Sarah Churchill
Sarah Churchill

The North Somerset village of Churchill has connections with the super rich and powerful of England’s ruling elite of the late 17th century. Harry Mottram investigates a female duo who dominated affairs at the heart of Government.

When friends fall out, they can really fall out. In fact some friends will never speak to each other again. Money, love, gossip, trust and jealousy can all be the trigger – but there’s also that moment when the balance of the relationship changes. One friend moves on – perhaps for a new school or a job and the friendship fizzles out. But I’m sure most people have had a parting of the ways with a friend for a more personal reason. So it was with Sarah Churchill (nee Jennings) when she fell out with her lifelong friend Anne. Sarah Jennings (pictured above) had been pals with Princess Anne pictured below – later to be Queen Anne (1645-1714) – and had championed the cause of the future monarch when she was heir apparent. When Anne became head of state it left Sarah in a powerful position as adviser, confidant and bosom friend.

Queen Anne
Queen Anne

Born in 1660 near St Albans in Hertfordshire there is little connection between her and the Strawberry Line village of Churchill that lies next to Langford – once on a branch line from Congresbury. That is except through the family she married into and her dad’s ownership of Churchill Court – which is now a bed and breakfast establishment. John Churchill – later the 1st Duke of Marlborough – held the illustrious name – and was born near Axminster in East Devon. Churchill means literally ‘the church on the hill’ or ‘the place by the church on the hill’ – and if you look it up in an atlas you’ll see it’s not an uncommon name for a village. It dates back to pre-Anglo-Saxon early English and in some versions of the name is Celtic in origin and means ‘the spring on the hill’.

Married in secret

Drive through the village of Churchill on the A38 and you can’t miss the Churchill Inn with its image of Sir Winston Churchill on the pub sign. Churchill may be linked in younger generations to TV insurance commercials but over the centuries the name has never been far from positions of power and influence – and so it was true of Sarah Jennings when she got hitched in secret to John Churchill. The Jennings family were very rich and mixed socially with members of the Royal Court which is when Sarah met John. She also met Princess Anne at the same time as her job of maid of honour to the Duchess of York. The two became firm friends partly due to their Protestant faith in a Catholic court but also due to being two teenagers from similar backgrounds growing up together. John Churchill was ten years older than Sarah and at first tried to get her to become his mistress – but she was having none of it. With her golden blonde hair, striking good looks and vibrant personality he quickly fell for her and proposed. Both families were against the couple getting married and so they wed in secret in 1677. John’s family however overcame some of their misgivings about Sarah when her brother died and she and her sister Frances became heirs to the Jennings estate. Despite their wealth, and pivotable position at court the couple had to tread a careful path in a country divided by religion and the politics of whig and tory.

“However John’s star rose during the short reign of the king when he defeated the Duke of Monmouth at Westonzoyland in 1685”

Back at court the couple were out of step with King Charles II who encouraged a catholic court which continued when his son James II became our last catholic head of state. However John’s star rose during the short reign of the king when he defeated the Duke of Monmouth at Westonzoyland in 1685. The King promoted Churchill for his loyalty but must have felt betrayed when John switched sides to favour another challenger to James. This time it was the protestant William of Orange who headed a rebellion – taking control of the country in military coup in 1688 when he invaded with a Dutch army. James II had cheesed off much of the protestant establishment with his a desire to return Britain to the Roman Faith. He was losing friends and finally parliament when he was toppled by the so-called Glorious Revolution. All seemed fair for Sarah and John but despite further successes as a military commander under the new administration John and Sarah weren’t out of the woods yet. A fictional popish plot was linked to John Churchill and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Sarah’s friendship with Princess Anne was strongly disapproved of by William’s wife Queen Mary – who had her evicted from her London flat and tried to get her sacked from her job in Anne’s court.

The Seven Years War

Fortunately things changed when first Mary and then William popped their clogs. With Anne on the throne finally John and Sarah Churchill – now the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough were secure. John’s military career continued with his role in the Seven Years War – victor of the battles of Blenheim and Ramillies – and architect of the defeat of France in the conflict. Sarah was able to advance her husband’s interest and that of her family with the complete confidence of the Queen – making her and John two of the most powerful people in Europe outside the heads of state. They had a family of seven children, enjoyed fabulous wealth through salaries and pensions from the state – and an unprecedented popularity amongst the ruling classes and many ordinary folk as well. But. And you knew there was a but coming up. Sarah’s celebrated strong will was to get her into trouble – first with her own daughters with whom she was to fall out with – and later with her bosom pal the Queen. The reason was simple. Despite her gift at making friends and influencing people in her role of leader of a Hanoverian band of bosom buddies – Sarah Churchill and the Churchillettes – she was bossy.

Queen Anne had enough of her when she insisted she wear different jewellery to one state function. Telling her who to appoint as an adviser was one thing but to tell the Queen what to wear was another – and Sarah got sacked as Anne’s best mate. Sarah’s fall from grace wasn’t as bad as it could have been. In another era she could have faced the Tower or the scaffold. She was still very rich and powerful and set about building Blenheim Palace.

An astute business woman, manipulative and charming, short tempered and witty, Sarah was clearly a highly intelligent woman. Her failing was she as she often told people was she knew best. Years passed, Queen Anne died and her husband John Churchill died – but there was life in Sarah yet. She managed to fall out with a few more people including her daughter, the architect of Blenheim Palace, prime minister Robert Walpole and the new King George II and his wife. But she turned down various offers of marriage and so kept the name Sarah Churchill when she died at the age of 84. Sarah ensured her children married into the most influential families in the country – the most famous descendants being Lady Diana Spencer and Sir Winston Churchill.