Why the richest woman in Britain changed her will 26 times

Mark Kishlansky

  • The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough by Ophelia Field
    Hodder, 575 pp, £20.00, June 2002, ISBN 0 340 76807 X

The memoirs of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, are among the more remarkable documents of the 18th century. Begun by 1704, they were written, rewritten and ghostwritten over three decades before publication in 1742. An Account of the Conduct of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, from Her First Coming to Court to the Year 1710 was a none too subtle attempt at vindicating her brief period as favourite to Queen Anne, justifying her personal and political roles, refuting slanders against her and her warrior husband, and defaming her enemies, both dead and alive. Through their numerous recensions, Sarah’s memoirs became more rather than less embittered. The slights she imagined in middle age stung harder as the years passed; the losing Whig causes, now lost, needed more emphatic defence. The mud Sarah cleansed from her own reputation she daubed on the reputation of others, especially the Queen who abandoned her and the favourite who replaced her. Although she was dissuaded from printing the most damaging of Queen Anne’s love-letters – the ones that had earlier been used for blackmail – Sarah was not unaware of the power of suggestion. Nor did she consider any measure of revenge beneath the dignity of a duchess. When Voltaire was shown a pre-publication manuscript he urged moderation. As one contemporary commentator observed, ‘the book was an answer to itself.’

For all their deficiencies, Sarah’s memoirs have proved – like Sarah herself – irresistible to historians. The manuscripts can be excavated like the supposed cities of Troy to reveal layer on layer of revision and revisionism. When the Earl of Nottingham, a treacherous Tory, agreed to support war finance in return for a Bill against Occasional Conformity in 1711, Sarah scratched out her slurs about his behaviour in 1704. Perhaps most misleadingly, she overemphasised that brief period in which she was an important political force. Though her memoirs tie her inextricably to Queen Anne, she enjoyed the Queen’s favour for probably less than the first two years of Anne’s rule. Many biographies, Ophelia Field’s among them, rely too heavily on Sarah’s own interpretation of her life.

If it was said of Winston Churchill that you spent the first hour becoming acquainted with his vices and the rest of your life discovering his virtues, you could only say the converse of his famous ancestor. Even allowing for party rancour, Swift was not far off the mark when he accused her of ‘sordid avarice, disdainful pride and ungovernable rage’. Mary Wortley Montague, who counted herself a friend, described Sarah as ‘eternally disappointed and eternally fretting’. Labels like ‘virago’ and ‘termagant’ may say as much about contemporary gender expectations as they do about the Duchess, but they are not inaccurate. Of the deadly sins she could be acquitted only of sloth. Her lesbianism is unproven mainly because she derived more pleasure from her partners’ frustration than from her own fulfilment.

Sarah began her rise as a maid of honour, a 17th-century euphemism for a post at the Court flesh market. Even among the beauties recruited to service the Royal Family, government officials and the aristocracy, Sarah and her elder sister Frances were notable. In 1673, when she was 13, she joined the household of Mary of Modena, the 15-year-old second wife of the Duke of York (the future James II). She was later transferred to entertain his younger daughter, the emotionally, intellectually and physically challenged Princess Anne. This was hardly a plum position: Anne was third in line to the throne with the likelihood that James’s new bride would produce an heir. In any event, Sarah was prominently displayed and it was expected that she would follow her sister in marrying a wealthy husband. But there was something inside her that motivated Sarah to cut against the grain of expectations, and her fancy lit on someone much like herself, a social climber without wealth or title but whose craggy (Marlboro Man?) good looks made him, too, a valuable commodity at the Caroline Court. This was John Churchill, toy boy of the Duchess of Cleveland, one of Charles II’s discarded mistresses. Churchill, too, was treading a familiar trail: his elder sister was the Duke of York’s concubine. They married secretly, against the wishes of both families, and enjoyed a lifetime of connubial happiness, sustained by John’s long absences abroad.

At the same time as selecting her future husband, Sarah was being drawn more and more into the whirlpool of Princess Anne’s neediness. From an early age Anne had developed crushes on members of her household, and soon came to depend on Sarah. The two exchanged pledges of affection that were either naively innocent or wickedly compromising – Sarah (ever with an eye to the main chance) had the sense to make sure that the letters she sent were destroyed and the ones she received preserved. Her influence over Anne proved crucial in the crisis of 1688, when she directed the Princess to flee London at precisely the time her husband was deserting James II, in whose service he had risen to military command. These two treacheries were the foundation of the Marlboroughs’ fortunes. Sarah’s grip on Anne was now unshakeable, as the Princess’s elder sister, Queen Mary, discovered when she made Sarah’s dismissal the condition of a royal reconciliation. Anne clung to her favourite no matter the cost – and the cost was now reckoned richly as Sarah began dipping into the Privy Purse to support the growing family she was raising alone while her husband gained fame in Continental wars. It was during these years, until Queen Mary’s death in 1694, that Sarah was singularly important to Anne. She took callous advantage of Anne’s emotional fragility, which was constantly exacerbated by miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths. After that, the spell was gradually broken as it became certain that Anne would succeed and that she would be governed from her bedchamber. Rival factions put forward rival candidates until one, Abigail Masham, was silently embraced.

Even before Anne succeeded in 1702, Sarah had been using her influence to resurrect the Whigs and bury the Tories – for someone whose view of the universe was as Manichaean as Sarah’s, this was more than a preference for persons or policy. The Queen, however, along with Marlborough and his domestic doppelgänger, Sidney Godolphin, disapproved of this rage of parties, and in any event Anne’s bigoted Anglicanism gave the Tories a stable foundation of support. The more Sarah hectored her mistress to make Whig appointments, lectured her on Tory villainies and extorted her support for Whig policies, the more conflict developed between them. It was her tone as much as her unrelenting importunities that gave offence. Though Anne had encouraged her favourite to dispense with the formalities between sovereign and subject – thus the famous letters between Mrs Morley and Mrs Freeman – there was still a line, and Sarah crossed it with celerity. ‘I believe nobody was ever so used by a friend as I have been by her ever since my coming to the Crown,’ Anne wrote to Marlborough in an effort to retain his services while dispensing with his wife’s. By 1705 Sarah, sensing the end, began consolidating her position, wresting promises for her daughter’s dowries, for the continued underwriting of Blenheim Palace, for her possession of Windsor Lodge and for a Parliamentary Bill allowing her daughters to succeed to the Marlborough title. She secured a life pension of £5000 a year, a grant of the manor of Woodstock with its Parliamentary borough, and sufficient land in St James’s Park to build the magnificent Marlborough House. To obtain these concessions she resorted to both emotional and actual blackmail of the Queen. She also helped herself to back wages and grants that had been proposed but never promised to her husband. By the time she was finally dismissed in 1711 she had amassed a fortune.

Accusations of covetousness have always dogged Sarah’s reputation, but the most remarkable aspect of her financial dealings was her acumen. Her mother had had to borrow the cost of the clothes needed to set her up at Court, but Sarah became the richest woman in Britain, in control of so vast a fortune that Government ministers solicited her investments and feared that she might topple the Bank of England. Her wealth was founded on Court offices, grants and pensions from a too credulous Queen, and perquisites that included free housing and tax exemptions on her landed estates. The Duke, whose own fortune was made the same way, gave Sarah control over his investments and allowed her to maintain her wealth separately. The details remain sketchy, but Sarah was advised by some of the shrewdest financiers of the day, including Godolphin, and benefited from the fact that her income was in cash at a time when interest rates were unusually high.

She held a diverse portfolio, mixing treasury notes with East India Company and Bank of England stock, and had access to what today might be called insider information – though the markets were not nearly so efficient as to be able to be timed and information necessarily travelled slowly. Her greatest coup, however, was to get into and out of South Sea Company stock. Though the Company was set up as a rival to the Whig Bank of England and her political enemy Sir Robert Harley initially supported it, Sarah did not let this put her off. But as shares rose dramatically, she began to believe that the bubble would burst and dumped her own shares, persuading Marlborough to do the same. They more than tripled their money. With the profits, Sarah then hedged her bet. She lent money to those clamouring to buy, ensuring return on interest if the Company survived and foreclosure on choice holdings if it failed. By the time Marlborough died in 1722 his estate, not counting the value of Blenheim, was worth £1 million, calculated by Field to be £85 million today, and Sarah’s separate estate probably amounted to three-quarters of that sum.

When Sarah, aged 50, was dismissed from her offices, she turned her attention to the fortunes of her family. Lineage was especially important for one who had risen from the minor gentry to a dukedom in a single generation. It was Sarah’s intention to plan for the future and, at least on the surface, she was spectacularly successful. The death of her sons was a blow from which she never fully recovered, and it vastly complicated keeping the line alive. Four of her daughters survived to marry. Three became duchesses and one a countess. Seven of her granddaughters made similar matches – many of them arranged by Sarah – so that the third generation was joined to five dukes and two earls. The Favourite is especially good at detailing this family life.

Not all the marriages were happy. Her daughters Henrietta and Mary conducted well-publicised affairs, Henrietta’s with William Congreve, who left his estate to their illegitimate daughter and named Henrietta’s husband as executor. (The dilemma of the cuckold is eased when his horns are made of gold, as Dr Johnson might have said.) Sarah was mortified when Henrietta appeared at the funeral and publicly mourned her lover’s death. Her granddaughter Isabella married the deranged second Duke of Manchester, whose sweet nothings included the threat that if he couldn’t have her he would blow his head off. Neither the bullet that tore through his ear nor the one that removed much of his jaw prevented the nuptials, but Isabella understandably lived with him in terror. Sarah’s matchmaking with the Russell family didn’t provide a model of connubial bliss either, though it did exemplify her shrewdness. After marrying one granddaughter to the Duke of Bedford she matched another with his brother and heir, correctly predicting that the third Duke would rapidly drink himself to death. The cousins lived happily together as dowager and duchess.

Sarah had grown up in a household where husband and wife were engaged in suits against each other; her own sister immediately contested their mother’s will. But even this was no preparation for Sarah’s relations with her children. She was an overbearing, suffocating parent, personality traits doubtless aggravated by the loss of her first child and the infant and adolescent deaths of her sons. She was also an inveterate manipulator, and sought to control the lives of her children and her children’s children by exploiting the vast Marlborough fortune. With her husband in Europe or – after 1712 – disabled by a stroke, it was Sarah who arranged matches and set dowries. After the Duke’s death she was head of a trust that managed the largest private estate in Britain. As the rifts between herself and her daughters Henrietta and Mary became irreconcilable, she focused on her grandchildren, deliberately driving a wedge between the generations by making her grandsons financially independent of their parents. Sarah adopted at least one of her granddaughters and kept several others in thrall (on one occasion her son-in-law attempted to reclaim his daughter by main force). She kept her grandchildren on a golden thread by letting out or pulling in their future prospects. She changed her will 26 times.

Sarah had running feuds with her surviving daughters or their widowed husbands and kept a record of every slight, each instance of disobedience or occasion of disappointment. Though she never published this ‘Green Book’, she didn’t destroy it either, as she did those papers she wished to hide from posterity’s gaze. She would often read it and added to it regularly, even though her daughters would not write, visit or otherwise acknowledge her existence. While the Duke was alive they visited him when they knew their mother was away. He would never accept an invitation that was not jointly addressed and did everything he could to reinforce what he regarded as the appropriate chain of command. But as a warrior who had negotiated between mortal enemies he must have known that there was no hope of reconciliation.

As Marlborough lay dying his daughters rushed to Blenheim, but refused to enter the room while their mother was present. When Sarah withdrew to an outer hall, Henrietta and Mary took up the vigil and remained at his side for hours. Sarah, increasingly restless, three times sent her servants to usher her daughters out of her bedroom, and three times was met with the suggestion that they would take no notice of her if she slipped into bed. Even when she was dying Henrietta refused to allow Sarah to visit her and had a special codicil inserted in her will stopping her body being buried in the plot earmarked as her mother’s. When Mary, the last surviving child, elderly and nearly blind, made an overture for forgiveness, Sarah refused it in the first instance because it was insufficiently sincere, and in the second because it was insufficiently abasing. She sent her excerpts from the Green Book to remind her of her offences, and even edited the text of Mary’s subsequent note of apology. Sarah finally allowed a brief visit but would not admit her daughter to her deathbed in 1744.

While it might be said that Sarah Churchill, Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, died unloved, it cannot be said that she died forgotten. She has been a constant subject of interest for historians and biographers and has been treated more warmly by posterity than she was by her contemporaries. Her role in persuading Anne to support her husband’s wars has always been acknowledged, as has her fruitful partnership with Godolphin during those years when England became the most powerful nation in Europe. Her sexual practices (whatever they were) necessarily troubled Victorians – Macaulay delicately observed that Anne treated her as ‘one who was more to her than a sister’ – as they have necessarily inspired Postmodernists, but they have drawn remarkably little criticism. Sarah’s life-story has been increasingly retold as strong, independent women have become increasingly attractive subjects. It is a quite astonishing tale.