Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Queen's Favourites: Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham

The young soldier fell in love with the beautiful fifteen year old at first sight. Sarah Churchill had hair 'washed with gold' and flashing blue eyes. She was impressed with handsome John Churchill, who was ten years older, but she didn't want to be his mistress. John, used to having his own way, found that Sarah led him a merry dance. She began to become panicky, however, when she knew that his parents wanted him to marry wealthy Catherine Sedley, formerly mistress of James II.

Luckily, John had no interest in Catherine and the young couple who didn't have much money got married. John and Sarah remained passionately in love - it was said that he was so anxious to race Sarah upstairs that he didn't even take off his boots when he came home after his military campaigns!

Sarah was a Maid of Honour to Mary of Modena, James II's wife. John originally served James II as well in military campaigns but as he and Sarah were Protestant and James II wanted a Catholic England he favoured the accession of William and Mary in 1688. John remained in contact with James, however, so William didn't give him any honours and even put him in the Tower at one stage.

Princess Anne, Mary's sister, was very friendly with Sarah. They shared a very close friendship even though Anne was married to George, Prince of Denmark and she was passionately in love with him. (NB: I've changed this sentence. Please see Hel's interesting comment about Princess Anne's marriage.) They called each other Mrs.Freeman (Sarah) and Mrs.Morley.

The Victor of Blenheim

When Anne became Queen she appointed John Captain-General of the British troops in the war against France. John began to win many victories. He was created Duke of Marlborough by the Queen. Sarah also gained many honours, including the Mistress of the Robes and the Comptroller of the Privy Purse.

His most famous victory was the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, which stopped the French advance to Austria. The French commander was captured and 13,000 of the French became prisoners. This stopped Louis XIV's plans to conquer England and make it a Catholic and absolutist country.

Sarah was always first in the Duke's thoughts. After the great battle John wrote a note to his beloved Sarah on the back of a bill of tavern expenses: "I have not time to say more but to beg you will give my duty to the Queen, and let her know her army has had a glorious victory..."

He and Sarah were given the old palace at Woodstock and a huge area of land as a reward. They commissioned the architect, Vanbrugh, to design the great palace of Blenheim and oversee its building.

Sarah's Quarrels With Anne

Sarah dominated most people she met and hated not getting her own way. She found the Queen rather too possessive and dull. She grew tired of bothering with her and hardly ever went to the Palace. She also favoured the Whigs who supported the wars with France while the Queen was a Tory. The Tories didn't like the expenses and the loss of life that these wars involved and started to think better of them. The Queen also hated to see so many of her subjects killed.

Sarah wanted her son-in-law, Sunderland, a Whig, to be admitted to the Privy Council.
She got her own way but the Queen resented it.

Abigail Masham

Sarah found out that her cousins, the Mashams, were very poor and rescued them by giving them positions at Court. A rather haughty woman, she looked down on them and may have helped them because she didn't want their poverty to affect her reputation.

Abigail was just as ambitious as Sarah, but quiet and submissive. The Queen found her friendship soothing and started to favour her above Sarah. This horrified Sarah who felt that she had rescued Abigail 'from a garret'. She also practically accused the Queen of lesbianism.

Harvey, another ambitious Tory, was another cousin who became friendly with the Queen. Together they worked against the Churchills and argued for the advancement of the Tories.

Falling Out

After John won another great victory at Oudenarde the Queen went to St.Paul's to give thanks. Sarah wanted her to wear some of her beautiful jewels but the Queen was shocked at the sacrifice of men and refused. They had a terrible argument and Sarah even hissed at her to 'Be Quiet' as they got out of the coach!

When the Prince died Sarah even wrote a note accusing the Queen of 'ill-using' her.

The Queen never forgave these insults and finally dismissed Sarah from all of her posts. Abigail's turn had come.


John was also sacked because he had demanded to be captain-general for life after his victory at Malplaquet. The Queen was shocked at the bloodshed - 6000 British died - and suspicious of John's desire for power.

When the government discovered that John had taken bribes and received much money from the Austrian emperor, he and Sarah were sent into exile. Sarah, understandably, hated being away from her beloved country.

John found favour once again under the Hanover reign, but he was getting old by then.
He and Sarah continued the building of Blenheim Palace, but Sarah quarelled with Vanbrugh incessantly.


They suffered many trials during their marriage. Their only son died of smallpox. Later two daughters died - Anne and Elizabeth.

John died in 1722. Sarah lived on and adopted a grand-daughter, Diana. The Sixth Earl of Somerset, whose wife had been a Tory, asked her to marry him. She wrote to him that: "If I were young and handsome as I was, instead of old and faded as I am, and you could lay the empire of the world at my feet, you should never have the heart and hand that once belonged to John, Duke of Marlborough.


Hels said...

Nice review, Viola. Weren't they a power couple?

Just one paragraph seemed problematic: "Princess Anne, Mary's sister, was very friendly with Sarah. They shared a very close friendship and Anne may even have been in love with Sarah, even though she was married to George, Prince of Denmark".

Anne married Prince George of Denmark, in 1683. This was an arrangement made by James II, presumably to encourage an Anglo-Danish alliance against the Dutch.

Now I am certain that Anne’s husband did not affect her political position, as he remained politically inactive. In any case he was, according to contemp-orary reports, rather dim-witted. But his relationship with Anne was a full of sex, passion and fidelity.

She had 17 pregnancies that I can account for, although none of their five full term deliveries reached adolescence. Apparently once Anne discovered sex, she never wanted to get out of bed.

I think Anne enjoyed having Sarah as a trusted and intimate friend. But for love and lust, there was only Thick George.

Viola said...

Thank you very much, Hels. The rumours are quite wrong then!

I wonder why she was so keen on George if he wasn't too bright! Maybe he was very handsome.

Addy said...

I think he was handsome enough, but stout.
to me he sounded like a plump man who enjoyed sex and food... a brave man who became indolent, much like those who are athletes in youth... a fellow who marries and sticks to his wife.
I mean, just to have some form of fidelity, after growing up in the court of Charles II and then living
in the court of her father was something remarkable!
(James, in turn, came to enjoy Catherine Sedley's... well, I'm not certain it was her company as much
as her body. it was said he was trying to arrange her marriage with Churchill to ensure he had a "cover"
for his interest in her. when it didn't materialize she didn't marry until long after her relationship
with the Duke ended- though it was long after he became king and was under the orders of his
though, it must be said..
George may have been the source of those difficult pregnancies.
syphilis was rampant in Charles II's court, and miscarriages/stillbirths certainly can be a side effect if a woman is infected with it via a lover or husband, as well as infertility. look at Catherine of Braganza and Mary of Modena, even Mary II. (though Mary II's infertility may have been due to infection/scarring from her first miscarriage rather than venereal disease.) these courts can be quite incestuous when it comes to intimate relationships.
so while George may have been the very soul of fidelity after marriage, he did have a rambunctious early life before. (as a junior officer he was known to have rescued his brother, the danish King, who had been captured by Swedish troops).

Viola said...

Thank you very much, Addy. He has often been described as stupid, but I think that he may have just been lazy! I bought the book 'The Favourite' at the LIreland Book Fair. More will be revealed!
I must admit that I haven't heard of Catherine Sedley. She sounces interesting.

Viola said...

The Lifeline BookFest. $2.00!

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