Tuesday, December 9, 2014


Last night I finished reading Memoirs of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough : Together with her Characters of her Contemporaries and her Opinions, as edited by William King from various manuscripts left behind by Sarah Churchill when she died in 1744, having outlived everybody she wrote about. The book consists mainly of  the schemes and misunderstandings that were the warp and weft of life in a Stuart court, including the following family anecdote from the editor's introduction 

Sarah Jennings was born in 1660, the daughter of a country gentleman near St. Albans, and while still a child became attached to the household of the Duchess of York. It was thus that she made the acquaintance of the little Princess Anne, daughter of the Duke of York and four years her junior. In her eighteenth year she made a love match and married the handsome and gallant Colonel John Churchill, who was ten years older than herself. The marriage was ideally happy. Those of the Duke's letters that survive breathe a uniform spirit of the utmost tenderness, and although the other side of the correspondence was destroyed by the Duchess's orders, there is no doubt of the depth of her feelings, often though they may have been obscured by the violent rages to which she was subject.

Lady Bute, daughter of the celebrated Lady Mary Wortley Montague, preserved a charming story of the Duchess in old age, which she had frequently heard recounted with particular pleasure by the Duchess herself; it is here related in the words of Lady Bute's daughter, Lady Louisa Stuart, and refers to the Duchess's wealth of fair hair, which preserved its colour until she was very old. "None of her charms, when they were at their proudest height, had been so fondly prized by the poor Duke her husband. Therefore, one day, upon his offending her by some act of disobedience to her 'strong sovereign will', the bright thought occurred, as she sat considering how she could plague him most, that it would be a hearty vexation to see his favourite tresses cut off. Instantly the deed was done; she cropped them short, and laid them in an ante-chamber he must pass through to enter her apartment. But, to her cruel disappointment, he passed, entered, and repassed, and calm enough to provoke a saint; neither angry nor sorrowful; seemingly quite unconscious both of his crime and his punishment. Concluding he must have overlooked the hair, she ran to secure it. Lo! it had vanished – and she remained in great perplexity the rest of the day. The next, as he continued silent, and her looking-glass spoke the change a rueful one, she began to think she had done rather a foolish thing. Nothing more ever transpired upon the subject until after the Duke's death, when she found her beautiful ringlets carefully laid by in a cabinet where he kept whatever he held most precious; and at this point of the story she regularly fell a crying." 

Oval portrait of the Duchess from the Royal Collection, copy of an original by Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723).