Blenheim Palace has a wonderful history of strong, independent women and their individual stories, with every Duchess in turn making their own unique mark. But where better to start than at the very beginning of the Marlborough line and the first Duchess, Sarah Churchill – one of the most influential figures in the construction of the Palace and a shrewd businesswoman way ahead of her time.
Born in 1660 Sarah was the daughter of Richard Jennings, a Member of Parliament, and Frances Thornhurst. Her father’s connections with James the Duke of York, brother to King Charles II, meant that at the age of 15 Sarah was already building significant relationships such as with her new ‘bff’ the young Princess Anne whilst also catching the eye of future husband John Churchill who was 10 years her senior. Sarah wasn’t afraid to go against her and Churchill’s families when neither approved of the match – despite their objections, she chose to follow her heart rather than play the dutiful daughter. They were married in secret in 1678. When Princess Anne became Queen in 1702, she awarded John Churchill a dukedom with the bonus of a £5000 pension and £2000 from the Privy Purse every year due to Sarah’s clever negotiation skills. The now Duchess of Marlborough was given the title Mistress of the Robes which was the highest office in the royal court that could be held by a woman. She was also appointed Keeper of the Privy Purse (one of only two women to ever hold this position).
After Queen Anne gifted the Marlborough’s with land and a large sum of money to build a property, a thank you to John Churchill following his victory at the Battle of Blenheim, Sarah spent much of her time overseeing the construction of Blenheim Palace whilst the Duke of Marlborough was abroad fighting the War of the Spanish Succession. She didn’t approve of the overall design which she felt was too costly and impractical, and had many, many disagreements with Sir John Vanbrugh the architect, to the point where Vanbrugh accused her of “intolerable treatment”. Sarah eventually banned him from the premises. She worked tirelessly to ensure the Palace’s completion even after the 1st Duke’s death, adding features such as the Column of Victory and the Triumphal Arch which continue to be admired today.
During the earlier years of Blenheim Palace’s construction, Sarah continued to be Queen Anne’s right-hand woman and therefore the second most powerful woman in England. Anne (pictured on the left) sent Sarah news of political developments in letters and sought her advice in most matters. Sarah was effectively Anne’s business manager, having control over her finances and the people admitted to see her.
Sarah was notorious for telling the Queen along with everybody else exactly what she thought, though this ultimately resulted in a falling out between the pair in later years. On one occasion during a heated argument Sarah even told the Queen to ‘be quiet’. After the friendship had broken down, Sarah lost her position as Mistress of the Robes and the Marlborough’s left England in disgrace. However, after Anne’s death they returned and had their honour restored. Sarah left a great legacy including many of Blenheim Palace’s most famous features, 27 estates and extremely advantageous marriages for her children to ensure the Marlborough line would prosper. And of course, Sarah and John Churchill’s first daughter Henrietta (pictured on the right) was the first woman to inherit the title of Duchess in her own right – no doubt in part due to Sarah’s influence and forward thinking. Sarah Churchill set the standard high for women in the Marlborough family and would certainly have been a formidable modern business woman in the present day.