The Stuarts & the Churchills: Part Two


Ok, let’s pick up where we left off yesterday with the relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 removed the Catholic James II in favor of his Protestant daughter, Mary II, and son-in-law, William III. A co-rule was established in the early days of 1689 that required a slight alteration to the succession since Mary and Princess Anne both had better claims to the throne than William.

Mary, however, refused to consider ruling as queen regnant with her husband as consort, and so not only was he made co-monarch, but Anne agreed to delay her succession until after William’s death if Mary pre-deceased him.

As for the Churchills, the events of 1689 solidified their upward trajectory thanks in no small part to John Churchill switching allegiance from James to William. His loyalty (or lack thereof) was rewarded just two months after William and Mary accepted the new Bill of Rights at Banqueting House when he was elevated to the earldom of Marlborough. Within weeks, he left for the continent following England’s declaration of war on France alongside the Spanish, Dutch, Swedes, Prussians, and Austrians. When he returned, he was appointed one of the council members tapped to assist Mary when William left for Ireland to quash James’s final gambit for the throne.

As for Sarah and Anne, they were both pregnant through the first half of 1689. Sarah gave birth to another daughter on July 15, christened Mary in honor of the Queen. And Anne finally gave birth to the male heir the House of Stuart so desperately needed – Prince William was born on July 24 at Hampton Court Palace. Unlike Anne’s other children, he lived.

But whatever cooperation had existed between the three couples slowly began to deteriorate towards the end of the year. The crux of the issue was that Anne believed her allowance should be larger, and instead of appealing to William and Mary in private, she went directly to Parliament, no doubt slightly high off the birth of a son. In this she had Sarah’s full support, and the Countess went out of her way to criticize what she saw as too mean an annuity and directly lobby MPs.

At least some of Sarah’s behavior likely stemmed from William’s treatment of John. The earldom had been a reward for John’s defection, but in fact William trusted neither him nor any of the other English lords who had switched sides at the last minute. Instead, William preferred the Dutchmen who had followed him from The Hague. William was willing to use John’s skills as a solider, but he had little interest in advancing his career much beyond that, and so long as William sat on the throne, John’s power would be clipped. And while Mary and Sarah certainly knew one another from their youths, there was little love lost between them.

That December, tension between Mary and Anne descended into a full-blown break. When Mary fell ill in the spring of 1690, Anne visited her, but the reunion fell apart as soon as the latter used the opportunity to once again ask the former for more money.

By the end of 1691, William’s popularity was on the decline. The war against France was expensive, and William’s favoritism for what amounted to “foreigners” in English eyes did little to garner him affection. John and Sarah, sensing the tide turning, worried little about making their growing contempt for the King public. When John was in a carriage accident in October 1691, he declared he thought his neck was broken, and when William heard he responded only that if John had the ability to say so, it definitely wasn’t. Meanwhile, Sarah egged Anne’s growing antipathy on by pointing out that William was mistreating her own husband, Prince George of Denmark, too.

That same year, George asked William to let him serve in the navy, and took a lack of response as approval. In fact, William was against it and ordered Mary to nix the idea through back channels. She decided to approach Sarah, knowing her influence over George and Anne, and asked her to persuade George to announce he had changed his mind. Sarah refused. The altercation prompted Mary to order Anne to dismiss Sarah in January 1792. Anne refused.

In response, Anne stayed away from court for three weeks, but when she returned, she pointedly brought Sarah with her. What followed was a flurry of angry letters between the sisters, until Mary ordered the Lord Chamberlain to insist on Sarah’s removal from Anne’s house. In return, Anne asked for leave to quit court until the birth of her next child (she was heavily pregnant), so the Cockpit was packed up and moved to Syon House where Anne stayed until the birth and death of another son. Soon after, Mary visited her and repeated her command for Sarah’s removal. Once again, Anne refused. Instead, she wrote to Sarah begging her not to leave her in the hopes of repairing her relationship with her sister, saying:

“Dear Mrs. Freeman, I hope in Christ that you will never more of leaving me for…nothing but death could ever make me part with you. For if it be possible, I am every day more and more yours.”

Crisis struck days later when a man named Robert Young claimed that a bond of association had been signed by several leading councilors, including John, that promised to restore James. The document wasn’t found, but on the pretense of over-caution, John was arrested on a charge of high treason and taken to the Tower of London. Sarah was duly abandoned by her friends (save Anne), and reportedly couldn’t step out on to the street without being jeered by the public. Nevertheless, as soon as she heard of her husband’s arrest she quit Syon Abbey for London and worked tirelessly to petition his release. By the end of June, he was, but Mary made a point of personally striking his name off the list of Privy Council members.

The Churchills’ disgrace was complete. Mary and Anne remained estranged, the English war effort abroad was faltering, William’s unpopularity was growing, and Anne began embracing dangerous medicinal cures for her fertility issues despite Sarah’s disapproval. The only bond that remained between the two sisters was that of young Prince William, who William and Mary loved like a son. In February 1694, Mary made a point of visiting her nephew when he fell ill, but when Anne attempted to return the favor that December by visiting Mary on her sickbed, her effort was rebuffed. Then, on December 28, Mary died.

Mary’s death only hardened William’s dislike of Anne and the Churchills, but he was persuaded by his ministers to strike a public reconciliation for the sake of everyone’s reputation. William duly received Anne at Kensington Palace, sent along some of Mary’s jewels, and approved her occupancy of apartments in St James’s Palace, but tension remained. Likewise, in March 1695, William allowed John to kiss his hand, a sign of favor.

That September, John persuaded Anne to write and congratulate William on a military victory over Sarah’s objections, but the King didn’t bother to respond. When a second copy was sent on the slim chance he hadn’t received the first, Anne was again humiliated by silence.

The turning point came in the autumn of 1697 when England signed the Peace of Ryswick, ending the European war with France. Louis XIV acknowledged William as king, and France surrendered much of the territory it had gained in the fight. In turn, relations between the King and his military commander began to improve, based less on affection and more on acknowledgement of capability. When Prince William turned nine in the summer of 1798, John was appointed his governor thanks to the recommendation of Robert Spencer, Earl of Sunderland (yes, of that Spencer family). Along with the appointment came reinstatement to the Privy Council.

Around the same time, a new addition was made to the Churchill household: Abigail Hill. Abigail was Sarah’s cousin, both women descended from the same grandfather, Sir John Jennings. Abigail’s parents had fallen on hard times, and their daughter was offered up to Sarah in the hopes that she could be appointed to some minor court position and thus draw some sort of income. In these early days, Abigail was a sort of pet to Sarah, who was fond of the girl and to whom generosity cost her very little. Her affection even drew the ire of Anne, who wrote:

“I hope Mrs. Freeman has no thoughts of going to the opera with Mrs. Hill [Abigail was unmarried] and will have a care of engaging too much in her company; for, if you give way to that, it is a thing that will insensibly grow upon you. Therefore give me leave once more to beg for your own sake, as well as poor Mrs. Morley’s, that you would have as little to do with that enchantress as ’tis possible.”

Alongside the Churchills’ restoration to royal favor came the first marriages of their children. Their eldest daughters – Henrietta and Anne – were now in their late adolescences, and both parents worked hard to find them appropriate husbands. Henrietta was married in April 1798 to The Hon. Francis Godolphin, son of Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin. And Anne was married to the Earl of Sunderland’s heir, Charles Spencer, in September 1799. Both couples would play important roles in the Churchill’s legacy, however the latter match proved divisive.

Anne was John’s favorite child, and he was certain that Charles wouldn’t prove a good husband. Sarah, on the other hand, considered Robert Spencer a friend, and was delighted that their families would become intertwined. Even so, both were in agreement that Charles was blunt to the point of rudeness, argumentative, and lacking a necessary respect for authority. The same could be said for Sarah, who naturally overruled her husband and ensured the marriage went forward.

And then, abruptly, the Stuarts’ poor luck reared its head once more. In July 1700, court gathered to celebrate Prince William’s 11th birthday. Within days he was dead. Anne was still only 35, but her many pregnancies had taken a toll on her health, and it was widely presumed she was no longer capable of producing a healthy child. Indeed, her most recent pregnancy that January, which resulted in a stillborn son, would prove her last. Though the idea of William re-marrying was batted around, his position was complicated by the fact that his solo rule depended on Anne waiving her claim until his death. If his second marriage produced offspring, the succession would have to be altered once more to allow Anne’s reign in-between father and child.

But William never really had a will to re-marry, and instead he met with the Dowager Electress of Palatine and struck a deal that would eventually usher in the House of Hanover, and the rise of a very German Royal Family. The Dowager Electress, born Sophia of Palatine, was a granddaughter of James I via his only daughter, Elizabeth Stuart. Her parents had briefly ruled Bohemia before ending up exiled in Holland, where Sophia was eventually born and raised. She was her parents’ twelfth child, but the claims of her older siblings and their offspring were set aside thanks to a mix of Catholicism, divorce, or other barriers to suitability.

Sophia was 20 years older than William, and 35 years older than Anne, so the possibility of her actually sitting on the throne was a distant one at best. Instead, what she offered was a plethora of strong Hanoverian sons, the eldest of which was the current Elector, George Ludwig. George Ludwig had married in the 1680s and divorced in the 1690s, imprisoning his ex-wife in a remote German castle for having the audacity to take a lover in response to his long-term mistress and illegitimate children. Even so, the marriage had provided two children and the succession was secure.

While the idea of essentially importing distant German relations was unsavory enough, the dynamic was further muddled by the fact that James II was still alive and living in France. Though Louis XIV had acknowledged William via the peace of 1797, James, Mary Beatrice, and their two children still benefited from his protection. And in September 1701, when James finally passed away, Louis immediately proclaimed Prince James Francis Edward the rightful King James VII. For English Catholics, or Englishmen already weary of the “foreign” rule thanks to William, James was viable option who boasted Stuart blood.

The response to this, of course, meant that England had to contemplate war with France.

As 1701 came to a close, three new factors came into play. First, attention naturally began to turn towards Anne as William aged. Second, Sarah installed her cousin Abigail Hill as a Woman of the Bedchamber, solidifying her position at court. And third, a politician named Robert Harley was elected Speaker of the Commons. The backdrop of the new reign had been set.

In March 1702, William fell from his horse and died at Kensington Palace. Anne was swiftly proclaimed queen.

And with that, we’ll pick up with the third part on Tuesday.

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