their immediacy. The handwriting is difficult to read, more of a scrawl than a well framed script but the passion comes through. This is a woman who speaks and writes before she thinks and this is what brings her to life today.

The letters

In the Panshanger collection at HALS, among the papers of the Cowper family there is a bound volume of around eighty letters written to Lady Mary Cowper between 1708 and 1721. They include three letters written from Frankfurt and Antwerp. The Churchills had decamped to the continent in 1713 when the Duke was being accused of peculation. His position at the head of the Army now put him at odds with the Tory government, whose greatest wish was to end the War. In her correspondence Sarah is in turn charming, business like and highly partisan.

Let us pick through them and get a flavour of the woman who wrote them. The snippets are categorised under Friendship, Politics and Business but in truth there is so much more.


The letters are for the most part addressed to Lady Mary Cowper, the Churchills’ neighbour in Cole Green. They show compassion in requests such as this for a helping hand to a petitioner:

All I can say to recommend this gentleman to you is that I believe ‘tis great charity to help him but what he is proper for I don’t know. His mother is a very good woman came of good parents and lived better than most people in Hertfordshire

As an older woman she is sympathetic in her congratulations on the birth of Mary’s child

Write to me the news of your having a son and having got over that terrible business of labour, I wish you joy of him and all manner of happiness.

Simple disappointment at missing a visit from her friend:

I have not been so vexed at anything (my dear lady) a great while as I was last night when I heard your good lord and your ladyship had been at my door, and I had not the pleasure of seeing you

Genuine expressions of affection:

And I flatter myself that you are so kind to me as to excuse all such faults and [greater?] I am sure I will never [make?] to you for I do really love you and [mark?] all your good qualities

Invitations to have some fun:

If you care to go to the opera, dear lady Cowper, today, I should be very glad of your company.

And motherly concern for a younger woman:

I can’t resist writing a few lines to my dear lady … and pray forgive me if what I am going to say should appear to you impertinent because I … write it with a sincere heart, don’t go to court today, unless it happens to be in all respects easy to you. I am certain nothing there ever was or ever will be worth the doing your health the least prejudice.

She was clearly a good friend and a fond one, and always expresses her pleasure at visiting or being visited by her neighbour and friend. But as we know there was also a rather more steely side to Sarah’s character which is shown in the next section.


Political activity lay deep in Sarah’s heart. She was a passionate Whig and as a woman had no direct authority but spent huge amounts of her energy supporting the men who wielded the power. Not surprisingly the letters reveal that she followed the ins and outs of politics from wherever she was, be it Germany, London or St Albans.

I had heard all that passed concerning S[ir] Ja[mes] M[ontagu] before I came out of town, and I could not help reflecting upon all the difficulties my lord G[odolphin] had to bring him to that post and the expressions at parliament which shews the power of the Duke of Sh[rewsbury] … that which I wonder most at is to see how well contented my lord Halifax and Sir James Montagu is now with a judge’s Place

Much of what Sarah knew was not for public view and highly contentious. It was therefore particularly difficult to keep them secret given that all letters were likely to be opened if sent by the more public channels. What is perhaps most interesting about her politick-ing is that she was a driving force behind her husband.

Lord Marlborough … assures him that he will stand and fall by the Whig interest … and he has sent three or four letters he has had from Hannover … The elector says my Lord Riners never mentioned the command of the army nor any inclination.

And in addition she issues instructions:

I desire that you will tell your lord that I don’t doubt of his assisting Sir Ralph Ratcliff as much as he can. I think nothing is more just and reasonable than to contribute towards the choosing of men that will be honest in this parliament.


Finally we come to Sarah’s business acumen. We hardly need to say more than she died and left several million pounds in a will that is over ninety pages long and stuffed with land and leases and property stretching far and wide. She was also a wise lady, understanding that she needed to ask advice when she needed.

These are the orders and bills for the money your lord was so good as to tell me he would take care of and I am satisfied that whatever shall I happen it will be safe as long as any Englishman can enjoy anything in this country.

And she was one of the few of her contemporaries who realised the shortcomings of what we now call the South Sea bubble:

The person that writes to make the proposal is so short that I am not sure I understand him but I think he means to give bank stock for the same money he would borrow at 6 per cent. All I can say for it is that I like that better than south sea to which I had ever a great aversion.

And she knew when she was being given the run-around:

But my question of Mr Wymondefold was only to ask what notice was required for me to give to receive my money which he could have told as well as anybody at the bank and I perceive it was only a little shuffle to keep the money longer, believing that the invasion might put the stocks down of a sudden but it has done me no harm.

Many of the letters contain evidence of her astute handling of money and her independent fortune, built up over many years.


Sarah Churchill, the harridan and good friend, given to impulsive rage and measured consideration of her financial affairs, was like many people full of contrast and conflict. But she was a true Hertfordshire woman, claiming that her favourite house was her St Albans mansion where she went to retire from the stress of court, or the bustle of London. And while she is high profile, in many ways her good points have been hidden and are slowly being unpicked from her letters as they are edited and published on the Herts Memories website.