I don’t know how many of you saw the recent film, “The Favourite,” but I did, and while I liked it, I also think it’s worth digging into what truth the story captured, and where they took some poetic license. The story follows a theoretical love triangle between Queen Anne and two members of her household, the Duchess of Marlborough and Lady Masham. All three women, of course, existed, and while we can never know for certain what happened behind closed doors, there is a long paper trail that follows this trio, so let’s dig in.
Let’s start with Sarah, the oldest of the bunch. She was born on June 5, 1660, at the dawn of the monarchy’s restoration following Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate. Her father, Richard Jennings, was a Member of Parliament for St Albans in the House of Commons, and her mother was Frances Thornhurst. Her early childhood was spent in Hertfordshire, and while her family was well-connected, they existed far outside the glittering circle in which Sarah would later move, and indeed define.
In 1663, Jennings made the acquaintance of the King’s younger brother, James, Duke of York, and the following year, the Duke appointed Sarah’s elder sister, Frances, to the household of his wife, Anne Hyde, Duchess of York. The Duchess was an interesting mistress for a young woman to have in Stuart England, for her own rise had been rather meteoric. In the 1650s, while the Stuarts were in exile, she had served in the household of the King’s sister, the Princess of Orange, and at some point in the tail end of the decade, started an affair with James. The two secretly married once Anne became pregnant, and though James attempted to wriggle out of the commitment, he was forced to stand by his wife.
Anne’s father, Edward Hyde, had been elevated to the earldom of Clarendon once the King – Charles II – was restored to the throne, and for the first seven years of the new reign, his power was Wolsey-esque. Even so, Anne had no royal blood, and the Hydes were certainly “new” aristocrats. Now, she found herself married to the heir to the throne, a potential queen consort, and the mother of children that could one day inherit the throne. Granted, in the early 1660s, there was still hope that Charles II and his wife, Catherine of Braganza, would produce children of their own, but by the end of the decade, most acknowledged that Catherine was infertile and James would in all likelihood succeed his brother. Thus, the Yorks were very important.
In 1666, Frances Jennings married Sir George Hamilton, and the following year he refused to take the oath of supremacy, which involved swearing allegiance to the King as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. In other words, he was a Catholic. Later on, both the Duke and Duchess of York would also convert to Catholicism, but at the time, they were forced to throw over Frances for political expediency. Frances and her husband went into temporary exile in France.
Catholicism had wafted around the Stuarts for generations. Their long-dead matriarch, Mary, Queen of Scots, had in fact signified the Catholic alternative to Elizabeth I in late Tudor England. Her son, James I, had maintained Protestantism to ensure his accession to the English throne, but his sympathies were suspect, as were those of his wife, Anna of Denmark. Charles I, who famously lost his head in 1649, remained Protestant, but his marriage to a French Catholic had plagued his reign, and her insistence on public worship made her a figurehead for Catholic sympathizers and anti-Catholic zealotry alike.
Charles II well understood the importance of publicly touting his Protestantism, but like his father, he too married a Catholic princess. And the family’s 11-year exile on the continent meant that he and his siblings spent considerable time in France, a Catholic nation, where Louis XIV was eager to bring his English cousins back under the umbrella of Rome. James had certainly been exposed to Catholicism throughout his youth, particularly by his mother, Henrietta Maria, and as the 1660s wore on, he began to seriously consider conversion, and convinced his wife to do likewise. By the time Anne Hyde died in March 1671, both were fervent Catholics.
James almost immediately began considering re-marriage, and he was insistent that his next wife be both beautiful and a Catholic, in that order. His choice landed on the adolescent Mary Beatrice of Modena much to the consternation of Parliament, and when she arrived in England in 1673 the tepid welcome of the family certainly didn’t eclipse the outrage of the public.
Nor had James forgotten the Jennings family, for a 13-year-old Sarah was soon appointed one of his new wife’s maids of honour. In the subsequent years, the Jennings family had gone through significant changes, not least of which was the death of Richard Jennings in 1668. And unfortunately, Sarah and her mother, Frances, were quickly at war, a theme that would frequently recur for Sarah throughout her life in her relationships with other women. Both had tempers, both were gossips, and neither tolerated any criticism. Unfortunately for Frances, Sarah had the ear of Mary Beatrice, and the mother found herself unceremoniously excused from court.
It was 1675 that would prove a turning point. James’s marriage to Anne Hyde had produced a plethora of children, but only two had survived infancy – Mary and Anne. Now under their stepmother’s supervision, Sarah was appointed an attendant for Anne, and by 1675 the two had established a friendship that would define both of their lives. Anne, born in 1665, was five years younger than Sarah, and a little in awe of her. And while another woman might have been cognizant of rank, Sarah thought little of establishing a dynamic in which she was the dominant one, or of maintaining that dynamic well past childhood and adolescence.
By the end of the year she had also met John Churchill, newly returned to England from military campaigns abroad.
Not very much is known of John’s upbringing, but part of the reason for that is that his father fought on the losing side of the civil war and were thus impoverished with diminished prospects through most of the 1650s. As such, the Restoration in 1660 was pivotal for them, and their loyalty was rewarded. John’s father, Winston, became a Member of Parliament for Weymouth in 1661 and shortly after that, Commissioner for Irish Land Claims. And perhaps even more importantly, in 1665, John’s sister, Arabella, went to court and became the Duke of York’s mistress.
The relationship allowed John to be brought to court the same year as a page for the Duke where he quickly developed a passion for all things military. He was given his first commission in 1667, and over the next several years was regularly abroad to aid in England’s wars against the Dutch. We do know, however, that he was in England for a portion of 1671, for he began an affair of his own with the King’s mistress, Barbara Palmer (born Barbara Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland. It’s believed that Charles II became aware of the relationship, but wasn’t angry on the grounds that his own passion for Barbara had cooled. Nevertheless, John is believed to be the father of one of Barbara’s daughters – Barbara Fitzroy, born in June 1672. The mother, always pragmatic, insisted that the child was the King’s.
When John returned to court in late 1675, he was almost immediately taken with Sarah. And like nearly everyone around her, he found himself the succumbent. A few letters from their courtship survive, one of which reads:
“I beg you will let me see you as often as you can, which I am sure you ought to do if you care for my life, since every time I see you I still find new charms in you…On my faith I do not only now love you but do desire to do it as long as I live. If you can have time before you go to church, pray let me hear from you.”
Sarah remained unconvinced, which, given John’s reputation, isn’t hard to understand. She frequently demanded assurances that, yes, he loved her, and no, he wasn’t pursuing other women. The linchpin of their problems may well have been that John wasn’t offering marriage on the grounds that he didn’t think he could afford it, but when Sarah’s sister, Frances, suggested that the two of them go abroad together for a time, John became frantic.
The other factor at play was that John’s parents had little interest in Sarah as a daughter-in-law. In fact, both would have benefited from marrying well, and neither had the ability to offer that to the other. John’s parents were set on him marrying Catherine Sedley, the mistress who had succeeded Arabella in the Duke of York’s affections, and who happened to be a wealthy heiress in her own right.
It was on this front that Sarah’s close ties to the Yorks first helped her out. Mary Beatrice, fond of Sarah and aware of her friendship with her stepdaughter, stepped in to champion the match, and may well have offered financial assistance. She took it a step further in December 1677 when she hosted a small, private wedding ceremony for the two in her apartments, and thus the deed was one.
Anne wasn’t present – at the time, she was recovering from a serious bout of smallpox that had in fact killed her infant half-brother and nearly derailed the marriage of her elder sister, Mary, to Prince William of Orange. She recovered and Mary set off with her new husband for The Hague.
As for John and Sarah, they set off for a honeymoon in Hertfordshire, with the bride very happy to quit court. She later wrote:
“I think anyone that has common sense or honesty must needs bee very wary of everything that one meets in courts…I confess that I was never pleased but when I was a child & after I had been maid of honour some time I wished myself out of court as much as I desired to come into it before I knew what it was.”
The consequence of not marrying up, of course, was that the reality of married life wasn’t very glamorous for the young couple. When they were in London they lived in what had been John’s modest bachelor pad, and when out of town they stayed in John’s parents’ house in Dorset. Two months after their wedding, John was given a new command by the Duke of York and left England, leaving his wife to live with her mother-in-law. And naturally, Sarah despised her.
By the time he returned at the end of the year, England was in the throes of new anti-Catholic hysteria, with much of it directed at the Duke of York. His Catholicism made him a controversial figure, and more than a few high-ranking ministers in Charles II’s government were deadset on him either converting or being stricken from the succession in favor of his daughter, Mary, or Charles’s bastard son, the Duke of Monmouth. James and his family were forced to seek exile abroad, and the Churchills, still attached to his household, went with them to Brussels.
They returned to England in the late summer of 1679, but Charles still didn’t deem it proper for James to reside in London, and so off the Yorks went again, this time to Scotland. John accompanied them once more, but Sarah was pregnant, and remained behind in London. She gave birth to a daughter, Harriet, in October, but the infant only lived a matter of days.
Over the next two-and-a-half years, John became a crucial diplomat for the Duke of York, serving as conduit between him and various European courts and executing his missions so flawlessly that he became indispensable. By the time the family returned to London in the spring of 1682, John’s stock was officially on the rise, and that December, he was created Baron Churchill of Aymouth in the Scottish peerage. Their firm ties to the Yorks also meant that the Churchills’ finances had vastly improved – in addition to maintaining a larger household of their own in London, they also purchased Holywell House in St Albans and personally oversaw the renovations of the house and gardens
As for Sarah, she gave birth to two more children – Henrietta in July 1681 and Anne in February 1683. The latter was no doubt a nod to Princess Anne, who was overjoyed to be reunited with her friend after her return from exile. She was also about to embark on a marriage on her own – in July 1683 she married Prince George of Denmark, a solidly Protestant choice, and embarked on her own childbearing. Famously, Anne would undergo 17 pregnancies over the course of her marriage, resulting in only one child to survive infancy.
Anne’s affection for Sarah remained unabated from childhood, even as she evolved into an adult, a wife, a mother, and mistress of her own household. What Sarah felt in return is harder to gauge, because much of what we know of this time comes from Sarah years later, once the relationship had become much more complicated, and much more toxic. Nevertheless, what Sarah does say is that she personally found Anne’s company tedious and her devotion stifling, part of which stemmed from Anne’s possessiveness of her friend for her time and attention.
What she no doubt had less of an issue with was Anne’s insistence that in private their difference in rank be disregarded. It was around this time that Anne bequeathed them both nicknames, naming herself Mrs. Morley and Sarah Mrs. Freeman. Sarah was also aware that her and John’s relationship to the Yorks was their lifeblood, and John was hugely encouraging of Anne’s attachment to his wife. Indeed, he seemed to have a genuine fraternal affection for the Princess.
And in the background, of course, was the succession. As the mid-1680s approached, Charles II had been married for over two decades without a child to show for it, the Duke and Duchess of York had failed to produce a healthy male heir after a decade of trying, while Anne’s sister, Mary, remained childless in Holland. Though Anne’s health was never robust, there was a solid chance that she would end up on the throne if she managed to survive her father and sister.
That possibility came closer when Charles II died in February 1685, and despite a brief rebellion, the Duke of York ascended the throne as James II. An uneasy balance established itself, in which the King was Catholic and his country’s official religion Protestant. How James and Mary Beatrice worshipped could reluctantly be left alone so long as they were discreet, and so long as they didn’t interfere with the religious laws and rights of the government and people. And, of course, this deal hinged on the fact that the couple didn’t have a son – who would presumably be raised Catholic – to succeed them. James’s tenure as king was thus seen as a brief interlude to be endured before Mary could be welcomed from The Hague.
For John this meant a balancing act of his own. His relationship to James fueled his career, but as a Protestant himself, and aware that James would be succeeded by a Protestant, he couldn’t be seen championing Catholic policies. And unfortunately, that was exactly what James intended to do, first and foremost by lifting restrictions on Catholics’ ability to worship and serve in public office. And then, at the end of 1687, Mary Beatrice’s pregnancy was announced.
Almost immediately, court became suspicious of the timing of the pregnancy, and how quickly it seemed to progress. And indeed, there were a few factors that cast questions on the Queen’s new child. The first was timing – Mary Beatrice had gone through ten pregnancies by 1687, but the last had been four years before. Now, all of a sudden, as her husband’s reputation was at its lowest, she had the good fortune to gestate the English Catholics’ final hope. The second was that she appeared touchy about people asking her about her pregnancy. In fact, in May 1688, she slapped Anne across the face for asking too many questions, an incident for which the younger woman never forgave her. And finally, at the birth itself, non-Catholics were excluded from the chamber, thus there wasn’t a “neutral” party to confirm whether or not the baby was a true son of James.
Personally, I think the most compelling argument for this child not being James’s true offspring comes from the fact that he lived. After dozens of pregnancies spread across two marriages, James had only produced two daughters, neither of whom enjoyed good health. Indeed, Mary died at the age of 32, and Anne at 49. A third daughter born to James and Mary Beatrice in the 1690s would die at 19. But this son, born at the 11th hour of his reign, lived to be 77, and unlike his siblings didn’t suffer any fertility or health issues, and his own two sons would both see old age.
Even so, many of the factors that cast suspicion on Mary Beatrice’s pregnancy were self-fulfilling. Courtiers were suspicious because they didn’t want the child to be born, much less live. Mary Beatrice might have been touchy about questions, but she was also well-aware that they weren’t well-intentioned, and it’s not hard to understand why an eight-month pregnant woman would take umbrage with someone repeatedly pressing her to answer questions she no doubt found insulting. As for the secrecy, another way of looking at it is arrogance. The Stuarts adored exerting royal privilege, and Mary Beatrice’s own reputation suffered when she became queen and gave herself newfound “airs and graces.”
Regardless, Mary Beatrice gave birth to a son on June 10, 1688 who was christened James Francis Edward, and within days a deputation of Englishmen were sent to The Hague to formally invite William of Orange to “invade” England. The Churchill were thus left with a choice – loyalty or expediency.
In the background of all of this, Sarah had given birth to two more children – a son and heir, John, born in February 1686, and another daughter, Elizabeth, born in March 1687. And her friendship with Princess Anne remained intact, with much of the latter woman’s time and attention focused on her grief over miscarriages, stillbirths, and the premature death of the children who managed to survive birth. As such, Sarah split her time between maintaining this relationship and seeking respite at Holywell House.
In the spring of 1688, Anne was recovering from yet another miscarriage at her London home, the Cockpit, which adjoined the Palace of Whitehall, and where John and Sarah spent considerable time. The house also became a hub for the anti-James faction, a feeling which only intensified when Prince James was born and an invitation was sent to The Hague.
When William landed in England at the head of any army that November, John was made a lieutenant-general in James’s army, but he – like many of the other commanders at James’s side – was reluctant to fight for this particular cause. And Anne’s loyalty, though this was as yet unknown to her father, was staunchly with her brother-in-law, a fact that would have very much been known to John and Sarah. But it was less this issue, and more a matter of conscience, that seems to have spurred John’s subsequent action – to desert his king. As he later told Lord Clarendon, he would never have left, “but that he saw our religion and country were in danger of being destroyed.” He left by way of explanation a letter for James, and his departure aligned with that of other commanders and men – desertion had clearly been planned.
Even so, James still on the throne, and John’s actions were treason. The King ordered the arrest of Sarah, then at the Cockpit, and Anne immediately appealed to Mary Beatrice to delay it until the following morning. That night, Sarah, Anne, and Lady Harding (another Lady of the Bedchamber) slipped out of the house and made their way to Nottingham with an escort of 40 horsemen.
William’s invasion being popular with the public, the women were cheered along their journey, and once at Nottingham, they were entertained in style by the Earl of Devonshire. By now, the writing was on the wall, even for James. He sent Mary Beatrice and Prince James to France for safety, and then attempted to flee himself, throwing the Great Seal into the River Thames as he went. He was caught and returned, but by then William had made his way to London and purposefully turned a blind eye, allowing his father-in-law to escape once more and reach France. His desertion was accepted as abdication, and William summoned Mary from The Hague. Their co-rule began, and their heir presumptive was Princess Anne.
And with that, we’ll pick up with part two tomorrow.