Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough was a 17th and 18th-century courtier who became the infamous favorite of Queen Anne. Sarah used her position to climb the social ladder and become fabulously wealthy—but it came at a cost. Her abrasive and domineering personality left her all alone at the end of her life, counting her gold coins and wandering the echoing halls of her giant palace. Let these unscrupulous facts about Sarah Churchill serve as a cautionary tale.
Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough was born Sarah Jennings in 1660 to Richard Jennings and Frances Thornhurst. As the daughter of a parliamentarian with a good name, she was comfortably upper-middle-class and rubbed shoulders with royalty. But she wanted more. So much more. So she started rubbing the right shoulders.
Sarah started out far from the lap of luxury she would ultimately enjoy—but she saw her humbler beginnings as an opportunity. She found work as the maid of honor to Mary of Modena, the stepmother of the young Princess Anne. Sarah, who was 13 at the time, was five years older than Anne, but the two quickly became close friends.
And soon to be frenemies.
If Sarah was going to climb to the tippy top of 17th-century Britain’s social ladder, then she was going to need a leg up. Or a husband. What’s the difference, anyway? When she was just 15 years old, Sarah caught the eye of John Churchill. The eligible—if heavily indebted—bachelor was ten years older than Sarah but fell madly in love with her.
Still, she had competition for his affections. Richer competition. But Sarah Churchill was nothing if not ambitious.
John Churchill was one of Britain’s most eligible bachelors. And he was totally broke. Might want to consider passing on that rose. Anyhow, Churchill wanted to marry someone with money so that he could wipe away his debts. Seeing as though Sarah was a 15-year-old maid, she wasn’t exactly rolling in the dough…yet. That was a dealbreaker for Churchill—but he had another idea in mind.
Churchill wasn’t willing to marry Sarah because she didn’t have any money. But that didn’t stop him from trying to get with her. Churchill made Sarah a scandalous offer: He asked her to be his mistress instead of his wife. That silly mistake made him the first person to learn not to mess with the strongly opinionated Sarah Churchill.
Sarah found Churchill’s offer more than just a little bit insulting. In letters between the two, Sarah clearly and unequivocally declined Churchill’s offer to make her his mistress. I imagine it went something like, “No, I don’t want no scrub. A scrub is a guy that can’t get no love from me". If he wanted her, he would have to put a ring on it.
Sarah and Churchill would probably have parted ways if it hadn’t been for a stroke of fate. After her brother passed on unexpectedly, Sarah became a joint heir to her family’s considerable estate. And once she became a moderately wealthy woman in her own right, Churchill’s interest all of a sudden changed. Funny how that works.
But there was still one obstacle in the couple’s way.
Despite refusing his initial offer, Sarah must have seen something in Churchill that she liked, because she didn’t kick the gold digger to the curb when he came running back. Maybe it was the fact that he was just as much of a ruthless opportunist as she was. Whatever the reason, Sarah agreed to marry Churchill. But there wouldn’t be any fancy wedding...
Sarah and Churchill had found the perfect social-climbing match in each other, but the fiendish greed that they brought out in each other frightened their families. Both of their families refused to support the match. So, the couple got married in secret—and began plotting their ruthless rise to the top.
Sarah’s close friendship with Princess Anne was her source of power and influence at court. But hitching her wagon to Princess Anne was just as risky as it was rewarding. In 1688, Sarah and Princess Anne found themselves in terrible danger. Princess Anne’s own father, King James II, placed Sarah and Anne under house arrest on suspicion of treason.
Sarah knew she was in trouble.
Sarah knew that Princess Anne’s father wouldn’t behead his own daughter…right? But whatever he had planned for Anne, he would absolutely take her head off if she didn’t do something. So, Sarah convinced Anne that their only hope of survival was to stage a prison—or palace—escape. The duo easily slipped away and waited for the political winds to change.
And boy, did they ever.
Sarah and Princess Anne survived Anne’s father’s reign. But Princess Anne’s sister, Mary, rose to power next—and the jealousy began. By that time, everyone knew that Sarah exerted control over Anne and the royal court grew weary of her power. Mary demanded that Anne dismiss Sarah, but Anne refused. Sarah’s hooks were already too deep into Princess Anne’s side.
Sarah had put all of her eggs in the Princess Anne basket, and her gamble was about to pay off. Big time. In 1702, Princess Anne finally ascended to the throne. It was time for Sarah to cash in. Using her influence over Anne, Sarah managed to secure a sizeable income for her and her husband and became the Keeper of the Privy Purse.
In other words, she had access to all of Anne’s money. All of it. Nothing could go wrong now, right?
Despite being the best of friends, Sarah had never been Anne’s social equal. Regardless, all that Anne had ever wanted was a genuine friend. Sarah had always spoken plainly and openly to Anne—maybe even insolently. But once Anne became Queen Anne, there was an entire kingdom that separated them in rank. And, well, Sarah couldn’t tolerate that. Things were about to get messy.
In order to have a more equal relationship, Sarah and Anne made pet names for each other. Makes sense. No one would want to “spill the tea” with Her Majesty—figuratively or, God forbid, literally. For fun, Anne got the name “Mrs. Morley” while Sarah got the name “Mrs. Freeman". It was supposed to be a fun way for two friends to talk candidly, regardless of rank. Well, Sarah may have taken her nickname too literally.
Sarah’s friendship was paying off in spades. Anne kept giving her fancy new appointments and lavishing titles and honors on her husband, John Churchill. But there was one gift in particular that was almost too generous, even by royal standards. Anne gave Sarah and Churchill a palace. The massive Blenheim Palace. Now Sarah and Anne were truly equal in all but title.
And, surprise surprise, Sarah’s head got a little big—even for her palatial new home.
Sarah’s blunt honesty had always been something that Anne appreciated. But it quickly turned to outright disrespect, and Anne couldn’t tolerate that. Sarah began to overstep her position and overpower Queen Anne in her own court. Sarah’s strong personality was OK with Anne when it worked in favor, but the realities of palace politics were about to get between the good friends.
Sarah’s political maneuvering at court began to irritate her best friend, the queen. The two had radically opposing political views. Sarah was pushing for more progressive reforms that Anne considered against the interests of the crown—which, you know, was resting on top of her head. It was only a matter of time before Sarah finally went too far.
Sarah’s open defiance of Anne in matters pertaining to parliament was becoming intolerable for the queen. But the relatively weak-willed Anne was essentially powerless to do anything about her domineering friend. Queen Anne confided to another one of her confidants at court that she did not believe that she and Sarah could ever be true friends again. But, really, had they ever been true friends?
Quite apart from their political differences, Sarah and Anne had more than enough good reason to begin hating each other. Anne, for one, was kind of needy. The queen thought that Sarah was spending far too much time away from court. In Sarah’s defense, however, Anne had given her a palace, whose construction she had to oversee.
Sarah Churchill’s friendship with Queen Anne had likely always been one of opportunity and convenience. But still, she must have had some feelings for her lifelong companion. When Sarah felt that Queen Anne wasn’t supportive enough of Sarah’s husband, who was off fighting in Spain, she seemed genuinely hurt by it. But, in Anne’s defense, Blenheim Palace was a gift honoring Sarah’s husband’s victory. Seems pretty supportive to me!
Their differences were starting to pile up, but it could always get worse. Their friendship was about to hit a new low.
Sarah spent an increasing amount of time away from court, overlooking the construction of Blenheim Palace. But she forgot just how she had risen so high in the first place—by sticking close to Queen Anne. And while Sarah was away, Queen Anne was already finding her replacement. Abigail Masham, Sarah’s cousin, was cozying up to Anne…and pushing Sarah out of the picture.
Sarah and John Churchill had a long and loving marriage—and by loving, of course, we mean profitable. But their fortunes weren’t always so great. Sarah lost her last surviving son to smallpox in 1703, and no amount of royal favor was going to bring him back to life. In her grief, Sarah lashed out at Anne by refusing to respond to her letters or, even worse, responding with chilling brevity.
Clearly, Sarah did not know how to process grief.
When Sarah finally returned to court, she continued her open defiance of Queen Anne—and carrying on like the world’s worst best friend. When Anne's husband passed, the whole court went into mourning. Sarah declined to wear mourning clothes at all. It was a clear sign that she disdained the Queen’s grief. Sarah, we're trying to root for you here, but you're making it really hard.
Anne felt liked Sarah Churchill had betrayed her by abandoning the court to work on Blenheim Palace. But having her back at court was no walk in the park either. The “best friends” continued fighting like cats and dogs—and over trivial things too. On the way to a thanksgiving service, Sarah and Anne had an argument over the jewels that Anne was wearing. It quickly turned ugly.
The carriage ride to the church service was definitely tense, with Sarah and Anne bickering about jewels. But the mass itself turned from a small spat into an all-out feud. Once inside the church, Anne tried to continue the argument but Sarah, using way too much sass when speaking to a queen, lashed out and snapped “Be quiet!” Now, Queen Anne could put up with a lot, but Churchill was really starting to push it. This friendship was sinking.
Sarah Churchill was definitely the vindictive type, and Anne had learned a thing or two from her best friend. She wasn’t going to let Sarah run roughshod over her anymore. Anne got back at Sarah for defying her by writing a “chilling” letter to her in which she mocked Sarah’s “command". For once, Sarah had to apologize for her rudeness. But it was too little too late.
Sarah might have thought twice about mouthing off to Anne if she had any idea just how frosty their friendship had become. And just how replaceable she had become. Behind Sarah’s back, Anne had provided Abigail with the dowry for her secret wedding. Of course, as far as Sarah was concerned, the Queen’s money was her money, so she did not take the news well.
Sarah Churchill definitely felt jealous of Abigail’s growing influence with Queen Anne. After all, she knew just how profitable it could be to be in the Queen’s favor. Sarah started desperately pushing her political agenda on Anne in an attempt to reassert her position. But Anne wasn’t having any of it this time. She continued showering Abigail with the kind of favors that Sarah had once received.
So Sarah would use that against her.
Decades earlier, courtiers had tried to force Queen Anne to get rid of Sarah because of her growing influence. Now, it was Sarah’s turn to try to force Abigail out. Sarah went to parliament and tried to force Queen Anne to get rid of Abigail. Of course, by now, Sarah had learned a lot about court politics. This time, to get her way, she was prepared to play dirty.
Sarah managed to whip up a lot of support in parliament and amongst courtiers to have Abigail dismissed. But, for once, Anne wasn’t going to let her bossy best friend tell her what she could and couldn’t do. She was going to be the stubborn one. Anne refused Sarah’s demands and kept Abigail close by. Sarah Churchill had bitten the hand that fed her.
Sarah and her husband, John Churchill, had been something of a power couple for decades. John kept winning battles in Spain and Sarah kept spinning his victories into political power—and buckets of money. But Sarah’s latest games in court had been a step too far for Anne. The queen fired John on trumped-up charges of embezzlement.
Sarah was on the outside for once—and it was only going to get worse.
Sarah’s final meeting with Anne was a chilly affair. She pleaded to know why their friendship had deteriorated into an all-out feud (I’d imagine it had something to do with her borderline treason but, back to the story). Anne refused to answer Sarah and only repeated the rehearsed lines, “I shall make no answer to anything you say,” and, “you may put it in writing".
Ok, so Anne wasn't necessarily a debate champion, but at least this time she was standing her ground.
Sarah was so distraught in her meeting with Anne that she broke out in tears (why she couldn’t at least have faked crying for Anne’s husband, I don’t know). Sarah called Anne’s coolness “inhuman”—look who’s talking—and proceeded to threaten the queen by saying that God would seek vengeance on Anne for how she'd treated her. That one hit a nerve with the religious Anne.
Queen Anne had finally had enough of Sarah. Whatever they were, they no longer friends. Anne dismissed Sarah and her husband from all of their court appointments and stopped funding Sarah’s pet project, Blenheim Palace. Sarah and her husband had to leave England in disgrace to travel Europe. Fortunately, foreign courts welcomed them like heroes.
John Churchill’s victories and political allegiances made him and Sarah welcome throughout Europe. But what Sarah really wanted was to go home—a.k.a. the enormous, unfinished palace. She corresponded regularly with people in England who could keep her up to date on the latest gossip. She may even have been corresponding with Anne.
But a reconciliation was too much to ask for.
Of course, it was no secret that Sarah and Anne had fallen out. The whole of Europe was waiting to see if these two friends would kiss and make nice. Near the end of her life, one eyewitness claimed to have heard Queen Anne ask a telling question. Apparently, Anne asked whether or not “the Marlboroughs” had come ashore yet, perhaps even insinuating that she'd invited them back herself.
Well, if she'd heard what Sarah Churchill would do to her after she was gone, she probably would have changed her tune.
Queen Anne might have known her ex-friend was on her way back to England. Or, more likely, she just knew Sarah well enough to know what she would do. As if to make her point—because she always had to be right—Sarah returned to England on the very same afternoon that Anne passed on. And the new king immediately welcomed the Marlboroughs back to court.
Sarah continued influencing court life, but her real occupation was overseeing the construction of Blenheim Palace. Of course, now that Anne was gone, she had to fund the construction of her new home out of her own purse. And while she spent Anne’s money freely, Sarah was a penny-pincher when it came to her own coin. She hired cheaper workers and was a constant thorn in the side of the primary architect. Based on what we've heard about her, probably could have guessed that part.
Sarah’s abrasive personality hadn’t just grated on Queen Anne, Abigail Masham, the architect of Blenheim Palace, and every courtier going back three monarchs. Oh no, her own family couldn’t stand her either. Over the course of her life, Sarah became estranged from three of her daughters. It really seems like her husband was the only one who could tolerate her.
Sarah and her husband had spent their entire lives climbing on top of their fellow courtiers to gain ever more favor and power. And money. So much money. After her husband passed away, Sarah became one of the wealthiest people in all of Europe. She purchased a lot of land and became singularly focused on finishing Blenheim Palace. At least she had her priorities in order.
It’s funny that Sarah had sacrificed so much for the construction of Blenheim Palace. She had abandoned her best friend and was, decades later, shelling out countless sums of money to complete the thing. And, get this, she hated the place! Sarah called Blenheim Palace “that great heap of stones". Perhaps she saw too much of herself in it—a bottomless, stone-cold money pit.
Sarah had managed to tick off more than one king and queen in her lifetime and lived to tell the tale. Most other people would have lost their heads. So, when the opportunity came around to tick off another regent, Sarah was only too happy to take it. She refused Queen Caroline’s request for access through her Wimbledon estate and was openly rude to King George II. Oh Sarah, never change.
Sarah had once snagged herself the most eligible bachelor in England. And she was now the eligible bachelorette—widowed, but eligible. Sarah managed to remain attractive well into her later years, plus she had a pile of money too big to fit in her oversized palace. Nevertheless, she refused repeated advances for remarriage. She liked her independence too much.
Mrs. Freeman, indeed.
With all of that money and so little time left to spend it, Sarah had a hard time deciding what to do with her fortune after she was gone. She wrote a bunch of different wills before her passing and finally landed on one that was…fitting of her character. In her will, Sarah left practically nothing to charity but left one of her servants over £1,000,000 in today’s money.
Sarah passed of natural causes at the ripe old age of 84. Who says that holding grudges shortens your life? But Sarah’s passing wasn’t exactly the tragedy that most would expect. A Scottish author and poet wrote that Sarah passed away “immensely rich and very little regretted, either by her own family or the world in general".
After Queen Anne passed, Sarah Churchill took the time to thoroughly drag her in her memoirs. She essentially called Anne an idiot of a queen who never would have gotten anywhere without her. And I’m not just talking about some stern words here: Sarah Churchill really went for it when it came time to drag Anne’s name through the mud...
This is an excerpt from Sarah’s memoirs: “…Nobody can maintain that [Anne] was wise, nor entertaining in conversation. She was ignorant in everything but what the parsons had taught her when a child…Being very ignorant, very fearful, with very little judgment…” Yeesh. Maybe Anne was right to dump her when she did.
When Sarah tried to get parliament to force Anne to fire Abigail, she knew asking nicely wouldn't be enough. Oh no, she had to give them a reason. Sarah went so far as to accuse Anne of carrying on a romantic affair with Abigail. Now that was the kind of allegation that parliament might listen to. It didn't work, but you can't say she wasn't willing to play dirty.
If you had to point to one moment when Sarah and Anne's relationship truly fell apart, we'd probably say it was when Anne's husband passed. As any good friend would, Sarah rushed to Anne’s side. But if Anne thought that Sarah was there to provide her with some comfort in her time of need, she was sorely mistaken.
Sarah arrived at Kensington Palace—unannounced and uninvited, no less—to find Anne grieving next to her husband’s body. In her usual blunt manner, Sarah showed a total lack of concern for her friend’s grief. Instead of providing Anne with a hug and a few words of comfort—or even a box of Kleenex—Sarah castigated Anne for mourning.
And Anne wasn’t having it.
Even though Queen Anne must have been happy to see her “best friend,” she definitely hadn’t missed her callous personality. And, little did Sarah know, Queen Anne had found a new best friend in court. Realizing Sarah wasn’t going to comfort her, Anne demanded that she go away and fetch her new favorite—Abigail Masham.
Oh, this was not going to end well.
Sarah had put up with Queen Anne since she had been a toddler. She had escaped political coups with her and stood up to powerful kings and queens on her behalf. She wasn’t about to move aside for some lowly relation. Sarah outright refused Anne’s order to leave and fetch Abigail. Instead, she browbeat Anne into leaving her husband’s body and going to St. James’ Palace.
She won that battle—but her friendship with Anne was finished forever after that day.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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