The Favorite and the Actress: The Two Sarah Churchills

Sarah Churchill
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When people refer to “Sarah Churchill,” they may be talking about either of two people. One is Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, an ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill who went on to become one of the most powerful women in the country during her time as Queen Anne’s favorite. Her existence returned to the modern spotlight when Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2018 period film The Favourite came out. The film examines the personal relationships between Queen Anne and her two favorite subjects (known at the time as “favourites,”), cousins Abigail Masham and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough.

The other Sarah Churchill people may be referring to is Sarah Churchill, the second daughter and third child of Winston Churchill who got her name from the Duchess of Marlborough. Born to Churchill and his wife, Clementine, Sarah went on to become a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, an actress, a lithographer, and a dancer.

Despite their similar names, these two women go on to write their own fascinating stories.

Who Is Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough?

Sarah Churchill was born Sarah Jennings, daughter of Richard Jennings and Frances Thornhurst. Sarah’s paternal grandfather, Sir John Jennings, had 22 children, so Sarah had many cousins she never knew she had. This will be important when we tackle her life later on.

Sarah’s father became acquainted with the future King James II, who favored the family and gave Jenning’s daughters Frances and Sarah positions in court as maids of honor to his first and second wives, respectively. While serving as maid of honor to James II’s second wife, Sarah had developed a friendship with Princess Anne by the age of 15. At the time, Princess Anne would have been around 10 years old.

Marriage into the Churchill Family

Around the same time, the 25-year-old John Churchill had fallen in love with Sarah, but his family was deep in debt and his father was pressuring him to marry Catherine Sedley, the wealthy mistress of James II who could pull the family out of poverty. He proposed to Sarah that she become his mistress while he married Catherine, but she was unwilling to accept. Around two years later, he chose Sarah despite both the Jenning and Churchill family disapproving the match. They secretly married and only announced their marriage after she became pregnant. They would go on to have a long and devoted marriage for over 40 years.

Growing Friendship with Princess Anne

In between the reign of James II and Princess Anne’s ascension to the throne, Sarah remained a loyal friend to Princess Anne and helped her see through troubling times between the Catholics and Protestants. John Churchill had been awarded the title of Earl of Marlborough, but because they had supported the Catholic James II, they were shown less favor in the court of Queen Mary II. Mary II knew of Sarah’s influence on her sister, Princess Anne, and tried to make Anne dismiss her. Anne’s refusal created a rift between the two. Because she could not dismiss Sarah, she had Sarah evicted from Whitehall Palace. Anne responded by leaving with her.

After the deaths of Mary II and William III, Anne was crowned Queen Anne. She offered the Marlboroughs a dukedom, but they did not accept due to the financial costs having a dukedom would entail. Only after Queen Anne offered them a pension from Parliament and her own Privy Purse did they accept.

Relationship with Queen Anne

Sarah was given many titles, including the Mistress of the Robes, the highest office a woman could hold in court. Anne had even promised her that she would distribute these offices to Sarah’s future children. John, now the Duke of Marlborough was off fighting in Spain for most of Anne’s reign while Sarah remained in England. She was rarely in court, though, as she was overseeing the construction of her new manor, which was a gift from Anne to the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough.

After the Queen, Sarah was now the second most powerful woman in the country. Despite not being present in court, Anne often sought Sarah’s advice. At first, Sarah’s bluntness and no-nonsense personality grew on Anne. However, when Sarah began to attempt politically influencing Anne’s appointments, Anne began to realize she and Sarah could not be true friends.

Sarah supported the Whigs while Anne was a Tory, which made them clash on their political views. Sarah’s coldness and frankness was also starting to repel Anne from her. When Sarah’s son died, she closed herself off from Anne and would only message her in curt and formal replies. But when Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, died, Sarah did not allow her to do the same and scolded her for grieving. Her insensitivity caused a major strain on their relationship.

Enter Abigail Masham

One of Sarah’s paternal aunts, Elizabeth Hill, had a daughter named Abigail who had lived in poverty. Sarah had no knowledge of Abigail’s existence until she found her working as a servant to Sir John Rivers of Kent. Either due to familial duty or to erase the embarrassing fact that her cousin was an impoverished servant, Sarah gave Abigail employment in court, later making her Lady of the Bedchamber to Anne in 1704.

Unlike Sarah, Abigail knew how to flatter people and was the complete opposite of Sarah. Sarah continued to be absent from court, providing the time for Abigail and Anne to grow close. Abigail did not use her friendship with the queen to meddle in politics and provided the kindness and compassion Anne wanted from Sarah. Eventually, they grew so close that she was present in Abigail’s secret wedding to Samuel Masham, a groom of the bedchamber, and had provided Abigail with a large dowry, undermining Sarah’s role as Keeper of the Privy Purse.

Sarah later found out about Abigail and Anne’s friendship and reacted negatively. Finally, Anne had had enough of Sarah’s attitude when she commanded the queen to “be quiet.” However, because the Duke of Marlborough was leading as Captain-General, Anne did not want her failing relationship with Sarah to be made public and damage the duke’s authority. She was still invited to court, but it was merely for appearances’ sake.

In a turn of events similar to her own early years in court with Mary II, Sarah was now trying to persuade Anne to dismiss Abigail from court. She went as far as claiming the two were lesbian lovers (a theme The Favourite follows in the film). When the war in Spain ended, Anne decided she no longer needed the Duke of Marlborough and dropped all appearances of friendship with Sarah.

Fall from Grace and After Queen Anne’s Reign

Sarah made a final attempt to mend her friendship with Anne, but failed. The Duke of Marlborough begged the queen to keep them in their offices for nine more months so that they would have time to retire with honor. However, Anne gave Sarah two days to resign and replaced her with Abigail as Keeper of the Privy Purse. Because they lost the Crown’s funding for their manor, construction had stopped.

They left England in disgrace and went on to travel around Europe. Because of the Duke of Marlborough’s success in the wars, he was a welcome member in German courts and the Holy Roman Empire. However, Sarah did not like being away from home.

After Anne’s death in 1714, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough returned home. Anne’s successor, George I, had a personal relationship with the Marlboroughs and welcomed them back to court. Sarah would spend her time finding suitable marriage proposals for her granddaughter. After her husband’s death, Sarah became a capable estate manager for her and her children’s businesses. She was said to be very thrifty and fought against unnecessary extravagance.

She was friends with George I’s successor, George II, and his wife Queen Caroline. However, that ended when she refused to let the queen through her estate and rudely called George II “too much of a German.” This allowed the Tories she despised to rise in court. She was said to have remained beautiful even after her husband’s death, but turned down all offers of marriage and preferred to be independent.

In 1742, she released her memoirs which details everything about her relationship with Anne, but puts Anne in a negative light. Historians would go on to believe Sarah’s account until the late 20th century, when they realized Sarah might have been bitter about her relationship with Anne.

It is unknown how she died, but she died on 1744 at the age of 84. She was buried at Blenheim Palace.

Who Is Sarah Churchill, Baroness Audley?

The other Sarah Churchill is Sarah Millicent Hermione Churchill-Spencer, daughter of Sir Winston Churchill.

How are the Sarah Churchills Related?

The second of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough’s surviving daughters, Anne Churchill, married Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland, and started the Churchill-Spencer line. After her older sister Henrietta died, Anne’s son Charles became the 3rd Duke of Marlborough. His sons and their sons would pass down the dukedom for four more generations until it reached John Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough.

The 7th Duke of Marlborough had many children, and his third son and fifth child, Lord Randolph Churchill, married Jennie Jerome. His eldest son would be Winston Churchill, who married Clementine Hozier. The two would have a daughter in 1914 and name her Sarah, after the Duchess of Marlborough.

Life of Sarah Churchill

Sarah was the second daughter and third child of Winston and Clementine Churchill. Very little is known about her young life, except that she was born in London and educated in Notting Hill High School and North Foreland Lodge.

Sarah described herself as a “lamb who strayed from the fold.” She enjoyed her childhood, but found herself to be a loner in a comfortable and secure state of living. Unlike her siblings who all went off to follow in their father’s footsteps, she had a “wild side” and wanted to do more in her youth. After leaving school, she studied ballet and performed at the age of 21. It was there where she met her first husband, an Austrian comedian named Vic Oliver. According to her sister, Lady Mary Soames, their father did not like nor approve of her relationship.

During World War II, Sarah worked in photo intelligence for the Women’s Air Force. She accompanied her father in conferences in Teheran and Yalta. During this time, she had an affair with an American ambassador, John Winant. By the end of the war, she and Oliver had divorced.

Sarah moved to the United States where she became an actress. She married photographer Anthony Beauchamp years later, though her parents did not approve of this marriage, either. This would make Sarah feel guilty for the rest of her life, as she never introduced him to her parents before they married in the US, and she craved her father’s approval. She appeared on both Broadway and television. After 8 years into their marriage, her husband died from an overdose in sleeping pills.

Sarah claims to have met the love of her life in Thomas Percy Henry Touchet-Jesson, the 23rd Baron Audley. Upon their marriage in 1962, she became The Right Honourable Lady Audley. Her parents finally approved of this marriage, but it only lasted around a year.

She continued to perform onstage until 1971. She would also create lithographic prints featuring her life in California as well as portraits of her father. She suffered alcoholism and was once arrested briefly for making a scene on a street in England.

Sarah Churchill died in 1982 following a long battle with an illness undisclosed to the public. She was said to have died in her sleep.

Both Sarah Churchills have proven the resilience and determination of the Churchill women. One managed to see her rise, fall, and return to court despite her common birth, while the other chose to live a life free of restraints set upon by her family’s expectations.

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