by Teresa Thomas Bohannon
SARAH, DUCHESS OF MARLBOROUGH was one of the most outstanding women of her era. Among the most prominent figures in the Court of Queen Anne, she had a vast influence on the politics of her day. Her name is associated with great statesmen and generals. She occupied the highest social position of any woman in England after that of the royal family. She had the ear and the confidence of the Queen. The greatest offices were virtually at her disposal. Around her we may cluster the leading characters and events of the age of Queen Anne.
The future Duchess of Marlborough, was born Sarah Jennings in 1660. At age twelve Sarah was befriended by the Duchess of York, Mary Beatrice Eleanora, Princess of Modena (an adopted daughter of Louis XIV.), who married James, brother of Charles II. Sarah was thus introduced to the Duke of York's circle, and and became the playmate of Princess Anne. Therein, Sarah, beautiful, bright, and witty, became acquainted with John Churchill, a colonel of the army and a gentleman of the bedchamber to the Duke of York. He was twenty-three years of age, a fine-looking and gallant soldier, distinguished himself at the siege of Tangier, and known in battle as the "handsome Englishman," with irresistibly pleasing manners, remarkable energy, and a coolness of judgment that was seldom known to err. Sarah and John were married in 1678.
In 1685 Charles II. died, and was succeeded by his brother the Duke of York, as James II. The new King rewarded his favorite, Colonel Churchill, with a Scotch peerage and the command of a regiment of guards, James's two daughters, the princesses Mary and Anne, now became great personages. But from mutual jealousy they did not live together very harmoniously. Meanwhile, Anne and her childhood playmate, Sarah (now Lady Churchill) remained very close.
Princess Anne was weak and generally uninteresting. But she was inordinately attached to Lady Churchill, who held a high post of honor and emolument in her household and gradually acquired an absolute ascendency over the mind of the Princess, who could not live happily without her companionship and services. Lady Churchill was at this time remarkably striking in her appearance, with a clear complexion, regular features, majestic figure, and beautiful hair, which was dressed without powder. She also had great power of conversation, was frank, outspoken, and amusing, but without much tact. The Princess wrote to her sometimes four times a day, always in the strain of humility, and seemed utterly dependent upon her. Anne was averse to reading, spending her time at cards and frivolous pleasures. She was fond of etiquette, and exacting in trifles. She was praised for her piety, which would appear however to have been formal and technical. She was placid, phlegmatic, and had no conversational gifts. She played tolerably on the guitar, loved the chase, and rode with the hounds until disabled by the gout, which was brought about by the pleasures of the table. In 1683 Anne married Prince George of Denmark, and by him had thirteen children, not one of whom survived her; most of them died in infancy.
The Princess Anne, at age thirty-seven, quietly ascended the throne, and all eyes were at once turned to her boon companion's husband the Duke of Marlborough, on whom the weight of public affairs rested. He was now fifty-three, active, wise, well poised, experienced, and generally popular in spite of his ambition and treason. He had, been a moderate Tory, but as he was the advocate of war measures, he now became one of the leaders of the Whig party. Indeed, he was at this time the foremost man in England, on account of his great talents as a statesman and diplomatist as well as general, and for the ascendency of his wife over the mind of the Queen.
But the real ruler of the land, on the accession of Anne, was the favored wife of Marlborough. If ever a subject stood on the very pinnacle of greatness, it was she. All the foreign ambassadors flattered her and paid court to her. The greatest nobles solicited or bought of her the lucrative offices in the gift of the Crown. She was the dispenser of court favors, as Mesdames de Maintenon and Pompadour were in France. She was the admiration of gifted circles, in which she reigned as a queen of society. Poets sang her praises and extolled her beauty; statesmen craved her influence. Nothing took place at court to which she was not privy. She was the mainspring of all political cabals and intrigues; even the Queen treated her with deference, as well as loaded her with gifts, and Godolphin consulted her on affairs of State. The military fame of her husband gave her unbounded éclat. No Englishwoman ever had such an exalted social position; she reigned in salons as well as in the closet of the Queen. And she succeeded in marrying her daughters to the proudest peers. Her eldest daughter, Henrietta, was the wife of an earl and prime minister. Her second daughter, Anne, married Lord Charles Spencer, the only son of the Earl of Sunderland, one of the leaders of the Whig party and secretary of state. Her third daughter became the wife of the Earl, afterwards Duke, of Bridgewater; and the fourth and youngest daughter had for her husband the celebrated Duke of Montague, grand-master of the Order of the Bath.
Thus did Sarah Jennings rise. Her daughters were married to great nobles and statesmen, her husband was the most famous general of his age, and she herself was the favorite and confidential friend and adviser of the Queen. Upon her were showered riches and honor. She had both influence and power,--influence from her talents, and power from her position. And when she became duchess,--after the great victory of Blenheim,--and a princess of the German Empire, she had nothing more to aspire to in the way of fortune or favor or rank. She was the first woman of the land, next to the Queen, whom she ruled while nominally serving her.
Lady Marlborough was both proud by nature and the force of circumstances. She became an incarnation of arrogance, which she could not conceal, and which she never sought to control. When she became the central figure in the Court and in the State, flattered and sought after wherever she went, before whom the greatest nobles burned their incense, and whom the people almost worshipped in a country which has ever idolized rank and power, she assumed airs and gave vent to expressions that wounded her friend the Queen. Anne bore her friend's intolerable pride, blended with disdain, for a long time after her accession. But her own character also began to change. Sovereigns do not like dictation from subjects, however powerful. And when securely seated on her throne, Anne began to avow opinions which she had once found it politic to conceal. Thus, the political opinions of the Queen came gradually to be at variance with those advanced by her favorite. Still, Anne long suppressed her feelings of alienation, produced by the politics and haughty demeanor of her favorite. Her treatment of the Countess continued the same as ever, full of affection and confidence. She could not break with a friend who had so long been indispensable to her; nor had she strength of character to reveal her true feelings.
However, the breach between the Queen and the Duchess gradually widened. In such a state of affairs, with the growing alienation of the Queen, it became necessary for the proud Duchess to resign her offices; but before doing this she made one final effort to regain what she had lost. She besought the Queen for a private interview, which was refused. Again importuned, her Majesty sullenly granted the interview, but refused to explain anything, and even abruptly left the room, and was so rude that the Duchess burst into a flood of tears which she could not restrain,--not tears of grief, but tears of wrath and shame.
Thus was finally ended the memorable friendship between Anne and Sarah, which had continued for twenty-seven years. The Queen and Duchess never met again. On the dismissal of the great Duke from all his offices, and the "disgrace" of his wife at court, they led a comparatively quiet life abroad.
Meanwhile the last days of Queen Anne's weary existence were drawing to a close. She was assailed with innumerable annoyances. Her body was racked with the gout, and her feeble mind was distracted by the contradictory counsels of her advisers. Any allusion to her successor was a knell of agony to her disturbed soul. She became suspicious, and alienated. She died August 1, 1714 without signing her will, by which omission Sarah was deprived of her promisedlegacy. She died childless, and the Elector George of Hanover ascended her throne.
In 1722, Sarah's husband died leaving a fortune of a million and a half pounds sterling, besides his vast estates. The Duchess of Marlborough was now the richest woman in England. The Duchess was now sixty-two, with unbroken health and inextinguishable ambition. She died, in 1744, unlamented and unloved, in the eighty-fourth year of her age, and was interred by the side of her husband, in the tomb in the chapel of Blenheim. She left a fortune to a few favored heirs, plus a costly collection of jewels,--one of the most valuable in Europe,--at a time when few noblemen at that time had over £30,000 a year.
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