Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women

Héloïse : Love
Joan of Arc : Heroic Women
Saint Theresa : Religious Enthusiasm
Madame de Maintenon : The Political Woman
Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
Madame Récamier : The Woman of Society
Madame de Staël : Woman in Literature
Hannah More : Education of Woman
George Eliot : Woman as Novelist

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women
John Lord

Topics Covered
The Duchess of Marlborough compared with Madame de Maintenon
Birth and early influence
John Churchill
Marriage of Churchill and Sarah Jennings
Colonel Churchill made a peer
The Princess Anne
Lady Churchill
Their friendship
Coronation of William and Mary
Character of William III
Treason of the Earl of Marlborough
Energy and sagacity of the Queen
Naval victory of La Hogue
Temporary retirement of Marlborough
Death of the Duke of Gloucester
Marlborough, Captain-General.
Death of William III
Accession of Anne
Power of Marlborough
Lord Godolphin
Ascendency of Lady Marlborough
Her ambition
Her pride
Renewal of war with Louis XIV
Marlborough created a duke
Whigs and Tories
Harley, Earl of Oxford
His intrigues
Abigail Hill
Supplants the Duchess of Marlborough
Coolness between the Queen and Duchess
Battle of Ramillies
Miss Hill marries Mr. Masham
Declining influence of the Duchess
Her anger and revenge
Power of Harley
Disgrace of the Duchess
The Tories in power
Dismissal of Marlborough
His persecution of the Duchess
Voluntary exile of Marlborough
Unhappiness of the Duchess
Death of Queen Anne
Return of Marlborough to power
Attacked by paralysis
Death of Marlborough
His vast wealth
Declining days of the Duchess
Her character
Her death
Reflections on her career

Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough

A.D. 1660-1744.

In the career of Madame de Maintenon we have seen in a woman an inordinate ambition to rise in the world and control public affairs. In the history of the Duchess of Marlborough, we see the same ambition, the same love of power, the same unscrupulous adaptation of means to an end. Yet the aim and ends of these two remarkable political women were different. The Frenchwoman had in view the reform of a wicked court, the interests of education, the extirpation of heresy, the elevation of men of genius, the social and religious improvement of a great nation, as she viewed it, through a man who bore absolute sway. The Englishwoman connived at political corruptions, was indifferent to learning and genius, and exerted her great influence, not for the good of her country, but to advance the fortunes of her family. Madame de Maintenon, if narrow and intolerant, was unselfish, charitable, religious, and patriotic; the Duchess of Marlborough was selfish, grasping, avaricious, and worldly in all her aspirations. Both were ambitious,–the one to benefit the country which she virtually ruled, and the other to accumulate honors and riches by cabals and intrigues in the court of a weak woman whom she served and despised. Madame de Maintenon, in a greater position, as the wife of the most powerful monarch in Christendom, was gentle, amiable, condescending, and kind-hearted; the Duchess of Marlborough was haughty, insolent, and acrimonious. Both were beautiful, bright, witty, and intellectual; but the Frenchwoman was immeasurably more cultivated, and was impressible by grand sentiments.

And yet the Duchess of Marlborough was a great woman. She was the most prominent figure in the Court of Queen Anne, and 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.

Sarah Jennings, the future Duchess of Marlborough, was born in 1660. She belonged to a good though not a noble family, which for many generations possessed a good estate in Hertfordshire. Her grandfather, Sir John Jennings, was a zealous adherent to the royal cause before the Revolution, and received the Order of the Bath, in company with his patron, Charles I., then Prince of Wales. When Sarah was twelve years of age, she found a kind friend in the Duchess of York, Mary Beatrice Eleanora, Princess of Modena (an adopted daughter of Louis XIV.), who married James, brother of Charles II. The young girl was thus introduced to the dangerous circle which surrounded the Duke of York, and she passed her time, not in profitable studies, but in amusements and revels. She lived in the ducal household as a playmate of the Princess Anne, and was a beautiful, bright, and witty young lady, though not well educated. In the year 1673 she became acquainted with John Churchill, a colonel of the army and a gentleman of the bedchamber to the Duke of York,–the latter a post of honor, but of small emolument. He was at that time twenty-three years of age, a fine-looking and gallant soldier, who had already distinguished himself at the siege of Tangier. He had also fought under the banners of Marshal Turenne in the Low Countries, by whom he was called the “handsome Englishman.” At the siege of Maestricht he further advanced his fortunes, succeeding the famous Earl of Peterborough in the command of the English troops, then in alliance with Louis XIV. He was not a man of intellectual culture, nor was he deeply read. It is said that even his spelling was bad; but his letters were clear and forcible. He made up his deficiency in education by irresistibly pleasing manners, remarkable energy, and a coolness of judgment that was seldom known to err.

His acquaintance with the beautiful Sarah Jennings soon ripened into love; but he was too poor to marry. Nor had she a fortune. They however became engaged to each other, and the betrothal continued three years. It was not till 1678 that the marriage took place. The colonel was domestic in his tastes and amiable in his temper, and his home was happy. He was always fond of his wife, although her temper was quick and her habits exacting. She was proud, irascible, and overbearing, while he was meek and gentle. In other respects they were equally matched, since both were greedy, ambitious, and worldly. A great stain, too, rested on his character; for he had been scandalously intimate with Barbara Villiers, mistress of Charles II., who gave him £5000, with which he bought an annuity of £500 a year,–thus enabling him to marry Miss Jennings.

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. Mary, the elder daughter, was much the superior of her sister, and her marriage with William of Orange was particularly happy.

The Princess Anne was weak and far from being interesting. But she was inordinately attached to Lady Churchill, who held a high post of honor and emolument in her household. It does not appear that the attachment was mutual between these two ladies, but the forms of it were kept up by Lady Churchill, who had ambitious ends to gain. She 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 she married Prince George of Denmark, and by him had thirteen children, not one of whom survived her; most of them died in infancy. As the daughter of James II., she was of course a Tory in her political opinions.

Lady Churchill was also at that time a moderate Tory, and fanned the prejudices of her mistress. But in order to secure a still greater intimacy and freedom than was consistent with their difference in rank, the two ladies assumed the names of Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman. In the correspondence between them the character of the Princess appears to the greater advantage, since she was at least sincere in her admiration and friendship. She assumes no superiority in any respect; in her intellectual dependence she is even humble.

Anne was seemingly disinterested in her friendship with Lady Churchill, having nothing to gain but services, for which she liberally compensated her. But the society of a weak woman could not have had much fascination for so independent and self-sustained a person as was the proud peeress. It eventually became irksome to her. But there was no outward flaw in the friendship until Anne ascended the throne in 1702,–not even for several years after.

The accession of William and Mary in 1689 changed the position of Anne, to whom the nation now looked as a probable future queen. She was at that time severely censured for her desertion of her father James, and her conduct seemed both heartless and frivolous. But she was virtually in the hands of an unscrupulous woman and the great ministers of State. On the flight of the King, James II., the Princess Anne retired to Chatsworth,–the magnificent seat of the Earl of Devonshire,–accompanied by Lady Churchill, her inseparable companion.

Two days before the coronation of William and Mary, Lord Churchill was created Earl of Marlborough, and was sworn a member of the Privy Council and a lord of the bedchamber. This elevation was owing to his military talents, which no one appreciated better than the King, who however never personally liked Marlborough, and still less his ambitious wife. He was no stranger to their boundless cupidity, though he pretended not to see it. He was politic, not being in a position to dispense with the services of the ablest military general of his realm.

William III. was a remarkably wise and clearheaded prince, and saw the dangers which menaced him,–the hostility of Louis XIV., the rebels in Ireland, and the disaffection among the Jacobite nobility in England, who secretly favored the exiled monarch. So he rewarded and elevated a man whom he both admired and despised. William had many sterling virtues; he was sincere and patriotic and public-spirited; he was a stanch Protestant of the Calvinistic school, and very attentive to his religious duties. But with all his virtues and services to the English nation, he was not a favorite. His reserve, coldness, and cynicism were in striking contrast with the affability of the Stuarts. He had no imagination and no graces; he disgusted the English nobles by drinking Holland gin, and by his brusque manners. But nothing escaped his eagle eye. On the field of battle he was as ardent and fiery as he was dull and phlegmatic at Hampton Court, his favorite residence. He was capable of warm friendships, uninteresting as he seemed to the English nobles; but he was intimate only with his Dutch favorites, like Bentinck and Keppel, whom he elevated to English peerages. He spent only a few months in England each year of the thirteen of his reign, being absorbed in war most of the time with Louis XIV. and the Irish rebels.

William found that his English throne was anything but a bed of roses. The Tories, in the tumults and dangers attending the flight of James II., had promoted his elevation; but they were secretly hostile, and when dangers had passed, broke out in factious opposition. The high-church clergy disliked a Calvinistic king in sympathy with Dissenters. The Irish gave great trouble under Tyrconnel and old Marshal Schomberg, the latter of whom was killed at the battle of the Boyne. A large party was always in opposition to the unceasing war with Louis XIV., whom William hated with implacable animosity.

The Earl of Marlborough, on the accession of William, was a moderate Tory, and was soon suspected of not being true to his sovereign. His treason might have resulted in the return of the Stuarts but for the energy and sagacity of Queen Mary, in whose hands the supreme executive power was placed by William when absent from the kingdom. She summoned at once the Parliament, prevented the defection of the navy, and ferreted out the hostile intrigues, in which the lord-treasurer Godolphin was also implicated. But for the fortunate naval victory of La Hogue over the French fleet, which established the naval supremacy of England, the throne of William and the Protestant succession would have been seriously endangered; for William was unfortunate in his Flemish campaigns.

When the King was apprised of the treasonable intrigues which endangered his throne, he magnanimously pardoned Godolphin and the Duke of Shrewsbury, but sent Marlborough to the Tower, although he soon after released him, when it was found that several of the letters which compromised him had been forged. For some time Marlborough lived in comparative retirement, while his wife devoted herself to politics and her duties about the person of the Princess Anne, who was treated very coldly by her sister the Queen, and was even deprived of her guards. But the bickerings and quarrels of the royal sisters were suddenly ended by the death of Mary from the small-pox, which then fearfully raged in London. The grief of the King was sincere and excessive, as well as that of the nation, and his affliction softened his character and mitigated his asperity against Marlborough, Shortly after the death of his queen, William made Marlborough governor of the Duke of Gloucester, then (1698) a very promising prince, in the tenth year of his age. This prince, only surviving son of Anne, had a feeble body, and was unwisely crammed by Bishop Burnet, his preceptor, and overworked by Marlborough, who taught him military tactics. Neither his body nor his mind could stand the strain made upon him, and he was carried off at the age of eleven by a fever.

The untimely death of the Prince was a great disappointment to the nation, and cast a gloom over the remaining years of the reign of William, who from this time declined in health and spirits. One of his last acts was to appoint the Earl of Marlborough general of the troops in Flanders, knowing that he was the only man who could successfully oppose the marshals of France. Only five days before his death the King sent a recommendation to Parliament for the union of Scotland and England, and the last act of Parliament to which he gave his consent was that which fixed the succession in the House of Hanover. At the age of fifty-one, while planning the campaign which was to make Marlborough immortal, William received his death-stroke, which was accidental. He was riding in the park of Hampton Court, when his horse stumbled and he was thrown, dislocating his collar-bone. The bone was set, and might have united but for the imprudence of the King, who insisted on going to Kensington on important business. Fever set in, and in a few days this noble and heroic king died (March 8, 1702),–the greatest of the English kings since the Wars of the Roses, to whom the English nation owed the peaceful settlement of the kingdom in times of treason and rebellion.

The Princess Anne, at the age of thirty-seven, quietly ascended the throne, and all eyes were at once turned to 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, as we have already remarked, 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.

Portrait of Queen Anne

Portrait of Queen Anne

Next to him in power was the lord-treasurer Godolphin, to whom he was bound by ties of friendship, family alliance, and political principles. Like Marlborough, Godolphin had in early life been attached to the service of the House of Stuart. He had been page to Charles II., and lord chamberlain to Mary of Modena. The Princess Anne, when a young lady, became attached to this amiable and witty man, and would have married him if reasons of State had not prevented. After the Revolution of 1688 his merits were so conspicuous that he was retained in the service of William and Mary, and raised to the peerage. In sound judgment, extraordinary sagacity, untiring industry, and unimpeached integrity, he resembled Lord Burleigh in the reign of Elizabeth, and, like him, rendered great public services. Grave, economical, cautious, upright, courteous in manners, he was just the man for the stormy times in which he lived. He had his faults, being fond of play (the passion of that age) and of women. Says Swift, who libelled him, as he did every prominent man of the Whig party, “He could scratch out a song in praise of his mistress with a pencil on a card, or overflow with tears like a woman when he had an object to gain.”

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.

There are very few people in this world, whether men or women, who remain unchanged under the influence of boundless prosperity. So rare are the exceptions, that the rule is established. Wealth, honor, and power will produce luxury, pride, and selfishness. How few can hope to be superior to Solomon, Mohammed, Constantine, Theodosius, Louis XIV., Madame de Maintenon, Queen Elizabeth, Maria Theresa, or Napoleon, in that sublime self-control which looks down on the temptations of earth with the placid indifference of a Marcus Aurelius! Even prosperous people in comparatively humble life generally become arrogant and opinionated, and like to have things in their own way.

Now, 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. She soon became as jealous of her prerogative as her uncle Charles and her father James had been of theirs. She was at heart a Tory,–as was natural,–and attached to the interests of her banished relatives. She looked upon the Whigs as hostile to what she held dear. She began to dislike ministers who had been in high favor with the late King, especially Lord Chancellor Somers and Charles Montague, Earl of Halifax,–since these powerful nobles, allied with Godolphin and Marlborough, ruled England. Thus the political opinions of the Queen came gradually to be at variance with those advanced by her favorite, whose daughters were married to great Whig nobles, and whose husband was bent on continuing the war against Louis XIV. and the exiled Stuarts. But, as we have said, Anne for a long time suppressed her feelings of incipient alienation, produced by the politics and haughty demeanor of her favorite, and still wrote to her as her beloved Mrs. Freeman, and signed her letters, as usual, as her humble Morley. 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.

Meanwhile a renewed war was declared against Louis XIV. on account of his determination to place his grandson on the throne of Spain. The Tories were bitterly opposed to this war of the Spanish succession, as unnecessary, expensive, and ruinous to the development of national industry. They were also jealous of Marlborough, whose power they feared would be augmented by the war, as the commander-in-chief of the united Dutch and English forces. And the result was indeed what they feared. His military successes were so great in this war that on his return to England he was created a duke, and soon after received unusual grants from Parliament, controlled by the Whigs, which made him the richest man in England as well as the most powerful politically. Yet even up to this time the relations between his wife and the Queen were apparently most friendly. But soon after this the haughty favorite became imprudent in the expressions she used before her royal mistress; she began to weary of the drudgeries of her office as mistress of the robes, and turned over her duties partially to a waiting-woman, who was destined ultimately to supplant her in the royal favor. The Queen was wounded to the quick by some things that the Duchess said and did, which she was supposed not to hear or see; for the Duchess was now occasionally careless as well as insolent. The Queen was forced to perceive that the Duchess disdained her feeble intellect and some of her personal habits, and was, moreover, hostile to her political opinions; and she began to long for an independence she had never truly enjoyed. But the Duchess, intoxicated with power and success, did not see the ground on which she stood; yet if she continued to rule her mistress, it was by fear rather than love.

About this period (1706) the struggles and hostilities of the Whigs and Tories were at their height. We have in these times but a feeble conception of the bitterness of the strife of these two great parties in the beginning of the eighteenth century. It divided families, and filled the land with slanders and intrigues. The leaders of both parties were equally aristocratic and equally opposed to reform; both held the people in sovereign contempt. The struggle between them was simply a struggle for place and emolument. The only real difference in their principles was that one party was secretly in favor of the exiled family and was opposed to the French war, and the other was more jealously Protestant, and was in favor of the continuance of the war. The Tories accused Marlborough of needlessly prolonging the war in order to advance his personal interests,–from which charge it would be difficult to acquit him.

One of the most prominent leaders of the Tories was Harley, afterwards Earl of Oxford, who belonged to a Puritan family in Hertfordshire, and was originally a Whig. He entered Parliament in the early part of the reign of William. Macaulay, who could see no good in the Tories, in his violent political prejudices maintained that Harley was not a man of great breadth of intellect, and exerted an influence in Parliament disproportionate to his abilities. But he was a most insidious and effective enemy. He was sagacious enough to perceive the growing influence of men of letters, and became their patron and friend. He advanced the fortunes of Pope, Arbuthnot, and Prior. He purchased the services of Swift, the greatest master of satire blended with bitter invective that England had known. Harley was not eloquent in speech; but he was industrious, learned, exact, and was always listened to with respect. Nor had he any scandalous vices. He could not be corrupted by money, and his private life was decorous. He abhorred both gambling and drunkenness,–the fashionable vices of that age. He was a refined, social, and cultivated man.

This statesman perceived that it was imperatively necessary for the success of his party to undermine the overpowering influence of the Duchess of Marlborough with the Queen. He detested her arrogance, disdain, and grasping ambition. Moreover, he had the firm conviction that England should engage only in maritime war. He hated the Dutch and moneyed men, and Dissenters of every sect, although originally one of them. And when he had obtained the leadership of his party in the House of Commons, he brought to bear the whole force of his intellect against both the Duke and Duchess. It was by his intrigues that the intimate relations between the Duchess and the Queen were broken up, and that the Duke became unpopular.

John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough

John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough

The great instrument by which he effected the disgrace of the imperious Duchess was a woman who was equally his cousin and the cousin of the Duchess, and for whom the all-powerful favorite had procured the office of chamber-woman and dresser,–in other words, a position which in an inferior rank is called that of lady’s-maid; for the Duchess was wearied of constant attendance on the Queen, and to this woman some of her old duties were delegated. The name of this woman was Abigail Hill. She had been in very modest circumstances, but was a person of extraordinary tact, prudence, and discretion, though very humble in her address,–qualities the reverse of those which marked her great relative. Nor did the proud Duchess comprehend Miss Hill’s character and designs any more than the all-powerful Madame de Montespan comprehended those of the widow Scarron when she made her the governess of her children. But Harley understood her, and their principles and aims were in harmony. Abigail Hill was a bigoted Tory, and her supreme desire was to ingratiate herself in the favor of her royal mistress, especially when she was tired of the neglect or annoyed by the railleries of her exacting favorite. By degrees the humble lady’s-maid obtained the same ascendency over the Queen that had been exercised by the mistress of the robes,–in the one case secured by humility, assiduous attention, and constant flatteries; in the other, obtained by talent and brilliant fascinations. Abigail was ruled by Harley; Sarah was ruled by no one but her husband, who understood her caprices and resentments, and seldom directly opposed her. Moreover, she was a strong-minded woman, who could listen to reason after her fits of passion had passed away.

The first thing of note which occurred, showing to the Duchess that her influence was undermined, was the refusal of the Queen to allow Lord Cowper, the lord chancellor, to fill up the various livings belonging to the Crown, in spite of the urgent solicitations of the Duchess. This naturally produced a coolness between Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Morley. Harley was now the confidential adviser of the Queen, and counselled her “to go alone,”–that is, to throw off the shackles which she had too long ignominiously worn; and Anne at once appointed high-church divines–Tories of course–to the two vacant bishoprics. The under-stream of faction was flowing unseen, but deep and strong, which the infatuated Duchess did not suspect.

The great victory of Ramillies (1706) gave so much éclat to Marlborough that the outbreak between his wife and the Queen was delayed for a time. That victory gave a new lease of power to the Whigs. Harley and St. John, the secret enemies of the Duke, welcomed him with their usual smiles and flatteries, and even voted for the erection of Blenheim, one of the most expensive palaces ever built in England.

Meanwhile Harley pursued his intrigues to effect the downfall of the Duchess. Miss Hill, unknown to her great relative and patroness, married Mr. Masham, equerry to Prince George, who was shortly after made a brigadier-general and peer. Nothing could surpass the indignation of the Duchess when she heard of this secret marriage. That it should be concealed from her while it was known to the Queen, showed conclusively that her power over Anne was gone. And, still further, she perceived that she was supplanted by a relative whom she had raised from obscurity. She now comprehended the great influence of Harley at court, and also the declining favor of her husband. It was a bitter reflection to the proud Duchess that the alienation of the Queen was the result of her own folly and pride rather than of royal capriciousness. She now paid no inconsiderable penalty for the neglect of her mistress and the gratification of her pride. Pride has ever been the chief cause of the downfall of royal favorites. It ruined Louvois, Wolsey, and Thomas Cromwell; it broke the chain which bound Louis XIV. to the imperious Montespan. It ever goes before destruction. The Duchess of Marlborough forgot that her friend Mrs. Morley was also her sovereign the Queen. She might have retained the Queen’s favor to the end, in spite of political opinions; but she presumed too far on the ascendency which she had enjoyed for nearly thirty years. There is no height from which one may not fall; and it takes more ability to retain a proud position than to gain it. There are very few persons who are beyond the reach of envy and detraction; and the loftier the position one occupies, the more subtle, numerous, and desperate are one’s secret enemies.

The Duchess was not, however, immediately “disgraced,”–as the expression is in reference to great people who lose favor at court. She still retained her offices and her apartments in the royal palace; she still had access to the Queen; she was still addressed as “my dear Mrs. Freeman.” But Mrs. Masham had supplanted her; and Harley, through the influence of the new favorite, ruled at court. The disaffection which had long existed between the secretary of state and the lord treasurer deepened into absolute aversion. It became the aim of both ministers to ruin each other. The Queen now secretly sided with the Tories, although she had not the courage to quarrel openly with her powerful ministers, or with her former favorite. Nor was “the great breach” made public.

But the angry and disappointed Duchess gave vent to her wrath and vengeance in letters to her husband and in speech to Godolphin. She entreated them to avenge her quarrel. She employed spies about the Queen. She brought to bear her whole influence on the leaders of the Whigs. She prepared herself for an open conflict with her sovereign; for she saw clearly that the old relations of friendship and confidence between them would never return. A broken friendship is a broken jar; it may be mended, but never restored,–its glory has departed. And this is one of the bitterest experiences of life, on whomsoever the fault may be laid. The fault in this instance was on the side of the Duchess, and not on that of her patron. The arrogance and dictation of the favorite had become intolerable; it was as hard to bear as the insolence of a petted servant.

The Duke of Marlborough and Lord Godolphin took up the quarrel with zeal. They were both at the summit of power, and both were leaders of their party. The victories of the former had made him the most famous man in Europe and the greatest subject in England. They declined to serve their sovereign any longer, unless Harley were dismissed from office; and the able secretary of state was obliged to resign.

But Anne could not forget that she was forced to part with her confidential minister, and continued to be ruled by his counsels. She had secret nocturnal meetings in the palace with both Harley and Mrs. Masham, to the chagrin of the ministers. The court became the scene of intrigues and cabals. Not only was Harley dismissed, but also Henry St. John, afterwards the famous Lord Bolingbroke, the intimate friend and patron of Pope. He was secretary of war, and was a man of great ability, of more genius even than Harley. He was an infidel in his religious opinions, and profligate in his private life. Like Harley, he was born of Puritan parents, and, like him, repudiated his early principles. He was the most eloquent orator in the House of Commons, which he entered in 1700 as a Whig. At that time he was much admired by Marlborough, who used his influence to secure his entrance into the cabinet. His most remarkable qualities were political sagacity, and penetration into the motives and dispositions of men. He gradually went over to the Tories, and his alliance with Harley was strengthened by personal friendship as well as political sympathies. He was the most interesting man of his age in society,–witty, bright, and courtly. In conversational powers he was surpassed only by Swift.

Meanwhile the breach between the Queen and the Duchess gradually widened. And as the former grew cold in her treatment of her old friend, she at the same time annoyed her ministers by the appointment of Tory bishops to the vacant sees. She went so far as to encroach on the prerogatives of the general of her armies, by making military appointments without his consent. This interference Marlborough properly resented. But his influence was now on the wane, as the nation wearied of a war which, as it seemed to the Tories, he needlessly prolonged. Moreover, the Duke of Somerset, piqued by the refusal of the general to give a regiment to his son, withdrew his support from the Government. The Duke of Shrewsbury and other discontented noblemen left the Whig party. The unwise prosecution of Dr. Sacheverell for a seditious libel united the whole Tory party in a fierce opposition to the Government, which was becoming every day more unpopular. Harley was indefatigable in intrigues. “He fasted with religious zealots and feasted with convivial friends.” He promised everything to everybody, but kept his own counsels.

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 Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman, which had continued for twenty-seven years. The Queen and Duchess never met again. Soon after, in 1710, followed the dismissal of Lord Godolphin, as lord treasurer, who was succeeded by Harley, created Earl of Oxford. Sunderland, too, was dismissed, and his post of secretary of state was given to St. John, created Viscount Bolingbroke. Lord Cowper resigned the seals, and Sir Simon Harcourt, an avowed adherent of the Pretender, became lord chancellor. The Earl of Rochester, the bitterest of all the Tories, was appointed president of the council. The Duke of Marlborough, however, was not dismissed from his high command until 1711. One reason for his dismissal was that he was suspected of aiming to make himself supreme. On his return from the battle of Malplaquet, he had coolly demanded to be made captain-general for life. Such a haughty demand would have been regarded as dangerous in a great crisis; it was absurd when public dangers had passed away. Even Lord Cowper. his friend the chancellor, shrunk from it with amazement. Such a demand would have been deemed arrogant in Wallenstein, amid the successes of Gustavus Adolphus.

No insignificant cause of the triumph of the Tory party at this time was the patronage which the Tory leaders extended to men of letters, and the bitter political tracts which these literary men wrote and for which they were paid. In that age the speeches of members of Parliament were not reported or published, and hence had but little influence on public opinion. Even ministers resorted to political tracts to sustain their power, or to undermine that of their opponents; and these were more efficient than speeches in the House of Commons. Bolingbroke was the most eloquent orator of his day; but no orators arose in Anne’s reign equal to Pitt and Fox in the reign of George III. Hence the political leaders availed themselves of the writings of men of letters, with whom they freely associated. And this intercourse was deemed a great condescension on the part of nobles and cabinet ministers. In that age great men were not those who were famous for genius, but those who were exalted in social position. Still, genius was held in high honor by those who controlled public affairs, whenever it could be made subservient to their interests.

Foremost among the men of genius who lent their pen to the service of nobles and statesmen was Jonathan Swift,–clergyman, poet, and satirist. But he was more famous for his satire than for his sermons or his poetry. Everybody winced under his terrible assaults. He was both feared and hated, especially by the “great;” hence they flattered him and courted his society. He became the intimate friend and companion of Oxford and Bolingbroke. He dined with the prime minister every Sunday, and in fact as often as he pleased. He rarely dined at home, and almost lived in the houses of the highest nobles, who welcomed him not only for the aid he gave them by his writings, but for his wit and agreeable discourse. At one time he was the most influential man in England, although poor and without office or preferment. He possessed two or three livings in Ireland, which together brought him about £500, on which he lived,–generally in London, at least when his friends were in power. They could not spare him, and he was intrusted with the most important secrets of state. His insolence was superb. He affected equality with dukes and earls; he “condescended” to accept their banquets. The first time that Bolingbroke invited him to dine, his reply was that “if the Queen gave his lordship a dukedom and the Garter and the Treasury also, he would regard them no more than he would a groat.” This assumed independence was the habit of his life. He indignantly returned £100 to Harley, which the minister had sent him as a gift: he did not work for money, but for influence and a promised bishopric. But the Queen–a pious woman of the conventional school–would never hear of his elevation to the bench of bishops, in consequence of the “Tale of a Tub,” in which he had ridiculed everything sacred and profane. He was the bitterest satirist that England has produced. The most his powerful friends could do for him was to give him the deanery of St. Patrick’s in Dublin, worth about £800 a year.

Swift was first brought to notice by Sir William Temple, in the reign of William and Mary, he being Sir William’s secretary. At first he was a Whig, and a friend of Addison; but, neglected by Marlborough and Godolphin,–who cared but little for literary genius,–he became a Tory. In 1710 he became associated with Harley, St. John, Atterbury, and Prior, in the defence of the Tory party; but he never relinquished his friendship with Addison, for whom he had profound respect and admiration. Swift’s life was worldly, but moral. He was remarkably temperate in eating and drinking, and parsimonious in his habits. One of his most bitter complaints in his letters to Stella–to whom he wrote every day–was of the expense of coach-hire in his visits to nobles and statesmen. It would seem that he creditably discharged his clerical duties. He attended the daily service in the cathedral, and preached when his turn came. He was charitable to the poor, and was a friend to Ireland, to whose people he rendered great services from his influence with the Government. He was beloved greatly by the Irish nation, in spite of his asperity, parsimony, and bad temper. He is generally regarded by critics as a selfish and heartless man; and his treatment of the two women whose affections he had gained was certainly inexplicable and detestable. His old age was miserable and sad. He died insane, having survived his friends and his influence. But his writings have lived. His “Gulliver’s Travels” is still one of the most famous and popular books in our language, in spite of its revolting and vulgar details. Swift, like Addison, was a great master of style,–clear, forcible, and natural; and in vigor he surpassed any writer of his age.

It was the misfortune of the Duchess of Marlborough to have this witty and malignant satirist for an enemy. He exposed her peculiarities, and laid bare her character with fearless effrontery. It was thus that he attacked the most powerful woman in England: “A lady of my acquaintance appropriated £26 a year out of her allowance for certain uses which the lady received, or was to pay to the lady or her order when called for. But after eight years it appeared upon the strictest calculation that the woman had paid but £4, and sunk £22 for her own pocket. It is but supposing £26 instead of £26,000, and by that you may judge what the pretensions of modern merit are when it happens to be its own paymaster.” Who could stand before such insinuations? The Duchess afterwards attempted to defend herself against the charge of peculation as the keeper of the privy purse; but no one believed her. She was notoriously avaricious and unscrupulous. Swift spared no personage in the party of the Whigs, when by so doing he could please the leaders of the Tories. And he wrote in an age when libels were scandalous and savage,–libels which would now subject their authors to punishment. The acrimony of party strife at that time has never since been equalled. Even poets attacked each other with savage recklessness. There was no criticism after the style of Sainte-Beuve. Writers sought either to annihilate or to extravagantly praise. The jealousy which poets displayed in reference to each other’s productions was as unreasonable and bitter as the envy and strife between country doctors, or musicians at the opera.

There was one great writer in the age of Queen Anne who was an exception to this nearly universal envy and bitterness; and this was Addison, who was as serene and calm as other critics were furious and unjust. Even Swift spared this amiable and accomplished writer, although he belonged to the Whig party. Joseph Addison, born in 1672, was the most fortunate man of letters in his age,–perhaps in any succeeding age in English history. He was early distinguished as a writer of Latin poems; and in 1699, at the age of twenty-seven, the young scholar was sent by Montague, at the recommendation of Somers, to the Continent, on a pension of £300 a year, to study languages with a view to the diplomatic service. On the accession of Anne, Addison was obliged to return to literature for his support. Solicited by Godolphin, under the advice of Halifax, to write a poem on the victories of Marlborough, he wrote one so popular that he rapidly rose in favor with the Whig ministry. In 1708 he was made secretary for Ireland, under Lord Wharton, and entered Parliament. He afterwards was made secretary of state, married a peeress, and spent his last days at Holland House.

But Addison was no politician; nor did he distinguish himself in Parliament or as a political writer. He could not make a speech, not having been trained to debate. He was too timid, and his taste was too severe, for the arena of politicians. He is immortal for his essays, in which his humor is transcendent, and his style easy and graceful, As a writer, he is a great artist. No one has ever been able to equal him in the charming simplicity of his style. Macaulay, a great artist himself in the use of language, places Addison on the summit of literary excellence and fame as an essayist. One is at loss to comprehend why so quiet and unobtrusive a scholar should have been selected for important political positions, but can easily understand why he was the admiration of the highest social circles for his wit and the elegance of his conversation. He was the personification of urbanity and every gentlemanly quality, as well as one of the best scholars of his age; but it was only in an aristocratic age, when a few great nobles controlled public affairs, that such a man could have been so recognized, rewarded, and honored. He died beloved and universally lamented, and his writings are still classics, and likely to remain so. He was not an oracle in general society, like Mackintosh and Macaulay; but among congenial and trusted friends he gave full play to his humor, and was as charming as Washington Irving is said to have been in his chosen circle of admirers. Although he was a Whig, we do not read of any particular intimacy with such men as Marlborough and Godolphin. Marlborough, though an accomplished and amiable man, was not fond of the society of wits, as were Halifax, Montague, Harley, and St. John. As for the Duchess, she was too proud and grand for such a retired scholar as Addison to feel at ease in her worldly coteries. She cared no more for poetry or severe intellectual culture than politicians generally do. She shone only in a galaxy of ladies of rank and fashion. I do not read that she ever took a literary man into her service, and she had no more taste for letters than the sovereign she served. She was doubtless intellectual, shrewd, and discriminating; but her intellect was directed to current political movements, and she was coarse in her language. She would swear, like Queen Elizabeth, when excited to anger, and her wrath was terrible.

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. The Duchess had parted with her offices with great reluctance. Even when the Queen sent for the golden keys, which were the badge of her office, she refused to surrender them. No one could do anything with the infuriated termagant, and all were afraid of her. She threatened to print the private correspondence of the Queen as Mrs. Morley. The ministers dared not go into her presence, so fierce was her character when offended. To take from her the badge of office was like trying to separate a fierce lioness from her whelps. The only person who could manage her was her husband; and when at last he compelled her to give up the keys, she threw them in a storm of passion at his head, and raved like a maniac. It is amazing how the Queen could have borne so long with the Duchess’s ungovernable temper, and still more so how her husband could. But he was always mild and meek in the retirement of his home,–a truly domestic man, to whom pomp was a weariness. Moreover, he was a singularly fortunate man. His ambition and pride and avarice were gratified beyond precedent in English history. He had become the foremost man in his country, and perhaps of his age. And his wife was still looked to as a great personage, not only because of her position and rank, but for her abilities, which were doubtless great. She was still a power in the land, and was surrounded by children and grandchildren who occupied some of the highest social positions in England.

But she was not happy. What can satisfy a restless and ambitious woman whose happiness is in external pleasures? There is a limit to the favors which fortune showers; and when the limits of success are reached, there must be disappointment. The Duchess was discontented, and became morose, quarrelsome, and hard to please. Her children did not love her, and some were in bitter opposition to her. She was perpetually embroiled in family quarrels. Nothing could soften the asperity of her temper, or restrain her unreasonable exactions. At last England became hateful to her, and she and her husband quitted it, and resided abroad for several years. In the retirement of voluntary exile she answered the numerous accusations against her; for she was maligned on every side, and generally disliked, since her arrogance had become insupportable, even to her daughters.

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 was even alienated from Harley, whom she dismissed from office only a few days before her death, which took place Aug. 1, 1714. She died without signing her will, by which omission Mrs. Masham was deprived of her legacy. She died childless, and the Elector George of Hanover ascended her throne.

On the death of the Queen, Marlborough returned to England; and it was one of the first acts of the new king to restore to him the post of captain-general of the land forces, while his son-in-law Sunderland was made lord-lieutenant of Ireland. A Whig cabinet was formed, but the Duke never regained his old political influence, and he gradually retired to private life, residing with the Duchess almost wholly at Holywell. His peaceful retirement, for which he had longed, came at last. He employed his time in surveying the progress of the building of Blenheim,–in which palace he was never destined to live,–and in simple pleasures, for which he never lost a taste. His wife occupied herself in matrimonial projects for her grandchildren, seeking alliances of ambition and interest.

In 1716 the Duke of Marlborough was attacked with a paralytic fit, from the effects of which he only partially recovered. To restore his health, he went to Bath,–then the fashionable and favorite watering-place, whose waters were deemed beneficial to invalids; and here it was one of the scandals of the day that the rich nobleman would hobble from the public room to his lodgings, in a cold, dark night, to save sixpence in coach-hire. His enjoyments were now few and transient. His nervous system was completely shattered, after so many labors and exposures in his numerous campaigns. He lingered till 1722, when he died leaving a fortune of a million and a half pounds sterling, besides his vast estates. No subject at that time had so large an income. He left a military fame never surpassed in England,–except by Wellington,–and a name unstained by cruelty. So distinguished a man of course received at his death unparalleled funeral honors. He was followed to his temporary resting-place in the vaults of Westminster by the most imposing procession that England had ever seen.

The Duchess of Marlborough was now the richest woman in England. Whatever influence proceeds from rank and riches she still possessed, though the titles and honors of the dukedom descended by act of Parliament, in 1706, to the Countess of Godolphin, with whom she was at war. The Duchess was now sixty-two, with unbroken health and inextinguishable ambition. She resided chiefly at Windsor Lodge, for she held for life the office of ranger of the forest. It was then that she was so severely castigated by Pope in his satirical lines on “Atossa,” that she is said to have sent £1000 to the poet, to suppress the libel,–her avarice and wrath giving way to her policy and pride. For twenty years after the death of her husband she continued an intriguing politician, but on ill-terms with Sir Robert Walpole, the prime minister, whom she cordially hated, more because of money transactions than political disagreement. She was a very disagreeable old woman, yet not without influence, if she was without friends. She had at least the merit of frankness, for she concealed none of her opinions of the King, nor of his ministers, nor of distinguished nobles. She was querulous, and full of complaints and exactions. One of her bitterest complaints was that she was compelled to pay taxes on her house in Windsor Park. She would even utter her complaints before servants. Litigation was not disagreeable to her if she had reason on her side, whether she had law or not.

Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough

Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough

It was not the good fortune of this strong-minded but unhappy woman to assemble around her in her declining years children and grandchildren who were attached to her. She had alienated even them. She had no intimate friends. “A woman not beloved by her own children can have but little claim to the affections of others.” As we have already said, the Duchess was at open variance with her oldest daughter Henrietta, the Countess of Godolphin, to whom she was never reconciled. Her quarrels with her granddaughter Lady Anne Egerton, afterwards Duchess of Bedford, were violent and incessant. She lived in perpetual altercation with her youngest daughter, the Duchess of Montague. She never was beloved by any of her children at any time, since they were in childhood and youth intrusted to the care of servants and teachers, while the mother was absorbed in political cabals at court. She consulted their interest merely in making for them grand alliances, to gratify her family pride. Her whole life was absorbed in pride and ambition. Nor did the mortification of a dishonored old age improve her temper. She sought neither the consolation of religion nor the intellectual stimulus of history and philosophy. To the last she was as worldly as she was morose. To the last she was a dissatisfied politician. She reviled the Whig administration of Walpole as fiercely as she did the Tory administration of Oxford. She haughtily refused the Order of the Bath for her grandson the Duke of Marlborough, which Walpole offered, contented with nothing less than the Garter. “Madam,” replied Walpole, “they who take the Bath will sooner have the Garter.” In her old age her ruling passion was hatred of Walpole. “I think,” she wrote, “’tis thought wrong to wish anybody dead, but I hope ’tis none to wish he may be hanged.” Her wishes were partly gratified, for she lived long enough to see this great statesman–so long supreme–driven to the very threshold of the Tower. For his son Horace she had equal dislike, and he returned her hatred with malignant satire. “Old Marlborough is dying,” said the wit; “but who can tell? Last year she had lain a great while ill, without speaking, and her physician told her that she must be blistered, or she would die. She cried out, ‘I won’t be blistered, and I won’t die,'”

She did indeed last some time longer; but with increasing infirmities, her amusements and pleasures became yearly more circumscribed. In former years she had sometimes occupied her mind with the purchase of land; for she was shrewd, and rarely made a bad bargain. Even at the age of eighty she went to the city to bid in person for the estate of Lord Yarmouth. But as her darkened day approached its melancholy close, she amused herself by dictating in bed her “Vindication,” After spending thus six hours daily with her secretary, she had recourse to her chamber organ, the eight tunes of which she thought much better to hear than going to the Italian opera. Even society, in which she once shone,–for her intellect was bright and her person beautiful,–at last wearied her and gave her no pleasure. Like many lonely, discontented women, she became attached to animals; she petted three dogs, in which she saw virtues that neither men nor women possessed. In her disquiet she often changed her residence. She went from Marlborough House to Windsor Lodge, and from Windsor Lodge to Wimbledon, only to discover that each place was damp and unhealthy. Wrapt up in flannels, and wheeled up and down her room in a chair, she discovered that wealth can only mitigate the evils of humanity, and realized how wretched is any person with a soul filled with discontent and bitterness, when animal spirits are destroyed by the infirmities of old age. All the views of this spoiled favorite of fortune were bounded by the scenes immediately before her. While she was not sceptical, she was far from being religious; and hence she was deprived of the highest consolations given to people in disappointment and sorrow and neglect. The older she grew, the more tenaciously did she cling to temporal possessions, and the more keenly did she feel occasional losses. Her intellect remained unclouded, but her feelings became callous. While she had no reverence for the dead, she felt increasing contempt for the living,–forgetting that no one, however exalted, can live at peace in an atmosphere of disdain.

At last 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 £30,000 a year to her grandson, Lord John Spencer, provided he would never accept any civil or military office from the Government. She left also £20,000 to Lord Chesterfield, together with her most valuable diamond; but only small sums to most of her relatives or to charities. The residue of her property she left to that other grandson who inherited the title and estates of her husband. £60,000 a year, her estimated income, besides a costly collection of jewels,–one of the most valuable in Europe,–were a great property, when few noblemen at that time had over £30,000 a year.

The life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, is a sad one to contemplate, with all her riches and honors. Let those who envy wealth or rank learn from her history how little worldly prosperity can secure happiness or esteem, without the solid virtues of the heart. The richest and most prosperous woman of her times was the object of blended derision, contempt, and hatred throughout the land which she might have adorned. Why, then, it may be asked, should I single out such a woman for a lecture,–a woman who added neither to human happiness, national prosperity, nor the civilization of her age? Why have I chosen her as one of the Beacon Lights of history? Because I know of no woman who has filled so exalted a position in society, and is so prominent a figure in history, whose career is a more impressive warning of the dangers to be shunned by those who embark on the perilous and troubled seas of mere worldly ambition. God gave her that to which she aspired, and which so many envy; but “He sent leanness into her soul.”


Private Correspondence of the Duchess of Marlborough; Mrs. Thompson’s Life of the Duchess of Marlborough; “Conduct,” by the Duchess of Marlborough, Life of Dr. Tillotson, by Dr. Birch; Coxe’s Life of the Duke of Marlborough; Evelyn’s Diary; Lord Mahon’s History of England; Macaulay’s History of England; Lewis Jenkin’s Memoirs of the Duke of Gloucester; Burnet’s History of his own Times; Lamberty’s Memoirs; Swift’s Journal to Stella; Liddiard’s Life of the Duke of Marlborough; Boyer’s Annals of Queen Anne; Swift’s Memoir of the Queen’s Ministry; Cunningham’s History of Great Britain; Walpole’s Correspondence, edited by Coxe; Sir Walter Scott’s Life of Swift; Agnes Strickland’s Queens of England; Marlborough and the Times of Queen Anne; Westminster Review, lvi. 26; Dublin University Review, lxxiv. 469; Temple Bar Magazine, lii. 333; Burton’s Reign of Queen Anne; Stanhope’s Queen Anne.

Madame Récamier : The Woman of Society

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VII : Great Women