Sarah Churchill, St Albans’ favourite Duchess?

The hot tip for winning a hat full of trophies at this year’s film awards is The Favourite, starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz in the leading roles. Olivia Colman, in the role of Queen Anne, recently picked up the award for Best Actress at the Golden Globes in Los Angeles, and the film already has multiple nominations for the up-coming BAFTA awards.

The central theme of The Favourite is the relationship between the ailing Queen Anne, who ruled Britain from 1702 until her death in 1714, and her close friend and adviser Lady Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. The film uses Hatfield House for its main setting, but the real story of the Queen and Duchess has even greater historic links to our local area.

Sarah Churchill, or Jennings as she was then called, was the daughter of the MP for St Albans and was born in the city in June, 1660, most probably at Holywell House at the foot of Holywell Hill. With family connections to the Royal Court, in 1673 the young Sarah was installed as maid of honour to King James II’s second wife, Mary of Modena, and it is during this period that Sarah and the young Princess Anne became friends and confidantes.

Sarah married John Churchill in secret during the winter of 1677-8 and their roles grew in importance for Queen and Country over the next 30 years. Sarah’s friendship with the now-Queen Anne effectively gave Sarah control of the Queen’s finances and dictated who was allowed to see and speak to her. John Churchill, meanwhile had risen to the rank of Britain’s foremost general and was given the title of Duke of Marlborough after his famous victory over the French and Bavarian forces at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. As a reward for his victories the magnificent Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire was built for the Duke and Duchess.

In spite of owning such a lavish country house, the Churchills kept possession of Holywell House and continued to stay in St Albans as often as possible. Sadly the property was demolished in 1837, and now only a blue plaque at the junction with Belmont Hill marks its approximate location. The plaque describes Holywell House as the favourite home of the Duke and Duchess, which Sarah confirmed in a letter she wrote in 1714, saying: “However ordinary Holywell House may be, I would not part with it for any house I have seen on my travels”.

Unfortunately, Sarah’s hot temper contributed to her falling out with Queen Anne, and as the film The Favourite shows, her central position at Court was taken over by Sarah’s cousin Abigail. Ironically, the impoverished Abigail had been given a position in Sarah’s household in St Albans many years earlier, and by 1704 she had risen to the role of Lady of the Bedchamber to the Queen, thereby sowing the seeds of her rivalry with Sarah.

The Marlboroughs’ rift with Queen Anne was never healed and for several years they travelled Europe in self-imposed exile. On Anne’s death in 1714 George, Elector of Hanover, was proclaimed King George 1 of Great Britain. As personal friends as well as a former military colleague of George, the Duke and Duchess quickly returned to the heart of political and social life. After the Duke died in 1722, Sarah’s temper and strong will ensured she continued to upset many people at Court, although her position in society was now secure. The Duchess of Marlborough never re-married in spite of several offers, and she died in London in 1744 at the age of 84.

The Marlboroughs’ influence on Britain has continued down the centuries, their more famous descendants including Sir Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales. Closer to home they are remembered in numerous street names in St Albans (Jennings Road, Churchill Road, Woodstock Road and Blenheim Road all lie close to Clarence Park), the former Marlborough Arms public house, now a private house at the bottom of Holywell Hill, the Marlborough Alms Houses on Hatfield Road, and the secondary school known as Marlborough Science Academy. From relatively humble beginnings as minor aristocracy, Sarah and John Churchill certainly made their mark on society.


This article is part of our Celebrating St Albans History series. You can view all our historical facts on our Celebrating St Albans History page. If you have a historical fact you would like to add please let us know by using the contact form below or by emailing info@brethertonlaw.co.uk


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